Celebrating his third decade as an artist in 2014, Moby's name is ubiquitous with dance music, yet somehow with "EDM" literally everywhere, finding the near 50-year-old Richard Melville Hall is likely less simple than it would seem. At the turn of the 21st century his sound ventured from hard house that defined New York City's iconic '90s clubbing age to folk-driven ambient electronica and he became a commercial licensing legend. All of the tracks from his 1999 album Play was licensed globally for use in films, advertisements, TV shows and more.
Having reached epic heights of global visibility while still maintaining a progressive spirit, the advent of the digital age and the financial downturn of the music industry has actually spurred Moby further and deeper as not just a musician, but an artist now at the forefront of a cultural shift that benefits those with his sense of art, commerce, form and function commingling in a bizarre, still uncomfortable and largely commercially no-so-viable union. While figuring out solutions to the future of music and creativity, he's re-released the ambient addendum to his 2005 album Hotel, made much of his entire musical catalog free for licensing and is currently playing sets (from December 16-23) in Martian-inspired geodesic domes and cemeteries, too. From Alig to Avicii, Moby's been a guiding force in dance music. Thus, getting him to divulge the source of his passion, the forces behind his creativity, and a few notes on where this is all headed is ultimately quite important. Enjoy!
Where did the inspiration come from for putting out an ambient record as your new release? Your sound has been flexible and touched so many parts of the musical map, so why this one and why now?
Well, this album is a re-release of an album that was written and released in 2004. It was originally released as a companion disc to an album called Hotel. We only made 10,000 copies [of the album] and then it disappeared. About six months ago I got the rights back, and I'm now able to re-release it. The inspiration for it is simply my lifelong love of very quiet and very non-demanding ambient music. Starting in the early '70s–and I love a lot of different genres–but I remember hearing Brian Eno and Walter and Wendy Carlos and Tangerine Dream and Karftwerk, and falling in love with very quiet, atmospheric and melodic music.
From Brian Eno to Play, to a live DJ set at Electric Zoo. To what do we owe your clearly quite broad musical tastes, then?
I have a very strange musical background. When I was very young I played classical music, and then in high school I started playing in punk rock bands, I played jazz for awhile, I was a hip-hop and house music DJ, I've even played in very strange industrial bands. I guess my musical interests [aren't tied] to genre, but [rather], how the music affects me emotionally and how it affects other people emotionally [is important]. Really, that's my allegiance. It's led to a lot of confusion. Over the years I've made a lot of different types of records, but ultimately my goal is to try to make music that I really love and in the process make music that other people really like as well.
Your latest tour involves you playing at the Integratron in Joshua Tree, as well as in a cemetery, too. These are truly bizarre venues. How did these choices come about?
The story behind the Integratron is that it was built by an astrophysicist who was given the [building] plans by space aliens. As a result, it's kind of a legendary music and sound space in Southern California. I went there recently and it was definitely needing repairs, so I thought we'd do a fundraiser for it, so that the women who run it can keep it in good shape. The other three shows are at the Masonic Temple at the Hollywood Forever Cemetery in Hollywood. I really don't like touring, so if I'm going to do anything resembling a tour, I want it to be short and strange. I feel like life is too short to keep doing the same touring year after year. That's why I'm playing at a cemetery and a dome designed by space aliens.
I know that outside of music, as a creative you've done everything from owning a restaurant to being a photographer, too. What guides you into making a left or right turn into something that they wouldn't expect you to be into?
Well, to a large extent., very broadly and very generally, it's from being baffled by the human condition–you know, our place in the world–and also being amazed by and celebrating the human condition. Music, art, writing and performing and communicating with people is all trying to make sense of the universe in which we live. But also in a naive way, it's also [influenced by] being amazed by the universe in which we live. The human condition is by definition very baffling. The fact that we're alive for a few decades in a universe that's 15 billion years old, and that we're comprised of a trillion cells that we have no real understanding of, which makes our consciousness and existence very confusing, so everything we do becomes an extension of that.
How then does music aid in the process of understanding the human condition?
Music is such a strange art-form, because technically it's just air molecules moving around a bit differently. When someone makes music, they're really not creating anything, they're just pushing air molecules differently. As a result, there's a spiritual quality to music that reaches people in ways that other art forms can't. When you think about music just being air, somehow it makes people dance, it makes people cry, they play it at weddings, they play it at funerals, they play it at baptisms. It makes people move across the country and cut their hair and change their clothes, [too]. [What's amazing] is that it's just air moving around a bit differently. To a large extent that's why I've dedicated my life to making music, because it's so strangely magical and powerful.
So, speaking of music and connectivity, I wanted to ask you about mobygratis, your site for filmmakers and creatives to have free licensing access to pieces of your music. It's really progressive, and makes sense for where the industry is right now. How did the concept come about, and what do you think will be the broader scale implications of the service?
A lot of it started while I was at college. I was a philosophy major at SUNY-Purchase in Purchase, New York which had a really big experimental and independent film program. A lot of my friends in the indie and experimental film world had a hard time licensing music. I started mobygratis as a way to help out independent, experimental and alternative filmmakers. I love that there's absolutely no way for me to profit from it. The way it's structured is that the music is free, and if it's ever used commercially, the proceeds go to the Humane Society. So, the site keeps me 100% honest.
One of my ultimate goals with mobygratis is to just put everything up there. One of the things I love about the digital age in which we live is the sort of democratic chaos of it. I can put music upon mobygratis, and have absolutely no idea of what's going to happen with it. [I have no idea] whether someone's going to use it in a film, what sort of film it's going to be used for. My job as a musician is to just put music out into the world and not in any way control what people try to do with it. To me, it's so much more exciting putting music out into the world and having people take it into their lives, than to try to make money from it. If you can make money from it, that's fine. [Making money] should be the end result or final byproduct of a process, but not the goal of the process.
So, let's say you're not Moby, yet still a musician in the modern era. Your thoughts, then, about how to still be artistic and make a living in the music industry?
Selling music is becoming increasingly unviable. People still buy music, of course, but most musicians have come to realize that it's almost impossible to pay the rent from selling music. This has forced musicians to adapt and learn how to do other things. A lot of my friends who are musicians have learned how to be professional songwriters, write film scores, written music for TV shows, advertisements, video games, remixes, DJ'ed, etc. I think it's really possible for a musician to have a good life, but the musician has to figure out different skills within the musical world in order to do so.
So, that begs the question, what's your favorite non-musical skill that you've developed in order to thrive as a working musician?
It's still funny that people see me as a DJ because my background is in classical music theory. But, I'm sure if you talked to my original music teachers, they would kind of be horrified that I'm on-stage, playing records and jumping around [rather than] transposing Bach cantatas.
It's funny you should mention that as so many people think "EDM" right now is so "non-musical," but I tend to disagree. Given your background, I'm certain you have thoughts.
I mean, I love electronic dance music when it's very un-musical, but then I also love electronic music when it's very musical. A lot of house music, a lot of EDM, a lot of dance is actually very melodic. A lot of European dance music borrows from classical music. You listen to one of these big EDM tracks with big strings or a big orchestral passage and it's not too dissimilar from very rudimentary classical music. Even Tiesto did a remix of [Samuel Barber's] "Adagio For Strings."
So, finally, with house making a resurgence and also the fact that you were a resident at NYC's legendary Limelight nightclub in the '90s, I figured you'd be a great person to ask this question: What tracks that are popular right now could have been played at Limelight 20 years ago, and/or, is there anything from the '90s that, unremixed, would sound completely in tune with where dance music is right now? Are there any, and why would they work?
It seemed like a couple of years ago that a lot of young producers started re-exploring musical idioms and vernaculars from the '80s and the '90s. I can't think of any specific tracks [from the modern era]. Every so often though I'll play a track from 2014 that does sound like it could've been made in 1991. One record that I keep going back to [from the '90s] that still works amazingly well is a song called "Playing With Knives" by Bizarre Inc. I can play it in the middle of a new techno or EDM set to 50,000 people and it still sounds amazing.