Talks about gear, the new record and his island of misfit toys


Pulling into your driveway with a unfinished song playing on the radio used to break the world down into two groups—the ones who switched off the car and went into the house and the ones who sat there waiting for the song to finish. Modern technology has mostly removed the problem, but there’s something about sitting in a rapidly cooling car in sub-freezing weather waiting for the last reverb trail to die out that reflects the realities of a musical soul.

Moby first had that experience at the tender age of 3, when he refused to let his mother remove him from the car until a Creedence Clearwater Revival song had concluded. “I couldn’t leave the car as long as ‘Proud Mary’ was playing. And I think at that moment my mom could probably have looked at me and said, ‘Okay. He’s going to probably spend the rest of his life working on music.’ You can’t have such an obsessive reaction to music at such an early age and not spend the rest of your life working with music.” Luckily, he belonged to a family where music permeated life. “I grew up in a very strangely creative family,” he says. “My uncle was a photographer with The New York Times, but he also played guitar and recorder. My mother played piano. My great-grandmother had taught classical violin and classical composition. Her claim to fame as a teacher is that Arthur Fiedler, who had been the conductor at the Boston Pops, had been one of her students. So I just grew up around all these instruments.”

A further impetus towards music was his mother’s studio. “My mom had a guitar and a piano,” he says. “She [also] had a painting studio she shared with a band—she would have the painting studio during the day, and the band had it at night. Sometimes I would go with her to her painting studio, and there was a drum set, and guitars. I wasn’t supposed to play the equipment, but I was bored, so I did. That was when I was, like, 8 or 9 years old.” For a couple of years, Moby would just play whatever was lying around, but, as he admits, “I didn’t know what I was doing. My mom got a friend of hers to start teaching me guitar. For about three or four years, I had a much more both idiosyncratic and formal musical education.”

All through this, he was exposed to a very wide range of music. “Everyone in my family also had really weird record collections. I can remember going through my mom’s record collection. She would have The Beatles and Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young, but also Dvorak and DeBussy, Stravinsky, Baba Olatunje, Leadbelly and Miles Davis. When I was real young, I would go through her records based on what the cover looked like. That’s why I spent so much time listening to Miles Davis’ Bitches Brew, because it had the coolest cover of any record that she had. And also, the name, Bitches Brew. I was 7 or 8 years old and I was, like, ‘Can I say that? That’s a dirty word, but they put it on the cover of this weird record.’”

It was far more than such seemingly illicit thrills that kept Moby coming back to music. “What initially amazed me,” he says, “and still continues to, even though we oftentimes take it for granted, is that the movement of air—the compression and rarefaction of air—can somehow elicit the most profound emotional responses any human is capable of having. Music doesn’t exist. It’s just air hitting your eardrum a little bit differently than it otherwise would be hitting your eardrum. The air hits someone’s eardrum a little bit differently, in a slightly more structured way, and it makes people dance, it makes people have sex, it makes people move across the country and cut their hair. It makes armies march into battle. It makes people weep. And all it is, is air. So that’s magic. I just couldn’t believe that something could have that much power over me. I couldn’t see it, I couldn’t touch it and I couldn’t taste it, but somehow it was affecting me so profoundly. That’s pretty much why I’ve dedicated my life to music.”

That dedication has never been especially tied to a particular genre. While most people think of him as an electronic musician and DJ, Moby’s roots stem from an early interest in progressive rock, through punk to the electronic landscapes of 1999’s breakthrough, Play. His overall commitment to making compelling music, regardless of genre, has kept his life interesting, to say the least. “One thing I’ve managed to do pretty regularly throughout my life is irritate the people from the genre I used to be involved in,” Moby says. “When I was 13 and 14, all of my friends who played guitar were really into Yes and King Crimson and listened to super-complicated music. And then I started playing in a punk rock band, and they were all offended. Then I started making electronic music, which alienated all of my punk rock friends. Then I developed a sort of reputation as an electronic music guy, until, of course, I had made a punk rock record [1996’s Animal Rights], which then alienated the electronic music people. So I just sort of accepted that no matter what I’m going to do, it’s going to irritate someone.” Moby’s approach to gear is as eclectic as his music has been. Despite his reputation as an electronic music maker, the guitar is his most essential piece of gear. “I write most of the songs on guitar,” he says, “and it’s what I’m most facile with. The one piece of gear that I couldn’t live without is a guitar. It almost doesn’t matter whether it’s a nylon-string, steel-string, electric—just any 6-string guitar. I want to get a 12-string at some point, because I’ve been listening to a lot of old Led Zeppelin and there’s just something so phenomenal about the sound of the 12-string guitar.”

He also likens his studio to the “Island of Misfit Toys.” “I have a lot of friends that collect old gear and they want it to be in pristine, working condition. When I buy old gear, I kind of want it to be broken … well, slightly broken,” he says. “My favorite pieces of gear are old [ones] that work about half the time, or can never be perfect. I have this one, an Echoplex or a Space Echo, and it sometimes just doesn’t work. When it does, the motors are so old and crummy that everything it does has some weird vibrato on it. In my studio, I just have all this weird old stuff. I think the simple generalization I can make about my studio is the stuff that generates the sound is all weird and broken, and the stuff that enables me to record the sound is all in really good shape. If I’m putting a guitar through a [Z-Vex] Lo-Fi Loop Junky into an old guitar amp with maybe some weird analog delay on it and tons of reverb, creating this very odd sound, I’ll have a beautiful ribbon mike going into an API preamp. So to capture the sound, I need great equipment that works flawlessly. But to generate the sound, it all needs to be kind of strange and broken.”

All the interestingly broken gear and high-end processing is amply in evidence on Moby’s new album, Innocents, also notable as it marks the most collaborative production he’s done, with producer Spike Stent (Madonna, Björk, Coldplay, Depeche Mode) coming in to coproduce and featuring guest vocals from Skylar Grey, Flaming Lips’ Wayne Coyne and others. As Moby explains, “One of the reasons I wanted to work with Spike is so he could help me to make the music sound better technically, and also so he could provide me with an objective soundingboard, because objectivity is the first casualty of the solo musician. Also, he and I are roughly the same age and we grew up listening to roughly the same records. We had a very clear understanding of what we wanted this record to be. We weren’t ever thinking about crafting something that would have broad appeal. We were simply trying to make a little jewel box of a record. We were crafting something idiosyncratic, interesting and emotional, and not thinking about anything beyond that.”

For someone who has said that he never expected to have an audience, Moby has forged a body of work that is, by turns, quirky, engaging, thoughtprovoking, challenging, fun and danceable. Not a bad legacy for someone who says, “There was a time when I thought I’d spend the rest of my life teaching philosophy at community college and making music no one would want to hear.”

Written by George Van Wagner / Photography by Ryan Hunter

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