Once just a casual participant in a burgeoning rave scene, Moby was thrust into the spotlight when one of his early dance tracks, "Go," became a hit in the U.K. Though he was one of techno's first "name" stars, a reputation fueled by the New Yorker's passionate live performances, the former Richard Melville Hall shied away from the complacent conventionality of many DJs. Refusing to stick to one style of music, regularly shifting from hardcore techno to ambient to punk to neo-classical noodlings, Moby has always seemed to possess little regard for his career, publicly espousing unusual political and personal views, shunning drugs, and embracing religion. Still, Moby's new Play may be his most accessible album yet, but while it retains elements of the music he was making 10 years ago, the poppy, bluesy, laid-back record could alienate many old fans while luring a legion of new ones. The Onion recently spoke to Moby about music, politics, war, and more.
The Onion: Hi, I'm calling for Richard.
Moby: Yeah, this is Moby.
O: Hi. You go by Moby and not your Christian name?
M: Well, I've been called Moby since I was about 10 minutes old. The story, at least the anecdote my parents told me, is that when I was born I was given the legal name Richard Melville Hall, and my parents looked at me and thought I looked too little to be a Richard. Because Richard Melville Hall does sound like a very adult name, like I should be a partner in a law firm or something. So they just started calling me Moby, and it stuck. As far as I know, [the story is] true. So's the part about me being possibly related to Herman Melville. It's kind of a funny thing to make up.
O: In techno and hip hop, some performers go by their given name, others by their handle. Why did you decide to record under your nickname?
M: It's what I've been called all my life.
O: No one calls you Richard?
M: No. I mean, I have no problem with [the name]. But my family has always called me Moby—everyone I've worked with, everyone I've ever known. It's not like I've chosen the name Moby; it's just my name.
O: You're generally considered an electronic musician, but that term doesn't quite explain your music. What do you call it?
M: I don't. It's not genre-specific in any way. The only sort of descriptive adjective or catch phrase for my music would be "eclectic." But it's certainly not all dance music, it's not all classical music, and it's not all rock music. It doesn't fit neatly in any genre.
O: You're also sort of unusual in your field, in that each of your albums has been very different from the one preceding it, sometimes radically so. You never really know what to expect, especially in light of Play. Do you have some sort of artistic conception in mind when you begin to record a new album?
M: No. Very simply, when I make a record, I want to make something that is important to me on an emotional level and reflects what my musical interests are at that time. For better or worse, I'm interested in just about everything: every different type of music I can imagine. I can never see a reason to choose just one type of music at the exclusion of everything else. Different types of music are capable of being rewarding in different kinds of ways.
O: Is it frustrating, then, that no matter what type of music you produce, people still see you as an electronic artist or DJ?
M: I can't worry about it too much. I mean, all the people I know have been very tolerant of my eclecticism, so I'm grateful for that. So if there are still a few people who only consider me a dance artist or a techno artist, well, that's fine. That's not how I see myself, but if it makes them happy to think that way, fine. Far be it from me to complain.
O: It does make it difficult to market your albums, though there's no "eclectic" section in the record store.
M: It's weird: I'll go out and play a show, and some of the people will be dance fans, some will be rock fans, and some will be classical fans. One of the last shows I did in America was in this place called The 9:30 Club in Washington, D.C. And at the end of the night, I met this couple who were in their 60s, and they had come because they really liked the classical stuff I had done for the soundtrack to Heat. So, not only am I eclectic, but the people who come to my shows are pretty eclectic, too.
O: Do you ever do sets that are just straight classical or straight punk, with no techno or dance music?
M: When Animal Rights [Moby's mostly punk record from 1997] came out, I went on tour in Europe and did a show that was just a hard-punk show. The most recent touring I've done has been straight dance music, but when I'm on tour with [Play], the shows will be very eclectic, which reflects the eclecticism of the album.
O: Were you disappointed with the backlash against Animal Rights?
M: The only thing that frustrated me about Animal Rights was that it seemed a lot of people weren't judging it on its own merits. They were just being sort of reactionary. Maybe I was expecting a lot, but I kind of had hopes that people wouldn't be reactionary, but listen to it with as open a mind as possible.
O: Do you think it's better to produce something that someone might react to negatively than something that doesn't evoke a reaction at all?
M: It depends. I wouldn't feel comfortable making that generalization. For myself, when I make a record, I'm not trying to be provocative, and I'm not trying to be innovative. I'm really just trying to make records I'm in love with.
O: Still, coming at the time it did, Animal Rights really seemed like a provocation. It was the peak of the media hype over dance music, and you were such a big-name dance-music star in America, at least in the press. It looked like you turned your back on it.
M: The strange thing is that when I made Animal Rights, I was also making an album under the name Voodoo Child called The End Of Everything, which is exclusively electronic—a very slow, pretty, quiet electronic record. So, from my perspective, I never turned my back on dance music. I had been involved with the scene for a long time, and I wanted to do something different for a couple of months.
O: Do you think it's possible for instrumental music to be political?
M: I'm sure it is, but for myself, even though I'm politically aware and politically active, I don't think of the music I make as being political. I think of it as exclusively personal.
O: In what sense would you consider yourself politically active?
M: Politically active? Maybe "politically active" is the wrong term. I'm obsessed with politics, and I talk about it any chance I can get. I have strong opinions about how the world should be run. As far as politically active when I make records, I include essays about things that are important to me, and whenever possible, I try to give money to different organizations that I feel are doing good work in the world.
O: Do you do a lot of charity shows?
M: I don't do that many charity shows, because I feel a lot of charity shows are ineffective. A charitable organization can be great at being a charitable organization, but they're usually pretty terrible at trying to promote concerts.
O: Working with a major label…
M: I'm not on a major label. V2 [Moby's new label] is completely independent. I'm on Mute Records in the U.K., and they're independent, too.
O: Is that in response to dealing with Elektra?
M: It's just a response to the corporate musical climate in the United States today. I don't think there's anything wrong with corporate music; it's just that there's no room at a major label for an artist like me.
O: Doesn't it work the other way, too? Because your music is relatively indefinable, don't you think you could get away with stuff on a major label? Slip through the cracks?
M: No, major labels are so beholden to their parent companies at this point that the only stuff they can get enthusiastic about is stuff that sells really well on a quarterly basis. If an act doesn't generate any big sales on a quarterly basis, it just gets ignored.
O: What do you think of explicitly political bands like Rage Against The Machine, who claim to be subverting the process from the inside by working for a major label but espouse Leftist views? Is that hypocritical?
M: I don't think it's hypocritical at all. I think it's only hypocritical if they're claiming to be enemies of the system they are a part of, yet they're benefiting from it. That's a little hypocritical. But far be it from me to judge anyone and say whether they're hypocritical or not. That's not my place. It would be strange to criticize a band like Rage Against The Machine for being on a major label when we all pay taxes. But for myself, I think with a lot of bands, like Rage Against The Machine, their politics are excruciatingly naive. I applaud them for being outspoken, and I applaud them for doing good work, but I think their political understanding of the world… I mean, I can't imagine any self-respecting smart person taking Marxism seriously at the end of the 20th century. Obviously, there are good elements to every political system, but the only smart and reasonable approach at this point is flexible pragmatism. Personally, I'm neither a Capitalist nor a Socialist nor a Marxist nor an Anarchist. I think different circumstances require a different political response.
O: But if you don't have a specific ideology, you're left hanging like we are in Kosovo. We went in with a vague or nonexistent foreign policy, and look where we are now.
M: At the risk of being arrogant, I'm actually a really good person to talk to about that. I've spent time in Kosovo. I've been to Macedonia, I've been to Serbia, and I've been to Belgrade. I'm a pacifist, basically, but at the same time, I think what we're doing there is unavoidable. There are two things missing from our involvement in Kosovo and Serbia. One is a public-relations campaign specifically geared toward the Serbian people. The average Serbian person has no idea what's going on, because the only information they get is from the state-sponsored media. So the average Serbian thinks that the reason the Serbian police and military are in Kosovo is to fight revolutionaries in Kosovo, and to stop the flow of drugs. The average Serbian really doesn't know about ethnic cleansing, based on my travels there. One of the goals of NATO should be to educate the Serbs as much as possible, because bombing factories and military installations will weaken Milosevic's resolve, but having his own people turn against him will accomplish more than any bomb would. The other thing, unfortunately, that we have to be willing to do is send in ground troops. I understand that if you're a parent of a soldier in Ohio and you've just heard that your son has been killed, boy, that's painful. But there's also a part of me that says if someone joins the Army, and is trained as infantry, and that's a resource we have, then why aren't we using it? I'm not advocating it, but according to the mission statement, we should have been willing to do that, especially given the topographical nature of what Kosovo is like, and what that region is like.
O: Do you think that if the situation were reversed, the ethnic Albanians would have done the same to the Serbs?
M: That's a tricky question. I don't think so. My experience is that the Serbs are kind of like Israelis: They're extremely cosmopolitan, very well-educated, nice people; people you'd like to invite over for dinner. But they have this blind spot when it comes to Muslims. I have an Israeli friend who is basically a Buddhist. He believes in compassion and love for all creatures unless they're Palestinian. And my Serbian friends are the same way: They're wonderful people and I love them to death, but they really think Serbia should only be for Serbians.
O: That's the downside of most religions: They promote unification through division, like, "We are all good because we are different from these other people."
M: Fundamentalism of any kind scares the shit out of me. I have no patience for anyone who thinks they've figured things out, no patience for people who think they're right at the expense of everyone else. The world is too connected and too complicated to conform to any of our rigid ideas of what it should be like.
O: That's more or less a Libertarian view.
M: Kind of. I'm not a Libertarian. I think there's some value to Libertarian ideology, but I wouldn't consider myself one.
O: I'm surprised that you believe in God, though.
M: But my naïve Christianity, if that's what you want to call it, is predicated on the belief that I can't know anything. The universe is 15 billion years old, the planet is five billion years old, and here I am around for 33 years, just one little guy, and I don't know shit.
O: That's a very Greek way of thinking. It's philosophic in the classical sense.
M: Yeah, it just makes sense to me. It would be absurdly presumptuous to try and make any sort of objective ontological statements about the nature of existence.
O: Regardless of your individual relationship with God, don't you think that a belief in God or an acknowledgment of a higher entity is being somewhat complicit in the way that entity is then manipulated and exploited by people who aren't as pacifistic or open-minded as you are?
M: Well, no. That's sort of like saying that going out and eating brown rice is being complicit in people dying from eating hamburgers. The two have nothing to do with each other.
O: But hamburgers and brown rice always exist, whether or not people eat them, whereas God exists only through His or Her following.
M: But there are myriad gods that are worshipped, and myriad ways that people worship God, believe in God, and incorporate God into their daily life. My belief in God is very strange and very idiosyncratic, and I would never be willing to fight about it with anyone. I just don't know. Who am I to know who or what God is?
O: That's the way it should be. It's a very personal decision, but it's often co-opted, religion being the biggest business in the world.
M: But fundamentalism isn't limited just to religion. Talk about Rage Against The Machine: In my mind, they're fundamentalists. They've made up their mind. There are fundamentalist Marxists, Capitalists, and football fans. It makes me nervous, anyone who thinks that they're right and other people are wrong. The world is just too complicated to hold that sort of absolutism.
O: Is there a moral threshold, a limit to that philosophy?
M: Basically, my ethical understanding of the world is that individuals should be allowed to do anything and think anything as long as it affects [only] them. You can do anything to yourself, but the moment your actions have repercussions for other people, that's when the group at large is allowed to prevent you from doing that.
O: Does morality play into that, or do you go strictly by ethics?
M: Well, a person who compromises someone else's rights or will is immoral.
O: But how can you tell from a third-person position whether an action is immoral?
M: Democratically. You have certain cases where someone says, "The fact that you're drinking tea in Detroit upsets the quality of my life in New York." I think most of us would say that that's ridiculous. Whereas, if I said the fact that you were breaking into my house and raping me affects the quality of my life, most of us would accept that the person has a valid complaint.
O: How about if the democratic process resulted in something that you felt would compromise someone else's liberty or lifestyle?
M: I don't know. But we live in a democratic culture, ostensibly, and we have to respect the will of the people.
O: The word is ostensibly, because we live in a representative democratic society that sometimes overlooks the individual.
M: I've been to about 35 different countries, some more democratic than others. I went through Eastern Europe extensively after the wall came down, and I'd say that on a relative basis, we live in a wonderful democracy. Considering the freedoms and rights that people have in most other countries, boy, our lives are wonderful.
O: Agreed. But we live in a democracy with very few choices. The difference between any two politicians in our two-party system is minor.
M: That's the product of democracy. The reason we have no choice among politicians is that people don't want choice among politicians. The nice thing about our system is that if you want there to be a choice, you can organize another political party and do everything in your power to make it viable.
O: Do you think it's the duty of an American to do something like that if he or she isn't happy with the current choice of politicians?
M: Yeah. I don't know about duty, but it makes sense if you want something different. I think it's every American's duty to be open-minded and flexible, and not judgmental.
O: Should someone be free to be judgmental as long as they don't act on those beliefs?
M: Yeah, people can think and believe whatever they want to. I completely support the Bill Of Rights. I believe in freedom of thought, freedom of assembly, freedom of speech, and freedom of the press, and I'm thrilled that those things are enshrined in our Constitution. But at the same time, on a personal level, I would advise people to be humble and not judgmental. Of course, wonderfully enough, we live in a country where people can completely disregard what I have to say.
O: How hypothetical do your views go on cause-and-effect relationships? If someone were to espouse fundamentally racist views that might not physically hurt someone but could theoretically, on a larger level, do a great deal of harm…
M: It's that old question: Can you draw a specific line between cause and effect? It's like yelling fire in a crowded theater. That shouldn't be covered in freedom of speech. I think that someone should be allowed to express even the nastiest racist, misogynist, homophobic, anti-Semitic views. I don't hold those views, but people should be able to say them. If you have a website telling people how to build fertilizer bombs and where to put them, it's questionable whether we should cover that under freedom of speech. I wouldn't generalize about it. I'd say that in some situations, it would have to be deemed illegal, because it could compromise the rights and will of other people.
O: Do you still avoid drinking and drugs?
M: No, I like liquor. I don't take drugs, but I don't have a problem with them. Again, maybe I am sort of a Libertarian in the sense that I think if an individual is an adult and they want to take drugs, then it's their choice.
O: Your earlier music was sort of adopted by the rave generation.
M: Which is terribly ironic, because I wasn't doing any drugs.
O: Is it strange, then, to see people using your music for things for which it wasn't intended?
M: That's what's so nice about being alive and making records. I make a record in my bedroom, and suddenly it leaves my bedroom and has a life of its own. And that's wonderful. So, if 10,000 people are on ecstasy and dancing to one of my songs, I think that's fascinating.
O: Back to the question of whether or not you want your music to provoke a reaction: What gives music life is the response of the listener. It's the whole tree-in-the-forest thing.
M: I love the idea of making records that people can incorporate into their daily lives. With this album, Play, I wanted to make an album that people can get emotionally involved with when they're driving home from work, or getting ready for bed, or going on vacation, or whatever. I love the fact that when you make a record, you can get intimately involved in a stranger's life. I take that very seriously and very respectfully.
O: Play is a pop record.
M: Like I said before, I'm sort of a populist. I appreciate obscure, esoteric music, but at the end of the day, I like music that gets me emotionally involved, and that gets other people emotionally involved.
O: But that seems to contradict your views on individualism. I would think that you wouldn't care what anyone thinks about your music.
M: Oh, I love it when people respond positively to things.
O: It's rare to get that kind of response to an instrumental album.
M: Well, out of the 18 songs on Play, 12 prominently feature vocals. But I can see what you mean. The song "Honey" was a single we put out in Europe in September, and a lot of radio stations wouldn't play it because they said it was an instrumental dance track. I listen to it and all I hear is singing. Are they talking about the same song?
O: The vocals do seem to be utilized more for their rhythmic patterns than for their meaning.
M: I think what you mean is that on this album there are only about two conventional "singing" songs, and the rest of the stuff involves vocals, but perhaps in a more unconventional way. You could break the record down into three parts: Six songs are based around old field recordings and blues vocals, six songs I sing on, and six songs are instrumentals with no singing. But the vocals that are sampled on there I sampled as much for the lyrics as for the way they are sung. In fact, the lyrics are possibly the most important reason I sampled them.
O: Part of my initial confusion, and the confusion of radio stations, might be due to the conception of you as an electronic artist. Do you think Play might be dismissed as just another digression, much the way Animal Rights was considered your punk-rock album and not a whole other facet of your musical personality?
M: I think people would be disappointed for a long, long time if that were true. I love dance music, but if someone forced me to make a record that was nothing but dance music, it would feel really unnatural.
O: You're one of the most well-known Americans doing what you do, but you don't seem to get nearly as much respect in this country as you might in others.
M: When I put out songs in Europe, they get played on the radio and on MTV, and I sell a lot more. But a long time ago, I decided that my criterion for success wasn't going to be based on record sales. If I make a record and it sells well, that's great, but I don't want to second-guess myself based on sales.
O: Do you think electronic music isn't as popular in America because there's not much of a niche for it, or do you think record companies aren't interested in cultivating that niche?
M: To be honest, I don't know why electronic music hasn't really taken off in America. But I think it's also interesting to broaden our definition of electronic music. Essentially, Puff Daddy is an electronic-music artist. Puff Daddy, Jay-Z. They use the same things to make their records that Aphex Twin uses to make his records.
O: With professional recording technology so affordable and easy to use, do you think that in a few years the American electronic underground will become more pronounced?
M: It's certainly fascinating how much music is being made. At this point, every kid with a computer has a MIDI set-up. Everybody's making electronic music. I think that's wonderful, but I don't know how we're ever going to hear it all, because there's so much music out there. I think the fact that people are making more electronic music right now could make people more open to electronic music. Certainly, the Balkanization that used to exist in music doesn't exist anymore. Most people I know love punk rock, but they also love hip hop and house music and classical music. It just seems like eclecticism is more accepted now than it was 10 years ago. From a postmodern perspective, music is completely without context right now. You can listen to classical music made by a guy in his bedroom, and listen to a punk-rock song made by a guy with a laptop on an airplane. So the only quasi-objective standard for evaluating music is listening to a CD on your home stereo. I'm just interested in making music that, when I listen to it out of two speakers, it makes me feel. Strongly.
O: With the institutionalization of sampling, do you think it's still possible to make new music that's not at all artificial?
M: Basically, the only form of musical expression that's not artificial is either singing or banging on your body. The moment you pick up a guitar, or a piano, or a flute, or a synthesizer, or a drumstick, these are all artificial constructions in the sense that guitars don't grow in a field.
O: Can you create new music if you're still limited by traditional instrumentation, be it electronic or otherwise?
M: If you look at the history of innovation in music, it all happens by accident. Innovative music has never come, from my perspective, from a bunch of academics sitting around trying to make innovative music, with the exception of maybe John Cage. But even the musique concrete guys were just messing around, making accidents. Look at rock 'n' roll, hip hop, jazz, and blues. These were all types of music that sort of happened by accident. Hip hop wasn't a bunch of academics sitting around trying to create a postmodern form of music: It was basically some guys in a parking lot in the South Bronx trying to have a party. Rock 'n' roll was invented by white-trash guys trying to sound black. House was invented by DJs who wanted to make cool-sounding records. They weren't trying to be avant-garde and experimental. They just wanted to make something that appealed to them.