Ahead of two top-billed shows at London's Innervisions Festival, we talk to Thievery Corporation's Rob Garza
Formed in 1995 and making their recorded debut with the single The Foundation the following year, Thievery Corporation have been part of the dance/electronic music landscape since before many of today's clubbers were even born.
With eight studio albums, two live albums and two remix collections under their belt, all but one of them on their own Eighteenth Street Lounge Music label (named after the Washington DC bar where they first met), Rob Garza and Eric Hilton can safely be described as downtempo dons, though their work has in fact spanned a wide range of styles, from nu-jazz and bossa nova to reggae, dub and hip-hop. They've headlined Coachella, opened for Paul McCartney and worked with a dazzling array of world-class musicians including David Byrne, The Flaming Lips, Femi Kuti and Bebel Gilberto.
They're ideal co-headliners, then, for London's multi-genre Innervisions Festival, which takes place at various venues including Indigo at The 02 (where they're playing on Friday 5 and Saturday 6 July), The Roundhouse, Shepherds' Bush Empire and Islington Assembly Hall on 3-7 July. Sitting at the top of a bill that also includes Van Morrison, Mavis Staples, Maceo Parker and Gilberto Gil (not to mention Gentleman's Dub Club, Submotion Orchestra, Janet Kay & Carroll Thompson and mod/acid jazz faves Stone Foundation) is testament to the status they've somehow achieved without ever signing a major label deal or troubling the Top 40.
If you're in the UK and can't make it to Innervisions, you can also catch them at Cornbury Music Festival (5-7 July) and DragWorld UK (17-18 August). In the meantime, ahead of the Innervisions shows we grabbed Rob Garza for a quick 15-minute chat on the phone, and this is how it went down…
There are some killer names playing at Innervisions… did you ever think you'd be appearing above Mavis Staples and Fela Kuti on a festival bill?
"I haven't actually seen the full billing... but if that's true, then yeah that's pretty wild!"
Anyone you're looking forward to seeing at the festival yourself?
"I'm just trying to remember, because we play so many festivals and I see so many line-ups! But there's Gilberto Gil and Van Morrison, so yeah, I'm just excited to be a part of it really, the whole line-up looks great."
As you say, festivals are quite a big thing for you as a band, aren't they?
"Yeah, we do a lot of festivals, but we do a lot of hard-ticket dates as well. Over 23 years now we've played all kinds of venues! It's always great getting out to festivals, though, and connecting to audiences that you don't normally reach when you're playing in venues where it's just you and the opening act."
Is that the big difference between festivals and 'normal' gigs, do you think, or is there more to it than that?
"Well, it's certainly one of the main differences: you get to reach out to different crowds that wouldn't necessarily come out just to see Thievery Corporation. Plus there's a whole programme of great music at a festival, so that's another thing I love about it."
Do you see yourself as a primarily live band, in the sense that some bands are very much live bands and some are more studio-based?
"I think there are two different sides to what we do. I think first and foremost we're a production duo, but we also have a real appreciation for live music and over the years we've built this thing that can exist in both environments. We love making music in the studio, but it's also great getting out there and being able to connect with the audience.
"When we're touring, we have a family of musicians and vocalists and it provides this other different facet of what we do. I think a lot of people think it's going to be a very chilled, downtempo sort of set but when they actually see us live, there's a lot of energy and I think a lot of people are quite surprised."
So how many people will you have on stage for a typical gig?
"I think there's about 12 of us now. We have a number of vocalists with us, sometimes we have a horn section with us as well, although I don't know if they're going to be with us for Innervisions yet. Then there's sitars, percussions, drummers, and about five or six different singers."
Wow! The logistics involved in all that must be a bit of a nightmare…
"It never gets boring, that's for sure! [laughs] It's fun because it's such a big group of people, but also just moving everybody around, getting hotel rooms, getting two buses… the worst is when you have to get through airports, because with that many people around you really do have to get there two hours earlier, you've got all the gear, and sometimes it's not really much fun, if you've just had a long night out in one city and you've got to travel to the other side of the continent."
So what should people who are going to Innervisions expect? Over the years, you've done some albums that lean more towards the dub side of things, others that lean more towards the Brazilian, bossa nova side…
"Well, yes, we do have quite a broad catalogue, as you say. But I think for Innervisions we'll be doing a show that touches on all those different genres and styles. We have many different styles of singers with us, and the live show becomes something that really transcends the idea of being this lounge-y, downtempo chill thing. There's a lot of energy on stage and I think if people haven't seen us live before, they'll hopefully find themselves up for something that they hadn't really expected."
So is it fair to say that while Thievery Corporation albums tend to explore this or that musical territory, the live show's more of an all-round, melting pot experience?
"Yeah, definitely. It think sometimes lately, especially after the Saudade album in particular, the Brazilian-focused album, we did a few albums that focused more on one genre. But if you come to the live show we have a huge amount of material to choose from, and it's a lot of fun being able to cross different musical styles and traditions, and work with different collaborators on stage."
Speaking of albums, it's been over a year since the last one, so… any news of a new long-player being imminent?
"Yes, actually! I think we're going to be putting out some EPs first, but we're also working with an orchestra from Prague. We did something recently at the Kennedy Center, which is a big performing arts centre here in the United States, with a 22-piece orchestra, and we're going to be putting out a record of that. It was just such a beautiful way to reinterpret some of the music we've done over the years. I think our music lends itself quite well to very beautiful string arrangements, so that's something we have in the works as well."
So that'll be another album that takes a slightly more focused path?
"Yeah, and I think that'll be out later this year, or maybe early next year. But as I said, in the meantime we'll also be dropping some EPs and singles."
And how did recording with an orchestra in Prague compare to recording in Jamaica, where you made the last two albums?
"Well, it was Prague and in DC, we did some overdubs there. But yeah, Jamaica was quite an experience, because obviously Jamaican music has been such a big foundation of what we do musically so it was nice to actually spend some time down there, recording and just immersing ourselves in the culture, it was great.
"Prague was quite different, it's not like we took a rhythm section – it was really just recording parts and taking them back to DC, so it was a very different experience from Jamaica, where we'd be working in the studio all day and then going and chilling out on the beach and stuff like that. Prague was more functional, not so immersive."
Bit of an odd question... I was looking at the sleeve for the It Takes A Thief compilation, which folds out into a four-part panoramic shot of your studio. I've been staring at it all day and trying to work out what the hell shape that room actually is…
[Laughs] "Ha ha, yeah, that's our old studio in Washington DC, and it's quite a weird shape. It's not square or rectangular, it's more kind of a hexagon. The sides of the room kind of go in at an angle towards the front, and then there's some other walls at the back. So yeah, it is kind of hard to work out."
Ah, phew, so my grasp on reality isn't slipping after all? I was counting walls and getting very confused...
"No, you're still okay for now!"
And finally… if anyone's undecided about attending one of your gigs, what's the one thing you'd say to them to get them to come along?
"Erm… well, people who've been to Thievery Corporation shows over the years often tell us that's where the music really comes alive, and pops in a way that I don't think people realise it can do just from listening to the records."
Words: Russell Deeks Pictures: John Stone
Thievery Corporation play Innervisions Festival on 5 and 6 July. For more info, see the festival website
Tags: Thievery Corporation, Innervisions Festival, Eighteenth Street Lounge, Rob Garza, Eric Hilton, downtempo, dub, nu-jazz, chill-out, reggae, hip-hop, dub, Van Morrison, Mavis Staples, Maceo Parker, Gilberto Gil