Rob Garza of Thievery Corporation on the Orchestral Reimaginations of ‘Symphonik’

As individuals all over the globe withdraw to the recesses of their homes amidst the COVID-19 pandemic, they find themselves, in a way, more connected to one another than before. After all, we’re all in this together, each of us subject to the whims of nature, united as citizens of the world. With only virtual means of interaction, a FaceTime call to another continent is no more difficult than one to a next door neighbor. Suddenly, the playing field has been dramatically leveled. The free exchange of ideas across seas and borders calls for a musical mashup — sitars and tablas, bongos and congas, two turntables and a microphone. The colorful sounds mesh into a luscious harmony that invites and immerses you with its universal pull. This is the sound of Thievery Corporation

Rob Garza and Eric Hilton joined forces in 1995 at Washington D.C.’s Eighteenth Street Lounge, and built a palette from the disparate sounds that made their way into the city. Drawing heavily from dub and bossa nova, the duo crafted electronic cuts that absorbed and radiated, attracting music lovers from distant ends of the earth to commingle on a lofty, cosmopolitan dancefloor. Eastern and Western classical music, and everything from reggae to acid jazz made its way into the mix, as a rotating cast of characters lent vocals to the tunes in English, Spanish, French, Italian, Hindi, and other tongues. By 2004’s game-changing “The Richest Man in Babylon, Garza and Hilton had enlisted the likes of David Byrne and the Flaming Lips’ Wayne Coyne. By 2008’s “Radio Retaliation,” they had effectively harnessed their global reach for progressive political change. 

In 2017, Thievery Corporation played the Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts, in collaboration with composer-in-residence Mason Bates. In a show like none before, they arranged their music to be played with a full symphonic orchestra. Songs spanning their whole career were reimagined bigger and bolder. The concert was so impressive that it inspired the duo to undertake a studio recreation. Their latest album, “Symphonik,” recorded with Prague’s FILMHarmonic Orchestra reimagines eleven songs from Thievery’s quarter century-long career, breathing new life into classic songs, and putting exciting new spins on a cherished sound. Rob Garza spoke with Entertainment Voice to discuss the project.

“Symphonik” reworks songs from your back catalogue with orchestral aid, taking inspiration from your concert with Prague’s FILMharmonic Orchestra. From the album’s first track, “Heaven’s Gonna Burn Your Eyes,” the band sounds triumphant and magnified, as if picking up on and reflecting back energy from the crowd in a massive stadium. Tell us about how that concert inspired and shaped the sounds of the project.

Well, basically this is something that we did with Mason Bates, and we did it at the Kennedy Center, which was pretty wild. Mason is a Grammy-award-winning composer and arranger. When I was a kid, I used to go to Kennedy Center all the time in D.C., so to hear these songs done in a way with an orchestra was just mind-blowing, and to be on that stage was something that, to a kid, I could only dream of, and to see it all come together was really a dream come true. So all the inspiration came from there, and then, working with the FILMharmonic Orchestra, putting it all together, it’s a really beautiful way of reinterpreting the songs.

It can be the tiniest choices of instrumentation that make the biggest difference in the new renditions, for instance the use of a harp in the beginning of “Until the Morning.” What was your general process in designing the new arrangements, and what are some particular directions you took that stand out to you?  

Well, a lot of the ideas of where to take these musically, for doing them with an orchestra, came from Mason. We have to give him a lot of credit there. We’ve never written for that many people (laughs). It’s myself and Eric sitting with instruments and maybe a singer or a couple bandmates or something like that, and we’ll come up with stuff, but we’ve never done anything like that, in terms of arranging or conceptualizing music for that many musicians. So Nathan really sort of started the whole thing going, in terms of all the different parts and everything. We went back and forth on a few things, but a lot of the times, he just nailed it right out of the box, and it was just so beautiful to hear the way that he thought of these songs that we’ve lived with for the past decades. 

With “Symphonik” being an orchestral reimagining, tell us a little about specific composers who influenced the new versions, as well as the composers who you collaborated with for the new songs?

There’s a string arranger that I love, and I know Eric does too. His name was Claus Ogerman and he recorded with everybody from the Drifters, one of those rock ‘n’ roll bands back in the fifties, and Frank Sinatra, and Antonio Carlos Jobin, a lot of different artists. I think that’s something we’ve alway tried to put in our music — strings and pads. It really kind of gives everything this nocturnal feeling, and that’s a sound that we really wanted to have as part of this whole album. That was one of the biggest influences because we love a lot of old records with string arrangements. 

You and Eric have now been performing together for a quarter of a century, and you’ve managed to keep your largely downtempo sound fresh. How did you do it, and how do you view the latest album in your artistic trajectory? 

Well, you know, when we started, I remember being in London probably around ‘97 or so, and people were saying, “Downtempo is already done. It’s finished, mate. Drum and bass is the new soul music,” and things like that. So they were already kind of writing off downtempo back in ‘96, and here we are, twenty-five years after me and Eric started making this music. And I think it’s just really about dedicating yourself to your own sound and your own craft, and whatever that happens to be, if you really put the time and effort and the attention to detail, I think that it doesn’t matter what style or genre you do. There’s always room for different sounds and things like that. And I think a lot of our ability to have a career this long is the fact that we are very curious and interested in so many forms of music, and we take our influences and bring them into what we’re doing. Hence you’ll hear music from Brazil, from Jamaica, from East India, from different time periods. You’ll hear things like space rock or, you know, kind of psychedelic things. And that all gets mixed together, and I think that keeps it fresh for us.

It’s nice to kind of have a look back in the rearview mirror of what we’ve done over the years, but also do it in a way that puts a different spin to what we’ve done, and really complements the beauty of these tracks. These are deep electronic songs. They’re very soulful, and there’s a lot of room for the beauty to breathe, within specifically a genre like downtempo, and that really accentuates the lushness of all this instrumentation that you hear on “Symphonik.”

It seems like the orchestra allows you to magnify everything. For instance, the original “Ghetto Matrix” from “The Temple of I & I” begins with simple, swelling strings, but the new version fades in with an ornate, chaotic, cinematic beginning. Did you set out specifically to improve on older songs?

I don’t think that we set out to make things better necessarily. I mean we always want our music to be better, but that’s not what we were thinking in terms of this project. These are just giving different forms of expression to these songs. We were very influenced, when we first met back in the mid ‘90s, by soundtrack recordings. There would be a lot of different movies that were forgotten, that just had these really great soundtracks. When you hear something like “Ghetto Matrix,” it hearkens back to those albums, sort of mid ‘70s. People didn’t have samplers and things like that back then, so they brought in orchestras, and sometimes this sort of real trippiness from a symphonic orchestra, which I’m a big fan of.

Out of the eleven songs redone on the album, which do you think demonstrates the greatest departure or evolution from the original, and how did this come to be? 

Hmm… that is a good question. You know, I don’t really think of them as departures. I think of them as maybe just more of journeys or whatever, but my favorite at the moment is “Sweet Tides.” A lot of the songs on all of our albums, different ones are our favorite at different times, so it’s hard to just pin one down as my absolute favorite.

Lock down and quarantine regulations have brought a lot of music productions to a standstill, but your origins performing as a DJ duo suggest that you might be able to manage, even if stripped of the large ensembles present in performance like those on our latest record. How do you write and perform in a time like this?

Well, for me, it’s nice to have a break of not being on the road, so I am writing a lot these days. Performing is going to take a pause, and we’ll see what it looks like coming back. We decided to take the year off of 2020 anyway. It’s our first time in our career when we said we’re not going to tour, so it just so happened that this all went down the way that it did. We were just planning on getting back into performing back in 2021, so right now it’s just about being creative, and there’s a lot of sketches me and Eric are working on right now, so hopefully we’ll get together in the studio soon. I know we’re going to have a lot of ideas.

“Lebanese Blonde” seems a clear choice for a single, as it exemplifies your cosmopolitan sound with its sitar, world percussion, and horn section. The new version, however, is more faithful to the original than most other new songs, although sharper and more dynamic. What was your intention in releasing it as a single? 

I feel like it’s a favorite of ours and of our audience. And, (laughs) I really love strings in it. There is a sort of a little flair in there that I really dig, and it’s a nice introduction to the record.

The trend toward minimalism in music has some disturbing implications. If one traced from the complexity of jazz to the relative simplicity of rock ‘n’ roll, on through the primitive nature of hip-hop, one might expect music to devolve into just banging and grunting. Having turned to the largely forgotten richness of orchestral stylings for your latest record, how important do you think it is to preserve classical music?

I think it’s very important to preserve classical music, and in terms of things becoming more primitive or more basic or minimal —whatever we want to say in terms of the way we express ourselves through sound — I think that people have always kind of looked that way. You know, when rock ‘n’ roll came about, people were like “Oh, this isn’t real music.” When punk rock came, “This isn’t real music.” When hip-hop came,“This isn’t real music.” But you know, I think when it comes to these styles or genres, it’s more about an ebb and flow. And if there’s something that people can really hang on to, whether musically, melodically, or an idea, these things can express themselves in so many different ways. You can take any different types of these forms and find a way to express them symphonically or electronically or organically. So I think it’s about basic, inherent ideas and musical expressions within these things that sometimes, in a way, feel primitive, but they have so much potential inside of them, whether it’s punk rock or hip-hop or whatever.

Rather ironically, social distancing is making people from across the globe interact more than before as when limited to online interactions, as it is practically as easy to connect with someone in another continent as someone next door. As a band that has always crossed sonic borders, do you see greater connection, both musical and social, eventually arising from this pandemic? 

Yeah, that’s an interesting question because I’ve done a few online things, and I feel people are more connected and interested now because we’re sort of forced to be in our spaces and only connecting, in a lot of ways, online. I think that it gives so many opportunities for people to connect in all these different ways. Our music has been truly “outernational,” as we like to say, and it transcends any one place, and so, we feel a lot of love coming from all different parts of the world right now. It’s pretty wild. 

You’re known for your progressive political stances. For instance, you participated in the 2005 Operation Ceasefire concert to end the Iraq War, and protested such measures as the suspension of habeas corpus on the especially political “Radio Retaliation.” With speculation about some governments using the COVID-19 pandemic as an excuse to misuse power, what message would you like put out there? 

Yeah, I think there’s huge potential for the government to basically take advantage of the situation and use this as an excuse for more surveillance and to take away people’s rights. I think it’s important that all of us, as citizens, just keep an eye on the bigger picture and look at what’s happening with our governments. And when this ends, I think maybe we’re going to have to demand more of our rights because people will be trying to take them away.

When the returns to normal, do you plan to play the new arrangements, the old ones, or something altogether different on tour?

Well, we’re going to be coming back in 2021. I think we’re going to do a mix of both. You’re going to see the old school Thievery show that we all know. There may be some new stuff that we’re working on at the moment. But also, we might do some things in some art center with some orchestras, and people will get to experience these in the full symphonic experience. So it’ll be a combination.  

Symphonik” is available April 3 on Apple Music.