In 1996 Rob Garza and Eric Hilton formed music group Thievery Corporation. In 1997 they captured music fans’ imagination with the release of their debut album, Sounds from the Thievery Hi-Fi. They have since released eight studio albums, the latest called Saudade, which hit the stores on April 1, 2014. In addition, Garza and Hilton have released 18 compilation albums and started a label, Eighteen Street Lounge Music (ESL). Originally from Washington, D.C., Garza now lives in the San Francisco Bay Area.
Rob Garza is one half of Thievery Corporation, a music group that blends sounds and musical influences from around the planet. Their music is the soundtrack of my immigrant story, each album of theirs having a cultural significance and also marking my transition from India to New York and eventually becoming an American citizen.
Their music is timeless. If you don’t believe me, check out their debut album. There is more than a good chance that while relaxing on a beach somewhere or sipping a martini in your favorite lounge, you have heard something that makes you raise your eyebrow and ask, ”What kind of music is that?” That eclectic sound — a beat blend of Asian, Middle Eastern, reggae, bossa nova, dub, electronica, and chill-out — is something Thievery Corporation pioneered. In fact, Thievery’s sound epitomizes the post-internet planet.
Ironically these vanguards of indie music are seeing their musical mosaic crumble, thanks to the internet. A few months ago, Garza and I walked down the memory lane about vinyl and ended up talking about “snacking culture” and why we’re now failing to form emotional bonds with music.
Om Malik: First of all, I have to say, I’m a longtime fan. It’s great to talk to you. I’ve been listening to you guys for over 10 years. A friend of mine, DJ Rekha, in New York, introduced me to your music.
Rob Garza: Very cool.
OM: Let’s talk about the creative process and the internet, how it has changed and influenced folks like yourself. Back in the day, when I listened to your music, it was essentially a way to access information, culture, and sounds of places I’d never been. I listened to your music, and it would take me to those places. Now we live in a world that is very different, where the internet brings everything to us. It compresses both time and distance drastically. How has creativity changed, and how has your own musical process changed in the past 10 to 12 years?
RG: Back when we started, the internet was nowhere near as large as it is now, in terms of music. Now everybody is using it. Back then you would actually have to go to record stores. Music was one of the ways of traveling through time and distance, whether you go back to 1977 in London, to the punk movement, or mid 1960s in Brazil to listen to bossa nova.
Music was a major form of that type of traveling and communication. Now it’s almost — people take it for granted that you can Google the most influential bossa nova records and be an expert within a day or two. Not really, but you know what I’m saying.
The internet has changed everything: how we make music, how we listen to music, how we consume music, how we take pictures, how we write and communicate with each other. It’s a different world.
OM: Do you think it’s because it’s not as difficult to get information? Do you think that has given you, as an artist, a better ability to understand newer music forms more quickly? Or has it taken away something from the process?
When I was a kid in India, it was expensive to buy a record. So when I listened to the Rolling Stones for the first time, I was emotionally invested in the music, as in trying to understand that music by listening to it again and again. Over a period of time I developed an emotional bond with that music. Now I find it much more difficult to form a bond with an artist or a song or album in that sense.
RG: Yeah, I think it’s interesting, how we value music these days. In some ways music has lost a lot of its value. In the past you would put the record on, read the liner notes, and spend the afternoon with the record. You listened to it a couple of times and tried to understand this particular piece of art. That kind of connection doesn’t really exist the way it did back in the day.
Now what people do ‑‑ I’m even guilty of it ‑‑ you have every song that you’ve ever loved on your iPod or iPhone. I go through and listen to 30 or 40 seconds of 30 different songs without getting to have that emotional bond that I would have if I actually put on a piece of vinyl and just sat in a room and listened and connected with the whole experience of, say, an album. It is kind of a foreign concept today, because a lot of it is built on popularity on iTunes or Spotify — which songs are more popular by a particular artist.
With this new record, we wanted to explore a form of music that’s inspirational to us and just dive into it as a whole album rather than just one or two songs on a B side of a record.
OM: I had to listen to this new album at least 20 times before I actually started feeling it. I had gotten so used to listening to tidbits of your songs ‑‑ one song here, one song there — as part of someone else’s playlist on Spotify.
The experience was disjointed, and I had to spend a lot of time listening to this new album. It took me a little while to actually appreciate that there is a sequence, there is a rhythm, there is a natural progression to the album. Did you guys program it, knowing that we live in this world of splintered attention?
RG: Not really. We didn’t program it that way. We just set out to make a record that we enjoyed making and listening to. If you try to think that way [about a progression of songs], you’ll make yourself crazy, because most people don’t listen to records that way. That’s the reality.
Few people are going to buy the whole record and listen to the whole thing back to front, front to back the way we used to. Let’s say I’m a person who’s never heard of Thievery Corporation and I hear a couple of the songs somewhere. What am I as a listener going to do? I’m probably going to go to iTunes, pick out the three or four most popular songs, download a couple of them, and that’ll be the initial listener experience with Thievery Corporation.
OM: Do you think we can have an album experience in this culture of snacking, this culture of Spotify? Is there room for album‑listening?
RG: There is, but it’s in the minority. Most people just want to — did you use the word “snack,” like “snack on things”? That’s a good way to put it. People are just snacking: “Oh, I want to try a little bit of this. Oh, I want to try a little bit of that.” The information is just moving so quick that it’s a little rebellious to make a record that’s just a soft‑listening, beautiful record. Last week it was No. 1 on the iTunes electronic charts all week, and there’s nothing really electronic about this album, so I thought that was kind of funny.
OM: You have an incredible vantage point. You are an artist yourself, you work with other artists, you have a record label. You tour. What do you think about things like Spotify, iTunes, and the digitization of music?
RG: It’s great that people can explore different artists, find music on Spotify, YouTube, things like that. At the same time, I think it is not sustainable for the music community. A lot of this money just goes back into the pockets of the tech companies. Before that, it would go to major labels.
I’m not defending major labels, but at least they would take some of that money and invest it to find and develop new artists. They would try to give artists a career. That’s the missing link in this whole equation: That money goes to Google Play or iTunes or Pandora or Spotify. The royalties are miniscule. Also, those companies don’t make it a habit to invest in new music, new art, and new talent. It keeps a lot of resources from coming back into the community.
OM: It’s an interesting point of view, because, if you look at something like Spotify, the record labels are said to be stakeholders in the company. It’s all going back into the labels, where they don’t have to worry too much about paying. If, for instance, you were to tell the Spotify CEO what should he do in order to make the life of artists better, what would you say? What would be an ideal situation for guys like you?
RG: The first thing is to be open to having a discussion to figure out what is beneficial to everybody. What makes it win‑win. What makes it more fair for people. It’s so difficult for artists today to have a career unless you already have your — I hate to use the word “brand” — but unless you’re already an established artist, it’s more difficult than ever to make a career or a living from making music. First, be open to discussing all of this and hearing what the artists have to say.
The biggest thing about Spotify is how minuscule the royalties are compared to when people were actually purchasing the music. It’s a totally different business model. You’re never going to put that genie back in the bottle or get people to go and buy music.
We live in a streaming world. I’m not sure I totally have an answer to that question [laughs]. That’s the million-dollar question.
OM: There used to be a lot of friction to buy your music. I used to wait in line outside this store in my neighborhood, Other Music, in New York, to buy your records. Often they would be sold out. Now it is so much easier to not only buy your CD but everything else that shows up on the ESL catalog. I either listen to it or I can buy it.
Suddenly my ability to spend money on many different artists has increased because of the internet. It’s exposed me to a lot more music. After hearing a lot of artists you have featured, I have started listening to them more often. In the past, I remember buying an Ursula 1000 CD. I didn’t know if it was going to be good or bad. I bought it because I heard a song on one of your records. Has the internet increased the size of your audience? There are a lot more people who are aware of you, your group, and your label worldwide, right?
[topic]End of ESL?[/topic]
RG: It’s interesting you bring that up. We’ve essentially shut down the record label ESL. We’re putting out Thievery records, but we’re not working with any more artists, because we’ve gotten to the situation where — let’s put it this way. Back in the day, we knew that if we signed an artist and put out their the record, it would sell at least 5,000 copies. Right? You give artists an advance. There was some money to be made through selling CDs and through licensing and touring.
I don’t know if you saw that thing with David Lowery, from Cracker and Camper Van Beethoven, where he talks about how he had a million plays on one of these streaming services. He earned less money than he would have made selling a T‑shirt at one of his concerts.
Those are the kind of economics we’re dealing with. When you run a small independent label, at a certain point it becomes like trying to squeeze a dry lemon. It’s a lot of work, and you’re not getting a lot of juice. In one way, it’s allowed people to learn more about these different artists that we have on our label. Even when it was just iTunes as the only thing on the block, it was a lot more beneficial and sustainable for artists.
OM: I did not know that you had essentially shut down your record label, which is too bad, because you were the global sound curators, from my standpoint. You guys always had a lot of interesting groups on your label. What a shame.
RG: Yeah. It’s tough, too, because these are your friends. You’re coming up to them, and they’re like, “What did we earn this last six months?” We’re like, “Here’s the $100. Here’s the numbers to show it.” You do that enough times and you’re like, “I don’t really want to be in this part of the business, because it’s kind of depressing.”
OM: Let’s talk about something more uplifting then. Let’s talk about your new album. What was the inspiration behind it? How did you guys think about it? How did it come about? As a longtime fan, I can tell there is a slight change of tone and a different beat and rhythm to this album.
[topic]Bonkers over Bossa-Nova[/topic]
RG: If you listen to a lot of Thievery albums, you’ll have some cuts that are very dub-by and Jamaican‑oriented, some cuts are that more Indian‑inspired, or a bunch of different styles of tracks on each album. It was nice to fill our minds and to engage with one particular style that we both love.
When I met Eric [Hilton] back in 1995 at the Eighteenth Street Lounge, one of our common loves was Brazilian bossa nova music. It’s something that we’ve always dabbled in on our records. We started coming up with music. We were just recording all organically, not electronic, in terms of beats and things like that. Then we thought, “Let’s make an EP.”
We started making more songs and we were like, “Let’s put together an album.” For us it was nice to immerse ourselves in one particular style.
OM: Where did this love for Brazilian sound come about?
RG: I was 20 years old — this was back in 1990. I was making techno records at the time. This was before I met Eric. I remember one day going into Tower Records.
I walked in. I went straight to the Brazilian section, and I picked up a bossa nova cassette and walked out of the store. It was like I was possessed. I didn’t even know what that was. I bought the cassette, and after listening to it, I felt like my life had changed. I kind of found a true love. There’s something that’s beautiful, trippy, and otherworldly about that music that inspired me.
It’s one of the qualities that I wanted to bring when we created Thievery Corporation. That’s one of the flavors from other places as well. There’s that otherworldly element in the music, or the Indian influences, that very transcendental feeling, that we wanted to incorporate into our sound.
OM: Are you surprised that so many people in such far-off corners of the world listen to your music? You did a reinterpretation of an Indian song called “Satyam Shivam Sundaram” that blew my mind. It was a complete reinvention of a song I grew up listening to. That’s when I became a fan. Keep rocking man!
A shorter and edited version of this conversation was published on Gigaom. Photos courtesy of Thievery Corporation, ESL Music, and Rob Garza.