"It Takes A Thief" is the long-awaited "greatest hits" album from Thievery Corporation, a pioneering electronic-music duo. Known for their melodic and precise blends of various world-music styles, Eric Hilton and Rob Garza have been on tour throughout America with British electronica giants Massive Attack. The live show features a lush layering of live musicians and electronically generated tracks. (The Massive Attack performance also boasts subtle denunciations of American and Israeli foreign policy and a seizure-inducing strobe-light display.)
More Intelligent Life caught up with Eric Hilton by telephone after a recent show at the Beacon Theatre in New York City.
You've recently dropped a greatest-hits album. For a lot of groups, that seems to be the point when they start focus on new audiences rather than creating new experiences for longtime fans. Is this where you two are?
That's a good question. Our greatest-hits album came about in kind of an odd way. [Our representatives in] Greece and other areas in Europe really wanted to do it and we thought "that's fine in your market, you can do it". Then somehow it became a pan-European release, so we thought at that point we might as well make it worldwide. I've always been kind of averse to greatest-hits records, because it means you're wrapping it up and you're not going to be making any more records, but I'm glad we did it. I'm really glad it's out there, and it's a great collection of music. For first-time listeners we're putting our best foot forward.
A lot of the big groups in electronic music are from Europe—Massive Attack, Kruder and Dorfmeister, etc. Do you feel like it's different coming at this as an American?
Over the course of our career, things were always breaking first in Europe, which I think results from the fact that Europeans in general have embraced electronic music wholeheartedly. The heart of American music is still rock'n'roll and pop. Europe's big contribution in the last 20 or 30 years has been electronic music, so I think they have a bit more of an engagement and an appreciation for it.
Your work includes many influences—reggae/dub, Middle Eastern, samba. For people who may not be familiar with the band, or who spend more time listening to other types of music, is there a way to define electronica?
Well, [the question really is] if there is in fact a genre of electronica, since so much music is created electronically these days, like hip-hop and all that. But if there is, it's just [using technology] that allows you the freedom to combine a lot of elements in your music. It breaks the model of the guitar, the bass, the drummer and the singer. It allows you to get a bit more experimental with the music and push the envelope in another way. Having said that, I like rock, I like jazz, I like old soul. It's all great.
For most bands their studio work is an effort to recapture the energy of the live experience. For you guys it seems to be the opposite—that the live show is an attempt to recreate the studio magic.
Yeah. It's really difficult, too, because when we finish a song we may have laid down 42 tracks of music, like a snare on one track and a shaker on another, and a little blip sound and a keyboard sound and a bass line. And to try to recreate that live is very, very difficult. Rob and I try to handle the keys and the percussive elements, the beats and so forth, but it is tough. That's why we have so many people.
You seem pretty focused on the concept of Babylon. You made a feature film called "Babylon Central"; one of your best-known albums is "Richest Man in Babylon"; I heard you call your hometown of Washington, DC the 'Modern Day Babylon'. Why is the image of Babylon so powerful to you?
Well, I'm sure you know that for Rastafarians it simply means an oppressive power structure. Something you live under. Babylon could be the police arresting you for smoking weed, it could be the Federal Reserve, it could be the IRS, it could be the president sending troops into battle for false reasons. Babylon is Coke, it's Pepsi. It's a big thing. It's basically something that's not life-sustaining. So, for example, war is not life-sustaining. Coke and Pepsi are not life-sustaining. Arresting people for smoking a harmless plant is not life-sustaining when they're self-medicating, but yet we sanction pharmaceuticals that sometimes have terrible side affects and are dangerous. Yeah, we live in Babylon. And we always will.
At the show I was a little surprised by the focus that Massive Attack had on politics. Do you share their sentiments and are just holding back on stage? Is the whole thing just an issue of stagecraft?
We normally carry video with us, but Massive Attack has such a complex video setup that they wouldn't let us use theirs, and we couldn't set up ours, so we had to go without video. But when we do use video there is sometimes social commentary, or videos that deals with "politics". But you know, we're kind of there to have a good time. And we know that other people are there to have a good time and just rock to the music. We already make enough statements with our lyrics that I don't think we need to take it that much further.
I actually heard a good bit of grumbling in my section during the Massive Attack set that the amount of political commentary was kind of oppressive and didn't seem to have much to do with the songs. That, combined with the strobe lights in people's eyes, seemed to stop some of them from enjoying the show.
Yeah, I've heard that and I agree with it. It's an incredible visual experience, but it might be too much too often. Maybe they should back it off now and again. But you know, it's their thing. They can do what they want.
Strangely, the way that I found you guys was that a number of years ago I read about you on a right-wing libertarian website called Instapundit. It's run by Glenn Reynolds, who is not known as a fan of all things European. But he does seem to be a fan of your work.
That's great. I do have a little bit of a soft spot in my heart for libertarians. I feel like they're the right-wing version of anarchists. And I kind of like anarchists.
What's next for you guys?
[After finishing this tour] we're off for six months, just making music. We're halfway through a new album, we're really hoping to finish it in February and release it by May or June. It's very, very mellow, soundtracky, kind of Brazilian at times. It's a quiet record with only female vocals. Just something inspired by some of the Brazilian music that kind of brought me and Rob together in the first place. Very chill, mellow record. Very different than "Radio Retaliation". It's going well. I hope you hear it sometime soon.