Award-winning singer, songwriter and musician explains the impact of classical music on his work and talks about his new CD, “Destroyed,” (his 10th studio album) and his photography book of the same name.
Tavis: Pleased to welcome Moby back to this program. The prolific and popular musician and DJ is out this month with a new album called “Destroyed.” The long-time activist also recently posted a video protesting government tax breaks. More on that in a moment, I suspect, when we start talking. First, though, from “Destroyed,” here is some of the video for “The Day.”
Tavis: Moby, why is it important for you to be involved – I say this lovingly – in every aspect of your craft? I mean, the writing, the producing, the instrumentation, the photographing, the cover of the album, the videos. I mean, you are involved in every aspect of your work. Why?
Moby: Yeah, when you put it that way, it sounds kind of narcissistic [laugh].
Tavis: No, no, no. That’s why I said lovingly. Well, Prince did the same thing, so I’m not, you know.
Moby: I think it’s because I’m an only child, so I grew up spending a lot of time by myself and it always seemed easier to rely on myself than to ask other people to be involved. When I was growing up, I would play in punk rock bands and different bands and was always waiting for other musicians to show up and they rarely did. So I figured, well, if I teach myself how to play other instruments, I can just make the records by myself and not be so dependent upon other people.
Tavis: That’s what you gain by being this one-man show. You think you lose anything?
Moby: You lose the ability to interact with normal human beings [laugh]. What I like to polity refer to is like Ted Kaczynsky disorder. Remember the Unabomber?
Tavis: I do.
Moby: You spend a little too much time for yourself and you end up like Martin Sheen in the beginning of “Apocalypse Now,” like in a hotel room going a little crazy. I mean, the good thing about working alone is I get a lot done and I can experiment more. The bad thing is I miss out on the gregarious, social way that most musicians work. A lot of people, they start a band and it’s their friends and it becomes like their family and they go on tour together. With me, it’s just alone in my studio by myself.
Tavis: Is there a certain purity? I would think there’s a certain purity – if that’s a good word – to that process, though, when you get a chance to stay in here.
Moby: I think so. Either purity or delusion [laugh]. I mean, I lose perspective really quickly because I’m writing the songs and playing the instruments and doing the engineering and the production. I don’t do any of these particularly well, but I just like to do all of them. So by the time the record’s finished, I’ve completely lost perspective. Like with this album, I think it’s a good album, but it might be the worst album ever made. I have no perspective at all. It’ll take me a couple of years to sort of figure out if I’ve actually made something good.
Tavis: And what is the barometer of that two years in? I mean, when that two year period hits, it’s good or bad based upon what?
Moby: It’s usually from my own perspective, but also feedback from other people and not necessarily the press. Because I learned a long time ago that I should never read my own reviews because a good review makes me feel sort of a bit too egocentric and a bad review makes me want to jump off the top of a building, so I just don’t read press at all. It’s more personal feedback from friends or just people I might randomly encounter. Then if enough people tell me that they like something I’ve done and I don’t feel like they’re just being polite or sycophantic, then I might start to believe I’ve done something good.
Tavis: You made a reference a moment ago, Moby, to going crazy in a hotel room. The last time you did that, you were in Spain and the end result is this project. So you’re in Spain, the story goes. You’re having a bunch of sleepless nights and you write this entire album basically in a hotel room?
Moby: Well, there are two types of hotel craziness. There’s like Tommy Lee style hotel craziness [laugh] which is, I’m sure, a lot of fun, and then there’s my style of -
Tavis: – it looks like it.
Moby: And then there’s my style of hotel craziness which is just me in a hotel room at 4:00 in the morning with very run-of-the-mill insomnia sitting at the hotel window looking out at the empty city. So this album, “Destroyed,” was very much inspired by that, like sitting at a window looking at a city that’s completely empty and feeling like you might actually be the only person left on the planet. You know, feeling like the Rapture happened and everyone’s taken except for me [laugh].
Tavis: Hence, the name “Destroyed” or is there another connection I’m missing here?
Moby: “Destroyed,” well, the cover of the album – there’s also a book as well of photographs I’ve taken. The cover is me standing in an airport hallway looking at this long hallway and there was a sign that said “Unattended luggage will be destroyed.”
Tavis: At LaGuardia.
Moby: Yeah. And it’s a little sign, so it only fit one word at a time. So that’s just the end of the sentence, “Unattended luggage will be destroyed.” At that time, I was exhausted. I’m not complaining because going on tour and being a touring musician is a great job, but it can be really tiring. I just felt destroyed, almost like when you get so tired and you haven’t eaten. At some point, it almost becomes comforting. You know, it becomes a sort of like almost catatonic state. So that’s sort of what the title references.
Tavis: How would you describe the content on this particular project?
Moby: Again, as I said earlier, I have no perspective on my work. Like when I put out the album, “Play,” about ten years ago, in my mind, that was almost like a hip-hop record. I don’t think anyone else who heard it thought it was a hip-hop record [laugh]. So this album, the way I describe it, it’s basically a soundtrack for empty cities at 3:00 in the morning. I have to say, I just moved to Los Angeles and the album sounded really good on the 10 at 2:00 in the morning on a Tuesday night when it’s completely empty and you’re going way too fast.
Tavis: Sounds good then.
Moby: That’s when the music makes sense, as you’re driving through downtown.
Tavis: Next Tuesday at 2:00 in the morning, three freeway, the 10, will be full of people, all the Moby listening to the CD to see how it sounds.
Moby: Here’s hoping, yeah.
Tavis: I assume after all these years, though, of doing it this way, you’re comfortable now. You keep making jokes about this and they’re funny, but I assume you’re comfortable with this process at this point.
Moby: Yeah. Well, I’ve been making music since I was ten years old. I grew up playing classical music and I played in punk rock bands. In the mid-’80s, I was a hip-hop DJ in New York. I know I don’t look like the most likely hip-hop DJ in the world, and I have some amazing experiences. I was DJing at this club called Mars in New York and all the rappers hung out there like Big Daddy Kane and 3rd Base and Ultramagnetics. I kept a microphone by the turntable. So they would come down, they would get drunk and they would start free-styling to impress their date. I wish I’d recorded all this [laugh]. It was amazing. You know, like Kool Keith and Run-D.M.C. and just everybody free-styling and drinking champagne and it was great. But then I started making my own records and, with electronic music, I could just pretty much do everything myself. At this point, I like working with other people, but I am generally a lot more comfortable just working on my own.
Tavis: What’s the takeaway – put another way, how do you incorporate all that you have been exposed to with the kind of music that we get from you today? I mean, how does classical impact what you do? How does the hip-hop impact? Does that make sense?
Moby: Well, I guess my goal as a musician is pretty simple. It’s to try and make music that I love and maybe in the process end up making music that someone else might like. I have no allegiance to any one genre. I grew up playing in punk rock bands and classical music and hip-hop and I like all those different genres because they all affect me emotionally. So when I’m working on my own music, I might borrow a little bit from everything to try and make music that really resonates with me emotionally.
Tavis: What prompted the move after being in New York for so long? What prompted the move to Los Angeles? And we’re glad to have you here. By the way, welcome to Los Angeles.
Moby: I even got a driver’s license.
Tavis: Wow, you learned how to drive now.
Moby: Yeah, terrifying [laugh].
Tavis: I get it now. That’s why you were on the freeway at 2:00 in the morning. You haven’t figured out how to navigate the real traffic yet. I got it.
Moby: Traffic terrifies me.
Tavis: What prompted the move, though?
Moby: A whole bunch of things. I was born in New York and I basically grew up in New York. New York has changed quite a lot. New York has become so expensive with Wall Street and wealthy Europeans that all the interesting people, the artists, the writers and musicians, have essentially had to leave New York. So I found my neighborhood where once, the Lower East Side, had been this bastion for really odd creative people and now it’s hedge fund managers and corporate attorneys. So I came here because Los Angeles is still weird. You know, Los Angeles has a weirdness that New York had 20, 30, 40 years ago because Los Angeles is so big that it can never be too gentrified. You know, the moment one neighborhood starts to get gentrified here, people just drive somewhere else. So part of it is the weirdness of Los Angeles I really like, the fact that there’s so many interesting writers, musicians, artists here, and the smug satisfaction I get on January 15 when it’s 72 degrees outside and I check the weather in New York and it’s like 11 degrees and sleeting. That’s worth moving here in a heartbeat.
Tavis: Your surroundings impact your sound.
Tavis: Your surroundings impact your, shall we say, surround sound. So have you considered or experienced how Los Angeles will change your music versus New York City?
Moby: It’s such a good question because there’s so many different parts of Los Angeles. Like I live up in Beachwood Canyon, so I could either be inspired by the fact that I’m surrounded by coyotes and mountain lions and nature, or I drive a mile down Beachwood Canyon and it’s crack town [laugh]. You know, it’s like either the squalor of grimy Hollywood or the country, so maybe it’s the combination of the two. So it’s like a speed metal folk record with hip-hop beats. I have no idea [laugh].
Tavis: My friend Jim Wallis from Sojourners was one of the guys who helped kick this thing off, but recently there was a multi-day, multi-week fast on the part of Christians and others all around the country about this budget debate in Washington and they wanted to bring attention to how immoral, in their view, this process was. I said not long ago on television that I don’t get how every debate in Washington about money begins and ends with how to reward the rich and punish the poor. You had some things to say about that. Tell me what you said about the debate and about the fasting, for that matter.
Moby: Well, Jim Wallis is a hero of mine because he’s just, you know, a really inspiring, progressive Christian. Jim Wallis and MoveOn asked me to get involved in this protest. What I liked about it is the simplicity of it, the idea of fasting just to express moral outrage. I’m not in favor of higher taxes, but I’m certainly not in favor of cutting taxes for corporations and for millionaires and expecting veterans, the elderly, students and women’s health to bear the brunt of it. It just seems like, as a society, that’s such a skewed approach to the distribution of wealth. The fact that they would cut veterans’ benefits and then give tax cuts to millionaires, I was really outraged, you know, morally offended by this. So I got involved in the fast. My confession is, I only fasted for one day. Like our friend, Jim Wallis, he fasted for a long time, God bless him. After one day, I was like I really miss spaghetti [laugh]. That demon spaghetti broke my fast, yeah.
Tavis: Does this kind of social justice now into the future have a place in your music or do you want to keep those two things separate?
Moby: I wish it had more of a place in my music because a lot of my heroes as musicians, whether it’s Chuck D or John Lennon, Neil Young, people who’ve written amazing politically inspired songs about social justice, I’m just not good at writing songs about the issues I care about. I’ve tried and I end up being really pedantic. So I think it’s almost better if I write more emotional music and then talk about politics and social issues on the side because I’m the worst songwriter when I try and write protest songs.
Tavis: The new project from Moby is called “Destroyed.” We are delighted to have him in Los Angeles with us now. Sorry, New York City, but we claimed another one [laugh] from the Big Apple. Moby, welcome to Los Angeles. Glad to have you.
Moby: My pleasure.
Tavis: And congrats on the new project.
Moby: Well, thanks for having me on.
Tavis: “Destroyed,” the new project from Moby. That’s our show for tonight. See you back here next time on PBS. Until then, goodnight from Los Angeles, thanks for watching and, as always, keep the faith.
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