Interview: Thievery Corporation’s Rob Garza On D.C. Do’s And Don’ts

What reflects Washington D.C.’s vibe better than ethereal electronica with a political subtext?

The recipe has been working for Thievery Corporation – producer-DJs Rob Garza and Eric Hilton – since the 1996 release of their first twelve-inch single, “2001: A Spliff Odyssey.” Pleasure and politics mingle in Thievery’s music, especially on their most recent album, 2008’s Radio Retaliation, which is nothing less than a multinational dance floor call to arms. The adversarial spirit of Fela Kuti, the Clash, and Fugazi percolate through Thievery’s quiet riot. The sounds of Jamaica, Brazil, India, and elsewhere meet and mingle on the album, but its local hero and Go-Go godfather Chuck Brown who delivers our favorite grassroots credo when he proclaims, “takin’ back the power, gonna share the wealth” in “The Numbers Game.”

As these HeadCount partners begin a string of hometown shows at the 9:30 Club, Rob Garza brings us up to speed on the duo’s causes and concerns.

HeadCount: Have you and Eric worked with any musicians from Haiti? Do you have friends there?

Rob Garza: We haven’t worked with anyone from Haiti. It’s a total catastrophe, though. We work with the United Nations World Food Programme, and they’re making a major push to get people to contribute and to start delivering food.

How did you get involved with the World Food Program, and what have the results been so far?

Garza: We got involved with them after the [2004 Indian Ocean] tsunami. They asked us to do some public-service announcements and to take part in their school feeding programs. That’s their air lifts, when they drop food in Sudan and carry humanitarian passengers, and we traveled around Nepal, where they have health-care centers. During our concerts this week, they’ll have tables set up for people to donate. We’re really just about trying to raise awareness. We were surprised when they asked us because we didn’t know the World Food Program would know about us. But we were very honored to get involved with them.

Radio Retaliation, which came out right before the 2008 presidential election, reflected a lot of people’s frustration with American policies. What’s your opinion of the Obama administration so far?

Garza: The problems are bigger than who actually becomes president. There are so many large corporations and lobbies, you can’t expect one person to come in and change everything. Being from D.C., I think we’re more aware of what happens politically, and the various subtexts of what’s going on underneath, and how it’s not really so simple as the president affecting all these different kinds of changes. So, unfortunately, things are pretty much the same and in some ways maybe even worse — I’m thinking about the escalation in Afghanistan and Pakistan. So I don’t think we ever really got our hopes up that everything was going to change when Obama was elected.

What’s on your mind these days, politically?

Garza: What’s been happening with the airlines and all these body scanners is crazy. It’s very convenient that the Underpants Bomber just happened to come along just as the Patriot Act was set to expire on December 31. But I think 2010 will be a very interesting year, especially economically, now that all that bailout money has been pumped into the economy. That bubble is about to burst, too. These are really interesting times. A lot of people forecast a lot of trends, but at the moment it seems that things will probably get worse before they get better. I’m not trying to be pessimistic, but when you look at mainstream media and culture, what’s being addressed has nothing to do with reality a lot of the time.

Are you and Eric working on something in the same vein as Radio Retaliation, or are you going in another direction?

Garza: We’re getting ready to start a new album in a couple weeks. A lot of that will be sitting in the studio and seeing what happens musically. That’s the initial process: just getting in there, making noise, and seeing where that leads us. But we never really sit down at the beginning and say, ‘Let’s make a record like Radio Retaliation.’ We just start creating and eventually a theme starts to take hold and leads us.

Do you have any general thoughts about political music? Do musicians have more freedom of expression now that music is so decentralized; or does the message get lost in the noise if there’s countless do-it-yourself musicians doing it themselves?

Garza: Music is very chaotic these days, in general. No model really fits what’s happening. We’re inspired by political music, whether it’s Public Enemy or the Clash. People like Marvin Gaye singing about what’s happening, “what’s going on,” can be very powerful. We draw a lot of inspiration from that kind of artist, people really talking about the world. Some people think music and politics should be separate. But so many artists I love combine the two. We just want to feel free to express whatever it is we’re feeling. With Radio Retaliation you have songs like “Sweet Tides” and “Beautiful Drugs,” so the record isn’t all about being socially conscious.

There’s always that irony, beginning and especially in reggae, of very mellow music conveying very powerful messages.

Garza: Reggae is a perfect example, and hip-hop as well. People sometimes criticize Thievery Corporation for being this kind of lounge or hotel-lobby music, but we’re talking about things a lot deeper than that, and we’ve been talking about those things for a while. It’s hard to make records where you just bury your head in the sand and hope it all goes away.

Being around the food and beverage side of things in Washington, headquartered as you are in the Eighteenth Street Lounge, you must have had some very weird conversations with partying people from all aspects of the government. What’s the strangest conversation you’ve ever had with someone in the public sector?

Garza: We had a friend who’s a well-known talking head on an international network, and we’ve seen him drunk at 5 a.m. and then totally coherent on TV at 9 in the morning. There are some people we really kind of wonder about. You run into a lot of interesting characters. You also meet people at the center of politics who really don’t have any idea about what’s happening around the world. I had a friend who was working at the World Bank, and about two months after the whole Abu Ghraib torture thing, they had no idea that had ever happened. I thought “You’re flying around the world but you have no idea this is going on?” It’s mind-boggling.

What other causes does Thievery Corporation actively support?

Garza: The World Food Program is our main thing. We do fundraisers and stuff for people here and there. We’ve done a project for Chernobyl::20, which Eric brought to the table. It’s hard to get involved with many things because of all the traveling we do.

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