Today, as I talk to Eric Hilton, he’s back in the studio at Winter Palace Studio in Georgetown, laying down some “beatless, ambient music” for a new project he plans to release next summer. But outside of recording, he’s been spending more time in his cabin in Potomac, Maryland, where he composed his newest album “Ceremony,” which will be released today on his label Montserrat House Music.
Solitude, silence and the sounds of nature have often been a successful formula for poets and philosophers. Where would Thoreau be without his favorite pond?
“Ceremony” is pretty Zen, with a drum-centered, meditative rhythm. Ambient and ritualistic, certain tracks feel grounded and earthy — the jazzy “Obscura,” the bouncy “Particles,” and especially the thrumming strings of “Hermitage.” But rather than calling to mind a peaceful walk in the woods, most of the songs look up to the cosmos.
David Bowie once asked “Is there life on Mars?”
Hilton’s “Ceremony” with its expansive mood, occasional sci-fi flourishes of unexpected electronic sounds in an otherwise acoustic score of soft snare drums and deep groove bass, and atmospheric melodies argues that the search is still on. “Forming Star” is a great example of the texture and mood of the album. Opening with soft piano and snare drums, space-age keyboard kicks in, and then rich layers of ambient, intergalactic sounds slowly build into the track, preparing the listener for liftoff. The spacey final track “Fade into Forever,” completes the journey into the unknown.
“Ceremony” is Hilton’s third full-length album following “Infinite Everywhere” (June 2020) and “The Impossible Silence” (November 2020), and the trio are his first solo works after 25 years and eight albums with Thievery Corporation. Three albums Hilton has composed, played almost all of the instruments on, and produced within a year is pretty impressive, especially in the last year.
Never at a loss
“When I sit down to write music, I don’t suffer writer’s block, maybe because I don’t generally have that much time to do it,” Hilton states. “If I were able to do it full time, maybe I would have a lot of writer’s block.”
In addition to his work as a musician, he is a restaurateur and club owner of many of the District’s hot spots with his brother Ian, with several of their new restaurants launching in the next few months.
Starting in the autumn of 2019, Hilton began sketching out and working on the concepts for the trio of new albums. While Thievery Corporation is a duo with a large collection of musical artists contributing their talents, as a dedicated engineer in the studio, Hilton finds he is more productive working alone.
“There’s something about the solitary nature of it that makes the music feel more special to me.”
Working from his cabin, he sketched out his musical ideas in GarageBand.
“It’s kind of like pre-painting: when you are a painter, you’re got your charcoal, and you do a really cool sketch on paper,” Hilton says. “And then you take it to a big studio and then you paint. I sketch, head to the studio, with proper instrumentation, and maybe get somebody better to play guitar. But I’ve learned that I can take things pretty far on my own, which is really great.”
After that process, he would move over to Winter Palace Studio for recording and remixing. Here, Hilton would play the drums, percussion, bass, keyboard, strings, and most of the other instrumentation, but also invite others — such as Josh Miller — to play guitar and the late Igor Garnier, who served as audio engineer for the three albums, to play piano.
Infinite Everywhere and the Bonsai Approach
The first of the three albums “Infinite Everywhere” is psychedelic — even with a vintage clip of a young woman telling of the joys of dropping acid. There are pensive downbeat tracks like “Expert Dreaming” and the hypnotic “Leaving the Hive,” with trance, reggae (the standout track “This Strange Daze” featuring longtime Thievery collaborator Puma Ptah), and trip hop inflections throughout. “Infinite Everywhere” charted in the Top 100 and higher in the US, Canada, Italy, and Spain upon its release for Apple Music, and #9 for Electronic music for Amazon.
This is even more impressive because of Hilton’s laissez-faire promotional strategy
While Thievery Corporation recently reunited for an electrifying performance for Event DC’s Summer Concert Series at Entertainment & Sports Arena in July and are planning a limited tour, Hilton is apprehensive that their performances may be cancelled due to the Delta variant of COVID-19. The evolving rules around social distancing, masking, and vaccinations vary from venue to venue and state to state, creating an uncertain environment for artists eager to hit the road again.
Though, the pandemic isn’t affecting his plans to promote his solo projects. He doesn’t plan to tour because he would rather compose than perform. And realizing how the pandemic has put everyone into survival mode with too many overwhelming distractions, Hilton trusts people will just find his newest works on their own.
“I have a different plan with this music,” Hilton says. “I feel it’s better if people just discover it over time. Thievery Corporation developed that way where, in the first few years, it was all just word-of-mouth. People discovered it for themselves. And I remember how sweet that was that nobody was really telling them how good it was. Thievery Corporation grew like a bonsai tree. Like it grew slowly, but it grew really strong. I have the same sort of promotion for my current albums.”
The Impossible Silence
The second album “The Impossible Silence” is a score for a film that only exists in the listener’s mind. With bossa nova sounds and francophone titles, the imagined soundtrack could score any favorite French new wave film from the Criterion collection.
The final track of “The Impossible Silence,” “La Nuit” features the beautiful voice of Elin Melgarejo, who performed several songs on Thievery Corporation’s bestselling 2014 album “Saudade.” Hilton used Google translate to compose the lyrics in French.
“Google Translate got me about 80% of the way there, and then I shared it with my friend Elin, who speaks fluent French,” Hilton says. “So she went through it with me and laughed a few times. So, you can’t trust Google Translate. But she co-wrote the lyrics with me in the end.”
To compose a score without a film, Hilton turned to his favorite film scores.
“[I like] really groovy, evocative soundtrack music that borders almost on the easy listening or even classical feel, but it’s rare and there is an ‘otherness’ to it that’s just special,” Hilton says. “I seek it out and it’s hard to find.”
Hilton even created a companion Spotify playlist “A Soundtrack for Silence” featuring vintage French pop and jazz.
To test the concept of his cinematic score, Hilton would play works-in-progress alongside favorite movie scenes.
“There’s a recent Italian movie called “The Great Beauty” set in modern day Rome and it’s just so beautifully made,” Hilton says. “There’s a scene where [the main character] remembers his first love, and I played a song with the scene and it was up to the [quality of the] scene.”
The Suitcase Method
With the release of “Ceremony,” Hilton will be back in the studio working on his next album.
“I’m working with three different engineers,” Hilton says. “I call it the suitcase method, where I basically would bring my laptop and files and just go to the studio and do different things in different places, which is kind of fun, too.”
He states that the upcoming project won’t be as “broody or meditative” as the last three albums, but that it’s written specifically for vocalists and that it will be “light and breezy.
“It just captures my ever-changing moods.”
Eric Hilton’s albums “Infinite Everywhere,” “The Impossible Silence,” and “Ceremony” are available to order on vinyl and available to purchase and stream on most online platforms.
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