Since 1999's Play, Moby has been something of a polarizing figure in pop culture.
An erudite, Grammy Award-winning, peace-keeping vegan who looks like a baby wearing glasses and is one of the most successful electronic musicians of all time? Yep, that's a goldmine for mockery and jealousy. He's also a fascinating, funny, self-deprecating music nerd who loves what he does and never expected to be famous.
But he is famous, and the (much-deserved) hype has been steadily building around his brand new album, Innocents, which you can stream above right here on CBC Music a week in advance of its Oct. 1 release thanks to Arts & Crafts (available for pre-order here).
We spoke with the 47-year-old musician while he was in Australia last week and discussed the shadow of the mega-successful Play, his affection for Canada, working with Cold Specks and how Neil Young was the biggest influence on his new album.
People keep referring to this as a comeback album, even though you’ve released a record every few years since Play in 1999. Does this weird you out?
It used to bother me more. Now, like, I’m in Australia right now and I was doing an interview yesterday and someone at the radio station said, "Oh, wow, you haven’t released a record in like 10 years." I didn’t want to — I didn’t know how to respond. I didn’t get upset or anything, but if I’d said, "Well, actually, I’ve put out a record every two years for the last 10 years," but I didn’t want to seem like I was being bristly or defensive. So I just said nothing.
Honestly, when I was growing up, I just thought I’d make music in my bedroom that no one would ever listen to and then the first single I ever put out in 1983 was with my punk rock band, Vatican Commandos, and we sold 200 copies and that seemed like success. So, I’m not too concerned, like if people aren’t aware of the fact that I’ve made a few records in the last 10 years, well, at least I get to make records and occasionally people are willing to listen to them. I can’t base success on having a huge audience for what I do, but if there are still a few people willing to listen, then that makes everything worthwhile. And especially if I love the process of making the music, having an audience is just an added bonus.
Absolutely, but some people seem to resent the big hit that brings them into the mainstream. Do you still have a healthy relationship with Play or are you removed from it now?
It’s funny, I did this thing with Rolling Stone a couple of years ago. They wanted to do an article on the 10-year anniversary of Play and first of all I thought it was kind of ironic and funny, because they didn’t even review it when it came out. But as we were going through it, I realized the songs that I really love on that record are the songs on the second half of the record that get stranger and quieter. I think that’s one of the reasons why the last couple records I made didn’t find such a big audience. They were strange, quiet records and clearly that’s not what most people like about the music that I make, which is kind of a problem because that’s the sort of music that I really love making.
I don’t think of Innocents as strange and quiet. It's quiet beautiful and joyful in places.
The last couple of records that I made were almost half instrumental and what I’ve learned is that — myself included when I listen to other people's records — I tend to gravitate towards songs that have some structure and a vocal that is communicating emotion, but it’s odd because for my own music, I like writing songs but I kind of in a weird way prefer writing strange instrumentals. One reason why people might like this record a little bit more is that it does focus on songs rather than instrumentals.
And people love to sing along, they want to do it at karaoke.
Oh, me too! That’s why I love Neil Young so much. He wrote songs and he sang them and when he mixed his record, the voice is mixed really loud so I can hear it and respond to it. I fully understand why people would respond to the song qualities of what I do more so than instrumentals.
Is Neil Young one of your favourite Canadian singers?
Probably. I mean, it’s hard, because Canada — when you think of it, Canada’s not a huge country population-wise, but its contribution to global culture is so disproportionately high to the number of people who actually live there. All the directors and the writers and the comedians and actors and musicians. Oddly enough, for this record, I would say Neil Young is probably the biggest influence and inspiration for this album. Which is really odd, because there isn’t really any music on the record that sounds like Neil Young, but what I find really inspiring about him is the fragility and the vulnerability in a lot of his music. I was just listening to "After the Gold Rush" the other day and marveling at how austere it is and the genius of restraint that he has. Or "Needle and the Damage Done," erring on the side of not including things. Sometimes that’s the most effective way of communicating, going quieter instead of yelling at people.
You have quite a few guest vocalists on this record. How did Canadian artist Cold Specks get involved?
A couple years ago when I started working on this record, I decided I wanted to have a bunch of collaborators, because as much as I like working exclusively by myself, I really love being able to avail myself of other people's creative input. And I actually thought it would be more fun working with other people. Be a little more gregarious and not my usual sort of monastic, solipsistic way of making music. I started asking around and asking friends of mine about who they knew of who had beautiful voices who could write really interesting lyrics and had really distinctive qualities to their voices. I asked Daniel Miller who runs Mute Records and the only person he recommended was Cold Specks. I listened to her music and just immediately fell in love not just with her voice, but her approach to songwriting and lyric writing and music. I got really lucky that she was willing to do two songs on the record.