Moby A Whale of a Tale
Published Jun 01, 2002Nobody could have predicted that a former suburban punk from Connecticut would become the biggest dance music star of the early '90s thanks to a remixed TV theme and a debut album lauded by a rock intelligentsia still mourning Kurt Cobain. But Moby, the small, bald, techno auteur, soon fell back into obscurity forgotten by the mainstream and abandoned by the rave nation after he briefly traded in his synthesiser for a poorly-tuned guitar. The critics, too, had thrown in the towel after his ill-conceived foray into punk rock. By 1999, Moby the "face of techno" was so over. Unsurprisingly, Play debuted to little fanfare. But like Moby himself, it just sort of hung around until everyone loved it. Lacking the force-fed hype of a Britney or Bizkit, Play became a genuine, grassroots, word-of-mouth phenomenon, eventually setting up shop in charts around the world and garnering several Grammy nods. Almost a decade after Moby nailed a rave anthem by laying the darkndreary Twin Peaks theme over a house beat, he produced the defining fin-de-millennium full-length and he did it by running old Negro spirituals and proto-blues paeans through ProTools. Now, after moving almost ten million copies and three million singles due in no small part to his licensing of every single damn track for commercial use Moby is back with a new record, 18, that demonstrates despite his success, he's still sad as hell and not gonna take it anymore.
Richard Melville Hall is born in Harlem. He's given the nickname Moby, because he's descended from Moby Dick author Herman Melville and, perhaps, because he looks like a small white whale. He lives with his parents James and Elizabeth in basement apartment but his father dies in a drunken car crash two years later and his mother moves him to the Connecticut suburbs.
Moby and mom spend the Summer of Love in San Francisco where he develops a longstanding distaste for damn, dirty hippies. Luckily, they move back to Connecticut to live with his wealthy conservative grandparents.
Moby spends time hanging out with "best friend" Robert Downey Jr. while their parents smoke weed together.
The Halls move to a hippie-filled house where his mother's friends stay for long stretches while bands rehearse in the basement. Wee Moby is not happy. "It was very threatening to me because it was very unstructured and they were always stoned," he says, laughing uncomfortably. "I didn't have any ethical objection to it, I just found it threatening, they all smelled funny and had long hair and were smoking pot. As time went on I loosened up a little bit and then I discovered punk rock which in some ways was perfect. It was the antithesis of the hippie stuff I'd been brought up with."
He begins taking guitar lessons, learning "Crocodile Rock," and soon starts a band. Their first practice lasts 13 hours. "None of us had ever played music with other people before and it was so seductive. Being in a room playing music with other people was so exciting, even if we only had two songs."
1980 to 1982
Moby starts a second band, the new wave punk act Vatican Commandos, singing hardcore tracks like "Housewives on Valium" and "Hit Squad for God." Despite still being in high school, he finds time to start another, even darker band AWOL.
1983 to 1987
Buying a four-track recorder, he quickly realises "I could finish songs by myself and that I didn't need to be so reliant upon other musicians." Moby briefly enrols at the University of Connecticut but drops out in favour of DJing for passed-out drunks at a local pub and producing electronic music at home. He moves yet again, this time squatting in a carriage house in the woods of Greenwich near George Bush's mom's place.
1987 to 1988
Becoming increasingly interested in dance music, particularly the acid house coming over from England, Moby starts shopping his demo tapes around NYC while squatting in a "semi-abandoned" factory with no running water and giant cockroaches. He is rejected repeatedly. "When techno first started, I didn't know what the difference was between techno and house music. They were roughly the same BPM and sounded the same to me," he admits. "Techno meant it was from Detroit and house meant it was from Chicago."
1989 to 1990
Eventually he garners interest from Instinct Records while spending his nights DJing at dance clubs. Moby also has his first live electronic music performance in front of 5000 people. He wears a suit. However, his first single flops and the follow-up, "Mobility," moves only 2000 copies. He doubles that with "Voodoo Child" and is absolutely thrilled. "At one point I spoke to Derrick May and he was my hero. I was so nervous. He said Transmat records routinely sold 10,000 copies. I was in awe. You have records that sell 10,000 copies?'"
No one expects much from his fourth release "Go," a melancholy rave anthem. It breaks into the UK top 10 and goes on to sell over a million copies. "The original version of Go' didn't have the Twin Peaks music in it. It was the B-side of my first single, Mobility.' It was just this really minimal house track a kick drum and a high-hat and bass line and that was pretty much it. Then I heard Laura Palmer's Theme' on Twin Peaks and thought why don't I try incorporating that and it worked nicely."
With the rave scene taking off Moby finds himself travelling to and from Europe several times a month, spinning for thousands of ecstasy-fuelled, Vaporub-slathered ravers. He quickly becomes one of dance music first celebrities. Suddenly he is the go-to guy for street cred and immediately proves his own lack of it by remixing Michael Jackson and the B-52s. Nevertheless, his legend grows, particularly after he punks out at the 1992 Mixmag awards, smashing his keyboard at the culmination of his set. He also releases his self-titled debut, collecting his twelve-inches and a few new cuts. It's widely considered a masterpiece of rave-techno.
Moby signs with Elektra and Mute, goes out on the road with Richie Hawtin and the Prodigy, has a one-night-stand (which he, of course, feels guilt about) and nails his third UK Top 40 single. But when touring with Orbital and Aphex Twin, his manager pulls rank making Moby the headliner. Refusing to tolerate their cigarette smoke, he flies instead of riding their bus. "They hated my guts. They had put this tour together and the booking agent didn't think it was going to do well and they needed another element and they came to me last," he says. "They thought I was this big arrogant rock star flying around the country while they were on the bus. But then we got to know each other. The guys in Orbital, we became friendly. But Richard James, he's a profoundly miserable, miserable man. Boy, he was so unpleasant, one of the nastiest individuals I've ever met."
Moby is now popular enough to appear in People magazine, where they focus on his straight-edge vegan lifestyle and Christian beliefs. They also dub him "a leviathan in techno-music." Earlier in the year, Billboard magazine calls him "King of Techno" after the release of his EP Move. This mainstreaming results in his first backlash when a flame-war erupts on the alt.rave newsgroup after Moby posts a defence of DATs onstage. Moby then makes history with "Thousand," which the Guinness Book of Records declares the fasted single ever, clocking in at 1000 bpms.
"Go" is re-released after a car ad uses a suspiciously similar song. A press release states "Moby is not involved in any way with the advert and has not received any money from it. He will not have his songs used to sell cars." He donates the proceeds from the re-release to an anti-auto charity. He also hints at the future with "Hymn," a pioneering fusion of gospel, techno and ambient.
Big year. His major label debut Everything is Wrong (boasting cheerful ditties like "Bring Back My Happiness" and "When It's Cold I'd Like to Die") is a semi-hit and he winds up on Lollapalooza. Moby receives best album and single in Spin, still cool in 1995, as well as a mention in every best-of list from Rolling Stone and Esquire to Village Voice and Entertainment Weekly. With the mainstream in his grasp he even appears in the MTV flick Joe's Apartment Moby reacts by setting up his own label, Trophy, to release more experimental work under the moniker Voodoo Child. His full-blown celebrity is confirmed when noted star-fucker Courtney Love asks him to produce the next Hole album. Moby declines though he does remix the Smashing Pumpkins.
Not one to deal well with happiness, Moby begins suffering panic attacks. He also decides to go punk rock, right as the American music machine is slouching towards "electronica," releasing the pseudo-hardcore Animal Rights to poor reviews and poorer sales. The backlash hits hard. Salon, for example, savages the record, writing: "Animal Rights is a catastrophe on almost every level, a record so howlingly awful it suggests that he completely misses the point of, well, music involving electric guitars." When Moby goes to the UK to promote it, only two journalists want to interview him. To make matters much, much worse, his mother dies of lung cancer. "I got really sick, had this flu that wouldn't go away, and I started having these really serious panic attacks and my mother was diagnosed with lung cancer and Animal Rights came out and it was this over-the-top dark demanding record. I still enjoy listening to it and am very happy I was able to make it," he says. "But obviously it didn't do very well and critically it was pretty much reviled." Moby then allows "God Moving Over The Face Of The Waters" to be used in a car commercial, despite declaring himself a "sworn opponent of the auto industry." He justifies the action by donating his profits to environmental organisations.
1997 to 1998
Moby responds to his emotional tumult with The End of Everything, recorded as Voodoo Child. The record is simple, sad synthesiser music and no one pays it much mind. He manages a slight hit reworking the "James Bond Theme" on his soundtrack compilation I Like to Score, but still people remain uninterested. Axl Rose taps him to produce the still-not-released Guns'n'Roses record, but despite a few meetings nothing comes to fruition. He pays the bills remixing Blur, John Lydon, Aerosmith and David Bowie, who lives across the street, and then sets his sights on his next project. Moby has recently discovered Sounds of the South a collection of field recordings from the 1930s by musicologist Alan Lomax and wants to do something with it. He spends a very long time recording all alone in his bedroom studio, claiming to have created over 250 songs before cutting it down to album length. "The hardest part of making Play was mixing it. It took almost a year because I was never happy with the results. At one point a new Marilyn Manson record had come out and I remember being so envious of the fact he had a finished record because I thought My record's never going to be finished. I'm going to spend the next ten years mixing this record.'"
By the time finishes Play, he's "parted company" with Elektra and finds a new home with V2. Despite the single "Honey" making waves in the UK the previous fall, the full-length comes out in June to such a ho-hum reaction Stateside that his first post-release hometown gig is in the basement of a record store. Since Play won't sell, Moby decides to sell-out becoming the first artist to license every single track for use in commercials (including Toyota), TV shows, movies and bar mitzvahs. The first evidence that this scheme might work comes during Woodstock '99 where a huge crowd responds to his spastic live show by swamping an armoured car trying to deliver cash to the ATMs and dancing exultantly on the roof and hood while it vainly tries to drive through the throng. It's just like a goddamn music video.
Play is building into a bona fide phenomenon, eventually going platinum in 25 countries. He re-releases it with a bonus disc of B-sides, gets nominated for several Grammys though it's for Best Alternative Music and Best Rock Instrumental and wins a few MTV awards. Moby re-records several tracks with high-profile singers including "Southside" (Gwen Stefani), "Honey" (Kelis), and "Why Does My Heart Feel So Bad" (Elton John) and then capitalises on his re-found fame by issuing the compilation Mobysongs.
"Southside" becomes his first top ten hit in the States, nearly two years after Play's release. He gets another Grammy nomination and performs this time "Natural Blues" with Jill Scott. Both Spin and Rolling Stone jump back on the bandwagon, citing Moby best dance artist by both critics and fans. By the time his Play tour finally ends in February, he's attracting crowds up to 20,000 strong. Moby finally begins work on his follow-up record, though he spends the summer touring his Area:One festival, the first post-Lollapalooza tour to actually incorporate a diversity of non-mainstream music. Moby is such a huge draw plans are immediately made for Area:Two. It's the world according to Moby as his Play DVD debuts at number 1 and his mug winds up on the cover of Time.
September 11, 2001
Moby's 36th birthday is a horrifically memorable one, during which he posts several freaked-out entries on his web site diary. "I just woke up to the sound of an explosion and people screaming. So I ran to my roof to see both buildings of the World Trade Center on fire and now I can't stop shaking and my apartment smells like smoke. What has happened. I don't know what to say. What has happened? Oh god." He lives so close to ground zero his neighbourhood is cordoned off by police and he later complains of respiratory problems.
Moby gets nominated for a Grammy for the third year in a row this time for the DVD. He also gets his own show on MTV, Señor Moby's House of Music. With head perhaps slightly swollen due to all the accolades and record sales, his bubble is burst at the Olympics closing ceremonies. He debuts a new song, which is ignored by the anchors, who instead interview athletes. Due to an extended crowd sing-along to "You Give Love A Bad Name," he's cut off mid-"Body Rock" when the networks end their live feed. But at least NBC calls him the "Techno Beat King." He later posts to his web site: "OK, I received a bunch of emails saying that the TV coverage of my Olympics performance was disrespectful and insulting. I haven't seen it. I probably shouldn't see it. I'm a sensitive little idiot. I'd probably cry. Cos I'm a woosie."
After whetting the appetite with a Mystikal duet in Blade 2 and a go-for-broke video for "We Are All Made of Stars" (where Astronaut Moby visits a collection of B-grade celebs such Tommy Lee, Dave Navarro and Gary Coleman) he finally releases 18 a collection of tunes that, for perhaps the first time, is not a radical departure from the previous disc. Instead, he trades blues for soul and gospel, adds cameos from Sinead O'Conner and Angie Stone, busts another hip-hop joint and rocks a whole bunch of synthesiser symphonies. But despite achieving success beyond his wildest dreams, Moby seems no happier 18 positively oozes sadness. "I've chosen this ascetic lifestyle. I live alone. I work alone. It's very much by choice the way I make records and the fact that they're imbued with this sense of loneliness and melancholy. It's a choice and I think it helps me make better records but at the same time," he pauses. "In order to make the records feel that way, I have to feel that way."