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Playing with audio.
Sounding out technology.
Composing in code.

Play Boy

Moby talks about the technology behind — and the racial politics beside the point of — his landmark pop album, Play.

By Marc Weidenbaum

A young man embraced new audio technology and made a name for himself. He did this, in large part, by using the new technology to provide a new generation of listeners with an introduction to early 20th-century black rural blues and gospel songs.

That man’s name was Alan Lomax. Continuing the work of his folklorist father, John Lomax, Alan helped build the Library of Congress’ vast archive of American music by traveling around the country in the middle of the 20th century, recording all manner of indigenous song.

Those field recordings, and others like them, served as the raw source material that, in 1999, helped another young man make his name. That man is Moby and his album Play, the first he recorded after leaving a major record label for a new independent label, quickly became ubiquitous; it landed in the soundtracks to movies and television advertisements, in malls and dorm rooms. Play helped wake a new audience up to the glories of gospel and blues.

It also helped introduce a broad, mass audience to electronic music, to the creative opportunities afforded by sampling, to the magic inherent in the computer’s ability to yoke disparate elements — in this case, deeply soulful vocals and a variety of contemporary pop settings — into an entertaining whole.

In April 1999, just prior to the album’s release, Moby talked about the work that went into Play‘s production, about the racial issues he was treading upon, and about how his desire to make emotional albums overshadowed any interest on his part in technology for technology’s sake. That conversation, lightly edited, appears below.

Marc Weidenbaum: Your musical tastes are broad. Would you describe yourself as an omnivore?

Moby: Not really an omnivore, but it’s just that I find it really difficult to find a particular type of music that I don’t like. I had a fairly eclectic musical upbringing. I am 33 years old. I started playing music when I was eight, and I studied classical guitar at one time, I studied music theory, played jazz for a while, played bass in a reggae band, played in a new-wave band and a punk-rock band, an industrial band, was a hip-hop DJ for a little while. At this point, I have to accept that I like pretty much everything. … There’s a lot of opera I don’t like. The bombastic stuff loses me, but when it’s really sweet and vulnerable I adore it.

Weidenbaum: Anything in particular that you’re listening to or exploring these days?

Moby: Not really. I’m enjoying a lot of these old field recordings, although my approach is fairly eclectic. I’m not a great music consumer in some ways. I kind of enjoy appreciating music on a more passive level, listening to the radio, having friends recommend things. Rather than knock myself out looking for records, I stumble upon them.

Weidenbaum: Is there a type of music that took you a long time to get into?

Moby: R&b. Not old r&b, but contemporary. R. Kelly, Whitney Houston — I love it now. I remember being 17 and being into punk and new wave and thinking, this r&b is awful. I still have friends who feel the same way: an R. Kelly song will come on and they’ll scream and try and turn it off. I don’t love it on a kitschy level or an ironic level. I really love it. My favorite song last year was that Brian McKnight ballad — “Do I ever cross your mind?” — I don’t know the title, but in New York it was on every five minutes. My favorite song this week is that Britney Spears thing — it’s a sexy little slice of dance music. It’s funny with her how overt the pedophilia is. My goodness, they really know what they’re doing.

Weidenbaum: Do you feel a certain kinship with Alan Lomax and the other people who made the original field recordings on which Play is based?

Moby: It seems like it’s coming from the same place, in that we’re white guys from New York who are really into African-American singing and music.

Weidenbaum: Another comparison is that those original field recordings were very much a technological event, as is your record, because they were examples of people taking unique advantage of a new technology, portable recorders. You, similarly, are exploiting the new technology of sampling and sequencing and so forth.

Moby: That’s a really good point. We do tend to take recording equipment for granted, but back then it was kind of a novelty. The nice thing about sampling technology is that it enables the musician or the composer to compose songs and pieces of music out of disparate musical elements.

Weidenbaum: Do you make a connection between the fact that you have blues and gospel samples, as well as samples of contemporary black music, namely rap, on the record?

Moby: One is from “Love Rap” by Spoonie G, and the chorus is just my friend, Nikki D, who’s an MC from Brooklyn. Even using the old field recordings, I wasn’t thinking about them in a broad cultural context. I was just using them because I loved the sonic quality and emotional quality they had.

Weidenbaum: One of my favorite aspects of your method of sampling is how the little rasps in a singer’s voice, when repeated in loops, become percussive elements.

Moby: Yeah, that wasn’t intentional but it was a happy accident that I really like.

Weidenbaum: What other happy accidents can you point to in the making of the record?

Moby: Another way in which sampling technology lends itself to this musical tradition is how repetitive the vocal compositions are in their original form. And with sampling and looping, it echoes that as well. Other happy accidents? Discovering there is this wealth of a cappella field recordings and old gospel vocals.

Weidenbaum: On the song “Natural Blues,” the chorus repeats how the singer has “troubles.” Do you feel you know her troubles?

Moby: I certainly can’t lay claim to the specific suffering of an African-American in the early 20th century, but there is, you know, from my perspective, there is a universality to human emotion. Some emotions are the product of specific circumstances, but the emotions themselves tend to be universal.

Weidenbaum: It took several listens before I realized that she was singing about her “troubles with God.”

Moby: It’s “troubles but God”: nobody know her troubles but God. But if that resonates with you more, that’s fine.

Weidenbaum: It’s inevitable that when a white musician bases work substantially on black music, the discussion will turn to race. Are you prepared for that analysis and potential criticism? Was it a concern?

Moby: It wasn’t when I was making the record, but then I finished it and a friend said, You might get in trouble for this, people might really have a problem with it. But my feeling is, I was just approaching it from a naive, genuine perspective. I loved the vocals, I loved the quality of them. I hope I wasn’t being exploitational, or exploitative, whatever the correct adjective would be — adverb, rather. But it is quite possible I did something wrong. I proceeded from a genuine, naive place. Maybe what I have done is wrong. And if someone can make a compelling argument as to why what I’ve done is wrong, I hope I am open-minded enough to listen to it. The only thing I would say in my defense is that I was quite genuine and naive in my approach and I am not being so presumptuous to lay claim to any aspect of the African-American experience. And I’ve used black vocals in my music ever since I started making music. And it just seems strange that people would take issue with me for sampling old blues vocals, but not old disco vocals.

Weidenbaum: The record arrives at a time when a number of prominent electronic-music hits, notably songs by Fatboy Slim and the Chemical Brothers, have been based around black voices.

Moby: The best white music of the 20th century is stuff that’s been directly influenced by black music.

Weidenbaum: And vice versa.

Moby: But so far, everyone I’ve spoken to, everyone who’s heard the record, no one’s been offended. A couple people have said, Boy, someone might be offended. An interesting thing happened: a friend of mine works at a magazine, and he was playing the record and the office manager, who is black, asked what it was. He said it’s Moby and she asked, Is he a white guy or a black guy. And he said, Well he’s white, and she said, How interesting, because it’s the first record by a white guy she said she’d liked in 10 years. If I was being an apologist, I’d say that field recordings and early 20th-century blues is very marginal music, in a sense. It’s not mass market. Apart from academics, very few people buy these records: Atlantic Records’s Sound of the South box set, I don’t think that was a huge seller for them. In a sense, someone like me or some other electronic musicians revisiting this music and incorporating it into our music, we’re perhaps exposing it to people who otherwise would never be exposed to it.

Weidenbaum: Like how the remix record of music by composer Steve Reich attempted to expose a new generation to his work.

Moby: That’s hopefully what will happen with this record. I love going back and listening to these old Alan Lomax recordings, just the way they are, just a cappella. They’re wonderful.

Weidenbaum: Can we talk about one track in more detail, perhaps “Run On”? I’m unclear the extent to which the overlapping of the vocals is part of the original composition and to what extent it’s something done in the studio.

Moby: Most of that is part of the original composition.

Weidenbaum: Can you talk a bit about how you came across this particular bit of music and built on it?

Moby: I bought this Columbia Records compilation, called There Will Be No Sweeter Sound, which is a collection of the Okeh label’s gospel stuff, and the nice thing about these old gospel records is that they’re all a cappella. “Run On” is a traditional old gospel song — I’ve got a version of Elvis Presley singing it — and I sampled it and sort of chopped it up a little bit so it would fit within the framework that I was writing for it, but it was just a straightforward case of sampling the vocals and playing with them just a little bit so they would fit into the song.

Weidenbaum: The instrumentation is all by you?

Moby: Everything except for the vocals is me.

Weidenbaum: The electric guitar solo as well?

Moby: I play all the instruments. Every record I’ve ever made is just me writing the songs, playing the instruments, doing the production, the engineering.

Weidenbaum: There are tracks on Play where the music reverberates with the sounds of the vocals, and there are tracks where the sounds are noticeably more contemporary than the vocals. Were those two approaches you were consciously employing?

Moby: Everything is intentional to the extent that it is all coming from one person, but the only plan is to make a record that I love. It’s not a concept record.

Weidenbaum: Considering the nature of the words of the album’s gospel and blues elements, is this a religious record?

Moby: That’s my albatross. I’m not really a Christian. I love Christ and I love the teachings of Christ, but I don’t consider myself a Christian by any conventional definition of what a Christian is. And the songs on this record, obviously, they reflect who I am as an emotional person, as an intellectual person, as a spiritual person, but they don’t reflect my adherence to any dogma or spiritual belief. My religious beliefs are not specifically expressed on this record at all. I mean, who I am is reflected, but I am not a born-again Christian, I am not a Southern Baptist, I’m not anything. I’m just a guy who makes records.

Weidenbaum: This is your first record for the label V2?

Moby: That is correct.

Weidenbaum: Can you talk, from your perspective, having recorded previously for a major label, about what’s going on in the record industry?

Moby: Over the last few years, all of the major labels have been consolidated, and bought up by parent entertainment companies, and these big parents companies in order to acquire these record companies have gone into debt, and so they have to justify their purchases to their shareholders. And in order to do that, they have to keep showing huge profits every quarter. So, that desperate corporate drive to show huge quarterly profits has been passed on to the record companies. And traditionally, when music becomes really successful, a lot of times it’s taking something obscure and fringe and somehow, by some quirk of fate, it becomes mainstream. But that can take a long time. In the case of Red Hot Chili Peppers it took 10 years. In the case of Prince it took a long time. In the case of Fleetwood Mac, Bruce Springsteen, on and on. In the current climate, record companies’ memories last three months. And if an act isn’t generating huge profits within a quarter, it’ll get dropped or ignored. And record companies are, also, being run by radio-promotion people. I have no big problem with radio, but the only criteria that a record company now uses to evaluate its artists is, is it getting played on the radio? And if something is not getting played on the radio, the record company doesn’t want to know about it.

Weidenbaum: What brought you to V2 after you got dropped from Elektra.

Moby: I didn’t get dropped from Elektra. I bought myself out of my contract. They wanted me to stay very desperately. I was, like, one of their credible artists, so they could say, we’re a bad major label — not bad, but, you know, they could point to myself and Stereolab and Bjork and say, Look, we’re still fairly credible. I bought myself out of my deal because I wasn’t very happy there. I went to V2 because I don’t want to be on a major label. Major labels are great if you’re a generic alternative rock band, or a 17-year-old pop star, or a female singer-songwriter, or a hip-hop or r&b act. Or a country act. If you fit neatly into one of those genres, then you should be on a major label. If you’re anything outside of one of those genres, if you’re in any way idiosyncratic, you should not be on a major label. Major labels don’t have a clue as to how to promote idiosyncratic music.

Weidenbaum: What do you think of the V2 roster of artists thus far?

Moby: I think it’s pretty wonderful.

Weidenbaum: One of your labelmates is Underworld, another electronic act. Have you spent much time with the recent Underworld record?

Moby: Um, I like Underworld. I think this record is good; it’s very good. I like the Mercury Rev record more, to be honest with you. But V2, they say all the right things, they say there are other ways to promote records outside of radio. You don’t hear that from any major label. V2 is an indie, so they have a lot of freedom, and the people there are very music-oriented. And major labels make a big deal saying they’re music-oriented, but they’re radio-oriented, and that’s it. That’s all they care about.

Weidenbaum: What’s it like being with a label that’s still building its personality? Do you feel you have a kind of “say” now that artists who join the label in a few years may not have?

Moby: I don’t know. I have been with Mute Records for Europe for the last seven years and Mute is also a wonderful indie label, so I’m a fortunate spoiled artist. As far as I’m concerned, I’m with the two best record companies in the world. Both labels have very small rosters.

Weidenbaum: Do you have a formal contract with Mute?

Moby: Yeah, very formal.

Weidenbaum: I ask because I spent some time interviewing Depeche Mode, who are also on Mute, and they have a very unusual relationship with the label.

Moby: They were one of the first bands signed to Mute, and for many years they didn’t have a contract. We have a formal contract, but my relation with Mute is very friendly; it’s not like most artists and most labels.

Weidenbaum: Why did you not simply extend your relationship with Mute in America?

Moby: Mute America is a really good label, but America is such a big country — as much as I hate major labels, I love major-label distribution. Every time I criticize a major label, I am criticizing the label, not the distribution. In order to be successful in the United States, you need to have access to major-label distribution. Mute Records is distributed by ADA, which is great for what they do, but it’s an indie distributor. So my criticisms of major labels is strictly their promotion and A&R, etc.

Weidenbaum: Last time I saw you play was at a rave, or a “massive,” in Oakland in 1996, around Halloween. Is that an audience that has continued to develop for you, or are you playing more regular concerts?

Moby: That was more of a big rave sort of tour. Most of the time I go on tour by myself, I’m playing clubs and theaters. I came back to S.F. three months after that and played the Fillmore. So that’s more in line with the sort of place I would normally play.

Weidenbaum: Are you interested in exploring the multimedia aspect of electronic music?

Moby: No. My only interest is in making records that affect me on an emotional level. Multimedia is nice but I’m not a technophile. And I’d love to have beautiful visuals, but my interest in technology is it’s a bunch of tools and I can use it in so far as it serves my ability to make records that people like. For myself, I don’t aspire to be futuristic or experimental or innovative; I just aspire to make emotional records that people will fall in love with.

Weidenbaum: One follow-up “tool” question. If you could invent an instrument, is there one you’d want to create?

Moby: Uh, no, I’m pretty happy with what’s out there. I use my piano, guitars, bass guitar, some samplers, and some synths and a drum machine, sequencer — really basic music-studio set up, that strange combination of acoustic instruments and electronic instruments.

Weidenbaum: Do you play Alan Lomax yourself, bringing recording technology out onto the street?

Moby: Never. I work in the studio, that’s about it.

Weidenbaum: How do you compose on the road, when you’re away from the technology?

Moby: I have a head for pop music. I have tons of pop music songs at home I’ve never done anything with. Walking around the street, I’ll start singing something, and I’ll realize it’s not a real song, it’s just something I’ve made up. I’ll come home and sing into a microphone, just record the idea.

Weidenbaum: Does making the music by yourself create a unique challenge when you tour, when you have to recreate the music with a group of musicians?

Moby: The people I play with live are such good musicians, I play it for them once and they’ve got it. It’s really easy. They’re all so talented. I’ll send them a tape of something, and by the time of our first rehearsal they know the song inside and out.

Weidenbaum: Play, as you’ve explained, is almost entirely a solo affair, with the exception of the sampled vocals. The only people who assisted you are Mario Caldato Jr. —

Moby: He and I mixed the first song together, “Honey,” and this song “Natural Blues” was mixed by this guy Dean Honer in Sheffield.

Weidenbaum: When you listen to those two songs, do you hear them as different from the rest of the album?

Moby: No, not at all. From my perspective they’re not.

Weidenbaum: What records are near your stereo right now?

Moby: The Jay-Z album. Stan Getz Jazz Samba. First Bad Brains album, first four Roxy Music records. My own album. What else is there? One of the Ryko-Rounder Alan Lomax recordings. That’s about it.

Weidenbaum: A couple of questions about your work process. You use a PC or Macintosh?

Moby: Macintosh.

Weidenbaum: Do you ever use the CD drive in your computer to listen to music?

Moby: No.

Weidenbaum: A new generation of young listeners is coming of age listening to music on computers, downloading it, manipulating it. Does this excite you at all?

Moby: I am really curious to see what sort of music gets created out of it. If music becomes the domain of hobbyists, will it become really wonderful music or just lots of mediocre music? If you look at the history of music, the best music tends to come from people who devote their lives to it. Same thing with art, same thing with literature. Not a lot of great culture comes from dilettantes. Marcel Duchamp was a great artist because he devoted himself to making art.

Weidenbaum: Any interest in the business side of things?

Moby: I do not want to run a record label. I have no interest. I want to make music. I wouldn’t mind starting a school, I wouldn’t mind working with people. But my job is: I’m a musician.

Weidenbaum: Who are your favorite people you’ve collaborated with?

Moby: I’ve done more remixes than collaborations. That’s like collaborating with people even though I’m the only person there. Strangely enough, I was able to work for or with almost all of my heroes when I was young: David Bowie, Brian Eno, John Lydon, New Order, Depeche Mode, etc.

Weidenbaum: Is there someone you’d like to record with but haven’t?

Moby: I have this idea, it would be nice to make a punk-rock record with Prince, or like a really dark earthy record — there’s this Talking Heads song, “Memories Can’t Wait,” stuff like that. With Prince. Put aside the glossy funk stuff and get dirty.

Weidenbaum: It’s a shame how unnecessary the remixes he did of “1999” were.

Moby: Why gild the lily? I was out drinking with friends recently and that song came on and I was struck — the thing about song lyrics, that’s so wonderful, if you ever read them they read so poorly. That’s why I never put lyrics in my records. I don’t think lyrics work as poetry, but lyrics as lyrics are wonderful. The lyrics to “1999” are so simple but so effective.

Weidenbaum: What about the lyrics on Play?

Moby: I think the lyrics are wonderful, if I do say so myself. They’re very meaningful to me. I think other people may listen to them and think they’re post-adolescent, grad-student crap. But they resonate a lot with me.

Weidenbaum: Thanks so much for your time. I appreciate your being open to discussing the whole racial thing. When I first started listening to Play I was flashing back to the debate that followed the release of Paul Simon’s Graceland.

Moby: Racism is awful, homophobia is awful. Misogyny, sexism. Any prejudice is awful. Exploitation is bad. But a lot of times people label something not because it’s bad but because they want to simplify it. I think the situation with Paul Simon was complicated, and I don’t think it could be judged so simply as we tried to judge it. I’ve been wrong so many times in my life, at this point I try to refrain from judgment.

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