by kevin diamond

Saturday morning, I sat down and asked my cell phone some questions. Luckily for me, that cell phone was on speaker, and Thievery Corporation’s Eric Hilton was on the other line. Otherwise I would’ve looked real silly.

Eric talked about World Hunger, the mood in DC, and why hip hop isn’t good anymore, among other things. My apologies to Mr. Hilton for conducting the interview at 11 AM on a Saturday morning. He’d only been awake for 20 minutes, and I, not even that long. In fact, I don’t know about him, but I conducted the entire interview in my boxer shorts! Yeah, it’s best to try not to think about it. Read on.


Quiet Color: Your new album, Radio Retaliation comes out Tuesday. Obviously you’re excited, but what excites you the most about this album, as opposed to all the others?

Eric Hilton: I don’t know that it’s really any different, the feeling. Just the feeling of releasing an album is always a good one, always a lot of anticipation. I feel like this one has been promoted a little bit less by us and the label, but it’s perhaps a little bit better than our previous records, maybe we have a little bit more confidence in it, or maybe we’ve just done this so many times now, this is our fifth record, we’re a little less anxious about it. For me it hasn’t really sunk in that the record comes out on Tuesday. I haven’t even been thinking about it, which seems a little bit odd, but I’m all ready to record the next one.

QC: It’s interesting. David Byrne and Brian Eno just released a new album together, and didn’t do any press for it. Do you think this is something that is just gonna happen more and more as the internet becomes more prevalent in the promotion of an album?

EH: I don’t know, in a perfect world we would have done more press. It’s just that we wanted to get the album out this year, and because of lead times and so forth, we would have had to push the release date back to early January. I think, as an artist, if you have the option it’s tempting to do what we’re doing now, which is just sort of shotgun release it. Whether it’s a good idea or not really remains to be seen. We just wanted to share the music with our listeners as quickly as we could.

QC: So what is the music? Are there new sounds? Is there anything you’ve tried to do that you haven’t done in the past?

EH: The stable of guests on the record is somewhat different. we’ve tended to go for more well established world music artists: Seu Jorge, Femi Kuti, Anushka Shankar; whereas on Cosmic Game we worked with some fairly large and very large rock and roll names. I think this record is a little bit more up tempo, a little bit more musical than past records. I think maybe even a bit more eclectic. I mean our records are pretty eclectic in general, but I think this one is probably the most eclectic. I mean we have a song with Chuck Brown on it! I mean it almost seems like a bit of a stretch, but it seems to work pretty well.

QC: You’re from Washington, DC, which is well known for it’s hardcore scene. Do you see any parallels between what you’re doing now and what they were doing 20, 30 years ago?

EH: No, not really. I mean, I wish there was this scene today of any type of music in DC where it felt really important, but there really isn’t. That was a special time for music in DC and also activism through music. Minor Threat inspired the entire US punk movement, and Henry Rollins of course came out of DC, and everybody knew at that time, in New York or LA, that DC might have the most thriving punk scene in the entire country, which is pretty incredible for a small city. Cause we’re really small, we’re only like 600,000 people. And then they had this organization called Positive Force, which was a sort of activism movement associated with the punk movement. And when I was young, I remember positive force just bringing hundreds of people to sit in front of the South African embassy, and just bang drums and pots and pans and they did it for like two weeks. And right after that is when apartheid fell. And I’m not saying that they did it, but it was a pretty big deal in DC because the news was covering it, and people were like ‘wow, what’s going on here?’ So I’m sure it had a little bit to do with it. They really actually did things, and it’s quite impressive. I know this is a long answer but… I guess the only parallel is that we, with some other activists, organized Operation: Ceasefire a few years ago, and we had this big concert on the mall, and Cindy Sheehan and Jesse Jackson and all these great speakers were there. And that was like a pretty big show.

QC: Can you sense a change in DC, at times like this, when there’s a big election coming up? Is there some kind of a feeling in the city, that you can tell that something is gonna change?

EH: Oh yeah, I mean it’s like there’s a reset button in the city that’s about to get hit. A lot of people are gonna leave. A lot of new people are gonna come to the city. Definitely, there’s a lot of anticipation in the city. DC is about 95 percent democratic voters so you know, you just see Barack Obama signs everywhere. I feel a little bit of apprehension for peoples psyches here. Cause I think we live in a little bit of a bubble, and everyone is very excited, like, “OK, Barack Obama is going to win.” But I actually don’t think he will. People are probably in for some disappointment.

QC: Well, people should be used to that after the last couple of years.

EH: Yeah, you would think, but, you know, hope is hard to kill (laughs) which is probably a good thing.

QC: Speaking of hope… you’re working with the United Nations to bring attention to the global food shortage, is that right?

EH: Uh huh.

QC: And I guess my question is, do you feel like as an artist with a large audience, do you feel there’s an obligation to use that stage to bring attention to things that matter to you? Or do you see it as a personal choice?

EH: Yeah, I think obligation is a good word. I wouldn’t hold it against somebody who doesn’t do things like that. I just feel like its kind of a luxury, that people will actually listen to you. You do an interview, and people might read your words, and maybe it would provoke some thought. And if you take actions like endorsing the United Nations World Food Program, you know, taking trips to different places, like Sudan and Kenya, and do public service announcements, and donating portions of concerts, it might get people thinking about doing the same thing, maybe taking some of their resources and trying to help providing some emergency food relief, or help another organization. So it’s really just sort of an opportunity more than an obligation. We feel like it’s definitely a worthwhile thing to do.

QC: There would seem to be a lot of inherent limitations to technology-based and electronic based music in the live settings. How do you tackle these challenges?

EH: It definitely does. There are certain things you can’t reproduce live. Generally, we’ll strip out a track as much as is possible, we’ll strip out parts that we can play live and then, we travel with 6 singers, 2 horn players, guitar/sitar player, bass player, two percussionists, and then there’s myself and Rob [Garza], and we’ll generally do loops, beats, keyboards, and then everyone else does the rest, and it’s actually pretty live. It’s more live than not, which is a good thing, I think. That’s about as far as we can take it without sounding too live, you know? The appeal of our music is that it’s almost sculpted in the studio, and we really are producers, and that’s what we do, and that’s part of our sound, so you can’t just do it again live in a spontaneous moment. But the show does feel quite live, and it is.

QC: Are there other electronic artists who you look to as examples of well-crafted live shows

EH: Balkan Beat Box has a really good live show. I think the whole thing with electronic music show is it’s a tricky thing to do, and you have, like Daft Punk, for instance, and I’m pretty sure nothing they do is live. But they just bring this insane light show with them, so at least they make that effort, and that seems to work really well, cause people love their show, and really it’s just lights and they’re probably playing a track, you know? And Chemical Brothers use tons of video to supplement. It almost seems like you need to bring more technology when you’re an electronic artist just to make it happen. We don’t necessarily do that. MIA, she seems to have a pretty good live show. I mean her music is, no knock on her, but it’s fairly simple. I’ve never even heard a bass line in her music. So, basically, you just trigger beats, and I think she brings like dancers…

QC: And palm trees

EH: …It goes over really well.


QC: I wonder if you’ve noticed the growing influence of electronic music, on the hip-hop world? The use of vocoders and lead synthesizer lines, the sampling of classic 90s techno acts like Daft Punk and the like. Do you think this is a natural evolution of the hip hop genre?

EH: I guess so. I mean, for me, I’m kind of a fuddy-duddy when it comes to hip-hop, I kind of lost interest quit a while ago. I feel like musically it just got stifled, and I think it’s because sampling got shut down so much. I think guys just starting making tracks on workstations with the canned sounds in the workstations, and [it] didn’t sound that good to me. Of course there some people out there who manage to make some great hip hop tracks. I guess I haven’t really noticed, what artists are you talking about?

QC: Well, Kanye sampled Daft Punk, for example. And the use of vocoder on T-Pain songs, where it has almost a very, I would say, chilly effect that I guess I associate with electronic music in some way.

EH: I don’t know, I guess I have to plead ignorance, I haven’t really heard the songs.

QC: Fair enough. My last question, and we’ll wrap it up. Who’s an artist you really enjoy that you think fans of your music would be surprised to find you like?

EH: (without hesitation) Paul Weller. I’ve been a Jam/Style Council/Paul Weller fan life long, and he doesn’t have much to do with the music that we do. But that’ll be my answer on that one.


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