Electronic music pioneer Moby is only playing three live dates near his residence in L.A. to promote his new album, Innocents (out October 1). But he’s complementing those with a handful of DJ gigs, including one at Hakkasan. The man named after that whale spoke to the Weekly about the fabulous weirdness of Las Vegas, the gratifying rise of EDM and just wanting to make music in his studio
Even considering your desire to play closer to home, and to prioritize making music over performing, are you also tired the slog of touring? There’s nothing worse than a musician complaining about the rigors of traveling around the world playing music. I’ve had some crappy jobs in my life. The thing with touring is, it’s certainly great—you get to travel around the world, play music and stay in nice hotels—but you end up giving up a lot of other things in order to be a touring musician: having relationships, spending time with your friends, spending time with your dogs. But first and foremost for me, I can’t spend time in my studio.
Would you dread a promotional and tour schedule that comes close to the one you ended up taking on in 1999, when your album Play broke big, even if it promised a big payoff? It's a good question and I don't know. I don't know if I would necessarily dread it. I think I would be sad to spend that much time away from home and my studio, and (laughs) as banal would it sound, that much time away from my bed. Hotels are nice but I’m a weird sleeper to begin with, but I never sleep that well unless I’m my own bed.
But the main thing, I would just be really wistful at the thought of having all those months where I couldn’t be working in the studio on my music. And the irony is, we live in an age the only musicians make money is by touring. It goes without saying that my manager and accountant think I’m going out of my mind. I have the most ass-backward focus because all I want to do is make albums at a time when no one buys albums, and all I want to do is tour as little as possible at a time when everyone tours because it’s the only way they can make money. So I really am probably just the dumbest musician on the planet.
With the way pop culture has turned toward electronic dance music, does Innocents present an opportunity to find a new, maybe younger audience through remixers that are now also huge DJs? Or would your inclination be to find less commercial remixers and distance yourself from any musical trends? It’s a good question, and my response is kind of naive. Which is that, really, all I want to do is make music that I love. To that end, I love having my music remixed by other people, but I don't think of it necessarily as a commercial endeavor. It's really interesting how other people reinterpret something I’ve done, and every now and then, in the course of my life, I’ve had some remixes that have ended up being commercially successfully but almost by accident. I had a Steve Angello remix about six or eight years ago, and at the time, he was kind of a relatively unknown DJ and he did this really great remix that I didn’t think was terribly commercial, but ended up becoming a big hit in Europe.
In the course of my life, whenever I tried to do something commercially successful, it backfired on me. I’ve never tried to write a successful song, whereas any success I've had has been a complete accident and a fluke. I’m not just saying that to be self-deprecating, it really is empirically the case. Also, now, the things required to be commercially successful in 2013 would have so much compromise that there’s no incentive to do so. If a musician in 1995 was able to compromise successfully, they would go on to sell 20 million records. Whereas a musician now compromises now and sells 10,000 ringtones. I don’t know what powerful incentive there is to really have any creative compromise.
In the world of remixing, in the course of my life, one thing I like about it, I’ve done so many remixes for other people. It’s really interesting being on both sides of it: being the person who does remixes for other people, and the person for whom remixes are done.
You paved the way for so many EDM artists. What do you make of the genre’s recent popularity? In a way, I find it really gratifying and really interesting because my background as a musician is very strange. When I was young, I played classical music, then I played in punk rock bands in high school, and then after college I started really getting into electronic music. At the time electronic music was such a weird ghetto ... it didn’t get a lot of love or attention except from people in the dance world. Fast forward 20 odd years, it’s just really gratifying that every single kid with a laptop is making electronic music ... and every pop record is basically a house track with a pop star singing on top of it.
Did you set out to work with so many vocal collaborators on Innocents, and if so, did you get everyone on your wishlist of guest singers? A lot of the records I've made, apart from having some guest vocalists, most of the time has been spent with me alone in the studio, and I think [with] this record, I wanted to see what it was like to make a record in a more collaborative way. I ended up writing all the music, but a lot of the vocalists wrote the lyrics and the different melody lines, and I worked with an outside producer for the first time, so the goal was just to see what an album would sound like if I opened it up to these collaborators. I'm pretty happy working alone, but as I'm just one person, the number of ideas and approaches I can come up with will be by definition kind of limited. Working with other people, they bring a creative approach that I would never come up with, in terms of writing lyrics and vocal melodies. And also, it’s kind of interesting to have people around. As I said, most of my life has been spent alone in a studio with no one else in the studio, and it was interesting to at times have music-making be a more gregarious, social process.
To answer your other question, the one person I really wanted to sing on my record who never got back to us was James Blake. I love his records and I love his voice and how he approaches music, and I was pathologically determined to get him to sing on my record, and either he was too busy working on his own stuff, or I have an out-of-date e-mail address for him, or I’m just not cool enough for him. But for whatever reason, I just couldn’t get in touch with him. And it’s so interesting that he comes from the world of electronic music. He was signed to Warp Records, making obscure electronic music, then all of a sudden he’s doing jazz versions of Joni Mitchell songs.
Did you find any of the samples in a particularly interesting or even unconventional way? How are you unearthing them these days? There aren't that many samples on the record. Most of the music on the record that was played by me. There’s a song called “A Long Time,” which has old vocals from the 1920s, and I don’t for the life of me, I don’t know who sings them because I’d sampled them such a long time ago, I never wrote down the name of record or the name of the artist. I'm (laughs) almost hoping that someone sues me because that’s the only way I’m going to find out who the singer is. And whatever other samples are on the record, I guess it’s just my old approach of going to secondhand stores and Goodwill and used record stores and buying old vinyl, and what I love about the process is you’ll never know what you’re going to get. I’ll buy it based on what the record cover looks like, and most of the time you don’t find anything all that interesting, but every now and then, you find the most amazing pre-recorded stuff you’d want to sample. And then you end up with thousands and thousands of old dusty records.
The new record is, like your others, very evocative. If you had to name the one dominant sentiment of Innocents, the one emotion that could define the whole record, what would it be and why? These are such uncool words to use in 2013, but vulnerability and fragility. Not that every song on the album is vulnerable or fragile, but it feels like the overwhelming feeling of the record is vulnerability, from the songs themselves, the lyrics, the way it’s produced and mixed—it's sort of diametrically opposed to most very slick, bombastic modern pop music. It really is a quiet, lo-fi, introspective record, which creates weird issues for DJ gigs. Sometimes when I DJ, I play loud, bombastic electronic music, so anyone who comes to one of my DJ sets and then goes to buy one of my records would be surprised and disappointed. Or, conversely, someone who buys one of my records and comes to a DJ set might be very surprised. Because my records and my DJ sets sound nothing alike, that does create some confusion.
I feel I can hear almost every era of your career in this record, including the first album. Did you want to tap into the spirit and even sounds of those early rave days with any of these new songs? Not intentionally. I've been making records for a long time, and I do tend gravitate to the same sounds and aesthetics, so even if I'm using new or different equipment, I do find myself using string sounds and big orchestral pads that might sound like something I used 20 years ago. It’s this weird pursuit, this ongoing quest to make music I really, really love, and in doing so, I'm never concerned with what the compositional elements are, or the genre it is, or who’s singing, whether it's me singing or someone else or a vocal sample, or whether it’s new or old technology, or new sounds or sounds I used 20 years ago—all I'm trying to do is make music that affects me emotionally.
I just did an interview with this British magazine and they were asking me if one of the reasons I was working with these collaborators was I trying to be more relevant and current, and I started laughing, and said, oh no, no, I have no interest being relevant or current. I’m pretty happy to just make music in my studio, put it out in the world and see how people respond. If I ever in the course of my life am relevant and current, it’s completely accidental. And so I said to this British journalist, if I was trying to be relevant and current, I wouldn’t necessarily make music with Mark Lanegan, who is 47 years old. Mark Lanegan is amazing, and very relevant and current in his own way, but conventional understanding of being relevant and current would mean I’d be making music with 20-year-old pop stars. And that doesn’t really appeal to me in the slightest. Not to malign them, but given the choice between a voice like Mark Lanegan’s and that of a 20 year old pop star, I’d much rather have Mark Lanegan on the record.
I’ve read that you’ve said Vegas is a peculiar place. Does that have to do with your live experiences here, or the city in general, or both? Part of it is, when I first started coming to Las Vegas, I was drinking a lot, and all excited to find the sort of seedy glamour of the Rat Pack. I looked and I looked, and didn’t find [it]. But ... I’ve really developed this odd fondness for it. From my perspective, once you accept it for what it is—this utterly bizarre cultural and anthropological phenomenon— it’s kind of an amazing and fascinating place.
But also, when I go to Las Vegas, because I’m a sober vegan, a lot of reasons people go to Las Vegas are wasted on me. ... I really tried to have the big, over-the-top Las Vegas experience and, to be honest, I just wasn’t very good at it. I’d walk up to a nightclub and I’d see a big line of people and get discouraged, go back to my hotel room, and play Scrabble on Facebook.
Our megaclubs tend to use confetti and cryo and performance dancers and such. Will those things will play a part of your set, or do you make sure your people control the visual elements? To be honest, one of the things I love about doing events like this is coming in and seeing what the local visual people and programmers have come up with. I’m not a huge fan of sort of dancers [the club employ]. Maybe this is a bad thing to say ... but sometimes I’ll find myself DJing and they’ll have [the dancers], and sometimes it makes me feel very paternal and I want to pull them aside, buy them a sweater and a bowl of soup.
Do you play a Vegas crowd like you might, say, Coachella? What can we expect? The thing, I've never DJ'd in Vegas. I have no idea what to expect. I tend to play a little more darker and more aggressive than some of the more well-known DJs. I’m not a big fan of playing remixes of Top 40 hits. I’m hoping I won’t get in trouble for not busting out Rihanna remixes and peak hour. But ... there are so many records that are not remixes of Top 40 songs, why not play the more interesting and slightly less commercial productions.
Now that you’ll have more time to make music, do you already have new material in the works, maybe a concept for a new record? Yeah. I have a whole bunch of weird ... when I make an album, I usually make about 300 songs for each album. I probably have a good 8,000 or 9,000 unreleased songs. Certainly a lot. Doesn’t mean they are good, just unreleased. A lot of them are rough ideas. I’m always writing music, I just never know what I’ll do with it.
It’s one of the reasons I started this website called mobygratis.com, to give free music to independent filmmakers and students and nonprofits. Sometimes that’s an outlet for some of the more obscure unreleased stuff.
For the next record, I have five different weird concepts for it, I just don’t know which one will be more interesting. And again, there’s something kind of emancipating about making albums where no one buys or listens to albums. I can just make albums because I love making albums, and then if someone is willing to listen to it, that’s great, but not what I really expect.
Moby September 1, 10 p.m. $30 women, $50 men. Hakkasan at MGM Grand, 891-3838.