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Thievery Corporation Churns Beats Of 'Retaliation'


I'm Michel Martin, and this is Tell Me More from NPR News. Here at Tell Me More, we really like to hear from you, our listeners, and very often, you write to us about a piece of music you've heard on the program and you want to know more about the artist. Well, it's been the case more than once that the music you wanted to hear more about came from producers Rob Garza and Eric Hilton. The two have always been music lovers. In fact, they like music from all over the world - bossa nova, reggae, Indian sitar - and they wanted to play it at Hilton's Club here in Washington, the Eighteenth Street Lounge, but you can't dance to it. So they had an idea: take world music and give it a danceable beat. That was 14 years ago. Today, the two have released five of their own albums and scores of others through their own record label. Their latest album is called "Radio Retaliation." Here's a sample of the title track.

(Soundbite of song "Radio Retaliation")

THIEVERY CORPORATION: (Singing) Singin' wooah now, retaliation. Singin' woooah now, we got to wake up the nation. Radio retaliation. It's such a different corporation. We're takin' over your station. And we're gonna change the vibration.

MARTIN: That's the title track of "Radio Retaliation," the fifth creation of Rob Garza and Eric Hilton, who are know as Thievery Corporation, and they are with me in our studio now. Welcome.

Mr. ROB GARZA (Producer, Thievery Corporation): Hello. How are you?

Mr. ERIC HILTON (Producer, Thievery Corporation): Hi. Thanks for having us.

MARTIN: So tell the truth. Has it given you the willies being in my studio and not your studio?

Mr. GARZA: Our studio is just down the street, so we're neighbors.

MARTIN: Yeah, I know. But you're so used to doing your thing in that space. Is it like oh, no! I don't know.

Mr. GARZA: I think I like your studio better. It has more space and more gadgets.

Mr. HILTON: Yeah.

MARTIN: Can you remind folks who don't know your story how you two got together to start making music together? You have such a distinctive sound, and it - how can I put it? It is so distinctive that I think it surprises people to understand there are two people because it seems like a vision that is so coherent.

Mr. GARZA: We met back in 1995. Eric opened up the Eighteenth Street Lounge with some business partners of his, and a mutual friend introduced me to this place. And the first night that I walked in there, me and Eric just started talking about music that we loved, whether it was from Brazil, India, Jamaica, or old European soundtrack music. And we wanted to find a way to make it a bit more modern and incorporate electronic production and bring it into the future.

Mr. HILTON: Yeah, I knew about Rob making music. You know, D.C. is not a huge town, and I knew that he had put out a record, and he knew that I had dabbled, as well. And this mutual friend, I think he had some designs to start a label and get us to make all the music. And he was a little bit of an operator and a nice guy, but he gave us his apartment, and we got together in the studio and started making music, but our mutual friend never showed up.

Mr. GARZA: And we were spending more time in the apartment than this guy who lived there. Can you imagine, we were in this apartment all the time.

Mr. HILTON: Yeah. And the first day we got together, we worked for like three hours and finished a song - a song that was released on our first album, and then we continued. And you know, we just had a great chemistry and agreed to work together and move out of our friend's apartment, and we moved into the top floor of Eighteenth Street Lounge and started recording there.

MARTIN: Well, you moved out of the friend's apartment but you're still in D.C.

Mr. HILTON: Yeah.

MARTIN: A lot of musicians, a lot of producers, when they make it big and you're on your fifth album and you've got a label and you've got other musicians who you're producing other than yourselves, and you know, they move to New York, they move to LA, some people move to Atlanta. Why are you still here?

Mr. GARZA: We're still trying to make it big. As soon as we do, we're out of here.

(Soundbite of laughter)

MARTIN: I thought it's because you're my neighbor. I thought it was out of love for me. Oh, no.

Mr. HILTON: No, I mean, we're from here. Our family is here. Our friends are here. I mean, we love D.C. in many ways, and it's actually been very helpful being here in terms of doing our sound. D.C. is a very multicultural city. It's been very easy to connect with musicians who otherwise wouldn't get the opportunity to record in studios but play in like bars in Adams Morgan and places like that. I mean, we've pulled people out of cafes, bars and made pretty big songs with them, including Pam Bricker(ph), who, unfortunately, is no longer with us. But she was a local jazz singer who was probably very underappreciated but incredibly talented.

MARTIN: Femi Kuti - let's play a short track and then we can talk about it.


(Soundbite of song "Vampires")

THIEVERY CORPORATION featuring FEMI KUTI: (Singing) Don't believe politicians and thieves. They want our people on their bended knees. Pirates and robbers, liars and thieves. You come like the wolf but dress like the sheep.

MARTIN: The track is called "Vampires." Tell me about it, Eric.

Mr. HILTON: I was just thinking about the role of the IMF in the world and the detrimental role, in my opinion. And we talked with Femi when he came through and he concurred, being Nigerian and having the Nigerian experience, and that song is really about the role of the IMF in Africa.

MARTIN: And I don't know how you feel about my saying this, but the song is very listenable. I mean, you can be driving along and you're thinking - you don't think, oh, I'm talking about the IMF, but you just think, yeah, this is hot. But is that something that you have work at...

Mr. GARZA: Those are like the best kind of songs, when you kind of really don't know what it's talking about but there is kind of even more layers to, you know, get into.

Mr. HILTON: Yeah, I have to agree. I think The Clash was kind of like that, too. They had some really interesting, intense lyrics but you could ignore the lyrics if you want and just groove on the track. You know, I don't think music should be hard to listen to, you know. We don't try to make our music hard to listen to.

Mr. GARZA: And it's more interesting rather than just say, screw the government or whatever, to just kind of - for people to kind of, you know, dig deeper and use their brains a little bit.

(Soundbite of song "Vampire")


MARTIN: Their album features music from Jamaica, Latin America, Africa, the Middle East and ..

Mr. HILTON: Real people.

MARTIN: Real people, yeah, but do you just spend all day combing through tracks from everywhere?

Mr. GARZA: We have a big record collection, and you know, the sounds kind of permeate every corner of the globe. So for us, it's just kind of very natural to be inspired by these sounds, and we've kind of over the years just made our own kind of genre-bending kind of records. And this is another example.

MARTIN: If you're just joining us, this is Tell Me More from NPR News. I'm speaking with Rob Garza and Eric Hilton, known as Thievery Corporation, and we're talking about their latest album, "Radio Retaliation," and other things.

One of the things you're also able to do is draw in some beautiful singers from all over the world, and one song I have been wearing out in anticipation of our visit together is "Beautiful Drug," which features singer - help me with this - Jana...

Mr. GARZA: Andevska.

MARTIN: Thank you. From Slovakia. Let's play a little so everybody knows what we're talking about. Here is "Beautiful Drug."

(Soundbite of song "Beautiful Drug")

Ms. JANA ANDEVSKA: (Singing) Oh my love. It's now time for us to say our farewell. Not to deny ourselves from ourselves...

MARTIN: How did that come together, Rob?

Mr. GARZA: We have Brazilian singer who travels with us, and she introduced us to her. And our friend Corina(ph) was always, like, oh, you should bring Jana down to try a track. And we brought her down and we just came up with this groove in like 20 minutes, and it just happened very naturally.

Mr. HILTON: She has a nice, very soft, kind of innocent voice, and we had tried other singers on that music but it just didn't fit, and her voice seemed to fit perfectly. And it's interesting because she's just starting a singing career but she is a concert violinist and she's trained and she is very, very good as a classical violinist.

(Soundbite of song "Beautiful Drug")

Ms. ANDVESKA: (Singing) You are the drug in my veins, and I'm waiting to feel it again. I'm waiting to feel it again.

MARTIN: You mentioned something, Eric, that you tried out other voices and it didn't quite fit. Is that ever painful or awkward when there is someone who wants to work with you but it doesn't quite fit?

Mr. HILTON: The worst moment. It's the worst moment when someone comes in and you've never worked with them before and you just say, well, you know, thanks, we'll, you know, we'll give you call, and you know you're really not going to use the track, and they're very talented but somehow it just didn't fit, and you feel bad.

Mr. GARZA: It's even more difficult when you have people that you really admire and the combination doesn't work.

Mr. HILTON: Oh, yeah.

Mr. GARZA: We've had people who, you know, artists that we just love their work, and for some reason it just didn't work on that particular track, and you just feel, like, very awkward.

MARTIN: What do you say, it's not you it's me.

Mr. GARZA: Yeah.

MARTIN: You don't say that.

Mr. HILTON: It's a chemistry thing, and the chemistry has to work on all levels, and sometimes it doesn't.

MARTIN: Ouch. I'm feeling rejected. I don't know...

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. HILTON: I feel like our chemistry is working just fine.

MARTIN: OK. All right. You also brought back some sitar playing, which you've used on other albums, with Anoushka Shankar and - can we play a little of that? That's "Mandala."

Mr. GARZA: She's the daughter of Ravi Shankar.

(Soundbite of song "Mandala")

MARTIN: There was so much going on. You've got the beats, singers, different accents. How do you prioritize what's most important? Do you let the song tell you or do you generally have theory about that?

Mr. HILTON: Usually we start making a record and I think we have some general ideas, but usually probably about a quarter of the way in, all the general ideas kind of go out the window and it starts directing us, and you just start to feel the identity of a record, and you start to just feel these certain sounds coming in grooves, and it really sort of takes shape on its own.

MARTIN: Would it be fair to say, though, that the overall sound is more important that the lyric?

Mr. GARZA: Possibly. It really depends on the song. For instance, a couple of albums back, on "Richest Man in Babylon," the title track was written by Rob. He wrote all the lyrics, and they were excellent, and we started with those and we built the entire song around those lyrics.

(Soundbite of song "The Richest Man In Babylon")

THIEVERY CORPORATION: (Singing) There is no wisdom to your freedom. The richest man in Babylon. Oh.

Mr. HILTON: A lot of times, though, I think in the majority the times we'll just experiment with the grooves in the studio. Then once we get it to a certain point that we don't feel like it's just an instrumental, we'll call in a singer and, you know, we'll have an idea of what might sound good vocally on that track, and then that provides a great opportunity to express something in the lyrics.

MARTIN: How do you do a concert, by the way?

Mr. GARZA: We have about 12 or 13 people on stage with us.

Mr. HILTON: Yeah.

Mr. GARZA: Horn section, percussion section, sitar player, bass player.

Mr. HILTON: About six or seven singers.

MARTIN: But is it like a travel nightmare? Do you have to have like the travel agency on standby for, you know, a week to get everybody in one place since you've got collaborators who are just...

Mr. HILTON: It's crazy. Yeah. There is about 20 people on the road. And you know, you have very different personalities. Everybody really loves each other, though, and if you don't go on the road too often, it can feel like summer camp reunion, which is really good. That's a great feeling. Everyone is very excited. But if you go on the road too long, oh...

Mr. GARZA: We had an experience. We were traveling through eastern Europe in the summertime, and on one of the busses the air condition broke, and everybody was kind of ready to kill each other on this one bus.

MARTIN: You know, I wasn't going to ask, but you opened the door. Do you ever get on each other's nerves?

Mr. HILTON: Oh, yeah, sure.

Mr. GARZA: All the time.

MARTIN: The reason I...

Mr. GARZA: We've been working together for almost, you know, 14 years now, so it's kind of...

MARTIN: Does each of you have a role? I'm just fascinated by this because, you know, as a person who writes, like I write my scripts or, you know, whatever, and people can make suggestions but at the end of the day, it has to come out of my mouth. So I'm just wondering, how it is when you're partnered in something that you both have to - before you put it out, you both have to like, right?

Mr. GARZA: Well, it's kind of interesting because you sort of just said it. But when you're writing, it's all in your head so you can't really vet it with someone that easily. But when we're making music, we're both listening to it, and if one person doesn't like the direction we're going, we stop because we feel if, you know, 50 percent of the room doesn't like it, you know, it's probably not working. And that tends to keep us on the right track.

Mr. HILTON: I concur.

(Soundbite of laughter)

MARTIN: I mentioned at the beginning of our conversation that your music is very popular on this program and also on others at NPR as interstitials. They use a lot of it in the background to the stories because probably because you're just so effective at setting mood. But commercials like it, too. They use movies, television. How do you feel about that?

Mr. GARZA: I mean, it's just...

MARTIN: Thievery Corporation.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. GARZA: That's part of the world we live in. I mean, if you look at bands like The Clash, you see their music used to sell mini-Coopers and stuff. You know, one of the things is that we control our own music and own our own publishing. And so...

MARTIN: What does that mean? Does that mean you can choose whether it's used in a certain context or not?

Mr. GARZA: Yeah.

Mr. HILTON: Exactly.

Mr. GARZA: We can, and you know, it's just - I think it's a lot better as musicians to own your own publishing, and we have our own record label so we have a little bit more choice when it comes to the things that we decide to do.

MARTIN: What about getting a radio hit?

Mr. HILTON: I don't think it's possible for us to get a radio hit.

Mr. GARZA: Unless it's in like Greece, or...

Mr. HILTON: Yeah.

MARTIN: Why do you say that, Eric?

Mr. HILTON: No, seriously, like - well, again, back to the title of the record, "Radio Retaliation." You know, in places like - far-flung places like Greece or New Zealand...

Mr. GARZA: New Zealand.

Mr. HILTON: Our records enter the top 10 on the national charts. In fact, our record was number one in Greece, this record, and that means it got played a lot on the radio. But I don't think that like mega-corporations like Clear Channel and Viacom have like bought up all the radio stations in Greece, and it's not so centralized. So people can actually program their own radio stations and play what, you know, listeners call in and want to hear.

MARTIN: Well, obviously, though, the people are finding you some way.

Mr. HILTON: Yeah.

Mr. GARZA: Word of mouth, Internet, you.

Mr. HILTON: And Michel.

MARTIN: NPR, because we dig you. Right. You're on our top ten, right?

Mr. HILTON: Thank you.

Mr. GARZA: Yeah, I know.

Mr. HILTON: Interstitial play?

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. GARZA: I've never heard that term before. I learned something.

Mr. HILTON: Interstitial.

MARTIN: I think I made it up. I'm not sure if I...

Mr. GARZA: Yeah. It's pretty good.

MARTIN: You have so much going on, both of you, you know, running the club, putting out your music, putting out other artists, creating. Is there one thing you enjoy the most, Rob?

Mr. GARZA: I think it probably goes back to making the records, and that's where it started for us. And you know, each time that you sit down and set out to just make music, you know, it's an exciting feeling.


Mr. HILTON: I have to agree. Yeah, that's definitely the core and the passion of what we do.

MARTIN: All right. Rob Garza and Eric Hilton are better known as Thievery Corporation. They were kind enough to join us here in our Washington, D.C. studios. Their latest CD is "Radio Retaliation," and we're going to hear "The Numbers Game." Rob, Eric, thank you so much for joining us.

Mr. HILTON: Thanks, Michel.

Mr. GARZA: Thank you for having us.

(Soundbite of song "The Numbers Game")

THIEVERY CORPORATION: (Singing) I'm talking people about the same old game. They run it in numbers and the winner's not ashamed. The dices loaded...

MARTIN: If you'd like to hear more about Thievery Corporation and hear full-length cuts from their album, "Radio Retaliation," please go to our Web site on the Tell Me More page of

(Soundbite of song "The Numbers Game")

THIEVERY CORPORATION: (Singing): The number, I don't know, the numbers game. They got your mind and don't be...

MARTIN: And that's our program for today. I'm Michel Martin, and you've been listening to Tell Me More from NPR News. Let's talk more tomorrow.

(Soundbite of song "The Numbers Game")

THIEVERY CORPORATION: (Singing): Make up your mind and don't be sad with the numbers game. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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