After a string of schizophrenic full-lengths that were perhaps too much for the mainstream to process, the producer released his second and most enduring pop achievement with 1999's Play—an album that has sold more than 10 million copies worldwide. But like almost all of this work, even Moby's pop moves were grounded in the world of electronic music: It's a record that drowns in emotive synths, even as it tugs on the heartstrings with samples taken from Alan Lomax's famed field recordings of blues singers.
Moby's wide-ranging tastes have won him support from nearly every corner of the world, but in advance of his upcoming remix album, Last Night Remixed, RA sat down with the producer to play him some records and talk specifically about his DJing career, what he thinks about some current trends in dance music and why he rarely knows what he's playing out.
Hold On, 2007
This is Holy Ghost!, a local duo who released a single on DFA late last year. You've played with them before, right?
Yeah. Actually, Alex [Frankel] from the group was working for me for a while. Sunday was his last day because the group is doing so well. Which is funny, because they've only put out one single. It's a great single, but they've only done remixes really since then. They did a remix for me, one for MGMT and some others.
What's really impressive to me about them is their work ethic in the studio. Normally when people do remixes—especially now with Ableton—people will spend six hours doing a remix whereas with them, they'll book a studio, hire background singers, hire horn sections.
That seems like a very old-school disco mentality.
They take their disco very seriously. Alex is always out collecting records.
Did you end up learning from him? Or were you already aware of these disco records that he might bring to you?
Well, I'm old. [laughs] So for me it's very interesting to talk to him and his friends, these people who are really into music that was 25 and 30 years ago. They'll know the most obscure records that were made in 1985, but a record that was a huge hit in New York they will have never heard of. I'd ask them, "Hey, have you heard of Company B's 'Fascinated'?" And they would have no idea. I've said to them in the past that I'd much rather be younger and have selective knowledge, rather than older and know more. I'd gladly trade being old for knowing less.
Beltram Vol. 1, 1990
Both you and Joey Beltram were doing electronic music in the early '90s in New York. Did you cross paths a lot?
Yeah. Techno back in 1990 when this came out was basically a genre that hadn't even existed two years before. In New York, I remember DJing a party with DB and maybe 30 people came. (It only really became huge when Limelight started.) Everyone involved in dance music in 1990 knew one another.
Was there a conflict among genres?
The older house guys looked down on us because they had had a little bit of success and we were playing faster and harder. It's not like there was a war or anything, but you'd go into Dancetracks or Vinyl Mania [local record stores] and there would be the house guys and the techno guys. There was a period in the late '80s where they blurred a little bit—Inner City were called techno, but would be played by house DJs—but there was a definite difference.
It all came down to BPMs and samplers really. House records were made with drum machines, organs and pianos and had vocals more often than not and techno just kept getting faster. At the beginning, techno was right around 122, then all of a sudden it was 128, then 132. And it became much more distorted and sample-based. (And, from my perspective, more exciting.) I love house music, but in 1991 techno and rave and early jungle were entirely new genres that were really exciting. The house guys kind of reacted against it. They got slower and even more song-oriented.
"Without a Sound"
War Of The Worlds / Without A Sound, 1992
You played at DEMF this year.
Yeah, I've known a lot of the Detroit guys for a long time. I still have all of the original Transmat white labels. The first time I played with Derrick May, I think, was 1991? The high point of my musical career at that time was when he played one of my records at Limelight. I just couldn't believe that Derrick May, who was a legend even though he had only been making records for only two years longer than I had, would play one of my tracks.
Did you look up to him as a DJ style-wise?
Not as much DJing. More his productions. His records are amazing.
What DJs did inspire you?
I was more into hip-hop DJs because they were the ones who were doing amazing technical things. I used to play at a club called Mars, which was half house music and half hip-hop and, in order to have a job, you had to be able to play both. On Thursdays, I'd be a hip-hop DJ, on Fridays I'd be a house DJ and on Saturdays I'd play dancehall reggae. I thought I was a pretty good hip-hop DJ and then I heard guys like Clark Kent, who shamed me into not playing hip-hop anymore. He was just that good.
What you responded to with the house and techno DJs is the record that they were playing. It was nice if they mixed well, but no one was doing tricks whereas with the hip-hop DJs it was almost the opposite.
Do you do a lot of tricks nowadays when you're DJing?
It's different with CDs. The tricks now are effects tricks, because a lot of what happened before was based on actually putting your hand on the record.
Do you miss that?
10% of me misses it. And 90% of me doesn't miss carrying 80 pounds of records to and from work. Back then, I'd play for eight hours, so I'd be bringing three bags to play. You'd begin at 9 PM and go straight until 4 or 5 AM. Nowadays sets seem to be 90 minutes or two hours. Trying to find a taxi with your three or four crates of records…Yeah, I don't miss that aspect.
"Music Takes You"
Music Takes You, 1991
I was looking at some tracklistings of mixes that you had done in the early '90s online and this track jumped out at me.
Yeah. Well, it was a very popular record. They put out so many remixes of it. I think I have maybe five copies of it on vinyl, some of which are completely unplayable. This was during a time when drum & bass was really taking off and there were some jungle DJs who really hated piano breaks, so some of the remixes were 170 BPM, just distorted breakbeats. There were one or two remixes that have that really anthemic piano breakdown.
Were you getting a lot of drum & bass when it first started to appear?
Yeah. Again, it was a BPM thing. There was rave, then there was breakbeat rave like The Prodigy and Dream Frequency and that morphed into jungle with groups like SL2 and whatnot. They had a song called "On a Ragga Tip," which had those Jamaican toaster vocals on them. Things started getting faster and more dub reggae inspired, which meant that those happy pianos were disappearing. It just became a lot darker.
Was that something you were into?
I liked the music, but if you went to a rave in the UK in 1991, everyone was on E and happy and throwing their hands in the air. Two years later, though, the drugs had changed: People were doing a lot of Special K, acid and drug dealers were really hardcore. It became much more menacing and dark.
Did the same thing happen in the States?
It did, because a lot of the DJs were taking their cues from the UK. And the drug use in the States also got insane. I remember we started this night called NASA with DB. The first one that we did had like 3,000 people on ecstasy and everyone was happy, smiling, hugging. Fast forward a couple of years when we moved the party to Shelter: Half the kids were just passed out on the floor with DJs playing progressive house or dark jungle stuff.
Voodoo Child, 1991
In listening to some of your early work, I was particularly struck by this track, which is so incredibly minimal. It's basically a beat with a tiny melody tucked away deep into the background.
I've had such a strange musical history. I played classical music for a long time, I played in punk rock bands for a long time, I was a hip-hop DJ. As a result, it can be a little frustrating for me when people only know me for one or two things that I've done. I've written some radio-friendly pop songs and there are people that work under the assumption that that's all I do. Most of the music that I've put out has been odd and experimental like that. I just love minimal, atmospheric electronic music.
Obviously under the Voodoo Child alias you were exploring that. I guess I just found that track particularly bewitching.
I love minimal music. I was dating a girl who was really involved in the minimal scene in New York. It's a scene that's a bit worrisome because of the amount of drugs that they're all taking. I don't know how any of them are still standing. But I would get to these minimal nights and sometimes the music would be amazing—this combination of interesting melodies and compelling rhythms—and sometimes it would just be dull. But when you can pull off austere and sexy at the same time, that's when I really like it.
Do you have any current minimal favourites?
You know, I used to be such a trainspotter when it came to these things, but these days I'm happy in my ignorance. A lot of times, I don't even know what records I'm playing because I'm downloading them from Beatport, putting them on CD and I simply write a little description of the song—"up-tempo, nice breakdown, kick drum." I don't know who the label is, the artist or anything. When people ask me for charts, I often have to go back and figure out what records I'm playing.
"Jack Got Jacked"
Jack Got Jacked EP, 2008
This guy appears on your new remix album and I've seen the style of his music—fidget house—popping up in your mixes more and more.
I bought one of his records called "Turn the Music Up" and it's a straight-up rave record. The wobbly bassline, the huge piano breaks, the soaring disco diva vocals and, of course, I loved it. So I did some research and I contacted him through MySpace to ask him to do the remix.
Did you give him any direction with the remix?
No, we just gave him the Pro Tools parts and said, "Do what you want to do." I don't think I've ever given anyone any sort of direction.
You've had a ton of remixes done of your work. What's been the most surprising to you?
Probably one that Mike D of the Beastie Boys did. I was expecting something lo-fi and hip-hop oriented and, instead, it sounded like Bollywood. It was really great—he hired a Pakistani man to resing the song and added all of these tablas and sitars.
Are you following Herve, Switch and other people?
Definitely. I play a lot of their records when I'm DJing. It's interesting: I took a few years off from DJing and when I came back, I would play—for instance—with six or seven other people and I would be the only one shameless enough to play these rave-era anthems. And people love it. Some of those people have never heard those tracks before—and there's something in the way that those tracks are structured that just make perfect sense for 5, 10 or 15,000 people. I guess I'm a populist, I want to play music that makes people happy.