“We're always exchanging a lot of information and reading books,” says Thievery Corporation's Rob Garza, looking across the table to Eric Hilton, the other half of the Washington, D.C. — based production duo. The group's jones for hidden knowledge and arcane grooves has become quasilegendary. Hilton nods, citing a wealth of influences ranging from modern conspiracy-theory Websites to Zecharia Sitchin's alien visitation study, The 12th Planet — and that's just the start-up file. “Reality just seems so out of whack,” Hilton observes. “And the official stories just seem so ridiculous that you want to pop the hood and see what's under there. But we're not trying to take people down into a dark hole and leave them behind; we find hope and humor in all of these times and situations, too.”
Garza and Hilton may well be the secret agents or agents provocateurs of the downtempo set, using studio stealth to mix the funkier elements of bossa nova, Bollywood, jazz, dub and hip-hop with, at times, a subtly political message delivered with just the right amount of cheek. Denizens of D.C.'s Eighteenth Street Lounge and local disciples like Deep Dish already know the code, beginning with the group's early singles “2001 Spliff Odyssey” and “Shaolin Satellite” (released on the group's ESL Music in late 1996) and leading into their full-length debut, Sounds From the Thievery Hi-Fi (ESL, 1997); the top-selling follow-up, The Mirror Conspiracy (ESL, 2000); the critically lauded remix comp Sounds From the Verve Hi-Fi (Verve/Universal, 2002); and the globally conscious chill-out opus The Richest Man in Babylon (ESL, 2002), as well as remixes for the likes of Stereolab, David Byrne and Norah Jones.
With the group's fourth studio album, Cosmic Game (ESL, 2005), though, Thievery Corporation has effectively redefined its mission. The familiar fingerprints from past projects remain, with some fresh psychedelic and rock-oriented twists. Guest appearances from the Flaming Lips' Wayne Coyne, Perry Farrell and Byrne certainly up the group's A-list pop-rock cred, and their grasp of dub-style recording techniques has also reached a higher level of sophistication — much of that owing to the interpretive chops of newly hired engineer Chris “Stone” Garrett and a move to Apple Logic Pro 7 software.
Indeed, a lot has changed in two years, and Hilton's simple assessment may put it best: “Our sound has become more than just the sum of our influences,” he says. “I think we've just gotten better at what we do.”
RUMINATIONS IN DUB
Constant innovation is the name of the game when it comes to surviving as an independent artist these days, and one area in which Garza and Hilton have considerably widened the scope is in their embrace of the way-out psychedelic aspects of old-school Jamaican dub. “One of the obvious things that has drawn us to dub music is its use of space,” Garza says. “You may have this deep bass line that's really sort of carrying the whole track, but, meanwhile, you have a whole open top spectrum of sound that allows for all kinds of possibilities with effects.”
“It's almost like a phantom coming through the room,” Hilton adds. “Dub is psychedelic music in a lot of ways, and by using the delays and reverbs properly, you get things appearing in different places and moving from one place to another — as opposed to maybe an old rock record, where everything is in the same place for the entirety of the song. In dub, the shit's going everywhere.”
Dub overtones waft in with a quickness on the album's opener, “Marching the Hate Machines (Into the Sun).” As the background synth line modulates at different speeds through a stereo tremolo effect, a watery Rhodes wavers through its own LFO setting, heralding the familiar voice of the Lips' Coyne. The song segues with a closing flourish of computer-simulated Echoplex (courtesy of one of the many plug-ins packaged with Logic Pro 7) into “Warning Shots,” a funky, ragga-tinged excursion featuring dancehall veteran Sleepy Wonder and Delhi-born singer Gunjan. If that weren't enough, the third cut, “Revolution Solution,” fades in with sitar, tabla, solo electric bass and swirling synth pads, hovering only momentarily until a Sly & Robbie — style double-time beat crashes the gate for Farrell, who drops an inspired, nearly Rasta-inflected vocal with the lyric, “They set themselves against I / They set my pride on fire.” It's doubtful things could get any more dubwise.
“I think we've consciously been trying to make our music more dynamic,” Garza says. “On Richest Man, a lot of the drums had kind of the same dynamic throughout the whole song. On this one, though, we were trying to get more authentic toward dub, where maybe every four beats or so we'd add a reverb to a certain snare or make things come in and out so you feel like the song is respiring a little bit more. In ‘Amerimacka,’ for example [with former Born Jamericans front man and recent Thievery collaborator Notch], where it starts to dub out at the end, you have these little fills going on top of each other until the delay just starts washing over everything.”
“We felt like that was a pretty good simulation of older Jamaican-style dubbing techniques, and I think that comes from having Logic available to us, because it offers so many possibilities,” Hilton adds. “In the past, we would try to get these flying, double-time hi-hats like King Tubby used to get, and we could never do it. But when you listen to some of the songs on the album — especially ‘Wires and Watchtowers’ [with local D.C. singer Sista Pat intoning a smooth reggae lilt reminiscent of Rita Marley] — we're able to do that now.”
SECRETS OF THE LOW END
By extension, with the dub style playing such a critical role in the overall feel of Cosmic Game, it sometimes falls on the bass to fill an even larger space than it normally would on any other type of project. There was a time when Garza and Hilton relied almost exclusively on a Roland JP-8000 for their bass lines; the synth workhorse has since given way to a Danelectro Longhorn bass, which Hilton plays on most of the new album.
“Sometimes, it's not necessarily the amount of money that you put into a piece of gear, but it's what you can get it to do for you,” says engineer Garrett. “For the bass, we might just plug it into a Peavey tube preamp or a SansAmp Bass Driver and run the signal through a pedal called a Moogerfooger Lowpass Filter, and adjust the cutoff so it's nice and subby — just to give it a little bit of resonance so it's really out there — and then compress the shit out of it. That's a trick we started using with Federico Aubele [an Argentine artist whose solo debut was produced by Thievery Corporation and released on ESL in 2003].”
It's a method for recording bass that Garza and Hilton seem to have naturally adopted for more than just their dub-fueled songs. Gigi's “Pela Janela (Through the Window)” and Patrick De Santos' “Sol Tapado (the Covered Sun)” explore a distinctly Cape Verdean mood with wisps of bossa while Byrne's “The Heart's a Lonely Hunter” conjures the hypnotic African highlife of King Sunny Adé or Fela Kuti. Throughout all three tracks, the bass surges with a full-bodied analog warmth that rivals the sound captured by reggae and funk classics from the 1970s.
THE FUTURE IS WIDE OPEN
Like with their DJ sets, which have been known to run the gamut from ethnic trance to hard-house funk and beyond (just check out this past year's The Outernational Sound [ESL, 2004] for more than ample proof), Garza and Hilton never keep to a narrow course in the studio. Experimentation is not only desirable; it's practically a must.
“When you get lucky, that's when a lot of really magical stuff happens,” Hilton explains. “In the past, we've stumbled onto some unique little sounds or we've just dropped the needle on a random record while one of our rhythm tracks is playing back. I mean, it could even be a Kris Kristofferson record or something, and it's like, ‘Oh, listen to that!’ [Laughs.] Suddenly, there's this totally different atmosphere that comes through.”
Garza points out one sound in particular that started out purely as an exercise in fooling around with different effects. “It's on ‘Doors of Perception,’” he says. “It sounds like a tabla at the beginning of the song, but it's actually just a guitar. I'm plucking a guitar string with lots of reverb and then squeezing it through delays, and it sounds almost exactly like a tabla. That's what you can come up with when you're willing to mess around, and that's what I liked about making this record. It's just very open-minded because it goes in so many different directions.”
Hilton riffs on this to address the conceptual mind-set behind Cosmic Game that he hopes won't be lost in the shuffle. “This is about expanding your own consciousness — not changing the world, but changing yourself and thinking about what you're gonna participate in,” he says. “Who's gonna get your devotion, your money or your time? If you give it to major television networks or to corporate radio or whoever, then you're empowering something that may be very negative. I think it's important to be conscious of the fact that you can move beyond all these worldly dilemmas and keep going further if you have an open mind.”
IT'S ALL IN THE ANALOG
Thievery Corporation has changed things up since the Cakewalk-based setup the pair had in 2002, but general recording principles are still the same: Front-load with as much live analog sound as possible. The Consulate — the private studio where Cosmic Game was recorded — is outfitted with an isolation room that houses a Focusrite OctoPre that acts as the main hub for analog-to-digital conversion. The unit outputs via Lightpipe cable to any of three MOTU interfaces in the outer control room. “The OctoPre is a new piece of gear for us, and we've been very happy with the solid, clean conversion we can get from it,” engineer Chris Garrett explains.
Computers, DAWs, recording hardware:
Apple Mac G4/dual 1GHz computer, Logic Pro 7 and Logic Node software; Emagic Logic Control Surface, Unitor8 MIDI interface; Glyph 80GB Hotswap FireWire drives; Mackie 24•4 analog mixer; MOTU 896, 1296 (2) audio interfaces, PCI-424 card; Universal Audio UAD-1 card
Synths, modules, software, plug-ins, instruments:
Danelectro Longhorn bass; Electrocomp EML-101 analog modular synth; Framus electric guitar; Korg MS2000 keyboard; LP Matador bongos, congas; Propellerhead ReCycle 2.1 software; Roland JP-8000 keyboard; Waves Renaissance plug-ins; Wurlitzer 200A electric piano
Samplers, drum machines, turntables, DJ mixers:
Akai MPC3000 sampler workstation; Ensoniq ASR-10 sampler; Native Instruments Kontakt soft sampler; Pioneer CDJ-1000 CD turntables; Technics SL-1210MK2 turntables
Mics, preamps, EQs, compressors, effects:
AKG C 414 mic; Electrix FilterFactory analog filter; Focusrite OctoPre 8-channel mic preamp; Oktava MK012-01 mic; Peavey VCL-2 tube compressor; Sherman Filterbank effects processor; Shure KSM109 mic; UREI 545 parametric EQ
Event 20/20bas monitors; Mackie HR824 active monitors; Tannoy Active, Proto-J studio monitors