L-R: Eric Hilton, Rob Garza of Thievery Corporation (photo: Jen Maler)
Words by Lily Moayeri
Two weeks past the release of Thievery Corporation’s latest full-length, Treasures from the Temple, and the duo’s Rob Garza is still feeling the positive after-effects of his appearance with the classical-electronic-plus-visuals collective, Mercury Soul, at Great Northern. Garza provided the live electronics for the Latin-based program, a job for which he is more than qualified.
Garza has spent the last 20-something years moving from point A to point B on nearly-nonstop tour, but these days, you’re more likely to find him in one of a few children’s museums in San Francisco. “Having a son, you see a lot of different sides to the city that you wouldn’t if you a single guy without a kid, just hanging out in bars and doing the more social thing,” says Garza. “Quality of life is pretty good because the city is not so crowded, it’s not so congested and you can get around fairly easily, within about 15 minutes. But you’re not too far from Napa Valley or Muir Woods either. It’s a cool place to get a nice balance with nature.”
Thievery Corporation’s sound has gone from primarily downtempo lounge for the thinking man’s DJ set to Garza and his partner, Eric Hilton, shifting into a cutting-edge type of world music presented on massive stages with a full live band. Garza’s personal life has sort of gone in the opposite direction. “When we travel with a band, we play at venues that are done by midnight. That’s civilized,” he says. “When I was DJing, a lot of times it wouldn’t start until three in the morning and then you’d have to be on an 11 a.m. flight, flying to another country, so I took my foot off the gas pedal for a bit. I’m more selective about what I do DJ-wise.”
This is a big shift from Thievery Corporation’s beginnings, over 20 years ago. At that time, in the midst of D.C.’s house and burgeoning trance scene, Garza and Hilton were carving out their own dance-floor sounds that fit better with chill-out and acid jazz, and on occasion, trip-hop moods. They established their own genre at their aptly-titled Eighteenth Street Lounge venue and its associated record label ESL Music, through which they release all their music. Now on their ninth studio album, Thievery Corporation initially broke new ground with Sounds from the Thievery Hi-Fi, which plays out like a custom-made soundtrack for a trendy boutique hotel. It worked at the time of its release in 1997, and it works now.
In 2018, Thievery Corporation has a concentrated touring schedule, only doing one or two month-long runs annually. “That’s my limit,” Garza states firmly. “We’re not the type of band that goes out for 18 months. I don’t think I could really even consider doing something like that.
“Even with traveling, I have a lot of free time when I get to spend quality time with my son in terms of picking him up after school and hanging out with him until bedtime. My father had a job where he had to commute and he had to be at work by 8am. He worked until 7 or 8pm. I would see him maybe at breakfast, very briefly. It’s nice to have that time when we’re not on the road where I can really focus on my kid.”
When Garza is off dad duty for an evening, you might find him in the Mission at Mosto or The Beehive, or catching a DJ gig or a live show at the Masonic, the Fillmore, the Fox, or the Greek. He also is the co-owner of some eating establishments in Playa del Carmen in Mexico, although he’s not considering doing the same in San Francisco. “Once you have a business, you’re running around and always checking on something. It’s nice to be here and not have anything else to focus on besides my son and music.”
What Garza managed to do for a couple of years is bring his nightlife and dad-life together in a unique event called U.R. Art in Santa Monica, CA. A funfair and nightclub combination of sorts, the solar-powered, community-oriented U.R. Art featured a curated musical program worthy of the hottest dance floor, as well as interactive art, playground area, cuisine appealing to both adults and kids, and an overall welcoming atmosphere to families that doesn’t sacrifice any of its cool cred. “We have kids and we have a lot of friends who have children,” says Garza. “We wanted to create an event where parents could bring their kids and they could hang out and there would be activities for them. It was a day party so parents didn’t have to get babysitters. Plus, we’re older and people have to work in the morning. I definitely want to resurrect that at some point this year, in Los Angeles and in San Francisco.”
Treasures from the Temple serves as a companion album to their 2017 album, The Temple of I & I. Both were recorded, in part, at Geejam Studios in San Antonio, Jamaica. They harness the low-slung, mellow vibes of their reggae-driven place of nascence, and the new, slower pace mirrors Garza’s life changes. “I still DJ here and there, but not as much, just because I was getting burnt out,” he says.
The two newest albums also include authentic Jamaican chanters and local rappers like Mr. Lif and Raquel Jones. “We recorded way more than two albums’ worth music,” admits Garza of their time at Geejam. The experimentation and expansiveness of the recordings helps Thievery Corporation move towards a less multi-genre world music sound and more of the dub reggae that has always been at the core of what they do. “That’s what makes Temple of I & I and Treasure from the Temple companion albums. And they do have a common thread, but there are differences between them as well.”
You can catch Thievery Corporation in one of their live appearances on Sunday at this year’s BottleRock.
Los Angeles-based writer/teacher Lily Moayeri has been writing about music since 1992. Over the years her scope has widened to include the occasional article on television, art, fashion, and random elements of pop culture. You can find Lily’s writings aggregated on her work-in-progress blog, named after the Who song. Twitter: @PicsOfLilyBlog