- The Washington Times - Saturday, December 14, 2002

When Les Paul, a pioneering jazz guitarist, invented multitrack recording and overdubbing technology in the late 1940s, he probably didn't have electronic music in mind. However, the fruit of those innovations has led to that most modern of sounds, a computer-generated fusion of grooves and melodic fairy dust.
Probably no one appreciates that irony more than Eric Hilton and Rob Garza, a duo known as Thievery Corporation who recently released their third CD, "The Richest Man in Babylon," and performed to a packed house at the 9:30 Club.
Based in the District, the pair also have spawned an independent record label Eighteenth Street Lounge Music and cultivated a wide audience in music clubs across southern Europe.
Mr. Hilton and Mr. Garza are blissfully out of touch with the contemporary music scene: They would take Les Paul over Moby any day of the week.
"I try not to listen to any modern music whatsoever. I listen to older music. It's just a lot richer, a lot more inspiring," says Mr. Hilton, the more animated of the pair.
Usually dressed like bankers, he and Mr. Garza are casually clad in jeans, taking a break from their current recording project: producing a full-length CD for Frederico Aubele, an up-and-coming Argentine artist.
When Mr. Hilton, a 36-year-old University of Maryland graduate, met Mr. Garza about seven years ago, he found they had a lot in common: a love of old Brazilian jazz, samba and Afro-Indian music and backgrounds as DJs and in production.
They set out to fuse those antique sounds with modern digital technology to create something new and unique.
"We knew we wanted to do something electronic and futuristic," says Mr. Garza, 32.
The meeting took place at the 18th Street Lounge, an uberchill enclave below Dupont Circle. The city's temple of electronica, the club is easy to miss, having nothing but a gold-plated label posted outside an inconspicuous walk-up entrance.
Mr. Hilton and Mr. Garza work in a loft a prototypical den of urban hipness adjacent to the lounge. Off the main room, a dimly lit space with a maze of ratty couches, is a small recording studio where all the data-doctoring magic occurs.
There's also a swatch of the pair's 5,000-strong vinyl record collection. Among their current favorites: "Jazz Samba Encore," a bossa nova album recorded in 1963 by saxophonist Stan Getz and guitarist Luiz Bonfa; an album called "Movements" by flautist Jimmy Harris; and a tripped-out recording by Mystic Moods Orchestra.
Such obscure records provide fertile soil from which Thievery Corporation culls its musical extracts. Neither is a proficient musician, but both plunk at bass guitars and keyboards well enough to cobble together a basic groove over which they layer snatches of old analog LPs.
"We might take a percussion line from a belly-dancing record, and we might take a snare hit from another record and a kick from another one," Mr. Garza says.
On their latest album, they also incorporated acoustic instrumentation, enlisting vocal contributions from the Icelandic singer Emiliana Torrini as well as local percussionists and guitarists.
While "The Richest Man in Babylon" has a cultish American audience, it has sold briskly in Italy and Greece. In Greece, Mr. Hilton says, "Babylon" rose to No. 2 on a nationwide music chart.
The pair attribute their European success to two things: an audience that's more open to eclecticism and a healthy variety of independent radio stations.
"I think that they're more open-minded," Mr. Garza says. "There are so many different cultures in Europe that people are just always hearing music that's coming from foreign territories."
In Greece, Mr. Hilton adds, "They play our records on the radio. We don't have an independent promoter; we don't even have a record label there. We just sell our record to a distributor in Greece but they like it, and the radio stations have the freedom to play what they want."
As Mr. Hilton sees it, the American music industry record labels and radio stations has become a rigid corporate imperium, with a handful of big companies controlling what gets played on the radio and squeezing out mediocre hits from young artists they quickly discard.
The result: a boring sameness across the dial.
"It's like the same principle as when you go to the 'burbs and all you see is Blockbuster, Home Depot and Red Lobster. I mean, you're getting that in a radio format now. It's getting very stale," Mr. Hilton says.
The elephantine companies that are wrecking the music business, Mr. Garza says, are sometimes the same entities that own prominent journalistic outlets, such as AOL Time Warner.
"It's weird, because all your entertainment is linked with the people who are giving you your news," he says.
As should be apparent by now, Thievery Corporation nurses a streak of political radicalism. Mr. Hilton, a political science major, says he's a fan of America's prince of left-wing oppositionism, Noam Chomsky.
"The Richest Man in Babylon" is packaged in a handsome booklet of photographs by Daniel Cima, Bill Crandall and Hector Emanuel.
The stark black-and-white images recently exhibited in Georgetown's Govinda Gallery attempt to capture the hardscrabble environs of the Third World while also showing hopeful pictures of materially deprived people tenacious enough to keep smiling.
"I think there's a lot of beauty in some of those images," Mr. Hilton says. "You really see the resilience of people. You see a certain inner strength in the midst of a difficult situation."
"Those images sort of encapsulated the thoughts and moods we had within the music," Mr. Garza says.
Two songs from "Babylon" the title track and "State of the Union" overtly address the chasm between the developed West and the Third World.
Mr. Hilton says that despite a distaste for what he calls the "rock god" grandstanding of U2's Bono, he would welcome a return of serious social protest music.
"The late '60s can look a little bit cliched and trite," he says, "but then if you look back at some of those songs, like Buffalo Springfield's "For What It's Worth" and things like that where are those songs today?"
Politics and protestation aside, Thievery Corporation has found a way to avoid tangling with the three-buttoned bureaucracy of the music business, establishing a solid and efficient business model.
ESL Music has 14 other artists on its roster and managed to place Thievery songs in such network and cable TV shows as "ER," "The Sopranos" and "Sex in the City."
Mr. Hilton and Mr. Garza have gone at things their own way and make a comfortable living in the bargain. Even among musically unadventurous Americans, they are building a following.
"I think people are warming up to our music because they feel like they're discovering something that isn't forced upon them," Mr. Garza says.
Or maybe they're hearing a great Les Paul lick and loving it again for the first time.

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