Photo: Jen Maler

Decoding the Message: An Interview with Thievery Corporation

Unafraid of genre or style, Thievery Corporation are back with an album influenced by everything from Jamaica to the current political climate.
Thievery Corporation
The Temple of I & I
ESL Music

Since forming in 1995, Thievery Corporation have been using world music and electronica to challenge the system. Having formed in Washington D.C. makes them the ideal kind of insiders living in the middle of the American political system, and yet one would figure this would make their sound feel jaded and bitter, when instead they approach their political criticism like a celebratory call to activism. In their new album The Temple of I & I, they return to their roots so to speak, as they explore the sounds of Jamaican music. In early albums like The The Mirror Conspiracy they played with dub and reggae to great effect, and while in further albums they experimented with African beats, bossa nova, and jazz, the sound of the Caribbean island has always remained prevalent in their work.

Besides being a great example of electro-reggae hybrid The Temple of I & I, also sees Thievery Corporation do what they’ve always done best, which is comment on the corruption of politics. Their politics however go beyond partisanship and focus on issues that affect the whole world, making it ironic and wildly subversive to hear their music sometimes played in decadent lounges and luxury clothing shops, their potent messages disguises under their sophisticated beats. In tracks like “Drop Your Guns”, they call out America’s obsession with firearms, while challenging the rest of the world to give up on their need for constant wars. That the song also makes it impossible not to want to get up and move is testament to the band’s idea that one can not forget to find joy as one fights the establishment.

I spoke to Eric Hilton about how their albums reflect different American presidencies, the process of making The Temple of I & I, and why they’re looking forward to hitting the road once more.

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This might be me being very odd, but you guys put out exactly four albums out during the Bush and Obama presidencies, how did this come to be?

[laughs] That’s very interesting. I guess they were both eight year presidencies, so I wish our album cycle was quicker. I’d like to speed it up if I could, but no this was purely coincidental.

In Saudade it seemed you were taking on a more melancholy tone, which you’ve disregarded for the more aggressive sound of The Temple of I & I, is there any reason why there was such a drastic change?

We definitely do a lot of different styles and moods within our music. It seems funny talking about this latest record which I love very much, because Saudade is my favorite record we’ve done, just because it’s one of the more unusual records by an electronic music artist. I don’t think any other electronic music artist would make a record like that one, so I love it. You have different moods at different times, in this latest record we were in the mood to explore Jamaican sounds, so that’s what we did.

What’s the process you go through when selecting the tracks you’ll include in the album?

It was a little bit difficult because we recorded a lot of songs, especially a lot of instrumental rhythms. When we came back from Jamaica we had about 28 rhythms we’d recorded, no songs, so then we had to write songs and collaborate with people. We had way too much music, the good thing was we came up with the idea to release a compendium record with technically B-sides or extras. You’re probably the only one who knows this now so far, but at the end of the summer there will be at least 12 new songs, for a grand total of 27. We had a great time, we also have a new studio which made things more productive as well. A lot of good things happened to us.

How did the setting in Jamaica help shape the album? Did you arrive with an idea changed by the setting?

We didn’t arrive with too many preconceived notions, but I think everybody felt some sort of responsibility to play legitimate Jamaican music when we were there. The engineers from the studio would come in, or some Jamaican guests, and we felt we had to demonstrate an understanding of that music. That probably kept things happened a bit more traditional than we’d normally sound. Being in Jamaica just makes you want to play reggae for some reason.

When you’re adding the lyrics how do you find you’ve reached the ultimate version of the song?

You just kinda now. One of my favorite songs on the record, “Weapons of Distraction” which has Notch singing, blossomed into the best possible version that it could. Notch co-wrote the lyrics with us, and that was a great example of pure collaboration. Every time we have a song it’s very different in terms of who writes the lyrics, sometimes the person performing writes all of the lyrics, sometimes they do some, sometimes we write all.

The last songs in the album, particularly “Weapons of Distraction”, “Road Block”, and “Fight to Survive” seem to be telling the story of what’s happening in America. Being a DC band, is it hard to make music that won’t be influenced by the political environment?

I feel our music can sometimes sound political, but I think it’s much different than politics in terms of right, left, Republicans, Democrats or surface level politics. I think we use a lot of very coded language in our lyrics about control systems and power structures, and how things might be going down. We touch on subjects that are taboo, but I think our messages are beyond politics, they’re more about how the world is organized on a grander scheme than just every four years, or this or that administration. There are power structures that survive administrations.

Would you think of the band as a protest band?

In some cases for sure, very much so. We’re definitely antiwar: “Drop Your Guns”, the last song on the record was written during the Obama administration, and we were not fans of him because we didn’t feel he was antiwar. We rarely get into politics because we haven’t really had many antiwar presidents, so when you look at Syria, Libya, it’s the same old thing. US makes lots of weapons and uses lots of weapons.

Besides being antiwar artists you’re also great at exploring world music, so can you talk about how doing political music, but also taking into account sounds and instruments that are often thought of as strictly foreign, you’re also helping tell this larger story.

The world is an interesting place and all of the cultures are interesting in their way. As producers of music not tied to any particular instrumentation, we take the liberty to experiment with all kinds of music and genres. We definitely don’t want to limit ourselves to one format, we like to dabble in a lot of different sounds. One of the joys of Thievery Corporation is the liberty we have. We don’t have a message behind that, we’re not trying to prove anything to anyone, or telling them “look at this Colombian song,” or “listen to this Arabic influenced piece we wrote.”

You’re going on tour less than a week after the album comes out, what are you looking forward to the most about hitting the road?

I really want to take the album to Europe, we haven’t done a European tour that’s this long in a while. We’re also playing fairly midsize, smaller clubs which will be cool because we’ll be playing to Thievery fans only, which is different from festivals because not everyone is there to listen to your band. People seem excited that we’re coming there, so we’re looking forward to that.

Are tours where you get the sparks for new albums?

It happens anywhere, there’s no shortage of ideas. Like I said before, we should speed our cycle, we could make an album every year if we wanted to, there’s always inspiration for making music, we haven’t lost that in 20 years.