Thievery Corporation's globalized downtempo sounds detoured into political territory a few years ago, starting with 2002's The Richest Man in Babylon, a mostly instrumental album with unsubtle song titles like "Liberation Front" and "State of the Union." Last year, they upped the rhetorical ante with The Cosmic Game, a psychedelic protest record on which collaborators like Perry Farrell and the Flaming Lips' Wayne Coyne sang of a "revolution solution" where we'd "[march] the hate machines into the sun."

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This was surprising, because Thievery Corporation are best known for atmospheric music that lends itself well to apolitical activities, like making love or smoking lots of pot. They've mined four solid albums of material from their signature combination of downtempo beats with all things global, from Iran to Jamaica and back, and labels have called on them to apply their enduring formula to remixes for everyone from Sarah McLachlan to Herb Alpert. (The latter are captured on the Versions compilation, released this May.) And although triphop has gone the way of Kozmo.com and $100,000-a-year dot-com jobs, Thievery have transcended the trend and maintained their broad appeal as if the hype never happened.

Their political turn was also not surprising, because Thievery's Eric Hilton and Rob Garza hail from Washington, D.C., the ultimate political town, where even homeless people bitch about Senate committee assignments. Already a multicultural town thanks to rotating embassy personnel, plus being host to an influential punk scene dating back to the '80s, D.C. is today in the midst of a cultural renaissance driven partially by dramatic government-spending increases for the war on terror.

"I've seen D.C. evolve from Sleepytown into the new Babylon," says Hilton of his childhood home. "It's on fire right now, but all the good things are happening because of lots of bad things. There are all these designer shops you never imagined would be here, lots of tricked-out restaurants, and all these lofts that the yuppies are buying in bohemian neighborhoods. But where is all that money coming from, and what does it represent? A lot of this is happening in part because of Homeland Security money."

While D.C. awoke from its cultural slumber, Garza and Hilton gradually awoke to political issues as they toured the world with their expansive live band. "When you travel, you see places you wouldn't normally see, and you start thinking in a different way," Hilton says. "It was natural for us to start making music that was a little more political."

Returning home, they did more than just turn those gun dollars into buttery soundscapes. Their Eighteenth Street Lounge label helped promote Operation Ceasefire, last September's massive rally and free concert where Thievery joined activist artists like Jello Biafra and MC5 cofounder Wayne Kramer to play for a crowd of more than 100,000 as part of a weekend-long protest organized by United for Peace and Justice.

In organizing the event, they encountered surprising apathy from mainstream artists who've turned to political music. "We tried to get lots of groups to come, and nobody wanted to," Hilton says. He admits that the level of anger among today's artists still doesn't match the explosive protests of the '60s. "If you watch old MC5 shows, they were lighting shit on fire, fighting with cops... it was a real powder keg."

They just don't protest like they used to. "Maybe it's because there's no draft," he says. "I don't know a single person in the military, I have relatives in their early 20s and they're not at risk. At least not now."

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Still, Operation Ceasefire was great exposure for those who did make the commitment. "It was the most amazing event I've ever been associated with," Hilton says. "A lot of artists missed out, but the ones that did play had the concert of their lives."

The event was a huge success, but Hilton is beginning to think that Thievery's political phase is waning. "[W]e're just frustrated right now. The last few years have been frustrating for a lot of people. We don't trust the vote anymore, we don't trust that the politicians care. I don't see us writing a lot of politically charged songs in the future." Not to say that he's given up on protest. "A lot of other people are saying what we've been saying, in lots of different ways. In the end, it still goes on."

editor@thestranger.com

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