10 Years Later, Duo Is Still Thick as Thieves

By Richard Harrington
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, December 15, 2006

Consider Thievery Corporation's four-night stand at the 9:30 club Wednesday through Dec. 23 as part holiday party and part 10th anniversary celebration for the Washington-based production and DJ duo Rob Garza and Eric Hilton and their Eighteenth Street Lounge label. There will also be a series of after-concert parties at the Lounge (entry is free with a Thievery Corporation/9:30 club ticket) as well as a Dec. 22 concert at the Rock and Roll Hotel with three ESL acts.

But then it's back to work: beginning preparations for another studio album, Thievery Corporation's sixth, and the new album by Argentine guitarist Federico Aubele. (Hilton was putting finishing touches on it last weekend.) There's also a new ESL subsidiary, the more rock-oriented ViviColorSound, whose first release will be Garza's new rock-oriented side project, Dust Galaxy.

And Hilton has been busy editing "Babylon Central," which he describes as "a low-budget feature shot in high definition so it looks good." Shot locally with a mostly amateur cast, "it's very much about D.C.: cross-cultural threads, music threads, conspiratorial political threads, a love story. There's a lot going on in a 90-minute movie," says Hilton, who hopes to have a rough cut in the next month. Thievery may release it itself, or it may find a distributor. Hilton insists: "I don't have any delusions of grandeur. I've never made a movie before."

Of course, it wasn't that long ago Hilton could say he'd never made a record. Blame it on the bossa nova (at least partly). It's one of the musical styles that bonded Hilton and Garza when the two suburban Marylanders met in 1995 at the then-new Eighteenth Street Lounge opened by Hilton and some friends. Both had wide listening palettes -- punk (DC/Dischord punk in particular) and the edgier ends of rock, dancehall and dub, hip-hop and house, classic soul, jazz and, it turns out, bossa nova, a music first popularized in the United States by 1962's Stan Getz/Charlie Byrd album, "Jazz Samba," recorded at All Souls Unitarian Church just a few blocks from Thievery Corporation Central on Calvert Street NW.

Both Hilton and Garza were DJs and producers with inclinations toward what's now known as down-tempo electronica (a.k.a. chill, a.k.a. lounge). At the time, Hilton says, he "had more hopes and expectations for the lounge than for my own music career. It was a good location, and we were all into a certain kind of music that we could finally play every night in our own spot. DJ-ing there really inspired me to get back to it, and about a month into it, I met Rob."

They moved to a friend's apartment, "put our studio gear together, which was very minimal, and just worked on a track for four hours. And after four hours, it was pretty much finished -- the fastest either of us had ever made a decent piece of music." That first Hilton-Garza collaboration, "Far East Coast," came out credited to Exodus Quartet, a band Hilton had formed a few years earlier with Fari Ali to re-create the experience of the local Exodus acid jazz club, "but it was very Thievery-sounding," Hilton says.

In the early days, "we'd get together in the evenings, have a couple of beers and play records and play music -- experimenting with different sounds, seeing what would come of mixing all these [elements] in a recording studio. We pressed a couple of vinyl singles and thought that was great when they sold and people liked them."

In 1996, those people included producers Kruder & Dorfmeister, who licensed the "Shaolin Satellite" 12-inch for a volume in the popular "DJ Kicks" series. Day jobs -- Hilton managing the Lounge, Garza working for his father's aviation security and counterterrorism business while taking classes at community college -- suddenly seemed less interesting, or necessary. A decade later, Garza says he's still "really surprised. For me, it was just a hobby, and the same thing for Eric -- he'd try to sneak in some time when he wasn't managing the bar."

According to Hilton, "we pressed the CD [1997's 'Sounds From the Thievery Hi-Fi'] and sold the first 1,000 copies the first day, so we reordered and reordered, and, before you knew it, we were on the road to owning a label, doing more records. It just sort of happened step by step, very gradual."

Along the way, the two moved from underground status to low-key ubiquity: Their music has been in video games (albeit for cricket and golf, though the golf game was for Tiger Woods); commercials (Dockers, Citibank, Lincoln); television ("The West Wing," "ER," "The Sopranos," "Sex and the City") and movie soundtracks ("Vanilla Sky," the remake of "Psycho" and the Grammy-winning "Garden State," which used "Lebanese Blonde," the duo's only sort-of-a-hit).

One of the things that distinguished Thievery was its embrace of world sounds, not just from Brazil and Jamaica, but from India, the Middle East, West Africa and elsewhere. For that, Garza and Hilton thank the bars and restaurants of the multicultural Adams Morgan and Dupont Circle neighborhoods, where they hung out.

"Washington's a very cosmopolitan city," Garza says, "and at the time, we were going to all these bars where you could hear Brazilian music or reggae or West African music. On any given night, you could just go out and dive into all this great music."

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