The DJs of Thievery Corporation Still Are Peerless Samplers

Twentieth-century writer Charles Colton coined the saying "Imitation is the sincerest form of flattery."

For veteran club DJs Rob Garza and Eric Hilton, their modern interpretation of the phrase was to take the essence of their favorite '60s records, mesh it with their favorite electronica club sounds, and create a multicultural world-beat hybrid of dub, reggae, acid jazz, and bossa nova, a hi-fi sound known the world over as Thievery Corporation.

Now, 20 years later, the duo is on the verge of releasing a new album, its eighth studio effort, a reggae-punk mix of sorts, adding to a trip-hop/hip-hop melting pot that simply refuses to be classified.

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Thievery Corporation brings its Outernational sound, as the band calls it, to McDowell Mountain Music Festival on Saturday, March 28, part of the three-day event with a lineup as diverse as the sheer versatility of one of its headlining acts.

So is Thievery Corporation a band or a collective?

"We've always considered ourselves not a traditional band," says Garza, 44. "First of all, we are more a production unit, me and Eric. We work with different musicians. We've been able to travel with different kinds of configurations."

The two jet-setting club DJ entrepreneurs met in 1995 at the now-infamous Eighteenth Street Lounge, in Washington's DuPont Circle, and immediately helped to make the club the CBGB of electronica and club dance culture and spawned a record label, ESL Music, shortly thereafter.

In 1984, his family moved from D.C. to Connecticut while Garza was a teen. But fate guided him back to the nation's capital and the electronica world in which he now thrives.

"I was working with analog synthesizers, first-step sequencers, reel-to-reel tape decks, drum machines, and samplers at 14 years old. So, I started playing with all of this equipment, and at the time I was really into punk rock like Black Flag and stuff coming out of D.C. [like Bad Brains and Minor Threat].

"You had this industrial and techno thing starting to happen, which had the aggression of punk but was electronic. On top of that, you had techno and house music, and then you also had hip-hop, which was really just coming to the mainstream. It was a very exciting time."

The inspired Garza dove head-first into piano lessons and learning classical and jazz music and music theory, to get to the root of music foundations. He began getting local cable-access gigs and began putting out his own vinyl techno music by 21. Four years later, he and Hilton would meet.

"Eric and I were very influenced by music from the 1960s. Sometimes, I think that music is influenced by the drugs that people take," Garza says. "You had this open-mindedness where you would have the Beatles going to India or Henry Mancini doing stuff with a sitar, jazz musicians doing rock. Everybody was kind of cross-pollinating and that was really at the heart of our inspiration."

For Thievery Corporation, everything has been possible, and last year, the TC collective paid homage to one of its members' earliest musical loves, bossa nova, on the 2014 release Saudade.

"A lot of it just happens randomly," Garza says about collaborating with such a diverse group of multinational and cultural talents. "People will just pop up in our world, and other times, if we do work with somebody, it's much easier these days to reach out through social media. You are probably just two degrees separate from just about anybody."

On Saudade alone, the duo recruited a quintet of accomplished female world-music stars to sing: Persian pop chanteuse Loulou Ghelichkhani, L.A. native Shana Halligan known for her work in the jazz duo Bittersweet, Brazilian pop singer Karina Zeviani, Brazilian jazz great Elin Melgarejo, and versatile Argentinian Natalia Clavier.

Never one to sit idle, Garza has produced a dozen deep mix and club sound solo projects and released Palace of Mirrors recently on his own independent label, Magnetic Moon. He injected the talents of the Mumbai vocalist Vasuda Sharma and D.C. act Nadastrom.

Thievery Corporation got its first real critical break in 1996, when its "Shaolin Satellite" single made it onto internationally known DJ/producers Kruder & Dorfmeister's mix session for Studio K7's DJ Kicks series.

This song, along with "2001 Spliff Odyssey," would set the tone on the band's debut full-length release, Sounds from the Thievery Hi-Fi, with its lush, lilting, and echoing electronica meshed with reggae dub and record-scratching finesse.

The 2000 release of the group's sophomore album, Mirror Conspiracy, would continue to see the expansion of the Thievery sound, as Garza and Hilton added more female vocals, including those of Brazilian pop singer Bebel Gilberto.

It would, however, be frequent singer Pam Bricker's airy and soulful vocals on the hypnotic sitar-induced and horn-rimmed "Lebanese Blonde" that would wind up on the 2005 Grammy-winning Garden State soundtrack.

The album also would unveil the hidden treasure and ethereal, versatile vocals of Loulou Ghelichkhani, who would offer an effortless French delivery on the album's single, "Shadows of Ourselves."

The duo's first true political message was sent via 2002's Richest Man in Babylon, and arose amid the 15-track album, which wound up as high as ninth on the Billboard Independent Album chart.

The want and need to inject a global message came naturally yet was provoked by what the duo saw on the international front and simply by being in the epicenter of U.S. foreign policy. Garza and Hilton sponsored efforts to end world hunger through the World Food Programme and drew inspiration from other locally social active musicians in D.C.

"It's just having been from Washington. You have bands like Minor Threat and a lot of bands that were politically and socially conscious," Garza says. "We grew up around that, and it is more easy having that in our music because we are around it, like politics and things that affect the rest of the world, that people [on the outside] don't think about."

As the band's popularity began to soar, Garza and Hilton continued adding star power, culminating in their 2005 release, the darker and more psychedelic Conspiracy Game, which featured the likes of Perry Farrell, David Byrne, and Wayne Coyne of Flaming Lips.

The point-blank starkness of calling out African genocide on the stirring "Vampires," sung by Afrobeat master Femi Kuti, was the highlight of Radio Retaliation, in which the band was honored with a Grammy nomination for Best Recording Packaging.

The 2011 release of Culture of Fear continued to showcase new talents such as Boston hip-hop artist Mr. Lif, who sang impassioned verses on the paranoias of a modern world on the title track.

At the end of the day, it is all about passion and expanding horizons for Garza and Hilton, and as they move past the 20-year mark and look to their future, the key really is simply doing what inspired them from the very beginning.

"I think it's really about having a sense of exploration and sense of enthusiasm," Garza says. "It's that sense of having these old records, looking at the covers, imagine listening to the songs, and then having the enthusiasm to try to capture some of that and bring that to something that's more modern."

Thievery Corporation is scheduled to perform Saturday, March 28, at McDowell Mountain Music Festival.

Find any show in Metro Phoenix via our extensive online concert calendar.

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Mark C. Horn
Contact: Mark C. Horn