www.AlfredoFloresPhotography.com

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Beating Back Babylon: Thievery Corporation cover story for Washington Post Express Weekend Pass

WASHINGTON POST EXPRESS WEEKEND PASS COVER STORY
ARTS & EVENTS
Thievery Corporation’s world of sound makes for a more chill planet

Photos provided by and article written by Washington Post Express contributor Alfredo Flores

THIEVERY CORPORATION’S Eric Hilton was a slacker while at Rockville’s Thomas S. Wootton High School, and he’s not afraid to admit it.

“I used to spend most of my time not studying,” says Hilton, one half of the renowned global-minded electronica genre-hoppers who chose to spend his time listening to records and was obsessed with his beloved, now defunct, Bethesda-based WHFS 102.3. “They played punk, reggae, new wave, and they programmed the music very freely. Sadly, it doesn’t exist anymore.”

Here, Hilton wasn’t just talking about WHFS, but rather the state of free radio. That’s the thrust of Thievery’s latest project “Radio Retaliation” — a mind-blowing lyrical assault on corporate radio and the mainstream music it plays. In its music, TC pushes genres that don’t get the attention they deserve, mixing elements of Brazilian, dub, Indian classical and acid jazz.

“These sounds, this music, it’s just something different than we grew up with,” says Hilton, whose partner Rob Garza also grew up in Maryland. “It’d be a shame to go through life and not experience some of that. We want to transcend our own culture as much as possible. We don’t have to write pop songs to make money.”

Their musical influences are all over the map, literally. Both are big fans of Latin music, particularly bossa nova (previously collaborating with Astrud and Bebel Gilberto), Indian (sitar player virtuoso Anoushka Shankar, daughter of Ravi, and sarangi player Ustad Sultan Khan), alternative rock (David Byrne and Perry Ferrell) and jazz (Norah Jones and Herb Alpert), and have tried their hands with Afrobeat (Femi Kuti) and D.C. Go-Go (Chuck Brown).

And their international reach is huge. “Retaliation” is a top 10 album in several European countries, and TC regularly draws crowds in the tens of thousands; here at home, Hilton and Garza have sold out five consecutive nights at the 9:30 Club. Their recent work with Kuti, son of Afrobeat pioneer Fela, was well done despite being quickly made — Femi, after playing at the 9:30 the night before, cut the track at Thievery’s Adams Morgan Eighteenth Street Lounge Music studio in an afternoon.

“He asked me how I imagined this song being sung, so I had to sing it in my fake Femi voice, which made him crack up,” Hilton says. “Sometimes you have to embarrass yourself for the art.”

While many DJs are the sole focus of their own shows, Thievery prefers to be in the back of the stage, Hilton keeping down beats; Garza playing rhythm guitar and keyboards, triggering samples — the duo’s rhythm element. A plethora of live musicians from reggae group See-I, local funk foursome Fort Knox Five, bass player Ashish “Hash” Vyas, and various vocalists compliment the duo.

Since Thievery plays and writes music in addition to mixing it, they prefer to calls itself a “production duo.”

“We produce music,” say Hilton. “We’re okay musicians, but we’re certainly not going to play in anyone’s band. We’re pretty good DJs, but we’re not the best. We just make music by any means necessary. Any way we can create a song we’ll do it. That’s what we do. Our musicians, they’re the feature. We put them in front of us [onstage] because they’re the ones doing the heavy lifting.”

One of the most riveting tracks on “Retaliation” is the lead track, the reggae-tinged “Sound the Alarm.” Hilton has always had a deep appreciation for the Rastafarian way of life — choosing not to protest what bugs them, instead living a righteous natural life, eating organically, buying locally.

Thievery uses the Rastafarian notion of Babylon often in song. It refers to the unjust modern system in which lives are being shaped and a rich man’s agenda is ruthlessly put forth — the International Monetary Fund, World Bank, the former Bush administration, Wall Street, K Street, Hollywood included. In “Alarm” guest performer Sleepy Wonder raps about “beating Babylon back.”

Ways to beat the system?

“Riding a bicycle is beating Babylon back,” says Hilton. “Going out to the club and having a couple of drinks and enjoying fellowship with your fellow man — that’s beating Babylon back. Simple, fun small tasks.”

Or going to a Thievery show?

“Yeah, I think that’s a great way! There’s nothing like being in a place with 1,200 people who are just kind of getting off on vibrations; that’s what music really is, a series of vibrations. That sounds a lot better than going to a Redskins game and seeing 11 guys beat up on 11 other guys.”

» 9:30 Club, 815 V St. NW; Thu. Jan. 29-Sat. Jan. 31, sold out; 202-265-0930. (U St.-Cardozo)

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