30 years of dance music, as seen by Moby

It’s natural to be a little nervous when you’re preparing to interview a star. But my face-to-face session with Moby earlier this month produced more than its fair share of angst. In the parlance of daggy sequels, this time it was personal. I was friends with Moby years ago, around the time I moved to New York, and then ended up touring North America with him as a stage performer in 1993. After the tour, we drifted apart and I hadn’t seen him since.

I recently wrote about all of this in a pair of well-received features here on inthemix. The stories were pretty frank about the use of fake keyboards in Moby’s stage show at the time (with yours truly as the fall guy), along with some of the tensions on the tour between Moby and the other acts, including Aphex Twin and Orbital. But I also felt they were very fair and showed how this difficult time was part of Moby’s development as a prophet of a more inclusive indie/electronic hybrid.

I couldn’t help but wonder if Moby had read the articles, and if he did, what he thought of them. His displeasure at my ill-timed and immature spilling of the fake-keyboard stuff to a nosy Ravenet user and a Spin magazine journalist during the tour was part of the reason we fell out. Or so I imagined. We were probably moving in different directions anyway. Whatever the case, I tweeted the articles “at” him, as did inthemix, with no response. (By contrast, Paul Hartnoll from Orbital tweeted back with effusive compliments.) Lo and behold, not long after the articles were published my editors offered me the chance to interview Moby in person during his brief stopover here in Sydney (which would also include a one-off DJ gig at Chinese Laundry). I couldn’t believe the timing.

As I was pacing up and down the hall outside a suite on the 40th floor of a CBD hotel, waiting to be invited in, I had no way to tell how Moby would react when he saw me. I’d already decided not to say anything about our history at the start. I didn’t want to put the focus on me; I had no intention of asking him about the 1993 tour during the session, and I definitely didn’t want the famously sensitive Moby to feel like it was some sort of ambush. Like anybody else I just wanted to do an interview about his new album, Innocents (which is out now). On the other hand, maybe he wouldn’t remember me – it had been 20 long years, and he’s, y’know, been busy.

As it turned out, a jetlagged and over-caffeinated Moby suddenly realised he recognised me a few minutes into the interview. There was a brief moment of confusion, we had a laugh over it, and then the interview you can read below continued in businesslike fashion. Sorry to say, no uncomfortable confrontation or juicy gossip is recorded here. He was really cool about it. But it did ultimately make for a more relaxed session, and allowed me to ask a few questions from our shared perspective of what the music scene was like back in the day. In the end the interview reveals a 48-year-old music icon who’s more chill these days, who’s learned a lot about what makes him happy, and has remembered how to have fun spinning records for party people young enough to be his grandkids.

You’ve already made known you’re not going to tour behind the new album, except for three shows in LA. Are you a little bit tired of explaining why?

No – the funny thing with doing interviews is I almost always enjoy them. The only times I don’t like doing interviews are when there’s a huge language barrier, because then it’s just frustrating – because you can’t comfortably express yourself. And then the other time is, I just did an interview the other day with someone who clearly just didn’t like me. I don’t know how he ended up doing it, but he just went into it quite antagonistically. When someone is clearly being antagonistic, it’s almost like three and a half billion years of evolution have trained us to respond with defensiveness or antagonism in response. It was really hard to not rise to that. During the course of the interview, he wasn’t saying mean things to me – he was quoting incredibly nasty things that other people had written about me, asking how I felt about that.

So about why I’m not touring. The main reason I’m not touring is so I can spend more time at home working on music. It’s a tricky question to answer, because I never want to sound like a complaining musician – because I’ve had terrible jobs in my life. One of my first jobs was…the Macy’s in Stamford, Connecticut had a restaurant attached to it, and I was the dishwasher. And that was so disgusting, and I would go home smelling like every particle of disgusting food that everyone else had eaten. So if I was working as a dishwasher at this terrible restaurant, and I read an interview with a musician complaining about how hard it is to go on tour, I would have found him and hit him in the head with a brick. So that’s why I refuse to complain about touring.

All I can say is, when I go on tour, I give up a lot of the things that I really like about being alive. Which is being in my studio every day, spending time with dogs, trying to have real relationships, having friendships, et cetera. Playing music is great, but living in airports and hotel rooms? Over time it’s not the healthiest way to live.

So how would you address fans from, say, Argentina or Australia, who want to see you perform this year? What would you say to them?

Well, I’ve been to both places many times in my life, so I’d say, hopefully in the past you’ve had that opportunity, and maybe in the future that opportunity will arise again. And for this album, we’re streaming the concert – like, we’re bringing in lights and cameras – so in some ways what I would say to them is, look, it’s the best of both worlds! You can watch the show in your underpants, and check your Twitter feed at the same time, and have a snack.

And you don’t have to pay ten dollars for a beer.

And we’re streaming a show the week that the record’s released [Friday October 4]; and so in a way it’s like anyone anywhere… Normally if I was playing a show in Berlin the week the album was released, someone might have to go there – and this way they can stay home.

So, you’ve been DJing more often lately?

Yes, the last couple of years.

And you’ve been enjoying it?

Yeah. I mean, it creates a lot of confusion, because the music I play when I DJ sounds nothing like the music I put on my records; and the music I make on my records sounds nothing like the music I play when I DJ. So people who like my records come to my DJ sets and are sometimes confused. And in turn…like I DJ’d at Coachella last year, and someone who comes to this Coachella DJ set and bought one of my records expecting a big techno-rave party, and instead gets quiet, sort of delicate low-fi indie music? Maybe they’re disappointed, I don’t know.

But, yeah, DJing – it’s just really fun! You show up, play records for a couple of hours, jump up and down. You get to take credit for other people’s records.

So to you it’s a different animal than playing live.

Yeah.

READ THE INTHEMIX REVIEW OF MOBY’S DJ SET HERE.

Have you been influenced by other, younger DJs lately? Or is it all coming from your own collection?

When I first sort of got back into it… I was playing a lot of my old favourite rave and house records. And then I got an account with Beatport – and it’s just so easy to hear and buy new music. In the olden days, as you know, it’s like, save up your money, go to the record store – maybe Vinyl Mania or one of those dance stores in New York would have 20 new records, and they were all imports and they all cost $10. And so you’d have to listen to them and go, can I afford to buy four of them or five of them?

And they had maybe one track each.

And then you get it home and you’re like, oh gosh, it’s really not as good as I thought. Whereas now, buying stuff online, the records cost $1.99 – and say you buy 20 of them, and you’ve just spent $40, and there’s a good chance you can actually play them. So now when I DJ, it’s 98% new records, and a few old. And oddly enough, a lot of Australian records. It seems like Australia, as a relatively small country in terms of population, certainly punches above its weight in terms of its influence on the global dance scene.

Any particular Australian producers you’re into lately?

The other thing is that in the world of dance music and electronic music, I oftentimes don’t know where people come from. Like there’s this one guy, Donald Glaude, and I assumed he was German – turns out he’s from San Francisco. Or someone gives themselves a name, like, you know, Sound Corporation. Does that mean they’re from New York? Does it mean they’re from Korea?

But [speaking of Australian artists], Tommy Trash. That song The End – granted it’s a couple of years old now, but it was such a monster. I’ve been playing a lot of festivals. The thing I’m doing tomorrow [at Chinese Laundry] will maybe be a little more nuanced because it’s quite small, but at festivals it’s all about the bombast. Big, over-the-top, bombastic – and that’s where some of these Australian productions [by] Loops of Fury, Tommy Trash, just make so much sense, in a stadium for 50,000 people.

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.