Famous Last Words: Interview with Moby


New Music Seminar, 16 February 2011, Los Angeles

Moby is the kind of artist whom, after hearing just one song, you remember from then on. I heard “Go” back in the ’90s when it became a club hit while riding in the back seat of a car heading out of New York City late at night. Watching the lights of the skyline flash by perfectly matched the full throttle energy of the music and I became an instant fan. After the horrors of 9/11 (which happens to also be the date of Moby’s birthday), I walked into the local record store called Johnny’s in Darien, Connecticut to purchase his CD, 18. Moby used to work there, passing the time by drawing cartoon-like creations on shopping bags, and now this collection of music would help restore hope in the everyday. He is a master of soaring melodies that pierce the heart and feed the soul.

During the New Music Seminar, Moby appeared on two panels after playing on stage at the opening night party. He has recently relocated to the West Coast, so it was easy to drive his Prius from a new home in the Hollywood Hills to this even. Using self-deprecating wit to get his viewpoint across, Moby clearly stated that success should only be a byproduct from the love of making music. He may say his “Little Idiot” alter-ego drawings are named because he is small and an idiot, but Moby serves as a thoughtful sage in the business. The day after releasing three new songs for free download on Moby.com, he sat down with PopMatters to give an update.

From growing up in the overachieving suburbs of Connecticut to becoming what seemed to be the ultimate New Yorker, it’s surprising to hear you switched coasts from New York to L.A., when did that happen?

I was born in New York City, on 148th Street and my mom and I moved out to Connecticut when I was four. She had grown up there. It was interesting, ’cause I grew up poor white trash where my mom and I were actually on food stamps and welfare until I was 18. Sometimes we would live with my grandparents or we lived in a garage apartment, then I moved back to New York City in 1988. I did become a quintessential New Yorker because I was born there and my driver’s license expired plus I was going out six or seven nights a week. Growing up in Connecticut, I was obsessed with New York. New York in the ’70s and ’80s was dangerous, sexy, and exciting. There was all this amazing music and art and literature and everything coming out of New York City.

Then I have to say in the last five or six years maybe even longer, New York has become so unbelievably affluent that I feel like all the interesting art and culture has kind of been pushed out. Of course its a huge city, so there’s still good art and music coming from New York, but at least lower Manhattan has become like a shopping mall for wealthy Europeans, or it’s where hedge fund managers spend $3000 for Kobe beef and single malt scotch. I feel less inspired by New York than I did when I was growing up.

Where with L.A., first of all I love being warm in the wintertime. There’s also a strangeness to Los Angeles that in a weird way reminds me of New York when I was growing up. There’s still so much odd stuff going on here, because it’s not that expensive to live in L.A., so people can come here and be weird and idiosyncratic and they can still pay the rent. Whereas if you’re weird and idiosyncratic in New York, you have to leave because it’s too expensive to support that weirdness and idiosyncrasy.

When did you make the move?

I moved here about three months ago. I still have my apartment in New York and I have a lot of friends there. But it’s nice, having a change. I’ve spent most of my adult life traveling and touring. L.A. is the strangest city on the planet. It looks so normal and it looks so suburban. There’s just a weirdness here that on one hand is off-putting, but it’s also quite fascinating.

Plus the East Coast has had snow cover for over six weeks this winter…

The realization I had was about four or five years ago. I was in L.A. in January and it was 72 degrees and sunny. I went back to New York it was 34 degrees and it was sleeting. I just simply thought: life is short, I don’t have to suffer. Also, I stopped drinking a few years ago. Being a drunk in New York is fantastic. A million bars to choose from and they’re all open till four o’clock in the morning, and being hung over in winter is okay, because you just sleep all day. Being sober in New York is less compelling.

Yesterday was a big day — you released the Be the One EP online with free downloads and videos. When will the full album be ready?

I’m putting out a new album in May and I’m also putting out a book. I’ve been a photographer since I was ten-years-old. Oddly enough I’ve been doing photography as long as I’ve been doing music. I just never really showed anybody my photography. My uncle had been a photographer for The New York Times — he would give me his hand me down cameras and developing darkroom equipment. So I’ve been taking pictures for a long time and in mid-May I’m putting out a photo book and the album.

Just yesterday we put out the first EP and in true mercenary capitalistic spirit we’re giving the music away. I mean, when the album comes out it will be for sale and the book is for sale because you can’t download a book — at least not successfully.

So were these songs written on the road?

The ethos behind this album, Destroyed, at least the way I describe it, is melodic atmospheric electronic music written in empty cities at two o’clock in the morning. When I was on tour, I’d have all this spare time because I have insomnia. So I’d be in the hotel room at two o’clock in the morning and just listening to music or working on music. The songs almost all had their genesis at two or three o’clock in the morning in a hotel room in an empty city, somewhere.

At a show after the last album Wait for Me you said how you wrote most of those mellow songs by yourself in the middle of the night but you still like to write “a kick ass dance song” now and then. Is there also going to be a dance song on the new album?

Well it’s interesting, because this album is very dance inspired. But I wouldn’t call it club music. Wait for Me was a very quiet, sort of introspective, record. This album is still introspective, but also more energetic in a way. I know that seems like a contradiction of terms. Some of the rhythms and some of the tempos are faster and more dance inspired, but there’s still these big sweeping melodic passages on top of them. It’s a weird hybrid of dance elements and quite plaintive emotional melodica.

It sounds like you’ve been playing with film cameras all along, as well. Whose idea was it to put them out there as an edited piece showing your own personal experiences?

Part of the reason why the three videos were made by me is we couldn’t find anyone else to do them. Originally, I had this idea of getting an experimental filmmaker to make a short film that involves these three songs but then we started asking around and everyone was really busy. We of course started asking too late. To get somebody to make a short film you have to ask six months in advance — we started asking a month and a half in advance.

So I was like, OK well I’ve got some video cameras, why don’t I shoot them myself. That is sort of like the egalitarian democratic nature of YouTube and Hulu and whatnot, is it doesn’t matter if you spend $500,000 on a video, or in my case you spend literally nothing on a video, it still sort of looks the same. Someone with a flip cam shooting their cat riding a turtle is going to get just as many views as someone who just spent a million dollars on a three-minute video. I love that aspect of it.

By shooting it yourself, you can also be more spontaneous and there’s less pressure involved so you create something with no awareness of how it’s going to be perceived. That’s the dialectic between the creator and the audience — you just put something out there. When I put things out, I don’t know if they’re good and I don’t know if they’re bad. You put them out to see sort of how people respond.

There’s a lovely transparency with all this – your music is all being thrown out there, the same thing with videos and photography, what about your drawings? Will they be part of the book?

The book is all photographs. I mean I still draw obsessively just with a Sharpie and anything to draw on. I love doing it. If I’m ever asked for an autograph and I have time, I try to draw pictures for people. It’s selfishly a lot more fun than just signing my name.

You were autographing T-shirts for people with drawings, as well.

T-shirts frustrate me because Sharpies and fabric just don’t work that well. My ideal medium for drawing is a Sharpie and a piece of white copy paper. It just makes me happy. Fabric, not so much.

Going back to the music — you play so many instruments, which came along first?

Well the first instrument I played was guitar. My mom was a pianist and a painter and one of her boyfriends had left a guitar in the house, so I started playing around with guitar. She got me into guitar lessons when I was ten-years-old.

And then I played in punk rock bands and we rehearsed in my mom’s basement. My friends would leave their equipment in our basement, so I taught myself how to play drums and bass. I didn’t have much to do after school, so I took what I knew from guitar and applied it to piano.

So then I taught myself how to play piano. But I always say don’t know how to play any difficult instruments — cause the difficult ones are like cello, viola, oboe, or French horn — those are the ones you have to study for five or ten years just to be proficient upon. I play all the simple instruments. If I knew how to play French horn, then I would pat myself on the back. If I knew how to play cello, then I would say yes, I’m a true multi-instrumentalist. I just play the simple instruments where the instruments do quite a lot of work for you.

What’s your current favorite instrument to use for composing?

Well, I mainly play guitar because that’s what I grew up with. There are three or four types of guitars: classical guitar, steel string acoustic guitars, and electric guitars. The nice thing about guitar is they’re all portable, they’re all fairly cheap, and you can just sort of mess around with them. Pianos are big and heavy and unless you have a piano, you can’t just play around with a piano.

Bass is fantastic when it’s plugged in. But an unplugged bass or an acoustic bass, they just don’t sound that good. I end up playing a lot of guitar just cause its what I’m most familiar with and I love it.

You were onstage the other night during the opening night party playing bass guitar for The Little Death, looking very slick in a black suit, and you were just on a panel saying your style was about looking like a drug addict!

Well that’s very kind of you to say that. I play in a few different rock bands and it’s just fun…

What do you think is the most important takeaway from somebody attending the New Music Seminar?

The most important takeaway would be different for every person. For someone it might be going to a panel and hearing something really inspiring. For someone else it might be like stumbling into a bar and seeing a fantastic singer/songwriter or dj or performer. For someone else it might be giving their CD to the right person. So it’s really hard to say.

I guess, ideally one of the most important things is when people realize that nobody in the music business actually knows what they’re doing. You know I think there’s something empowering in that. Instead of thinking like that the music business is this monolithic institution run by a few — no one in the music business knows what they’re doing.

There was a lot of discussion of music licensing here — you were one of the first to embrace that. Could just take us back to that time and your thought process?

I never expected to have a career as a musician and the reason I licensed my music was one, because I was flattered that anyone would ask and two, it was a way of getting people to hear the music I made. The music I make has never been radio friendly, so in the ’90s I was putting out records that for the most part weren’t being heard. Back in the ’90s you only had really one option to get your music heard, which was to get it played on commercial radio. So if you weren’t an artist getting played on commercial radio, you had to desperately figure out some other way to get your music heard and in my case that was licensing to TV shows and advertisements.

What about Mobygratis, how’s that going?

For a while I went to college at Suny Purchase, which has a great film program, and I have a lot of friends in the independent, experimental, non-profit film world. They always complain about how hard it is to get music for their films. So I started MobyGratis.com as just a way of giving free music to independent filmmakers and film students. On one hand it’s a way of ostensibly giving back to the film community, but it’s also a way of getting some of my really weird music into small experimental films.

I don’t know if you heard that during a panel yesterday with these huge record executives you were quoted about how art should just exist for itself, the art versus commerce argument.

Uh oh, I can’t imagine that’s very popular.

And today you were saying how the biggest mistake in the music business is not treating someone with respect.

I guess the biggest mistake is simply treating human beings as a resource. Human beings are human beings; they’re not a resource. There’s an ethos in most of western civilization that the ends justify the means, so people will do anything to achieve wealth, fame or success and it’s never worth it. Especially the idea of treating human beings as a means to something — I think is dangerous and unhealthy for all involved.

So the new release drops in May along with the book and then you’re planning another tour?

Yeah, I don’t know if I’m going to tour in North America because I don’t really like touring that much. Most of my touring is in Europe these days. I mean I live in L.A. and I have friends in New York, so I’ll play in New York and L.A. and maybe a few other shows.

Maybe it’s famous last words, but I have a feeling my days of doing long North American tours are done. You play a show in Kansas City and three or four hundred people show up and that’s okay, but it’s hard to take time away from my life to play shows like that. Especially when in Europe we play to quite a lot of people and as a result you can pay your musicians better, you can pay your touring personnel better, and you can pay your manager better.

When I tour in North America for the last few years has been a big money losing endeavor, which isn’t the end of the world.