With his fifteenth studio album in stores this week, we caught up for a long chat with Moby...
It seems crazy now, but at the back end of the 1980s and even into the early 90s, dance music and the rave culture that grew up around it were portrayed by most quarters of the media like some sort of mad death cult, where innocent youths were swept up in a maelstrom of drug-fuelled, frenzied dancing and mindless, repetitive music, all staged in the abandoned and condemned warehouses that plagued the nation's industrial estates.
There were elements of truth to all of that, of course, but fast-forward just a decade and some of the very same artists that had spent those early years pumping out acid house and techno in crumbling factories and clubs were now not only regular fixtures on mainstream radio, but also appearing on television shows and even commercials.
There are a handful of artists from that era that contributed to that gradual mainstream acceptance more than most; the likes of Daft Punk, Chemical Brothers, Prodigy and Fatboy Slim all made huge contributions in helping to bring dance music to mainstream audiences and music festivals, but it's difficult to recall anyone who navigated the crossover wave into mainstream success in quite the same way as Moby.
His 1990 single 'Go' was a a throbbing, Twin Peaks-sampling techno monster that had been tearing up dancefloors all over the world for nearly a full two years before it finally appeared on his eponymous debut album in 1992, but while he enjoyed some patchy chart success over the years that followed, it was on his 1999 album Play that Moby's unique formula of channeling dusty, vintage vocal samples through a prism of house, techno, hip-hop and its more mellow cousin trip-hop had turned his music into a model of ubiquity, as likely to be found in your mum's CD collection or on a Volkswagen advert as it was on a club dancefloor.
As anyone who has read his 2016 memoir Porcelain will attest, Moby played his own part in the debauchery of the early rave scene, but his ascent to mainstream success was more the result of serendipity than any desire for recognition: famously, every single one of the album's tracks was licensed out by TV shows, brands and films, but only because the radio stations didn't want to play them, and so Moby decided to say yes to their requests. Soon, his music was everywhere.
He's continued to release albums ever since and this week Moby returns with his fifteenth studio album, Everything Was Beautiful, and Nothing Hurt. Where his last few releases have alternately comprised minimalist, ambient music and loud, thrashing guitars, his latest record sees him return to more familiar territory and on the eve of its release we caught up with the man himself for a chat about what it means when nobody listens to albums anymore, writing about humanity in the Trump era, and why he won't be playing at a venue near you...
Your last two or three albums – the two with The Void Pacific Choir and the Long Ambients one before that – felt like a bit of a detour, stylistically speaking. Did it feel that way to you? Like a separate thing to what you usually do?
“I guess stylistically you're absolutely right, those records don't really sound all that much like anything I've done in the past, and it's largely a product of the fact that I'm a 52-year old musician who refuses to tour and who is making music in a time when, for the most part, people aren't all that interested in listening to albums. Especially, they're not interested in listening to albums made by 52-year old musicians who refuse to tour.”
“But in a way I find that really liberating. There's not much commercial viability or even anything approaching pressure around the release of an album, so in a very odd way I don't even see myself as really having much of a career as a professional musician, I see myself more as a full-time activist who occasionally gets to release albums.”
Was it a case of wanting to get some stuff out of your system?
“The ambient album had kind of an odd genesis. In many ways I'm a complete southern California cliche. I'm a vegan, I go hiking, I do yoga, I meditate, and I'd made these very long ambient songs, if you could even call them songs, for myself to listen to when I was meditating. Or having insomnia. And I had a bunch of them, so I thought: 'Why not just put them on a record and give them away for free?' I think you can also buy them if you want to, but the idea was to just give them to people if they wanted to be calm, or had insomnia, or wanted music to meditate to, because in a way that ambient stuff is barely even music. It's so minimal that there's no drums, there's no choruses or vocals, there are barely even chord changes, so to me it's very utilitarian, calming music.”
What about The Void Pacific Choir?
“I grew up playing in punk rock bands and I've always loved playing guitar, and so I think I just thought to myself: 'Well, for the most part people aren't buying albums, and I'm certainly not going on tour, so why not just make a couple for albums that are loud and energetic and fun'. Worst case scenario is no-one pays attention.”
So somewhere in the midst of all of this, you started working on a new album – when did work on this one begin? What was the starting point?
“I have a small studio in one of my bedrooms at home, because I've always really preferred working at home in a small studio, and almost every day I spend a couple of hours in my studio playing instruments and working on music. If you were talking to a rock band, they would have a compartmentalised, almost a segmented, professional approach to doing things. They would have their writing period, their rehearsal period, their recording period, the touring period. For me, I have no touring period because I refuse to tour, so I just keep writing and then at some point end up with a bunch of songs that I think are worthy of being released.”
“I still love that process. I grew up, like I assume you did, like most people did, obsessed with albums, buying them, listening to them, reading the liner notes. I still think there's something interesting about an album, even if very few people are willing to listen to them.”
So how does it it work for you? Is there usually a particular track that sets the direction for what you're doing?
“Yeah, in this case it was actually 'This Wild Darkness'. About four years ago I had the idea of doing an acoustic album, and I still want to do that at some point, but I wanted to re-do some of my older songs acoustically, and also do some new acoustic songs. I wrote the chorus for 'This Wild Darkness' in about two minutes and I really liked it, so then I recorded it and added strings, different orchestration, drums, and I guess that was kind of the start point. I realised it had this kind of quiet, pretty, downtempo, understated quality to it, and that kind of determined what the rest of the record was going to sound like.”
Do you need to have a goal in mind before you start out, or does it happen more organically than that?
“I think especially now there's no commercial pressure, it is a more organic process because I do it at home by myself in my bedroom. The only thing I'm trying to achieve when I make a record first and foremost, and very selfishly, is I want to enjoy making it, but then to release something that, if someone is willing to take the time to listen to it, they might feel some emotional connection to it. It might them feel less alone, or who knows, and I'm not saying that will always happen, but with the elimination of commercial potential it begs the question: why keep doing it? And what do you hope to achieve by doing it?”
How did you settle on the title? It's a quote from Kurt Vonnegut, right?
“Yeah, when I was in high school I loved Kurt Vonnegut. I read, I believe, all of his books while I was in high school and college, and then just recently I had run out of things to read, so I started going back to some of my favourite books from my childhood and I re-read Slaughterhouse-Five. I came across that quote and there was just something about it, the sort of utopian simplicity of it really struck me.”
We notice you've repurposed one of Matthew Grabelsky's excellent paintings for the cover artwork, how did you come across his work?
“Just through social media, I was hunched over my phone one day on Instagram and someone I know reposted one of his pictures, I think it was even that picture, and something about it really struck me. And the conjunction of that with the title is, at least for me, is sort of about the fact that, as a species, it's like every problem facing humanity is a problem created by humanity. You know, we don't have anyone else to blame any more. And if you follow that logic through, it means that we have the ability to stop making problems for ourselves. But somehow we don't.”
“We won the wars, we conquered the world, and yet rather than create peace and prosperity for everyone, rather than respect the environment, we've done everything in our power to create hell. It's such an indictment of who we are as a species. In 'ye olden days', we made mistakes but we didn't necessarily know that they were mistakes, but now we have all the data in front of us, we know that what we're doing collectively is disastrous but we keep doing it. So the innocence of that painting and the title are sort of pointing to the fact that we could make things better for ourselves, but for some horrifying reason we just don't.”
How does that feed into the lyrical ideas on this album? The lyrical themes on some of your recent albums seemed quite political, this seems more about humanity, would you agree?
“Yeah, because who we are politically is underpinned by who we are anthropologically, and so I almost feel like if we want to have long-term systemic change, we have to address who we are as a species and ask that basic question of what in our hereditary make-up has led us to being these scared, destructive creatures, and is there a way to fix it?”
Whether or not it's an overtly political record, how much has the climate around American politics influenced what you've been doing?
“I mean, whenever anyone does anything it's kind of a contextual product of the environment in which they live and we are, especially in the United States, living through this kind of stupid apocalypse. This totally unnecessary, right-wing, racist, environmentally destructive apocalypse. It's just mind-boggling. You look at the Trump administration and the Republicans and it's like every single policy position they take is wrong, there's nothing redeeming in them. They almost rely on scandal to hide the really bad stuff that they're doing.
“You can't help but be affected by it, but if you try and take a kind of broader view it's that simple question of what it is in their flawed, broken humanity that is compelling them. Why do they think these are good choices or good things to do?”
In terms of style and sonic texture, this album eels a lot closer to some of the work you did on albums like Play than your more upbeat, techno stuff – the trip-hop beats, ethereal synths and strings, soul influences – what kind of stuff were you listening to for inspiration?
“I actually made a playlist that's like the album inspiration playlist, and it's everything from Baby Huey to Grace Jones to Burial to Marianne Faithfull. I guess there's a lot of analogue and electronic black music from the 70s. People like Grace Jones were using the studio as an instrument and being very sonically experimental, but at its core it's still very beautiful songs with really prominent vocals. So sonically that was what I was going for.”
It's still quite eclectic though, do you think that comes from being a DJ for so long?
“That used to be this recurring question, back when genres were much more compartmentalised and isolated in a way, that was a recurring question. I would be asked why I experiment with all these different genres, and to me that just seemed normal. With all these different genres in the world to play around with, why would you just choose one? But at some point I just realised that my allegiance to and love for music is not contained within one genre. I like speed metal, but I also really like folk music, I like pre-renaissance classical music and I like punk rock. To me they all coexist happily and benignly because they all have the ability to deliver and communicate emotion.”
So since you don't do any touring, are there any plans for any new live shows at all?
“Well, my record label are forcing me into doing five live shows! Three of which will be in Los Angeles, two are in New York, and I intentionally picked really little venues. My manager sent through a list of possible venues and I just picked the tiniest ones I could find, so that way I can mainly focus on new songs. I don't have to put on a greatest hits show with tons of production, I can just play some of the new music. And when I say little, I think the Echo where we're doing it in Los Angeles holds like 225 people, Rough Trade in New York I think holds about 300.”
That is small…
“I just don't want to do normal, middle-aged guy, greatest hits tours. I mean, I've done it, and it just feels compromised in really unpleasant ways, like every couple of years going out and doing the same middle-aged guy tour. I understand that other musicians have to do it or enjoy doing it, I'd just rather stay home, go hiking and be an activist.”
Is there anything you miss about it? Anywhere you'd really like to play?
“I want to say yes, but, no. Like, for example, a couple of Saturdays ago I had two shows on the same day, one was a fundraiser for a preschool where some friends of mine have their kids, so I was playing songs at three o'clock in the afternoon, and then I put together a little band to play another fundraiser for Friends of the L.A. River, we just played some cover songs and it was spontaneous and fun.
“That, to me, is my ideal way of playing music. Not in some self-aggrandising, self-important way of, y'know, having security guards escort you to the stage. Yuck! There's something about all that that just makes my skin crawl, and it's a tricky thing for me to talk about because I don't want to seem like I'm criticising other musicians, but if you've done that enough, then why would you continue to do it if you don't have to? There's a lot of stuff to do in life! Like, I see some friends of mine who've been touring for like 20 or 30 years, and they're friends, but I'm just like: 'Don't you wanna, I don't know, go learn woodworking? Go volunteer at a children's hospital. Learn how to scuba dive. There's so much to do that doesn't involve being a middle-aged guy sitting backstage for the 18,000th time.”
Everything Was Beautiful, and Nothing Hurt and is in stores now, you can also find it here in our online store...