In Conversation with: Moby

'The utility of music is communicating emotion'

Moby’s new album ‘Reprise’, a collection of his hits, re-recorded with a full Philharmonic Orchestra features artists like Gregory Porter, Alice Skye, Kris Kristofferson and more.

House of Coco’s Music Editor Emma Harrison finds out more from the seminal electronic dance legend.

Q)

Tell us about your latest album Reprise which sees you revisit your musical highlights from your notable thirty-year career.

A)

So, the genesis of it was I did my first ever orchestral show with the Los Angeles Philharmonic about four years ago and after the show I was asked if I wanted to make an orchestral, for lack of a better term greatest hits album.

I immediately said yes for so many different reasons. One, I never made an album with an orchestra and I just thought it would be such a fascinating approach to making a record because normally when I work on music, I’m by myself in my little studio.

By working on an orchestral album, by definition involves a lot of people. More, I guess, more relevant, perhaps it was just simply the idea and my desire to almost avail myself of the unique ability that orchestral, orchestral, and acoustic music has to communicate emotion. Because to sort of state the obvious, the utility of music is communicating emotion. I love the way electronic instruments communicate emotion, but there’s something so special and by definition, again, organic in the way that, you know, you can create emotion with an orchestra with a string quartet and with a gospel choir. And so that really is the ultimate inspiration is just to revisit the songs. In many cases, like with Gregory Porter and Amythyst Kiah on the track ‘Natural Blues’, like with singers, sometimes as opposed to samples, and to just expand upon the original emotional quality of all of these original songs. It’s great!

Q)

You have worked not only with Gregory, but a lot of really fantastic collaborators. Can you tell us how you choose your collaborators for this album?

A)

Well, when I was really young, I wanted to be a great singer. I remember being 12 or 13 years old and thinking how phenomenal it would be to be David Bowie to have this amazing voice. And then I started singing in bands. And I learned pretty quickly like I was good at yelling, you know, I could yell punk rock songs pretty well. I could do a pretty good impersonation of Ian Curtis. But I didn’t have a huge, beautiful voice. So, in the late 80s, when I started making music under my own name, I realised that to have beautiful voices on my records, I had to work with people who had beautiful voices. And so for this album when it came and before we even started recording, I just made a list of the songs and who the ideal singers could be. I wasn’t looking for perfection. You know, I mean, it’s wonderful when people are talented. But, you know, like, in many cases, the best-case scenario is when you have great technical ability attached to that sort of ineffable sense of beauty and character. You know, I would say Gregory’s vocals are a perfect example like that. We get that he has phenomenal technical ability, but his vocals are anything but generic, you know, they’re emotional and they’re resonant. And they’re so reflective of him as a person, you know. So, when I was looking for singers for this album, I wasn’t looking for people who would be singing soap commercials. I wasn’t looking for generic voices. I was looking for voices that had that emotional resonance and personality.

And my job was just to sort of sit in the background as like the insecure white guy and play guitar while artists sing –  I hope they don’t pay attention to me!

Q) You mentioned that this time you wanted to work with an orchestra, but you weren’t really there. So, can you elaborate a little further on that?

A)

Well, so the recording sort of started here in Los Angeles. There’s a studio in LA that I love. Studio three at East West. It’s like a time capsule from the 50s. Everybody has worked there – Lou Adler recorded The Mamas and the Papas there. Frank Sinatra used to work there. In fact, they still have Frank Sinatra, his grand piano in the studio. And you all feel like, it should be a Spinal Tap moment, like you look at Frank Sinatra’s piano. And you almost expect someone to say like, ‘No, don’t even look at it. Like you’re certainly not allowed to play it’.

But it turns out you’re allowed to play Frank Sinatra’s grand piano. And then there’s the mixing desk they have with the mixing desk that David Bowie used to mix Ziggy Stardust. And so that’s where we recorded piano, you know, my parts into, you know, guitar, bass, Electric Piano and percussion. And we recorded the drums and then we brought in a string quartet.

There’s something about sitting in this control room, which is unchanged from the 60s with a phenomenal String Quartet with a beautiful two microphones, as you’d say, UK valve microphones. It, it was just so rich and special like that. I think that the song that features that the most on the album is called The Great Escape, because it really is more about the string quartet than the distro. And then we went to work for you when I say we I’m excluding me because I didn’t go to Hungary because at the last minute I realised if I went to Hungary, I’d be sitting in the control room on like a crappy leather couch, listening to the orchestra, three speakers. And I was like, because I’m not a conductor, like I can do arrangement, but I don’t know how to communicate to a giant Hungarian orchestra. And so I stay at home and listen to remotely. And then one of the most challenging aspects of the recording was the gospel choir, because everything we had done up until this point was right before the pandemic. So what I did with the gospel choir is I invited each member of the gospel choir over to my studio. I set up a microphone outside and everybody recorded with like phenomenal safety and social distance every member of the gospel choir recorded their vocals outside like if you listened really close to you might even hear like a car horn or some birds chirping when the choir is singing.

Q)

You wrote all the songs on this album apart from one, do you want to tell us about that?

A)

Yeah, so this might have special relevance then. So, my favourite musician of all time is David Bowie. The first job I ever had; I carried golf clubs as a caddy just long enough to save money to buy some David Bowie records when I was 13. Then, in 1999, we became friends. And he and Iman actually moved to an apartment across the street from me in the Lower East Side of Manhattan. So, we were friends, we were neighbours. We went on tour together, we had holidays together. And we had this one phenomenal morning where he came to my apartment. And we sat on my sofa, I had this green mid-century sofa. We played an acoustic version of Heroes; it was just the two of us on a beautiful Saturday morning drinking coffee playing heroes. And I still can’t believe that that happened that I was able to play the greatest song ever written with the greatest musician of all time. And so the version of Heroes that song reprise is a testament to the song, a testament to David Bowie a testament to my friendship with him. But it’s supposed to be almost like an emotional homage to this moment of sitting on my couch playing heroes with David Bowie.

Q)
When you use the samples of blues artists on the original Play album, did you hear the sample first and then build your song around that? Or did you have the basis of the music already written but needed a suitable sample for bill to fit into?

 

A)

I am very, sort of like shy, almost apologetic humility around these voices, because I fully understand as you know, a middle-aged white guy, like, it’s not inherently my place to avail myself of a tradition that I’m not a part of like, and I am aware of that, and I owe a phenomenal unpayable debt, to the musical tradition that was represented by Zero Hall. unnatural moves the original sample or and why does my heart feel so bad? Like? So, to the question, the songs were written around the vocals, you know, the Volk, I heard these vocals, and I fell in love with them, and wanted to sort of pay tribute to them by writing the arrangements around the vocal. So, the only the only function of those songs is to sort of celebrate and pay tribute to those voices.

One thing that made me really happy is after the album play was released, a label in the UK, I believe, released a CD of all of the original tracks, the original vocals, and it ended up becoming sort of a best seller, because a lot of these vocals were as obscure as they could be. No, there was this languishing of obscurity. So, it did make me really happy that in my own miniscule way, I was able to help draw attention to these voices and the musical tradition they came from

Q)

How has your approach to song writing different from the early releases?

 

A)

Well, I mean, the early records I made were very electronic. And, you know, the first album I put out was in 1992. It was a technical record. You know, which is funny for me, because people think of me as being involved in electronic dance music. But in the 80s, especially in the early 80s, like I was into Joy Division, I was into the class, and electronic dance music scared me a little bit. And then by hanging out in New York, I fell in love with early hip hop with electro with freestyle, and then house music when it was invented. So my early records are, you know, songs that I wrote that were just completely inspired by early electronic music and the rave scene. And then as time passed, I think the music I’ve made has become a lot more idiosyncratic, a lot more eclectic. Sometimes a lot louder, sometimes a lot quieter, but definitely different than the early electronic club music I made. Right.

 

Q)

What was your initial market anticipation when releasing the album Play? Did you ever expect the global success to fall?

 

A)

No, before Play was released, the album before play was called ‘Animal Rights’ in 1996. It was this aggressive, dark, challenging, almost potentially unlistenable (according some people) album. After I released ‘Animal Rights’, my North American record label Elektra dropped me as quickly as they could.

The only reason ‘Play’ was released. I’m convinced of this is because Daniel Miller who owned the records felt sorry for me. You know, like I was, I was battling alcoholism. I was battling addiction. My mom had just died. I was battling anxiety, depression, and I really think Daniel let me make ‘Play’ because he felt bad for me like he was like, ‘Oh, I can’t drop this poor guy’ – he let me record and had never dropped an artist so when ‘Play’ was released, no one expected it to be even moderately successful, you know, like the original tour for ‘Play’ was a month long. My first show for ‘Play’ was in the basement of a Virgin Megastore for between 20 and 30 people.

To put it in perspective, one of the last shows on the play tour was Wembley and we sold that out and had to book in an additional date. Brixton Academy was the small show, and the small show was 5000 people. It was like a weird trajectory – no one expected it but I am obviously very grateful that I was able to go through that that strange experience.

 

Q)

What do you people will love about this album? It’s an opportunity to discover music from those original artists to see where your inspiration came from?

 

A)

One of the things that made me so happy when I released the album ‘Play’ was the increased attention that was paid to these original recordings and to those musical traditions. Hopefully, the new album will draw attention to people, you know, people listening to everyone from Amythyst to Gregory Porter. Hopefully, it is renewed attention to Kris Kristofferson, and all the other people are on the record as well. Right?

Q)

How do you feel about the current state of music compared to the music that you grew up listening to?

 

A)

Well, that’s a hard question for me to ask, because I’m old! There’s an inherent bias that we old people have towards the music that we grew up in, you know, like, I do find myself wanting to say things like these kids today are there, you know, but the one thing I will say, is, when I was growing up, and I assume maybe some of the people on the call when we were growing up, music was so central to our lives. You know, and when I was 16 years old, listening to an album, you as I said, you’d have to work for two weeks to save up enough money to buy an album. And then you took the album home, and you listened. You sat like on the floor of your bedroom, and you listened to both sides of the album. And then again, both sides of the album, digging into the deep tracks, etc. And I will say I think that most kids today, which is of course a dangerous thing for an old person to say, but most kids based on what I’ve observed. Music is the background while they are dming on Instagram and posting tik tok videos and watching Netflix and maybe doing their homework and vaping. And looking at Snapchat, if that still exists, and texting their friends, like they’ve got like, eight screens going on. And in the background. Some music is playing but the music is really just like for a lot of people. I think it’s become the ancillary background to 10 other things that are going on and I must say I, I love growing up at a time when you paid attention to music without distractions? Yeah, definitely!

Q)

You have spoken before about the motivation to write and release songs being the pressure to maintain status and remain in the public eye. So how have these motives shifted? And in what way? Do you think that has impacted your work today?

A)

Yeah, so I had this terrible period that I’m sort of ashamed of, but I hope I learned from it where, after the success of ‘Play’, I wanted to keep the success going. So as a result, I toured constantly. And, you know, I would try to I was trying to make music that I love. But I was also trying, if I’m being honest, even though it’s shameful, I was trying to make music that would keep the attention coming my way. You know, I loved the external validation that I got from being a public figure musician. But then, time passed, and like, the media sort of turned against me, I stopped selling as many records as possible and for a while, it drove me crazy. Like there was a period, before I got sober, especially where like, the diminished sales diminished attention was really challenging to me. So, I drank more, I did more drugs, I, you know, went out into the world trying to find anyone who would give me external validation. And then I think two things happened. One, I got sober. And part of sobriety for me was like looking at the underlying issues that were compelling me to seek validation externally. And that was really helpful. And also, David Lynch saved me. And what I mean by that is, I heard him speak at BAFTA. And he said this one simple thing that kind of altered the trajectory of my life, he said, creativity is beautiful. That’s his direct quote, because he speaks in very simple ways. And in that moment, I suddenly realised I was like, Oh, I became a musician because I love music. I love music’s ability to communicate the emotion and transform the space in which it’s being listened to. I didn’t become a musician. for commerce, I didn’t become a musician for external validation. And in that moment, he reminded me my only job My only focus needs to be on the creative aspects of music on the integrity of music. And so almost in an instant I decided to sort of kind of ignore press ignore reviews, ignore radio, ignore sales, ignore everything, because those things are all too dangerous for me. So as a result, today, I don’t read reviews. I don’t read press. I don’t read comments. I don’t ever know anything about record sales. I just live this naive the life where I make music, put it into the world and I have no idea what happens after that.

Like, I love my healthy ignorance. So much like every now and then someone will send me something saying like, I can’t believe they wrote this terrible thing about you. And I’m like, No, don’t tell me. I don’t want this. Like I love not knowing like my naive little world where I think everything’s fine.

Q)

Do you prefer creating music or listening to music?

A)

Yeah, that is a tough one. I enjoy the process of making music. And, but inevitably, during the process of making music, I beat myself up about not being trying. Not being as meaningful as the people that I admired so much. So, if you if you have your influences as Nat King Cole, Stevie Wonder, Donny Hathaway, the God’s music, you’ll never text him, you’ll never touch the hem of that gun. And so, making music can be frustrating in that way. But I enjoyed the process, I enjoyed the journey of making music, the process of making music starts way before you get into the studio, I think it’s a feeling even the first feeling that you get that inspires you to do something. I think that’s powerful.

Yeah, that makes so much sense. I remember being very depressed. I don’t know, at some point a few decades ago, when I realised, I was never going to write a song as beautiful as heroes by David Bowie, I was never going to make a record as phenomenal as what’s going on. I was never going to be able to sing like baby Huey. I was never like, it’s sort of depressing. But then, for me, once I accepted it, it was kind of liberating. I was like, Oh, I can be inspired by the gods of music. But I can also understand, I’ll never touch them, like, I’ll never come close to them. It’s almost sort of like maybe going to Mount Everest base camp, and being like, Okay, I got to Mount Everest base camp, and I’m looking up at Mount Everest, and there are a lot of people up there, and I know that I will never join it.

Q)

In 2008, you took part in ‘Songs for Tibet’ – will there be a follow up?

A)

I was if I’m being honest, I was very tangentially involved in that, like, I believe they asked for a song. And I gave them a song for free. One of the more interesting aspects of that was I got to hang out with the Dalai Lama. And what I learned is the Dalai Lama has a great sense of humour. But it’s what was in maybe this is, maybe I should keep this to myself, because I don’t want to cause problems. But what I also learned is that by definition, human beings are human. Like the Dalai Lama is a wonderful, inspired, inspiring man. But he’s human, you know, we hung out together. And he was lovely, but he’s human. And I, it made me realise like, there are these people in our world who are alive now or have been alive in the past where we venerate them, and we give them superhuman abilities. But I believe that something about humanity by definition, we’re all human that you can’t, you can gain wisdom around your humanity, you can accept your humanity, but I don’t think anyone can ever technically transcend humanity. If I ever get to meet the Dalai Lama again. I might ask him about that, you know, because he’s called his royal holiness, HRH Dalai Lama. And I don’t know what his perspective is, if, if he sees himself as divine, or just a human who has phenomenal insight and wisdom around the human condition. So, whether there’ll be a second one. I don’t know. I mean, obviously, you know, the situation between China and Tibet is long standing and complicated and not getting simpler.

Q)

Wonderful! Do you believe musicians hold any sort of responsibility to draw people’s attention to matters like press freedom issues, human rights abuse, and armed conflicts?

A)

I hope so, I mean, the greatest musicians of all time have used their voice to draw attention to issues. Obviously, some of the greats have been able to write phenomenal songs around it. You know, I mean, like, you know, Public Enemy road FIGHT the power, you know, we, earlier I was talking about Marvin Gaye and ‘What’s going on’ and ‘Mercy, mercy me’ but what I’m saying now, what’s in what I think is interesting, is, musicians have so many new ways of communicating, you know, obviously, interviews, zoom calls, but social media. And I do think, even if a musician like me isn’t great at writing issue-oriented songs, I should still try to use the audience that I have to address important issues.

Q)

Your thoughts on animal rights are at the forefront of people who go look up anything about you on the internet? Do you think the companionship of animals will be appreciated more in the future due to the joy that they have brought during this pandemic?

A)

That’s a lovely question. I mean, I hope so. I mean, I feel like so many people. And maybe this is very obvious and self-evident. But so many people struggle with loneliness, and struggle with isolation. Even people who are in families, even people who have friend groups, they still feel that sense of isolation, where maybe they don’t feel seen, you know, they feel like they can’t be their authentic selves. But a lot of those people feel like they can be their authentic self with animals, you know. And that’s so I think that’s such a lifesaver for so many people, like the unconditional love that animals have for us, and that we in turn oftentimes have for animals. And what I find is, of course, it’s wonderful to spend time with a companion animal like a dog. But it’s also really wonderful. And I don’t know if you get this up in Bakersfield as well, but like, I go hiking in the mountains, and I see animals who have nothing to do with us, you know, coyotes, mountain, lions, rattlesnakes, bobcats, etc. And there’s something really profound about seeing animals in an environment that has nothing to do with humans like I, there’s this I presumptively feel like there’s a transference that can happen in that environment. And a lot of times when people live in big urban environments, they don’t get to have that experience.

Q)

You’ve done many interviews over the years. But if the roles were reversed, who would you personally like to interview? A personal hero or inspiration?

A)

Um, wow, what a wonderful question. And the person who comes to mind, and maybe this is a very obvious answer, but I just would love to sit down and ask him all these questions would be President Obama. You know, because in human history, no one has occupied a more unique place than this one person. You know, and also, I’d like to ask him about aliens. I’d like to say, well as President, what do you know about area 51? Like, have you been there? Have you seen the grey aliens? Aliens in your cabinet? But I, and also because he’s had, like, I’ve read his memoirs. And his background is, in a way similar to ours. Like it’s very, he had a very normal, very sort of thoughtful upbringing, you know, especially in dreams from my father. There are some wonderful moments about him growing up and how, you know, like, he did drugs, he listened to loud music, he went to parties, he acted like an idiot. I was like, it’s so relatable. And so, I guess that would be my answer is like, if I could sit down and interview anyone, I guess it’d be him as long as he’s willing to be honest, because I think there’s always that caution that a lot of people have in being honest. Like another thing. He’s dishonest. But he’s also like, a very accomplished public figure politician. So, he’s very good at expressing himself in a way that is protective as well. Yeah!

 

Moby’s latest album Reprise is out now. Moby Doc, a powerful new feature-length documentary film is now available on digital platforms is also available to buy and stream now.

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Emma Harrison

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