One of my favorite conversations with anyone ever took place in Moby's Manhattan pad, filled with musical instruments. On that rainy day, I was fortunate to have the chance to converse with Moby one-on-one and then, a week later, to attend the planetarium listening party for his truly beautiful album, Wait For Me. Here is the lengthier, online version of the article I wrote about Moby for Beyond Race Magazine in 2009. I also helped design the concept of the Moby image, drawn below by two separate artists.
The cover of Moby’s new album, Wait For Me—an expansive and delicate exploration of loneliness—features a lonely alien that he drew and can replicate in less than 5 seconds. Beyond Race spoke with Moby in his pad about this new record, his buddy David Lynch, and his affinity for junkies and New York City.
Although your new album is more personal and you didn’t use digital effects when mixing, it would seem that you have an interest in technology and multimedia projects. Can you talk about this? Your connection to technology in music seems to have really impacted your work.
Not to be too general, but the history of music goes in lockstep with the evolution of technology. Something as simple as a guitar, or a piano, or Les Paul inventing multi-track technology. I mean Les Paul invented everything, like the first electric guitar pick-up. And for me, because I’m a solo artist, if it were the mid-70s the records I would be making would sound completely different from what I make now because technology is what, for better or worse, enables me to make my records. I have a small studio here and to make the records that I make thirty years ago, forty yeas ago, I would have needed a huge studio with tons of people around and now, one of the nicest things about technology is its lowered the cost of making records. It costs me next to nothing to make a record, and it’s also taken off some of the pressure because I do everything at home and if you’re working in a big studio the clock is always ticking, so there’s constant pressure to create, and if you’re not creating you’re wasting money. Whereas at home, if I spend a week working in the studio and nothing good comes from it, I’ve lost some time but I haven’t lost tens of thousands of dollars. Autonomy comes from technology…I now can do everything myself. I go into my studio and I mean, it gets a little lonely at times because it’s sort of monastic and there’s an ascetic quality to it.
And you’re a solo artist.
Yeah, I do occasionally envy people in bands who make music in a more social way because that’s fun. It’s kind of more fun making a record with a band but I can better make the kind of records I want to make by myself.
Can you tell me about the storyline of the video for “Shot in the Back of the Head,” and your collaboration with David Lynch on this? It’s really beautiful and minimalist and I was wondering about the process of working on this project and the symbolism of both the song and the video.
The way the title came about was I was talking to some friends and we were talking about the way in which we wanted to die, and most people say they want to die in their sleep or they want to die surrounded by loved ones, but my friend Alex, her answer is she wants to be walking down 34th street and have a complete stranger come up and shoot her in the back of the head. That’s how she wants to die, with no advance warning and no awareness of what’s happening. And I thought that was a very interesting way to want to die and when you make an instrumental song you can name it anything. If I write a song with lyrics, usually the title comes from the lyrics, but if there are no lyrics you just have to think of these arbitrary sort of random titles.
Every now and then, since David Lynch and I are friends, I’ll just send him a piece of music. I’ll be working on something and I’ll think, 'Oh David might like this.' So I sent him “Shot in the Back of the Head” and he liked it and he said, 'Oh if you have any footage lying around I’d love to use it in a video.' I know he’s constantly shooting, no pun intended, shooting things and he does a lot of animation and he wanted to learn how to use Flash and so he used making the video as his way of learning how to use Flash.
Did he draw those images in the video?
He did everything. When I’m working with artists I really revere and respect, I like them do whatever I want. For me to in any way try to give direction to David Lynch would be the most absurd, presumptuous thing I’ve ever done.
How is Moby of today different from Moby of the past, when you first began playing music, and DJing in clubs, or when you first achieved mainstream success? And do you feel that you have evolved as an artist?
The first record I put out was actually in 1983, I was in a hardcore punk band called The Vatican Commandoes and we put out a 7inch called Hit Squad For God, which sold 250 copies, and at that time all of my favorite musicians were underground musicians and there were no musicians I respected who actually sold a lot of records, so when I was growing up I always thought I would be a weird underground musician who never sold records. And when I signed to my first label, I thought maybe I would sell 2000 records. I never expected mainstream success...so when it happened it just kind of confused me. For awhile, to my shame, I actually found myself having success and wanting more. But then the more I had the less I liked it.
In some ways it’s sort of emancipating because now I can make a record like this and I hope that people like it but I’m not concerned about anything resembling mainstream success. And it’s nice to not care about that aspect of it. But as far as my evolution as a musician or an artist, I don’t know. I can’t say that there’s been a progression; technically I know how to engineer records better and play instruments better, but some of the music I made when I was trying to get signed in the late '80s—I made some really strange, interesting music—that from my perspective is just as interesting as some of the music I’m making now. Some artists progress in a sort of linear way; I don’t think I have.
Do you think that your new album is a more intellectual approach to music? I know you wrote and recorded Wait For Me in your home studio, which is a converted bedroom, and you drew the album art yourself and had friends as guest vocalists.
It’s a little more experimental, it’s a lot more personal. It’s a lot less bombastic. One of my goals in life has been to make almost anti-intellectual music, because when I was nine years old I started learning music theory and playing classical music and from the time I was about ten until 13 or 14 I had a music teacher who loved complicated jazz and the only music he liked was intellectual, complicated music. And then I discovered punk rock, and I was like, 'All I want to hear is The Clash and three chords.' I like smart music when it still has a populist, emotional quality to it. Sonic Youth are a great example. Sometimes simplicity is really an underrated virtue in all of the arts. Sometimes the process can overwhelm the emotion.
Is there any part of the recording process that you absolutely hate?
I don’t like writing lyrics, I don’t know why. My mom was a literature major, I’m related to Herman Melville, I love writing essays, I love writing prose, but for some reason I just don’t like writing lyrics; that’s the drudgery of it. I try hard to write personal and expressive lyrics but in a perfect world I’d have a friend who wrote all of the lyrics. Mixing is also another part that makes me really anxious.
You’ve written that Last Night was an eclectic dance record, a party record for 1 a.m on a Saturday night, while Wait For Me is much quieter and more like a '9 a.m Sunday morning raining outside' record. Did you always want to make a record like this? Did you always want to slow things down and create something more introverted?
Musically I love Pantera, I love Black Flag, I like really aggressive music, but the music that other people have made that’s closest to my heart tends to be more mournful and quieter. As much as I love Pantera, I’ll always love Nick Drake more. As much as I love Public Enemy, I’ll always love Joy Division more. I love big bombastic expression, but quieter, introverted expression has always appealed to me more.
You've also said that Wait For Me is meant to be listened to from start to finish. Are you trying to indicate that there is no one “single,” or that it is more cohesive than your other albums, and therefore must be enjoyed in a different way? Your other albums did have singles and songs that leant themselves to clubs, parties, and sometimes radio play…but this one seems different.
I understand it’s 2009 and the vast majority of people who listen to music from this record will listen to it on their iPod on shuffle. It’s just a given and I accept that but I really do hope that if someone is willing to buy the record they, at least once, listen to it from start to finish. There’s something nice about a cohesive album. You put it on and you let it do all the work. And you hand yourself over to the musician’s vision of what the album should be, and I’m certainly not going to be presumptuous enough to say that this is a classic record, but I just hope that somehow someone will listen to it from start to finish and get something out of it.
The first focus track, “Shot in the Back of the Head,” was us saying, 'We like this song, let’s put it out and see what happens.' But that was an interesting choice because it’s an instrumental so it can never be played on the radio, and the video is dark and strange so it can never be played on MTV. The old punk rocker in the back of my head loves the fact that the first focus track, or single, is probably the least commercial thing I’ve ever released.
When you wrote about the meaning behind the song “Jltf1/Jltf” you mentioned that everyone you knew was smoking crack, smoking meth, and shooting speedballs and dying of overdoses and that this became normal. And then you went on to say that these people shouldn’t be demonized and that the reason people do drugs more often than not is they want to be happy, and you have spoken about how it shouldn’t be the job of the government to impose laws upon the bodies of adults. Can you say more about these opinions?
I don’t think that the government ever has a place to tell an individual what they can or cannot do to their own bodies. If someone wants to get crazy tattoos on their face, if someone wants to kill himself, if someone wants to take drugs, it’s not the government’s place to prevent them from doing it; it’s the government’s place to provide them with information. And as far as drugs though, I’m all in favor of decriminalization because most of the people I know who’ve really been damaged by drugs, it’s because they didn’t know what they were taking. They didn’t know what they were getting into. Certainly, people shouldn’t deal with the awfulness of addiction. The Dutch government has this amazing public health service where they set up a booth in nightclubs and if you bring them your drugs they test them for purity. That way there are less drug deaths. I don’t advocate drug use, but it’s a fact of life that people like to take drugs.
Do you ever make music consciously thinking that people listening would be on drugs?
I’m aware…Everybody does drugs. Honestly I don’t know a single person who has not at some point in their life done class-A narcotics. I have, everybody I know has. Luckily, I emerged relatively unscathed. Luckily most of my friends emerged unscathed. I really worry about people harming themselves. The war on drugs is not working, it’s costing tons of money and it’s sending poor innocent kids to jail for having the smallest amount of drugs on them.
Having lived and made music in NYC for 30 years, and having been fully ingrained in the culture, what do you think about New York of today, in terms of gentrification or its music and arts scenes, versus New York of years past? Are you still as fascinated with and absorbed by the city now as you were then? And would you ever want to record elsewhere?
Selfishly, I did prefer NY when it was cheaper and scarier. I preferred the East Village when you sort of took your life in your hands walking down certain streets. Cheap rents enable people to take more chances. I do miss cheap, dirty, scary old NY; having said that, I’m one of the few people who thinks that this is an amazing time. The last few years, barring gentrification and barring how expensive everything is, there are more galleries, and more bands, more clubs, more musicians, more photographers, more writers…just the number of bands that have come out, the number of records that have come out. Like the '90s, not much happened here. From 1990 until 1999, I can’t really think of too many relatively well-known bands that came out of NY. There was stuff going on but NY had been ravaged by AIDS and the crack epidemic, and so, in the '90s, NY was kind of licking its wounds. I think NY is in a really good place…the bigness of it means that the moment one place becomes too gentrified, people leave. There’s always a next place to go and that’s what keeps it interesting.
Let's talk about your sentiment, shared by Lynch, about art versus commerce and how the market should accommodate art and not the other way around. Do you believe that people like yourself in the music world have any power to change the industry? Or do you feel that you are doing so simply by making a record based upon your own artistic intentions?
I think luckily it’s already sort of changed because records just don’t sell that well anymore, so ten years ago, a major label could go to an artist and encourage the artist to make a lot of compromises in the interest of selling five million records. And now the same major label will go to the artist and ask them to compromise without any incentive. It seems that musicians are able to have a lot more integrity now, and also musicians can reach their audience more directly; decades ago, there were a handful of radio stations, a handful of magazines, and a handful of record companies, and if you didn’t go through them no one heard your music. And now, I don’t know, there’s so many different ways in which people can release records and communicate with fans, in which people can disseminate music and information, so I do think that the demise of the major label is one of the greatest things to happen to music in a long time.
Since you've been personally inspired by David Lynch and his theories about creativity, how do you feel about his ideas of Transcendental Meditation? Lynch has said that transcending is “an experience that you can have just before you go to sleep….when you go from one state of consciousness to another,” but that we can get there in the waking hours through meditation. Do you think music, yours or anyone else’s, has the power to transcend? And do you ever meditate or feel as though you have reached this “fourth state of consciousness” where you find an unbounded ocean of bliss within your Self?
I don’t know if I ever reached the fourth state of consciousness. Maybe I have maybe I haven’t. I mean certainly there was no one there standing there…if you’re learning how to play an instrument, you can play for someone and they’ll tell you that you’ve gotten to a certain point, but as far as consciousness goes, all you can do is talk about your experience. It’s all subjective. One of the things I love about music and art in general but especially music is it can take you anywhere, and you don’t have to do anything. It’s one of the only art forms that exists even when you close your eyes. Most other things...you don’t like looking at a painting, you close your eyes the painting goes away. But with music, even with your eyes closed, it literally penetrates every cell in your body. Music is air molecules being slightly adjusted. Part of its power, I think, is that it’s technically intangible. It’s also the only art form you can’t touch; it never exists. The moment it’s created it doesn’t exist anymore. And people sometimes confuse the delivery vehicle for music with the music itself; like someone will think you can touch music because here’s a CD. A CD is just a piece of plastic with binary code on it; it’s not actual music. Music is also the only art form that can’t exist in a vacuum, music needs air.
(first illustration by Maurizio Masi; second illustration by Tatyana Fazlalizadeh)