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.”
Back in D.C., Conti worked entirely in the box, using an API Summing Mixer Console to “stem out tracks and give it an analog mixdown.” A Universal Audio Apollo interface, to convert analog to digital, and various compressors and analog preamps also saw serious action. Conti’s favorite compressors in Montserrat House Studios include the Empirical Labs EL8 Distressor and dbx 160 VU Compressor.
“The dbx does something unique to percussion and kick and snare drums,” Conti says. “It’s very particular. You don’t have to hit it hard and it makes a very ‘70s, very punchy sound; it’s exceptional. And we used the Roland RE-201 Space Echo for dub effects and spring reverbs and the UA EMT 140 Classic Plate Reverberator plug-in.”
An sE Electronics Z5600a II large-diaphragm condenser was used on many of the amplifiers including an Ampeg Classic head driving a Markbass cabinet, a “crazy-huge Fender Bassman cabinet with inward drivers; it’s great for guitars,” and Fender Twin and Fender Deluxe amps.
Vintage keys tapped for this record include two distinct Wurlitzers (a 200 and 200A), a Rhodes electric piano, a Moog Satellite coupled to a Farfisa organ “which looks insane,” Korg PolySix and Monopoly, a Yamaha CS30, a Hohner Clavinet, a Lowry organ, and a Roland JP8000.
“The Wurly has a speaker so we miked that, or blended it with a DI,” Conti says. “My Wurly is pretty pimped up. There’s this great site called Vintage Vibe [vintagevibe.com] if you want to push your Wurly into an amazing state. Wurlys are really noisy but with modifications you can make them completely quiet. You can DI it and there’s no buzz. We also used Rob Garza’s amazing synths, including a Roland SH7, Korg MS20, and different Crumars.”
Conti used both vintage and modern microphones to cover drums, including one with a devilish bent! “I like the Shure Beta 52 or an old Electro Voice 666 as a kick drum mic,” Conti says. “The 666 is a great mic; they used it back in the Motown era; it rejects a lot of reflection. It’s nice and smooth in the bottom end. I used a Shure SM57 for snare, again, Sennheiser 421s for toms, and in the studio some very cheap mics that are awesome. They’re replicas of the RCA 44, the Chinese-made Nady RSM-2. It’s $100; a huge ribbon microphone. I use those for horns and overheads; they’re smooth sounding. Great cheap ribbon mics for overheads and room mics. Then the silver AKG C451 B for snare drum and guitar. Not a lot of stuff. And the old Unidyne III SM57, which sounds better in the low-end than the [modern] Shure SM57. I got those from my dad in Italy.”
One trademark of a Thievery Corporation production is a deep, swaying drum track, which blazes through the mix like hot asphalt.
“For fat, thick drums and bass, I treat the drums like hip-hop samples. And we do a lot of layering. There are real drums playing, and a simple loop underneath reinforcing them.”
“For fat, thick drums and bass I treat the drums like hip-hop samples,” Conti explains. “And we do a lot of layering. There are real drums playing, and a simple loop underneath reinforcing them. We do a lot of tricks to create the heavy banging beats. Mainly if we’re using an analog drum, I tune it low so it cracks like a hip-hop snare. It’s got to be very dead. You have to kill all the sustain; tape the heads entirely up. But the kick and snare can give you that old groove. And you can mixdown an acoustic drum like it’s a drum sample. And I use a lot of compression, before and during tracking. So my drum sounds are already in place when they’re printed.
“A lot of times we use samples from old records. One trick l like to do is make a MIDI version of that sample then re-create it in Maschine. I’ll make a clean version that is more powerful and energetic than the sample.”
Recording in multiple locations in various formats with diverse gear requires work in both pre and post, but that is nothing new for Conti.
“We did a lot of editing,” he recalls. “The way it works with this band is you lay down a scratch and that might become the song, but that doesn’t happen in a demo version; it happens in the studio. You don’t go into the studio and play a song and it’s done. It’s the opposite with Thievery Corporation. You keep changing and editing. The post-editing was the work, not the recording. Often we just jam then we chop it up to make sense.”
Finally, the production is mixed, and once again, it’s a family affair.
“We mix during the recording process,” Garza notes. “We’re working and listening constantly all the time and making adjustments. By the time we get to the end we’re all in the same room making decisions. It’s not a traditional mixing session. Eric and I and Gianmaria make the final decisions.
“Our biggest talent as producers is knowing when a song is done,” Garza adds. “Some musicians have sketches that are never finished. The key to actually being a producer or artist is knowing when something is done and saying, ‘That’s finished.’ How do we know? We look at each other, and we know. It’s intuition.”
“We’re inspired by music,” Eric says. “Not necessarily fads or trends. There’s mountains of music to mine through. I remember being in Brazil in the ’90s when Brazilians thought bossa nova was dead, and they said, ‘People like yourself and artists in Germany and Japan are doing the same thing, mining our music.’ Music is a big mountain of what many consider junk, especially in the pop mainstream, but there’s so much treasure to be taken out of the past.”
And like all good dub and toast-masters, Thievery Corporation is inspired by their gear. Over the course of 20 years they’ve seen equipment of all shapes, sizes and connections.
“When Rob and I began making electronic music, neither of us had a computer!” Eric marvels. “Rob had an Akai MPC 3000 and I had an Ensoniq ASR-15, with a whopping 200 seconds of sampling time. And our biggest challenge was storage. We were dealing with floppy discs and some songs required 8 to 10 floppy discs to store and reload. Looking back, it’s insane the way we worked. But on the other hand, that tight parameter of technology forced us to be resourceful and nimble. We were ironically most prolific during that period of using such a bare-bones set up. Yet I don’t think either of us would trade our Pro Tools setup and plug-ins for that primitive approach we used back in the day.”
How have Thievery Corporation maintained such a long and fruitful career in the treacherous music business?
“I have no idea,” Hilton replies. “We love making music. The best Thievery song is the one we’ll make next week. It’s always out there. We have no lack of passion or ideas.”