Ever since their 1996 debut, Sounds from the Thievery Hi-Fi, the Washington, D.C.-based duo of Eric Hilton and Rob Garza, aka Thievery Corporation, have mined a rich vein of musical delirium. From dub and reggae to Indian classical, Middle Eastern, hip-hop, electronica, and the wide plethora of musical zest under the Brazilian banner, Thievery Corporation have coupled a DJ’s skill set to a record collector’s passion. Collaborating with such famed artists as David Byrne, Perry Farrell, The Flaming Lips, Anoushka Shankar, Femi Kuti, Seu Jorge, and Bebel Gilberto, Hilton and Garza see no reason to jump off planet Jamaica now.
“Jamaican music, dub music in particular, is crucial in the development of electronic music,” notes Hilton when discussing the duo’s latest effort, The Temple of I & I. “As electronic musicians, dub is a very inspirational sound for us, and something we incorporate into our own music. And then the revolutionary aspect of certain Jamaican music is very appealing. Jamaican music, early rock steady and early reggae is my go-to hang music. Jamaica is its own continent when it comes to music. It’s such an overachieving country.”
The Temple of I and I’s 15 tracks of unerring vibrations blasts off with the sizzling dub of “Thief Rockers,” a laid-back homage to interstellar space and deep Illuminati secrets. “Letter to the Editor” fires up the beat, its hook pure smackdown-to-the-ears ecstasy. “Strike the Root” rocks steady and lean. The title track is delayed, looped, and layered to perfection, followed by the outer-space kinetics of “Time and Space,” love’s warning, “Love Has No Heart,” and closer, “Drop Your Guns.”
“Our records have always spanned many genres of music,” Garza adds, “so you’d have different sounds within one album. After Culture of Fear (2011) we did Saudade (2014), which was influenced by our love of Brazilian music. That’s very organic and bossa nova-heavy. A lot of soundtrack-worthy cinematic songs on there. We wanted to make a record built on our love for Jamaican dub and reggae. The Temple of I & I has a very strong presence of Jamaican music; that’s the predominant theme.”
Citing influences from Lee “Scratch” Perry, The Revolutionaries, Linville Thompson, King Tubby and Scientist, Thievery Corporation share a similar fondness for pushing old gear to create new sounds.
“We love Space Echoes and plate reverbs,” Hilton says. “Some of that early outboard gear sounds the best. You can make great music with plug-ins but we’re very into vintage gear. I watched a reggae documentary recently about Lee ‘Scratch’ Perry; he was using this phaser that looked like an Akai MPC 3000; a mini one. And I still can’t find that piece of gear.”
Vintage tools used on The Temple of I & I include a Roland RE-201 Space Echo, Teletronix compressor and classic hardware keyboards, including those by Korg, Moog, Crumar, Hohner, Roland, Rhodes, and Wurlitzer. Basic tracking for the album happened at Geejam Studios, located within a resort in Port Antonio, Jamaica.
“A simple studio that was quite modern,” Hilton said. “They have a good grand piano. But they didn’t have a shaker! We had to make one out of an Advil bottle and some rice. We did most of the heavy effects at our D.C. studio.
“We might have recorded the drums to an Otari tape machine,” Hilton adds, “but most of it was digital recording using the preamps from a Rupert Neve 5088 console. We recorded drums, bass, guitar, keys, and percussion at Geejam then edited in D.C. Geejam is a great place to record.”
Prior to tracking in Jamaica, Hilton, Garza, engineer Gianmaria Conti, and band conducted jam sessions at Thievery Corporation’s recently completed D.C. hub, Montserrat House Studios.
“Our space is cool and it also has a Caribbean connection,” Hilton says. “It’s an abandoned head shop that we fixed up. We did a lot of jam sessions and took the basic tapes to Jamaica. We didn’t even take files because we were going to recut everything anyway. We selected our favorite rhythms and progressions from D.C. and re-recorded 28 rhythms at Geejam, then dressed up the music with vocals and effects back in D.C.” Drum loops were also added to fortify natural drum sounds, “grabbing things off old vinyl for that cool vintage quality,” Hilton says.
Eric Hilton’s love of vintage keyboards looms large; all made their way onto The Temple of I & I in various ways, shapes and forms.
“We love vintage Wurlitzer keyboards,” Garza says. “We used the Roland JP-8000 to death and vintage drum machines: the Sequential Circuits TOM Drum Machine; a Korg Rhythm 55, a really old drum machine; a Korg PolySix analog synth, it’s a little difficult to use but we got some great sounds off of it. We used modern things like [Native Instruments] Maschine, too, which we use for programming beats and chopping stuff up. Sometimes our drums will be a combination of a live drummer and a kick from one loop and a snare from another loop. Or that and another loop added in. We create hybrids to get a bionic drum set.”
After 20 years of mixing flavors, Hilton and Garza have their respective recipes down cold.
“I’m a drums-and-bass and rhythm-and-groove guy,” Hilton says, “and Rob is more of a melody guy. I focus on drums and bass lines for the most part, and he will focus on melodic elements. But sometimes that switches.”
Though Geejam Studios is tiny and minimal in terms of gear, the band had a blast.
“Gear-wise it’s unique,” Garza says. “It’s a resort on top of a hill, only four rooms: Very small studio. It’s got this beautiful view, a huge window that looks out over the ocean. In the control room there’s the booth, then after the booth, the ocean. GeeJam has a real vibe, and an original Rupert Neve 16-Channel 5088 console. We recorded 12, 13 hours a day; we couldn’t stop. We were in this magical environment. We’d swim in the ocean in the morning then go straight into the studio.”
Gianmaria Conti has engineered Thievery Corporation sessions for years, and he brought his Agame balancing the various pieces between Jamaica and DC. Minimal vocal tracks were cut at Geejam, with Conti running their Neumann U87 into the 5088 console’s internal microphone preamps. Back in D.C., Conti’s go-to vocal setup included the Shure SM7B microphone running into a BAE 1073D 500 Series Mic Pre/EQ, a Chandler Limited TG2 Preamp/DI, or an API 512c mic preamp.
“The Neve console is a benefit if you’re going to go ahead with tracking and mixing,” Conti notes. “We were just tracking there, using the Neve’s preamps, then mixing in D.C. We used the Neve’s mic preamps, compressors, and its channel strip. Just being in front of that board feels good.”
Down in Jamaica, Conti was limited to Geejam’s smallish gear complement. For example, he tracked a Fender Twin Reverb guitar amp using Shure SM57 and Royer 121 microphones as well as a DI, using “three lines in case I wanted to re-amp.” A Neumann U87 was used on an Ampeg B-15 Portaflex bass combo amplifier. Tracking drums in the studio’s small environs, however, tested Conti’s resourcefulness.
“I used a Shure Beta 52 and Shure Beta 91A on the kick, in and out,” Conti explains. “Then a Shure SM57 for snare, Neumann U87s for overheads, a Shure SM81 for hi-hat and ride, Sennheiser 421s for the two toms.
“For the room mics, we used a U87 placed inside the grand piano and slammed with compression,” Conti adds. “It worked well. That was the best room sound, in the piano, which was across from the drums. You have to solo the room mic. What I’m looking for in a room mic is that crunchy hip-hop beat you’d hear on a record. The room mic in the piano gave me the whole kit. Once I found the place where it sounded good by itself, I left it. It was vibrating the piano strings! There’s no science, you move the room mic until you find the best position.”