It's hard to deny that Moby has had a weird career—going from a scrappy hardcore kid to a rave god to an inescapable musical presence to an Eminem punchline to, well, whatever it is that he is now—but the weirdest thing about it is probably that the most important decision Moby ever made had nothing to do with songwriting or production, or, in the strictest sense, with his music at all. When he licensed almost every track of his 1999 album Play for use in advertisements, it seemed revolutionary: the future of a stagnant industry, the fullest marriage of art and capitalism, the only smart thing a musician had ever done. And it worked, too. Moby didn't just get rich as fuck, he got famous, too, and for about eighteen months he, and Play's pleasant, textured, sample-heavy tunes, were unavoidable.
And then, in a process that is way not revolutionary, Moby became uncool. He was too mainstream for the rave kids who used to worship him; too techno for the crossover crowd; he sold records, but only, it was assumed, to dentists' offices and cat ladies, who liked the soothing sounds that had been featured on Pure Moods III. Play became an album it was slightly embarrassing to admit that you owned—too soft! Too easy! Too inoffensive! Too popular! And besides, Eminem hates him!
But that sort of missed the point. The fact is, Moby has never been cool. He's hung out with cool people, sure, and been a part of cool music scenes, but Moby himself, in all his short, bald, spiritual-Christian vegetarian glory, is just not cool. More importantly, he doesn't make cool music; in fact, he never has. People who pick up Play or Move or Moby looking for swagger or detachment or sex or any of the things that get coded as “cool” in music are going to be disappointed, because Moby, at his best, is about extreme, unselfish, asexual, sobbing-on-your-knees emotion. His best tracks (“Move (You Make Me Feel So Good),” “Next is the E,” “Porcelain”) are, to put it bluntly, corny, but they're transcendently corny, in a way that the current crop of nu-rave wannabes can only dream of being.
For that reason, it's unlikely that his new album Wait for Me (out on June 30 via Mute; pre-order it at Amazon) will salvage his reputation among the bitter and cynical. It's a tribute album more than anything else—a mix of nods to the post-punk and hardcore bands of his youth and the to ambient music he's been dabbling in throughout his career, and for those willing to go along with Moby's unabashed nostalgia and hushed reverence for the musicians and DJs he loves, the album is filled with small rewards: the lush cinematic strings that accompany the otherwise rickety Joy Division pastiche “Mistake”; the repeated piano figures in the album closer, “Isolate.” And yes, it is corny, if not quite as transcendently so as in the past. But anyone expecting anything else from a guy as weird as Moby probably hasn't been paying attention.
We got a chance to sit down with Moby in his NoLiTa apartment (it's the one with the Bad Brains sticker on the door and the analog synths hanging from the wall; really, you can't miss it)—if you haven't been paying attention, it might do you well to read on.
This is a full day for you, huh?
I've been making records for such a long time, and I've thousands of interviews in my life. And in general, when it's good, I like it. I don't really like phoners all that much, 'cause they tend to be a little stilted. Sometimes they're great. I don't know. Sometimes—the only time interviews can be rough is when you're stuck in a hotel room. 'Cause even if it's a nice hotel room it's just a sterile environment and it's airless and a lot of times you're talking—when you travel—you're talking either through a translator, or to someone where they don't have much command of the English language—which, of course, I respect everyone's right to not speak English. But it makes meaningful conversation kind of difficult. And when you're doing twelve in a row then, if I was a more enlightened person I'd probably be a lot more sanguine with the process. But this is nice; I'm in my studio; I've got a cup of tea.
It's like having friends over!
It's sort of like having friends over; it's like therapy—it's also, you put out a record, and because when I'm making the record I do pretty much everything myself, I have no objectivity. And so this—what's really interesting is putting out a record and having people give me their perspective on it: whether they like it, whether they don't like it, what are the recurring themes they see in it. Because I have no idea. During an interview earlier, someone was asking about the recurring violent themes in the record—and I had no idea what they were talking about, but when I thought about it, I was like, “oh, they're right.” So…
It's a good first indicator, before you even see the reviews—
Well, I don't read my own press at all. Because there's—no good can come from me looking at my own press. Because if it's bad I want to kill myself, and if it's good—which it rarely is—it just leads to—it can lead to arrogance; it can lead to self-importance. So it's like—Google sitting over there, beckoning me. And someone pointed out the blog section of Google, so I know it's there, it's just—I try not to use it.
I think that's smart—I mean, I get mad enough when somebody comments on my pieces online, and I have to remind myself that it's not for me to be out there defending myself on the internet.
And I've done that. I've done that, yeah, and it never works out. And I'm so—that's why I'd rather—I have three options. Either I read what's written about me and try to take an enlightened attitude and not get upset when people write scathing things. Or I read it and I get very upset and I try and defend myself, which is also not possible. Or I just try and ignore it. And for me, ignoring it is honestly the only—in the interest of self-preservation, the only option I have. Especially those comments. Because someone might write something nasty, and that's OK—but then you get to the comments, and it's like, these are complete strangers, and they're talking about having me disemboweled! I don't even know these people! Why do they hate me so much? What have I done to incur the wrath of these people who are bored at work sitting in front of the computer?
But I imagine you're also open to criticism from friends and other people you deal with—because even if you're not reading the press about you, you're still going to want to have some kind of feedback on your records.
Oh, yeah, because, again, I have no objectivity. And my perspective is just completely non-existent. And when I make a record, for better or worse, I'm the one writing the songs, and playing instruments, and engineering it, and producing it. So when I listen to the record, I can be blinded to the quality of the music by the production. Or vice versa. Or I can listen to a track and be focused on the kick drum. And not even hear the song—just be like, “Oh, I should've done a better job recording that kick drum,” or, “I did a good job recording that kick drum.” So it is nice to get outside perspective.
So when you say you have no objectivity, it's not always that you're in love with every record you make—it's more that you can't listen to it with the same ears that everybody else does.
Yeah. And it takes time to regain objectivity. Sometimes it takes me ten years to figure out whether I like a record or not.
Which means you're just now figuring out about Play.
Yeah, I still don't like it that much. I really—it's not one of my—if I look at the records I made it's not one of my favorites.
Ten million people disagree with you!
And I'm glad—I'm thrilled that they disagree with me. I listen to it; I'm like, “Yeah, it's OK. Seems a little obvious in places.”
What are your favorite records that you've made?
Well, this is why I'm one of the worst judges of my own music. Because my favorite record of all the records I've made was this album called Animal Rights that I made in 1996. No one else likes it. Of all the ones I've made, that's probably the only one I really go back to and listen to. And it sold nothing. And it got terrible reviews—I think Rolling Stone gave it one out of ten stars. But you know, it had three fans, and they were the weirdest—Terence Trent D'Arby wrote me a fan letter to say that he loved it, on Terence Trent D'Arby stationary. Bono, in a bar, told me that he liked it as much as the first Clash album. And Axl Rose told me that he listened to it on repeat. So the three of them liked it, and no one else! And the tour for that was the most depressing tour I've ever done, because the first part of the tour I was opening up for Soundgarden, and Soundgarden's audience just had no interest in me. And then I did my own tour, and my own audience had no interest in me. And we were playing tiny shows—averaging fifty to a hundred people a night. And the people who would show up—I remember we played at this place in Paris, this punk rock club-collective, the Balaklava? No, it was called the Arapajo—I forget. Maybe seventy-five people showed up, and by the end of the show there were twenty-five people there. It was just depressing. And it wasn't like I was twenty-one years old; I was thirty-two, thirty-three years old, thinking, “Really? I don't have a career.” If it wasn't for Daniel Miller, I'd be working at Kinkos. Not that there's anything wrong with working at Kinkos; I'm all for—potheads need to have a job too.
It's interesting you hear you say this, because you haven't really made a record like that since then, I'd say. Do you find yourself wanting to again, given that you liked that one, or admire it?
Yeah. There's a part of me that would love to make a big, messy, noisy punk-rock inspired record. I almost sort of feel like I can do that on my time. I really want to start a hardcore band. 'Cause I grew up playing in hardcore bands, and I miss it. I hang out with all my old punk rock hardcore friends. My friend John Joseph is the singer in the Cro-Mags, and I went to see them a couple weeks ago, and it just—it almost—the longing to stand on stage and play really loud, fast hardcore—it's this palpable, almost physical longing, to play punk rock songs. And they did a Bad Brains cover—they did “Banned in D.C.”—and it was just, like, I wanted it. Maybe I'll round up some other middle-aged…
Terence Trent D'Arby, Bono and Axl Rose, right?
I don't know, 'cause hardcore is so physical—like unless you know how to play, you have to play so fast, and you either—not that it requires—I mean it is a specific skill, but you don't have to be a great musician to do it; you just have to know how to play super fast.
I listened to a lot of hardcore in high school, but since then I've really left it behind, so it's interesting to hear you say that you want to get back into that scene. Is that a recent desire, or something that's been constant in your musical career?
I went through that as well, but I'm old—in like 1984 the punk rock scene in New York got really violent, and people started getting very badly hurt, and it started to get scary, and that's when I—I sort of left that, and got more into hip-hop and house music. Or electronic music, at the time. And I spent a good eight or nine years without listening to much hardcore or punk rock, and then I sort of rediscovered the first Bad Brains record, and that sort of reacquainted me with—”Oh, I love this, why don't I”—and strangely enough, one of the things that really got me back into hardcore, and this is very odd, was September 11th. Because on September 11th, I had a lot of friends who lived down in TriBeCa, and they had to get out of their apartments, and then people who needed to leave the city, but couldn't because the transportation was shut down. So I ended up having an impromptu almost-party on September 11th. And a bunch of people who had nowhere else to go came over, and we made food, and for some reason I got out all my old seven-inches. And so I was listening to, like, Minor Threat, and Void, and Circle Jerks, and I was, once again, reminded of how much I loved it. But not to keep to going on about hardcore.
No, no, I would be happy if you went on about hardcore! One thing about going back and listening through your discography is that it was really difficult for me to come up with—or sort of difficult to come up with questions like—to talk about an arc to your career. And while there is kind of an arc—
It's more like an amoeba.
Yeah! So I want to know how you think about your career and the different artistic choices you've made.
I think that one of the reason that I've had such a strange career is 'cause I've never expected to have a career. I read an interview once with Linkin Park. And they had a plan. Like, they got together and they started a band, and they mapped it out. I've met them; they're very nice guys; I certainly don't mean this as a criticism—I've learned to never criticize other musicians because invariably they end up trying to kill me—but they had mapped out a business plan of how many records they wanted to sell, what labels they wanted to be on, where they wanted to be, and with me, when I was growing up, all my musical heroes were either dead or weird. So I never expected to have a record contract—I never expected to sell records. I never expected to have a career that lasted more than six months. So other people might look at my career and say, “Wow, you've made a lot of mistakes.” And I was like, you're right, because I had no idea what I was doing. And I never really knew what I wanted to do. I saw myself—and still, as odd as this might sound, see myself—as a very strange underground musician, and whatever commercial success I've had is just arbitrary and accidental. And this is the shameful part—there were times when I started having commercial success, and I liked it too much. That's what led me to make the—the worst decisions in my life were made pursuing commercial success. And I definitely—after the success of Play, I found myself enjoying fame a little too much. I liked going out to nightclubs and sitting in the VIP section; I liked going to red carpet events, and I then for the next few years, especially with the album Hotel, tried to structure my life so that I could be more famous. But then the more fame I had, the less happy I was. And also, I found I wasn't very good at it. There are some people who are just really adept at being famous musicians. And I'm not. Like Justin Timberlake is great at it—he's handsome, dances, sings, and he seems like probably a really nice guy as well. I just wasn't cut out for it. So I'd rather labor in moderate obscurity and make kind of strange records that some people might be willing to listen to—I mean to be completely blunt and honest, one of my biggest concerns is that by pursuing mainstream success, I compromised—or I screwed up my ability to make weird underground records.
And I understand that this record was inspired, at least partially, by a speech that David Lynch gave at BAFTA where he talked about creativity outside of market concerns—it seems like you're echoing that in what you're saying right now.
He—I was—again, after the success of Play I had a lot of narcissistic confusion. You know, I was trying to figure out what type of artist should I be—should I be a mainstream artist, should I be a weird underground artist, you know? Do I go on tour with—I don't even know—do I do big tours, or do I go out and open for Sonic Youth? And I got a lot of pressure from myself, and from my record company, and from management and whoever, to be—to sell a lot of records. And I never—it seemed like—we live in New York, and there is that unquestioned ethos that if you can sell more records, you should sell more records. And I bought into that, to my shame. But the whole time it felt uncomfortable. Like I remember going to MTV awards and sitting in the audience and just feeling like a black guy at a Klan meeting. I just felt like, this is not me. And at first it appealed to the anthropologist in me—I felt like, instead of going to the Amazon and being a cultural anthropologist, I was sitting in between Ludacris and Jessica Simpson. I was like—I shouldn't be here, but I'm here observing. The problem is, it was seductive. And it led me to make some bad decisions that made me very uncomfortable. And then I heard David Lynch speak. And he was talking about art and creativity. And he—to paraphrase—simply said, creativity, in and of itself, is fine. And I, just, immediately, was like, he's right. Life is short, on my deathbed, all I want to remember is trying to make beautiful music. Doesn't mean I'll make beautiful music, but that's—I don't want to remember trying to have great marketing campaigns. I don't want to remember playing the Z100 Jingle Ball. I want to remember, you know, the pursuit of the sublime through art. Absolutely no guarantee that anything good will come from that, but it just feels better to me. It feels more right. And it also is more comfortable and familiar—it's what I grew up with! I grew up with weird artists; everyone in my family is a weird artist, and all my heroes are weird artists. I didn't grow up—like friends of mine—I remember there was a Grammies in, like, 1998, and it was the first time I'd ever watched the Grammies. And people were like, “Are you kidding?” And I was like, why would I watch the Grammies when I was growing up? I didn't care about any of the music that was on there. Not to say that I was better than it, just—Joy Division wasn't on the Grammies. Mission of Burma wasn't on the Grammies. Why would I watch the Grammies? Does that answer your question? I sometimes ramble a little bit.
No, no, that's perfect. One thing that I did notice when I was listening to your old records is that one thing that I think characterizes you as an artist, and feel free to disagree, is that you're somebody who doesn't shy away from emotion or sentimentality. I think there are artists in many of the different genres in which you work, whether it's in dance music or post-punk, who do avoid that kind of emotionality—but you never have. But what I do see happening is that going from, say, the Move EP, which is probably my favorite thing that you've ever done, to the stuff you're doing now, you have the same kinds of emotions, but the extremity of it changes—you have these extreme senses on a record like that, and you come to a record like this, and the emotions are just as deeply felt, but they're a lot more textured, or layered.
In the course of my life, you know, I've written a lot of different types of music, from punk rock to classical music to whatever, but it's all kind of—I've either written happy songs or sad songs. I've either written stuff—it's either happy, sad, atmospheric, or occasionally disturbing. Regardless of genre. But that's what I like. I love emotional music. My high school yearbook quote was from Joy Division, and Nick Drake's Bryter Later is one of my favorite records of all time. I love music that moves me emotionally. And I appreciate pleasant music that doesn't do much for people emotionally, but I don't understand why people, like, devote their lives to making it. There's so much contemporary music that's sort of neither here nor there, you know—it's clever, well produced, interesting, cool, but those are adjectives I'd normally use to describe a book about graphic design. Not—music has the potential to change an individual's emotions. Very few other things can do that as effectively. And so, simply, when I make records, when I make music, all I'm trying to do is sort of imitate the records that other people have made that I've loved, or to try to get to the same place. Like if I listen to Joy Division's Closer, it takes me to a very specific place, so when I make records, I try in my own ham-fisted way, to try and get to a similar place. It was funny, when you were talking about the records that I've made that have that more emotional component, honestly, it never dawned on me that other people didn't do that. Like, hearing you say that it was like, “Oh yeah, you're right.” People—it never really crossed my mind that people would intentionally shy away from sentimentality and emotion.
I can see coming through a hardcore and then through a rave scene—which are two musics that really rely on deeply-felt emotions—
Just passion. And it's funny, with both genres, it made me very sad when they stopped being emotional. You know, dance music in the nineties was just explosive emotion, and then all of a sudden it became much more intellectual and cerebral and clinical, and I liked it, but given the choice between clinical, cerebral music and big expansive music, I always choose the emotional and expansive.
It can be a lot harder to dance to stuff like Ricardo Villalobos, or whoever from the minimal house scene.
I was dating a woman who was in that scene. I've always—some minimal music, I like the repetition, in almost like a Steve Reich sort of way, and it can get emotional—like my emotions, even though the music might not be changing—it's interesting to observe the emotional reaction to unchanging art. But I know what you mean. I appreciate it; contextually it can be great, at five o'clock in the morning in someone's basement in Bushwick, but I do really love “I Feel Love” by Donna Summer. Music that wears its heart on its sleeve.
I think “cheesy” is a good word.
Sometimes it's cheesy, sometimes it's heartfelt—like Black Flag, it's hard to call it cheesy, but it's incredibly emotional. And that's where my heart lies.
Who are listening to now? Are there any contemporary artists who work with the kind of ideas we're talking about right now?
My tastes are so obvious. My favorite record from the last couple of years was the Bon Iver record. Because, again, it's so—it's very emotional. When I DJ I play a lot of one-off dance music twelve-inches, only, they're not twelve-inches, they're MP3s now. I listen to a lot of old blues, like John Lee Hooker, Blind Willie Johnson. I listen to a lot of Pantera. I love Pantera. And Led Zeppelin, I don't know why, just in the last ten years I've listened to Led Zeppelin at least once every other day. I was in a cab the other day and the driver turned on the radio and “Trampled Underfoot” came on—or no, “Houses of the Holy”—and it was just like I had just done a line of fantastic coke. All of a sudden I was just happy—deliriously—like normally in taxis you get 1010WINS. It was so awesome to hear Led Zeppelin on Park Avenue and Twenty-Third on a rainy day. And a lot of obscure ambient music that I don't even know what it is. I go on—this might be sad—I go onto iTunes and I buy an ambient record, and I'll see “Listeners Also Bought” and I'll just click on that and keep clicking, and put it all in this folder and hit shuffle. I don't know what I'm listening to. But it's nice. Peter Lindigo, I think, was one of them. And Cloister and, um, Locil? Also because the world of electronic ambient, it's so obscure, you can look at a record and not even know who the artist is.