Before 1995, Moby didn’t think he knew how to make a record. Technically, he had put out two studio LPs, 1992’s Moby and 1993’s Ambient, but it wasn’t until he signed to Elektra and released Everything Is Wrong that critics and listeners started to take notice. Everything Is Wrong is the first Moby album to show off the musically omnivorous instincts that would characterize Play, whose singles would launch the producer up the pop charts and turn him into a household name. It would catch the ears of both music critic Robert Christgau and film director Michael Mann, who licensed one of its tracks for the action movie Heat. The album feels so fixed in pop culture’s timeline that it’s strange to hear Moby describe it as a lo-fi bedroom record, even though he recorded it by himself with no engineering skills in a tiny apartment in New York City. He had no idea it would have the power it holds now.
Moby spoke with CoS about the strange sensation of looking back on a career that spans more than two decades, and how this one bedroom record ended up guiding him to a full-blown career in music.
Everything Is Wrong turns 20 this month. Is it weird to look back and realize that two decades have passed since its release?
Yes. The weirdest thing is just the way your relationship to the passing of time changes as you get older. I remember being in elementary school and even junior high school, high school, where the passage of two years seemed like it took forever and was monumental. As you get older, all of a sudden, you blink and 10 years has passed. In my mind, Everything Is Wrong came out maybe a year or two ago. The idea that it’s actually two decades … when you can start measuring the passage of your own life in decades, it’s kind of disconcerting.
This album was really important to me when I was in high school 10 years ago. Thinking about sitting with this album for a decade is also strange for me, even though I’m at the point where that still feels like a long time, because high school and your mid-20s are pretty different.
It’s also funny because looking back 20 years … of course, we’re all relatively speaking the same person that we were 10 or 20 years ago, but 20 years ago my life was so completely different to what it is now. There’s also that odd thought, and hopefully I don’t sound too incoherent, but that odd thought of, what if you could go back 20 years and show yourself the stuff that was about to happen? What I mean by that specifically is 20 years ago, I was at the end of a terrible, soul-destroying relationship. I had been sober for eight years, and I was just about to start drinking again. So many of the circumstances of my life then are really almost unrecognizable to what my life is now. I was going to use the adjective “Proustian,” but then I realize whenever I say “Proustian,” it’s a little bit of an obscure reference. But you know Proust’s Remembrance of Things Past? It’s that idea of looking back at time and not necessarily having in any way the capacity to make sense of it. You can look at it and try to appreciate it and try to understand it, but … and hopefully this doesn’t sound too weird or paradoxical, but it’s both fixed and amorphous at the same time.
Do you find that making albums helps you mark time?
That’s my year clock. Friends of mine who have kids will measure time with, oh, when were our kids born, when were our kids in school? For me, the numbers on my life clock are basically albums. If you ask me about a year, oftentimes what I think about is, what record was I working on? Was I touring? It starts to get a little repetitive, but apart from that, I don’t know how people remember their lives if they’re doing roughly the same thing in the same place for decade after decade.
Going back to Everything Is Wrong in particular, this album is such a chimera. The tracklist veers between genres, and they’re all really intense and really maximal. You’ve got these long instrumental passages; you’ve got these tight thrash metal songs. Were you trying to make a diverse record, or was it something that just came together that way?
Growing up, I never expected to have a career as a musician. When I was young, I really thought that my life was going to be spent maybe teaching community college and working on music in my spare time. I worked under the assumption that no one would ever hear any of the music that I was making. In the early ’90s when I started making singles and people at times paid attention, it was very surprising to me. And then in 1995, I was able to actually release an album on a legitimate record label. I think one of the reasons why it’s so eclectic is I basically just tried to put everything that I liked into one record. The only thing I can compare it to is it’s sort of like the way a four-year-old would make breakfast. They would like Oreos, their matchbox car, dog hair, the dog toy, their favorite coloring book, and they would try and make breakfast out of all these things. In their mind, they think, well, I love all these disparate things, why not try to shoehorn them into this one vehicle? So It wasn’t necessarily an aggressive attempt at being eclectic. These were at the time the songs I liked the most that I was working on.
You were known in the ’90s for making dance singles, but there are songs here that feel intensely private, like “Into the Blue” and “When It’s Cold I’d Like to Die”. At a time when the style of performance you were enmeshed in was very much about energy and communal experiences, how did those songs come about?
To a large extent, it’s the result of the music I listened to when I was growing up. In the ’80s when I was in high school, and I know this is so wishy-washy, but I pretty much liked everything. I loved Black Flag, but I also loved Eric Satie and Debussy. I loved Kraftwerk, but I also loved Black Sabbath. I loved Neil Young and early hip-hop. I guess at an early age, and this might be a very odd, grand pronouncement, but at an early age, I just realized that I have no allegiance to any one genre. My allegiance is to how music affects me emotionally. And there’s music within every conceivable genre that I love and that will affect me emotionally. That’s partially where this eclecticism came from — almost looking at the emotional utility of the music and not necessarily what genre it represented.
The flow of the album feels very deliberate even 20 years later. Was it a challenge to get the album to cohere the way it does?
When I was growing up, I loved albums. I would even go so far as to say that in junior high school and high school, albums were my best friends. I spent more time with my favorite albums than I did with any of the people in my life. So I grew up with this love for eclectic cohesion within an album. There are some David Bowie records that are very, very eclectic, but somehow hold together. Part of it was trying to almost replicate that template or that archetype of the albums that I grew up listening to.
Another thing I realized, and I’ve sort of tried to do this with every record I’ve made, I feel like if you can create interesting contrasts or juxtapositions between songs, it almost encourages the listener to pay attention to the next song and to actually listen to it. I’m sure you’ve had this experience countless times, where you get an album and all the songs sort of sound the same. After about the third song, you think to yourself, well, why would I bother listening to the rest of the record? It’s just going to sound more like these three songs I’ve already heard. If you’re making an album and you care just as much about the last song as the first song, strategically, one of your goals is to get people to listen to the whole thing so they actually hear the last song.
This was your first album on a bigger label, and it got good reviews when it came out. What did that feel like at the time?
It was both great and baffling. Mainly baffling, because as I said, I never expected to ever make a record. And also the way that this record was made, I mean, it was made in almost a closet in New York City on Mott Street, and it was made with super inexpensive equipment. I recorded and mixed it myself, so when I put it out, I assumed it was this lo-fi record that was weirdly eclectic that no one would ever pay attention to. And it certainly didn’t end up being a huge-selling record, but the fact that it got some nice reviews and that some people liked it was really wonderful and surprising. That whole year was personally and professionally really wonderful. As I said, I had just ended a terrible relationship, and then the record came out, and I went on tour and did Lollapalooza and toured with the Chili Peppers and did some film music. Something about that year was kind of magical. The following years were dark and horrifying, but that year was a really good one.
So you have 1995 in your memory as this beacon.
Yeah. It’s almost like if you’re watching Lord of the Rings. This is when Frodo Baggins is in the Shire and everything’s sunny.
What did you learn from this record that would inform your music-making in the years to come?
I think the one thing that I learned that is almost more technical is that music doesn’t have to be flawlessly produced to find an audience. In fact, the records that I’ve made that have been technically better produced, I haven’t actually liked as much. The records that I’ve made in my bedroom with crummy equipment are generally the ones that I like more than the professionally made ones.
Now, people are more willing to talk about “bedroom records” as a selling point or a point of pride. You don’t think about albums from the ’90s being made in someone’s bedroom, but obviously you made Everything Is Wrong that way, and I know Daft Punk made records themselves before they exploded. Do you feel like the perception of “bedroom” records has changed, or was it a more common process in 1995 than most people think?
Depends on the genre. When Bruce Springsteen made Nebraska, that was basically a bedroom record, but a very stripped-down, acoustic bedroom record. To make a simple bedroom record that just involves acoustic guitar and vocals logistically is a lot easier, because you just need a microphone and a pre-amp. Nebraska is a really good-sounding record because he had a great microphone and a great way to record it. Now, making good-sounding electronic music with a laptop is really easy. I’m not dismissing it, because I think a lot of great records are being made with laptops. Whether you have Ableton or Reason or Logic or what have you, you can turn it on and 30 minutes later have a really good-sounding track. Whereas back in the ’90s, cobbling together synthesizers and drum machines and samplers … I really wish I had a picture of my studio back then, because everything was held up either on milk crates or packing crates that I found in the garbage of my building. If you’ve ever seen the show Sanford & Son, it looked like a junk shop. All this odd, disparate equipment all cabled together. Sometimes it worked, sometimes it didn’t. That’s one of the reasons why I also assumed that no one would pay attention to this record, because it was recorded so unprofessionally. I never learned how to engineer or make records. I just had to figure it out while I was doing it.
Were there any mistakes or malfunctions that you liked and ended up using?
The song “When It’s Cold I’d Like to Die” originally had a lot more going on. The original version of it, there were maybe some drums and a bass line and some other elements. It just wasn’t as interesting. There was something about removing 90 percent of the elements that actually brought out the inherent vulnerability of the song. That was something that I learned: Sometimes by reducing the number of things in a piece of music and ostensibly making it less technically viable, you actually enhance the strength of the music. So that was a good lesson. Another funny thing that happened was “God Moving Over the Face of the Waters” — when it was used in the movie Heat, Michael Mann, the director, hired an orchestra to recreate it. And oddly enough, the orchestral version, with a 110-piece orchestra, didn’t sound as good as the cheap MIDI version that I made in my closet.
Did they end up using the original?
They ended up using the cheap MIDI version from my closet.
That must have felt kind of good, to see someone with resources try to remake your music and then go with what you made in the first place.
Yeah. He was very excited to use the piece of music, but he said it’s the closing of the movie. He wants it to be very grand, so he hired this orchestra, and then the music supervisor called him and said, “Actually, we prefer the original version.” The version that was recorded on a Tuesday afternoon in my closet for a budget of zero dollars.
You mentioned that when you look back at the records you’ve made, this is one you still like. Does it feel like the beginning of your story over the past 20 years?
Sort of. When I think of my musical genesis, it’s clubs in New York in the ’80s where Minor Threat would be playing in the basement, Mission of Burma would be playing on the first floor, there’d be a hip-hop DJ on the second floor, a disco DJ on the third floor, and someone playing Bauhaus records on the fourth floor. That also might be where some of the eclecticism comes from. That circa 1983, ’84 was my little musical incubator. But anything you make, whether it’s a collection of poems or a collection of pictures or music, becomes a time capsule. So when I go back and listen to it now, I’ve regained a degree of objectivity that I didn’t have when I made it.
When I listen to this particular record, there’s a winsome quality to it, because I feel like I was so young and had no idea what was about to happen. When I say “about to happen,” I don’t mean things professionally getting better. I just mean the strangeness that was going to fill the following two decades. One of the really fascinating things, as an odd tangent, is I don’t think there’s a single person who was in my life back then who’s still in my life now. Everyone’s either died or gone off to do odd things in different continents. That’s where the winsomeness comes from, thinking about how the people in my family and my best friends at the time, they’re all dead or gone. So there is a bittersweetness to it. And at the end of the day, that was the last time I had hair.
That’s definitely a transitional point.
Basically, when I started making this record, I had a head full of hair, and pretty much by the time it was done, baldness had really started to take its toll.
So this was the record that did it to you.
Really. My hair really jumped ship during the following year or two.
Are there any other memories from that time you wanted to mention?
One thing was the videos. I just recently watched the video for “Feeling So Real”, and there are two minor, funny stories about that. One was, we wanted to film in this old legendary LA punk club called the Masque, but at the last minute, the owner of the building wouldn’t let us, so we had to shoot in the alleyway behind the Masque, and the alley was adjacent to a shelter for homeless teens. So pretty much everyone in the video was a homeless teen from the homeless shelter next to where we were shooting, because we didn’t have too many extras. If you watch the video, part of the chaos is it’s all these homeless teenagers who had just been given $20 to run around and break things. And the other funny little thing about the video is there’s a female singer in the video, and it’s actually me dressed up in makeup and a wig and a dress.
Did you ever appear as the female version of yourself again?
No, I think that’s my one and only foray into the world of video drag.