Thievery Corp.’s Rob Garza Discusses SF Move, Showcase

One half of world-electronic music duo Thievery Corporation and co-founder of the ESL Music record label, Rob Garza has deep roots in the music industry. Find him DJ’ing at two events in the Bay Area this week as part of an ESL Music showcase.

As Washington, DC-based recording artist and DJ duo Thievery Corporation grew in the mid-nineties, band members Rob Garza and Eric Hilton created the ESL Music label, named after their venue Eighteenth Street Lounge in downtown DC. With Rob now spending time in both Washington and San Francisco, the label has unofficially made SF its second home. Thievery Corporation will release its seventh album, Culture of Fear, on ESL Music this June. Don’t miss Rob Garza alongside Ancient Astronauts and Afrolicious this Wednesday at the New Parish in Oakland and on Friday at Public Works in San Francisco.

What led to ESL Music branching out from Washington to San Francisco?

Rob Garza (RG): I moved [to SF] about a year ago. I’m based out of here and just enjoy being in the city. It’s a great place and very artistic. We decided to put a little showcase, “ESL Music Presents” because we have Ancient Astronauts coming out here.

So you just moved out here to get a different vibe?

I actually moved out here and had a kid. My lady’s from out here. Just kind of changing it up and checking out the west coast.

Do you see any similarities between DC and SF?

It’s definitely similarities in terms of size. San Francisco has been the one market where we have had the biggest audience in the United States. I think that there is a similarity in terms of people being into under the radar music and sensibilities and things like that. It’s a place where, as Thievery Corporation, I’ve always felt like it’s kind of a second home. I would say the only difference is that you have a lot more of an artistic, creative bent out here whereas in DC it’s very centered around politics. The music and art scene is great, but it’s not as prevalent as it is out here.

You guys are pretty big in the restaurant scene in DC (Eric Hilton owns popular restaurant Marvin). Do you have any favorites in San Francisco?

I definitely love whether it’s down and dirty tacos in the Mission to things like the Slanted Door over in Embarcadero; that’s a great one. It seems like there’s so much food from all parts of the spectrum . I’m still discovering places; you have so many great spots.

You have traveled throughout the world and have played with amazing artists, are there any specific shows that are most memorable?

Well, there’s certain places that we play, in particular the cities like Athens or Lisbon, where there has been so much love for Thievery from the beginning. Sometimes we play in these really grandiose settings. For instance, we played in Greece with close to 10,000 people in this old ancient amphitheater. Stuff like that really blows you away in terms of history and the power of the audience and how they’re into it. You can really feed off that.

When you’re performing, in whatever form, when you look out in the crowd what do you look for?

You don’t really look for anything; just kind of soak it in. When you make the music, you really have no idea how it’s gonna affect people because we’re just two guys in a studio coming up with music and songs. We’re cut off from the rest of the world. It’s fun to go places a few months later and realize that you have all these people who love the music or have had some experience with singing along with it. It’s just incredible; it’s really amazing to see.

How many instruments can you play?

RG: I can pick up a lot of different instruments and make a lot of noise, but I’m not great at any particular one. You know, I can sit there and come up with stuff on the guitar or keyboards or bass, and the same with Eric. Neither one of us is really a bass player, or guitar player, or something like that. I think where our strength lies is being in a studio and just being able to pick up different instruments and coming up with ideas.

What are your thoughts on Thievery Corporation ever scoring a film?

RG: You know we’ve entertained that idea every now and then but I think in the end we’re like “we’re going to put all this energy into creating, let’s just do our own records.” For us, being an independent label, it’s kind of difficult for us to start working with major labels, having them tell us what to do and what they like.

We’ve done some things in the past for commercials, and it usually winds up just being a big pain because you think it’s only going to take a little amount of time and it usually winds up taking three times as much, with a lot of back and forth. I don’t know if it’s really our thing.

ESL Music has almost hit 200 releases, are there any particular ones that you would say are “must haves” from that collection?

Well yeah, there’s a lot of records that we’re nostalgic about. I think if you go back to the early ones, in particular. For me, they are the most “must have” because they’re hard to get. At the time, we didn’t really know what we were doing. We were making a label just because nobody else wanted to put out our music so we figured we’d do it ourselves. So some of those pieces, especially if you can find them — like the first 12” Thievery, we only pressed 1,000 of them. Every now and then I’ll see them, and it takes me right back to like 1997.

You have artists from all over the world on the label and I’m sure you have artists coming to you who want to be on the label. What makes an ESL Music artist?

I think the music is very eclectic, it’s not really mainstream, it’s kind of cutting edge, and it explores, in some ways, electronic music but has organic sensibilities. You can find different artists exploring all of those things, whether it’s Nickodemus or Federico Aubele or Ancient Astronauts or Ursula 1000 or Thievery Corporation.

Are there any records you can’t stop listening to right now or have been listening to a lot lately?

I’ve been traveling so much and just kind of working on this new Thievery album, which comes out in June, that I haven’t really been listening to so much other music. We’re trying to get things out to pressing and mastering in the next week or so. That’s where my head’s been.

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Thievery Corporation – Culture of Fear Teaser

Before you play a show do you do anything specific to prepare for it?

Well we all get together, usually about twelve or thirteen of us, and we all kind of just put our hands in a circle and do a chant to Jah Rastafarian, Thievery Corporation. It’s a little ritual we have from way back in the day when we first started. It just gets everyone on the same page before we take the stage.

ESL Music Showcase ft. Rob Garza, Ancient Astronauts, and Afrolicious

Wednesday, March 30, 9pm @ The New Parish in Oakland, CA

Friday, April 1, 10pm @ Public Works in San Francisco, CA