He’s usually considered a dance and electronic music pioneer. But Moby prefers to liken himself to “a bird with ADHD.”
“I fly around and I see all these different types of music I love,” he explains by phone from the rooftop of his Manhattan home, where he’s nursing trees back to health after a computerized irrigation system failed while he was on tour.
“I always have to make a decision — Do I focus on just one genre, or do I just make a strange, eclectic record that has a lot of different types of music in it?”
Moby — born Richard Melville Hall in Connecticut and, yes, a distant nephew of “Moby Dick” author Herman Melville — has done both during a prolific career that dates back to a hard-core rock band in the early ’80s and continues this year with his ninth studio album, “Wait For Me.” He staked his reputation in New York dance clubs and started releasing albums in 1989. His 1991 hit “Go” put him on a wider map, and “Move” moved him to the top of the U.S. dance charts two years later.
He contends that “any success I’ve had has been accidental (and) unplanned,” and the biggest surprise came in 2001, when he scored a Top 20 hit with the Gwen Stefani-sung “South Side” from his double-platinum 1999 album “Play.” But success, planned or otherwise, came with consequences from which Moby feels he only recently extricated himself.
“I signed with Mute Records and, for about a decade, was left alone to do whatever I wanted,” explains Moby, 44, a vegan who once owned a restaurant and tea shop, TeaNY, and has quietly studied various aspects of Christianity. “Then Mute was bought by EMI, and I found myself subject to a lot of EMI corporate policy and felt a lot of pressure to make records that would generate revenue for them.
“And to an extent, I’m ashamed to admit I sort of bought into it. I felt these are smart people running a big multinational corporation, they probably know what they’re talking about. And I found they might know what they’re talking about when it comes to pop records, but I never wanted to be a Top 40 artist. The worlds I came from was underground punk music and underground electronic music. There was ... a disconnect there, I think.”
So Moby spent a portion of this decade “making polished, slick records” before he “woke up” and realized that’s not what he wanted to do. Nor, he acknowledges, were those records selling at the level his company wanted, either.
“To an extent,” Moby explains, “one of the things that made it difficult was actually living in New York. There are definitely some people here who genuinely care about music, but there are a lot of people whose criteria by which they judge music is how much money it makes or how novel it is.
“My criteria has nothing to do with money, novelty or irony. My criteria tends to be, ‘Is it earnest? Does it have integrity? Is it beautiful?’ And if you go to a cocktail party in New York and use words like earnest, integrity and beautiful, you will get laughed at and shown the door.”
Now Moby has started his own label — Little Idiot, which is still associated with Mute — and returned to his closet-sized home studio to make “Wait For Me,” which he considers “a reactive album — me atoning to myself for spending a couple of years making an effort to have commercial success.
“The impetus for this record was to make something more personal ... more lo-fi and idiosyncratic to a point where it had no potential for commercial success. I gave away the first single, ‘Shot in the Black of the Head,’ for free. It has no lyrics, so it can never get played on the radio. And the video is by David Lynch, so it can never be shown on TV.
“Now that’s my kind of album!”
The Lynch connection is important to Moby and “Wait For Me.” It was a speech Lynch made a couple of years ago in Britain, where the director addressed the subject of creativity.
“He was talking about how creative expression is beautiful,” Moby recalls. “He didn’t mince words. He said that it doesn’t matter if something makes money; what matters is if it has integrity and is beautiful.
“Hearing him say that, I felt like Saul on the road to Damascus. The scales fell from my eyes. I realized life is short, and no one benefits from making huge compromises to their work in order to accommodate the marketplace. He just reminded me that the marketplace was a cheap, tawdry, kind of prurient thing, and I shouldn’t concern myself with it.”
Compared to 2008’s dance-oriented “Last Night” — which brought Moby to Detroit as one of the headliners for that year’s Movement electronic music festival — “Wait For Me” is quiet and more intimate. Culled from some 250 songs he wrote while working on the album, it combines languid instrumental pieces with vocal tracks sung by a series of guest singers. And in some cases, such as the single “Pale Horses,” it touches on the “really old, stripped-down blues” that Moby says is “the music I listen to more than anything else.”
Its impact has been minimal, debuting at No. 44 on the Billboard 200 chart, but Moby says he’s happier with it than with some of his releases with better sales figures.
And his appetite to make new music remains insatiable. Moby has finally hired an assistant to catalog the estimated 4,500 pieces of unreleased music in his vault. “A lot of them are terrible,” he says with a laugh, “but there are some nice things in there, too, so that’s why it’s worth going through to make sure they’re not overlooked.”
Moby plans to be on the road well into 2010 supporting “Wait For Me,” but he’s already mulling over his next album, which he says could take any number of directions — from reggae to old school soul to punk to an orchestrated pop record he’d like to make with producer Daniel Lanois. But anything that transpires, he promises, will be of his own choosing, without regard for corporate or marketplace demands.
“You know, if I look back, I never expected to have a career as a musician,” Moby acknowledges. “I never expected to have a record contract. And what small career I had in the ’90s, I didn’t expect it to last more than a couple of months.
“So to be here all these years later with what I feel is a limitless range of opportunities is really special. I don’t ever take that for granted.”
Moby and Kelli Scarr perform at 7 p.m. Tuesday (Sept. 29) at St. Andrews Hall, 431 E. Congress St., Detroit. Tickets are $29.50. Call (313) 961-6358 or visit www.livenation.com.
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