Thievery Corporation: Masters of Chill

saudadeFor SF WEEKLY: The DJ collective Thievery Corporation has spent the past 20 years making music that feels like an around-the-world audio travelogue: they borrow heavily from the sounds of South America (Bossa Nova), the Caribbean (reggae and Dub), and South Asia (Indian classical music) and then aim to modernize them by mixing it all together with electronics, live instruments, and a vast assortment of singers and rappers.

The result is a typically laid-back cocktail of sound that functions well as background music in a swanky bar or coffee shop but also has the ability to come front and center when performed live by a dozen or more musicians, which they did last night at the Fox Theater in Oakland. The group, currently touring, released their ninth full-length album, Saudade, earlier this year.

Last night’s show delivered in many ways. Band members, full of enthusiasm, danced and jumped around the stage when the music became more upbeat and lively during moments of quick-tempo reggae and hip-hop. Live, the music is obviously much louder and vibrant than on recordings, so heavy bass reverberated and echoed throughout the Fox. Combined with a complex light show, the show aimed for elements of psychedelia. The crowd obviously signed up for this immersive, blanket of acoustic and electronic sounds: fans throughout the theater danced and swayed for the duration of the show.

The band performed songs from their full catalog, ranging back to earlier, jazzy club songs from the late-90s up through more pop-inflected songs from the mid-2000s, and selections from more recent albums, “Culture of Fear” and “Retaliation” which have overtly political album titles, song titles, and lyrics.

“We love conspiracy theories,” said Rob Garza, 44, who formed Thievery Corporation in 1995 with partner Eric Hilton. “We spend a lot of time looking under the rug, at the militarization of the police force, the constant state of surveillance of citizens.”

Though it may not be clearly evident by their musical tastes, Garza says the two were influenced by the punk movement in Washington, D.C., their hometown. The DIY ethos of Fugazi’s Dischord Records inspired them initially to release their music independently. Garza is a spokesman for the World Food Programme.

The softer, quieter, downtempo elements of the group’s music enable it to become a backdrop, and The Fox Theater show certainly had its lulls, although true fans no doubt crave these moments just as much as the more excitable ones. On Thievery Corporation’s audio journeys, ample time is provided to simply chill. Their live performances, with roughly a dozen musicians onstage, have come a long way. Garza and Hilton, in their early shows, would show up with a CD of instrumentals, and sit down and play cards. “We didn’t pretend we were doing anything,” Garza says.

The new album, Saudade, released earlier this year, dropped the politics of the previous two records and focuses entirely on Bossa Nova. It’s music for the beach. “We just thought, let’s just do a whole album about this music that was so inspirational for us. It’s nice to make a record having nothing to do with politics, just to take a breath and make some nice music. It’s very feminine.”

Since Thievery Corporation started, EDM has taken off in a huge way and artists like Skrillex can bring in hefty paychecks for just one gig. The electronic music genre has expanded into the mainstream. “When we started, there was a whole scene of electronic music in 99, but it never really did break out,” Garza says. “With this whole EDM craze, hopefully people will go back an explore Dub, early house, and techno.”

Thievery Corporation performed with guests BoomBox Thursday at the Fox Theater in Oakland.
Album cover courtesy of Thievery Corporation.

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