That’s a question the 39-year-old Richard Melville Hall, a.k.a Moby, asks in every one of our encounters. From trendy hotspot or backstage at his own arena shows to drinking at a club. And it’s one that bears being asked right now not only of him, but of anyone making music in an industry that prizes new music-makers over those making new music. So, over the course of his 15-year music career, the five foot eight and a half-inch, stooping with a receding hairline (his description, not mine) musician has made dance records, punk rock records, ambient records, wildly eclectic rock records, and scored soundtracks. He has been hailed and derided, considered Artist of the Year, and had his ass kicked, by the erstwhile Mr. Mathers, all in the same go around.
“I feel like an anomaly,” he admits. “The truth is, I don’t fit in anywhere. I’m not saying that as a badge of honor, I’m saying that as an objective assessment of my status. I feel a degree of kinship with a lot of musicians, but I don’t see that I fit in with any of them. Most people carve out a niche, tend to occupy that niche, and it serves them quite well. I don’t know that I have a particular niche. On one hand, there’s something emancipating about that. On the other hand, it does make things confusing.”
Since the release of his breakthrough single “Go” in 1991, it’s been interesting watching Moby be Moby. With the 10 million-selling, overly licensed (and criticized for it) Play (1999) and its formidable follow-up, the equally jingle-happy (also criticized) 18 (2002), his latest work, Hotel, and its accompanying second disc, Hotel-Ambient (which is following its predecessors on the licensing path), has a lot riding on it. In the year and a half it took to record Hotel, Moby wrote 250 songs. More concerned with communicating things that are important to him, if in fact people are even still listening to his records at this point, Hotel has a personal, emotional, and honest agenda.
“That’s a function of getting older,” Moby clarifies. “As I was growing up, I found myself wanting to be something I wasn’t. When I was really young I wanted to be good at sports and come from a wealthy family. It really depressed me that I was crappy at sports and very poor. In the last 20 years I wanted to be a really handsome man who could sing really well, like Brandon [Boyd] from Incubus. At some point you realize you are who you are and there’s no point wasting your brief time on this planet beating yourself up for not being someone else. The history of evolution is full of adaptation and compensation. For those of us who don’t look like Brad Pitt and don’t sing like Bono, we have to express ourselves in other ways and develop other skills.”
Part of this acceptance comes in the form of Moby being the primary voice on Hotel, vocalizing almost all of its 14 songs. He is joined by the creative director for Moveon.org (for whom he has been the poster child), Laura Dawn, on more than half of Hotel. Dawn and Moby have a longstanding friendship, mainly based around being chess buddies.
“He’s my friend and I love him as such, but every once in a while I’m totally taken by his talent,” says Dawn, who has been singing solo since she was 15, and spent a stint in the all-girl punk group, Fluffer. “Getting to work with him on such an intimate level was really an honor. My voice has never sounded as good as under Moby’s direction.”
Although not the most accomplished of vocalists himself, Moby’s shortcomings in that department are what give the songs their vulnerability and emotional content. He has also played every instrument except the drums on Hotel, which is virtually sample-free, a first for the producer. This was not an intentional act on his part, nor is he concerned with pushing the sonic envelope in any way. His main criterion is making music that is effective. If it’s between making something new and experimental or traditional and emotional, he’ll pick the latter.
THE SORROWS OF YOUNG WERTHER
“There’s this win/win situation. If the record is successful, that’s great. But that also means I have to stay on the road a lot longer. If the record is unsuccessful, it means I get to go home sooner,” says Moby in full-on lion-in-the-winter mode. “Once the tour for this record ends, I’m hoping to sit back, take stock, and restructure things so that my life isn’t focused on making records, promoting them, and touring. As much as I love that, in some ways, it’s really one-dimensional. I’m thrilled that I’m able to do this, but it’s very much been at the expense of many other things in my life: not being married, not having a family, and not having any other abilities or skills. At this point, it’s sad.”
Moby’s workaholism has been a source of pride for him until recently. “In 2003, I did this three-month tour of Europe that was the big arena tour everyone always dreams about,” he says. “You’re playing for 15,000 people a night, the shows are sold out, you’re having crazy after-show parties, and you’re being degenerate. I don’t think I’ve ever been less happy. To some extent we are all like The Simpsons Mr. Burns, ‘I’ve got all these things I want, why am I still unhappy? Okay, I’ll go out and buy some happiness.’ Unfortunately, or fortunately, that doesn’t work and you keep trying. That’s what I was doing on tour. I was like, ‘Okay, fame, success, and degeneracy aren’t making me happy, so I need to be better at pursuing fame, success, and degeneracy. Promiscuity isn’t making me happy, so I need to be more promiscuous. Being drunk isn’t making me happy, so I need to drink more.’
He continues, “What tends to make me unhappy is going into something with expectations. I’d always worked under this assumption that if I had successful records and played big concerts, that I would just inherently be happy. Our culture is so marked by the belief that what you don’t have will make you happy when you acquire it. What’s been strange in my life is all the things I thought I may have ever wanted, for the most part, I ended up getting. These things are good, I’m happy to have had them, but in and of themselves, none of them will make me happy. It’s easy for people like me to focus on the things that are easily within my control: work, career, ambition, drive. It’s hard for me to think I can’t approach the intangibles that way.”
MAKING HOTELS OUT OF MOTELS
The production for Hotel owes a lot, curiously enough, to Michael Jackson’s “Beat It.” Fourteen years ago Moby was commissioned to do a remix of that particular Quincy Jones-produced track. After getting the parts, he was impressed with the way it was recorded with two of everything, each playing the exact same part. “For example, there would be one bass part that was just the low end and one bass part that had the attack on it,” Moby explains. “The ethos being let each sound do what it does naturally. Let the low end be low end and not worry about the attack. Let the sharp sound with attack just have attack.”
And so it is that the acoustic guitar sounds on Hotel come from Taylor guitars used with a Neumann U67 microphone on the body, and an AKG 251 microphone closer to the neck, both roughly 14 to 18 inches from the guitars. These were blended together through a Neve 1081 Mic Pre Amp/EQ Channel Amplifier and then through the Urei 1176 compressor. A Les Paul Goldtop with P-90 pick-ups, a Fender Stratocaster, and a Robelli were used for the electric guitar parts. To create the heavy sound, they were run through a Marshall JCM 800 half-stack with a 50-watt head, otherwise, a Matchless DC-30 was used. These were closely miked with a Shure SM 57, a Sennheiser 421, and an AKG D112, blended together, also put through the Neve 1081 and Urei 1176.
According to Moby’s engineer, Brian Sperber, the drums were approached differently as they were going to augment, or coexist with, the programmed drums. “Our focus was to derive as much live excitement as we could from the drum sonics by using a lot of heavily compressed close room mics. Also, distorted mics were interwoven throughout the kit to essentially glue the sound together into one unit, allowing the programmed drums to later define the more separated elements of the kick, snare, hat, etc.”
Another producer to be given his props as an influence is Phil Spector, as Moby used a similar method with the proliferation of sounds. On “Raining Again,” for instance, there are 30 background vocals. These are mixed very quietly so they can be felt but not noticed. “If I muted them you would notice the lack of them,” Moby points out. “But having them, you don’t listen and go, ‘Oh, there’s 30 background vocals.’”
For Moby’s own voice, Sperber chose Telefunken USA microphones. In Sperber’s opinion, their version of the U47 is best at capturing the detail and presence of his voice. He then went into an old Neve 33118 mic preamp and finally through the Urei 1176. This is, in fact, a reissue of the original Blackface 1176, which adds the same color to the sound as the earlier versions.
And so Hotel becomes simpler as the record goes on. But on songs such as “Beautiful,” “Spider,” and “Lift Me Up,” you have between 60 and 90 tracks each. “The way it’s mixed, a lot of stuff is in there to provide sonic space,” says Moby. “They’re there to fill things out, to give certain sounds a little more attack. Before, everything was recorded a lot more simply and mixed at home. [On Hotel] half of it was recorded at home, the other half was recorded in outside studios. With that many tracks I couldn’t mix it at home, so we mixed on an SSL [9000J series console] at Electric Lady.”
Even with the inclusion of so much live material on Hotel, Moby still sees music production as moving into the laptop/home studio realm as budgets shrink and the music business contracts. He says, “The sound quality you can get with plug-ins is spectacular. You can make music on a laptop that sounds better than something you would have made in a million-dollar studio 20 years ago. The best way to make great sounding records is to take the best of both worlds. Use Pro Tools for what Pro Tools is good at, and use old analog gear for what that’s good for.”
Mixing almost exclusively using analog outboard gear for EQ, compression, and effects, Sperber agrees, “Everything [on Hotel] was recorded directly into Pro Tools, which is a great recorder/editor as long as you do not combine sounds within it. That seems to make the overall sound smaller and thinner, the classic digital complaint.”