Thievery Corporation's Eric Hilton talks musical roots and changing technology

Drawn together by their shared love of the Washington DC club scene and Jamaican and Brazilian cultures, which act as a constant source of creative manna, Thievery Corporation’s Eric Hilton and Rob Garza combined gear and released their debut album Sounds From The Thievery Hi-Fi in 1996 on the duo’s own Eighteenth Street Lounge Records. 

Over 20 years later, Hilton and Garza are still going strong. Fiercely independent, their sound is signified by a hypnotic blend of genre-bending Dub, Jazz and electronic-based styles – their live shows an extension of studio-based collaborations with multiple artists. 

The duo’s tenth studio album, The Temple of I & I, typifies Thievery Corporation’s approach. Hilton and Garza visited Jamaica, bringing numerous session players along for the ride. Drawing tropical inspiration, the results of their collective jamming sessions were brought home to create another typically diverse brew of ethereal electronica. 

I get a little bored of bands that sound the same all the time. But we’re not a band, we’re a production duo, so we can go wherever we want and try anything

You’ve always had a very open-minded approach to your sound. Where does that derive from?

“It’s interesting, but from my point of view I actually think it derives from two very unlikely bands. One would be The Clash, who obviously started out as a very traditional Punk band and then dabbled in all kinds of different sounds, and the other one, oddly, would be The Style Council – Paul Weller’s outfit. 

"Those are two groups that definitely branched out from one particular core genre and caught my attention. I get a little bored of bands that sound the same all the time. I love New Order and Joy Division, but don’t know if I’d wanna be in those groups for a long time, because you know what you’re going to get. But we’re not a band, we’re a production duo, so we can go wherever we want and try anything.” 

Jamaica acts as a constant source of creativity for you… I presume that it’s bigger than just the Jamaican sound, but encompasses the entire culture?

“Absolutely, it’s also foundational to electronic music in general. A lot of the dub and studio techniques that Jamaican producers gave birth to have led to a lot of the ways we see and hear electronic music. But for us, it’s just an ingredient. When you’re preparing this concoction, it’s nice to look at forms of music as choice ingredients for what you want to do. 

"Rob and I are into so many different types of music; we love Rock, Jamaican and easy listening European soundtrack library music. Sometimes we make combinations of those things and come up with some pretty interesting results. Arabic music, for instance, our song called The Forgotten People on Radio Retaliation is a kind of old-school Trip Hop song with pretty heavy breakbeats and Arabic percussion and riffs. It’s not traditional Arabic music, but sounds beautiful to our ears.” 

Why did you adopt electronic music rather than just using acoustic instruments?

“It’s the power of the sampler … You can sample sounds like kicks and snares, chop up beats and make your own beats. That’s what gave birth to our music from the very get go. We were using an Akai MPC3000 as our main brain when we made our first two records and a couple of other workstations back then, which were keyboards that had samplers built in. Our music was heavily sample based, and that was exciting, and it’s still exciting to use snippets of things and treat them in a certain way.” 

What workstation were you using?

“The Ensoniq ASR-10, which was like our tape machine because it had 270 seconds of mono sampling time. When we recorded a vocal, we would record it onto DAT and bounce pieces of it onto the keys of the ASR-10 and then the Akai would trigger the different keys in a sequence. That’s how we taped, which is kind of incredible – we’d store the vocals on floppy discs. The saddest thing is that my ASR-10 start-up disk is broken.” 

Can you remember where your initial fascination with sampling came from?

“Maybe some of the first Public Enemy records caught my attention. They were just a wall of samples and really showed what you could do with just a sampler and a vocalist. The early Bomb the Bass stuff like Beat Dis and MARRS’ Pump up the Volume seemed incredible at the time. We were like, wow, listen to those breakbeats.” 

Did you combine gear with Rob initially?

“We did. Both of us had limited gear, but together it was enough. I think I only had the ASR-10, a turntable and a bunch of records. Rob had the Akai and I can’t remember what we used for monitors at the beginning; it wasn’t anything special. Eventually we bought a pair of the cheapest Tannoys, which we still use today as our main reference monitors because we know and trust them so well. We set up a studio in a friend’s bedroom and used that for a few weeks and made two songs. We hit it off and really liked working together, so we moved into what was, basically, the liquor room of Eighteenth Street Lounge – a club I’d started with some friends. Then we found a studio space right next to the lounge and rented that out for about ten years.” 

Has how you work together changed much over the years?

“It’s very difficult these days, just because life tends to get in the way. We’re older now, so we have more responsibilities. It’s harder to get together because Rob is on the West Coast and I’m on the East Coast, so we do some file sharing. The main studio is in Washington DC, our engineer lives in DC and our label is here, so Rob comes a few times a year and we work together very intensively. Otherwise, I’ll just be working on stuff myself – doing a lot of the dirty work, like recording horns and percussion; things that don’t require the core of our creativity. We obviously like to do that together.” 

Because you’ve worked together for so long, does that experience allow you to streamline the whole process?

“Yeah, it does. We definitely know each other’s tastes very well. There aren’t many conversations in the studio about things. I always say it has to be a majority of two [laughs]. I mean if you’re in the room with another guy who doesn’t like what you’re playing, then you’ve got to stop and play something else. If you can’t get a majority of two then a lot of other people are not really going to dig it, so we don’t fight over things, we just move on.” 

How much of being a successful production duo is down to your personalities clicking so you can unify your talents? 

“I think it’s one of those meant-to-be situations, but it’s also really hard to do what we do alone. There are some producers out there that work alone and do quite well at it, but I would never know when to finish a song. You need that second opinion, that trusted person you can work with who can pick you up when you’re not feeling it and vice versa, so you can feed off and encourage each other. 

"Also, just to say, “okay, this song is finished – we’re good”, otherwise you never really trust yourself. Rob is much more melodically oriented and tends to write the lyrics more than I do. I’m more of a drums and bass guy that has more influence in the groove of the songs.” 

Your new album The Temple Of I And I is excellent, but what’s the meaning behind the cryptic title?

“The tricks of language are always fascinating. ‘I and I’ in Patwa means ‘we’, so the Temple Of I And I would mean ‘the temple of we’, or ‘our temple’ in Patwa. The sentiment behind that title is that it’s anti-exclusionary. There are no chosen people; all people are chosen and everyone is welcome.” 

Did you have any ideations about how you wanted the album to sound?

“To be quite honest, Rob wants it to sound more electronic and I want it to sound more organic. He is very much into electronic music, and I am as well, but I like things to sound human. I think the target pull of that dynamic actually helps our music quite a bit, because we meet in the middle in a happy place. We have no formula; this one just came about because I was on vacation in Jamaica and found this incredible studio in Port Antonio, called Rob and said this would be a great place to record music. 

"Within two weeks we were there recording with a few of our favourite musicians that we tour with. That was the impetus, and because we were recording in Jamaica, Jamaican sounds became the core theme of this record. I think we might go back and record there again; it was so much fun.” 

How did being in the country help to create a vibe that could not be created in a studio in Washington DC?

“Ironically, the best thing about the music being done there was the lack of distractions. Everyone really wanted to record. When you go to a particular destination to record, people seem to get into a mind-set. Sometimes we recorded for 13 hours straight, which we would never do back in DC.” 

What did you find about this particular studio that was inspiring?

“It’s a very good studio. It’s not really better than our own studio in DC, but it had fantastic, trustworthy monitors that were very large. It’s nice to be able to monitor on something so large and bass heavy and still trust it, so that was the most special thing about the gear. The other thing is that you could see the ocean from the recording room. So in the middle of February, when it’s ice-storming in Washington DC, just being there is helpful.” 

The music’s anchored in that Dub sound… Is that how you typically originate the mood and atmosphere of your tracks?

“I would say so. We always started each rhythm in a Dub/Reggae format. Some of them would take a more electronic turn and others, like Strike The Root or Drop Your Guns, would become very traditional-sounding Reggae.” 

In the beginning, we pretty much played everything and didn’t really work with a lot of guests, but now it’s probably the opposite. Sometimes I’ll play bass on a song and sometimes Rob will play all the keys – other times, very little if somebody can play it better. In the end, we’re producers; that’s what we do

What’s the derivation of a track? You mention bringing band members along with you – presumably so you could jam out tunes?

“It was one big jam session, so Rob and I would actually operate more as conductors at that point. Even though we can both play, we don’t play as well as Hash, for instance, who plays bass for us in the live show – he is a far better bass player than I am. I’ve played the majority of the basslines on Thievery records, but lately I’ve been turning that over to Hash. I might show him the type of bassline that I want, but he’ll add something to it – some little flurry on the changes that makes it that much more special. 

"That is definitely one way that we have changed our recording. In the beginning, we pretty much played everything and didn’t really work with a lot of guests, but now it’s probably the opposite. Sometimes I’ll play bass on a song and sometimes Rob will play all the keys – other times, very little if somebody can play it better. In the end, we’re producers; that’s what we do.” 

At that early stage in Jamaica, did you focus on EQing the recordings in any way, or did you save that for later?

“Not past the basic recording EQ. We didn’t really get into any production down there; we just made sure the drums sounded really good and that we were getting great bass or guitar signals. We didn’t do any fine-tuning, although the console we used down there was the Rupert Neve 5088, which is pretty special and a little better than what we have here.” 

You have a lot of vocal collaborators on the album. Is how you approach them motivated by the demos you’ve recorded?

“Normally, we start dreaming about who we want to collaborate with and then it never really works out. For instance, we did a couple of tracks with Chronixx, but that never worked out – it’s really hard to put artists together sometimes. We did get to collaborate with Raquel Jones who I met, oddly, the first time I went down to Jamaica on vacation. She was actually doing a few demos over Thievery tracks, and I thought it was fascinating that a Jamaican artist was using our music as a mixtape. 

"Finding her was great, although we recorded her sessions up in DC. And Notch, who is pretty much one of our favourite all-time vocalists, is on at least four songs on this record. I just think he’s the best singer we’ve ever worked with. Otherwise, we’ve gone with people we’ve worked with and recorded with before or have come on tour with us and played live.” 

I guess our lyrics can sometimes be interpreted as political, but they’re more social commentaries I think. It’s more about grappling with power structures, how things work and who rules who – peeling back the onion-type thinking

Over the last decade you’ve become more political. What are some of the lyrical themes explored on the album?

“I guess our lyrics can sometimes be interpreted as political, but they’re more social commentaries I think. It’s more about grappling with power structures, how things work and who rules who – peeling back the onion-type thinking. It’s very Rastafari reasoning; basically you just sit around in a circle, smoke weed, talk about the world and hopefully generate insights. 

"Everyone does it and we certainly do it, and that’s reflected in our lyrics for sure. But with Raquel Jones, she wrote all of her own lyrics, and whenever we collaborate with Notch we tend to write most of the lyrics, but he might contribute a line or two.” 

What’s the central focus of your studio and recording methods right now?

“The centre point is actually one big open room because we have the luxury of space. I found this collection of abandoned buildings a while back in a really good part of town. It’s actually right across from the 9:30 Club, which would be like having a studio across the road from the Camden Roundhouse. 

"It’s a loft space where we can have parties of 200 people or work on a computer inside. To the side of it we have a modest-sized sound room and a small 10 x 10 isolation room for recording vocals or drums and stuff. It’s not the most elaborate studio; I think the space itself is more impressive.” 

What software DAW are you using?

“We are pretty hooked on Pro Tools these days. We used to use Logic, but we like the sound of Pro Tools because it seems a little less dark, and we’re using a lot of UA plug-ins. We have a lot of outboard gear too, a lot of vintage compressors that we use a lot. We use a lot of vintage keys, like a real Wurlitzer keyboard and an old Lowrey organ. For keys, I really like the vintage stuff – we just got a Korg Polysix synth that we’re really into. But we basically stopped engineering our own stuff after our second album, so we rely on an engineer these days.”

You mentioned you were using the same speakers you were 20 years ago… 

“It’s pretty much down to the understanding of the speakers. They’re reference monitors, so the key word is ‘reference’. I’ve heard a lot of different monitors and like a lot of them too. I like Genelec a lot and considered purchasing a pair, but we’re so used to these Tannoys. They’re like $300 Tannoys – so cheap. You can make them very loud, but they’re very unforgiving with bass. We do have a pair of very expensive and large Dynaudio monitors with a sub, and we enjoy rocking out with those, but we haven’t been able to figure them out as a reference.” 

Some say if you can make your music sound good on bad speakers you’ve done a good job…

“That’s true, yeah. The last thing you want is a pair of speakers that make everything sound great. For instance, and I don’t know if I should say this as it’s talking about a certain company – and I do like some Mackie products – but Mackie monitors can really fool you with Dance music and electronic music because they cut the mid out even though you get nice highs, nice subs and everything sounds really cool and punchy. 

"But that’s just the nature of the speakers. So I like listening to stuff on them and would actually use them as home speakers or for my DJ set-up, but if I mix on them it doesn’t sound right when I play it back in the car or somewhere else. The worst of the worst would be the Yamaha NS10s. My god, those things sound awful. I mean, if you listen to music on those speakers then you almost don’t want to hear music, but they’re great reference speakers.” 

Does the fact that consumers listen to music on so many different devices impact how you mix or master your records?

“I just have to ignore the fact that people are doing that, even though I know they are. It’s like a good chef labouring over a meal, preparing everything the right way and getting the spices just right, then somebody just shoves the whole thing in their mouth and gobbles it down – that’s what it’s like listening to music on ear buds. It’s a weird way to enjoy something that should be savoured, but I understand that everything is portable and everyone’s on the go.” 

Has that element of portability helped you in your production process at all, like using a laptop on a plane, for example?

“Oh God, we have but I hate it. If we do, everything done on the laptop will get replaced, so it’s more like a sketchpad. But it is helpful; I like playing around with software and a micro keyboard sometimes to come up with a cool groove or an idea, but it all has to be redone. We’re just old-school like that!” 

Thievery fans are legitimate Thievery fans; they’re not fans because they think they should be fans

What do you put your longevity down to?

“Being diverse has been helpful for us. It may have also hurt us in that when you concentrate all of your energy into one particular sound you might actually blow up a little bit bigger and faster, but then you might also come down faster. The other thing is that we’ve always been independent, so nobody’s ever hyped-up Thievery Corporation. We’ve never had big ad campaigns behind us or been flavour of the month, but that’s good in a way because, as I always say, we grew like a Bonsai tree – slow but strong. Thievery fans are legitimate Thievery fans; they’re not fans because they think they should be fans.” 

How have you circumnavigated all the pitfalls of the industry and the changing technologies?

“The golden age of the industry, from our perspective, is in the past [laughs]. We all know the metrics with streaming services and it’s very hard for artists to make a living doing what they do. In the past, maybe 50% of artists could make a living doing it, now I feel like it is closer to 5% and most of them would need to have a second job or do it as a hobby. 

"The difference in selling recorded music in the form of CDs, or even Apple downloads, is so much different than streaming – it’s kind of crazy. Basically, your internet service provider is the one making all the money off music. You pay for internet hook-up and get free shit, so who makes all of the money? It’s pretty clear.” 

The Temple Of I & I is out now. Head to the Thievery Corporation website for more info and tour dates. 

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