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With its cool pan-global sounds, tailored suits, Washington, D.C. home base, and shadowy moniker, the Thievery Corporation is the James Bond of the turntable set. Its image calls forth double agents and secret Interpol plots. Never mind that Rob Garza, one-half of the electronic duo along with partner Eric Hilton, once worked for an aviation counterterrorism firm as a private investigator. The suits the two wore were simply day-job attire left on while they pursued their dreams in clubs and studios, Garza once explained.
But thievery is also the group's maxim and code of conduct. They are sonic burglars making off with dubby bass lines, bossa nova backbeats, and pulsing salsa rhythms. Woven together with live vocals and musicians, the result is a travelogue of soundscapes greater than the sum of its disparate parts.
After meeting in 1995 as DJs working the same D.C. circuit, the two quickly found common ground in an eclectic taste for music that spanned continents and genres, from Jamaica and Brazil to East Asia and the Indian subcontinent. They made use of a wide mix of world-beat samples in their downtempo ambient style, eventually finding favor with European audiences when "Shaolin Satellite," a track from their debut album Sounds from the Thievery Hi-Fi,was included on Kruder & Dorfmeister's contribution to Studio-K7's DJ-Kicksseries.
Similar in sound to that highly respected Viennese duo, Thievery Corporation is often mistaken as European, especially since most of its success has come from overseas. The airplay it has received in Europe has resulted in top 40 hits in France, Italy, and other countries for singles like "Shadows of Ourselves" and "The Richest Man in Babylon." Even its videos for "The Richest Man in Babylon" and "Focus on Sight" have gotten heavy airplay on MTV Europe. "It's weird, I don't even get it," ponders Hilton. "It's strange, I'm surprised they're not playing the Red Hot Chili Peppers. But I come from [America] so I have a different perspective."
Hilton's perspective is also informed by the area surrounding Eighteenth Street Lounge, a building that he co-owns. Housing the record label of the same name (home to Nicola Conte and other popular lounge artists) and a bar, it sits along "Restaurant Row" in the Adams Morgan section of D.C. -- a U.N.-like neighborhood populated with peoples hailing from countries such as Argentina and Zimbabwe. The residents of Adams Morgan have helped contribute an international flavor to Thievery Corporation's music. "You can pretty much find any type of musician you want in D.C.," says Hilton. "We have no trouble getting Persian vocalists" such as Loulou, who records with the group.
More and more, Hilton and Garza have been moving away from a heavy reliance on samples toward recruiting local musicians to help them create what they want. And with their latest album, 2002's The Richest Man in Babylon, they craft songs with live vocalists such as Pam Bricker and Emiliana Torrini; seasoned D.C. musicians like Desmond Williams and Jim West; and help from songwriters like Torrini and Verny Varela. It is music that is sung in French, Spanish, Portuguese, and Farsi. "When we started, it was really just a simple concoction of samples, synthesized sounds, and loops," says Hilton of Thievery Corporation's evolution. "I think the ultimate is when guys like us who are basically sound engineers get together with real musicians. Then we can really do something that hopefully is very special."
The duo have always been masterful producers, with smart tastes and an encyclopedic knowledge of music (check out their compilation for Verve, Sounds From the Verve Hi-Fi). But their ability to move from song to song with such drastic shifts in style on The Richest Man in Babylonis breathtaking. It sounds like a best-of electronic mix of French group Air's ethereal trip-hop, the Asian beats of Talvin Singh, and the reggae dub plates of Lee "Scratch" Perry.
Their infamously stylized image is changing, too, as they grow more popular here and abroad and populist in the political tone of their lyrics. On the reggae tune "State of the Union," the message is clear with the words "Broadcasting lies on the television screen/Trying to get us hooked on your American dream/We up on your games if you know wha me mean."
And so the suits are giving way to performance-wear more in line with their new conscious lyrics. They're still dapper, but more casually chic: Garza, for example, has grown his hair and has taken to wearing a beret. "I think we've been feeling a bit more low-key lately -- we're just rebelling against suits in general," laughs Hilton, who still likes handmade English suits. "I'm just getting tired of people mistaking us for part of corporate culture. And I'm really feeling kind of Che Guevara these days."