Why did the dance music maestro feel compelled to leave the East Coast and immerse himself in the West? Part of the answer can be heard in his moist, intimate new album.
BY A.D. AMOROSI
About five years ago, Moby—a quintessential downtown New York City multi-hyphenate with his hands in the worlds of music, ad jingles, and tea making—thought of making a move. Not a rhythmic move like those that shifted in accord with his given muse or his changing sense of electro-sonic styles on albums such as Everything is Wrong, Play, Hotel, Wait for Me and such. Moby suddenly realized he’d had enough of freezing winters and hedge fund managers, the likes of which had zapped Manhattan of its creative force.
“It wasn’t the same Manhattan that it was when I moved there,” says Moby, age 48, tinkering with a boiling kettle of water, while talking about the found domesticity that fuels his undulating yet understated new music, the ideas behind the new Innocents (Mute) and its vocal collaborations with Wayne Coyne, Mark Lanegan, Damien Jurado, and other liked-minded souls.
“That city became a victim of its own success. Everybody in the world wants to be in there, now. As a result, New York City has become so expensive, that the artist and the weirdo can’t afford to live there at all anymore. Those people have been priced out. That’s why they all moved here, because it’s cheaper, because there’s more of us out here.”
The “here” is Los Angeles, and the warm and leafy spot known as Beachwood Canyon right below the Hollywood sign toward the northern portion of Tinseltown. What’s most remarkable to Moby about his new-found home base, is that Beachwood Canyon is this “weird little country town, but it’s slap dab in the middle of this megalopolis of 5 million people.”
This may seem a little tourist-y, this break to discuss where Moby is, and who lives in his neighborhood. But, if home is where the heart is, then Moby’s heart is in the moist, intimate, and decidedly close-knit tones that fuel Innocents, a home (rather than a house) party of an album; small, morose, lovely, and lo-fi-be-y.
To give you an outside glance at what this neighborhood’s strange history feels like, know this: Moby can’t take out his trash without hearing some spooky aspect of his house’s haunted lore. “I was taking out my recycling the other day, was bent over, when I saw this old lady pointing at my house. So I walked up to her, and she said to me, in her old lady voice, “Did you know that in your house, Errol Flynn used to host sex parties?””
That’s just part of the allure of his block, a street where Aldous Huxley once lived and its Theosophical Society Office hosted the likes of Carl Jung and Orson Welles. The spooked-out and cinematic atmosphere that Moby lives within now is a perfect vibe in which to record his album. Then again, Moby’s sound, beyond the rave cultural-ism of his earliest technoid tracks, has always been dependent on a filmic ambience. Even his most danceable cuts and gospel-tinged tunes could double as woozy, small-ish soundtracks to loft disco parties and Southern church services, lived through or imagined.
Certainly, 1999’s Play—his sampladelic, ten million records-selling masterpiece—has those cinematic blues. So does the lesser-known likes of 2009’s Wait for Me and 2011’s Destroyed, each an exquisite miniature of love, remorse, and diminished returns.
“I love those albums, the spirits of them,” he says, commenting on each record’s level of simple beauty and earnest emotionalism. “I’ve made music that is subtle, some music that is not so subtle, but those two albums in particular, are very restrained. I didn’t expect them to find a huge audience. They have an understated quality beyond even my most subdued records. I think that may have prevented them for finding an audience.” Moby mentions that part of why he made those nearly daring, down-tempo albums was because of his emancipation from the major label circus. The other reason he made those records was to work with mixologist Ken Thomas, a man sympathetic to Moby’s notion of quiet restraint and insular intimacy.
Oddly enough, the same thing became true when he called on now-famous producer and Grammy-winner Mark “Spike” Stent, the man behind the epic sound of Muse, Depeche Mode, Björk, U2, and Coldplay. As Moby never, ever had another producer in his own his sessions, calling on Stent was a big deal. “I really only wanted a sounding board, someone with whom I could talk about the process of winnowing down the wealth of tracks I made for this album. I wrote and recorded bits of a lot of songs. Mainly I was looking for objectivity. My perspective is skewed. I just wanted someone to help me figure what was good and worth developing and what was bad and to forget about. I could easily disappear down my own rabbit hole, clueless due to a lack of objectivity.” (Below: Moby’s work station)
At first, says Moby, Innocents was supposed to have been a midnight dance album in league with those downtown NYC albums of his youth, those riddum-heavy albums featuring reggae giants like Wally Badarou and Sly & Robbie. Whether he realizes it or not, Moby may have been looking to write a love letter (or a “Dear John”) to the downtown New York City he first fell in love with. “When I was growing up in and around the city, I thought I’d live there forever,” says Moby. “My neighborhood was the most perfect place in world; dirt cheap and filled with artists of all stripes; an idyllic environment where everyone would work during the day, go out late, get drunk and have inappropriate one night stands with each other.”
What Moby was planning for his 2013 album was what he called his version of Marianne Faithfull’s Broken English, “something dark and danceable,” he says now. The reason he invited Spike to sift through his song fragments wasn’t because of his hit-producing track record. Rather, it was because Stent had—in another lifetime—been the man behind the boards for weird techno-punks such as KLF, the moody Massive Attack, and the always scary Psychic TV. “He was surprised someone was referencing those albums, let alone desiring him because of his past,” says Moby with a laugh. “From that point forward, Spike insisted that what he wanted from me was something intimate, moody and quiet, rather than something dance-y; something closer and more personal to me, which in the end was what I wanted too.”
With Innocents, the pair got that up-close-and-personal, simply uncomplicated, down-tempo sound that Moby has the patent on. “I write very simply structured songs,” he admits.
All they needed was Moby’s usual retinue of vocal collaborators. Only this time, he didn’t go for his usual collection of disco divas and gospel howlers. Instead, he hooked up with (mostly) white boy indie rock types a la Lanegan, Coyne and Jurado (pictured above, with Moby) to do the singing and write the lyrics.
So, why all the white boys, I joke with Moby.
“That’s a legitimate question, one whose answer might be disappointing,” he says. “When I’m thinking of working with singers, I’m not thinking of their gender or ethnicity. All I’m thinking is how their voice affects me emotionally. Like Damien. I heard his voice and fell in love with its most vulnerable qualities. So in approaching him, I want this sensitivity. That he happens to be a white man and not a black lady, was irrelevant. I’m quite mercenary when it comes to making records. I want to make music I find interesting and hopefully emotional and beautiful and will use whatever compositional elements I can get my hands on—samples, guitars, men, women—in service to my goals.”
No matter what he wants in lofty service to such humble music, doesn’t Moby perhaps hear a certain voice for each song? Sometimes. What happened in the case of Innocents was that Moby wrote and recorded his instruments, sent them out to those he sought collaboration with, told them “if there’s anything here that strikes your fancy that you want to write to, just let me know,” and waited. In reality, this is much like Surrealist maestro Andre Breton and friends’ Exquisite Corpse game where one artist wrote a bunch of words, the next person focused only on the phrase’s last word, and started writing from there.
“My process is a lot like a Surrealist tag team composition. There’s something exciting about sending something to someone and never knowing what you’re going to get back. It doesn’t always work but it’s always better than I what I was expecting. These are all idiosyncratic gifted people. It’s nice being on the receiving end.” (Below: Moby with Wayne Coyne in a video.)
All these interesting guests, all their fabulous repartee; this makes for a delicious house party in a small, offset community that is Innocents. Like the Hollywood canyon he lives in, this album’s sound is that of the relaxed and the domestic.
“Domesticity in a space so vast and not so cohesive,” he says, reminding me that Los Angeles is an urban experience without a center, one comprising 150 little towns, in a manner than would make Chinatown scribe Robert Towne proud.
“Innocents has a gentle domestic quality, an idea that’s as sweet as it is a reaction to this town’s vast and utter confusion.”
Spoken like a true New Yorker.