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Interview: Moby – Singer, Songwriter and Producer

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Over the past quarter-century, Moby has firmly entrenched his reputation as one of the most important figures in the modern dance music movement. And while he is widely known for his alternative mash-ups of slave spirituals and psychedelic beats, Moby has also become the archetype for artists who see music as not only a part of their life’s work but also as a social platform in which they can lend their celebrity status to encourage social reform.

In addition to his musical work as a member of Vatican Commandos, AWOL, Caeli Seoul and Gin Train, Moby has recorded nine studio albums: his self-titled debut (1992), Ambient (1993), Everything Is Wrong (1995), Animal Rights (1996), Play (1999), 18 (2002), Hotel (2005), Last Night (2008) and Wait for Me (2009). The latter effort has also been released in two special editions: Ambient (2009), which was included in a special deluxe edition, and Remixes! (2010).

Upon review of Wait For Me’s remix album, Moby managed to squeeze some time out of his busy schedule and settle down for an interview reflecting on the origin of the “Little Idiot,” the motivation behind Animal Rights, and his early years as a hip-hop deejay.

Right before this interview, I flipped through all of your old liner notes and re-read several of your socio-political commentaries. And while I happen to enjoy your essays, in addition to your music, I stumbled upon the following quote in the liner notes of Play: “These essays are not really related to the music, so if you hate the essays you might still like the music, and if you like the essays you might hate the music. Who knows, maybe by some bizarre twist of fate you’ll like them both.” Do you have a philosophical reason for merging your personal and professional worlds together?

I think a lot of it has to do with the teachers I had when I was growing up, and my family. Everyone in my family, they were all very political, and I was raised with the idea that self-promotion is something to be ashamed of, but trying to draw attention to good ideas and to support good causes is a worthwhile goal. So as a musician, I’ve always felt kind of embarrassed and a little bit guilty about self-promotion, but if I can talk about causes that are important to me or issues that are important to me, that feels for me, at least, to be a more worthwhile use of fame and celebrity.

Extending that thought a bit further, I know that you launched mobygratis.com in 2007, which provides free music for film students and independent and non-profit filmmakers. As a non-profit venture, all revenues earned from commercial projects are donated to the Humane Society/HSUS. With the release of Animal Rights (1996), it is a pretty well-known fact that you’re an animal lover, but what special attachment do you have to that particular organization?

Well, I’ve worked with a lot of different charitable organizations over the years. And what I like about the Humane Society is how big and effective they are, especially on a legislative level. I mean, there are a lot of great animal rights organizations who save dogs and save cats, but the Humane Society is actually really good at working with Congress and getting legislation actually passed.

This past May, you released a remix album of Wait for Me, which also had a companion ambient version released this past year. As you look back over the recording experience for this particular album, what compelled you to do a remix album?

Well, to be perfectly honest, the remix album came about because we realized we had a lot of good remixes on our hands. And I can say that they’re good, because I didn’t actually do any of them! [laughing] So I think I have some objectivity on the matter! [laughing continues] The original album, it’s a very quiet record, and it was all recorded at home in my bedroom. I sort of intentionally used old broken down equipment, because the seduction of Pro Tools and Ableton and Reason and Logic is that you can make amazing, super -produced records with kind of like a limitless sound palette. And for this record I wanted to limit myself and use old synthesizers that only had a few sounds, and use old drum machines that only did one or two things. I sometimes get really confused by having endless choices. And I’d almost rather use equipment that just gives me a few choices.

One of the things that I found particularly interesting about your album is the inclusion of your cartoon drawings, which added another layer of your personality to the project. From where does this artistic side of you draw inspiration?

My mom was a painter and my uncle was a photographer. I have another uncle who is a sculptor. My grandmother is a painter. So when I was growing up, I always felt like they were good at visual arts, so I was just going to focus on music. And so I’ve never thought of myself as being a good visual artist. But when I was about, I guess, about eighteen or nineteen I worked in a record store. It was a really strange record store up in Connecticut that started out as a head shop, and then they started selling bootlegs and eventually became a more legitimate record store. And every bag that left the store had a drawing on it. And that’s when I started drawing those simple, little cartoon characters. And I mean the goal with those little cartoon guys, I mean the ultimate goal, is to never intimidate anyone. Like I want them to be as simple and un-intimidating as possible. Because I don’t know how you feel, but there’s so much art and culture in the world that I find really intimidating. And especially like, in the world, like living in New York or living in Los Angeles, like in the big city, there’s so much cool culture that seems like it’s being made by people who are way cooler than me. So I go to a show or a gallery, and I just end up feeling like the people who are making the work are much cooler than I am, and so, I end up feeling intimidated. So if with the drawings, especially, my goal is for anyone who sees them to not be intimidated in any way.

Focusing on the central character, the “Little Idiot,” how did you come up with this character, and what is the origin of the “Little Idiot” moniker? I noticed that you have used this name regularly on the published end, with BMI, who licenses your music.

Well, my manager is German, and about twenty years ago I had an offer to do this really tacky TV show in England, and he didn’t want me to do it, but I wanted to do it because I was sort of a media whore, and I would do anything. So he sort of half-jokingly, in this thick German accent said, “Well, if you’re going to go off and be a little idiot and do everything that’s offered to you…” And I just thought that was the funniest expression, so ever since then that’s sort of been my alter ego, the Little Idiot. Because I’m small and I do a lot of stupid things.

You also created an alternate world – online – for the characters, and I saw some of the cartoons online. With time, how did your drawing skills evolve?

You know that old expression, “necessity is the mother of invention”? Well, I don’t really know how to draw anything else, so they’re the only things I can draw. Looking back, I can trace it to when I was nineteen years old, sitting in this record store waiting for customers to come in, drawing on bags. I mean, it all just sort of evolved that way.

As I listened to this album, I immediately fell in love with “Walk with Me,” which features the vocals of Leela James. Take a brief moment and walk me through the recording process.

Well, it’s an old spiritual song that is a couple of hundred years old. And I went to a performance, where a friend of mine sang it. Originally, I wanted him to sing it, because he’s, I guess, 75 years old at this point and he has like a really rich, sort of, broken voice. But his pitch wasn’t quite what I wanted. And so, I was looking for someone who had a good voice, but had a very sort of old-sounding voice. And the funny thing about Leela – she’s basically this young singer who grew up in South Central, but when she sings, she takes you back to 1935. When she came over to record, she wore big gold trunk jewelry and a purple Fila warm-up suit. I’m telling you, she has a very hip and urban style, but when she opens her mouth, it’s 1935! [laughing]

It’s no secret that several of your songs within your catalog contain samples of spirituals. And in the liner notes of Play, you give special thanks to the Lomaxes and all of the archivists and music historians whose field recordings made the album possible. What intrigues you the most about these old slave songs and field recordings?

For years, my mom dated a man who was really active in the Baptist church in the town next to the town I grew up in, and so he used to drag me to these Baptist church services that lasted forever. I remember that I didn’t like the church services, but I really liked the music. And then when I first left home, I lived in this sort of burned-out crack neighborhood. And on Sunday mornings, I’d walk around my neighborhood, and there are all these storefront churches. I would walk by them, just stand outside, and listen to the music. So I think that’s when I first got really interested in gospel and blues and old spirituals. And I think what I love about them is just the simple humanity of them, where there’s no posturing, there’s no posing. It’s just really honest, direct musical communication. And the lyrics are never particularly clever. They’re not literary. They’re just very emotional and very direct, and I think that’s why I really respond to them.

Even though you fuse gospel, techno, and ambient music together, what do you think is the biggest obstacle that current artists have in breaking certain artistic molds and defying genre categorization?

Hmm… that’s a really good question. I think one of the biggest obstacles right now is people being afraid of doing anything that might engender a negative, critical reaction. Because especially now, I mean in the blogosphere, and in the world of comments, like people are so quick to hate. You know, and in the Internet, I mean the Internet is fantastic for finding information, but it’s also provided this amazing vehicle for people to be as hateful as they can. And so, I really feel badly for like musicians who try to do something different and then all of a sudden they just get almost crucified. And so I think that it’s created an environment where musicians now are very cautious. That’s the biggest obstacle, most musicians are self-editing the entire time they’re in the studio because they’re afraid that they’ll put something out that might get crucified on Pitchfork or one of these other blogs, and also in that world of comments where people just wait to tell everyone how much they hate something. I think that’s really destructive.

From the outside looking in, as a long-time listener of your work, I have never known you to censure yourself. Even so, has there ever been a moment in time where you have second-guessed yourself, or felt tremendous pressure to censure yourself?

Oh, yeah. There was a period where I didn’t censure myself at all. And now I do, mainly just in the interest of being a better advocate for the causes I believe in. Like in my old punk rock days, I thought the goal of being an advocate was to just yell as loudly as you could. And now I sort of feel like if I actually want to be a force for good in the world, even if it’s just a very small force, I have to figure out how to communicate with people in an effective way. And a lot of times, that doesn’t involve yelling or being abrasive, but rather communicating with people more respectfully. So I try to censure myself in that way. But the one thing I won’t let myself do is censure myself so that I’ll be more commercially appealing, because I find that it’s just a weird concept and also, I just don’t think I’d be any good at it. Like there’s some people who are really good at understanding the commercial marketplace and adapting to the commercial marketplace. And I have no idea of what’s going on in the world of commercial music. Because when I look at it, it just, I don’t know, it just completely turns me off.

It is really interesting to hear your thoughts, because in a lot of ways, your musical works are very commercially appealing, even though you do not intend for them to be so. I have always been impressed by the number of song licenses – from film and television – that have been attached to your catalogue. Is there a particular license that shocked or impressed you?

I guess the one that surprised me the most was the license for “Extreme Ways,” which has been used in all of the Bourne movies. When that song came out as a single, it failed completely. We spent a lot of money on the video and we got all these expensive remixes done, but when we released it as a single, it just died. I mean, literally, it had a life of about ten seconds as a single. I think MTV played the video once, and then said, “Oh, we’re never going to play this again!” [laughing] And so I thought that the song had disappeared. And then we got a request to license it for the Bourne movies. And before they came out, no one expected that they would be successful. And so the fact that it’s been in all of the Bourne movies and has ended up becoming one of my more well-known songs, that’s completely surprising because originally it was just a complete failure.

It is funny how life works things out in our favor.

Yup!

For this particular album, you toured with a special focus on the live band. What kind of musical experience do you think can only be achieved in a live setting? And conversely, what kind of musical experience do you think can only be created within a studio?

It’s a really good question. I mean live, there’s more room for improvisation. And in live there’s also, like when you’re doing something live, what makes it work, what makes it great is the fact that you can never do it again. Whereas when you’re in the studio, you can do things over and over and over again. And I love both. I love playing live and I love being in the studio. The studio is a much more controlled environment where if you don’t like a vocal take in the studio, you just redo it; whereas live, you can’t redo anything. And so I guess it’s kind of like—to make an acrobatic analogy—it’s sort of performing without a net. Like if you fail in the studio, you just redo it or never play it for anyone. But if you fail live, you have an audience of 1,000 or 10,000 or 100,000 people watching you fail on stage. So it’s makes it a lot riskier and potentially a lot greater.

Going off that a little bit, when you look back over your career, what risks are you most proud of, and in what ways do you think you have grown the most as an artist?

Well, to be honest with you, I don’t really think I’ve taken all that many risks. I mean from other people’s perspective I might have, because I’ve done a lot of very un-commercial things, but I never expected to have a career as a musician, and I certainly never expected to have a record contract. And so, I guess in my career, the only regrets I have when I look at my career is those times when I have felt a sense of entitlement. You know, those times where I actually expected people to listen to my music. That’s when I’ve made mistakes. The work that I do that I like the most is when I don’t assume that people will listen to it, and I feel like I actually have to make something that’s worthy of people’s attention.

On the business side, are there are any professional lessons that you learned the hard way?

On the business side, I guess I got lucky, because my entire career I’ve worked with people who are fairly honest, and so people who knew what they were doing; you know like lawyers who were fairly honest, and managers who were fairly honest. That is one of the biggest problems that most artists have today. Most artists, you know, you spend their entire lives learning how to play music and write songs, and they don’t really know how the music business works. And so you start working with someone whose field of expertise is understanding the music business and it’s very dishonest. They can just take complete advantage of artists. Like if you look at the last fifty or sixty years, of course, the music business is just filled with stories of innocent and trusting artists being taken advantage of.

Although Play is widely-considered to be your breakout album, for you, on a more personal level, what album do you really think you began to feel comfortable in your artistic skin?

Animal Rights was a really hard record to make, and very few people actually liked it. It’s a really strange, difficult record, but of all the records I’ve made, that’s probably the one that I’m most proud of. I don’t know. There’s just a strange honesty to it that I really appreciate. It also, of all the records I’ve made, it’s the one that sold the worst and got the worst reviews.

True, indeed! After the release of Everything is Wrong (1995), many of the reviews that I have encountered made note of your abrupt turn to rock on Animal Rights. What life events inspired that particular album? Is there a particular life event that caused you to make that musical shift?

I think part of it was just never expecting to have a career, and then all of a sudden I had a strange career and it sort of, I guess, in a very unhealthy way, I wanted to see if people liked me or if they liked me for the genre of music I was in.

Interesting…

So, I don’t know. It’s kind of like maybe you’re dating someone, and you question their love for you, so you don’t bathe for a week, and you think to yourself: “Are they still going to like me if I’m smelly and drunk?” Of course, that isn’t really the best way to try and gauge someone’s love and affection, I think. But that was partially what was behind it. And also just the fact that I really love playing loud guitar and screaming at the top of my lungs.

When you reflect over your career, you have managed to maintain a beautiful career – or, shall we say, relationship – with a fickle music industry? What do you think has allowed you to have such longevity?

A huge part of it is not knowing how to do anything else. Because I have a lot of friends who try to be photographers or try to be artists or try to be musicians, but they always have a fall-back career. Like they always have that sentence, “If it doesn’t work out, I’ll go do blank,” and I never had that. So for me, it was always: “I’m going to be a musician, and if it doesn’t work out, I’ll be homeless.” I guess my choices were like be a musician or work at Kinkos. So it’s the combination of the fact that I don’t know how to do anything else, and I’ve been playing music since I was nine years old, and it’s basically what I love more than anything else. And if the motivation had just been pursuing a career, I think I would have slowed down at some point, but for me, the motivation is really trying to make music that I love, regardless of whether people actually want to listen to it or buy it.

Since you have been playing music since the age of nine and you also play a variety of instruments – drums, guitars, keyboards, and percussion – which instrument was your first love?

Well, when I was nine years old, I started playing guitar, and I took classical guitar lessons and studied music theory. And played jazz for a while. And then when I was around fourteen years old, I discovered punk rock. And so I then tried to unlearn everything I had learned in classical music and jazz so I could play in punk rock bands. When I was in high school, I played in two different bands. One was a hard core punk band called the Vatican Commandos and the other was a sort of very depressing Gothic band called AWOL. But luckily, during those first five years, I was studying music formally, and music theory is still in my brain, which can actually be really nice if I’m trying to write string arrangements or write more melodic piano lines. I can hearken back to sitting in music class when I was ten years old.

Over the years, have you found your classical training to have any influence on your deejaying style or techniques?

It’s an interesting question, the correlation between deejaying and classical music. I think the biggest correlation is just the drama, like the impact and the drama. I mean, the same way like when you have a big orchestra can get very, very quiet and then get very loud, and when they get loud, it’s really powerful. The same way when a deejay, whether they’re house music deejay or hip-hop deejay, when a track gets really quiet and then all of a sudden everything comes back in, it’s sort of the same impact that a classical orchestra would have, except a lot louder. I don’t deejay that often, but for me deejaying is fun, because I get to play other people’s records and take credit for them! [laughing] I saw that you are affiliated with AllHipHop.com. Want to hear an interesting story?

Of course! [laughing]

Because I have a really odd background with hip-hop that for the most part that people don’t know about. 

In the early to mid-eighties, when I first started deejaying, I was predominantly a hip-hop deejay. So I deejayed a lot of different hip-hop clubs around the city. My mainstay was a club called Mars, which is over on the Westside Highway. And it was where all the emcees and all the deejays used to hang out. So I kept a mic with me when I deejayed and, I mean, everybody would get drunk and just start rapping to impress their girlfriends – from Big Daddy Kane to Run-D.M.C. to Ultramagnetics and 3rd Bass and some of the guys from Stetsasonic. And I think for them, there was sort of a novelty in having like a skinny white kid from the suburbs playing hip-hop instrumentals while they rapped over them. I still encounter people who I knew back then, like Funkmaster Flex, Kool Keith and Stretch Armstrong, and I think they all still think of me as a hip-hop deejay.

Oh, wow! When you look at the current musical landscape, what are your thoughts on the ways in which the worlds of hip-hop and electronic dance music have merged together?

It seemed that what I noticed about, I don’t know, maybe ten years ago: a lot of hip-hop artists would go on tour in Europe, have a night off, go to a club, take Ecstasy, and find themselves dancing to house music. And so, all of a sudden, it seemed like a lot of rappers and producers became a lot more open to very electronic sounds in their music. You know, there’s a long history of electronic sounds in hip-hop, starting with Afrika Bambaataa, I mean a lot of the Tommy Boy records were almost like techno records. But I think a lot of the producers also realized that if they could make beats with more electronic sounds, instead of samples, they wouldn’t get sued as much.

Right! [laughing]

So I think that was a big impetus for a lot of that change in production away from sample-based productions to more electro-sounding hip-hop. A producer could make the sounds big, but they also didn’t have to worry about getting sued.

With such a wide-ranging background, what do you think has been your greatest contribution to music, in general?

The only thing I ever really wanted to do musically is to write music that would affect people emotionally. So my greatest hope is that if I get hit by a bus in five minutes, that I’d be remembered as someone who tried to make honest, emotional music.

For more information on Moby, visit his official website.

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About Clayton Perry

  • http://www.davidrperry.com David R Perry

    Excellent interview, Clayton! I’ve followed Moby since his early “Ambient” days, so it was fun to hear a bit more about his musical journey.