Photo by Lionel Deluy
Having spent more than two decades in the music industry, Rob Garza has mastered the winter escape. Ahead of the release of his solo EP Palace of Mirrors, the influential co-founder of Thievery Corporation relocated to the heady confines of Jamaica for the latter part of February. The sunshine is sure to help Garza recharge as he preps for solo sets and the 2015 festival season, but it also serves as home base for the first writing and recording sessions behind Thievery Corporation’s forthcoming eighth full-length effort. Even in paradise, downtime comes at a premium, but Garza doesn’t stress. The Bay Area transplant cherishes his unique role introducing longtime fans to more contemporary electronic soundscapes. These sets place Garza in much more intimate settings, yet the DJ/producer’s studio work still evolves from similar global partnerships that helped shape Thievery Corporation’s signature vibes.
To steal a line from Garza: “It is really fun to go and play and see people really get out of their own mental space.” We spoke with the producer about his transition back into the club and how even festival EDM can effect change among young people.
Since its inception, Thievery Corporation has been strongly associated with Washington D.C. What spurred your relocation to the Bay Area?
I have been in San Francisco for close to six years now. I moved right before my son was born and really just enjoyed being out here. It is a vibrant scene, and almost any night of the week you can find something pretty good. People are really open-minded. The quality of life is really great, and there is still a quality art scene no matter what some people might say.
Is your son already picking up some of his dad’s skills?
Yeah, he is four and a half now. He loves to come down to the studio with me and just hang out and play with the various synthesizers and CDJs and things like that.
Since the relocation, have you started taking more solo bookings?
Well, I moved out there, and all of a sudden, I started getting lots of offers to DJ. I hadn’t really [spun] in a little while … but the interesting thing is that I actually own a couple spots down in Playa Del Carmen, Mexico, and we have had a lot of DJs come through over the years. At that time, I was just getting into electronic music again. Thievery over the years had become fascinated with a lot of organic sounds and organic ways of recording, but if you look back to where I started, my roots are very electronic. I started getting this passion again for electronic music, and then when I would be DJing, I would start incorporating more modern sounds and tracks that I love. I see it as a new phase of what I love to do beyond Thievery Corporation.
I noticed that you are actually doing some double duty between the two projects. For instance, you have both TC and solo sets during Wakarusa. How do you balance the two?
I just look at it as music, and I love playing all different styles of music and listening to different types as well. I don’t consider it something that is difficult or conflicting. I see it as a shared love of making music.
Have you enjoyed being able to play some smaller rooms and more intimate venues?
I love traveling with the band, but when we go on the road, it is about 20 people. It is like a three-ring circus. A lot of time you get in this tour bubble, and you end up just relating with people in the band, and you don’t have much interaction with people outside of that. The thing about DJing, it is a way for me to connect with the sounds and music that I love, but it is also a way for me to travel by myself, playing in smaller places, and having a more intimate relationship with the audience. Some of the people might be Thievery fans, and they are not really so exposed to what is happening in the modern electronic realm. For me, it is very exciting to see an audience come out. Even though they might not know what to expect, in the end they are exposed to new forms of electronic music and really having a great time.
You have supported some very tech-focused artists like Deep Dish back in November. Are you finding that Thievery Corporation fans are showing up to support your new tunes and truly trusting your skills as a selector?
Well, that is one of the very unique positions that I have. People trust me after [I have] spent 20 years making music, so they allow me to be their Sherpa on this musical journey. Plus, there are a lot of people who have grown up and heard Thievery throughout the years that are also getting really into this deep house, nu-disco kind of scene … people’s sensibilities are changing all the time.
I was listening to a Skream interview a few days ago where he was discussing having to re-establish himself in house realms upon leaving dubstep. Did you experience similar growing pains when you were making that transition?
I was welcomed fairly warmly, but there is always that issue when you come from a group that has achieved a certain level of success. You will always be “Rob Garza from that band.” I look at artists that I love and people that we have worked with, like Perry Farrell, and people will still be like “Perry Farrell from Jane’s Addiction” or “that is David Byrne from the Talking Heads.” So, it is always hard to get away from that, and I am not sure that I do want to get totally away from that. It is still a big part of what I love, who I am, and what I still do to this day. It is all part of the story.
Just strolling through your SoundCloud feed, I see that you have done a fair bit of remixes and a few singles. What is the aim of the Rob Garza solo experience?
Right now, there is an EP coming out called Palace of Mirrors. It sits between deep- and tech-house, and it still includes, although I hate the term world music, some otherworldly music. There are some Indian sounds and influences, but there are also remixes by NADASTROM and Psychemagik. There’s also a couple tracks featuring a singer from Mumbai; her name is Vasuda Sharma. And there is another singer on there from Tenerife, Spain — his name is Sutja Gutiérrez.
It’s great that you continue to bring in those international flavors that Thievery was so known for.
Yeah, music isn’t a segregated thing. We live in a big world, and there are still so many sounds that fascinate me. Just because I am working on a more dance floor, electronic type of sound doesn’t mean these other sounds aren’t part of the full palette. They are all just musical colors that add to the mural.
Away from the larger Thievery Corporation outfit, how was the writing process for Palace of Mirrors different than your previous projects?
Thievery Corporation had all kinds of writing configurations. Sometimes it would be me and Eric [Hilton] together, and other times one of us might start it ourselves, so I am very used to coming up with ideas and playing around until I feel comfortable with them. There isn’t one particular template I follow when it comes to creating music. For me, this was fun. It was interesting to work with artists from around the world, just sending files back and forth and trying to get the tracks to a place where you are really happy with. So, the process was different in the sense that you don’t have that partner to turn to and say, “You think this sounds cool?”
Have you already played most of the new material during DJ gigs?
I have played a few of the tracks out, and the responses have been really great. I feel like it is already a success for myself because now I have a few new songs to add to my DJ sets [laughs].
That is definitely a plus in the DJ world: the ease of road-testing tracks on different sound systems every night and seeing that immediate reaction.
Another thing that is great about DJing is that people are really showing up to just have a great time and listen to some really low bass. It is a very different experience than playing a festival where there is an audience that is mainly interested in just watching the band and are staring straight at you. It is really fun to go and play and see people really get out of their own mental space and dance and really be into the moment.
Looking at your Facebook profile, you seem to be enjoying your time in Jamaica recording the next Thievery album.
Yeah, we are down here in Port Antonio, Jamaica. We have a couple of our touring musicians with us in the studio, and we have some sketches that we brought down, and we have some new material that we are picking. We are just tracking and getting a lot of cool source material. We will then go back and really get into editing and trip-out a lot of the recordings. I think this is probably the first step in the process of the next record; there will be a good mixing stage and there might be another recording stage also. This is just the beginning, but we already have some really great tracks and material so far.
The last Thievery Corporation album, Saudade, very much stayed within a particular style of music. Given the current social climate, do you envision more politically-charged messaging and social awareness in the new album?
That might happen. In the last album, we didn’t really touch on any of that because it was mainly focused on a bossa nova/jazz kind of sound. Those two types of things don’t necessarily fit so well together. I think with something that is more reggae/dub-influenced you will see more of that — that is just a very socially conscious form of music. Also, the last record was very feminine, and it just didn’t have that same spirit as the earlier, more charged albums.
The way Eric and I think about it, we have already been talking about a lot of this since September 11th. Now a lot of people are very aware of it themselves, so we don’t have to necessarily be the guys beating the drum anymore. So many people are aware of what is happening with police violence and drones and the economy. So, I definitely think it will have a place on the record. But how big, I am not sure yet. That just depends on the songs and where they take us.
As EDM sounds and club culture have grown across the festival landscape, have you noticed any shift in the broader social awareness within these festivals?
That’s tough. Things have become more escapist, but at the same time, just look at the outpouring when a kid gets shot by police, or even at the Oscars the other night. Young people are becoming more aware. I do believe these ideas of social justice are creeping in more and more. On the other side of that coin, there is a huge market for that “let’s forget everything and dance in foam” crowd. So, I really have no clue what will eventually win out. I think it is more about being aware; you can still enjoy yourself in whatever manner you choose to, but you can also be aware of what is happening. Take for example food and Monsanto: if you would have talked about that seven years ago, people would have been like, “You’re crazy, what are you talking about?” But now people are very aware of genetically modified food and what is happening. Those kinds of things are a good sign. Mainstream EDM is kind of like the “gateway drug.” After that, hopefully people will start digging deeper and really understand the roots of electronic dance music.
Plus, anytime you can get 20,000 young people in a confined area and start organically spreading some good, you can get people to want to take action without forcing it upon them. I think the same can be said about social media — the platforms aren’t positive or negative. It is how they are being utilized.
Yeah, I definitely think it can be a powerful tool. I think how people choose to use it is a big question. I hope people continue to use it in a way that promotes and effects social responsibility.
On the subject of festivals and responsibility, do you plan on making the trek to Burning Man again this year?
This will be my fifth year. For me, this is one of the most profound events on the planet. People come together, create art, and for me there is nothing else like it.
I feel that the team there has responded very well to the gentrification of Burning Man and all the privileged camps.
One of the things is that, if you take the one-percenters who come into Burning Man, they are still such a small percentage of that community that I hope the majority of the people of Burning Man will have an impact on those people that experience it that way rather than the other way around. I still think that the core values and spirit of Burning Man are very powerful. That spirit will have more power than that of the super-materialistic people coming in.
I am hoping to make the trip to Burning Man for the first time this year. Any advice for the first-timer?
This is very much like giving advice to someone before they take a psychedelic for the first time: be open-minded, relax, and enjoy.
Palace of Mirrors is out now via Garza’s Magnetic Moon imprint. Next week on The Drop, we get backstage with Datsik’s recent Firepower Records tour to discuss the evolution of electronic music in the digital era.