Thievery Corporation Biography
Now the Thievery guys appear poised to take their unique sound to an even broader audience -- and maybe even finally score that radio hit. With an old song resurrected on the wildly popular Garden State soundtrack, and a brand-new album, The Cosmic Game, featuring guest appearances by the likes of David Byrne, Perry Farrell, and The Flaming Lips, the Thievery Corporation profile is getting higher by the minute. But not so high that they wouldn't take the time to talk to ARTISTdirect's Andy Hermann about their latest work.
I've been a fan of your music for a long time, so I was happy to see that “Lebanese Blonde” was featured on the Garden State soundtrack.
Eric: Yeah, we were really happy about that, too.
I don’t know if you guys know this, but that soundtrack has actually sold over half a million copies.
Eric: Yeah, we got our gold record already.
Really? I didn’t know how that works.
Eric: Everybody on the soundtrack gets a gold record, which is kinda cool.
That’s awesome. So that’s gotta be a boost in your audience, I would think.
Eric: Actually the guy who runs the label here (Eighteenth Street Lounge Records) was saying, just do the math. Five hundred thousand people bought the compilation and let’s say 10 percent of them really like the Thievery track. That’s 50,000 people who are checking out Thievery Corporation that haven’t before. And I noticed actually, he showed me the sales numbers in the past month and they have gone way up.
And hopefully that will set the table for this new album doing well, too.
Eric: Yeah, that would be nice. It’s weird for us, because we finished back in August, so it’s been a long time between finishing and releasing.
What takes so long? What happened during those six months?
Eric: I think the larger your expectations are, the more preparation there is. I mean, I can’t really say that I myself have these large expectations, but we have guys who work with us at the label and they get excited about the record and we like that, you know? So they really want to go through all the necessary steps that any major label would do for a big release.
We’re talking about Eighteenth Street Lounge Records, right? I thought you and Rob were running the show over there.
Eric: Oh, no. We run hardly anything. We’re really just concentrating on making music. And we make those big executive decisions on whether we should sign a band or something like that. But really, we have the label in great hands. A guy named Phil Hawken runs the label and he’s a lot sharper than we are.
I want to ask you about something I think is often overlooked when people talk about Thievery Corporation: your lyrics. Do you guys write all your own lyrics or is it a combination of you and your vocal collaborators?
Rob: If they’re songs in our own language we’ll go ahead and either write them, or sit down with the artist and write together. The only time we don’t write the lyrics is if it’s in a foreign language. We had some songs on previous records with Loulou that were in Farsi and French. So with those, obviously we’re not literate in either of those languages. On the high-profile collaborations -- on this record for instance with The Flaming Lips, Perry Farrell, and David Byrne -- they wrote their own lyrics. They’re great songwriters, so we gave them a blank page and said, “Write about whatever you would like to express lyrically.”
How did those high-profile collaborations come about? And why did you decide this time around to work with high-profile people?
Eric: Well, Flaming Lips and David Byrne are guys that we had met before and had contact with before. Byrne we’ve done a remix for. The Flaming Lips played with us in Iceland -- we met them out there and Rob had kind of become friends with them. And we always talked about doing something with them eventually and this seemed like the right time. And they were very willing to cooperate with us and they wrote great lyrics and gave some great performances, so it worked out well.
The Perry Farrell one was really the odd one, because he really wasn’t on our radar screen as someone to work with. Rob was a big Jane’s Addiction fan back in his earlier days, [but] I really didn’t have that much knowledge of their stuff. But one day I was talking to a friend who was out at a conference in LA, some sort of music industry conference, and I guess Perry was giving an address at the conference and apparently he kept going on and on about how these people at the conference should check out Thievery Corporation. I just thought that was completely bizarre. I told Rob and he was pretty excited about that. So we agreed that we’d try and contact him, so we did, and right away he was down for the collaboration.
Eric: Yeah, it was really cool. And he turned out to be just a great guy, really easy to work with.
And I think people will be surprised with how he sounds on this track.
Eric: That’s what people are saying. I was actually a bit hesitant when we were gonna do it, because I didn’t know -- I mean, maybe it will be a clash of cultures. But I think each of us respects what the other does. He knows he’s singing on a Thievery record and we know we’re working with Perry Farrell.
Some people would probably accuse you of making a deliberate attempt to get more attention in the American market by bringing in more high-profile vocalists. How do you respond to that?
Eric: I think that’s fair. I mean, if we had a little bit more attention, that wouldn’t be a bad thing. I don’t think we’re really trying to go way over the radar too much. We just like doing our thing and generally that’s what we do -- we just work in our studio with our unknown group of players, but after awhile you really do want to branch out in many ways. This was just one way to branch out.
And I have to say in fairness to you guys -- I was telling one of my co-workers here, for example, about this interview, and he had the vague impression that you guys were not American.
Eric: Yeah, we get that alot.
So it does seem weird that even though you’re based, not only in America, but in our national’s capital, your music has reached a wider audience elsewhere than it has in this country.
Eric: I think that was just part of the direction of the earlier part of our career. Most of our listeners in the beginning were in Europe, and that was probably the case for the first, I don’t know, year or two. And it took awhile for things to even out. But they did. America’s become a great place for us to tour and it seems like we have a lot of people who are listening to our music here as well now.
Does it seem more and more now like you’re able to reach an audience in this country even without radio play?
Eric: Yeah, I think so. I have this kind of naive hope that people in general are turning their backs on a lot of very, very high-profile, mainstream media, whether it’s news or commercial radio. I think it might be a trend in our society at the moment.
When you were writing songs for this album, were there some specific themes that you were exploring?
Rob: Well, we’re from Washington, DC, and you know, what’s going on in the country right now provides a lot of inspiration for songs and for writing lyrics. There’s definitely socially and politically conscious elements within our lyrics. And just being in this city and seeing what’s going on....
“Inspiration” is a positive way of phrasing it.
Rob: [laughs] Yeah. Washington has always had a history of that sort of vibe when it comes to lyrics, when you look at bands like Fugazi.
Right. Who I guess a lot of people don’t realize are kind of an influence on you guys.
Rob: Yeah, definitely. We’re both from this area so we grew up listening to [Fugazi] a lot. And they provided a lot of influence in terms of our own record label, doing it ourselves and not signing to a major label and not really playing by the rules of the industry.
What is the atmosphere like in DC these days? Within your crowd and the Eighteenth Street Lounge scene. Has it changed since Bush was reelected?
Rob: We’re very insulated in a way, because usually the people who are close to us are people involved in arts and music and things like that, so for us it hasn’t changed so much. I think the only thing is that people are getting a little more jaded and less surprised by things. I’m sure if somebody came out tomorrow and said “Freedom of speech is illegal,” we’d be like, “Oh, well,” you know?
I think the positive thing for us is to be creating music. We try to address some of these issues but we try not to be so blatant and obvious about what we’re saying. It’s a little more subtle and a little more covert.
For me, at least, that seems to be a common reaction listening to your music. You know, after listening to “The Richest Man in Babylon” like, 20 times, I started to realize what a great protest song it is. It’s all couched in very metaphorical terms, so it doesn’t jump out at you at first listen.
Rob: Exactly. It’s funny, because you can be in another country in a coffeeshop and people are hearing the song, but people don’t really understand what it’s saying until after they've listened to it a few times.
How do the two of you come up with songs together?
Rob: At this point we’ve been making music for almost 10 years, so the process is very easy. We just get together, usually sometime after lunch and just hang out in the studio and pick up instruments and just come up with grooves. When we’re in Washington, we just make a point to do that during the week, every day. I guess for some people it seems like a big mystery, but for us it just feels very natural.
So you're jamming together on instruments? Because I think a lot of people when they listen to Thievery Corporation’s music, they assume that everything’s being generated electronically.
Rob: Not at all. People think we just come into the studio and there’s some button we push and on the other side this music comes out. But no, it’s actually created almost more like a band in a sense. We’ll pick up instruments and just start coming up with grooves, and that’s sort of the basis of all the songs we do.
But then once you’re actually making the album, you are using a lot of technology in producing the tracks, right?
Rob: Yeah, but you’d be surprised. You come here and there’s not as much technology as you’d think. There’s probably two synthesizers, a Wurlitzer, a bass and a couple of guitars. And then we throw it into Logic [software for music-making and audio production] and then start manipulating things.
Are you guys gonna be playing any of your own instruments on this upcoming tour? What’s the format gonna be?
Rob: I think we probably will. Right now we’re just trying to figure all of that out...the logistics of the next tour. Because we work with so many singers that it’s impossible to bring everybody.
Yeah, you have a small army of vocalists by this point.
Rob: Yeah, if we brought everyone we’d ever worked with, it’d probably be like five or six tour buses.
Click here to buy Thievery Corporation's new album, The Cosmic Game.
Thievery Corporation's Essential Albums:
Marvin Gaye, What’s Going On (1971)
Stan Getz & Luiz Bonfa, Jazz Samba Encore! (1963)
The Clash, London Calling (“we’re both huge Clash fans”) (1979)
Paul Weller, Wild Wood (1993)
Antonio Carlos Jobim and Elis Regina, Elis and Tom (1974)
Federico Aubele, Gran Hotel Buenos Aires* (2004)
*Rob and Eric love all the releases on their Eighteenth Street Lounge label, but under duress, Eric picked Gran Hotel Buenos Aires as one of his favorites.