Moby: New York’s Superstar DJ Comes Clean
To most of North American suburbia Moby is known as the musician behind countless radio-friendly hits and a bewildering array of television commercial soundtracks. Dance music aficionados with an eye to history, however, will likely recall that long before Moby was making music for Motorola, he was touring the world an underground house DJ and dance musician.
“It was February of 1992,” Moby recalls of his first North American tour, alongside Mr. C’s 1990s psy-trance pop band The Shamen. “I remember it well because it was the first time I’d ever toured and I was terrified the entire time!” In the nearly twenty years that have elapsed, Moby – real name Richard Melville Hall, and yes the Melville is after Moby’s great-great-great-granduncle, Herman Melville, author Moby Dick – has experienced a rollercoaster of success and failure with a storyline fit for a novelist. Having seen both the top and the bottom of the industry too many times to count, Moby is, as of 2009, firmly back on his game with the release and supporting world tour for his most recent album, Wait For Me.
“The past 24 hours have been very glamorous,” Moby recounts. It’s just before noon on the east coast, and Moby’s latest tour has just begun. “I got on a tour bus in New York and drove to glamorous Baltimore, Maryland, and we played a show last night in Baltimore and… well, I haven’t toured in the US in four or five years, so I was actually quite nervous. I mean, I’ve done random live gigs and random DJ dates, but this is the beginning of the first North American tour I’ve done in five or six years – and the show went surprisingly well. It sort of amazes me that the shows that I do are well received, because they’re so strange and eclectic.”
With a back catalogue of hits that includes hardcore techno, blues, punk rock, pop and ambient, eclectic is putting it mildly. “There are seven or eight people on stage, so we have a string section, two vocalists, a drummer, a keyboard player, a bass player, and then me playing guitar and vocals and keyboards as well,” he explains. “In the course of the set it will go from a very quiet ballad, to a punk rock song, to a rave anthem, to a blues song – it’s really all over the place. It’s a perfect show for someone who has ADD.”
The structure for the present North American tour has its roots in Moby’s European tour earlier this year. “We did two different types of shows in Europe,” he explains. “One was a big festival kind of show, playing to 50,000 people a night, and that was kind of a greatest hits show. The other was a smaller theatre show, a little more eclectic, a little more experimental. Basically I was on one hand trying to be populist, and on the other trying to put a show together that if I were in the audience I would want to see. Maybe I do have ADD, I’m not sure, but when I go to see a band and every song looks and sounds the same then after three or four songs I start wondering why I’m there.”
For as much as Moby’s music covers the gamut from rave to ambient to blues and back, there remain nonetheless certain sonic and melodic cues that give his work a consistent, recognisable sound. “Part of it is definitely having the same equipment in my studio, and maybe some of it is laziness too,” Moby says of his signature production palette. “I mean, if I have a Roland XV-5080 synth that makes beautiful string sounds, more often than not will just go to that for strings. It’s also… and I hope this doesn’t sound odd, but my goal as a musician has always been to just make music that I love, and as much as I like different genres of music, I’ve never felt a huge allegiance to one specific genre over any other genre. So when I’m working on music, I’m not really thinking about what equipment is being used, I’m not thinking about what genre it is, I’m really just thinking about how I can end up with a piece of music that I really love and maybe hopefully in the process end up with something that someone else might like, as well.”
As any DJ will tell you, whenever a Moby album is released, it is accompanied by collection of supporting remixes put together by what reads like a who’s who of underground artists, with Gui Boratto, Tiësto, Booka Shade, Axwell, Steve Angello, David Guetta, Benny Benassi, Sebastian Ingrosso, Josh Wink and Ferry Corsten all having given Moby's works a rerub in recent years. And just how does Moby decide who will be offered a remix at any given time? “I still DJ quite a lot,” Moby says. “And so I go onto Beatport and I buy tons and tons and tons of music. When it comes time to do remixes, I just go through my top ten, and I ask the people who are in my top ten if they’ll do a remix. Every now and then a friend of mine or someone who works at my management office will recommend someone, but more than not it just comes from me going through the records that I’m playing, and picking my favourite producers.”
Needless to say, most artists jump at the opportunity to put their unique spin on such a well-known artist’s work – but curiously, it seems not everyone is able to get around to returning a finished product.
“Sometimes they say yes and then they do too many drugs and they never get around to it,” Moby says with a chuckle. “I mean, that’s definitely happened. Where you ask somebody for a remix in January, and suddenly it’s April and they’re still trying to get it to you.”
Long-time fans of Moby’s work will likely hear in much of Wait For Me a return to a more downtempo and ambient vibe, similar at points to Moby’s earlier melodic/ambient releases like 1996's The End of Everything and 1993's Ambient. “I’ve always loved quiet, ambient electronic music,” Moby explains. “And so that record, The End of Everything, was me just putting out a very quiet ambient record. Certainly with that record in particular, the fact that there were no singles from it, and there are no vocals on it, I mean that definitely limited its potential to sell more than ten copies.”
“I’ve also realised that I’m not good at trying to make commercial music,” he continues. “There have been a couple times, much to my great shame, where I’ve actually sat down and tried to write a Top 40 song. Any commercial success I’ve had has been completely accidental. When I’ve tried to have commercial success, it’s just backfired. There was a song I put out about five years ago – and I actually liked it, because I think it’s a cute little pop song, but it’s a song called Beautiful, and it was me sort of trying to write a Top 40 song. And it failed miserably.”
Despite his status as an MTV A-lister, Moby’s reputation has consistently been that of a down-to-earth, straight-talking individual with a simple appreciation for life. “Part of it is that I’m 44 years old,” Moby explains of his preference for non-celebrity status. “I’ve been doing this a long time, and my background is really underground music. I grew up playing in punk rock bands, and DJing in tiny, tiny little clubs. I mean, I used to DJ in places that held fifty people. So I never thought that I’d have any success, I never thought that I’d have a record contract. Also, whenever I’ve tried to take myself seriously as a public figure, I’ve just ended up being embarrassed. Whenever I’ve tried to do anything – like, if I try to wear cool clothes, or if I try to do anything cool like go to a cool party or go to a cool awards show, I’ll see a picture of myself, or I’ll see myself in the mirror and I’ll realise ‘ooh. You’re a nerd. You’re supposed to be at home playing Scrabble on your computer, you’re not supposed to be at an MTV awards show.’”
“I had this moment about five years ago,” he continues. “I was at an MTV awards show, and I think I was sitting in between Ludacris and Christina Aguilera. And, nothing against either one of them, but I remember thinking to myself, like the Radiohead song, ‘what the hell am I doing here?’ If I look at it empirically, I don’t see arrogance and entitlement as making anyone a better person, and I certainly don’t see arrogance and entitlement helping anyone to make better art or music. I like my simple little life. I clean my bathroom, I clean my kitchen, I do my laundry, I go to the grocery store, it’s simple, it’s normal, and I don’t see how changing that would make me happier.”
Western Canadian Tour Dates:
- Oct 20 Commodore Ballroom Vancouver, British Columbia
- Oct 22 MacEwan Centre Calgary, Alberta
- Oct 23 Edmonton Event Centre Edmonton, Alberta
Moby’s new album, Wait For Me, is out now on EMI.