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Thievery Corporation’s Eric Hilton: A Conversation
September 11, 2012 | 9:00AM

In the shadows of Nationals Park lies the nation’s capital’s newest live performance destination spot the Half Street Fairgrounds. Loosely based on the design of recently closed Brooklyn, NY commercial space DeKalb Market, the former industrial space provides a unique venue for large celebrations. Partnering with commercial deal and lifestyle company LivingSocial, legendary local dance act Thievery Corporation, along with Michael Franti and Gogol Bordello, perform there on September 15th.

For main Thievery components Rob Garza and Eric Hilton, a venue of Half Street Fairgrounds size is in meeting with their enormous local, national and international reputations. Their unique brand of jazz-and reggae-influenced house recordings have earned them Grammy nominations and a frequent global touring schedule. For Eric Hilton, success has afforded him a second life a DC’s fastest rising bar, nightclub and restaurant owner. From Marvin to Brixton to Patty Boom Boom, The Gibson and a plethora of other spaces, Hilton’s deep care in preserving history with an eye towards the future permeates from his music to the execution of his designs. Having a conversation with him about a Thievery Corporation concert becomes a discussion about the current state of DC’s nightlife economy, the state of DC’s arts and culture scenes, Chuck Brown and a plethora of other topics.

Let’s go back to 1995, and the incarnation of Thievery Corporation. You and [Thievery collaborator] Rob Garza were regularly DJing at the Eighteenth Street Lounge. What about DC at that time and the Lounge itself organically led to the group’s development?

Good question. We were DJing acid jazz, soul, funk, conscious hip-hop and a little bit of reggae. The term acid jazz was created as a joke by [then BBC Radio One] DJ Gilles Peterson, because he was playing a lot of Brazilian and African music, and when asked what he was playing, he said “acid jazz,” and somehow it became musical terminology. [Much like Peterson] Eighteenth Street Lounge was also about that. Then the downtempo techno movement started with [fames 90s German deep house duo] Kruder and Dorfmeister and some Brazilian and Japanese groups. Rob and I got into that quickly, started making records and became a part of that scene, which was really cool. We would test our records at the Lounge, comparing them to some of our favorite records. We had a really good resource there to branch out from. In terms of the lounge itself as a social place, we thought it was very needed. You either had small bars in DC, which were fine, or you had these big, giant discotheque-type places. We just wanted an informal club that felt like home.

Insofar as your LivingSocial sponsored concert on September 15th with Michael Franti and Gogol Bordello at the Half Street Fairgrounds, how did it come to occur? Also, thoughts about performing in DC, and the city as a whole at the moment…

Well, with the concert, we like the space a lot. We toured the Fairgrounds space and we thought it was super cool. We always wanted to do a big outdoor show. We did one last year at the [local Team Tennis squad, the Washington] Kastles Stadium with IMP [Productions] last August. We did well in terms of turnout, but we wanted a bigger space. We had thought in terms of doing a festival, but we then decided to narrow it down to one day with bands we like, Gogol Bordello and a friend, Michael Franti. We always wanted to self-promote a show. We felt like we could, but we’re finding out that promotion is difficult. We’ve had the luxury of not having to promote that much, which is cool, but a concert is a whole different thing. We’re promoting though, and getting the word out, switching gears from what we normally do.

And what about DC right now? It’s a rising creative force…

DC’s funny. I feel like there’s a lot of people and a lot of money coming into DC – for good and bad reasons – because the government gets bigger, and more people come here for jobs. As well, Virginia has a large military-industrial complex which contributes strongly the the economy of DC, and I feel strange about that. The arts scene has gotten better, but honestly Baltimore has a way better arts scene and a way better music scene. Frankly, I think it’s expensive to live in DC, so it’s hard for artists to fully concentrate on their art. Having said that, there are kinda cool art spaces. We did [U Street corridor venue] Montserrat House, and there are some cool events there. Ora [Nwabueze] did [Columbia Heights space] The Dunes, which is near Montserrat House, so people are definitely trying to propel the arts in DC, which is a great thing.

Again, on the negative side, it’s really really hard to make money off of art these days because of the digital economy, and the fact that most things that are digital are free…or stolen. For artists, I think there may have never been a worse time, you know, in terms of them making a living from their art. But, you know, that’s just the way the cookie crumbles.

Exactly. However, I feel like DC’s at a place now where artists are coming to the city, and DC has become a receptacle for the world’s art. I feel that that’s where a lot of the development of DC’s artistic scene is coming from.

That’s an excellent point. Because DC is a vibrant city economically, it’s a good market for live shows and plays. Nobody’s going to skip DC on a tour, whereas that was the case 15 or 20 years ago. So that’s definitely a big improvement for us [as a city].

Expounding from that point, I was wondering about the notion of how much intersection there is between your creativity as a musician and your creative work as a nightclub/bar owner and restaurateur?

They’re actually completely separate. They’re two totally different types of work. The only similarity would be using whatever senses and sensibilities people have towards chords and melodies they like in music and comparing them to the visual styles, interiors and atmospheres I use in restaurants, bars and nightclubs. Oh! Well, I do program some of the music for the bars, too. If you ever go to Brixton, I’m DJing, if you go to the Gibson, I’m DJing. I make nine-hour playlists that just play. There’s probably 12 of them, and that’s a crazy endeavor. But, I really don’t play “Thievery type” music, it’s usually very eclectic and older music that I like.

Given that your musical background is so eclectic, who would you consider to be some of your most significant musical influences at this moment?

Old ska and reggae, rocksteady, jazz, bossa nova…everything. I’m just going to name everything. Bands? I’ll just name The Clash, because of their eclecticism and revolutionary spirit. That’s something I really love. Curtis Mayfield is right there with The Clash for some of the same reasons but it was just the beauty of his music, you know. Always Marvin Gaye for his one album, What’s Going On, which just still trumps everyone’s album. And there’s always lots of rock, a lot of rare, weird one-off songs. I’m always looking for those.

As far as with ESL Music and finding new bands and new artists you want to push, how does that process occur? Are you looking for similar sounds?

Well, simply, it’s by word of mouth. If somebody sends a demo — which doesn’t happen much anymore — we have signed bands from demos. In the case of a band like [recently released artists] Nova Lima, we’ll hear that they don’t have a label for their next record and they’ll be looking for someone to put it out, so, we’ll take a listen to their record. If we hear it and we like it, we’ll plug them into the system we have set with distribution. I think we have a really cool label structure. We do the indie rock thing where it’s 50/50 and everything is super transparent. We’re [the band's] partner in the release, so we front all the money for the marketing and pressing and all of that. We take a risk, and if the record makes any money, the accounting is easy.

Culture of Fear was your last album, and reception to it was mixed. Your thoughts about that?

Honestly, Culture of Fear was a record that was pretty much cobbled together. Rob and I were at a point where we had a lot of music back in the files and we realized we needed to put out a record. I personally really like the record a lot. I don’t think it’s as good as [2008 album] Radio Retaliation by any stretch, but there are moments on the record that I really like a lot. I also like it sonically, as I think it may be better than some of the other records production-wise. Criticisms of it I can totally understand. I get that. I still think it’s a good record, it might not be a good record for Thievery Corporation. I think if someone else made that record, they’d say, “damn, that’s a good record.”

I feel like a lot of people don’t respect the space for growth.

Yeah, it’s really hard to compete with your own stuff. You’re making similar music in your own genre, so you always have to compete with the stuff you did before and sometimes you just actually can’t. It’s really funny because we have this new record coming up that will really freak people out because it’s all like easy listening, bossa nova and orchestrated. It’s very different. So now, I expect that people are going to be like, “what happened to those guys?”, but a lot of people will really like it.

True. I feel like in some cases you have to take risks to feel validated as an artist.

Yeah, I feel that most people catch an artist at one point in their trajectory, where they really just gravitate to that and always just want them to do “that.” With Thievery, people always want us to make really pretty and quiet music with not a lot of beats and lyrics about anything depressing. People like it for different reasons, and the great thing about Thievery is that we’re known to do a lot of different styles, so we’re allowed to do a lot of different styles.

Mentioning “depressing thoughts,” I wanted to touch on Thievery being known for being political. Where in your upbringing did that come from, and why does the group feel the need to weave politics into its sound?

Generally speaking for me and Rob both, it’s been the past ten years. We’ve become a bit more aware of current events and the way the world works. Meeting odd people who are connected in power centers that are beyond most people’s perception helped us realize that the world works differently than most people think. Political parties don’t matter and what the media is telling you is probably not true. Once you realize that you have outlets to explore thinking outside of the box, I feel like it’s extremely expansive mentally. I’ve enjoyed the last ten years.

Moving onto bittersweet topics, I wanted to ask about your thoughts on [DC go-go music legend] Chuck Brown’s passing. I know Thievery Corporation worked with him [on 2008 single "The Numbers Game"], and I wanted your take on him and his legacy.

I’ve met a few famous people — one of them is [legendary Beatles singer/songwriter] Paul McCartney- – and meeting Chuck Brown was way more thrilling! Paul McCartney was a gentleman and a wonderful guy and we had a fantastic conversation. However, Chuck’s energy, and the stories he told me about shining shoes on F Street [in Northwest DC] in the 40s kinda blew my mind. He also told me about his time in Lorton [a former DC operated penitentiary in Lorton, VA that Brown was incarcerated at for eight years in the 1950s], and just his energy and friendliness. He was 73 years old and just so vibrant and strong. I was just so shocked when I died. I thought, “This guy has so many more years,” you know. I mean, he shook my hand and it was crushing!

Another thing I remember is that he had come in, and he had written some lyrics to our song and I actually really didn’t like the lyrics, so, Rob and I started scribbling on the paper right there and we gave him new lyrics. He was like, “Yeah, okay, cool, let’s do it.” He went in there and sang it. I mean, I was like, “Are you kidding me?” He just went in there and was going with it. And the last thing with him was that we asked him, “well may be you should play some guitar on this tune, too.” And he was like, “no, I really like what this guitar player is doing.” That was my guitar, and I was like “Oh my God, Chuck Brown just said he liked my guitar!” I mean, I’m not a very good guitar player, but, yeah. It was an all around amazing experience to work with that guy.

Let me close with a simple question: Do you have any notes for aspiring artists or musicians in the DC area, insofar as navigating the industry, plus developing themselves and their craft?

Without going into the depressing parts about the music business — or lack thereof — I would just say, make the music you want to hear and don’t really concern yourself with how anyone would want to perceive it. Yeah…that’s it. Make the music you want to hear and just please yourself. Do it for your own personal fun and gratification. If it works out and other people like it, that’s great. If they don’t, then it doesn’t really matter. It’s your thing.

For more information on purchasing tickets for Thievery Corporation’s September 15th show, click here.

For more information on Thievery Corporation and their seventeen-year history, visit their website.

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  • CK says:

    I know the BYT audience is young, but “[legendary Beatles singer/songwriter]” ?