"Thievery Corporation is a punk-rock band."
So says Eric Hill, one half of the decidedly not-punk-rock-band Thievery Corporation. Along with his longtime partner, Rob Garza, he has crafted eight full-length records of lush electronica that melds worldbeat with acid jazz and trip-hop. What is perhaps their most popular track, "Lebanese Blonde," prominently features a sitar, while their last album, Saudade, is a headfirst dive into the breezy, sophisticated realm of Brazilian bossa nova.
Still, this punk-rock declaration isn't as wild as it first appears. From his home in the nation's capital, Hill explains that it's the rebellious spirit of Washington, D.C., his hometown and the birthplace of the band, that inspired both punk and Thievery Corporation. Like the experimental-rock bands of yesteryear, he and Garza have fused unlikely musical partners to produce ethereal and stylish jams that are at home both in a coffee shop and a giant tent at a sprawling EDM festival.
Founded in 1995, Thievery Corporation is busy celebrating its 20th anniversary throughout 2016. After a short break, Garza and Hill will convene in California (Garza lives in San Francisco) for a series of West Coast shows before returning East to close out the year in December at the famed 9:30 Club.
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Sitting smack in the middle of that run is their headlining stop at III Points, an event not to be missed for many reasons, one of those being that Thievery Corporation visiting South Florida is a rare treat.
"You know, we haven't played Miami as much as we'd like to," Hill says. "For us, it's worked out best to play Miami as a one-off show as part of a bigger festival or something... We definitely see Miami as one of our main cities and would like to go there a lot more."
Like Thievery Corporation, many of the electronic artists at III Points began and have built their careers independently. However, that's where the similarities end.
Even over the phone, Hill comes off as the pinnacle of serenity. His voice and disposition are gentle and soothing, a physical manifestation of the music he helps create. Yet a live Thievery Corporation show is a massive production with dozens of moving parts.
"Our show is quite surprising to people who know Thievery and have never seen us, because it's not a DJ show — it's a live band, and it's quite a lot of players. We have bass, guitars, drums, horns, percussion, Rob, myself, and then like five or six singers."
It's a humble description at best. For example, at Bonnaroo in 2010, they delivered a standout set during their late-night slot. Just as astounding as the show itself was the sheer number of guest vocalists and musicians they brought out onstage and how seamlessly the entire thing flowed. "That's really the only way we could do our show live... we need a lot of performers."
Hill’s ballpark figure of the number of guest artists he’s worked with is “maybe like 25 or 30.” Whether it’s Jane's Addiction frontman Perry Farrell or the Flaming Lips' Wayne Coyne, he says deciding on those collaborators is often a straightforward affair.
But despite having friends in the biz who have conquered the radio airwaves, Thievery Corporation has never found much success between the FM dials. Of course, that’s just fine with Hill.
“We don’t really like pop music in general," he says. "I definitely like older forms of pop music — like Motown was pop music, but I like Motown. A lot of Jamaican stuff like Rocksteady and some more poppy reggae. It just seems like modern pop music is never really our thing and it’s incredibly easy to make and not very exciting for us."
Instead of Kanye or T-Swift, Hill typically fills his headphones with classic vibes and, more recently, his own music. The latter isn’t a product of narcissism, though — just professionalism.
“Lately I’ve only been listening to Thievery because we just finished a new record and you just have to listen to it over and over again to critique it. So, I love the record, but I’m tired of it now," Hill laughs.
Thievery Corporation's latest album, The Temple of I and I, set for release in February 2017, is a mix of dub and Jamaican reggae. Most of the core musicians on the new record are the same D.C.-based players they tour with. "It's cool," Hill says. "When we were recording down there, guys couldn't believe it — how well they could play reggae."
For ten days in Port Antonio, Jamaica, Garza, Hill, and their band recorded instrumental and then spent months in D.C. adding vocals and electronic flourishes. "The record is Jamaican-inspired, but it's kind of all over the place, with some straight-ahead reggae songs — in our style — to some really electronic stuff that's trip-hoppy. It's definitely an interesting record."
As for the title, Hill admits it was something they "made up," but the intention behind it is very real. "'I and I' in patois just means 'we.' It's kind of our temple. The idea is that it's an inclusive temple for all. Not the exclusion of religion and spirituality, but the inclusion of it."
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It’s a message of togetherness the country sorely needs at the moment, with a large portion of the American population at each other’s throats thanks to the upcoming presidential election. On that front — politics — Thievery Corporation have an outspoken history with their records, Culture of Fear and Radio Retaliation in particular. Like so many of us, Hill watched the first debate between Clinton and Trump and came away unimpressed, even saddened, by what he saw.
“It’s kind of depressing," Hill admits. "I think America is kind of depressing right now. I personally am not a fan of Hillary Clinton; that does not make me a fan of Donald Trump... I think that people need to start getting used to being disappointed and start to think outside the box."
That sort of thinking and rejecting standard musical (and political) dogma have always been at the heart of the group's existence. As Hill puts it: "Thievery Corporation is myself and Rob, with somewhat limited music ability, finding a way to make music any way we can... Using limited equipment, it's something we learned from the D.C. punk scene. You don't have to wait for a great studio or be a virtuoso performer; you just need to have great passion and just do it."
Thievery Corporation at III Points. 11:15 p.m. Saturday, October 8, on the Mind Melt Stage at Mana Wynwood, 318 NW 23rd St., Miami; 305-573-0371; manawynwood.com. Tickets cost $99 to $299 via iiipoints.com.