Thievery Corporation is officially Rob Garza and Eric Hilton. Thievery Corporation is officially celebrating their 20th anniversary this year. If you count back 20 years, that’s last century. Thievery Corporation is originally from Washington DC, which last century had a mayor who really enjoyed smoking crack. Crack is no joke. Thievery Corporation is in the process of recording their next album and it’s being done so in Jamaica. Pretty much the entire country of Jamaica is high right now. Jamaica is not a territory of the United States of America. The USA does not condone being high. The USA does not condone thinking for yourself either. Thievery Corporation incorporates a collective of different musicians during their live performances. Thievery Corporation has a sitar player. Thievery Corporation has a woman named LouLou in it too. Thievery Corporation especially has a bass player who has been known to wear a Speedo onstage. One time onstage the Speedo-wearing guy slapped a fan on the face when he wasn’t slappin’ da bass. He may or may not have been wearing the Speedo at the time. If you don’t want to get slapped in the face, you probably shouldn’t go up onstage. Saying “slappin da bass” is fun. Thievery Corporation does not condone slapping fans on the face, but is officially okay with slappin da bass. Bass music is good for you. Thievery Corporation has lots of bass and beats and melodies and other stuffs in their music from all over the planet. Thievery Corporation is officially Rob Garza and Eric Hilton. Thievery Corporation is playing at the Wakarusa Music Festival this year. The interview below is with Rob Garza of Thievery Corporation. You should read it. Reading is fun.
Ok Mr. Rob Garza of the Thievery Corporation, now that I’ve gotten all the pleasantries and the introductions and the pleasantries out of the way, let’s start off with a handful of fun zone time icebreaker sauce. Or what I like to call – “The Cool Breeze Round,” sponsored by Springtime. So yeah, in this day and age where the “EDM” music is so, soooooooooo god forsaken heavily mired in an onslaught of new wanna-be, beat slangin’ baller-ass “producers” coming out of the filthy woodwork practically by the freaking nanosecond, would it be such a horrible idea to have a “Shitty EDM Police Special Task Force Unit” or STFU for short?
(Laughs) I don’t know, man. That sounds like a tough job for somebody. It sounds like a never-ending battle actually. I think that person would have job security though.
Yeah, it sounds like a real ‘round the clock kind of gig, but somebody’s gotta do it. Moving on – sprinkles on your ice cream, extra sprinkles or no sprinkles whatsoever at all ever?
I’ll skip the sprinkles (laughs).
Lasers – old hat or old faithful?
Depends on if somebody knows what they’re doing with those lasers. I think it can be old hat in a lot of ways, but I think people do some really dope stuff with lasers too.
Yes, dope. Moving on – can there ever be too many drunken floozies dancing onstage at once? If so, what’s the cut-off on how many?
(Laughs) Um, it depends. With Thievery, we have a lot of people come up and dance. Sometimes it can be distracting for the particular song or whatever. Sometimes it really depends on who is dancing and how good the dancing is, to be honest.
So like 50, give or take 14 maybe?
Yeah, we’ll go with 50 (laughs).
I was actually going to say 77 just to keep things symmetrical. But anywho, I know you guys have played this Burning Man festival before that all the wacko, crazy kiddies are talking about. At said Burning Man, if a “plug and play” camp wanted to hire you to do a DJ set, would you really consider doing such a thing?
The thing about Burning Man is that it’s people coming together from all different walks of life, having very sort of multi-dimensional experiences. I’ve met people from all sorts of camps that I’ve really gotten along with. You know, it’s music. For me, it’s about sharing music. I know there is a lot of backlash against all of that, but I think that hopefully Burning Man will affect the “plug and play” camps more than “plug and play” will affect all of Burning Man. If you catch my drift.
I do, I do. So you would not be against performing exclusively for a “plug and play” camp?
I mean, whenever we do shows, we play for all segments of people. Unless it’s doing something that’s just straight ahead corporate, like DJ’ing for some corporation or something. You could even get into the argument how some festivals are sponsored by corporations and you can get on that whole chain as well. For me it’s just always about sharing the music and the vibes.
Ok, enough fun time softballs already. Might as well get after it while the sun is still shining and the birds are chirping and shit. So yeah, Rob Garza, with regard to the current state of the music industry, I’m sure you are well aware of the rather awkward as fuck roll-out of Tidal a month ago. And how it has stirred up discussion yet again with regards to the merits of music streaming services and the huge, mind-numbing disparity that exists between the payout a record label receives compared to the miniscule amount an artist actually gets. For example, there was an article published recently on Mic, which had fancypants graphs and stuff determining that for a signed artist with content on Spotify, it would require 1,117,021 streams of a song to make the U.S. monthly minimum wage of $1,260. An unsigned artist would still need 180,000 streams to make the same amount. To me, whether it be Spotify, Tidal, Google Play or whatever, it more or less comes down to an iteration of the same tired model that makes it increasingly difficult for a musician to even get remotely compensated for their blood, sweat and tears. I’ve read that this was a big reason why you and Eric decided to shut down your independent label, Eighteen Street Lounge Music. Rob Garza, can you please share with me your experience dealing with this issue and if you see any form of flickering light at the end of the tunnel?
The whole music making, music business environment has shifted. And running a label, it’s like squeezing a dry lemon. It’s a lot of work and a little juice at the end. And it becomes frustrating to try to be supportive of smaller artists trying to make a living because it becomes a lot of work from every way you look at it. When we started, it was very simple. We had friends who made music and we liked their music. We pressed CD’s and gave them to the distributors, they sold them, we split the proceeds and that was it. Now you get royalty statements from streaming services that will be like 100 pages of a minuscule percentage of pennies and at the end don’t add up to a lot of anything. And it just sort of becomes disheartening. As far as the flickering light at the end of the tunnel, (laughs) I hope that there’s something there. I don’t know what that is, but it seems like people are waking up a little bit, but I’m not even sure myself. The one thing that I do hear is that the streaming model is becoming better. But I think it’s really hard to gauge one way or the other.
I know that Tidal aims to improve the experience by providing exclusive content as well as lossless audio quality instead of just MP3 quality. But I don’t know how willing people are going to be to pay $13-26 a month for this. With regards to the enhancement in music quality, I’m not sure how seamlessly that’s going to translate if people are just listening to the music through a pair of earbuds or their laptop speakers or even the little speaker on their iPhone, god forbid. I don’t know if Jay-Z and pals are just in over their collective heads or know something that we don’t. Perhaps the “free-mium” model will get phased out in the next 5 years or so. Regardless, for Tidal to bank on these features and the “we’re cutting out the middle man” and the “us poor artists don’t get paid enough, take pity” cards doesn’t seem like a viable business model. Rob Garza, did you follow the Tidal rollout at all or do really care, if anything at all, about its existence?
I followed it a little bit. I do like the idea of it, but I don’t know enough about it to really make a statement one way or another. Anything that is more supportive towards artists, obviously I am totally in favor of. I did notice a lot of people looked at it like, “Oh, here’s all these stars drinking their champagne.” I just saw a lot of comments about how it was maybe a little too chichi. It would’ve been nice if they would’ve had younger artists included in their campaign instead of Jay-Z and Madonna. Maybe it would’ve resonated a little more with people feeling compassionate towards artists and supporting their livelihood. That would be my only thing. I don’t think anyone’s going to feel sorry because Madonna’s royalties are a little less or Jay-Z’s royalties are a little less. But if you saw some other artists who are smaller, it might be different.
Yeah, I know that two of the more prominent voices of opposition were Marcus Mumford and Ben Gibbard of Death Cab for Cutie. All it looked like was…
It looked elitist a little bit.
Yeah, it definitely could’ve been viewed as elitist. Instead of putting up-and-coming and/or struggling artists up there who would be a much better embodiment of the cause, they opted to let the face of their effort be a roll call of mega-millionaires who are essentially complaining about not getting enough pay. It definitely came across as out of touch, Rob Garza.
Yeah, I think it did come off that way.
Yes, it sure did. Ok, now we’re going to quite possibly trivialize the shit out of everything we were just talking about. Performing for 20 years now (since last century), you guys have been around the block a few times and know your way around the neighborhood. So I would imagine you’ve been posed with this question before in some form or another. Or whatever’s clever. So when it comes to music festivals, how in good conscience can we go out and rage ourselves into a ditch with a puddle next to it when there is so much unresolved crazy shit out there like famine, military conflict, melting glaciers, refugees dying at sea, trained monkeys in political office and so on? Basically, Rob Garza, how on Earth can we party at a festival when the world is burning around us?
Yeah, you know, that’s a very interesting question because definitely no matter where you go, what culture around the world, people like you enjoy themselves and like to party. So that’s universal, first of all. You can’t say, “why do people party when there’s all these things going on” because as human beings, people crave those sorts of situations. I think in terms of what we do is just try to raise awareness when it comes to social and political issues. Because at the end of the day those things are going to affect all of us. To be part of these things, but to also have songs like “Richest Man in Babylon” or “Amerimacka” or things like that. Hopefully through performing at some of these places people will discover Thievery Corporation, go and check out some of the catalogs and maybe they will become aware of some of these things. And also maybe their ears will be opened. You know, we’ve been doing this for awhile, so there’s a lot of old school influences and a lot of influences from all over the world. Not just flavor of the day, EDM kind of sounds.
Right, and you and Eric are no strangers to using your platform for voicing dissent against issues like the Iraq War or the IMF or even travelling to Nepal and Sudan to raise awareness on world hunger. For those reading this who are unfamiliar with your work with World Food Programme, what role were you, Rob Garza, playing and how did it open your eyes to the ongoing world hunger crisis?
I was involved in fundraising aspects. I think we first got involved after the tsunami in Asia back in 2004. We did a fundraising effort for them. Then I got to go out and do some trips with the World Food Programme visiting different sites in Nepal and Southern Sudan raising awareness. Generally more as an ambassador sort of thing. For us it was an honor to get asked to be involved with that program and it’s all about raising awareness for issues involving food security. And off of that some issues having to do with women, feeding programs for children and women, healthcare and things like that.
To this day, have you continued to have involvement with that effort?
Not as much as I did before. I moved out to San Francisco and the woman we were working with in Washington, she actually went to Rome and is working up within the top of the organization. And so we’ve kind of lost a little contact, but have been talking recently about doing some more trips together.
Well that’s very encouraging to hear. With regard to this conversation, there are definitely at least a few misconceptions floating around out there about the issue of world hunger. One of which being there is some kind of imaginary gaping hole in the world food supply and that’s one of the main contributors to people not having adequate access to food and having to endure malnutrition as a result. When in all actuality, not only is there plenty of food to go around, but for some absurd yet not so shocking reason, those in power who control the markets stifle the flow of distribution like a vice grip. To quote a rather insightful article I came across:
“We produce more calories per person than ever before in human history. A common misperception is that the reason people go hungry is a shortage of food, but there’s actually enough food in the world to feed everyone. The problem is one of distribution. That’s the story of modern hunger. There is plenty of food around, but the way we mediate access to that food today is through the market. That’s why even though we have more food than ever before, around a billion people go hungry. The story of hunger has always been the story of the desire of powerful people to be able to manage hunger, rather than sharing our abundance more fairly.”
Would you say that based on your experience on the ground in places like Nepal and Sudan, this is consistent with what you were seeing?
I think so. I think you could also say the same thing about money and the distribution of wealth. There’s plenty of wealth in the world. There’s plenty of resources in the world to keep people from going hungry on any part of the planet. But it does come down to the way the system is designed and the way the methods of distribution of all these things. The West in particular. Being in a place like Southern Sudan, you come back and you pass by some place like The Cheesecake Factory (laughs) and it’s insane. When you talk about calories per person, it really does seem like we are living on two different planets.
And this global issue is not merely a continuation of a “We are the World” scenario from the 1980’s where the only humans being affected by this are those in poor, impoverished 3rd world countries. This is a major problem taking place on U.S. soil in more than one way. In the United States, there are fifty million people who at some time during a given year don’t even know where their next meal is coming from. Fifty million! That’s about 1 out of every 6 people in this country!
Exactly. People think this is something that happens in other parts of the world. But this is something that is happening on our own doorstep. When you think of families and you think of children who don’t know exactly when or where their next meal is coming from, that is a very important issue for all of us.
It’s not just a matter of people not knowing where their next meal is coming from either. For me personally, I’m the kind of guy who makes a concerted effort to buy as much in organic food as I can afford. For anyone doing the same, that can become a pretty expensive lifestyle to lead. Then you think about those hard-working Americans scraping to get by who are near or below the poverty line. It’s a vicious cycle they are caught in of neither having anywhere near the income needed to buy organic or nutritious, non-processed food, not having the time to prepare a healthy meal because they’re too busy just trying to survive nor having the education to even know how to discern what is healthy/nutritious and what might ultimately contribute to them getting cancer, a heart attack, type-2 diabetes and so on. The food pyramid taught in public schools, in its revised state, is still not exactly up to par either. Now that you’ve focused your energy with a cause with like WFP, have you, Rob Garza, ever considered starting any campaigns here in the States to raise awareness on the kind of issues here?
These are issues that me and Eric, we’re definitely very aware and we discuss them. But I don’t think that’s really our area of expertise. But I definitely agree that things are weighed to make it more convenient to buy unhealthy meals and food. When you look at so many of these systems, whether it’s the food pyramid, the educational system, Monsanto, it’s a pretty tall order trying to rise up against. I think the best you can do is try to stimulate people’s awareness when it comes to the different problems and things like that. And then hopefully after awhile, enough people will be aware that it just starts to happen on its own. I remember having these kinds of conversations about 8 years ago talking about all of these things, whether that be about the surveillance state or the genetically modified food aspect of our culture. Back in the day people would look at you like you were a tinfoil hat-wearing conspiracy theorist! But now a lot of these things are just accepted as part of what everybody knows. I think that by slowly making people more conscious about what’s going on around them, it stimulates all these different kinds of discussions and creates possibilities for all of us to become more involved. And making personal decisions, which hopefully will have a greater influence on the whole society.
You touched on genetically modified crops. This is actually a concern that can affect anyone, no matter how much you’re making it rain with the Benjamin’s, who isn’t aware and/or educated about the current struggle just to know what’s in our food supply. If you are buying any conventionally grown food, especially soy and corn among others, there is a pretty strong chance it came from a genetically modified crop. So unless you are growing your own food, buying strictly organic or are extremely diligent about knowing where your food is coming from, it’s become a roll of the dice in a way. Whether it be just regionally or countrywide, there are quite a few countries in Europe along with Russia, Japan and Australia, who have placed bans on GMO crops in one form or another. Yet here in the United States it is scary that not only is there no form of a ban in this country, but we have to fight to just get mandatory GMO labeling. Not to mention culprits like Monsanto actually suing states that attempt to institute labeling. It’s insane to know that nowadays we can’t even trust our own food supply. Rob Garza, with your level of involvement and the relationships you’ve created over the years through organizations like WFP, have you ever considered organizing a festival or a benefit show? One where you assemble a line-up of musicians who care deeply about the cause and have tools available at the event for disseminating information like workshops, seminars, speakers etc?
I mean, that’s a great idea. There are a lot of artists and musicians who are very interested in this. That would be a really great project. Whether I have the bandwidth right now to organize something like that, that’s a full-time endeavor of itself. We did a thing awhile back. A protest on the National Mall against the Iraqi War back in the day and I would be more than happy to be involved. But organizing that is a whole ‘nother…it’s a full-time job in itself. But I think it’s a great idea.
I would love to see a collective effort come together here. Last, but not least, this is your chance, Mr. Rob Garza, to voice a rally call to your fans out there coming to see you at Wakarusa. What kind of intention, what kind of vibe, what kind of energy do you want to see people bring to the space that Thievery Corporation will be inhabiting during your set at Waka?
I would just say an open mind, open ears and a willingness to enjoy themselves, really.
This concludes my interview with Rob Garza of Thievery Corporation. Thievery Corporation is officially Rob Garza and Eric Hilton. Thievery Corporation is playing Sunday night of the Wakarusa Music Festival this year. Wakarusa is fun.