Interview: Moby

Michaelangelo Matos

By Michaelangelo Matos

on 10.01.13 in Interviews



[To celebrate the release of his 11th studio album, Innocents, we invited Moby to take control of eMusic's editorial for a week. Below is our exclusive interview with him, and he also picked his 10 favorite albums on eMusic. Moby asked us to interview Cold Specks as part of his takeover — you can read that here — and we also resurrected our interview with the Flaming Lips' Wayne Coyne, who sings on Innocents. — Ed.]

Moby first broke through in 1991 as a New York club DJ (he’d been a regular at the multi-level space Mars, in the Meatpacking District, where he’d play everything from hip-hop to dancehall reggae as well as house music and early techno) who’d scored a novelty hit: “Go,” which utilized Angelo Badalamenti’s Twin Peaks theme. Within two years of “Go” hitting the UK Top 10, the small, geeky multi-instrumentalist was signed to a major label (Elektra) and issuing critically-acclaimed titles (1993′s Move EP and 1995′s Everything Is Wrong) that bridged the rave underground and the pop mainstream. Dance purists blanched at first (and pop fans shrugged, at least in the States), but by 1999 — after a detour into loud rock with 1997′s divisive Animal Rights — Moby had perfected the amalgam with Play, a warm recasting of downtempo beats, sampled blues vocals, and inviting instrumentation that sold more than 12 million copies worldwide.

Since Play, Moby has settled into a comfortable niche as both a dance-music forefather (he frequently DJs at festivals around the world) and singer-songwriter whose songs are often sung by others. That’s particularly the case on the songful new Innocents, which pairs Moby not only with his first outside producer — Mark “Spike” Stent, who worked on Massive Attack’s early records as well as, in more recent years, Lady Gaga, Usher and No Doubt — but a half-dozen vocal guests of note: Wayne Coyne of the Flaming Lips, Mark Lanegan, Damien Jurado, Cold Specks, Skylar Grey and Imyang Bassey, Moby’s longtime touring vocalist. Michaelangelo Matos spoke with Moby about the new album, the shrinking of New York studio space, and L.A.’s confusing topography.

Innocents is the first album you’ve made with an outside producer. Did that change how you wrote?

I’ve been working on music the same way for the past 30 years. I go into my studio and I play guitar or play keyboards or play around with different equipment and I just keep writing until I end up with something that I like. Sometimes I’ll read interviews with musicians who will talk about an erratically different way in which they approach making one record different from the next. I wish I had those interesting stories, because it’s really just me alone in my studio with a bunch of weird equipment, and it has been for quite a long time.

Because you were recording with someone else, did you treat your initial recordings as demos?

Yeah. I would go into my studio and spend about six months coming up with a bunch of ideas. When I first started meeting with Spike I had around 200 ideas, but clearly they weren’t 200 good ideas. We focused on probably 30-40 of those ideas and then we started reaching out to people who we thought might be interesting to have on the record. I got really lucky, because only a couple of people didn’t get back to us.

When did you begin to meet with Mark “Spike” Stent?

I think a year ago. To be honest with you, my grasp of time is kind of not that great. Like, the other day I was signing something and I had to put the date in there and I felt like the Absent-Minded Professor because I couldn’t remember what year it was.

[Stent] afforded me a degree of objectivity and perspective that I normally don’t have. Your perspective on what you’ve written really changes qualitatively the moment you share it with someone else. That for me was the main benefit of working with the producer is having this regained objectivity.

What led you to work together? Did you meet socially before this?

I’ve been signed to Mute Records for a while. Daniel Miller [the owner of] Mute Records, kept working with Spike and Alan Moulder, who did a lot of records. I really liked the records that Spike had worked on, some of the early stuff like the KLF and Massive Attack and Björk, which is ironic because a lot of people who want to work with him are interested in more of his pop productions [including Beyoncé and Madonna]. In turn, I think the reason he wanted to work with me is because I wasn’t interested in making a big pop record. I wanted to make something more lo-fi and weird.

You take a couple of guys in their 40s who spent most of their lives in studios, and the first thing they start talking about is their favorite weird old equipment. I have a slightly compulsive collection of tape delays — about eight of them. None of them work particularly well. You end up almost having an orchestra of tape delays. At one point the record was sounding very, very clean. So we ended up spending a couple of days putting the record through some sort of processing that would make these clean recordings sound more grimy and characterly.

The odd thing about…I would almost call it the new way of making records, because in the old days things were more compartmentalized. There was a writing period, followed by a recording period, followed by a tracking period: You’d have the drummer come in and spend a week doing drums, and then the bass, and then the vocals. Now you keep writing and recording and adding things to songs and playing around with stuff until things are done. The mixing process, rather than being a separate, added process, is almost a continuation of the creative process.

What changed the most from your initial idea of what the album might be and what it became?

When I first started thinking about this album I wanted it to be an underground, lo-fi dance record. Spike got me to change the focus to a more lo-fi melodic album. He said that when he listens to my records, what resonates with him is the more melodic music. He is the one who pushed it to become more like a singer-songwriter album. “Don’t Love Me” and “A Long Time” originally were very grimy, minimal dance tracks. He pushed me to give them more an emotional quality and more interesting chord structures. Those are the two holdovers from what the album was originally meant to be.

What lo-fi dance records inspired that initial idea?

Marianne Faithfull’s Broken English; a lot of early electronic music like Silver Apples and Suicide; Manu DiBango; a lot of Jamaican dance music and African dance music; and especially things that Wally Badarou played on. He’s one of my favorite musicians of all time. He’s the unsung hero of so many dance records. And a lot of New York records made in the early ’80s: Liquid Liquid, ESG, the Bush Tetras, Medium Medium, Konk. Just the records I grew up on. I’ve rediscovered them.

It’s funny — one of the people who helped me rediscover them was my old assistant Alex [Frankel]. He’s now in the band the Holy Ghost!, on DFA. When he was working with me, I would hang out with him and his friends, and they were all in their early 20s, and their favorite records were my favorite records when I was in my teens in the early ’80s. They kind of reintroduced me to the kind of music I loved. He was my assistant at the time [of 2008's Last Night]. I was playing the tracks I was working on to him. Every now and then he would get excited about something, and that was when I knew it was probably worth pursuing.

You moved to L.A. three years ago. Do you approach music differently there than you did in New York?

I think so. I have a sort of poetic-philosophical understanding of how living in L.A. has affected how I make music, and also a very practical, direct way. The direct way is college radio. Living in New York, I mainly listened to music that I owned. New York has good college radio, but terrible broadcast signal strength. Whereas in L.A., there’s KCRW and KXLU — really great college radio — and I think that’s affected how this album sounds.

On a more poetic level, L.A. is so vast, so byzantine, so weird and so un-cohesive, so in a way, when you move you have to make this huge effort to try and understand Los Angeles and make sense of it. Most cities are very cohesive: New York, Paris, Frankfurt, San Francisco, D.C., amazing, wonderful cities that are quite small and quite cohesive. Then you come to L.A. and it’s just [got] absolutely no cohesion. It almost makes people who live here search out a degree of smallness and comfort, because the city is so huge and confusing. I feel like this album has a smallness and comfort to it that might, oddly enough, [come from] living in L.A.

I thought I’d live in New York forever. Then I stopped drinking five years ago, and when I got sober I suddenly realized that New York is the single best place to be a drunk and unfortunately not the best place to be sober. The culture in New York revolves around going out and drinking and doing drugs and being degenerate, which is amazing when you can do that, but then you get sober and you feel kind of left out. Everyone in New York is out having the best time of their lives, and I’m at home watching 30 Rock DVDs. Also, I realized I wanted to be warm in the winter, and I wanted to be around nature.

New York, because it’s so affluent, most of the writers and musicians have been pushed out, so I wanted to live in a place that’s got more creative community. At some point I guess four or five years ago I realized that I actually had more friends [in L.A.] than I did in New York, especially when it comes to music. The real estate in New York is too expensive for anyone to have studios anymore. A couple of years ago, some friends of mine in L.A. were looking to record an orchestra in New York. There wasn’t a single recording studio in New York where they could record an orchestra. They ended up having to rent an empty space in a theater — and while they were recording, there was a huge Korean birthday party happening next door. They actually had to cancel [the session], because the Korean dance party music kept coming through the walls. Now, I actually don’t know too many professional musicians who don’t live in L.A.

You’ve been putting out records frequently these past few years. What kind of clock do you work on? Do you write music every day you can?

I don’t know how to do anything else, and it’s what I love to do. When I was 13 or 14, I spent a lot of time reading books, and some of my heroes from back then were Flannery O’Connor and Woody Allen and Picasso. I was always impressed by their work ethic, that idea of: When you’re inspired, go into the studio and work. When you’re not inspired, go into the studio and work. If you have success that means you should work more. If you have failure that means you should work more. No matter what’s going on an artist or writer or musician’s life, the only appropriate response is to keep working.

You’ve worked with vocalist Inyang Basey for a while now. How did you meet her?

When I was going on tour with the album Wait For Me I had a singer I was working with in the UK who couldn’t get a work visa to tour in the States, so at the last minute I had to hire a new singer. The very last person I auditioned was Inyang. The moment she started singing I knew she was the one. It turns out she’d never really sung professionally; her day job at the time was working at Carnegie Hall in their 20th Century classical music division. Her background when she was growing up was listening to the Dead Kennedys and the Sex Pistols. It’s funny that this skinny white kid was introducing her to older gospel and soul music.

Did Spike suggest any singers for the album?

Yeah. I basically started asking friends of mine whom they would recommend. My criteria were quite specific: I was looking for people who had really interesting emotional voices but who could also write really interesting lyrics. Spike’s one recommendation was Skylar Grey. She’s known more for being a pop person, but her background is more singer-songwriter based and a little more experimental. I asked Daniel Miller, and his one recommendation was Cold Specks. The way it works with all the collaborators is, I sent them about five instrumentals to see if anything resonated with them. Each of them picked one or two that they liked. Once the vocals have been recorded and sent to me I then rewrote the song around the vocals.

Did you resend a track to multiple vocalists before you got a yes?

Oh yeah. I had 10 instrumentals I really loved and really wanted vocals on. I’m kind of mercenary when it comes to trying to get the right vocals on the right track. It’s almost like a weird form of musical promiscuity, where I would sometimes send the same instrumental to three different people to try to see if it resonates with anyone.

Where was the third time the charm?

The song that Mark Lanegan co-wrote, ["The Lonely Night"] — that had been instrumental for a few years. I had never quite felt comfortable with what people had sent back. Then I gave it to him, and all of a sudden it felt like the vocals and the music made sense together. I made the final mix around his vocals. The music is mixed very quietly; the whole intention was to draw attention to his vocals.

Do you end up editing lyrics a lot?

Sometimes. The only person [I did that with] on this record was Skylar Grey. She’d written a line in the song: “Shades of grey.” This was right at the height of the Fifty Shades of Grey popularity. Skylar, because she lives up in the mountains, hadn’t heard about the book. I had to get her to make some suggestions for things that didn’t sound like they were referencing Fifty Shades of Grey. She thought it was funny.

I want to ask you about “Saints”: It’s obviously your instrumental style, but it seems looser and grander than usual — a big sweep with a lot of moving parts. Did it take a long time to put together?

It was supposed to be an instrumental that someone was going to write lyrics to, and I couldn’t find the right person. At some point Spike and I realized it was pretty good as an instrumental, so the focus was to try and finish it. I hired an arranger at the very end — I’d written orchestral parts, and I wanted to know what it would be like if someone came in and wrote orchestral parts. There’s a lot of big, bombastic brass parts. I think there are 300 different string players on it. It’s mixed in a way that the orchestral stuff doesn’t overwhelm the track. It almost makes me want to do a weird orchestral mix of it that strips out the drums.

Were you thinking of how some of these songs might be interpreted live?

No [laughs]. I knew from the beginning that I wasn’t going to go on tour with this record. I’ve had that frustration in the past of recording music, putting it on a record, and then realizing that it’s impossible to play it live in any interesting way.

What led to the decision not to tour?

A lot of it involves aging. As I’ve gotten older I’ve started to realize that life is short, and as much as I like standing on stage and playing music, I love being at home working on music. Of course, it drives my manager crazy, because in 2013 very few people buy records and the only way musicians make money is by touring. Basically, I’m focusing on the one aspect of the music business that’s not at all lucrative, while turning my back on the only lucrative side of the music business.

Well, you’ve always had a contrary streak.

Yeah, I guess so. I appreciate that we all need to eat and need to pay the rent. But if you have a finite amount of time, shouldn’t it be spent on things that you really love and find important? Even if that means making less money and making my business manager and manager very unhappy, I’d still rather be in my studio working on music.