The Day Room is a column by Philip Cosores that features stories from the music industry that shine a light and brighten the corners.
Moby’s house is in the Hollywood Hills where the roads ascend and twist farther than most are willing to explore, and nature still peeks its head out from behind suburbia’s skirt. The front looks like a literal castle and upon entering a motorized gate, you are in a courtyard that reveals multiple detached units within the estate. I meet the electronic pioneer in a sort of guest house, mostly notable for a.) a piece of mail I see addressed to “Moby” (which I still find so surreal, particularly for the person sending the letter and writing the word “Moby” in the spot you enter the intended recipient’s name) and b.) a white board cluttered with mad scientist/Good Will Hunting/A Beautiful Mind pictures and nonsensical jargon. I later am told that Wayne Coyne was recently a guest of Moby’s and his scribblings were what I was seeing. Makes sense.
Moby recently put out an album called Innocents and collaborated with a bunch of artists on it and I seriously doubt you’d be reading this Moby interview if you had no idea that the album existed. Moby has been doing quite a few interviews surrounding this release, and that sort of made talking to him not appropriate for The Day Room, or really of much interest to me as a writer. But when presented to me as an opportunity to meet Moby at his home, I thought maybe this could be a neat opportunity, to try to understand the man that is Moby, a musician so many know by sight and by name and by his dozen or so songs that are ingrained into the American consciousness.
Photo by Philip Cosores
When I thought about it, I knew very little about Moby. I knew he was Buddhist (he’s not, I don’t know why I thought that). I knew he was an animal rights supporter (didn’t talk about this, but pretty safe to say I only thought this because he has an album titled Animal Rights). For some reason I thought he was shy and reserved, but that’s also not really true. He’s actually quite the chatterbox, but just speaks in a precise, hyper-intelligent manner, often with a self-deprecating sense of humor while actually quite confident in who he is, or at least he appears to be confident.
And that’s the thing, I don’t know what possessed me to think that I could possibly glean any insight in only 30 minutes. I know more about what he’s like personally, but no more than anyone else who has spent a short amount of time with him. But time’s a funny thing. Most people don’t spend time on much anything these days. Seems like our goal is always to get through something quicker, to obtain more time for our personal use. Unless Moby knocks on your door and and invites himself in, it’s unlikely that you’ll ever spend the time to try to get to know him. We want ease and accessibility, not windy roads and difficult albums and a person that isn’t trying to get your attention with every calculated move they make in their career.
If anything happened that told me something unique about Moby, it was after our interview, when he saved me from a rattlesnake. I say this partly joking, but he kind of did save me. Moby explained to me that I should be careful when leaving because a rattlesnake had her babies near the bottom of his stairs outside and he spotted one there the previous day. Despite that we were over time and his publicist stood waiting for Moby to tend to his next appointment, Moby led me outside, walking down the stairs while chitchatting with me and trying to make his presence known to the possible serpent down below. And the snake is there, and Moby stops, and tells me to go back up, it would probably be safer to go around. I ask no questions, I’m happy to take every precaution not to be bitten by a baby rattler, which we had established a few minutes prior as more dangerous than adults because they can’t control the amount of venom they use in a bite.
So Moby takes me up the stairs, through the guest house, explains how to operate the gate, and shakes my hand, a gentleman through and through, and a compassionate and thoughtful person that ensured I was not bitten by a poisonous reptile on his property. He listens when you talk to him, engaging the questions without an agenda, and seeming to take the most pleasure when reaching understandings with me. A week earlier I saw him perform at the Fonda, my first Moby concert, and it was a three-hour revelation of how many great songs he has written, and how much fun they are with a killer laser beam light show. It’s a bummer that most everyone won’t get to see that, but just keep it in mind for when he does tour in a year or two or three.
Here is the talk we had. I’m in bold.
Is this your recorder? I have a thing where I always want to have the recorder near me.
In Japan, they always have two recorders. I actually met one journalist from the UK, and he’d flown out to the Eastern end of Long Island to interview Joseph Heller, and something went wrong and he lost the recording. So, he went back again and Joseph Heller graciously did another interview, and the same thing happened and the recording was lost. So ever since then, he does three recordings. He has an old tape machine, one of the ones like you have, and then his phone.
I don’t know if I’ve ever had an interview that important.
That’s the thing, if this interview got lost, you’d probably just do it again.
I’d probably just get yelled at. [Laughs.] I want to start with talking about the 80’s, back in your punk and post-punk days.
Ironically, I’m wearing my high school punk rock band t-shirt.
Do you ever consider if that had been the band that succeeded and not you as a dance artist later? Would you have been happy pursuing that?
I feel like there is something wrong with me that I never ask myself that question, because it could have. A lot of bands from that era did go on to make records and have record contracts. The punk rock band was the Vatican Commandos, and then the new wave/post-punk band was called AWOL. And, everything was on the smallest possible scale.
The first show we did for AWOL was at a Chinese food restaurant in Norwalk, Connecticut, the D.C. Cafe, and two people showed up. So, there were more people in the band than in the audience. The first tour that Vatican Commandos did was with two hardcore bands from Connecticut, 76% Uncertain and Reflex from Pain. We got into a van and drove to Akron, Ohio, and we were all so excited because Akron was the land of Devo and Pere Ubu. We got there and were all sleeping on the floor of this punk rock squat, and we played a hardcore show in a pizza parlor, and about 15 people showed up. The same thing, more people in the bands than in the audience.
So, because it was all so humble, it’s hard to imagine it being anything other than that. Realistically what would have happened is one of the bands would have made a couple of records and not much would have happened, then I would have gone and taught philosophy at community college. That’s really where I thought my life was headed. I was going to be a musician that made music in his spare time that nobody listened to, and by day I would teach community college, and get fat, and sustain a loveless marriage.
Isn’t that weird that for so many professions, teaching is the fall back? I know people who wanted to be teachers and are teachers, but then, even I’ve thought, Well if writing doesn’t work out, I could always teach. But, it almost feels disrespectful toward teachers.
There’s that terrible aphorism, I can’t even.. it’s those who can’t do, teach, and those who can’t teach, teach gym. But having said that, tangentially the teacher’s I had growing up were phenomenal. And you’re right, we take it so lightly that if something doesn’t work out, we can go teach, but it’s such a phenomenal profession and when it’s done well, lives are changed. Lives are changed when it is done poorly, as well, but some of the teachers I had were so encouraging. And, I’m sounding like an after school special, but the way they made new information exciting. Because, we’ve all had those teachers that no matter how interesting the information, they can just suck the life out of it and make it tedious.
But yeah, my life plan was to teach community college, maybe if I was lucky teach state college, and make weird music that nobody listened to.
How did you make the transition from being interested in punk music to making dance music?
In my mind, when I was in high school and college, there really were two types of music, mainstream music and alternative music. And in the minds of me and my friends, we pretty much rejected mainstream music. I’ve gone back and some of the mainstream music was great. In hindsight, Led Zeppelin was mainstream, we wouldn’t listen to it because it was too mainstream. Well, Led Zeppelin is amazing. But anything that fell into alternative, we liked. That went for early hip-hop, electronic music, it meant punk rock, it meant experimental classical music. It meant anything that had been sanctioned by one of two channels. If college radio played it, it was okay, or if night clubs in New York played it, it was okay.
So, we were like lemmings in a way. We had our own taste, but it had to be sanctioned by our tastemaker heroes. So, if I went to a nightclub in New York to see the Bad Brains and a DJ beforehand was playing dub reggae, suddenly I was allowed to like dub reggae. Because, if the DJ liked it and Bad Brains liked it, it must be good.
I was talking to a friend about this recently, but when a genre of music had been sanctioned by the intelligentsia of New York or college radio and I didn’t like it, I thought I was the problem. So I would force myself to pay attention to genres of music until they made sense to me. Dub reggae is a good example because it didn’t make sense to me. I was 15 years old and I forced myself to listen to it until I grew to like it.
Do you think that was a good idea?
It was also because music was hard to come by and so expensive. I remember the second Public Image album, here it was called Second Edition, in the UK it was called Metal Box, and it’s a really odd record. I read a good review of it in a fanzine, so I bought it. I took it home and it didn’t make sense to me. I was expecting punk rock, but it was atmospheric dub noise. But, because I had paid money for it and I knew it was supposed to be good, I made myself listen to it over and over and over again until I learned to like it. And now, because music is so ubiquitous and it costs nothing, we give songs, like, 10 seconds. If you don’t like it, just throw it away and move on to the next thing, which is fine, but I’m really grateful for the experience of having to sit down with music for weeks to learn how to love it.
I was born on the cusp, where the Internet music thing happened when I was in college, and I’m happy I was able to experience it both ways. It makes you a different music listener, for sure.
The first time I heard your music, actually, you were on an MTV show. I don’t know how I was aware of Moby at that point, I was in high school, but I was fully conscious of your existence and generally what you did. But the first time I saw you with awareness of who you were was on MTV and you were covering Mission of Burma. I didn’t know it was a cover song for maybe 10 years after that, but I was aware enough of who you were that the song registered as not typical Moby. As an artist, you can create this first experience I have with a Mission of Burma song, and that seeing you sing that song is just lying dormant there waiting for me to actually hear that band and make the connections. Is that something you consider, how you can help people discover music through your music?
On the album Play, I used a lot of old gospel and blues vocals. And some record label actually released the original songs and it actually sold pretty well on the strength of Play. And that made me really happy, because there is so much amazing music that deserves to be heard and if I can be an evangelist for it, or just point people in the right direction, then that’s wonderful. Especially something like Mission of Burma. I’m sure you would have heard of Mission of Burma otherwise.
I feel like new music suffers from too much scrutiny. Some obscure band in Iceland puts out and EP and suddenly every blogger in the world knows about it. And, it’s going back and finding the records that haven’t entered the canon and trying to remind people. Like there are some bands from the ’80s that are just phenomenal. Like Magazine, do you know Magazine?
Oh they are amazing — Howard Devoto who was in the Buzzcocks — and they’re a band that hasn’t been canonized except for few small circles, but their music is just terrific. So, every now and then I post a video, post a link that somehow draws attention to this stuff that somehow falls between the cracks.
I find that sometimes the reverse is happening, where works that deservedly aren’t canonized are being revisited for nostalgic purposes. Like, a band that was on the radio when someone was a kid, and now that person is an adult and a music writer and smart enough to convince people that something is important when maybe it shouldn’t be. Have you noticed that?
What would be an example?
Blink-182. Or Fall Out Boy. Pop punk and emo seems to be getting the treatment of late.
It’s this question of the power of familiarity. As someone that has DJ’d on and off for a long time, at times it has been a source of frustration, but it has also made my job as a DJ much easier at time. It’s almost like Pavlovian DJing. If the audience wasn’t dancing, I’d just play “Blue Monday” and it gets to the point that people don’t even know if they like it anymore, but it’s just a Pavlovian response because it is familiar.
Now you have this whole world of mashup DJs, where the sole criteria for evaluating music is if it’s familiar. Some of these DJs wouldn’t even consider playing a song that the audience didn’t have familiarity with. With a thing like Blink-182, it was so ubiquitous for such a long time, and so ubiquitous for people in their formative years, that so many 13-year-olds, that was their soundtrack. So it’s that question, who even knows if it is good anymore? It’s just in the fabric. And there is a danger there in championing something simply because it has a specific resonance with the individual, as opposed to objectively seeing if it is worth this attention and scrutiny.
Do you think music can be talked about in those terms?
That’s the other tricky thing, because it is inherently subjective. I remember having a debate on tour about this years ago with a bass player. We were in Paris or somewhere like that with amazing iconic architecture, and she was saying, “I just saw these old buildings and it was so beautiful,” and the situationist punk rocker in me says, “Okay, now here is a challenge. Go to a parking lot and find what is remarkable about that.” And she was offended by that idea, but I was trying to say that sometimes, it is a really interesting exercise to not indulge in easy appreciation. Going to look at the Louvre, everyone knows it is beautiful, which doesn’t mean you have to self-sacrifice and punish yourself for appreciating conventional beauty, but there can be that effort made to challenge it.
Photo by Philip Cosores
I was reading something where you were talking about your interest in people more than music? *
It might have been talking about how with this record and the last couple, I intentionally made them very imperfect, with one-take vocals, one-take guitars, equipment that didn’t work very well. I guess the conventional term would be lo-fi, but it was more just accepting the imperfection in things. With people, they are so much more interesting when they’re being their honest, imperfect selves than when they’re pretending to be something they’re not. I think it’s the same with music. So much modern music is meticulously crafted to be dishonest. Sometimes it’s a challenge to let music be a little imperfect, and by it being imperfect, it might be a little less appealing. You can craft it so it might have a bigger reach, but… [pause] That’s one of the reasons I love Neil Young, because everything he did had the quality of vulnerability and imperfection.
With this project, if I were to put myself in Moby’s shoes, the joy would be in the collaboration, not necessarily getting to know the person, but seeing their take on your music and inferring elements of their person from those choices, rather than the actual finished product of a song.
Yeah, and it’s hard for me to have any objectivity about the end result without taking into account the process. For me, the process is monistic in a way. It’s me in my little studio working by myself, and the process isn’t that interesting. But this actually involves other people, their idiosyncrasies, their vulnerabilities, and their genius. I don’t use that word too often, but I got really lucky with the collaborators I worked with. They’re odd, interesting creative geniuses. So, looking at how they came to that. Someone like Cold Specks, how did she come to her idiosyncratic brand of genius. Was it hereditary? Is it nature? Is it nurturer? And, also, we did these shows at the Fonda, and seeing their vulnerability. I always just assume that everyone is confident, but you learn quickly that’s not the case. When I first met Mark Lanegan, he’s this big guy, and I thought he’d either punch me in the face or ignore me, but he’s actually a sweet, vulnerable guy. Cold Specks, the first time she came over here she was very quiet, and I took that to mean that she thought there was something wrong with me. Then I found out that she’s just really shy.
It would be weird to take someone’s vulnerable genius, if that is what you liked about them, and then make it anodyne and sterilize it — that would be very weird. So, when Spike [a.k.a. Innocents producer Mark Stent] and I were working on the music, we decided to have people just record the vocals once, maybe twice if they had to. And not do any of that crazy chomping up of the vocals or tuning individual notes. In fact, I played an early version of one of the songs, the Cold Specks song, to Rick Rubin, and he was convinced that I couldn’t use them. “You can’t use these, the pitch it wrong.” And I was like that’s what makes it great, but he had a really hard time wrapping his head around that.
So, I write a column that this will be for, and it’s trying to tell these positive or ignored stories from the music industry, but two of the recent ones were about artists that went sober. I think it’s something that can be useful for a lot of people to hear about. And, after researching for this, I discovered that you are also sober.
So, I feel like it would be dishonest of me not to talk about it a little bit. What’s been an interesting story to me has been this Fiona Apple discussion that’s happening. Do you think people can be helped by other people acknowledging that they need help?
Oh yeah. Ohhh yeah. Definitely. I can only speak for my experience, but that was a huge thing that helped me to get sober. It was 2007, and I knew that I sort of had to get sober so my last run was like the hardest of hard core runs. Like, if a dog knows you are going to take its bone away, it holds on even tighter. So I was drinking more than I normally drank, and doing more drugs than I normally did. And, I remember one crazy party, and I was doing tons of coke out in the open, and just very drunk, and very sloppy. And I looked over at a friend of mine, who was one of my partying buddies, and she was almost as big of an alcoholic as I was, and she looked at me, and I knew she was looking at me with such disdain because I was such a mess. And if this friend who is a full-blown alcoholic is looking at me like I have a problem, then clearly something is wrong.
When sober friends would look at me like I was a mess, it wouldn’t resonate. I’d be like, “What do they know?” But when friends of mine who were also drunks and drug addicts would look at me that way, I was like, “They know what they are talking about.”
It’s a confusing story. Obviously you don’t want people yelling at performers during their performance, but on the other hand, people saying that it doesn’t help to shame someone, I don’t know about that. Maybe sometimes people need to be shamed.
And I have no idea if she actually has problems or what…
I’ve known Fiona a long time. She’s a delicate… odd… interesting person. I don’t know enough about her to know what…
Yeah, just seeing the pictures, she looks like someone who might need someone to tell her she needs help.
It’s always very tricky when your sense of self is informed by public figure stuff. It’s baffling. And there isn’t a lot of evidence for people benefitting from that. And even when they do benefit, like, someone like Björk. She’s had a good life. No one would look at her and think there was a problem. But I think that her sense of self is so defined by public figure stuff, it’s almost… there’s a good chance she doesn’t know who she is separate from public figure stuff.
And, I found that happening to me about 10 years ago. I used to love public figure things. Going to parties and being recognized, but it empirically wasn’t making me happy. It was almost like an addiction. And I see that with so many public figures. It’s like they need the attention. Even if they, like in the indie world, claim to not care about it. Well, if they didn’t care about it, they wouldn’t be at these parties with other famous people and they wouldn’t be doing interviews and they wouldn’t be going on tour.
It’s hard for a lot of musicians and artists and writers to do really good work when they are aware of the attention that is placed on them as a public figure. A lot of people can fall into this groove of safety, being smart enough to know what to give the public to keep them onboard, without pandering. Thom Yorke is a good example. He’s been really good over the decades of keeping people interested. I think he’s really talented, but in a way, I think he would make even more remarkable music if no one was paying attention. Like, he would sing differently, he would approach things differently.
It’s true that everything he puts out has such a weight associated with it, and everyone takes it so seriously, and he has to know that.
And you can tell that he tries to rebel against it. Like with Kid A and, what was the one I loved?
Yeah, that one. You can tell he is rebelling against and in love with the attention at the same time.
Well, you’re not touring this album and from what I’ve read, it sounds like you’re happier when you’re not touring.
So your life now, here, is it sort of a solitary existence, and are you happy living this way?
It’s tricky figuring out what brings happiness and what sustains happiness. And we’re all involved in this process of figuring out how to have the life that we think we should have. And it can cause a lot of cognitive dissonance when you have the life that you think you should want, and you still aren’t happy. And you start doubting yourself and doubting your choices. My response to everything is to keep working. If I’m very happy, work on music. If I’m unhappy, work on music. If I’m sure of what I’m doing, work on music. If I’m unsure, go into my studio and work on music. It’s kind of like Woody Allen or Solzhenitsyn or Picasso… I’m not comparing myself to them creatively, but their work ethos of just keep working. By working all the time, you increase the chances that something good will come out of it.
Philip Cosores is Director of Aux.Out. and a freelance writer and photographer working in Orange County and L.A. He contributes to The Orange County Register, Paste Magazine, Vice/Noisey, MySpace, Stereogum, Pigeons & Planes and many others. Follow him on Twitter.
Moby is a musician living in Los Angeles. He has won awards from MTV Europe, Q, NME, BMI, VH1, and Billboard. He’s on Twitter. And Innocents is out now on Mute.
*I clearly made this up. I think it’s actually something a writer told me earlier in the day that got sorted in with my Moby thoughts. But, he went with the question, so whatevs.