Six years ago, Moby was in everybody’s home. Like Buena Vista Social Club before it and the O Brother, Where Art Thou? soundtrack after it, Moby’s Play was the album to own. Even the folks who normally buy one CD every few years (Norah Jones’ debut was probably their last purchase) bought Play . And they listened to it. And they loved it. However, when Moby released another album, 18, three years later . . . he didn’t find his music in as many homes. In fact, there was even a backlash or sorts against him.
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Moby is used to this sort of audience fickleness. His 1995 debut, Everything Is Wrong, is one of electronic music’s cornerstones. It’s a substantial project, a quasi-conceptual piece that bridges New Age wispiness with techno’s frenetic rush. Moby and his album were heralded not only in the club community (where he made his name as a DJ and remixer), but also by typically dance-music-averse critics and listeners. In 1997, he recorded Animal Rights, a punk record with real-live vocals and real-live instruments. No one cared. “No one else seemed to like that record, but I love it,” laughs Moby. “There’s a creative, artistic satisfaction that comes with making something you really care about, even though no one else likes it. To put it in perspective, 18 sold more copies in Portugal than Animal Rights did worldwide. It basically tells me that the market for incredibly brutal punk rock is not huge.”
Moby’s new album, Hotel, is not a brutal punk rock record (thankfully). It is, however, poised to be Play’s belated successor. While 18 utilized several of Play’s playbook schemes-ancient, worldly samples, ambient tones spiced with a little gravitas-it was sort of a letdown after Play‘s massive success (despite “We Are All Made of Stars,” the CD’s first single and one of Moby’s finest tracks). Hotel, which occasionally strays from Play‘s hit-making formula, sounds and feels like something grand-or at least semi-grand. It’s almost a thematic piece, tracing an artist’s journey into sound. “I wrote between 200 and 300 songs and narrowed them down to the 14 that are on the record,” he explains. “It’s funny, but if I look at it a bit dispassionately, I guess my records do have a theme to them. But the truth is, when I’m making them, all I’m trying to do is make a record that I love. And hopefully, other people will love it as well.”
“I feel that there should be some overarching meta-concept or theme,” he sheepishly adds, “but it’s just me in my studio trying to make music that I love. The worst-case scenario would be to make a record that I didn’t like that other people didn’t like either.”
Hotel (which was recorded in Moby’s New York apartment and a pair of studios in the city) is Moby’s first album without inclusion of vocal samples. He sings on ten of the album’s tracks. Recall Play‘s gorgeous, scratchy and ethereal voices from the past, and you’ll quickly realize why this is such a big deal. “It’s a function of two things,” he offers. “It’s a function of getting older, and it’s a function of really enjoying singing. Over time, I really learned to like and appreciate my voice and recognize it for what it is. For many years, I thought to myself, ‘Because I can’t sing like Bono, or because I can’t sing like David Bowie, I shouldn’t even bother singing at all.’ I kinda just made peace with myself. Luckily, there’s a long tradition of singers who don’t technically have the greatest voices but whose voices are expressive and emotive and suit the music that they’re singing.”
“And as much as I love working with other singers and vocal samples, there’s something immediately gratifying about just writing a song on acoustic guitar and singing it myself,” he continues. “It’s almost like the Cyrano de Bergerac story, where he communicated through other people. Ultimately, I realized if I’m writing songs I care about, I should probably be the one singing them. It just seemed more emotionally honest to be doing the singing myself.”
Moby also plays all the instruments on the album, except drums. “I really enjoy playing,” he says. “But there’s also a clear sense of what I’m looking for. It’s much more song-oriented than the last couple records. And in many ways, it’s more personal. If you’re doing it yourself, and you have an idea for a guitar part at three in the morning… well…you just walk into your studio at three in the morning. Patience is not a virtue of mine.”
Moby was born Richard Melville Hall in 1965. A distant uncle is Moby Dick author Herman Melville. He acquired the nickname when he was young. In 1991, he recorded “Go,” a dance anthem that fused disco beats with punk speed. Three years later, he released the Move EP and immediately became one of clubland’s most lauded performers. He also became one of the genre’s first stars, with his bald head, vegan lifestyle and Christian beliefs often competing with his music in the public eye. He contributed music to a couple films (Heat, Tomorrow Never Dies) that complemented his sleek, shiny sounds. He even released a compilation album, I Like to Score, featuring movie tunes and remixes. He then released Play in 1999. “We didn’t expect it to be successful at all,” he recalls. “Our pie-in-the-sky hope was that it would sell 200,000 copies worldwide.”
The album went on to sell more than two million copies. It was unavoidable at the top of the decade. It was on the radio (sort of) and in the clubs. It was even on TV. A lot. Infamously, each of Play’s 18 tracks was licensed for commercial use. Cars, shoes, credit cards and Hollywood movies were all sold using Moby’s songs. “It’s a misleading truth,” he clarifies. “Yes, every song was licensed, but some of the songs were licensed to tiny independent film productions that never were seen by anyone. One of the songs was licensed for an Australian student film by some guy in college in Sydney.”
“Play became successful in Los Angeles before it became successful anywhere else,” he continues. “We started getting licensing requests for movies and TV shows, and then it just took off from there. The early adopters were music supervisors in Los Angeles. When opportunities to get the music heard came along, we jumped at them. At that time, there was really no radio support. That informed all the licensing-anything we could do to try to get more people to hear the music.”
Moby says he had almost no input on how the music would be used in the ads, but he’s quick to add that he would never license his work to a tobacco company or McDonald’s (or Burger King, for that matter). “One of the things that I like about recorded music is that remixing or licensing the music doesn’t compromise the original recording. Take a painting-the only way you can change it is by hurting the original. But, because music can be reproduced so easily, it can be retextualized and still exist in its original form.”
And there’s no such thing as selling out, he says. It’s a hollow accusation, cried in outraged by disillusioned schoolboys, hipster phonies and indier-than-thou punks. “In the early ‘80s, I played in a hardcore punk band, and the term ‘sellout’ was tossed around quite a lot,” he notes. “There were some really hardcore anarchist punks who believed that if you charged money for a show, you were a sellout. And there were people who believed that if you made a seven-inch record, you were a sellout. Basically, every musician who is involved in the commercial exploitation of music is ostensibly a sellout. I eventually realized how absurd that was.”
In the end, his label, publisher and Moby himself did very well with the deal. “It sure made them like me more,” he quips. “In their eyes, it made me more of a valuable and viable artist to them.”
It made them all lots of money. More important, it gave a once “fringe” artist a wider venue in which to spread his musical message. The exposure accelerated sales of Play, which has become one of electronic music’s (a stalled genre more acclaimed in theory than in practice) few genuine classics. Furthermore, he reworked the standard by which artists and advertisers can work together without compromising the artistic integrity of the former (a decade ago, chill-out music never would have been heard outside of after-hours clubs, let alone during Desperate Housewives‘ breaks).
Moby says he’d do it all again (which he kinda has). Post-Play tracks have popped up in commercials and on TV shows, and Moby lent 18’s “Extreme Ways” to last year’s The Bourne Supremacy. “As weird as this might sound with all the licensing that we did, the money was really not the motivating factor,” he says. “The biggest motivating factor was the increased exposure we got through licensing. I worked long and hard on the music. I spent the better part of two years making Play. When it came out, my assumption was that no one would ever listen to it. Before it came out, I even tried to think of other jobs that I could do. I was tempted to go back to school to study architecture.
“It’s nice to have a more diversified career in music now,” he concludes. “There are lots of different ways to work on music and get it out to the real world. The licensing is a happy bonus. I’ve never once written a piece of music and thought to myself, ‘I hope this gets licensed somewhere.’ The music itself is very precious. The marketing of the music is not precious at all. I see licensing as a marketing tool. The music is very sacred to me, but you can’t control it once it’s released. It [Play] was very bizarre, and in many ways unprecedented that a weird, eclectic, obscure underground record made in the bedroom of a guy in his late-30s in New York would become so ubiquitous.”