Q&A With Moby

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Richard Melville Hall believes in transparency: He is open about his faith, psychology, politics and diet, whether talking to the press or writing in his online journal. Moby, Hall’s musical alter ego, is another matter entirely. Moby is the artist who wasn’t there—but only because he’s always in motion. From hardcore punk to techno to film scores to mainstream rock to the sampladelic commercial phenomenon that was 1999’s Play, Moby’s career can appear as a blur of forever-changing sounds, vocalists and moods. His palette has shifted to twilight blue on the home-recorded Wait For Me (out this week on Little Idiot/Mute), with noir, shapeshifting pocket symphonies such as “Shot In The Back Of The Head” and its David Lynch-created video. MAGNET spoke to Moby about Bowie, faith, home renovation and more. Moby will be guest editing magnetmagazine.com this week.

“Shot In The Back Of The Head” (download):

MAGNET: Do you make albums that are reactions to what you did previously? I mention this because the last one was brash and disco, and Wait For Me is so much quieter.
Moby: I probably do on some sort of petulant, reactionary level. Hearing you say that is the first time I ever really thought about it. But looking back at the records I have made, more often than not, whatever record I’m releasing is quite different than the one before it. In 1995, I put out the album Everything Is Wrong, which was a very eclectic record, but it had a lot of rave songs on it. Then the next record was this weird punk rock record, Animal Rights.

I’m very impressed that you always seem to find these very emotional voices out of nowhere. I’m curious as to who they are and what they mean to you. There is a woman who does vocals on “Walk With Me” and there is a voice on “Hope Is Gone”—I’m guessing they are both kids, but the two of them sound aged and not at all of this moment.
Well, I live in New York and there are so many inspiring aspiring singers here. There is no shortage of people with very good, very unconventional voices in New York. What I find myself really desperately looking for are people who have voices that are laden with character. You know, it’s nice if they can sing, it’s nice if they can hold a tune, but I’d much rather have a singer who might not have the best technical voice but who has a lot of character. I do find myself also gravitating toward vocals who sound like they might have been recorded 50 years ago. Every vocal on this record, I actually took the recordings and tried to make them less pristine.

For all the beautiful contours, you can tell it’s cranky and creaky and has little blotchy things all over it.
Well, one of the downsides of working with ProTools is that you can get technically very perfect recordings, but technically perfect recordings don’t have a lot of atmosphere. So what I would do is record things in a pristine way then run things through old processing units, reverbs and old tape machines to make them sound a little more degenerated.

Is there a social aspect to meeting people and having them sing on your record? Is it a nice sort of fun, friendly thing, or is it workmanlike?
It’s a little of both. One of the things I like about working with singers is that it makes the recording process a little more gregarious. Normally it’s just me alone in the studio for hours unending, so it’s nice when someone comes over and you make a pot of tea and you sit on the roof and you talk about who they’re dating and then you go in the studio and record vocals.

That’s funny—this record sounds, despite the glut of other people on it, lonelier than your previous stuff.
Even if I’m not feeling particularly mournful or sad myself, I have always really loved sad, mournful music. But there’s nothing wrong with happy music and every now and then. It’s nice to put on CCR’s greatest hits, but I do find myself always gravitating to more mournful music.

Knowing your previous work, I would say that the lyrical content of your songs has an optimism and is still touched by low-level anxiety.
[Laughs] That’s the story of my life.

Yet the lyrics here have a portent of sadness that’s shared with the music. May I ask, if you don’t mind, your mental state?
Well, in 1995 I did put out a song “When It’s Cold I’d Like To Die.”

Well, OK, there’s that!
There’s a precedent, you know.

True. But I don’t remember that music sounding so rueful.
True, too. I hope that my emotional life is roughly the same as everybody else’s emotional life. There are periods of happiness, periods of contentedness, of sadness. I have never lived inside of anyone else’s head, so I don’t know what others’ emotions are like. Making this record, I hoped that my emotional state was fairly normal. A long time ago I realized that I don’t necessarily need to be on the edge of blowing my brains out to make mournful music. I can listen to a Joy Division record and really love it even if I’m not thinking about jumping off of a cliff.

See, I listen to Joy Division and I immediately do want to jump from a high place onto a lower one. Has there been anybody in the last three or four years with that level of dire romanticism you dig?
Boy, maybe I’m just not looking hard enough, but I tend to go back to Jeffrey Lee Pierce from the Gun Club or Ian Curtis or Nick Drake. The only person I can think of in the last couple of years who has made a record that is really vulnerable and sincere and romantic to me is Bon Iver.

The only song you sing on this record is “Mistake,” and it’s very Bowie.
One of the things I like about finishing a record and putting it out into the world is when it’s finished is that I have no idea what it is. For me, objectivity has been slaughtered through the repetitive process of music. And you’re not the first person to say that my voice reminds them of David Bowie. I just laugh at that because I don’t think I have a very good voice and I think David Bowie has one of the best, most interesting voices ever. Mine is akin to some kid scratching in the sand with a stick.

Has it been funny befriending Bowie? Have you befriended anyone who you inspired?
I don’t think I have inspired anybody.

Come on.
No, I’m not being self-deprecating. I really think that I have made so many different types of records—really uncommercial records and commercial records and very wildly diverse records—I’m lucky that some people seem to like the music that I make. Radiohead, for example, has inspired everybody from Snow Patrol to Coldplay to TV On The Radio to whomever. With me, I’m not what you call a musician’s musician.

But you understand how to create an atmosphere.
Back to when I was known for being a dance musician, I would occasionally meet other young dance producers who were maybe inspired by me. But at this point I don’t think I’m the musician who inspires other musicians. I think I’m the sort of musician who is lucky that he still gets to make records.

The instrumental things on Wait For Me are, for the most part, very minor key. What had you been listening to?
This may be a frustrating answer, because I listen to a lot of modern ambient music, but I don’t know who makes it. I go online to Pandora or a streaming site and basically type in “ambient” and just sit back and listen. With contemporary ambient music, the names are obscure, the album titles are obscure, the track titles are obscure, so it’s almost like the aesthetic is designed for people to just pay attention to the music. And that’s what I do, and as a result I can’t name any artist. And of course going back to listening to the b-side of Heroes or the b-side of Low or the second side of (Brian Eno and David Byrne’s) My Life In The Bush Of Ghosts. I guess I’m dating myself when I’m referring to album sides.

It’s OK, Moby.
For me, great records are equal parts songwriting, emotion and atmosphere. If I have one criticism of any of the albums I have made, Hotel is my least favorite one.

Why?
Because there is no atmosphere to it. It’s technically a very well-mixed, very well-recorded record, but it doesn’t have the sense of space and atmosphere that I love in other people’s great records. I think some of the songs are actually very nice. I just was way to anal and buttoned-down when it came to recording and engineering it.

I would have never thought of you as anal or buttoned-down.
I’m from Connecticut. We’re poster children for anal and buttoned-down.

Last time we spoke, you were still building a house in upstate New York.
I have undertaken these big efforts thinking that I will vastly improve the quality of my life. I built this crazy house upstate, and once I was finished, I realized it was a great house for 40 people, but if I was there by myself, it was big and lonely and weird. So I sold that. Then I renovated this art-deco apartment on the Upper West Side and a similar thing happened: The moment it was finished, I realized I didn’t really want to live on the Upper West Side. So I sold that. I’m actually back in the same building that I have been in since 1991.

Little Italy?
When you own an apartment in New York, you have to pay your monthly maintenance, and the monthly maintenance on my studio is $250 a month. There has never been a reason to sell it, so I keep coming back here as a result.

David Lynch created the video to “Shot In The Back Of The Head” for you. Have you maintained a friendship with him since the time when you did “Go”?
I only met him the first time a couple years ago. I believe he and Angelo Badalmenti made most of the money from the sale of “Go.” I think they always have been favorably disposed toward me. The more I got to know [Badalamenti], I mean he’s wonderful—but it’s like with David Bowie. He’s a wonderful, smart, amazing man, but the more I got to know him, the less capable I was of objectifying his music. And I really think that it helps if he is a mythical being other than the flesh-and-blood person who lives across the street. But with Lynch, we became friends and I DJed his wedding and we went together to play some shows at a little meditation center, so we had some very interesting experiences together.

I have interviewed you about a thousand times and I don’t think I have ever gotten to this: I’m curious as to where your faith is these days.
Sometimes I find myself confronted with really good questions and I don’t have a particularly good answer for them. The honest answer about my faith might sound annoying and vague, but it’s simple and complicated. I have a very simple faith, and it’s really my understanding of the universe being vast, my understanding the universe is never something I can understand because it’s too old and too big. One of the thoughts that routinely gives me headaches is the paradox between the facts that I’m 43 years old and not a single molecule with which I’m compiled is less than 15 billion years old, and that’s true for everybody and everything, and that gift baffles me but it also lets me see life as being really fleeting and really precious and mundane but also miraculous. My faith is simple and confused, but hopefully the cornerstone of whatever faith I have is a sense of humility and compassion and forgiveness. Not just toward other people and other things but toward myself as well. I think sometimes really well-intentioned, faithful, decent people forget to be compassionate with themselves.

There are moments on Wait For Me with a very watery, angelic choir and single-note strings that sound like church at night. They sound like an epiphany. I know obviously we feel what we feel, but do you feel as if your music ever reflects your faith?
Yes, absolutely, but I don’t know how. I guess it’s the paradox between the subjective and objective or the paradox between the temporal and internal or between the human and the universal. That is what drives me as a human, a musician, a person who wakes up every morning, trying to somehow make sense of these things and figuring them out in my own way. I just really like the idea of making music that is as open and inviting as possible. It doesn’t have to be bend-over-backwards populist. It’s like if you look at Camus’ The Plague. What I took away from it—and I haven’t read it in 20 years—is the sense of compassion.

I get that.
Let’s face it: As humans we are all dealing with the same set of circumstances. We are thrust into our bodies, we inhabit them for a few years and then we die, and at that time there is so much joy and so much fear and we exalt and we deal with despair.

What do you want people to walk away from this record with?
As strange as this might sound, ideally when people are done listening to this, I hope they will feel a sense of comfort. I would like them to feel like they have been taken care of for the last 65 minutes.

—A.D. Amorosi

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