Eighteenth Street Lounge is the epicenter of cosmopolitan swank, a magnet for Beltway hipsters, an after-hours pleasure nexus brought to you by the Thievery Corporation‘s Rob Garza and Eric Hilton. The nightclub-cum-record-label doesn’t seem like the sort of enterprise that would thrive in the officialdom of Washington, D.C. Still, the duo style around the capital in $500 pants and Marc Jacobs jackets as if the 9-to-5 squares of Avenue K and 1600 Pennsylvania didn‘t exist. But behind the image of effortless cool they’ve so flawlessly burnished lurks a very different reality.
“Everyone in Washington, including us, is a workaholic,” Hilton says. “Whether they‘re lawyers, Capitol Hill bureaucrats, lobbyists, students, whatever — people come here to do something. So when they want to decompress, ESL is the place. What there is of a music scene here really is a small group of artists, and they tend to have a self-righteous bent [Jenny Toomey, Ian McKay, et al.]. It’s elitist almost, but that‘s fine — I wouldn’t want it to be a music-industry place, like New York or L.A. We have to live here, so it can‘t be too distracting. Another way [D.C.] works to our advantage is all the neighborhoods here — Guatemalan, Ethiopian, Dominican. That really helps as far as musical inspiration.”
Thievery Corporation are the National Geographic of electronica, and their new release, The Richest Man in Babylon — a beautifully packaged CD that includes a 30-page photo essay — is a globetrotting smorgasbord of influences that’ll leave you joyously jet-lagged. Check out the itinerary: Qawwali quivers on “Facing East” give way to the batucada smolder of “Meu Destino”; the Afro-pop frenzy of “Liberation Front” finds its Caribbean counterpart in the dub-drenched “The State of the Union”; we trek to ancient Persia on the santoor-and-oud-fueled “Omid.” Sure, Thievery Corporation are tourists, but then, so were Debussy and Ravel.
Bring up “cultural appropriation,” and you‘ll get a bored shrug from Hilton. “When people accuse us of selling out, all I can say is, ’Well, they‘re right.’ This is how we make our living, so we have to take money where we can get it, like the car commercial we did, because touring for us is really expensive. We‘re lucky to break even, since we bring out so many people with us.”
The people Hilton’s talking about are the same cast of characters who appear on Babylon, and they‘re worth every penny: Icelandic songbird and Bjork pal Emiliana Torrini; Jamaican stars Shinehead, Sleepy Wonder and Notch; Iranian chanteuse Lou Lou; Brazilian crooners Vernie Varela and Patrick dos Santos; and of course, soul queen Pamela Bricker, whose addictive phrasing electrifies the album’s hookiest cut, “All That We Perceive.” “What I don‘t like about a lot of electronic music is how the seams show — like the way a beat works against a loop, so that you can totally tell that it’s sampled. We want people to think our CD sounds as natural as a bunch of musicians recording live with their instruments. That‘s the trick, and we work very hard at it.”
Between the October drop of Babylon and their previous full-length, 2000’s The Mirror Conspiracy, Hilton and Garza were commissioned by everyone from Baaba Maal and David Byrne to Pizzicato Five and Stereolab to do remixes. It kept the coin coming, but their hearts lay in the tropical sounds of Gilberto Gil, Antonio Carlos Jobim and Cesaria Evora, and the bachelor-pad cool of vibraphonist Cal Tjader. That aesthetic blessed Sounds From the Verve Hi-Fi with industry synergy. “We were really excited when Verve called, because that‘s been our favorite label for a long time; they got the ball rolling on the Brazilian music and bossa nova [in the U.S.] during the ’60s, so we really just wanted to make a compilation. And [Verve‘s] A&R guy was like, ’Okay, just go with that.‘ It was a relief, because at first they wanted us to remix this stuff, but why touch something that’s already perfect?”
A telling question. As their not-so-ironic name implies, Thievery Corporation aren‘t musicians so much as tastemakers — and they feel no need to hide it. (“Rob knows his machines better than me, but we’re about the same on guitar.”) Maybe there‘s no accounting for taste, but good taste serves the bank account in Thievery’s case — as long as they don‘t mind occasionally lowering their standards. “Rob and I have an unspoken rule,” Hilton semijokes. “If we do any remixes for a compilation with Chill Out in the title, then we charge more.”
Thievery Corporation play the Wiltern Theater on Friday, November 22.