Greetings from Jamaica:
Reggae Vibes with Eric Hilton of Thievery Corporation
Words by Steve Melone
Photo by Jen Maler
It’s been over twenty years since Thievery Corporation’s musical styles and influences first took form. Their newest release, The Temple of I & I, shows another side of inspiration, stemming from Jamaican and reggae music. It’s an interesting follow up, and a massive departure from 2014’s Saudade, which took on romantic bossa nova and Brazilian sounds. For Rob Garza and Eric Hilton it’s not unusual; the duo proudly embraces cultures from around the world, keeping a malleable stance in their creative efforts.
The Washington D.C. natives have embarked on another world tour following their latest release, showing no signs of slowing down. Their record label, Eighteenth Street Lounge Music, continues onward, though they are the sole remaining artist due to the increase of streaming and online access. The spirit remains the same, but the music is subject to change, which is anything but abnormal for these collaborators.
I got to speak with, Eric Hilton, half of Thievery Corporation.
A lot of Thievery Corp’s releases vary considerably from album to album. That’s no different with The Temple of I & I. What is it about these cultures that excite you and Rob when it comes to making music?
The truest way to answering that question is to just point out that we’re producers and not a band. That gives us a lot of freedom in what we want to pursue musically. If we were a four piece rock band we’d be pretty much stuck in the rock format, but because Rob and I are producers, we work with a variety of instruments, samplers and drum machines. We can kind of go anywhere we want musically, which is the only way I would ever want to do it. That opens up all the possibilities, and we’re pretty curious people interested in the world in general. We like traveling, experiencing other cultures and we buy music from other cultures. We really get into Brazilian music, Jamaican music and a lot of European soundtrack stuff from the sixties and seventies. We have a lot of influences that we like to bring into our own productions and it makes it worth doing for us.
So does being able to have all these palettes or cultures in a musical context allow you to really communicate to listeners?
Music is a language, it translates across borders. We play our music all over the world. We played in pretty much all continents, probably like 85 countries and we sing in different languages. We play in places where maybe they don’t understand half the songs, but people just enjoy it no matter what. That’s the beauty of music.
I know you have a lot of dub and reggae influence, but clearly the focus was significant here. What led to those decisions?
We wanted to record in Jamaica because I had found this really sweet studio in Port Antonio, Geejam Studios. We love Jamaican music and it’s a big influence [on] our own music. It just seemed natural to do a remote recording down there, and because we recorded in Jamaica we thought we would make a record that had a common theme of different forms of Jamaican music, whether it’s dub and more electronic styles [or] more straight Reggae. Kind of an ode to Jamaican music from Thievery Corporation.
Did you record the entire album there?
We recorded all the rhythms down there. Drums, bass, some keys, some percussion, but we did lots of horns and vocals and other things up in D.C.. About fifty-fifty overall.
Who were some of the guests on The Temple of I & I?
Raquel Jones, she’s from Kingston, Jamaica. She’s fantastic. She’s a former Miss Jamaica contestant, which is kind of incredible considering she’s also a pretty revolutionary spoken word artist in Jamaica. It’s an interesting package; someone really special. She’s going to tour with us in Europe. Notch is featured pretty heavily on the album. He did Richest Man in Babylon and Amerimacka back in the day. His original band was “Born Jamericans.” They were quite the phenomenon in the early nineties. One of our favorite singers we’ve ever worked with.
I’d imagine when looking for collaborators you look for people who are very organic and open in their expression. How do you find those people? Would you agree those qualities are necessary for the creative process?
I totally agree. I find that on average musicians are some of the most open-minded people and in some cases it has to do with their lack of formal education (chuckles). They haven’t been indoctrinated too much, so they’re fairly free thinking folks. They do have a little bit more free time than the average person so they have more time to read, investigate, and think outside the box. You get some pretty interesting perspectives from struggling artists. I’ve found that to be the case anyway. They’re usually more interesting to talk to than the average office worker.
I’ve noticed that at times your music speaks on the human condition and the world in general. I’m curious what your perspective has been and how it has changed over the years especially as someone who has toured around the world so often.
I feel like as you get older and a little bit more experienced, and hopefully wiser, you get less preachy because you realize that you’re never going to really figure it all out anyway. It just becomes more important to stay inclusive and empathetic towards the human condition in general. The biggest thing for me and Rob is to be against war. That’s always been a constant for us. If you listen to the last song on The Temple of I & I, “Drop Your Guns,” it’s essentially an anti-war song. We wrote that song with all the sabre-rattling against Russia in mind, and just tough talk. The tough talk of politicians can be very dangerous. We’ve seen the results of it in Iraq, Libya, Afghanistan, and now Syria. So we wrote that as an anti-war song, but also it’s funny cause you can interpret it as a Jamaican sort of street beef song too. We try to make it interesting and to have a message, but don’t completely beat people over the head with it. I’m a big fan of people thinking for themselves.
Is there any message or intention behind The Temple of I & I that you’re trying to communicate?
We definitely infuse our lyrics with what we think are poignant messages. They’re not necessarily political; they’re more about power structures and how the world works. Really just the results of what Jamaicans would call reasoning sessions, where you would just sit around, talk a lot, philosophize about how things actually do work, what control centers there are in the world, and who is at the top of the pyramid and so forth. We certainly have our thoughts and ideas about these subjects and we impart that in our lyrics. People definitely enjoy that aspect of Thievery Corporation; sometimes they just want a good instrumental song too. We have all different kinds of fans.
Have the recent political tensions had any impact on the release?
It actually didn’t because we did make this record in the year leading up to the election, and I feel like everything we were kind of saying and writing about existed prior to the election and continues to exist. I’m personally so over people’s obsession with politics right now (chuckles) because for eight years there seemed to be no obsession. Thievery is not a partisan band, I mean we live in D.C.. Politics is disgusting. And politicians from both sides, they’re not our people.
What was the process like creatively? I know you recorded in Jamaica, but what was it like orchestrating all these musicians?
Well in the beginning it was pretty loose, simply just jamming in the studio. When we got down to Jamaica we brought Ashish, our bass player; Robbie Meyers, guitars; Jeff Franca, our drummer; and our engineer, Gianmarla. We essentially just jammed in the studio and as soon as we lock into a cool groove, we work on that for a couple hours, we’d print that then we’d go onto another one. We did about four a day or something like that over the course of about eight days. We just tracked these rhythms; they became sort of the skeletal structure for future songs.
And most of the decisions didn’t have to be made until you were back in D.C.?
I mean it’s very easy. Making music for us is fortunately not hard. Let’s say you’re working on something, and after thirty minutes you’re just so-so about it you just make your feelings known, and usually it’s just time to move onto something else. I mean Rob and I have a lot of respect for each other and if there isn’t a majority of two then it’s probably not going to be one of our special tracks. We both have to like it to continue on it. If one of us at all shows hesitancy then we just move onto to the next, start something fresh.
Speaking of the artwork, what exactly are you trying to express there? A lot is going on.
There’s a lot of stuff going on! That’s Neal Ashby who designs all of our stuff. He came to us with that design and we loved it. We said to just go for it, just do your thing. We did not heavily art direct this record, we let him do it, and frankly it has a bit more of almost like a pop aesthetic artistically than we might normally have, but I still liked it.
It’s been two decades since you started. What’s kept you both so consistent and independent?
Well, we’ve had many opportunities to sign to big labels, or distribution deals that would have taken away control from us, and sometimes they’re really tempting, but looking back at every time that we could’ve signed, our career probably would’ve been over not to long after that. We learned from a local label here in D.C., Dischord Records, they’re kind of a famous punk label, and a very successful label. It was run out of a house by three or four people. They probably released three or four hundred records, and sold millions. They did it all themselves. It was very inspiring to us, we just figured, well if they can do it, we can do it, and fortunately we were right. We’ve always just run our own company, and it’s harder work, but more gratifying. You have total control, so nobody’s telling you what your artwork should look like, or what your music should sound like, or when you should release it or anything.
How is ESL (Eighteenth Street Lounge Music)? Have there been any more challenges since you decided to keep it primarily for Thievery Corporation?
With the modern day music business, the sacrifice is money. You just don’t get paid what you used to get paid, and all of the business models are designed to give the consumer a lot for a little. The artist doesn’t really get much, and oddly the companies don’t make much money either. It’s a very odd thing where you have all these new streaming services, the big ones whose names I will not name, but we all know them and they’re operating at a loss. They’re selling music cheaply and the artists are making very little to nothing so it’s very strange. I feel like the only people making money are your internet service providers who you pay a hundred bucks to get your internet connection. They make money and you get access to free stuff or cheap stuff.
Have you been touring more or compensating in any way because of that?
We do and we’re lucky because we can. It’s interesting because back in the day most bands would tour to promote their album sales, and touring was not really a revenue center. Then of course the album sales went away for a lot of people, or at least the metrics of making money off recorded music disappeared. Then it was expected that you would go out and tour to make money but that wasn’t the revenue center for most bands, so those bands just called it quits. And today you have a lot of bands who get into music for the same great reasons that every band does, which is the love of music and sometimes they want to be the shit or whatever, then after a few years of doing it they realize, “There’s no money in this, I better get a job.” We were so surprised back in the day that it actually could be a job. We were lucky. It still is because we’ve been around so long that we do have a back catalogue and a loyal fan base, it actually can be a job for us. We’re blessed in that way. But it’s hard for people, hard for younger folks these days, I feel bad for them. Culture is certainly undervalued at the moment, has been for a long time. Everything’s just becoming so miniaturized and in a way convenient, yet cheapened.
What’s the take-away after touring all over the world over the years?
It is fascinating because growing up in the US you grow up with that exceptional nation kind of mythology, then you get out to see the world and you realize there are so many nice places on planet earth. And not to talk shit about your own place, but I’ve seen many wealthier places. I’ve seen many more picturesque places, but you know I’ve also seen some pretty ragtag places that weren’t very good either. The bottom line is, people are just people. People are cool wherever we’ve been. The world is a big beautiful place. People need to know that and not lose sight of it.
The Temple of I & I is available now, dig in!
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