With an intimidating discography under his belt, Moby — nicknamed for his great-great grand uncle Herman Melville’s classic novel Moby Dick — has sought to update his résumé, so to speak, since his breakthrough 1999 release Play (the only record in history to have all of its tracks commercially licensed) propelled him to the forefront of popular music. So the man himself, along with Mute records owner Daniel Miller, known for his production work with Depeche Mode and Nitzer Ebb, have hand-picked a batch of tracks to serve as a career retrospective, including the previously-unavailable hit collaborative effort with Debbie Harry “New York, New York.” The result is GO: The Very Best of Moby, a monolithic task to undertake given the sheer volume of music Moby has produced, as he discloses one crisp fall afternoon via phone from his New York home base: “I probably come up with about 300 songs a year. Not necessarily 300 good songs, but 300 songs nonetheless.”
THE SUDDEN RISE
“I hope this doesn’t reek of hubris,” Moby says, almost apologetically, “but I think I’ve had the strangest career in the history of music. The first time I played live I was 13 or 14 years old, playing in a punk rock band. We played in a field in Connecticut that was next door to where my friend lived, and our audience consisted of his sister and a friend. Then I was a hip-hop DJ with Big Daddy Kane, and some of the Run-D.M.C. guys. Then it was house music. I studied jazz and music theory growing up, have written classical music scores for movies and made noisy punk rock records that no one has bought, and no one wants to listen to. And then, in 1999, while I’m trying to get a record contract, when my career was basically over, this bald, has-been musician produces a lo-fi record in his bedroom that goes on to sell ten million records.”
It’s an undeniably enthralling anecdote, especially considering the somewhat harsh nature of Play —and, at first spin, highly unlikely hit album. But what makes the story all the more interesting are the non-traditional production techniques Moby applied when forging the album. “There’s one song in particular, ‘Bodyrock’, that just wasn’t coming together,” he says, with a hint of sentimentality in his voice. “I had tried mixing it in different studios, and it just wasn’t working. So, out of frustration, I took it home and just ran the vocal signal through a SansAmp pedal, and turned the line input up so the drum loop got really overdriven. Somehow, that made the song a hundred times more interesting. Y’know, sometimes fixing a recording really comes from not doing the right thing, but from doing the unconventional thing.”
DOING HIS HOMEWORK
“Unconventional” is a fair term to describe Moby’s approach to production, if not music as a whole — a general ethos cultivated from all the years he spent learning the ins and outs of the process with nominal outside resources. However, as success and the spoils of are nearly limitless nowadays, Moby still retreats to his home studio to write and produce a certain amount of his material. “What I’ve found to be one of the great joys of having a home studio is the ability afforded to work on music all the time, and if it’s not good, you don’t ever have to play it for anyone,” he adds with a laugh. “And, since you haven’t spent extra money being in the studio, you can really just concentrate on working on music you like.”
Considering he records an estimated 60 per cent of his music at home (“90 per cent, if it’s primarily MIDI), it’s a safe assumption that a Moby home studio is a bit more posh than what many are used to, right? Right?
“Its funny; friends of mine will come over and they’ll look at my studio and they’ll see the racks and racks of vintage equipment, and be very impressed with it. Then I have to confess to them: I really don’t use any of my rack anymore. I work a lot totally in the box, but I still won’t use plug-ins for compression and, very rarely, for EQ, though I may do a quick low pass for reference. Nonetheless, most of this stuff just sits around and looks pretty.”
MOBY VS. THE CALL-GUY
Perhaps this desire to work at home (even if the 1176 goes hungry most nights) is indicative of a sort of industry phobia? As he explains: “It’s strange. The majority of people who work in the music business now, especially the record companies, don’t know how to actually make records. So many A&R people and studio execs wouldn’t know how to do the first thing in a recording studio. It’s kind of like having a NASA higher-up who has no experience in aerospace engineering.
“There are so many different variables that can contribute to a good or bad recording, and I just don’t know how record company people can tell if they have no experience with recording. Their criticisms usually are sort of without merit because, at the end of the day, there is no objective criterion for determining what makes a good or bad record. You go back and listen to a Billie Holiday record, and it’s laden with emotion. And even though it’s, by contemporary standards, incredibly poorly recorded, it still sounds fantastic.“
THE GREAT PLATFORM WARS
As he has pointed out, a poor-sounding album has more to do with a poor performance than a poor production, but good tools are certainly an invaluable aid. Cubase and Pro Tools are his methods of choice in achieving those patented lush sounds that he manages, since the usual suspects have been forced into semi-retirement . . . though he’s not safe from the same day-to-day platform frustrations we all deal with. Eliciting more than just a brief pang of empathy, he shares: “I have a dilemma: I’m using Pro Tools and Cubase in conjunction with each other and, as a result, I’m still on OS 9 in my studio, because you can’t use Pro Tools and Cubase together in OS X. I think at some point I’m going to have to bite the bullet and figure out a new software platform because, five years from now, I don’t want to be a complete relic. I might just get rid of both of them and try Logic. With Pro Tools, Cubase, Logic, and so on, a lot of it is just contingent on what you are familiar with. I had originally wanted to just use Pro Tools exclusively, but I found the MIDI to be so worthless, especially since I had been accustomed to Cubase MIDI, which, for sequencing, is really sophisticated. It works really well for me, as I like to leave everything in the realm of MIDI for as long as possible, so I can change specific notes with ease. It’s funny, because once it leaves the realm of MIDI, in my perspective, it’s cast in stone.”
Dilemmas aside, Moby is still forging onward in a rather renaissance fashion, and GO is but one testament to his longevity and ability to improvise with these ever-trying technological times, though he is amused by how things are beginning to really come full circle, particularly in terms of recording enthusiasts fetishizing sounds that, for a time, were largely avoided.
“One of the things I love about a lot of the contemporary technology is the fantastic irony of people using very sophisticated, very expensive technology to try and make records sound old and bad,” he says with a chuckle. “You got these Digidesign lo-fi filters, whose purpose is to make things sound old and rough. I love that.”
Ironic as it all may be, technology plays a central role in Moby’s creative process, and it’s a subject that he approaches with an air of reverence, as it allows him to continue to indulge in his passion of art for art’s sake.
“My goals are almost painfully simple,” he says. “Honestly, all I want to do is just make music and make records. What the records might sound like, I have no idea; whether they’ll be good or not, I have no idea; whether anyone would ever want to buy them, I have no idea. But my biggest hope is to hopefully make music that I love and, maybe inadvertently, somehow make music that other people will love as well.”