Thievery Corporation thrives on constant evolution

Posted by Eric Volmers on 25 July 2013

For an act that has thrived on defying expectations over the past 18 years, news that Thievery Corporation is heading in a new direction shouldn’t really take their hardcore fan base by surprise.

Granted, this new direction will be short-lived, promises Rob Garza, one half of the duo he formed with Eric Hilton back in 1995 in Washington, D.C.

The name of their upcoming seventh studio album is Saudade, the Portuguese word for longing. Its themes, at least lyrically, are “more dealing with love and things like that,” Garza reports.

Saudade, which will be out in September, comes on the heels of 2009’s Radio Retaliation and 2011’s Culture of Fear, releases that showcased the socially conscious side of Thievery Corporation with a sort of political fury seldom heard in the world of electronic, downtempo music.

So this new material represents another fairly significant shift for the act.

“It’s a record that is influenced by our love of Brazilian music, of cinematic soundtracks from the ’60s,” Garza says. “In a way, we say it’s for the ladies. It’s very feminine and beautiful and (has a) soundtracky feel to it.”

Of course, Thievery Corporation’s tackling of political themes was considered fairly novel at the time. The shift, Garza says, came after 9/11 and often commented on the changes the pair were seeing in their country.

Radio Retaliation found Thievery Corporation amping up their sound with heavier beats and world beat influences for an album that paid tribute to revolutionary movements around the globe. Culture of Fear, while perhaps not as overtly political, addressed the state of the nation by delving into hip-hop, particularly on the title track featuring rapper Mr. Lif.

“I think being from Washington D.C., one of the most politically oriented cities in the world, (9/11) was a catalyst that really changed the world and society,” says Garza “We come from a city that has a lot of punk bands and people who were very socially conscious. We just tend to ask a lot of questions and were inspired by artists who say something in their music, whether its people like Public Enemy or Fugazi.”

In fact, Thievery Corporation seems to have made a career out of ignoring the electronic-music rule book.

Garza insists the duo has never fit comfortably into any specific scene. It has helped that the act’s fiercely DIY approach to recording and releasing material on their own ESL Music label has allowed them absolute freedom to dabble in anything that happened to catch their fancy at the time.

“When electronic music started it was very rave oriented and a lot of electronic music was about partying and things like that,” Garza says. “I think for us, because we are inspired by so many different kinds of music — whether it’s jazz, or punk, or Brazilian music, or dub, or Indian sounds or Afrobeat — we felt we had a blank canvas and could say what we wanted to. We didn’t really feel part of any one particular scene in general.”

Thievery Corporation’s live performances have also had a reputation for defying expectations. While its true that some of the band’s earlier work could take on a mellow vibe, the live show is anything but laid-back.

For Friday’s performance on the Calgary Folk Festival’s main stage, Hilton and Garza will be backed by nearly a dozen players, including five or six vocalists, horn players, guitarists and percussionists. Rapper Mr. Lif will be on stage, as will vocalist LouLou Ghelichkhani.

“I think when we play live it takes on a whole different life,” he says. “Some people come to the concert at they think it’s going to be a little bit more chill-out or downtempo. When you see the show in person, it’s a very explosive show. There’s a lot happening on stage and you hear the power of all the different songs.”

The Calgary audience will not hear any of the upcoming material from Saudade, says Garza, adding that they haven’t quite come up with live versions of that material yet.

But Garza says the lighter, Brazilian vibe of that record is just side trip for the act.

“This record is, in some ways, kind of like a palate cleanser,” Garza says. “We’re already really chomping at the bit to get back in the studio and get into doing some more stuff centred around beats and things like that.”

Thievery Corporation play Friday at 9:45 p.m. on the Calgary Folk Music Festival’s Main stage.