- The Washington Times - Wednesday, December 20, 2006

Amid the shrieking espresso machine and clicking laptop key- boards at Tryst in Adams Morgan, four world-class musicians sit chatting on velour couches. Their names — Sid Barcelona, Jon Horvath, Rob Myers and Steve Raskin — may not be instantly recognizable to many of their fellow Washingtonians, but the names dropped during their conversation surely are.

For starters, they’ve toured with pop princess Gwen Stefani and produced tracks for hip-hop godfather Afrika Bambaataa. They’ve also gotten to remix some of their favorite artists, including Tito Puente and Louis Armstrong, and have songs on Tiger Woods’ 2006 PGA Tour video game.

All anyone really needs to know is that their electronic music-making collectives, dubbed-out Thunderball and funky Fort Knox Five, are helping to put this city on the musical map.

Mr. Barcelona and Mr. Raskin, both veterans of local bands, formed Thunderball in the mid-1990s and, in 1997, became one of the first acts signed to local startup Eighteenth Street Lounge Music, the label founded by Thievery Corporation’s Rob Garza and Eric Hilton.

Thunderball — which more recently added guitarist/sitarist and longtime Thievery contributor Mr. Myers — quickly established its signature sound, churning out lush, cinematic compositions in styles from drum and bass to downtempo.

After releasing its second full-length album, “Scorpio Rising,” Thunderball collided with Mr. Horvath and forged a new musical direction that utilized the latter’s dance floor sensibilities. They called this new venture Fort Knox Five and, with the approval of their ESL family, started their own label to retain full control of the project.

Fort Knox, both crew and imprint, made moves with this year’s “The New Gold Standard,” a compilation laced with hip-hop and reggae vibes and doused with funk as thick as Mr. Horvath’s massive Afro.

Mr. Horvath explains that while Thunderball wanted to stay with ESL, “Fort Knox was our way of releasing stuff that fell in the middle — stuff that wasn’t necessarily loungey and downtempo or cinematic and bangin’. We saw [hometown indie labels] ESL and Dischord and the whole D.I.Y. aspect and thought we could do it, too.” Thus, the musicians became a two-headed electronic music beast with one foot squarely in ESL’s well-charted territory, and the other marching into unknown realms. As a result, their music now covers more ground, both sonically and physically.

“When a song is being created now,” Mr. Myers says, “it’s allowed to go as far as it needs based on its own merit.” In other words, they don’t categorize a track as Thunderball or Fort Knox Five until it’s fully evolved.

Touring both concepts — in addition to Mr. Myers’ continuing to travel and record with Thievery — has allowed for cross-promotional opportunities. The bigger one group gets, the more notoriety they all get.

“The four of us are like soldiers pushing boundaries with all of us at different angles,” Mr. Horvath explains. “It’s four people spreading the message.”

One notable convert so far is Mr. Bambaataa, who appears on both the latest Fort Knox Five and Thunderball recordings thanks to a “Wayne’s World”-esque string of events — mostly Mr. Horvath intercepting the hip-hop luminary at a D.C. record store, introducing himself and promptly handing over a stack of discs.

“Fifteen minutes later my phone rings,” recalls Mr. Horvath. “Bam’s like, ‘What am I listening to?’ ” The conversation ultimately resulted in studio time where all parties involved developed new material and “Bam” provided some serious inspiration.

“He’s been doing this for 25 to 30 years … pushing the boundaries of music, and he still listens to everything that people give him,” Mr. Horvath gushes. “To see somebody who’s so open-minded about music and who’s been doing it for so long is just so exciting for us.”

While visiting Mr. Bambaataa’s label, Tommy Boy, the gentlemen also got a taste of where they didn’t want to go: a major label.

“They tried to tell us what to do,” Mr. Horvath remembers. “They wanted us to do a song about cell phones, telling us what a huge market there was for it.” Smiling and chucking while reminiscing about the story, the artists are obviously happier being big fish in Washington’s small recording industry sea, where they can still easily leap anywhere in the world for a gig.

“Because there’s not a pressure or an L.A. chain of events that you have to follow to become a musician here [in Washington], we make our own rules,” Mr. Raskin explains. “But we understand that our bigger markets are actually outside of D.C.”

“There’s lots of places we’d like to be,” Mr. Myers adds, “but this is the place we call home.”

To show their love and help celebrate ESL’s 10-year anniversary, Fort Knox Five and Thunderball (accompanied by MC Mustafa Akbar and percussionist Rex Riddem) will perform tomorrow at the Rock & Roll Hotel on H Street in Northeast, along with ESL label-mate Ursula 1000. Doors open at 9 p.m.

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