Lovers Lane
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Cover Story: Moby • Liberating Me

| May 31, 2023


Moby 2023 (photo by Lindsay Hicks)


If you had the luxury of compiling a wish list of gab-gifted guests for the Perfect Dinner Party, you could do a lot worse than inviting techno-jazz-pop-ambient-symphonic Renaissance man Moby. Personally — without even touching on his four-decade, genre-jumping musical career— he has a true wealth of achievements to discuss, including his photography exhibits, two memoirs, the recent documentary film Moby Doc, his vegan restaurant Little Pine (and subsequent Little Pine cookbook, and its attendant diet-centered flick Punk Rock Vegan Movie), plus the topic nearest and dearest to his heart, animal rights activism itself. But in a compositional context, where to begin? The man’s early more punk-scrappy endeavors (an actual Animal Rights album back in ’96), worldwide breakthrough Play in ’99, his later ambient and techno experiments, his lengthy roster of collaborations, or his regular diversions into film scoring? Even a logical inroad — Resound NYC, his latest and second orchestral release for classical imprint Deutsche Grammophon offers a cornucopia of potential topical detours, such as his choice of vocalists to sing his reimagined catalog chestnuts — the former featuring Mark Lanegan, Kris Kristofferson, Jim James, Nataly Dawn, Skylar Grey, and others; the latter boasting cameos from Gregory Porter, Amythyst Kiah, Margo Timmins, Damien Jurado, and Nicole Sherzinger. And with Moby, almost any inquiry leads to a fascinating, often labyrinthine yarn, as in, Why did he feature Kaiser Chiefs frontman Ricky Wilson in two separate tracks, “South Side” and “The Perfect Life”?

“One time I was playing a festival with The Kaiser Chiefs, and they were on before me,’ explains Moby, 57. “And I remember standing at the side of the stage, thinking, ‘How the hell do I go on after this?’ They ended with ‘I Predict a Riot,’ and there were 100,000 people jumping up and down, and I was like, ‘Oh, boy. I should just pack it in and go home!’” The talk moves to Wilson himself, who happens to be one of the most superstitious men in rock. He regularly salutes magpies when he sees them, carefully steps over sidewalk cracks, and places his wristwatch on the bedside nightstand in the same position every evening. Is Moby superstitious, as well? He considers this for a minute. “I’ll give you my truncated answer,” he responds, like any thoughtful dinner guest. “I’m not superstitious, but I do believe, self-evidently, that what humans perceive is nothing. I think that the actual ontological nature of

The universe is so far beyond our understanding that things might be interconnected, and they might not be. And there’s a good chance that they are, but not in an anthropomorphized way.” Pause. “Or, maybe **in an anthropomorphized way. I have an open agnosticism, where our actions and our thoughts might have meaning and significance, or they might not have meaning and significance, so for me, I’m just sort of going through things in a very clumsy way, just trying to maybe gain a little bit of understanding.” In fact, there’s only one thing that we all can be sure of — that all cartoon animals still get unlimited credit at ACME. “And they clearly don’t have to get government permits to buy explosives,” he adds helpfully. Welcome to Moby’s fun, idiosyncratic world. Let the heady conversation commence!

IE: So you prefer Zoom Audio like I do, eh? Why?

Moby: Well, okay. Ten or eleven years ago, I was watching this show Mr. Robot, and the first season was great, the second season less so, and the third season I didn’t even watch. But in the first season, there was a plot point around someone who is basically hacking people’s phones and computers and watching them on the cameras, and it seemed so within the realm of possibility that I just disabled all my cameras on my laptops, etcetera, and put tape over the cameras, because it just freaked me out. Any reasonably clever hacker can basically just — and not that I ever do anything interesting or compromising — but I don’t need to have someone hack my camera and see me picking my nose while I read the Washington Post online.

IE: Have you ever had your security compromised? I think I have.

Moby: Not that I’m aware of, touch wood. I’ve had a lot of what my friends call Phobies. A lot of people online pretending to be me. You know, it’s kind of a regular thing on social media — someone pretending to be me, reaching out to people, asking to borrow money from them. And really, I am not that person. And I’d almost given up trying to stop it because social media companies clearly have no interest in restricting people’s access to use, even if they’re committing fraud.

IE: Now, did you ever meet, or get to confront, any of the people posing as you?

Moby: No. I believe that they’re all in former Soviet states, based on my limited bit of research. Like, I feel like it’s a lot of people in Moldova and Macedonia, the former Soviet Union, etcetera.

IE: I’m not on any social media whatsoever. I never saw the need for it, and I don’t even own a cellphone. So call me the Luddite; call me the misanthrope. But I don’t think I’m missing anything.

Moby: Well, from my perspective, the two primary sorts of benign utilities of social media, first and foremost, is animal rights activism. I mean, for all of the terrible things that social media has done and continues to do, it’s the best platform for animal rights activism because they can reach people directly, and a lot of their content is just so powerful, whether it’s rescued animals being happy or tortured animals about to be slaughtered. So I will say that I have a great appreciation for social media for that because it really turbo-charged the animal rights movement. And the other is simply, as we both know, a lot of traditional media is sort of falling by the wayside. Some are thriving, but a lot aren’t. And especially in my case — I’m a 57-year-old, middle-aged white guy making a record. And especially in the United States, if I release music, it gets almost no attention whatsoever. Overseas, it does better. But here, if I want to let people know that I’ve released a record, I can’t rely on traditional media because I’m not in the realm of artists that they would be inclined to cover.

IE: But you were way ahead of the game with Play. You realized, way back then, that the way — or the radio — of the future was to license your songs to TV, movies, and commercials. Because they are the new radio now.

Moby: Well, what happened then was, when the album Play was released, it ended up being successful. But at first, no one paid attention to it. I mean, it got a couple of reviews, but the first month it was out, it sold nothing, and we were getting no radio play, there was almost no press, and on tour, we were playing to about 100 people a night, sometimes less. And the only people who expressed any interest in it were people in Los Angeles, doing film and TV things. And my managers and my record company and I just thought, “You know what? The only people who are interested are these think agents who want to use it in TV shows who want to use it in movies. So it would be pretty ridiculous to say no on principle, especially if it was licensing music to a TV show I was watching.” One of the early licenses was for Will & Grace, and I was like, “Great! Yeah — I watch Will & Grace’! And I’m thrilled to have a song on Will & Grace!

IE: I just heard this again a few minutes ago, this recent Volkswagen commercial with this great 4AD-ethereal song. And I had to look it up the first time I heard it — the song is by an artist called Class Actress, and she’s awesome.

Moby: And it reminds me a little bit of, in the mid-nineties, Volkswagen had an ad that featured “Pink Moon” by Nick Drake. And in the early ‘80s, I worked at a record store, and my boss at the record store loved Nick Drake, so he got me to buy **Five Leaves Left and all of the Nick Drake records, so I had been a huge Nick Drake fan since about 1982. And I found out that because of this Volkswagen ad, Nick Drake sold more records in 1995 than he had sold in his entire career, times ten. Just simply by having that song. So I was like, “You know what? I am not a fan of cars. I am not a fan of commerce. But if it means that suddenly people are aware of Nick Drake, it’s hard to categorically criticize or condemn that process when sometimes it really draws attention to special music that otherwise would disappear.

IE: What are some recent licenses you’ve wrangled?

Moby: You know, I don’t know. I don’t pay attention to it. But one was last summer. I was watching the show Stranger Things, and during the last episode, one of my very obscure songs called “When It’s Cold I’d Like to Die” was playing for about three and a half minutes during the last episode. And it was so emotional, and it was very disconcerting, and nice and disconcerting to have such an emotional reaction while one of my own songs was playing. I was like, “Is this narcissism? Or am I just simply having an honest emotional reaction to this?”

IE: Securing the closing credits is like getting a billboard for your song. It’s a coveted catbird seat.

Moby: Yeah. One of the first times I ever licensed music to a film was the Michael Mann movie **Heat, and he and I have worked together on a lot of things, but at the end of the movie, he uses a classical composition of mine, and it runs for about five or six minutes. It starts when Al Pacino and Robert DeNiro have their encounter, and it just keeps going and going. And as a result, it’s this obscure piece of classical instrumental music I had written — no drums, no vocals, no chorus — and somehow, because of it being used in “Heat,” all of a sudden, it’s one of my better-known pieces of music, and it’s an eight-minute long ethereal piece of classical music, not something you would necessarily imagine people would be aware of.

IE: Years ago, I was heading up to Tower Records on Market Street in San Francisco, and I walked past the notorious Beck’s Motor Lodge but was surprised when a girl called my name. And it was Shelby Meade, your old publicist, inviting me over to watch famed photographer David LaChapelle doing an elaborate shoot there of an unassuming guy in an orange prison jumpsuit, who Shen then introduced me to. And that guy was you!

Moby: Oh yeah! That was an odd moment. It was right before the album 18 came out (in 2001), so it was sort of the height of my being involved in the pop culture zeitgeist, and it involved all sorts of things, like playing at the Winter Olympics, flying to Los Angeles to make a million dollar video, then flying to San Francisco to do a photo shoot with a crew of thirty people in ten different locations, the flying to the UK. It was definitely a very, very different world, to state the obvious. And I’m glad I experienced it because it was such an odd cultural phenomenon to be involved in that. And that whole photo shoot was for SPIN Magazine, and we went to a porn theater in the Mission and we shot there, and we went to that motor lodge and we shot all over. And at that point, David LaChapelle really was this unhinged creative genius, and because the budgets were so huge for those things, he was allowed to do whatever he wanted. And if he was like, “Yeah — we’ll rent the entire motor lodge. We’ll rent the entire theater. We’ll bring in thirty people.” And basically — because this was back in the days of print media when people were buying CDs and the budgets were just out of control — it wasn’t uncommon for one of his photo shoots to have a three- or four-hundred-thousand-dollar budget. As opposed to now, when the budget for a photo shoot is, you come over and take pictures of someone in their backyard and maybe have some sparkling water.

IE: Given those surreal situations, what other weird We’re-not-in-Kansas-anymore places did you find yourself in back then?

Moby: One of the weirdest — because I never expected to have a career as a musician, you know? When I was growing up, I played in weird little punk rock bands, we were happy to have an audience of ten people, and I lived in an abandoned factory, I worked in an underground record store, and the store was actually in Darien, Connecticut — it’s still there, it’s called Johnny’s. And it started out as a head shop, and it slowly started selling Grateful Dead bootlegs. But really, there was a lot of what we’ll call maybe extra-legal stuff happening there, and it wasn’t uncommon when I was working there to bring large amounts of cash to people in parking lots after dark. Like, it was definitely interesting, and at the time, I was also living in an abandoned factory in Stanford, Connecticut, which is now condos, of course. But at the time, it was an abandoned factory — no heat, no bathrooms, no running water. But I loved living there because it was free, and they’d forgotten to turn the electricity off. Which is a long-winded way of saying that I never even expected to make music that anyone listened to, and I certainly never expected to have a record deal or sell more than a couple hundred records. So everything that happened to me, professionally, has been a surprise, both the good and even the bad. The bad was still more than I expected.

So some of the incredibly surreal moments? One of them has to be playing the Winter Olympics in 2002 because it was me, Bon Jovi, Willie Nelson, KISS, Christina Aguilera, and Earth, Wind, and Fire— we were the performers, and there were 500,000 people in this Olympic stadium, and they said the TV audience was probably close to a billion people, and Dick Cheney was in the audience. And I thought, “How in the world? Like, I’m playing to — at the very least — a couple hundred million people — when I thought I was gonna be a philosophy professor at some New England community college, making music in his basement that no one ever listened to.” So basically, everything has been strange, but that was especially strange.

IE: I’m guessing you probably gravitated toward the great Maurice White backstage if anybody. He was still alive and touring back then.

Moby: I actually didn’t speak to anyone backstage! I didn’t know if I was really allowed to. I mean, this was in Salt Lake City, and the fact was that we did all share a backstage, and there was a big green room, and I was like, “This is so strange! There’s Willie Nelson next to Gene Simmons, and there’s Jon Bon Jovi next to Christina Aguilera. These are big stars! Shouldn’t they have their own dressing rooms?” So I didn’t talk to anyone, except the next morning, they had rented a private plane, and they flew me and KISS and Earth, Wind and Fire to Los Angeles. And I slept on the plane, and I woke up, and Gene Simmons tapped me on the shoulder, and I turned around, and I’d never spoken to him. But he just looked at me and he said, “Moby, you are a powerful and attractive man.” And then we got off the plane, and I’ve never spoken to him since. So everything about it was very, incredibly odd, and I’m glad that I’m no longer a part of that world. But I’m kind of grateful that I was able to experience it.

IE: But with your record-retail background, how awesome does it feel to see that yellow Deutsche Grammophon logo on your albums right now? Is that class, or what?

Moby: Oh yeah! I mean, to put it in context, in 1984, I’m working at this underground record store, putting away records, and most of the records back then were garbage. And I don’t want to malign them, necessarily, but you know — Huey Lewis and the News and The J. Geils Band, just a lot of very forgettable pop music. And occasionally, there’d be something great, like a New Order record. But opening those boxes, in amongst them there would-be Deutsche Grammophon records, and they just felt like these totemic sacred objects. I’d take them out, and in one hand, you’re holding a Huey Lewis and the News record, and in the other hand, you’re holding a recording of Brahms with that big, beautiful yellow logo and an old master painting on the cover, and it almost felt like you had to put on white gloves to hold the Deutsche Grammophon record. Especially when I was living in an abandoned factory, I was making $2,000 a year, I was peeing into bottles, and I bathed once every ten days or two weeks. I was as scummy a human being as was possible — I was DJ-ing in a dive bar making $20 a night and playing in punk rock and New Wave bands, as far from Deutsche Grammophon as you could get. And then, lo and behold, five or six years ago, I played an orchestral show with the L.A. Phil(harmonic) and Gustavo Dudamel, and then afterward, someone from Deutsche Grammophon asked me if I wanted to make an orchestral record. And I said, “Of Course!”

So the first one, Reprise, was made very traditionally, with a quintet here in Los Angeles and an orchestra in Budapest and a Gospel choir and this amazing array of vocalists, everyone from Kris Kristofferson and Mark Lanegan to Jim James, Amythyst Kiah, and Gregory Porter. And then for the second record, for this new Resound NYC, my A&R person at Deutsche Grammophon sort of encouraged me — and I thought that this was really both self-evident and interesting — he said, “You know what? An orchestra can be anything.” And I was like, “Oh, you’re right! An orchestra doesn’t have to be 130 people wearing tuxedos! You can have cannons onstage, it could be an analog synth, you could have turntables.” So his challenge to me was, “Interpret an orchestra in a more bespoke way for this record.” And it also helped that we were making it during the pandemic, where you really couldn’t have 130 people in a room. So the challenger here — whether it’s good, bad, interesting, or not — was to make a bespoke “orchestra” for each song. So sometimes, that meant putting together a giant brass section; sometimes, it was English horn and French horn; sometimes, it was a quintet; sometimes, it was a quintet with a mellotron and an analog synth. And it was a really fun, liberating challenge to imagine what an orchestra means, both for an individual song but also in the 21st century. So I can imagine some people being a little bit confused, like, “Oh, this doesn’t sound traditionally orchestral.” And I’m like, “Yeah — that’s because my A&R person at Deutsche Grammophon liberated me from that idea of what orchestral music is.”

IE: “Helpless,” for instance, with Margo Timmins, is just a delicate piano ballad that really comes together on the vocal harmonies.

Moby: And what’s also really interesting — and okay, I say that self-involved — but what’s creatively really nice is, I remember reading a quote from Rodin, the sculptor, and he was saying that a lot of what he does was just removing the things that are not essential. When he was creating a sculpture, you start with a block of whatever, and you remove the stuff that kind of shouldn’t be there. And so a lot of the music I made — some of it’s very bombastic, some of it’s very dense — but sometimes it involves removing things. And with “Helpless,” there was originally quite a lot more orchestration, quite a lot more going on with drums and percussion. And I just thought, “You know, the core of this is the vulnerability, the delicate vulnerability of the voices, so everything needs to both reflect and support that.” So it made removing anything that seemed bombastic sort of necessary to create this sort of…I dunno..pocket? For their delicate voices.

IE: And there’s also that classic old musical trope that it’s all about the notes that you don’t play.

Moby: Yeah, which, again, when I started playing music in the ‘70s, I was taught to be complicated. Like, my guitar teacher — when I started playing classical music and jazz when I was nine years old — he loved complicated music. He wanted me to be Larry Carlton — he wanted me to be the next Larry Carlton, so he was training me to be a virtuoso jazz guitarist. He loved fusion, like Return to Forever and Weather Report. And I was like, “Okay, well, he’s my teacher, so I will learn this and I will play as fast and complicated as he wants me to.” But then I realized that the music that was resonating with me was simple — it was Neil Young, it was Blind Willie Johnson. And then punk rock, obviously, had such a simplicity to it, I thought, “Oh, maybe music doesn’t need to be unnecessarily complicated!” Sometimes complicated music is wonderful, but giving yourself the freedom to be a minimalist when it’s called for? I mean, you listen to Blind Willie Johnson’s “Dark Was the Night, Cold Was the Ground,” and there’s nothing going on, and it’s one of those perfect recordings that humans have ever made.

IE: And you knew a good friend of mine, the late Mark Lanegan. We stayed in touch during the pandemic, and I really miss him.

Moby: Yeah. And when I met Mark, I was so intimidated by him because he has that voice and that history, and he’s tall! Well, everybody’s tall to me, but I was so wonderfully surprised at how kind he was. He lived in Glendale, I lived in L.A., so we hung out quite a lot. But he was just so humble and nice, and so I’ll leave you with this story. He did the duet with Kris Kristofferson (“The Lonely Night”) on the first record, and one of the last times I communicated with him was I sent him the vinyl. And you know what? He clearly had a lot of emotions, but he maybe was not necessarily the person to wear his tears on his sleeve. But he wrote back and said, “I was just listening to the duet with Kris Kristofferson, and I was crying.” And I’m so sad that he died. But I’m really happy that somehow, I was able to be involved in giving him that.”

-Tom Lanham

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