PENTHOUSE Feature, August 2002

By Jim DeRogatis


One day last spring, Jon Daniels, the mid-morning DJ on New York’s long-standing alternative-rock powerhouse WLIR-FM, played “It’s the End of the World As We Know It (And I Feel Fine)” by R.E.M., then returned to announce that the station had been sold to a group of artists led by one Richard Melville Hall, better known as the electronic musician Moby. Motley Crue drummer Tommy Lee would be coming on as the new morning man; the station’s call letters would be changed to WMBY, and the new regime was ushered in by Moby himself (the new program director) by spinning his current single, “We Are All Made of Stars.”

An hour later, complaining that running a radio station was too much damn work, Moby sold it back for a dollar more than the price he claimed he’d paid. That figure should have been the tip-off all along that it was an April Fool’s joke: $4,012.00. But the reason it had ever been believable was that, unlikely as it might seem, this previously obscure musician is now in the position of being a serious media mover and shaker.

With its brilliant mix of seductive dance grooves, beautiful melodies crafted and performed by the artist, and well-chosen samples ranging from field recordings of blues singers from the ’20s to the oh-so-cute and current Gwen Stefani of No Doubt, Moby’s last album Play connected with a mass audience on the level of breakthrough smashes such as Nevermind, Rumors, and The Dark Side of the Moon, selling upwards of 10 million copies worldwide, and reaching No. 1 in more than two dozen countries.

Born in Darien, Connecticut, an upper-class bedroom community an hour north of Manhattan, the former Mr. Hall is the great-great-grandnephew of the author of Moby Dick, hence the childhood nickname. After studying classical guitar, he dabbled with hardcore punk in the Vatican Commandos; majored in philosophy at the University of Connecticut, and graduated with several now-famous passions: Christianity, the Vegan lifestyle, and electronic dance music, which he found even more energizing than punk.

Following his initial dance-floor hit with 1991’s rollicking “Go” and a groundbreaking period with the independent label Instinct (an era nicely synopsized on the 1993 compilation, Early Underground), Moby signed to Elektra Records, where it was widely expected that “the face of techno” would take the music out of the raves and onto the pop charts—which he did, but not for some time. After producing several strong and wildly diverse albums (including 1995’s Everything Is Wrong and ’96’s Animal Rights), and building a reputation as a fiercely energetic live performer (the Iggy Pop of electronica, prone to standing on or hurling his keyboard), Elektra sent him packing, and the press branded him as passé.

“Most people had pretty much completely written me off,” Moby writes in his self-deprecating bio, “which, thankfully, I wasn’t aware of at the time.” He retired to his bedroom in lower Manhattan; began making Play; eventually caught the ear of some sympathetic folks at V2 Records, and the rest, as they say, is history.

Now, the music world waits to see if he can do it again with 18, an equally rewarding set of (you guessed it) 18 tracks encompassing evocative art-rock (“We Are All Made of Stars”), haunting ambient house music (“One of These Mornings”), and plenty of what can now rightly be called “Moby music” (“In My Heart,” “Signs of Love,” “At Least We Tried”). We recently indulged in a long and typically spirited conversation about his music and his career.

Q. I’ve interviewed you enough over the last decade to know what you’re going to say, but I have to ask any way: Did you feel any pressure crafting 18, coming off such a massive hit with Play?

A. I didn’t feel any commercial pressure, because I really saw the commercial success of Play  as an anomaly. And being signed to V2 and Mute [in the U.K.], they didn’t really put any commercial pressure on me at all. The only thing I felt and will continue to feel is a sort of creative responsibility towards the people who listen to my music. I love the idea of making a CD that people will actually like. A good CD can actually be an important thing to someone.

Q. Do you have a sense of what it was about Play that connected with so many people? Or is that an unfair question to pose to its creator?

A. It’s a fair question, I just don’t have an answer! [Laughs] I have no idea. I like it as a record, but it’s a weird record, and it doesn’t really fit in anywhere. Maybe it just came along at the right time. Maybe people felt comfortable with it, where they wanted a record that was challenging, but also warm and emotional. I think a lot of people felt they could buy this record and feel like they were doing something experimental, but it was also emotionally rewarding.

Q. A photographer friend of mine suggested that the album is the musical equivalent of those Matthew Brady Civil War photos, the ones where the eyes seem to be a window to these people’s souls. Have you ever considered that there might have been some inherent magic resonating in those samples of field recordings and old blues records?

A. People certainly focused on the field recordings and the samples, which is fine. But if you really look at it, there wasn’t really that much of that stuff on there. I think it was just an eclectic, emotional record that didn’t bore people. My biggest complaint about most CDs that I’ve bought or listened to in the last few years is just that stylistically, from the first track to the last track, there isn’t much variation. Sometimes that can work, like that Strokes record; they have a very limited palette, but they use it really well. Other times, like the modern-rock/nü-metal stuff, the first couple of songs will be exciting, but then you never feel the need to listen past song three.

Q. You got a lot of crap in some corners for being a sell-out or a tool of the great marketing machine. Newsweek ran a chart showing how you’d sold every song on Play to one or more advertisers or film soundtracks.

A. When Play came out, nobody was listening to it for the most part; it was a very obscure, underground record. I had worked long and hard on it, and I wanted people to hear it. I didn’t use the machine against itself; I just used it for my own purposes. I hope this doesn’t sound like I’m justifying it, but with God as my witness, when it comes to making music, I would never compromise what I’m doing. But once a record is made and you put it out into the world, it’s bound to have a complicated life regardless of whether you license it to commercials. Once it’s out, I’ll do anything in my power to get people to listen to it. I won’t compromise the integrity of making it, but as far as bringing it to people, I’m happy to do whatever it takes.

Q. But now this music is associated in many people’s minds with the advertisers and their messages. I mean, suppose the first time you heard Mission of Burma’s “That’s When I Reach for My Revolver”—which you covered—it was as the soundtrack for an N.R.A. commercial?

A. When I discovered Mission of Burma, I was 16 years old and I listening to college radio and reading underground music magazines and hanging out at record stores, and that’s how I discovered it. When I discovered the Clash, I was 11 years old, listening to AM radio, and I think “Train in Vain” was a Top 40 record for like a minute. If CBS hadn’t serviced it to AM radio and the Clash hadn’t done interviews with mainstream magazines, I never would have heard about it. It’s not difficult to reach people who are obsessed with underground music—and I’m not denigrating them, because I’m one of them. But there are a lot of people who have difficult jobs or live in remote places or are too young or too old to hang out in underground record stores, and I don’t want to penalize them. One thing that made me more comfortable licensing music to commercials was that in 1968, the Doors licensed “Light My Fire” to Ford. At the time, every music critic said, “How dare they? They prostituted their art!” But I dare you to find one person now who listens to “Light My Fire” and thinks of a Ford commercial.

Q. In any event, at age 36, you are now a bonafide pop star and a “career artist,” which raises the question—can you see yourself at age 46 or 56, going out on tour and singing the songs from Play?

A. Oh, yeah, absolutely. I recorded “Go” in 1990, and I haven’t done a single concert where we haven’t played it since! I’m a populist. If I’m playing a concert, I want people to be happy. I want them to hear songs that they’re familiar with.

Q. But as soon as it started to become successful, you famously turned your back on the early techno or rave scene. You’ve always had this sort of knee-jerk reaction against any scene that starts to prescribe rigid rules for behavior or put boundaries on musicians’ creativity

A. Unfortunately. I don’t know where it comes from, but yes I do. At the inception of a genre or a scene, it’s usually very creative and very open. One thing I resent is that when a scene develops, it inherently becomes more conservative. It happened with punk rock, it happened with New Wave, and it happened with the rave scene. Suddenly, what was once this open-ended genre becomes a little bit formulated. And I don’t know what it is about me, I just have to rebel against that. The idea that this spirit of freedom gets compromised bothers me.

Q. Fair enough, and that streak runs through all of your work. But in many ways, 18 can be viewed as Play, Part II. I’m surprised you didn’t feel the temptation to confound expectations and do something completely different.

A. After the Animal Rights record, I think I kind of got that out of my system. A CD is a form of communication, and if I am hoping that people will listen to the music that I make. I want to make it a rewarding experience for them. So now, I feel like if I want to make self-indulgent, disturbing music, I would rather do that on my own time.

Q. You have that luxury now: If you wanted to take a year off and just do screeching industrial noise, you could.

A. There is a part of me that would like to! [Laughs] I’ve got a couple of dreams, and one of them is to start a crummy little punk-rock band and go around in a van and only play little venues that hold about 80 people. It’s so much fun. You’re with your friends, you’re in a van, you get to the venue at like four in the afternoon, you set up the equipment, you do the soundcheck yourself, you go out and have dinner together, you come back, play a show, and there’s like 25 people there. There is something about that that is so attractive.

Q. It’s the closest that our generation has had to the Beat ideal of finding America “out on the road,” but it’s even better in a way, because Kerouac was just wandering aimlessly, where a punk-rock tour is like a crusade, because it has the goal of getting to the gig every night.

A. Exactly! The best show we ever had like that, I was in this punk band, the Vatican Commandos, and it was 1982 or ’83, and we had a show in Akron. It was one of those shows where there were like 11 bands on the bill, and I honestly think that there were four patrons. The rest of the crowd was all band members. We were all sleeping in this hippy, eco-warrior commune place, and it was disastrous. We were all broke, we were all hungry, we were all stinky, but it was so much fun.

Q. That’s the thing about any of these rock scenes—there’s a sense of community for a time. It was there in punk, it was there in grunge, and it was there in the early rave scene. Do you think we’re likely to see anything like that again, or are all of these cultural movements now destined to be instantly co-opted and commercialized?

A. That sense of it being a club or a community or kinship dissipates fairly quickly. But at the same time, I hate falling into the trap of, “Oh, you should have been there when…,” because for the people who are there now, it’s still new and exciting. Just because my experience was different, that shouldn’t necessarily negate the experience that people are having now. So yes, I think it will happen again, or I hope that it will.

Q. 18 is a more structured album than Play. I sort of hear it as a concept album about relationships.

A. Yeah, and it’s funny—the last really serious monogamous relationship I had was eight years ago!

Q. So you’re projecting yourself into a relationship, then dashing it on the rocks?

A. Yeah. Not intentionally, but I definitely think that for someone who is ending a relationship, or for someone who is in the process of breaking up with someone, this will be an important record for them—as modest as that might sound! [Laughs] It does have this weird melancholy streak in it, and it does have this strange subtext of relationships ending. It’s odd—maybe I am just being prescient. Maybe I am about to enter a relationship, and then it will end.

Q. Now you’re being paranoid! What I’m saying is that 18 is a more straight-forward effort than Play. I still don’t know what Play was about.

A. Neither do I! I like to make records that have a cohesive sense to them, but at the same time, I don’t necessarily have one over-arching theme. Ideally, I just respond to it on a more intuitive level, like, “Does this feel right?” But it doesn’t necessarily have to have that meta-text.

Q. Let’s talk about some of the new tunes. The first single from 18, “We Are All Made of Stars,” is a really wonderful slice of Bowie/Eno art-rock.

A. It’s a nice little New Wave song, and sort of a double-entendre. On one level, it’s uplifting and romantic, but it’s also my little take on quantum physics. I’m such a sci-fi geek. On a literal level, it’s about how we are all made of stars. Ninety-eight percent of the matter in the universe is comprised of hydrogen and helium and the other two percent are the elements of the periodic table—carbon, nitrogen, etcetera. But it’s all from the furnaces of the stars. I wrote that song last August, and I had spent the month or two before that just fine-tuning the rest of the songs for the album. One night I thought, “I’m going to take a break from fine-tuning and just write some music, because writing music is fun. And the inspiration was—you know the Blur song “Girls and Boys”? I wanted to write a sort of lighthearted New Wave song in that vain.

Q. Tell me about writing some of the other songs.

A. There are a couple songs on there that I guess I wrote while I was on tour, sitting in a hotel room with a guitar. The tour for Play was like 24 months long, and it ended in January or February of last year. Then I just came home and started writing music. I’m still making albums alone in my bedroom; it’s not like that’s changed. Most of this was done there.

Q. The band had become such a tight unit on stage. Did you give any thought to recording as a group?

A. At some point, I would like to do that, but with this record, when the touring was finished, I think we kind of wanted to be apart from one another for a while. My A&R person at V2 had all of these ideas; she was like, “If you want, you can have a bigger budget and hire great musicians and string sections.” And I thought about it, and I realized I really like doing everything myself! At the heart of it, I have been a bedroom musician since 1983. And I was like, “This is the way I have always been doing it, so why would I want to change now?”

Q. After years of stylistic dabbling, do you feel as if you’ve developed a signature “Moby sound”?

A. It’s funny, I was talking about this yesterday with another journalist who said that if he wanted to create a caricature of a Moby song, it would be something in a minor key where the chorus might be in a major key, and it would be melodic and rhythmic with the focus more on the emotional aspect… [Laughs]. I’m a formula now! But you know, if the Zombies could have written “Time of the Season” 10 ten different ways, that would have been great. When I sit down to write music, I don’t necessarily think of it as a formula, I just think, “Wow, this is what I really like.” I know if I were a musicologist doing a critical examination of my work, I would say, “He’s sort of written five or six songs and given hundreds of variations on them.” But at the same time, most of my favorite musicians have done similar things. Roxy Music to me are actually the most wonderful and egregious violators. Half of their catalog involves a descending minor-chord figure, like A-minor to G-major to F-major to E-minor. Literally half their catalog has that chord structure, but it works!

Q. Tell me about some of the guest stars on 18. Silvia Robinson shows up, the woman who started Sugar Hill Records and who used to be the Silvia of Mickey & Silvia. That’s pretty cool.

A. Yeah. That’s a sample; she didn’t actually come to the studio and sing. She had this album, Pillow Talk, and I guess it was a really successful R&B hit for her. There was a song on there called “Sunday Was a Bright Day,” and it was basically an a cappella of her with guitar and cello. So I sampled that, and that’s where that song came from.

Q. And Sinead O’Connor?

A. I still haven’t met her yet, either; we just talked on the phone. I had this song, “Harbour,” and I sent it to her. She didn’t want to fly after Sept. 11, so she recorded her part in England. Actually, Angie Stone was the only person who came into my studio to collaborate [on “Jam for the Ladies”]. It was so nice, because I was expecting this whole entourage, but she just got in her car, drove over from New Jersey, ad-libbed her part, and it sounds really nice. She’s a wonderful woman.

Q. Last summer’s Area:1 package tour was a really invigorating mix of dance, hip-hop, and rock artists that you conceived and headlined. Will there be an Area:2?

A. In theory. We are planning on it, but the only people who we have confirmed so far are me and David Bowie, who will be doing a sort of greatest-hits set. We’ve been going after people, but to be honest with you, it has been difficult. There are a bunch of people who we have asked who have said no for whatever reasons; Lauryn Hill was one. We asked No Doubt and No Doubt said no; we asked Weezer and Weezer said no. We are having a hard time with the rock element, because most successful rock bands are Ozzfest bands, and for us to put Slipknot on Area: 2 would just be inappropriate.

Q. I don’t understand that. Area:1 was a critical and commercial success. It filled the sheds! I’d have thought you’d have a free pass this time.

A. You’d think. But nothing gets easier, does it?

Q. I don’t know—I bet people at MTV are quicker to take your call these days.

A. You’re right. I did get my own TV show. It’s a half-hour show called Señor Moby’s House of Music. Basically they called me up and said, “Do you want to have your own half-hour TV show?” I said, “What are the parameters?” And they said, “Well, we want you to play videos, but the play list is entirely up to you.” So the first one, I just aired a Gold Frapp video, a Gorillaz video, an old Liquid Liquid video, and the production was just me with a camcorder. Apparently, they really like it. I mean, they run it at midnight or at one or two in the morning. It’s not competing with Total Request Live, and it doesn’t cost them anything. They get some credibility, and I get to play stuff that I really like.

Q. One last question, and again, I think I know what you’re going to say. But if 18 only sells a tenth of what Play did, will you be disappointed?

A. I really like being able to play concerts that people can come to. I really like being able to meet people and have them tell me that the music I’ve made is important to them on some level. The mass level of success is something that I can’t comprehend, but at the same time, demographics are comprised of individuals. If you sell 10 million records or if you sell 10 thousand, it’s still just a bunch of individuals who are responding to your work. My goal is just to make music that people respond to, which I think is the goal every writer, photographer, or any creative person has. As long as I can continue making music and reaching people with it, I’m going to be just fine, thank you very much.