Thievery Corporation: Sexysongmaking Machine
By MaryBeth Bonfiglio, Contributing Writer Thursday, November 7, 2002 @ 10:57 AM
We Should Have Had Phone Sex
I began listening to Thievery Corporation’s latest album, The Richest Man in Babylon, a month ago. It told me story––a story about the world. Reaching deep into every pocketed corner and pulling out the wires—each song exposing their coppery transmissions, like arms freely dancing in the wind. I didn’t know who these people were, really. I know, I know, I must live a sheltered life. I had given up on “dance” music a bit, I climbed up out of the record pool, disappointed and saddened at the state of affairs it had come to be (in my eyes). I felt its unity unraveling, its meaning distorted—I saw it as another outlet for wasting paper—millions of flyers on cars and on city sidewalks––and I recognized it as creating a lifestyle for youth which would, in the end, benefit those corporate thieves. Hmmm, corporate thieves…reverse that phrase and play around a bit. Thievery Corporation. Their named sparked an interest. Their sounds served a thick piece of meat to dig my teeth into.
I started teaching yoga, playing The Richest Man In Babylon while I led my students in Asana. As we reached up and over our heads, keeping our spines straight and digging our toes deep into the ground, exhaling and folding our bodies in half, Thievery Corporation and their caravan of mystical artists rolled in the air around us. We saw Shiva and Ganeesha playing in a field of neon colored daisies with Jesus and Joni Mitchell. We heard The Beatles speaking to us, and soul music seeping through our circulatory system, cleansing out white blood cells. East met up with the Caribbean while we opened our legs and came into proud warrior, understanding the depth of fighting the enemy within through the title track with Notch’s vocals, powerful and fiery.
The day I was to interview Eric Hilton (one half of Thievery Corporation) it was freezing. I had just moved from California to a small town in upstate New York, just far enough away from The City that there was no car pollution to make the air a little thicker and warmer. I was at a high elevation and the bitterness was beginning to brew. I packed a bowl and grabbed a cup of coffee, put the leashes on the dogs and took them on a quick walk in the forest. I entered deep into the woods and while my two huskies pulled and pulled me down the trail, in the background of my mind or somewhere whispering in the trees, a haunting sitar played, Middle Eastern mystique whirled throughout the cold mountain air, and I heard the sweet crooning of an angel’s voice…
When I called the Washington DC phone number, my toes were thawing out and my nose had just begun to drip. After three rings a recording came on: “The party you have dialed does not accept unidentified callers. Please state your name after the beep and we attempt to connect you.”
“MaryBeth” I said into the phone.
“We’re sorry, the party is not available to you.”
Shit. Okay, I’ll try again. Be patient. I dialed. The same thing happened. Who are these people, I thought. They knew I would be calling at 10am EST. I decided to pack another bowl and listen to the CD one more time. Then I tried to call again. The same recording came on; I said my name after the beep. Then, like magic, a voice broke through a computerized wall:
“Marybeth, hey, how are you? This is Eric.” It was friendly voice, close, familiar. “I am just getting out of the shower, can you call me back in ten minutes?”
“Just getting out of the shower? Hhhhmmm, okay. Dry off and I’ll give you fifteen.”
Now, I am a young married woman in love. But there was something in that––knowing that half of this divinely sexysongmaking machine was, well, wet and in the nude.
I hung up and ran into the living room. My husband was sitting on the floor with the dogs, getting ready to watch Dog Town and Z-Boys, his new favorite movie. “Bill! He’s naked! Part of the Thievery Corporation was naked when I called him!!!” I giggled.
“Great baby. Interviews are so boring. You should just ask him to have phone sex instead…”
He was kidding.
Thievery Corporation’s The Richest Man in Babylon is a musical mosaic of magical sound landscape. The two producers, Eric Hilton and Rob Garza, activate creativity and community with world artists and mold a terra cotta melting pot. The music simmers within and heats up the flesh enough to feel like softened butter. With their thought provoking name and timely title for their LP, I am excited to be on the phone with the outfit.
Like old school Jamaican word play, they use a very Rasta way of introducing themselves; painting an opposite to create effective imagery for the listener. The title of the album came from a plane ride that Rob was on. He was thinking about this one song he was writing and knew it needed an innovative chorus as well as a name. He looked over at a man across the aisle and noticed he was reading a book entitled “The Richest Man in Babylon.” It was a book from the 1920s, one of the first self-help financial books in the age of capitalism. The title became diametrically opposed to what the song is all about. What does this mean? Is this some parallel with the “war” that is going on? Is Thievery Corporation trying to make some sort of political statement?
“Music is just in the pleasure,” Eric explains. “One can’t help saying what’s on the mind. Our name and the title of the album are overtly political, but in no way are we making political statements. What is on our minds is on our minds and that is what we have to create from. We’re just two guys in a room, pleasing ourselves first and foremost enjoying the music for it’s own merit then thinking about sharing it with our audience.”
Who do you think your audience is? The yuppie professionals of D.C? The electronica youth? The yoga teachers of the country?
“I think we are lumped together with dance music but it’s not just about that. People are making all different sounds all over the place and they seem to lump within the dance music ‘genre’, too.”
What do you think of sound? Of vibrational influence? What does it mean to you? To the world?
“Some things are indescribable,” Eric begins speaking fast, quickly, maybe a little nervous… “Beautiful things in life cannot be described with words, MaryBeth. Although I do understand that when making a record, certain percussive elements and tones on the keyboard seem to work magically but without any explanation. I couldn’t tell you why. There is just a synergy of sound between Rob and I. We barely disagree as we use sounds to describe something deeper. It stands on it’s own.
I love Jamaican music. I am a believer that this whole electronic thing started in King Tubby’s studio, by accident. I was really pleased to see that Thievery Corporation honors and pays tribute to this notion by weaving the Caribbean sounds throughout the album.
“I love Jamaican culture, too,” Eric agrees. “I am influenced by it and I seem to always gravitate towards reggae. Although I have to say that the majority of the stuff coming out now––dancehall, not roots reggae or dub––is really horrible…but when it is good, when someone hits it—it’s really the best thing going. There are so many powerful songs that have influenced me. Anything by Judy Mowatt, also, ‘Don’t Blame My People For The Guns In The Ghetto’ by Morgan Heritage is a song that really gets me, even though it’s a newer production, it’s high quality and the title says it all. But I think that Jamaican musicians embraced electronic production so much that is became a detriment to the music…there is so much bad electronic production with today’s dancehall. But, I just got a collection from Greensleeves, (a great reggae label) called Dancehall From 1979-1980—that is some good stuff, early eighties is where it was. Notch, our friend and artist on the album mentioned to be how bizarre it was that Jamaican––as well as American artists––who were controversial, political active and radicals have all either died or have stopped being so radical. I hate to believe in conspiracy…”
How can you not?
Do you like playing live better than studio work?
“It’s all so different. It’s fantastic to reconnect with the people, who dig the music, but after a while, when you are touring, you end up playing the same songs over and over again in each city and although it’s what the audience wants, it can take a toll on me. It gets a little strange.”
Who do you travel with?
“It’s Rob, five vocalists, two percussionists, a guitarist, a sitar player and me. Our next stop is Irving Plaza. You should come.”
So, in you music you seem to slowly—inch by inch– pull the covers of the listener…you don’t yank them off and throw the music in their faces. Is that how you like to have sex, too? Slowly being seduced?
“Yes! I am so slow that I actually like the other person to slowly seduce me, slowly, taking my clothes of inch by inch.”
Interviews really are boring, Eric, we should have just had phone sex.
Thievery Corporation’s The Richest Man In Babylon is out on Eighteenth Street Lounge Music on October 1, 2002.