Twenty years ago, Washington, D.C- residents Rob Garza and Eric Hilton teamed up to form Thievery Corporation - a genre-bending, mind-twisting collective that mixed hip-hop, World Beat and dance music into a hypnotic soup of memorable songs and an unmatched live stage show. In the two decades since, they’ve never been shy about their decidedly left-of-center politics, and questioning the American political system. But they are still believers in Democracy at its core, so Rob, Eric and Thievery were kind enough to invite HeadCount to have a large role in their May 13th show at the renowned Red Rocks Amphitheater in Colorado (Check out special ticket packages here, where you can watch the show from side stage). At our invitation, Rob sat down with us for an engaging interview about his political viewpoints and how the 2016 presidential election offers some hope that there’s more than one path to elected office.
HeadCount: How has your experience living in DC affected your views on American politics?
Rob Garza: I think in a way it’s kind of made us more jaded toward the government in general. We have a lot of friends who come into Washington DC who are idealistic and have high hopes and end up being another cog in the machines so to speak. I think with us there’s the realization you can be elected as president and have all these great ideas, but in terms of really expecting change, your hands are tied. In terms of Congress, big money, banks, corporations, lobbying groups. It’s really a lot more difficult to get things done. So in a way it’s made us a little more weary of the political system.
You mentioned money in politics. That’s obviously an issue that’s getting a lot of attention right now. What are your thoughts on that, and would you say that’s sort of a core, underlying issues that affects all others?
Yeah it is. To me that is one of the most important issues being talked about - how the big banks and corporations affect American politics and funding different candidates and things like that. Even when it comes down to when you look at the media and the way that money and corporations affect the media as well. Look at something like the Iraq War and how complicit media was. You know, they’re talking about how Saddam had weapons of mass destruction, and people sort of believed inaccurately that somehow he was tied to 9/11. That sort of created momentum for this war in Iraq. Growing up we were taught media was would be the watchdog for the people and watch the government, but when you see all the big money in media, they’re almost another branch of the government. One thing when it comes to elections, sometimes you feel like coverage gets skewed toward certain candidates a little more. But the merging of government and big corporations is just very destructive to democracy as a whole.
It’s certainly something a lot of people feel. What can a citizen do then? If someone wants to make a difference, what can they do?
People feel powerless when it comes to the political process. I think that people being given options outside of the traditional partisan political systems - someone like Bernie Sanders who calls himself a socialist - is already stepping outside that box. I think it comes down to being more politically aware and socially conscious. Those are sort of like first steps. Finding candidates that you agree with. This interview is kind of hard because I totally don’t buy into the electoral process. When you look at something like the Iowa caucus and some of the delegates were chosen by coin toss. Some of these things have me sometimes skeptical about the electoral process. But I do think that just being aware is the first step. And then probably getting more involved on a local level. I don’t want to tell people who to vote for or who I’m voting for. But it is, for me, fascinating to see this grassroots swell of support for someone like Bernie Sanders who isn’t taking money from big corporate donors.
Do you think, if anything, this election shows people that there’s more than one way? The conventional thinking is that the only way to win an election is to have a SuperPAC and have all these donors. Do you think maybe Sanders and also Trump have given people hope that there’s more than one way to get noticed?
Yeah, I think that is the most important thing about this election. It’s providing proof that there are other ways and maybe ways we haven’t thought about before. That is something hopefully we can build on the for the future.
Do you get the sense that your fans or people you meet at shows are more engaged and paying more attention than they have in the past?
I feel like a lot of people are paying more attention. In terms of the amount of attention on the presidential debates and everything going on in the news. It’s definitely on people’s minds more. It’s strange being on the West Coast, living out here now - DC everyone is consumed with that - but living in a place like San Francisco, it’s definitely not like Washington D.C. But I think people are talking about a lot of things. You see a lot more on social media. I’d like to think that people’s sensibilities are changing, and people are becoming more aware. It definitely seems like we take steps forward — sometimes a step forward and two steps back kind of thing, but I think there is progress being made. Through candidates like Bernie Sanders or even Donald Trump, people are looking for alternatives to the status quo.
What’s your feeling on the roles musicians play in pushing the national conversation forward?
I think music foremost is a powerful form of communication. I don’t think that it always has to have something to say politically or socially. It’s [about] being in touch with feeling and spirit. But at the same time for me and Eric we were very really inspired by bands that did have something to say. Bands like The Clash and Pubic Enemy, Fugazi and Bob Marley. So it is a very powerful tool for communicating a message. At the same time I think it’s one of the easiest ways to introduce people to other cultures. With our music it’s a very global sound and we have singers from Iran, from Argentina, from Jamaica. Music is a very beautiful way of connection people and cultures. I think it’s just because for mine and Eric’s influences that we take it upon ourselves to talk about some of these political and socially conscious views through our music. We don’t want to necessarily tell you what to think… we want to make you think.
With the attack at the Bataclan in Paris a few months ago. It certainly brought a lot o world issues closer to home for musicians. How did that affect you? Did it make you feel like walking on stage can be a risk?
We definitely felt very sad about the attack. For us when it comes to being scared of being on stage I don’t think we’ve ever really thought of that. I saw some article your odds of getting killed in a terrorist attack are lower than getting killed by your own furniture in your house. That’s kind of what our record Culture of Fear was about - not putting yourself in that sphere. There’s a lyric in one of our songs that says “I’m more afraid of a credit card than a terrorist squad.” When you think of the day-to-day implications of a credit card and in a sense the slavery they have over our lives, as horrible and tragic as the terrorist attacks are, things that affect us on a day to day basis can be more harmful in the society we live in.
You can catch Thievery Corporation on tour this Spring. For an unforgettable experience at Red Rocks on May 13th while supporting HeadCount, check out the special side-stage viewing opportunity.