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But it's easy to see why Moby is so quick to defend his musical ability. Too often, his albums have received more notice for the notes he didn't play. "Go," one of his early singles (which also appears on 1997's I Like to Score, a compilation of Moby tracks that have appeared on various soundtracks), was widely recognized for its kinetic reworking of the Twin Peaks theme. His most personal record, Animal Rights, was overlooked except for the cover of Mission of Burma's "That's When I Reach for My Revolver" that was on the disc. And Play's positive reviews are mainly based on Moby's incorporation of samples culled from Alan Lomax's Sound of the South collections of field recordings of early-20th-century African-American folk music. It bothers him, Moby admits, but not as much as when critics try to assign him into one specific category.
"It's funny -- sometimes I'll do interviews, and someone will say something like, 'Within your genre . . . ,'" he says. "And my next question is like, 'What in the world are you talking about? Do you mean classical music or punk rock or techno or quiet instrumentals?' I don't understand when people say my 'genre.' I don't really know what they're talking about. I assume they're talking about electronic music, and I guess I'm comfortable with that, in the sense that electronic music has come to describe a lot of different things. That's everything from the Chemical Brothers to Puff Daddy to Aphex Twin to, you know, Britney Spears almost, because her records certainly aren't made with a conventional band."
None of Moby's albums has been made with a conventional band, but after he released Everything Is Wrong, he started to believe his music was becoming conventional. When he released his first single in 1991, he was supposed to be the first techno superstar, well before Prodigy and the Chemical Brothers could make that claim much more accurately themselves. By the time Everything Is Wrong -- his first proper album -- hit stores, Moby was beginning to have doubts about his place in the electronic-music scene. He knew he could do more than what it was allowing him to do.
So when the time came to record a follow-up to Everything Is Wrong, Moby decided to leave it all behind him and make a record where he could "play guitar and yell at the top of my lungs." The result was Animal Rights, a disc that had his fans screaming about betrayal, wondering how the man who had introduced a rave new world could have made a record that would have sounded more at home in the back of a Camaro than on a dance floor. They didn't even realize that their hero had also released a much more suitable successor to Everything Is Wrong that year, a gentle instrumental disc under the name Voodoo Child. It might have made more sense to issue Animal Rights under the Voodoo Child banner, but Moby was ready for the confusion it caused. That, he says, was the point. Sort of.
"I don't know why it ended up the way it ended up," he admits. "That's just what came out of me. And I remember my managers at the time tried to talk me out of making that kind of record. I don't even know if it's a matter of being pigheaded or willful. I honestly felt like I didn't really have much of a choice in the matter. If I had made the sort of electronic record that everyone wanted me to make, it would have felt really dirty and unnatural. Now, I love electronic music, and I'm more than happy to do it. But at the time, at the risk of sounding like some New Age crackpot, it was kind of like that was what the universe wanted me to do. Maybe I am overdramatizing it, but that's how it felt at the time."
The universe may have wanted Moby to make Animal Rights, but no one else did. The aftermath of the album caused him to lie low for the next three years, putting out only I Like to Score, a collection of previously released material with only one new song, his "re-version" of the "James Bond Theme." The time away, as well as the reaction to Animal Rights, led to his return to electronic music. Play is definitely a joyful homecoming; "Bodyrock" is already almost as inescapable as Fatboy Slim's "The Rockafeller Skank" was last year (ABC's even using it in a Dharma and Greg commercial). Moby's happy to be back -- at least he seems to be, already thinking about making his next record when the tour for Play ends early next year. Not surprisingly, he doesn't elaborate too much on the new album, although he is careful to separate himself from other electronic musicians. He considers most of them to be DJs anyway. He is a musician.
"It seems like there's this terrible cliché, for the last couple of years, that when electronic musicians make records, they go out and they find trendy singers to work with," he says. "I think if I was to work with singers, I'd rather work with people for the quality of their voice than how much good press they've had in the last few years. I can't remember the last time an electronic group worked with a singer that no one had ever heard of. It seems whenever you get an electronic record and they're collaborating, it's always with a celebrity. It's like, 'Why not work with great singers?'" He pauses, seemingly waiting for his rhetorical question to be answered. "It doesn't matter whether they're famous. I just want to make a beautiful record with a lot of singing."
Moby is scheduled to perform on Monday, December 13, at Desert Sky Pavilion, as part of the No Snow Christmas Show, with Blink 182, 311 and others. Showtime is 5 p.m.