By Bob Gourley | Originally published in 1999
The following interview with Moby was conducted in 1999, around the time of his “Play” album.
What effects have advances in musical technology had on your music?
“It’s hard for me to say, because I’m not very good at looking at myself objectively. I don’t really know. From my perspective, I make music the same way now that I did ten years ago. The basics are the same, which is having a sequencer, some electronic instruments, occasionally playing guitar on top. So production techniques have pretty much stayed the same. I’ve learned a little bit. I’ve learned that you can make really good sounding records without applying really slick production techniques. Like there’s no objective standard for what’s a good sounding record. On this album, 4 of the songs on there are just cassette demos. I went back and tried to redo them, and found that all the nice qualities of them had been exorcised. Other than that, how it’s changed … I don’t know. I’ve got more stuff; that’s about it.”
Do you keep up with current equipment?
“I hate having to learn how to use new equipment. So I could get more stuff, but I hate the learning curve. So I try to be more comfortable with the stuff I’ve already got. Most of the equipment I’ve got now is the same stuff I had 5 years ago, or 7 years ago. I’ve got a few new things, I’ve upgraded the samplers. But synth-wise, I still use mainly older stuff.”
Have you ever had interesting things happen due to not knowing how to use a piece of equipment?
“One of the nice things about electronic music is the potential to make mistakes. Because there’s so many variables. There aren’t as many variables in hitting a guitar and recording a guitar. But there’s so many variables involved in making electronic music. There’s so much MIDI information, channels, and so many things within the synth itself, so many different weird sounds that can happen. But having said that, I know my equipment so well, because I built my own studio and I put everything together, and I’ve had the equipment for so long, that I don’t make that many mistakes. It’s kind of a shame. Because I think that really interesting things can happen from mistakes.”
Electronic music gives you so much control over every aspect of a song. When do you know when a track is finished?
“That’s a good question. When’s a song finished? I guess something will happen and I begin working on a song and I get a feel of what it will be like. And when it gets to that point, I just sort of know it. I’ve been making music now for 25 years now, and I’ve been doing music my myself for 15 years. So I’m pretty good at evaluating when something is finished. Some of these cassette demos, the sound quality on them most engineers would listen to and say ‘how can you call that a finished recording?’ My feeling is that the only thing that matters is my emotional response to music, and other people’s emotional response to music. There’s not objective production standards for music. You can have the worst recording in the world and have some nice quality to it, and it’s great.”
Which songs were done on cassette?
“The songs I think were ‘Perfect’, ‘Everloving’, ‘Guitar, Flute & String’ and ‘The Sky Is Blue’. On two of those you can hear my flipping the pages of the notebook I was using because I wasn’t even paying attention to the vocal performance. I was just doing them as demos. And then I went back and I couldn’t redo them.”
Do you generally have a concept of what an album will be like going into it, or do you just start working on music and see where it takes you?
“I’ll start working on music, then as songs come to together I’ll start thinking about what I want the album to be like. Like with this album, I really wanted it to be … like ‘Everything is Wrong,’ was a terribly eclectic record . I’m very proud of it, but sometimes it’s difficult to listen to because it’s so eclectic. And ‘Animal Rights’ was a self-indulgent record, very aggressive, just very self-indulgent. I wanted to make a record that’s emotional and personal and not as electric as ‘Everything Is Wrong’ and not as eclectic and ‘Animal Rights’. Something that people could listen to in their daily lives and pay attention and find that rewarding or not pay attention to it and still have it be a nice record.”
Are you the type of artist who’s constantly making music, or do you just write enough material for specific albums/projects?
“That’s the thing with music. I’ve been doing music for 25 years, so it’s like it’s my job, it’s my vocation, it’s my form of meditation, it’s my hobby, it’s my form of relaxation. It’s kind of like being married sort of. I feel so many different ways about music. Sometimes I just feel lighthearted and fun about it, sometimes I hate it, sometimes it will drive me crazy, sometimes it will be sublime.”
Have you worked in styles of music that you haven’t released anything in yet?
“Oh, tons of them. I’ve made country western songs, I’ve made jazz songs. I’ve made like 40 minute long experimental classical compositions. All kinds of things. But I feel that I intentionally confuse people.”
In the beginning you recorded under a bunch of different names. Are you still using any of them?
“The only other name I have at this point is Voodoo Child, and that’s kind of the quiet, calming electronic stuff.”
How much material did you write for this album?
“For this album, ‘Play’, it’s got 18 songs but all total I wrote about 200. Some of which were punk rock songs, some were hard techno things, some were drum and bass-oriented, so more experimental. I might do another punk rock record under a different name, I’ve got something like 60 punk rock songs just sitting there, waiting to be finished.”
What type of instrumentation will you use when you tour to support ‘Play’?
“The last three or four years, the touring I’ve done has been with a fairly conventional band. And I think for this record I’ll tour with a band, maybe hire another keyboardist. But the shows I’ve done in the past have been very extreme. Lots of running around, lots of jumping and yelling. I think this album is more subdued, so the live show will reflect.”
Where did the vocal samples used on ‘Play’ come from?
“Well for four of them, the source was old recordings made my Alan Lomax Jr. from the 30’s and 40’s. He was just a musical historian, he’d walk around and make sound recordings of people singing in bars an churches. During the last couple of years, Rounder, Rykodisc and Atlantic have been putting out these recordings. I got a hold of some and they’re all a capella, so it’s really easy to sample.”
What was the time frame of the making of ‘Play’?
“I started work on in August of 1997, went on tour for a month, then worked on it some more, then went on tour for a month and a half, worked it more, did festivals, worked on it more. So all together, you could say I worked on it for a year. I mixed it here, then I wasn’t happy with it, then I went to one outside studio to mix it, went to another outside studio, another outside studio to mix it and then I ended up coming back here and doing the mixing myself. So I wasted a lot of time and money.”
You didn’t sing on your early releases. What made you start doing vocals on some tracks?
“I know that I don’t have a conventionally good voice. Someone like David Bowie or Bono, they have wide range and melodic voices. My voice, I don’t like it that much, but I think it works on certain songs. I prefer to do spoken than singing, but I love vocals. So when I write a song, it doesn’t matter where the vocals are coming from, whether it’s me or a sample of an old blues person, or a disco singer, or a hip hop singer. I just love the immediacy of the human voice. And I think I started to use my voice more, strangely enough, because as times goes on I have less ego problems. When I was younger I really wanted to be a singer, and over time I realized that my voice isn’t good enough to be a singer. But realizing that I couldn’t be a singer sort of liberated me to sing more. I just recognized the fact that my voice is what it is, and it works in certain applications but definitely doesn’t work in other applications.”
At one point in the songwriting process do vocals come into play?
“From the beginning. The songs that revolve around vocal samples are basically just samples of vocals and I started putting music on top of them. A very straightforward and simple process. Kind of like working with a singer, except the singer is locked up to the little metal box.”
On some material, especially the “Everything Is Wrong” album, it’s not obvious what vocals were sung specifically for the song and what is sampled.
“Well that’s the thing, because my vocals come from everywhere. Sometimes I sing it, sometimes they’re old samples, sometimes they’re new samples, sometimes they’re friends of mine singing. Like I said, it doesn’t matter. The way a record is made doesn’t interest me or doesn’t matter. What matters to me is how I respond to it when I listen to it coming out of the speakers. If a record is made by a jazz band or a kid with a sampler or by a punk rock band, it just doesn’t matter. What matters to me is when I put on a CD, how does it make me feel? What sort of atmosphere does it create? And the same thing with my records. I never think about how they’re made, I just think about how it makes me feel. And I think that’s maybe one of the reasons why I’m not concerned about who’s singing or what type of genre something in or where the instruments are coming from. All I care about is what the reaction is.”
You’re on V2 now; why the change of labels?
“For the last 6 years I’ve been on Mute Records for Europe and Elektra for North America and I just realized that I’m not the sort of artist who should be on a major label. Major labels do a good job with top 40 and hip hop and R&B and country. I love all those types of music, I’m not criticizing major labels, I’m not criticizing the artists who are one them, I’m just saying that I’m a strange artist. I’m not a singer/songwriter, I’m not a hip hop artists, I’m not a R&B artist, I’m not a country artist. So, I shouldn’t be on a major label.”
What advice would you give artists looking for a record deal?
“If you’re doing a deal, sighing a contract, it should be for as short as possible. The ideal contract that any artist signs should be for 1 album and that’s it. Maybe if you’re a dance artist 2 singles and an album. And maintain as much creative control as possible. Give the record company performance guidelines, like say if they don’t release the album but this date, the contract is null and void. When someone comes to me and says ‘oh I just signed to 8 albums, the record label kind of pressed me.’ And I’m like that’s the worst thing that can ever happen. If you make one album and it’s successful, they’re going to make another record with you. . If you make one album and it doesn’t do anything, the record company will drop you anyway. Basically, all an 8 album deal means is that the record wants you to make 8 albums for them, they can force you to. It doesn’t mean they have to put out 8 albums, it doesn’t mean they have to put out one album. The shorter the contract, the less product obligation the artist has the better. Every artist’s dream should be to have a contract just for one album. Or, a contract for 2 albums where the record company commits to putting out 2 albums. And never give away your publishing to a record company. Unless you’re doing a one-off dance single. A lot of indie dance labels, the only way they can service is by having the publishing as well. But if you’re doing more of an artist-oriented deal with a bigger label, never give away publishing. You get a publishing deal with a publishing company.”
Do you think a lot of people are pressured into doing that?
“Oh yeah. There’s a lot of indie labels out there that are very reputable, but there’s a lot of people at indie labels who are not very reputable. They’re not ethical. You have to be careful, don’t be afraid to spend money on a lawyer. And don’t be afraid to get in a fight with a record company. It’s better to get in a fight when you’re negotiating the contract than when the contract’s signed.”
What was your background before getting into electronic music?
“I started playing music 25 years ago, when I was 8 years old. I played guitar for a long time, I played bass, I taught myself piano and I played drums. I got a 4 track recorder when I was 18, I got a drum machine, I got a synth. So really since 1984 I’ve been making recordings of my own, and DJing a little bit, for many years I DJed to pay the rent. And I still DJ occasionally.”
Are there any disadvantages to working alone?
“The main disadvantage to working by myself is that it gets lonely. Apart from that, you miss out on other people contributing ideas, but at the same time I overcompensate for that by working more. If you’re in a band, you practice together 2 or 3 times a week. I make music everyday. I guess the loneliness is the biggest disadvantage. There’s something to be said for the gregarious nature of a rock band, or a jazz band, or a hip hop collective. I miss out on that. But sometimes I think that also fuels the music that I make.”
Have you ever considered collaborating with another electronic musician?
“Well I’ve collaborated with lots of singers. I’ve never collaborated with another electronic musician. Sure, I’d love to try. I mean, in principle I think it’s a little weird because why would I want to collaborate with another electronic musician if that’s what I do? With a singer, I love collaborating with female signers because I’m not a woman, and I can’t sing like a woman. So if I want to have vocalist like that in my music, I have to collaborate. But it would be interesting to work with another electronic musician to see how they work. I have no idea, I’m absolutely clueless as to how other people make music.”
Are you able to write at all while on the road?
“No, writing music, I pretty much have to be in my studio to do that. What I’d love to do is have a tour bus that has a piano on it, I think I’d live an extra five years. It would improve the quality of my life so much if I could bring a piano everywhere I went. It’s not very realistic. And I don’t like electric pianos. There’s something about a piano, the sound is right there, it resonates though. It’s satisfying.”
Have you considered using a portable MIDI workstation, like the Yamaha QY70 or Roland PA-1?
“Yeah, but I love having access to all my sounds. I love having all my different synths, and I’ve got 4 samplers, and tons of sound modules. The songs that I write are pretty reliant on having a huge palette of sound. If you listen to the record, I use the same piano sound a lot, the same string sound. But on this record, every kick drum on every song is different, and every snare drum and high hat, and a lot of the bass sounds are different. I’m really attached to having a big palette of sounds.”
You were right there when techno/rave music took of in America in the early 90’s. What are your feeling on the way it evolved and it’s affect on music?
“I was talking to a German electronic music magazine and we realized that everyone we know who was making industrial music in the 80’s makes techno music now. Or has moved towards that genre. The main thing about electronic is that it’s a huge umbrella. Hip Hop is electronic music. You’ve got hip hop to drum ‘n bass to house music to techno and obscure atmospheric stuff. Electronic music is just a huge genre. The word ‘techno’ I don’t use that often. When I think of techno, I think of very Detroit oriented stuff like Plastikman and Panasonic and stuff on Warp Records.
“A lot of people who’d dismissed dance music up to that point ended up liking ‘Go’ or ‘James Brown Is Dead’ or ‘Dominator’ or whatever. Now, I think the music world is much healthier in the sense that things aren’t as ghettoized. Electronic music and rock music and hip hop and classical music and all these different kind of music are moving in and out of each other. ”
Have you considered using the internet to get some of your unreleased music to the public?
“Yeah. I’d love to have an archive where people can go and download stuff. But right now I’m just focusing on this record, so once it’s run it’s course I might think about it.. I’ve got so much music that I’d love to put out there if people want to listen to it. It might not be good enough to put out under my name, but still interesting. That way if someone’s a fan they can go explore it on their own. So maybe MP3, maybe making things available by mail order. I haven’t given that much thought to it.”
What about perhaps doing more film work as on outlet for the various styles of music you do?
“The thing about film work is that the music is then always attached to a specific image in the movie. That can be interesting, but making music for more unspecified, ambiguous context.”See all interviews →