moby interview

By louis tanguay

First of all, I just wanted to say it's an honor for me to talk to you, because I was a vegetarian and I read the notes on your last album, Everything Is Wrong, and was persuaded to go vegan. Your essays changed my whole outlook on everything.

Well, thank you.

You're obviously an intelligent person. Is it a challenge to believe in a higher deity?

No. In fact, I don't see why being intelligent would be at cross-purposes with that.

It seems to me like it's really hard to scientifically explain the existence of God.

Hmm, actually (laughs) I think if you look at the intricacy and complexity of the world around us, I think it's really difficult to say that it just happened by accident. Just look at a human being and physiologically what human beings are capable of. From our immune systems to sight to reproduction to instantaneous neurological response to stimulus, it's really hard to say that it just sort of happened by accident with a few chemicals in the ocean a few billion years ago. To evolve into such an intricate system, and the perfect, well-ordered way in which life works. I think that, to me, all that screams out that there is some sort of guiding intelligence behind it.

How long have you been vegan, and what made you make a change?

I've been a vegan now about ten years. I became a vegetarian about twelve years ago, and it was mainly just ethical reasons. That simple, inescapable realization that if you like animals it's kind of difficult to justify eating them. The more I found out about the way animals were treated and raised, the more it made me realize I didn't want to be a part of it. On a broader level, it made me realize that I think it's unjustifiable to try and use any creature for human purposes. Every creature has its own will, and to try and harness that will for human reasons I think, if you can avoid it, it's something that should be avoided.

Do you think people are hypocritical when they say they could never eat their dog, yet they will go and eat a hamburger?

Yeah, I think it's extremely hypocritical, but at the same time, you're removed from what's really going on. If someone goes to McDonald's and eats a hamburger, there's almost no obvious connection between the hamburger and the cow that it came from. If you go to the supermarket and there's meat that's wrapped in styrofoam and saran wrap, it's really hard to make the connection to the fact that it was once attached to a sensitive, living, suffering creature.

When you used to play live with less people than the band you currently use, did some people give you flack for having to use prerecorded material?

Oh, yeah. I would put a lot of the stuff on hard-disk and people would criticize me for it. My feeling is that a large number of musicians touring today use prerecorded material. When you go see Nine Inch Nails, Depeche Mode, Madonna, the Prodigy, or the Chemical Brothers, there's a lot of stuff that's prerecorded you just might not know it. Take a band like the Prodigy or the Chemical Brothers; everything you're hearing is on DAT. Personally, I have no problem with that as long as the show is interesting. If you enjoy the music, it's an entertaining show, and you have a good time who cares where it's coming from? The shows that I'm doing now, nothing's prerecorded. That's more of a personal, creative choice. Oops, my phone is being weird, hold on. (He fixes the phone and returns.) Hello? Um, because you have so much more flexibility just playing live and not using a hard-disk. As long as people enjoy it, they shouldn't let the fact that it's being generated by prerecorded stuff concern them.

And plus, you're still playing the stuff, it's just that you can't physically play everything at the same time.

Oh, that's the ironic part is that when I was criticized for it, the ironic element is (laughs) I was actually the one playing all the instruments. If there are keyboard parts and drums parts that are on tape, you know prerecorded stuff, I'm the one playing it. So, it's strange to criticize a musician for actually playing more of the music.

Perfect sound Forever

Billy Bob Hargus
Sep. 12, 1997

PSF: You started studying music in '76?

Moby: I first started playing instruments when I was nine, around '74 or '75.

PSF: What got you motivated?

Moby: At that point, probably just pop music – the Beatles, the Rolling Stones, Donna Summer, early Aerosmith...really, just whatever was on the radio. I was nine or ten years old, so I guess that my musical palette hadn't developed all that much.

PSF: Did that change when you starting playing in bands?

Moby: The first band I was ever in, I think I was thirteen years old. We played cover songs, anything that we could figure out, anything that we could get our respective guitar teachers to show us. I don't think it changed anything. We didn't play out – we just played in a basement. Then, when I was fifteen, I started a punk rock band with some friends of mine. We played out a lot as part of the New York and Connecticut hardcore scene.

PSF: How did that affect your music?

Moby: I think if anything, it just gave me a sense of...when you put something on stage, it should be entertaining. At the time, the hardcore scene was really dynamic. You'd go to shows, and they'd be just the most entertaining things you'd ever seen. Now, I think that's instilled me with a sense of performing and making an effort to be dynamic, engaging, and entertaining.

PSF: You lived in an abandoned factory for a while, right?

Moby: Not exactly abandoned – quasi-abandoned. It was in Stamford, Connecticut and it was slated to be destroyed. I had a really small space on a floor, and the whole floor was abandoned. I was the only tenant there, so my space was maybe 400 or 500 square feet. The rest of the floor was 40,000 square feet. I had my little studio there and lived and worked there. I loved it. It was wonderful, even though I didn't have running water.

PSF: What changed when you started DJ-ing in '84?

Moby: Before that, I'd always been interested in dance music. One of the first singles I ever bought was "The Message," by Grandmaster Flash. I always loved Donna Summer, Kraftwerk and New Order and a lot of dance music. I didn't know it was dance music – I thought it was new wave or whatever. When I started DJ-ing, I started getting interested in stuff that was exclusively dance music. Hip-hop, dancehall reggae and early house music.

PSF: Nowadays, you seem to be going back to your roots.

Moby: But I really don't have any roots.

PSF: Well, you seem to be playing more rock music now.

Moby: When I first started playing guitar, I loved lots of different types of music and I still do. Even now, with a record like Animal Rights, which, granted, has a lot of guitar stuff on it, but...while I was making that I was making the Voodoo Child record, which is exclusively electronic. I've never seen the point of doing one thing to the exclusion of anything else.

PSF: So you see a difference between your different projects?

Moby: I see lots of differences between the work that I do, but they all come from the same person.

PSF: You've said that the difference between "intelligent techno" and other techno is that you can't dance to "intelligent techno." What did you mean there?

Moby: There was a period in '93 and '94 when the British rave scene had become very blue collar, very working class. I think that offended a lot of more middle-class music journalists in England. So they started championed things like Orbital and Aphex Twin and B12 and Autechre – basically, it was techno but it wasn't dance music.

That's fine if that's what they want to listen to, but they took it upon themselves to disparage dance music. Essentially, when you have one record that's a dance record being made with the same exact equipment as what's being used to make an "intelligent techno" record, it's really hard for me to set up distinctions between the two and say one is inherently better or worse than the other. Things are just different. I don't know why people are always trying to set up these musical hierarchies. It is quite possible for lots of different musical genres to peacefully coexist.

PSF: You've taken several strong positions on social issues. How do you think an artist can make a difference in peoples' lives?

Moby: I think that there are a few ways. One is trying to do a little bit of personal research and share what you find out with other people. Another is by just being an example. I think that's my case – someone who's striving to figure things out and striving to live well and live without too much environmental impact. I think that it's probably the best thing I can do.

PSF: Do you think your lyrics bear out these sentiments?

Moby: No. The lyrical stuff that I deal with is exclusively emotional. With my political, social and environmental interests, I feel much more comfortable dealing with them prosaically, in an essay format.

PSF: You've always talked about how you thought that culture should be challenging. How do you see that?

Moby: I think that not all culture should have to be challenging, but occasionally challenging culture can be really nice. The Sex Pistols were wonderful. The Clash were wonderful. Bad Brains were wonderful. Public Enemy were really wonderful because they were really in your face, and challenging, and very political. There can be other things that can be aesthetically challenging. I just don't think that culture should retreat from being challenging. I think a lot of music and a lot of culture does that, it just sort of trots out the same old stuff slightly repackaged. I think that's a shame.

PSF: How do you see your work as going against that?

Moby: By trying to be honest, for one thing. Experimenting a lot, and trying to be vulnerable a lot. Trying to invest what I do with a lot of sincerity and a lot of emotion.

PSF: What kind of hobbies or interests do you have outside of your music?

Moby: My hobbies and interests are actually kind of dull. [Laughs] I like to read a lot. I read the the New Yorker and the Economist cover to cover every week. A lot of fiction, non-fiction...I hang out with my friends and occasionally get drunk out of my mind. Swim, play tennis, go canoeing on occasion. Basic mundane stuff, but it keeps me happy.

PSF: You were talking before about putting on a good show. A lot of techno today isn't too exciting live, but you really make an effort to do a good performance.

Moby: I think that's one of dance music's weakest points – the way that it's presented live. At this point in my life, I've never seen a good live dance act or a good live electronic music act. Never, ever, ever. It either veers to the cartoon-ish or it's the same old thing with two guys on stage not doing anything. The lights may be wonderful and the music may be wonderful but there's no reason why the performers themselves can't be more dynamic and can't make more of an effort to be entertaining and communicate with the audience.

PSF: Why do you think that is?

Moby: I think that's because they're all really shy. [Laughs] A lot of electronic dance music comes out of England, and there are a lot of shy, reserved English musicians. I think that with electronic music also, because a lot of these guys aren't singing, they haven't figured out ways to present themselves in a live format.

PSF: You're making a distinction between English dance music and dance music from other countries, then?

Moby: I don't really know. I wouldn't say that you could break down differences between countries. Scottish dance music is very different than dance music from Manchester which is very different than dance music from London. I certainly wouldn't get into any sort of nationalism or nation-orientated distinctions between dance music.

PSF: Are there any particular artists you hear now which you like?

Moby: In most cases, with electronic dance music, it tends to be singles-based. I'll be out dancing and hear a great single and never know who did it, and it's more anonymous then. I like a lot of the more commercial stuff like the Prodigy and Tricky. I like them a lot.

PSF: You've done a lot of remixes and production work. How do you find that kind of work?

Moby: To be honest, I like doing it but I prefer working on my own. Working with other people can be really interesting but at the end of the day, I like doing it on my own better.

PSF: What do you see as the future of dance music?

Moby: I think one of most exciting things in electronic music now is this sort of hybridization that's going on. You have rock bands collaborating with dance acts. You have people experimenting with musical traditions in a very open-minded way and combining things that have never otherwise been combined. I love that. I certainly have very little time or patience for the more purist approach to dance music. I think what makes dance music exciting is making it functional and investing it with an air of experimentation so that people feel free to experiment and express themselves in more unconventional ways.

PSF: Could you talk about your work with Trophy Records?

Moby: Basically, it's just a way for me to put out records under different names. The stuff on Trophy is the stuff that I really wanted to do but it didn't bother me if it was successful or not. It's more self-indulgent dance stuff. More underground things I guess.

PSF: You studied philosophy while you were at college. How do you think that's affected the work that you do?

Moby: I think it's compromised my ability to be really, really successful. [Laughs] I think in's hard to explain. It's a double-edged sword. It tends to be a good thing and a bad thing. I tend to see a lot of different things. I don't see very many things as being inherently right or inherently wrong. I think a lot of great pop music is made by people who approach the world in a very one-dimensional, monolithic way. Unfortunately, I tend to look at broader cultural contexts and I think that sometimes limits my ability to write a really great pop song. [Laughs]


The Many Faces of Moby

By Blair Jackson
Mar 1, 2005

You once described recording as “an intuitive craft.” I wonder how it has changed for you during the years, as technology has advanced and you've learned more about making records.

I think when I was talking about it being intuitive, what I was referring to was having a home studio. One of the nice things about working at home is you become so familiar with your equipment and your setup that if you want a certain sound, you don't really have to think about how to accomplish it; you do it almost instinctively.

But how recording has changed! The first recordings I ever made were with a home mono cassette recorder I borrowed from my grandfather when I was 10 years old. I think my first-ever recording was the sound of my mother chopping a cucumber. It turned out really well. When I was 16 or 17, I borrowed a friend's Tascam 4-track Portastudio, and at the time, I thought that was the coolest thing in the world. Then, when I was 18 or 19, I bought my own Portastudio.

I think people forget what an important invention that was. It really was the gateway for so many musicians to get into recording.

That's true. To suddenly have the ability to record on multiple tracks at home…and bouncing — I used to bounce tracks like crazy so you'd end up with this terrible-sounding mess [Laughs] but you had nine or 10 tracks on there and it was a fun way to record. I still have hundreds and hundreds of songs that were recorded on the Portastudio.

After that period, I had a combination of a Portastudio with a MIDI setup. My first MIDI setup was an Alesis sequencer with a Casio keyboard and an Alesis drum machine. That Alesis sequencer was really fun; especially for playing live, it was great to be able to manually punch tracks in and out. That was probably the mid-'80s. Then in the early '90s, I finally made the switch to using a computer and got into using [Steinberg] Cubase.

I know that through the years you've primarily recorded in your own home studio, but have you also spent much time in conventional recording studios?

Sure, especially on this new record. I'd say about three-quarters of it was recorded at home. I did all of the electronic stuff at home and the vocal at home. But we recorded the live drums at Electric Lady [New York City] and most of the guitars and some other things were done at Loho Studios on the Lower East Side. We mixed at Electric Lady, as well. We recorded everything on Pro Tools, but we mixed onto half-inch tape.

Moby recorded most of his new album, Hotel, at his ergonomically correct home studio.

Loho is a Neve room, right?

Yes, they have this great Frankenstein Neve that has parts from four or five different Neves cobbled together.

What do Electric Lady and Loho have that your own studio doesn't have? Is it the live space??

Right, great live rooms and fantastic-sounding microphones. Especially for mixing, too…mixing in Pro Tools is fine — if you don't care too much.

What do you mean?

I love Pro Tools, but I personally don't like recording and mixing in the digital domain. There's something you get being able to go through an analog desk that I really love. We mixed all of this on an SSL J Series at Electric Lady. Obviously, I love plug-ins, but I think they're best for special effects; I don't like them much for compression and EQ and things like that. They just don't sound as good to me as the onboard EQ on an SSL or a Neve, or as good as outboard EQs. As time has passed, I use plug-ins less and less. Again, I mainly use them for special effects — creating sounds you could never create in the analog world. Some plug-ins are nice, but a lot of them sound sort of thin to me.

There are some really gorgeous, fat guitar textures on the new album.

The guitars were recorded through a Matchless amp, I believe. It was owned by the guy who engineered and mixed the record with me, Brian Sperber.

What guitar did you mostly use?

I have this crappy old guitar; I don't even know what it is. Let me go look…Oh yeah, it's this Carlo Robelli $180 guitar. Actually, it sounds pretty good. Years ago, when I was touring and breaking a lot of equipment, I developed this ethos of buying the cheapest equipment I could find so when I broke it I wouldn't care.

I could've sworn I heard a Les Paul in there somewhere.

You did. Brian had a gold-top Les Paul that we used, as well. There was also a really nice acoustic guitar, and Brian set up this complicated miking system with a Neumann over the body and something else on the neck. It ended up sounding really good.

Were you familiar with Brian's work through the years? I know he worked with Patti Smith, Guided By Voices, Orbital…

I'd seen his name cropping up on a lot of different records, either engineering or producing. We worked together fantastically. It helps, too, that we live in the same neighborhood. He's obviously very good at what he does and very meticulous, which is good because I tend to be kind of lazy. It's nice to have someone focusing on the guitar being in tune and everything sounding good. I like making good-sounding records and I like good performances, but I guess I'm of the old school because I really can't think of too many parts that require being played more than two or three times. Brian told me about working with other bands that do things like spend a week working on one guitar part. That doesn't interest me. I mean, you go back and listen to an old Rolling Stones record and it sounds like it was written and recorded in about 20 minutes.

There's a really nice cohesion and continuity to the record. The songs flow together well sonically and thematically — one seems to lead into the next in a thoughtful way. I'm assuming most of the songs were written around the same time rather than being from different periods.

That's right. I think some of that continuity and cohesion you're talking about is accomplished, hopefully, through the sequencing of the record, which is something I really spend a lot of time on. I can work fairly quickly writing and recording a song, but actually finishing the record and deciding what should be included and what the order should be can take months.

On the new album, a song like “Beautiful” has so much going on. I hear at least three acoustic guitar lines — left, center, right — two electric guitars, drums, electronic rhythm, keyboards, all sorts of vocals. How would you typically construct a song like this? Is it something you would've demo'd on, say, an acoustic guitar and then built from there?

Yes, I wrote it on acoustic guitar and then I recorded a version at home with guitars through Amp Farm and then re-recorded everything [at Loho] and added live drums. This record, from a production perspective, was a lot different than records I'd made in the past.

How so?

Part of it was influenced by some Michael Jackson remixes I did years ago: “Thriller”; things that Quincy Jones produced. Those were 48 tracks and I was really impressed with the way the sounds were recorded and the fact that so much was doubled and tripled. Then I was reading an old interview with [Cars and Queen producer] Roy Thomas Baker and he was talking about layering and layering. So I figured with Pro Tools and a huge SSL board you can do that and you don't have to use the layers if you don't want to. So on all the “big” songs on [Hotel] — things like “Beautiful,” “Raining Again,” “Lift Me Up” — it's tons and tons of layers. I have three kick drums, three snare drums. There are probably about 30 background vocals on those songs, four or five acoustic guitar parts, six electric guitar parts, seven or eight stereo string pads.

Moby goes nuts!

A little. [Laughs] I put it all in there so that when we were mixing, rather than taking, say a single low-end synth sound and giving it bite [through processing], it makes more sense to record the exact same string part with a different patch that has the bite you want. And when you need high end, you bring up the string patch that has high end built into it naturally.

That must've made the mix a little nightmarish, no?

No, it actually came together really nicely. On paper it might sound excessive to have so much stuff in there, but it wasn't gratuitous because everything was serving a purpose and there wasn't the ego of, “Oh, I have to record this perfect lead guitar and make it as loud as possible.” Everything was in service of making the songs as nicely produced as possible. I know some people go crazy with all the options they have in Pro Tools, but I had a clear idea of what the music should sound like so it didn't feel to me like I had “extra” parts; I needed them. Songs like “Beautiful” and “Spiders” I think are about 96 independent audio tracks. But even if there are 20 or 30 background vocals, they're mixed so they give you a sense of space and don't draw too much attention to themselves.

What is your primary string synth?

I use a lot of them. Some of the big string parts are a combination of an old Roland F5080, an old Yamaha SY-22 and this Pro Tools plug-in called Atmosphere that's really big-sounding. I can get pretty much anything I want from those three.

What arrangers have influenced how you use string sounds? There are so few hip ones from the rock world — Tony Visconti, Paul Buckmaster…

A lot of it is just taking a real simple approach. Like if I'm using a G-major chord, I would probably leave the fifth out and focus on the root and the major third. I like the strings to have an emotional quality but still maintain that sense of space, without getting claustrophobic. Angelo Badalamenti [of Twin Peaks fame] approached his strings that way.

There's a natural simplicity to the chord progressions you write. They move in logical ways and you can sort of feel how they're going to go, both in your pop tunes and in your ambient work.

I can see that. When I first started playing music, when I was nine or 10 years old, I had a guitar teacher who only liked complicated music. His criteria for evaluating music was, “How difficult is it?” If it was difficult, it was good; if it was simple, it was bad. And for a few years, I tried to go along with that so I'd listen to Larry Carlton and all this complicated music, and the truth was, I didn't like it very much. Then I discovered punk rock and I had this epiphany that simple songs played simply can be a lot more effective than really complicated songs. Then, maybe 10 years ago, some friends and I started a cover band and it was playing in that band and seeing how other people write songs that made me realize that the majority of great classic songs are painfully simple. Look at [Lynyrd Skynyrd's] “Sweet Home Alabama” or [Lou Reed's] “Walk on the Wild Side.” I can't count the number of great songs that have two or three chords to them.

You've said that all the music you write — whether it's instrumental, based around vocal samples or whatever — is very personal. But when you come up with a set of songs like this batch — you singing your lyrics — do you feel more emotionally exposed?

Yeah, and it used to make me very uncomfortable. But as time has passed, I've developed this strange comfort with being vulnerable and emotional in front of strangers. It used to make me profoundly uncomfortable. There's also the notion that when you're writing these emotional songs, you have to, on one hand, care about how people are going to respond, but on the other, you have to say, “If people hate this or hate me because of it, that's too bad because I can't completely base my self-worth on the opinions of strangers.”

Are there any producers whose work influenced the sound of your album? There are some touches that remind me of Tony Visconti's work on the great Bowie albums of the '70s or the ones he did with T-Rex — like the way he used Flo & Eddie for backing vocals on Electric Warrior and The Slider.

Yep. Some of the songs [on Hotel] are almost paying homage to that sound.

Is “Spiders” one of those?

Very much so, and also “Beautiful.” There's something about the glam-rock way of producing records — everything is very tight and defined — and to an extent I wanted to incorporate that ethos into some of this record.

Did you like that kind of music at the time?

I was a little too young to “get” glam rock too much. I liked what I heard on the radio — The Sweet and Marc Bolan, and whatnot.

As for other producers, obviously one of my biggest influences would be Brian Eno, from producing the Bowie records, to My Life in the Bush of Ghosts, to U2, to Devo, to the Talking Heads.

Eno is where I probably heard ambient music for the first time. I used to lie with my head between the speakers listening to Discreet Music over and over back in the mid-'70s.

I remember buying Ambient 4: On Land and thinking it was just amazing — taking these non-musical sounds and making something very musical and powerful with it was very interesting.

Tell me about how Hotel and the Hotel Ambient disc intersect. Were you making these two discs at the same time?

Yes. As far as ambient music goes…I just love really quiet, bucolic, melodic music. And the nice thing about working on the ambient music is that most of it is really simple.

Not 96 tracks.

Oh, no. Toward the end of the ambient disc, there's even a song that has two tracks, I think. It was almost kind of like a palate cleanser for me. If you're spending your days recording tons of tracks for more conventional songs, it's nice to then go home and work on more quiet atmospheric music. I'm not sure if there's actually any thematic relationship between them. It was more like show-and-tell: I've made these two records I like and I'm going to put them out together and see what happens.

Any thoughts on turning 40 later this year?

Hmmm. Well, one thought is that there's an epidemic in New York and probably in a lot of big cities where people get to a certain level of success and then they continue working and driving themselves crazy even though they don't need to. So my hope for the future is that I'm not one of those guys who's 55 years old and having a triple-bypass and peptic ulcers and screaming at your assistant. I see so many people who are making tons and tons of money and they still wake up every day angry. I'd much rather wake up and go ride my bike and play with dogs and write music.

So much of your music has that sort of optimism to it.

Well, when I make records, I want to make them so that people can find a place for them in their lives. I like the idea of records that are warm and inviting.

Do you have a sense on how this record will be received? I guess “We Are All Made of Stars” was pointing in this direction, but I think a lot of people might be surprised by how song-oriented the album is.

I'm sure there are some people who are going to think it's too commercial. There's a whole underground music world that for the most part has very little interest in what I do. And that's okay.

You served time in that world!

I did. But I don't want to be 39 years old and vying for the attention of a 21-year-old indie rock journalist. They have their own world, and I really like the music that comes out of that world, but it would be disingenuous for me to suddenly make a really obscure indie rock record. I love the music, but it's not where my heart is creatively.


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