Clearing Samples

Moby returns to electronic music, and he's ready to Play

There is a strong possibility that all the quotes below are the fabrications of an impostor. The man who answered the phone claimed his name was Moby, but after speaking with him, it's difficult to believe he was telling the truth. For one thing, he didn't seem to know much about what Moby does or why he does it, only proffering a stream of apologies and I-don't-knows. Every question was met with a confused silence and a confusing answer; the replies sometimes completely ignored the query in order to answer one that hadn't been asked. It might have been his publicist, or maybe even someone who was willing to play along with a writer who happened to dial the wrong number. Whoever it was, it was most likely not Moby. The man on the other end of the line barely knew him at all.

Of course, it probably was him, but it's easier to believe it wasn't. It just makes more sense that way, after listening to the man who has filled the liner notes to each of his albums since 1995's Everything Is Wrong with screeds against everything from the horrors of animal testing to inhumane prison conditions offer no opinion on anything. He dismisses the essays, insisting they are simply part of the recording process for him, part of the routine of making an album. If it was indeed Moby on the phone, this much is true: He is, perhaps, the least active activist in existence, a rabble-rouser who is content to confine his demonstrations to his New York loft. Moby may have something to say, but he doesn't seem to like saying it much, or even discuss why he wanted to say it in the first place. If his music and writing don't say enough for themselves, he's not prepared to elaborate. He doesn't even think he could if he wanted to.

"I sometimes feel like an inadequate interview subject, because people will ask certain questions, like some of the questions you've asked, and I always feel like I should have some sort of deep, broad agenda behind things," he explains. "The truth is, it just seems like the most natural way for me to do things. For the most part, making records is a very automatic process for me. It's sort of an intuitive craft. It's difficult to retrospectively deconstruct a process that I wasn't too analytically aware of when it was happening. I certainly have an analytical streak to my personality, but when I'm working on music, it's much more intuitive."

Hang the DJ: Moby is not just another record spinner. He's a musician. Just ask him.
Corinne Day
Hang the DJ: Moby is not just another record spinner. He's a musician. Just ask him.

When speaking with him, it helps to be intuitive as well, because Moby doesn't give you much to go on. Maybe he's simply in a bad mood. He has never made it hard to find a way to his scorn, including another piece of the map with each new release. You could perhaps noisily scarf down a cheeseburger in front of him. (He's a devout vegan.) Or offer him some literature from the Christian Coalition. ("The Christian right make me sick," he says in the CD booklet that accompanies 1996's Animal Rights.) Or maybe you could inform him you work in a research laboratory at a cosmetics company and inquire about whether he has any spare pets available to participate in some product research. ("To make sure that pouring nail-polish remover into your eyes will hurt you, we torture mice, rabbits, dogs, cats, etc.," relates one of his rants in Everything Is Wrong.)

Any of the above would appropriately tick off Moby. Yet the trip to Moby's bad side, in this case, doesn't involve anything quite as substantial as man's inhumanity to man or political incorrectness. It takes about two minutes, from the time pleasantries are exchanged until his interviewer only slightly implies that he is a DJ -- or even occasionally performs as one. In fact, just the mere mention of the term "DJ" brings a long pause from the other end of the phone, followed by a practiced, almost scripted reply. Apparently, the connotation that he is not a real musician is the one thing that makes him angrier than anything else.

"Yes, I bristle at the DJ thing," Moby says. "When people assume I'm a DJ, that's one of my little pet peeves, because I'm 33 and I've been playing music since I was 8 years old. And my background is actually in classical music and jazz and punk rock. When I make the records, it's just me doing everything, but for touring, I hire different musicians to play. So it's myself playing keyboards and percussion and vocals, and then I have a bass player and a drummer and a percussionist who also plays some keyboards."

Afraid that he has not made his point clear, Moby returns to his musical history often throughout the remainder of the interview, stressing that he began studying classical guitar as a child. It's as if he's saying, "How much more of a serious musician could I be? I was playing classical music when I was still in elementary school." He need not belabor the point, however, because it's clear from his albums that Moby is more than a few clever samples and pilfered breakbeats, even if the first single off this year's Play, "Bodyrock," is based around one of the most overused samples ever, a snippet of Spoonie G and The Treacherous 3's "Love Rap." Every one of his albums has been hard to classify -- even if they have all ended up in the dance section -- and he has always played almost every single note on them, from keyboards to congas.

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.

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