Washington's a city torn by identity and allegiance. As the epicenter of things like focus groups, filibusters and political hearings, it's more structurally American than the French-sculpted Lady Liberty. But outside capitol walls lies a living, breathing city, filled with Republicans, Democrats, Libertarians and those who care more that Constantine was voted off American Idol than which bill was voted off the Hill.
But to live there-to really live there-you can't help but be affected, even if you're a producer-DJ who has earned the right to just play records and chill out with your stylish fans.
"I'd say [it's affected us]," says Rob Garza, one half of the city's internationally renowned electronica duo, Thievery Corporation. "A lot of people say they would never want to live here now, with Bush in office. But it's funny, actually. About 95 percent of the people that live here don't like Bush, either. There's a tension here. I've found it in the other bands that are from here, too, who tend to also be very informed politically."
It's not surprising to find politically aware artists (even a cover band will take on "Masters of War" with authentic zeal), but it is atypical for Thievery Corporation's genre. Often called 21st-century lounge, they've been atop the DJ world ever since Kruder & Dorfmeister very publicly fell in love with the duo's mid-tempo beats that mix acid jazz, dub and trip-hop with world music. It's chill-out music, a music whose spiritual environment was once confined to rave recovery rooms, where political awareness ranked somewhere far, far below things like vibe, escapism and sensory awareness.
Yet to know Thievery Corporation's mind frame is to know the model set forth by another D.C. "company"-Dischord Records. Ian McKaye, owner of Dischord and the frontman for punk rock's ethical extremists, Fugazi has long been a hero of creative kids in D.C. who wanted to do it themselves. Through Dischord, Fugazi, while never a factor in Billboard charts, has managed one of the lengthiest, economically sustainable careers of any band that fully controls its own music. And almost every band signed to Dischord has a say in the business.
Garza and Hilton couldn't help but pay attention. They especially thought of Dischord when they were being courted by major labels in the late '90s
"Probably the best move we ever made was not signing to a major label," says Garza. "Dischord definitely was an influence. It was inspiring to see people just doing it themselves. Make a record, put it out, see if people like it.... It's something worth emulating. When we started it was that simple, and I'm glad that things have gone in this way. I'm glad to think that we don't have to play a certain kind of music industry game."
To avoid the game, Thievery Corporation formed ESL Records, named after Eighteenth Street Lounge, the dress-code-enforcing nightclub co-owned by Hilton. Just as San Diegans once flocked to Sombrero Mexican restaurant in Midway thinking they might run into members of blink-182, electronica fans have that same "they might be there" allure to the Lounge.
It's one way Garza and Hilton pay the bills. Another is getting paid big bucks to fly out and DJ in faraway places. Another is remixing the likes of David Byrne, Stereolab and Bebel Gilberto. Yet another form of income, as is now commonplace for electronica acts, is with commercials and TV shows (Dockers, Citibank, The Sopranos, ER).
"We had no idea at the beginning how that stuff worked, but [commercials are] part of what we do now," Garza explains. "It's liberating. It makes it possible financially to preserve the independence we have. Everyone has high values for their music, but it's a reality that you often have to give up control. That's definitely the only way to work with a major label. We like to be able to have control and this is always in our hands."
He adds, "We have some niche artists on ESL where licensing is a major source of income for them; it allows them to continue to make music. I think that's a good thing."
Now, however, Thievery Corporation is working the traditional way-a tour to support a new album. The Cosmic Game is another solid dub-heavy chillout record, with vocal cameos from the likes of Perry Ferrell, The Flaming Lips' Wayne Coyne and longtime collaborator David Byrne. A bulk of the collaborations, Garza explains, were done via e-mail and telephone. Except for The Flaming Lips, who don't seem to do anything in such a mundane manner.
"In the case of the Lips, we had met in Iceland and had a chance to hang out. They have this thing in concert where people go out into the audience in bear and frog costumes, so Kalani (our tour manager) and I got into those and jumped into the crowd. I was amazed at how many Icelandic women were happy to see us."
Thievery Corporation plays at 4th & B, 9 p.m. on May 5. $30. 619-231-4343.