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Read Bjork's2001 interview with Juergen Teller from the index archives.

Kathleen Hanna discusses writing and making music in this interview from 2000 with Laurie Weeks.

Isabella Rossellini spoke with Peter Halley in this 1999 interview.

Check out our interview with Crispin Glover by Richard Kern from 2000.
Alexander McQueen's 2003 interview with Bjork.

Thievery Corporation, 1999


The Thievery Corporation showed up right on time.  In 1995, when Eric Hilton and Rob Garza began working together, they synthesized a sublime and sinister mix of lounge music and downtempo hip-hop — two sounds that were (serious understatement) of the moment.  Their debut, Sounds from the Thievery Hi-Fi, works the spectrum from dub and bossa nova to orchestral film scores.  By mining the darkest and deepest elements of all their inspirations, Eric and Rob create ideal urban evening music.
     For many, their installment of the K7 label’s DJ Kicks series was the soundtrack for the summer of ’99.  It didn’t have the superiority complex of so many mixes — it was simply the sound of two avid fans playing great records for you.  Heard along with Abductions and Reconstructions, which compiles their reworks of everyone from Stereolab to Baaba Maal, and from Pizzicato 5 to Black Uhuru, it’s plain to see that the Thievery Corporation know just what they want whether DJing, remixing, or making their own music.  Their base of operations is Eighteenth Street Lounge Records, a complex in D.C. that houses their studio, a multi-storied club, and the ESL record label.
     I sat down with Eric and Rob on the bleachers at Central Park’s Summer Stage on a warm August morning, just before they got behind the decks to open this year’s Africa Fête.

Jesse Pearson:  I had your CD on last night in my house.
Eric Hilton:  Which one?

JP:  The full length.
Rob Garza:  Is that the first time you heard it?

JP:  Oh, no ...
EH:  You must be sick of it by now. [laughs]

JP:  No, I’m not.  I went away from it for a while and came back.  But I put it on last night and my roommate’s speakers couldn’t handle it — the bass kick on “38/45.”
EH:  There’s a big sub kick on that.

JP:  It destroyed the speakers.
EH:  Did it really?

JP:  Totally.  So I took it into my room, put it on my shitty boombox, and it sounded perfect.  Was that album tailored with a certain listening experience in mind?
RG:  Not that one.  What’s weird with the Sounds from the Thievery Hi-Fi is that those songs were all recorded individually.  At the end, they came together.  So we didn’t envision one type of experience for the listener in terms of a full record.
EH:  It’s more of a compilation of 12-inch singles.  Most of the stuff had been released before on vinyl.

JP:  So is there a full-length in the works now?
EH:  Oh yeah.  Definitely.  It’ll be more live sounding, but we’re experimenting more with instrumentation.  We’re working with a sitar player quite a bit, and a vocalist.  But it’s not like Thievery unplugged or anything. [laughs]  It’s still very much our style.

JP:  Is the vocalist the woman on Lebanese Blonde?
EH:  Yeah, Pamela Bricker.  We have a Brazilian percussionist in on it, too.

JP:  How does the writing and recording process work in terms of the two of you collaborating?  Is it hard to coordinate?
EH:  It’s so simple.  I can’t imagine being in a proper band.  With two people, it’s quiet.  We talk.  We have a set up that allows us to each work on our own machines, alone, and then combine that work.  So we both have something to do at all times, which is good.
RG:  Yeah, we’re basically pulling up sounds all the time.  We’ll have the basic theme for a track, then we’re each working individually, finding samples and textures to put on top of that foundation.

JP:  How do samples function in your sound?  In so much electronic music there’s a huge reliance on samples — almost to the point where they become a crutch.
EH:  We don’t try to make the song about the sample, although we have in the past.  We’ve used samples that make the groove.  Lately we’re trying to take very small samples for an ambiance.  We’ll take a little string section, but it’ll be a half-a-second long.  And then we’ll put some effects on it, alter it.

JP:  Have you ever had any clearance problems?
RG:  We had one with the Beatles thing.
EH:  Oh yeah, yeah.

JP:  What did you sample from the Beatles?
EH:  It depends on which copy of Sounds from the Thievery Hi-Fi, you have.  On the American version, in “2001 SpliffOdyssey,” there’s a sample of Ravi Shankar talking, something about how he feels about music.  Apple Records owned that, which is George Harrison.  He wouldn’t give 4AD, our overseas label, permission to use it.

JP:  So the American release has it and the European doesn’t?
EH:  Yeah.

JP:  I had Sounds from the Thievery Hi-Fi when it first came out, but I got a new copy recently and I noticed that there are tracks missing and tracks added ...
EH:  We dropped a couple of songs to do new versions, so we added five or six newer tracks.
RG:  There are actually three different versions of that record.  There’s the original one that we pressed.  There’s a 4AD pressing.  And now there’s the new improved model!
EH:  Yeah.  Next year we’re going to come out with the Anniversary Edition. [laughs]

JP:  Even if it wasn’t intended, that’s interesting — the same record coming out again and again with slight variations.
EH:  Yeah.  But we’re not trying to dupe anybody.  We had to repress it, so we figured: “Well, while we do this, why don’t we try to improve upon it?”

JP:  What have you been listening to lately?
EH:  Right now we’re listening to a lot of late ’60s soundtrack music.  Pop soundtrack music.

JP:  Like who?
EH:  People like Francis Lye and Lalo Schifrin.  There are so many good compilations, just libraries of music, like the Easy Tempo Series.  That’s a really cool label.  It’s out of Italy.
RG:  We’re putting a compilation together right now — sort of the best of Easy Tempo.
EH:  Stuff like that’s very inspiring.  If we were to start taking all our inspiration from electronic music, we’d limit our scope.  I think it’s a real detriment to be stuck in one genre.  I need to listen to all forms of music.

JP:  Do the films themselves work as inspiration for Thievery songs?  A lot of your music is so cinematic that it could be from a movie.
EH:  Sometimes we want a song to invoke images, and that relates to the soundtrack quality of what we do.  But watching the actual films, I’m not sure if that has any influence or not.
RG:  I’d say no.  We compose right there in the studio, it doesn’t have much to do with outside influence.  It’s more about what we’re listening to at the moment and how we’re feeling.  We take our cue from our lives.

JP:  Eric, what were you doing before Thievery Corporation?
EH:  I was promoting club nights and parties, and DJing.  The traditional segue into this type of thing.  And then a couple friends and I opened The Lounge in ’95, and I met Rob the same year.  I had produced some music by myself, a CD called Exodus Quartet, sort of an early ’90s acid jazz project.  And I produced a hip-hop CD for Eight Ball Records in New York.

JP:  Rob, your resume is pretty unconventional – you were a private investigator?
EH:  Rob Garza, P.I. [laughs]

JP:  So was there a point when you were actually driving around ...
RG:  Doing stakeouts?  Yeah.  We had a van and these magnetic signs, like “Joe’s Flowers.”  We had a stack of twenty that we could change on the side of the van to keep our cover

JP:  Man From Uncle style.
RG:  Yeah.  The van had mirrored windows, and we’d sit back there with coffee and cameras.  A lot of it was domestic.

JP:  Who would you be watching?
RG:  Wives cheating on their husbands.  Husbands cheating on wives.  Someone urinating in someone’s shoes. [laughs]  We also did speech analyzation.  Like, say someone gets harassed with nasty voice mail; you’d have a suspect speak into a microphone and then try to match up the voice patterns — to see if it was the same person making the calls.

JP:  Were you able to bring any of that stuff into making music?
RG:  No. [laughs]

JP:  What music were you exposed to as kids?
EH:  Everything.

RG:  A lot of soundtrack music actually, Henry Mancini.  Also soul, like Ray Charles and Sam Cooke.  As I grew up I got really into hardcore and punk ...

JP:  The D.C. scene.
RG:  Yeah, stuff like that.

JP:  Did you play in punk bands?
RG:  Eric did.

EH:  A hardcore basement band, we played two or three shows in the early ’80s.  I was in a band when I was like eleven years old, too.

JP:  What was that like?
EH:  It was very garage rock.  We didn’t even have a name but we used to play to all the neighborhood kids.  We kind of sounded like the Ramones. [laughs]

JP:  When did the transition from hardcore and punk into acid jazz and electronic stuff begin?
EH:  I started to get into New Wave.
RG:  Culture Club. [laughter]
EH:  Actually, there were some Culture Club songs I liked.  But I really liked a lot of the neo-mod stuff, like The Jam and Secret Affair.  I got very into mod.  When I was in high school I was really into the hardcore thing.  It was something kind of local to be proud of in D.C.  So many bands were from my little town, Rockville, Maryland.

JP:  What bands are we talking about?
EH:  Well, Government Issue was from Rockville.

JP:  Where do you see that scene now?
EH:  It’s evolved.  Last night we were with Eli Janney, from Girls Against Boys.  His brother, Eddie Janney, was in all these bands.
RG:  Rites of Spring.

JP:  With Guy from Fugazi.
EH:  Yeah.  And there’s Michael Hampton, who was in SOA with Henry Rollins.  He’s in New York scoring films now.
Punk appealed to me at a certain age.  When I listen to it today, it doesn’t do the same thing.
RG:  It doesn’t speak to you the same way that it did then.
EH:  Little subtleties are more appreciated now ...

JP:  Do you feel animosity from more traditional rock instrumentalists towards electronic music?
EH:  I think they have a tremendous amount of animosity towards electronic music.
RG:  People think that we just push a button and it’s done, that there’s not a lot of thought that goes into it.
EH:  My defense is to say that what we do is not electronic music; it’s electronically produced music.  Everything is electronically produced these days.  We just do whatever it takes to make a good song.
RG:  We drink and push buttons. [laughter]
EH:  Right.  A lot of electronic music is that easy.  Roland has a machine out called the Groove Box.  It’s the most pathetic piece of machinery.  There are all these pre-programmed standard house beats and techno beats ...
RG:  Hip-hop beats.
EH:  And jungle.  You could teach your mother in a half hour how to make a house song.  It’s really sad to me, because it leads to shlocky dance music.
RG:  We have animosity towards a lot of electronic music.
EH:  Oh, yeah.

JP:  What bothers you?
EH:  There’s a house project out.  I’m not going to name their name.  What they do is take classic disco loops from the Salsoul catalogue and just add beats with a drum machine.
RG:  There’s a lot of stuff that’s so ripped off.

JP:  That’s happened a lot in hip-hop production in the past few years, too.  Taking a song wholesale.
RG:  Someone sampled Islands in the Stream.  And Bruce Hornsby, That’s Just the Way It Is, or some shit like that.

JP:  And Puffy, with Every Breath You Take.
EH:  It’s absurd.

JP:  What hip-hop producers do you respect?
EH:  Kenny Dope Gonzalez.  I love Kenny Dope.
RG:  Old Public Enemy production was amazing.

JP:  The Bomb Squad was the best.
EH:  I’ve noticed that in some new hip-hop, the music is getting really simplistic and the rap is so bizarre in the delivery.  Like ... “du-du-DUH” ... [laughs]

JP:  That’s the whole DMX sound.
EH:  Yeah.  I’m sorry, I’ll go on the record saying that stuff is cacophonous garbage.  There’s no real groove for me.  It’s sort of psychotic sounding.

JP:  It’s not my favorite thing, but it’s cool.  It’s almost like slower Miami bass music, or something.  The two of you have remixed such a variety of artists.  Have you ever had a negative reaction from an artist to a remix you’ve done?
RG:  We did a remix of Hole.
EH:  “Malibu.”

JP:  No way!
RG:  It’s a house remix.  We did a house mix.

JP:  Do you think it was about them trying to get some kind of new credibility?
EH:  I have no idea.  Hole didn’t even know who we were.  It was a guy at their label who had the idea.  I think they made a mistake by not releasing that mix.

JP:  So it never came out?
RG:  No.

JP:  How did you approach it?  I mean, it’s so different from what you do.
EH:  The tempo of the song was pretty fast, like house tempo.  And we just kept listening to it, you know.  We can’t make this down tempo and dubby.  The vocal’s very pop.  They need to have the vocal in it.  So we’re like, “Well, we don’t do house music very often — let’s just do a house mix for the hell of it.”

JP:  Did you ever hear anything back from Courtney?
EH:  I don’t think they liked it. [laughs]  They probably look at house music as candy music.  Which is funny because I’m sure that a lot of people look at their music as candy.
RG:  Early on the guy in the band, Eric, he called us.  He was a nice guy but I wondered if he even knew our music.

JP:  Had he heard the track at that point?
RG:  No, he hadn’t.  I don’t know why he called.  He was like, “Hey, what’s goin’ on?”
EH:  He sounded really out of it.  I think he was getting on a plane, or maybe it was jet lag.

JP:  It seems like America didn’t pick up on you guys for a while, while people in England and Europe got it pretty quickly.
EH:  It’s been really good in America lately, but for a while we were getting a big reception in Europe and here we were very underground.
RG:  The DJ gigs are really packed over there.
EH:  There’s a phenomenon I’ve noticed while DJing.  When people are fans of a group or a production duo, they’ll pretty much go anywhere those guys go.  We could almost play Led Zeppelin and they would think it was really great.  We really have carte blanche.

JP:  So do you ever throw curve balls?
EH:  Oh, all the time.  But usually the curve balls are during the first hour.
RG:  Disco songs or something like that.
EH:  Or Bollywood music, Indian film soundtracks.  Into the second hour we pick it up with more beats.

JP:  Two and a half hours is so much longer than a band set.  Does it ever drag?
EH:  Yeah.  Sometimes we’re like, “Goddamn, when is this going to end?” [laughter]
RG:  It’s true.  We’ll sit there looking at the clock.  We’ll be like, “Fuck, we’ve still got another hour left.”  But it depends.  When you really have the crowd in your hand, it goes a lot faster.  Other times, like a gig we did in Boston, it’s like watching paint dry.
EH:  We’re not full-time working DJs, so we don’t have eight hours worth of records.  We have a limited set.

JP:  Have you done sound system sets, with toasters and vocalists?
EH:  Not yet.  But I’m hoping that our live show will become more like that, kind of loose and incorporating other people’s records and breakbeats into our own.  We’ll see how we put that together.
RG:  I think a lot of people in clubs are there just for adrenaline’s sake, and they really don’t get what we do.  They’re more about taking off their shirts, while we’re coming from a place that’s very musical.  The beat element is there but it’s not all that we’re about.

JP:  That attitude must be a part of your studio work as well.
RG:  Definitely.  The way we design our music, it has to have roots in something sort of classic.  We like a lot of organic sounds, for instance.  So we try to keep a nice simplicity and modernism about all of our work.

JP:  Can you give me examples of what you hear as organic sounds?
RG:  The sitar, a live bass ...
EH:  Even some synth sounds feel a lot more real and humanistic than others.  We don’t like cold electronic sounds.  We all know it’s hard to describe a sound, but certain electronic music just sounds very ... electronic.
RG:  The music that we gravitate towards, listening wise, is very warm sounding, whether it’s dub, whether it’s bossa nova.  It’s sort of the opposite end of the spectrum of Photek, for instance.
EH:  That’s a good example.  Photek would be very electronic sounding.

JP:  When’s your new record coming out?
EH:  Early 2000.
RG:  We’re waiting for them to sort out all the millennial bug shit. [laughs]

JP:  Do you guys think anarchy’s gonna break loose?
EH:  I think something will go down.  I don’t know how severe it’ll be.
EH:  We had an invitation to DJ a party on New Year’s Eve in New York.  We were like, “Fuck that!” [laughs]

JP:  I think the hype alone will make something go down.  Like self-fulfilling prophecy.
EH:  I agree.  If you have any money in the bank, take it out right away and buy gold.  My one tip for the millennium: buy gold.

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Thievery Corporation by Luckas Michael, 1999
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