Thievery Corporation's fourth album, The Cosmic Game, finds the duo of Rob Garza and Eric Hilton in their most expansive mood yet, as their latest sonic exploration blurs the boundaries between rock, breaks, future-bossa, dub, and other mind-altering sounds. When dropped, The Cosmic Game is a psychotropic, aural concoction, which clearly opens a new dimension in the ever-evolving Thievery odyssey.
"When we finally got down to recording this album, we talked a lot about expressing more elements of our personal growth in our music. We also talked a lot about psychedelics and new ways of viewing reality and how they obviously affected music in eras past. During the months of recording, we spent a lot of time reading favorite authors and discussing 'so-called' conspiracy theories. I think this is fairly clear from the lyrics ," says Garza.
Certainly, a wide-ranging spectrum of sounds and subject matter lies at the center of The Cosmic Game, and Garza and Hilton have displayed even deeper musical sensibilities than their previous albums foreshadowed. After the warm minimalism of Sounds from the Thievery Hi-fi, Garza and Hilton raised the production value significantly with the highly acclaimed Mirror Conspiracy, which contained the seminal international hit "Lebanese Blonde." The next Corporate offering was the conscious and thought-provoking The Richest Man in Babylon, which easily distanced itself from the ever-growing crop of soulless 'chill out' compilations which had begun flooding the shop bins.
Having expanded on the sound of their last LP, The Richest Man in Babylon, Garza and Hilton have further crossed the sonic boundaries with forays into rock and psychedelia that are fused with their signature dub and tripped-out sound with collaborations with rock legends Perry Farrell, The Flaming Lips and David Byrne.
As well as the high profile collaborations, Eric and Rob have assembled a diverse cast of dancehall toasters, Brazilian percussionists and smoky-voiced chanteuses to create The Cosmic Game. This time, the downbeat revolution may not only get televised, it might get actual airplay. Which would be a long time coming for Garza and Hilton, After selling more than a million units independently on their own label, (ESL Music), touring around in all continents, and writing remixing, producing, deejayng, the corporation is fully realizing their sound.
Ironically, Thievery Corporation formed in Washington D.C., a city the duo often refer to as 'the real Babylon." One major by-product of life in the heart of empire is the diversity of the people it attracts to its riches. Underneath the power brokering, DC has quietly spawned a sophisticated musical multi-culturalism (especially in the Adams Morgan and Dupont Circle neighborhoods that became TC's home). The city also gave a base to Dischord Records and Positive Force, a scene whose fierce independence, musically and politically, forcibly affected every nearby young musician with a non-mainstream pulse.
Hilton grew up in suburban Maryland, playing guitar under the influence of punk and all it ushered in -- first rocking around with a pre-teen garage band, then warmed by the glow of the District's hardcore revolutionaries, Minor Threat. "I think Rob and I both followed those early releases on 7" vinyl only and we never forgot that this little Indy label called Dischord, run by the band members sent shockwaves around the globe. I still get a little idol-stuck when I see one of the Fugazi guys in the neighborhood."
After cutting his teeth on DC and UK punk, Hilton was sonically liberated by UK two-tone crews such as the Specials and Brit-soul sides such as the Style Council. After checking the references of those bands, he was turned on by the roots and soul music of Jamaica and America. Hilton's first deejay gig was playing ska and Northern Soul as an opener for his friend's Mod band. Later, he asked to spin house music at DC's top super-club of the '80s, the Fifth Column. By the early 90's he helped throw a warehouse weekly called Exodus, where Hilton tapped a young deejay Dubfire (now, half of the house music duo DeepDish) to spin a multi-culti mix of hip-hop, soul jazz, dancehall and dub.
Rob Garza's youthful existence (mostly in suburban Maryland as well, but also Connecticut and his mother's hometown of Juarez, Mexico) involved digging into his parents' collection of knowingly picked, adult classics - Henry Mancini, Sam Cooke, Johnny Cash, The Beatles - followed by immersion into the weirder shades of atmospheric rock (The Pixies, Hugo Largo) and the industrial side of life (Renegade Soundwave, Meat Beat Manifesto). By the end of high school, he was making beats in his own basement studio for unsigned rappers, while studying classical piano. A love-at-first-listen with bossa nova king Antonio Carlos Jobim was in his future.
Garza and Hilton finally met in the summer of 1995 at the now-infamous Eighteenth Street Lounge. As the myth goes, Eric and Rob bonded over strong drinks, dub, bossa nova and jazz records, then decided to see what would come of mixing all these in a recording studio. The duo caught the ears of underground deejays with their first two offerings, "2001 Spliff Odyssey" and "Shaolin Satellite". Who could have predicted that those two offerings and a subsequent LP, Sounds from the Thievery Hi-Fi, would define a new genre in electronic music, and connect with an international community of like-minded souls? Even as the terminology and lexicon has come and gone (trip-hop, downtempo, chill out, leftfield and other innocuous record industry monikers), Thievery Corporation have managed to defy the confines of category and creatively tap in to their deep appreciation for by-gone sounds as they deftly re-interpret them in their own innovative fashion.
"Our deepest source of inspiration comes from our record collections. On this album we wanted to make songs that sounded like they may have been recorded by some of our favorite artists from the past. We also wanted to explore that sort of late 60's Moog-ed out, paisley-beat sort of thing as well," says Garza.
This deep appreciation for sounds that have come before has never been more apparent on a Thievery disc. On the lead track of The Cosmic Game, "Marching the Hate Machines (Into the Sun)", Garza and Hilton, have teamed up with the Flaming Lips, to make something that sounds one part Thievery, one part Lips and one part Pink Floyd. As odd as that sounds, the combination of the lush keys, solid beats, groovy bassline and Wayne Coyne's lead vocal are quite evocative. Coyne clearly intones over this gorgeous ambient-pop opener, "Well, let's start by making it clear who is the enemy here". And on the rest of the album, the Corporation leaves but two options: to struggle or to reflect.
Aside from the extraordinary collaboration with the Lips, the Corporation's fighting spirit seems to arise from smoking of the I & I spirits: The up-tempo rocker "Warning Shots" with Sleepy Wonder's dancehall MC'ing and Gunjan's transcendental cooing, unites the musical traditions of East India and the West Indies. Jamerican singer extraordinaire Notch soulfully intones "Amerimacka", a parable about a lovely female whose "righteous robes are tattered and torn." All the while, the Corporation outfits him in a lilting, post-modern version lover's rock, 21st century style. The Sista Pat vehicle "Wires & Watchtowers" is a tight, taught electronic reggae stepper, reminiscent of Sly & Robbie productions where the dub warriors fight to stave off sonic Armageddon.
The combination of Perry Farrell's distinctive energy and Thievery Corporation's groove sensibilities is particularly noteworthy. On "The Revolution Solution," Perry Farrell sings, "The toil of the many goes to the fortunate few" over top eastern-inspired rock in one of the trippiest protest songs of late. And, after remixing one of David Byrne's tracks a few years back, Garza and Hilton have invited him for a full collaboration. On "The Heart's A Lonely Hunter", Byrne welcomes the listener to his metaphorical 'spaceship' over top of an infectious, Fela-inspired horn riffs.
Meanwhile, the Corporation's inwardly-reflective side bears the influences of the Indian and philosophic texts they'd been studying: Superstar vocalist Gunjan leads a trio of sitar-and-tablas-abetted tracks starting with ¯Shiva~ a hauntingly beautiful prayer to the Indian god. On "Doors of Perception" (Huxley's psychedelic insights set to music?) and "The Supreme Illusion" (Wei Wu Wei's objectivity of human experience?). Gunjan is beautifully haunting.
In classic Thievery instrumental style, "The Holographic Universe" combines 60's soundscapes and modern psychedelia to create a spacy flanger-funk. And the sun-splashed melody and huge rock drums of the title track are certainly destined for a cinematic debut. And before the last song lets you down easy, Lou Lou returns for the lovely, Bacharach-inspired "The Time We Lost Our Way."
All said, The Cosmic Game, is easily the finest Thievery Corporation moment to date; and that's saying a lot.