Going Wrong: An Interview with Moby

He's memorized the worst live review he ever received. He's still outspoken politically. Moby's Innocents is a change of pace for the techno maestro.

I’ve seen Richard Melville Hall, better known as Moby, perform in a live band, acoustically or spinning records, a dozen times.

He is one of the most humble performers, repeatedly thanking his audience every few songs, that I’ve seen. My fandom dates back to when I encountered his music in the late ’90s, while dabbling in the burgeoning trend of downloading music from the internet. Somehow Play crossed my radar, and by the end of 1999, the album was frequently on repeat. It was slowly breaking big in Europe (months after its actual debut) and as each of the songs got licensed, total album sales broke the 12 million mark, and turning a huge light on Moby. His follow up albums have followed along similar electronic veins as Play and I would put 18 and Wait for Me amongst his best though aren’t very disparate in their sound. Some of his other post-Play releases (Hotel, Destroyed) have been a bit frustrating because Moby continues to utilize the same formula when creating music, but I always look forward to his next release.

Fortunately, I don’t have to wait long. Moby’s eleventh studio album Innocents is on the horizon, the first album he’s done entirely in Los Angeles, the first with an outside producers, and the most collaborative release yet with musicians like Damien Jurado, Cold Specks, and Wayne Coyne lending their voices. He’s recently released the otherworldly video for the Coyne-collaboration, “The Perfect Life” and was happy to talk with PopMatters about his movie career, politics, and what went in to making Innocents.

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Is “The Perfect Life” about mental health drugs? I was wondering if you had seen Steven Soderburgh’s Side Effects because I was picturing a fake TV ad for anti-depressants and people singing along, for the movie’s fake drug Ablixa.

In writing a song and putting music out into the world, I’m really open to the idea that people can interpret music however they so choose. I have my own interpretation of things but just ’cause I’m the person who wrote the song doesn’t mean my interpretation is the right one. That song “The Perfect Life” is, and I’m hesitant to say this because it sounds a bit more melodramatic than I mean it, sort of written as a very dysfunctional love song to illegal drug use. Not in a very specific literal way, because I’ve been sober now for a while, but I guess it’s like an homage to the behavior and thoughts that come around completely dysfunctional drug addiction.

I’m all in favor of putting music out in the world and having it exist in different contexts and formats. The sort of strange irony of having a weird song like that used to sell anti-depressants would be so perverse I might actually let them do it. A lot of my friends, and myself, spent years drinking too much and doing too many drugs, knowing full well that whatever you are doing, ultimately it makes you sick and depressed. It’s sort of pursuit of perfection — even if perfection means 3 a.m. in a terrible bar somewhere in the Lower East Side doing drugs that you’ve found behind a bathroom stall.

You’ve wrapped up the video for “The Perfect Life”. The media had picked up a post on your site that said you were seeking a lot of absurd characters or costumed people for the video. Did you get what you required?

That’s one of the beautiful things about L.A. If you have a casting call for weirdoes, you get a lot of weirdoes showing up. The casting itself was kind of amazing. Unfortunately, we weren’t able to use all the people who showed up but we did have a lot of very odd, interesting people in the video. There wasn’t quite as much nudity as we thought there would be. But I was very happy because the nudity was very egalitarian. We had like old and young, chubby and thin, male and female. It was like sort of the exact opposite of that Robin Thicke video [“Blurred Lines”].

Wayne Coyne of the Flaming Lips is on “The Perfect Life”. What was the process of getting him on board for the song?

It was actually really simple. I first met Wayne in 1995. We were both opening up for the Red Hot Chili Peppers on tour. We were sharing a dressing room. It’s not very glamorous in almost any circumstances. So I think we bonded over being the opening band for this big rock act. So when I wrote the song “The Perfect Life”, to me it sort of sounded like older Flaming Lips and I thought to myself that ‘If I wrote a song that sounds like the Flaming Lips, why not try and get Wayne to sing on it?’ It really was simple. I just texted him and asked if he would be willing to sing on it. Honestly, like 30 seconds later he wrote back and said ‘Sure!!!’.

Were there any collaborators you were unable to get for Innocents?

The only two people I reached out to who either didn’t get back to me or weren’t able to do it were Emilie Sandé and James Blake. Emilie Sandé — I just really like her voice. I know she’s becoming a pop star but I was mainly interested in her because I think she’s got a great voice. And James Blake is probably my favorite current musician. I love what he does and I love his whole approach to music. The covers that he chooses. But I’m working under the assumption that I’m possibly not cool enough for James Blake to work with because we reached out to him and we never actually heard back from him.

If you were working with Blake for example, would it be a musical collaboration or just a lyrical collaboration? To what extent do your collaborators have a say in the song-writing process?

In most of the songs on the new record, the way it works is I would send an instrumental to the collaborator and they would write the lyrics and the vocal melodies. “The Perfect Life” was a song that I wrote primarily by myself then had Wayne add to what I had written. But many of the other cases it was sending them sort of blank slate of an instrumental and having the collaborator doing whatever they want with it. Once they sent it back, that’s when I started playing around with things and almost like re-writing the song around their vocals.

There wasn’t any input on the musical/instrumentation side?

Not really. I would more often than not meet up with the singer in my studio and record the vocals. Maybe talk about some lyric changes or talk about some melody ideas. For the most part, I really wanted to see what other people would come up with. That’s probably my favorite thing about collaborating — having other people come up with ideas that I would never ever in a million years be able to come up with.

What were some albums or songs that were part of the inspirational process during the creation of Innocents?

I could have one of two answers. I could have this sort of like Pitchfork friendly answer, that involves referencing a lot of really obscure things, which is true, I have been listening to some fairly obscure things like Alt-J. In fact Alt-J just did a remix for me. But the truth is, if I have to pick two biggest influences on this record it would be Neil Young and the Marianne Faithful song “Broken English”. Considering “Broken English” was written and recorded like 30 years ago, and the Neil young songs I was listening to were like “After the Gold Rush”, “Helpless”, and “The Needle and the Damage Done”. When I made the album Play, I was mainly listening to a lot of hip-hop. I wouldn’t expect anyone to hear a lot of hip-hop influence on that album but that was sort of what I was inspired by. The same thing with this album. I could imagine someone listening to it and being kind of baffled as to how it was inspired by Neil Young and Marianne Faithful. But that’s sort of what I was listening to.

Listening to “Saints”, I hear Massive Attack.

Yeah, I mean it’s funny because Spike Stent, who helped me on the record, worked on the first three or four Massive Attack albums. It wasn’t intentional. I mean I love Massive Attack. It just sort of accidentally sounded like that. I would love to be able to make music as good as Massive Attack. But I know what you are saying it starts out, it almost seems like “Unfinished Sympathy”.

Well, in your recent bio, it says that you made the record that you want to make, that Innocents is an “uncompromised, fully realized work from one of the most iconoclastic, innovative, individual forces in electronic music.” Do you feel that this process might somehow alienate fans? Wouldn’t you want to consider making an album with a more commercial impact?

Well there are so many electronic musicians and producers making pop music that I think it’s sort of okay for me to choose not to do that. As much as I like big pop records, I like them in a very specific context. You know, if you are at some big electronic music festival and you hear Calvin Harris play one of his big hit records, it sounds great in a field of 50,000 people, but it’s not necessarily what I want to listen to before going to sleep or in the morning when I’m making breakfast.

With this record it certainly generally is on the quieter side, it’s a little more introspective, maybe a little more subtle. In the course of my life I’ve made so many different kinds of music that I don’t really know what anyone would expect in listening to one of my records. ’cause over the years I think I’ve managed to confuse just about anyone who has been willing to listen to my music.

Basically I just go into my studio every day and just work on music. Rarely do I ever have any sort of plan. I just kind of go into my studio and work. Then hopefully some time passes and I end up with music that I really like, that I then try to finish to release as an album. But I guess I’m not really thinking in terms of career or any sort of broad meta-plan, it’s just more honestly and simply and naively trying to music that I really love.

Moby: 2000 in Providence / 2002 in London

How did Mark “Spike” Stent influence or affect the direction of Innocents?

Early on we were talking about what sort of record it should be and he was quite adamant that the record be very warm and emotional. ’cause from his perspective that’s what he likes about the music I make. That is this sort of vulnerable warmth to it and an emotional quality. So for most of the songs, that’s what we were focusing on. That made me happy because I love a lot of different types of music, but the music that is nearest and dearest to my heart is music that other people make that has that warmth and vulnerability to it.

I read that you do a lot of work with charities. What are some of the more immediate ones that you are a part of?

Well, on the human rights side, I’m working with Human Rights Watch, the ACLU, different domestic violence prevention organizations, and of course trying to work with things like the DNC [Democratic National Committee] and trying to support progressive political candidates. And then I work a lot with different animal rights organizations. I think the Humane Society is probably the organization I work the closest with just because they are so big and they are so effective on a legislative level. They have a lot of money to put behind legislative initiatives, whereas some of the smaller organizations are really well intentioned, but to pass legislation does require a lot of resources.

So what do you think we can do to fix Congress?

Dispense with gerrymandering. Gerrymandering — I know it’s a complete random tangent — but the etymology of the word gerrymander, there was a politician I think in the early 19th century whose name was [Elbridge] Gerry. He started redrawing districts [and they] looked like salamanders. So politicians mocked him and called the process gerrymandering. Now, if you are ever at a party and you want to end in an awkward silence you can tell people the trivia of the etymology of gerrymandering. But gerrymandering is really what has made the House so completely broken. You have these districts that are just all conservative or all liberal. As a result there is no middle ground anymore.

Essentially, you would agree that President Obama is not gonna get a lot done in his second term.

Yeah. It’s tricky. There’s a lot that he can do without the House but certainly the House, like their knee-jerk reaction where they block him on anything. The thing that is really galling is that a lot of his initiatives were originally Republican. Like Obamacare was originally a Republican idea. I think that’s one of the reasons he was so confused. He borrowed a lot of the ideas from Republicans thinking that by borrowing their ideas he would get their support. Then he came to them, with stuff that [Senator] Mitch McConnell and [House Speaker] John Boehner had actually drafted, and he came back to them and they rejected their own proposals. It really is just like this insidious tribal racist, right-wing thought where it’s just obstructionism purely for the sake of obstructionism.

Perhaps some progress can be made in other areas. Like The Supreme Court ruling striking down the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA). What was your reaction to that?

It was a complicated week because the Supreme Court seemed very sort of schizophrenic. Sort of overturning affirmative action and overturning DOMA. There was certainly a cause for cheering. My belief is that if you look at the last 100 years, there are more and more disenfranchised groups that have been granted equal rights. 100 years ago, women couldn’t vote, children worked in factories, blacks and whites had different bathrooms and water fountains. Slowly and surely equal rights are granted to all people. From my perspective it’s just a matter of time until those same equal rights are granted to people regardless of their gender or sexual orientation. I think I was very happy but at the same time, feeling like it’s this inevitability in the best possible sense.

Being a vegan, if the court had to decide on the genetically modified organism (GMO) labeling debate, do you think labeling will happen?

As a member of the ACLU, I see it more as a freedom of speech issue. Why not let people … it shouldn’t be restricted. It’s really weird. It’s happening with the Ag-Gag bills, where a lot of protestors and undercover operatives who want to infiltrate slaughter houses aren’t allowed to publish their information. To me that’s just not constitutional. The same thing with GMOs. I just feel like it should be completely up to the individual. If you want to have a company and you want to label things as GMO-free, then why not?

You mentioned the Humane Society and Human Rights Watch. If any of them asked you to tour for their charity, would you?

Well I hope that I would. I hope that I’m not a hypocrite and that I’m committed enough to the causes I believe in where if someone asked me to sort of put aside my own interests and my own will to do something on behalf of a cause or a charity I believe in, I hope that I would have the decency and the conscience to do that. The thing is — maybe this is just my way out of it — touring right now isn’t that lucrative. If I go on tour, it’s with a full band and there is full production. It’s one of the reasons a lot of fundraisers won’t have bands playing because the moment you have a band playing, the costs become so high the organization doesn’t make money from the fundraiser. If there was a way to go on tour and generate a lot of money for a wonderful organization, I hope that I would have the decency to do that.

Right now your “tour” behind Innocents will only consist of three October shows in L.A. because you’ve found a venue is close to your home and you are not fond of touring. What’s wrong with touring New York or your home town in Connecticut?

Well if for some reason I put out the record and people really like it then maybe I would consider playing some more shows. But I found that when I go tour, I stop being creative. I spend a lot of time sitting around and doing nothing but waiting. I really feel like life is short so I’d rather spend my time at home or in my studio working on music or writing. So that’s the main reason I’m not touring.

Also the last couple of times I played in New York, this is not really a complaint but, I was received so badly by the New York media that it kind of made me not really want to play in New York again.

I remember this one Village Voice article that started, I memorized the first couple of lines, “Before seeing this show, I knew that everyone hated Moby. After seeing the show, I now understand why.” The last time I played in New York, Time Out‘s pre-review was so mean it just made me think ‘Why, why am I bothering with this?’ I feel like there is so much other interesting and good stuff going on in New York that I can’t imagine my absence is felt. I feel like coming to New York and being on the receiving end of a lot of hostility is honestly quite depressing. So I’d rather just come, see friends and family and not expose myself to the vitriol of New York media.

The last show I did [in New York] was really little and very sort of experimental. It was at the Angel Orensanz Center on Norfolk Street, an old 19th century synagogue. The first half was acoustic and the second half was very quiet, ambient music. I think the place holds about 200 people. I really enjoyed doing that. I honestly don’t even know if we bothered to announce it to the media because my manager and I were like, ‘considering there is so much negativity directed at me from local New York media,’ it didn’t make sense to invite their wrath.

I am going back for my high school reunion so maybe my high school punk band The Vatican Commandos will do a reunion show or something.

Little Idiot Character

You’ve also done DJ sets, like at Electric Zoo. Are you planning to continue doing that?

This summer I DJed in big festival in Chicago and at Coachella. I DJed the Wanderlust Festivals, which are these interesting progressive festivals in beautiful locations. So I’ve done a bunch of DJing and I’m going to DJ in Las Vegas for Labor Day because some of my friends who are DJs have organized this weekend. So DJing hopefully will continue to happen. And I’d love to come back to New York and do Electric Zoo again or something similar.

Considering I was born in New York and lived there for such a long time, it would make me sad to never play there again. But it might be a little while. It might be a small show like we did last time.

In prior interviews, like the one with The Quietus, your humility has come up. Growing up you did live a humble lifestyle.

Yeah certainly growing up dirt poor in Darien, Connecticut has certainly affected how I perceive myself. It tints my worldview because until I was 18 years old I never met another poor person. My mom and I were on welfare and food stamps. When I first moved to New York, I remember one of the ways I was able to food myself was that my roommates and I had parties. I would wake up early in the morning after the party and fill up garbage bags with the cans and bottles from the party and go to the Food Emporium in Union Square and wait in line with the homeless people to put cans and bottles into the five cent bottle return. And it’s great. I was perfectly happy. Like I like my life now, but I was actually happy waiting in line with homeless people to put cans and bottles into five cent bottle return machine.

Have you been to the Capitol Theater now that it has been restored and reopened in the past year?

Yeah. That’s right. I spent years of my life getting off of Metro North at the Port Chester train station. You either go to 7 Willow Street or The Beat. I saw a lot of shows at the Capitol. In fact, I think it was in 1985 or 1986, they had [laughs] a hip-hop or an MC competition. I had met these kids who went to high school in New Rochelle and they asked me to DJ for them. I basically was playing Run DMC B-sides while these kids rapped over it. It was just an interesting experience because, of the 2,000 people there, I was the only white person. I felt sort of honored to be there.

You are very humble when on stage, but you’re able to create laughs at your own expense, like in that video clip of The Postal Service auditions. You don’t have any problem making fun of yourself?

I guess the times in my life when I’ve taken myself too seriously, I’ve been sort of embarrassed afterwards. For better or worse, I guess I might not be so humble if I were tall and had a lot of hair and were really handsome and got great reviews all the time. Then I might be so arrogant. But I’m not very tall, I’m bald, and I get a lot of bad press. There’s a lot to sort of base my humility on.

You have composed music under the moniker Little Idiot and draw a little alien character that uses that name. Music videos were created featuring the alien’s humbling and sometimes sad experiences. Is there any chance you might revisit his world and create new stories for him?

I hope so. We did one about five years ago. I put out an album called Wait for Me, and the first single from that was called “Pale Horses”. We did a very like sad, low budget video for that. I’ve been drawing that character since I’ve been eighteen years old, so I hope to continue to do stuff with him or her. I just don’t quite know what.

Well, what about acting yourself? Now that you are in L.A., how is your acting career going? You were a guest in the Betas pilot that was available on Amazon.

My acting career is hovering between random and non-existent. I guess largely because I don’t want to be an actor. If I thought that it was something I was really good at I would try and pursue it. I just end up acting in things if a friend of mine is directing something. Mindy Kaling had me guest on her show just because she emailed me and said, “Hey, come down and pretend you are a DJ on my TV show.” That sort of stuff is fun. But I don’t think that I have any grand ambition to be a master thespian. I’m perfectly happy to stay home and make music.

Speaking of home, I’m in New York City, where you used to live. What do you miss about this city?

First and foremost, and this might seem a little esoteric, but what I miss is the familiarity of it. I basically had lived in or around Manhattan for 46 years. Every last inch of NY is familiar to me. I sorta miss that.

I also miss the bridges. I know these are really kinda odd things that most people might not miss. But one of my favorite things about New York is that you always have the ability to sort of step on a bridge and see the entire city spread before you. Also just the architecture of the bridges is amazing. And I of course miss the simple fact of being able to — I lived on Mott Street for about twenty some odd years — just being able to walk out my front door and go anywhere really, really easily. ‘Cause as much as I like Los Angeles everything here is so big that going anywhere in L.A. logistically can be pretty complicated. So I just miss the simple logistics of New York.

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