30 years of dance music, as seen by Moby
What’s your perspective as a veteran on the explosion of EDM lately?
It’s interesting. One hard thing to talk about is the sort of demographics of it, because I’m so much older than the people who are coming to these festivals. I’m 48 years old. And oftentimes I’ll be playing at these huge festivals and the average age of the people in the audience is 20. And every now and then I’ll think to myself, hmm, if I’d started having children when I was 16 – theoretically they would be my grandkids!
But the rise of EDM… At least in the States, and I assume here to an extent, it’s so event-based. Meaning it’s much less about the DJs, the performers, even the records – it’s so much more about the experience of the event. I was re-introduced to it [at] this festival called Electric Daisy Carnival. I played it five years ago in LA, and in my ignorance I didn’t know that that sort of thing existed – I thought it had gone away. And my manager said, ‘we’ve got an offer to play the Electric Daisy Carnival in LA, do you want to?’ And I was like, well, sure! What is it? He said, ‘it’s in a sports stadium’.
And I showed up – 75,000 people, the most amazing production I’d ever seen, and it was an underground event. Meaning they didn’t have publicity. And the next day I went to a party, and I was talking to all these music-business veterans, and I said to them, wow, I played at this festival last night, the Electric Daisy Carnival, did anyone hear of it? No one – 20 different people in the music business, in radio, et cetera, et cetera – no one had heard of it. So basically it was an underground event – for 75,000 people. In LA. Most festivals like Big Day Out, Lollapalooza, what have you, the headliners have to have sold tons of records to be headliners. Whereas you look at the headliners at these festivals, and most of them have sold no records. In fact, in some of the cases, I don’t even know if they make records.
So is it fair to say you’re pleased with the direction the electronic music scene is going?
It’s also interesting because in the late ‘80s, early ‘90s, electronic dance music was so marginalised in a way – in the UK not as much, maybe here [in Australia] not as much. But in the States – Rolling Stone, Spin, they just couldn’t be bothered. And honestly, electronic dance music was sort of looked down upon. And now it’s been really gratifying to not just watch the rise of what they call EDM, but also the fact that all hip hop is electronic dance music, most pop music is electronic dance music, even most indie rock now is electronic – it’s all synthesisers and drum machines. So it’s been really nice to see that happen. Especially because I remember in 1989, 1990, dragging my friends to clubs to hear Derrick May, or hear Frankie Bones, and my friends just sort of turned up their noses at it. So it has been nice to see the cultural shift.
Back in the day when I knew you, around 1993, you often said electronic music had gotten too esoteric, too same same. I recently wrote that you were ahead of your time, because in recent years you have bands like Hot Chip and LCD Soundsystem combining rock and electronic. Do you feel you helped shape that phenomenon?
I don’t think I really influenced anybody. And I don’t think I helped shape anything. I think I made the mistake of being a little too eclectic before eclecticism was accepted. I don’t think I have any gifts of foresight [laughs]. I don’t think I’m particularly avant-garde. I just think I did it a little earlier and in a much clumsier way than other people were doing it. So, LCD Soundsystem, the whole DFA thing, has been…because my former assistant Alex [Frankel] started this band Holy Ghost! …
One of my favourites.
…and so I sort of watched them start – I remember when they were actually trying to make their first song. So I’d call myself the proud disco uncle. I went to see them play a show – and suddenly my assistant is a frontman, and he’s jumping around onstage, and I felt so proud. And watching the whole DFA thing with James – I remember hearing Daft Punk Is Playing at My House, and [I thought], ‘oh, what a cute little novelty song! Great, I’m so happy for James and DFA’ – and then watching that explode.
There is…and I don’t mean this in any critical way – what I find so odd is how Caucasian it is. Like, I was watching the LCD movie, and I thought it was so funny – and I love James, and I love DFA, I think that they’ve done wonderful things – but I thought it was so funny how white it was. And my favourite song is I’m Losing My Edge, where he talks about the culture that it comes from. And one of the things that originally attracted me to dance music was that it wasn’t my culture. In ‘87, ‘88, I’d go to clubs in New York, and it was all Latino, it was all gay, it was all African American. And I loved that it was so foreign to me in a way. Like I loved DJing in a [seminal New York] club called Mars, where I was the only white person there. And all the people who were coming to hear me play – well, 50, 100 people – were trannies, Latino, and just representing a culture that was not mine, but that I was embracing.
And that’s why in ‘93, ‘94, part of what I objected to – we can call it the intellectualisation of dance music. I loved the weird disco roots, and the soul roots, and the urban, gay, black, Latino roots. And as much as I love white-people dance music, my heart is still with – and it’s also very odd and paradoxical for me to say this, as a white kid from the suburbs – but what originally got me into it was that it was not Caucasian culture. And it wasn’t academic, it wasn’t particularly thoughtful, it was much more sort of this visceral expression.
This new album marks the first time you’ve worked extensively with another producer [Mark ‘Spike’ Stent]. Did you have to overcome an ego thing from time to time?
Well, the way we worked… One of the reasons that Spike wanted to work with me is because it didn’t take that much of his time, because he had just worked on the No Doubt album – which apparently had been three years of day-in, day-out work. And Spike has a family, has kids, he’s doing other things. So his role in [Innocents] was almost like friend, A&R person, producer. We would meet up every couple of weeks, I’d play him stuff, we’d talk about it, and then maybe once every couple of months, we’d spend a day in the studio, opening up ProTools sessions, and just being geeks – saying ‘oh, what if we run the vocals through this Echoplex? What if we…?’ Just playing around with equipment… Because most of the records he’s made recently have been very pop-oriented.
Whereas I wanted to work with him – I mean his background [is working with] Massive Attack, Björk and The KLF, and even going back to Throbbing Gristle and Psychic TV. And it was those roots that I wanted on my record. So he loved the fact that I didn’t want to make a pop record, I didn’t want to make a super-slick, over-produced radio record; I wanted to make a weird, low-fi, I-don’t-even-know-what-to-call-it record. And so if I’d gone to him and said, ‘hey, I really love the work you’ve done with Madonna and No Doubt, can you do something like that for me?’ He would have simply said, sorry, no, best of luck. But when I said, oh, I really love the work you’ve done with Massive Attack and Psychic TV – that’s what kind of interested him.
Eclecticism is a calling card for you, but at this point do you feel you end up falling back on certain sounds or techniques by default?
Oh, yeah. I think genre-wise, I’ve played around a lot, but sonically, I’ve never – and this is a terrible thing to say, but my goal is to try and make music that has an emotional warmth. Sonically, I’m never really too concerned with what it sounds like, with what the sonic components are. And so if that means using my same Juno 106 that I’ve used for the last 23 years, I’m perfectly happy to use that if it gives me the sort of sonic emotional quality I’m looking for. I was doing some interview recently, and they were being a little critical, like, ‘Oh well, your string sounds are pretty similar to what they were 10 or 15 years ago.’ I was like, yeah, why wouldn’t they be? It’s what I like.
So for me to reject a compositional element just because I’ve used it before would feel very arbitrary to me. And also because I’m just like desperately trying to make music that resonates with me emotionally, and almost in a sort of blind/mercenary way, disregarding the sonic components. Like it doesn’t matter whether I’m singing, whether someone else is singing, whether it’s a vocal sample, whether it’s fast or slow or electronic or acoustic – it’s just, how does it make me feel emotionally?
You said your last album, 2011’s Destroyed, was the sound of the world’s cities at two in the morning. What’s the sound of this album? What’s it the soundtrack of?
Well, I moved to LA a few years ago. And as you know, LA is huge – as big as Belgium. And it’s so sprawling and weird and incohesive. So in a way, I feel like the sound of this record is the opposite of that. Like it’s actually like provincial and domestic. Because, as much as I love LA, the vastness of it can be disconcerting. So I feel in a way that the vastness of LA, living in the middle of this weird megalopolis, has almost driven me inside, and made me make something more provincial and homey. You know, sort of like whistling in the dark, sort of almost like trying to create a domestic musical environment that is sort of like trying to keep the outside at bay. Because the other thing about the strange discomfiting nature of living is LA is, the city itself is huge.
But then, on some psychological level, I feel like you can’t help but be affected by the fact that an inch away from LA is the Pacific Ocean, which is huge and terrifying, and an inch in the other direction is the desert, which is huge and terrifying. So it’s almost like these two vast environments that don’t support human life are right next to you, and in the middle is this strange, incohesive, dystopian urban environment, and that’s one of the reasons why I think this is sort of a quiet, provincial record.
Innocents is out now through Warner. Order it on iTunes here.