If anything, Moby is chameleonic. At 52, the New York-born, Los Angeles-based musician has spent the past few decades embracing everything from punk to hip-hop to pop, embracing the former on last year’s These Systems Are Failing, a politically-driven record released under the name Moby and the Pacific Void Choir. Today, he hasn’t shied away from the political climate in his everyday life, but he’s largely keeping it out of his music with the trip-hop-inspired Everything Was Beautiful, and Nothing Hurt, releasing March 2, 2018 via Mute.
“It goes back to the humanity of it,” Moby tells Billboard. “Because that’s the common denominator: who are we as a species and why have we made so many egregious, terrible choices? The punk rocker in me wants to yell at us as a species and say, ‘Stop making these terrible choices,’ but the other part of me who’s maybe aspiring to some enlightenment just wants to try and be understanding and compassionate. And I also feel like that’s a better way to get us to stop making terrible choices, if you can actually deal with people with compassion and understand why they’re making these terrible choices in the first place.”
In anticipation of the LP, Moby speaks on how his opinion on politics has changed in the wake of the 2016 elections, the inspiration for lead single “Like a Motherless Child” featuring Raquel Rodriguez and why he doesn’t identify as a career musician.
There was a very strong political element to These Systems Are Failing, and the new album doesn’t really fall into that political realm. Did you shy away from taking a look more at the outside world and focus more on the corporeal individual?
Yeah. That old quote “all politics are local” — if you keep going in that vein, all politics also come down to the individual. So culture and politics are fascinating and have really serious real-world consequences, but ultimately the reason we have the systems we have are because individuals respond well to them. So I’m kind of in a weird way more interested in the individual than the system. The systems need to be fixed because they’re disastrous, but it’s that question: What’s going on in the individual that makes them think that these bad choices are good ideas? And then you can either respond by criticizing the individual or condemning the individual, or, not to sound too much like the vegan meditating cliché that I am, but you can try to understand it and respond with compassion.
After the election, did you find yourself turning a blind eye to the political atmosphere of our country, or did you just embrace it more?
Like many people, I disengaged for a couple of days. I went through my browser and I removed Nate Silver’s site and I removed RealClearPolitics and I removed The Upshot. I removed Huffington Post. All the people who told me things were gonna be okay, I “punished” them by removing their URLs from my bookmarked list. And then, of course, a couple days later, got right back into it. So now I’m just as obsessed as I’ve always been. And I have to say: I have some weird gratitude for Trump and the Republicans. And the gratitude is that they’re so terrible.
Just imagine how awful it would be if Trump had impulse control and was intelligent. And just imagine how awful it would be if Roy Moore was a reasonable sounding Republican. So whenever Trump says or tweets anything insane when they nominate pedophiles to be Republican senators, it’s horrifying, but in a way, it’s that thing of “better the devil you know than the devil you don’t.” So I kinda wanna thank them in a way for just so clearly advertising and announcing that they’re as awful as they are. And I’d be a lot more scared if we had a Vladimir Putin as president because Putin’s actually really smart and clever. So thank goodness we have Trump, this dimwit with the emotional regulation of a six month old.
There’s a theme of imperfection that runs through the album, as certain elements are missing. What attracted you to that idea in the studio and musically, and the idea of imperfection as a whole?
Part of it is Spotify. And what I mean by that is I have used Spotify as this nostalgia machine. Occasionally I listen to new pop music on Spotify, but more often than not, I go trolling through the archives, and my favorite thing to do with Spotify is to listen to music that I otherwise would have no access to. Like, what were the top 40 songs in 1936? And what I found over time is: the more perfect a piece of music, the less I like it.
If I hear a new pop song that is Auto-Tuned and compressed and limited and produced to within an inch of its life, and then I go back and listen to Blind Willie Johnson — ”dark was the night and cold was the ground” — I’m like “oh, Blind Willie Johnson, ‘dark was the night, cold was the ground’ was one of the most beautiful pieces of music ever recorded, and it’s spontaneous and technically totally imperfect. And I would so much rather listen to that than some new terrible generic pop song. So that idea is sorta what informed it. And also I’m not such a great producer, so it’s pretty easy for me to create imperfections. But I also liked the idea: in this world where so many people are striving for some weird ostensible idea of technical perfection, I just wanted to make something that was a little more broken.
There are these literary references that are dotted throughout, with reference to Yeats and Slaughterhouse Five. What inspired that literary turn?
My mom was an English Lit major and she also had a really good record collection, so I grew up surrounded by music and books. When I think of the 20th century, some of the most inspiring ideas come from books. I feel like that’s self-evident to say that. It’s what I grew up with. On one hand, if there’s an idea that you find compelling, you can write an essay about it. You can write academic treaties about it. But if you can create a story and a narrative around it, it can be that much more powerful. Music can be good when it’s didactic, but I think it’s better when it aspires to be poetic. That Yeats poem “The Second Coming” is such a perfect description of the world in which we live, but it’s all subtle poetic imagery. And also, to be honest, I’m clearly not the first person who’s borrowed some titles from it. Everyone from Chinua Achebe to Joan Didion has also borrowed some titles from it.
This album is really driven by a ‘90s trip-hop aesthetic. What led you to that sound?
In terms of newer music, I’m almost hesitant to say this because it’s both obvious and it really is my favorite music of the last 10 years, if not longer, is some of the music by Burial. And I very intentionally don’t know anything about him as a person or a producer because I just wanna love the music in a decontextualized way. His whole approach, to borrow some elements from dance music but to really present them in these kind of broken, humanized ways is really inspiring. I wish I could point to more influences, but that really is, in terms of modern music, one of the biggest ones. Going back a ways, everything from Smith & Mighty who are these producers in Bristol, even going back to Sly and Robbie and Marianne Faithful’s Broken English record. R&B from the late ‘60s and early ‘70s.
What inspired the video for “Like a Motherless Child”?
I wish I had more to say about the video. I guess I feel a little guilty that there isn’t more of a sort of political component to it. One of the things I love about music and music videos: you have an ability to create a sort of discreet world. When you listen to a record or a song or watch a video, you’re stepping into someone’s world. And that’s sort of what I was trying to do with this video. And I worked with the cinematographer, he also worked with James Cameron. He’s really good at what he does. And in a way, some of the other videos I’ve made, the videos themselves have been quite political.
The song is quite personal and emotional, and maybe this is not a great thing, but I wanted this video to draw attention to that. The French concept of mise-en-scène, where what you see onscreen represents the emotional tenor of the music, I wanted it to do that somehow. So there are these outdoor shots that are so isolated, and that’s really the theme of the song as well. I wish I had something smarter or more relevant to say, but that’s all it.
With this record, has the idea of expectation changed for you at all in terms of reception or the idea of vacillating between styles or sounds?
I really like making records and I really like making music. Once it’s released, I don’t pay that much attention to it. Because I don’t really go on tour. The entire tour for this record is one show at the Echoplex and one show at the Rough Trade venue in Brooklyn. It might not be a great thing to say but I just don’t see myself as having a career as a musician. I mean, technically I do, but it’s not what I think of when I’m working on music. I just think about enjoying making music. And hopefully, if the music goes out into the world, maybe it reaches someone and makes them feel less lonely. Or maybe it inspires someone somewhere. But I also don’t really expect too many people to ever hear the records that I make. So if someone listens to it, I’m really flattered, but beyond that I have no expectations.
In a way, it’s kind of like if I really enjoyed making a record, it almost seems like too much to ask to expect anything more than that. If you’ve gone to a restaurant and you’ve just had an amazing meal and an amazing dessert, you don’t expect them to come out and sing songs and dance for you. You’ve already had a good experience; sometimes that can be enough.