Photo by Bryan Derballa/Wired.com
To write about the tale of flotsam love that comprises the video for Moby's "Mistake," I sat down with him for an hour and a half or so at a cafe on Lafayette Street in Manhattan. He had a pot of Earl Grey tea and I had—well, actually I don't remember what I had. But here's what he had to say, starting with a dream sequence inspired by my digital recorder:
Moby: I used to record my dreams a long, long time ago. I read some interview with Andre Breton or one of the surrealists about how they would try and document their dreams. And at first I would try to write them down. But if you wake up at four in the morning and you’re half awake, taking up a pen and writing something down doesn't work.
I've done that, actually.
And then I had one of those crummy old micro cassette recorders. Now I’ve got one of these. [He points to my Olympus digital recorder.] But it's—not to sound like a crazy hippie, but it's great because I never remember my dreams. So I started recording my dreams as a way of gaining access to the subconscious. Somehow I feel like that might be therapeutic. Or turn me into a raving psychopath.
So, any interesting dreams?
Yes. You know every now and then you have a dream that's so nice that waking up is a disappointment? I had this dream where I was on a beach and there was this—I'm childless in real life, but in the dream I had a little baby. She was like nine months old but quite sentient and so sweet and so innocent. We were on the beach and there was this huge tsunami coming, but it was benign. Like we could see this 90 foot wave of black water coming at us. But it was fine. It was okay. Like we were both just very serene and that was a real—that was a like magical nice dream.
So, tell me about the “Mistake” video.
The lemon video. Because actually there are three videos for the song. The first one was done by this guy Robert Powers. He's done all the animation, like for the electronic press kit where I get interviewed by a dog. So I was like, let's make a low-budget animated video for “Mistake” as well. So we made one where the little idiot and the dog get in a fight but they make up. And then we had this larger-budget video made by a French director. It's okay, but it feels a little too much like a video from 1997.
Is this the “paranormal” video?
Yeah. And then my friend Katie, who's never—not only has she never made a music video before, she's never used a video camera before. Her family's from Manchester. She left to go home, and when she tried to come back she was denied entry. So she was suddenly back in Manchester without her apartment, without her friends, without her stuff, living at home with her parents for the first time in a long, long while, not sure what she wanted to do. So she started taking a lot of pictures. And she took this photo series of a lemon on vacation. Like a little lemon wearing a little plastic hat. And they were so cute. I said, why don't we make a video from this? At first she was quite daunted by the idea because she was like, I've never even picked up a video camera. And I was like, there's nothing to it. So I sent her a video camera. And I said, go make a video. If it works out, great. And if it doesn't, that's fine. One of the nice things about the demise of the music business is that big production doesn't matter anymore. You know, like those days of 1998, when Will Smith would make a video with a $1.2 million budget and it seemed like the criteria for determining like the worth of the video was how big the production was. Now it seems like the only merit that a video has to have is the idea. Like it doesn't matter whether it's shot well, whether it's edited well—the only thing that matters is the idea—and how does it translate on a 1.5 inch by 1.5 inch YouTube screen? And so she made this video. I just think it's adorable.
It really is.
She wanted the lemon to capture a sea cucumber. But she couldn’t get a real sea cucumber, so she went to the supermarket and bought a regular cucumber, hoping somehow that people would realize that it was supposed to be a sea cucumber. So, he rides the sea cucumber around. At some point he realizes it's not efficient enough. So he lets the sea cucumber go but it's this very quick little edit where before he gives up the sea cucumber, he gives it his hat. So it's like all of a sudden for an eighth of a second a sea cucumber is wearing the little pink hat. Such is the stuff of great music videos.
So the narrative was her idea.
Oh, completely. My involvement was only—when she was editing, she was working with a really good editor. But sometimes because she had shot the footage and had never made a video before, there was a degree of objectivity that was missing. So, I got a little involved in the editing, just to try and say—by the way, I've never in my entire life talked this much about a video.
Right. And who is she?
Katie Baugh. She was a choreographer. We met in a bar and just became friends. I think at first I tried to flirt with her until she told me she had a boyfriend. And I was like, okay. Sometimes I find it emancipating to find out that someone has a boyfriend because I'm like, okay. Now we can just be friends.
I love the little story that it tells. It seems to very much tie in with the theme of the song. Was this sort of how—as the songwriter, how you thought of the song?
It is safe to say that when I was writing the song, I never envisioned…
…a lemon riding a sea cucumber in search of his lost tennis-ball love. But that's—I have some friends who are musicians who are incredibly precious with everything that they do. If a remix is done for them, it has to be flawless. If a video is done, it has to be their idea and it has to be flawless. I almost feel like I should learn to have a little bit of that preciousness. Because I feel like once the original song is done, you put it out there and if people want to do bizarre remixes, if people want to make strange videos, great. I love the idea that there's the original version and then there's all these different reinterpretations. Sort of like, you know, chaos theory applied to the music business. I can't control all the myriad variables that will attach or like the myriad permutations of a song. So just accept it and hope for the best.
Cool. And you're going on tour soon?
It's a weird tour. We just finished a European tour playing festivals, playing to 60,000 people a night—a big huge monstrous production, tons of people. And now we're getting ready to do a North American tour where we're playing quite small venues. Because like the last North American tour I did we played, you know, 2,000 capacity venues and sold about 600, 700 tickets a night in some places. That's depressing and embarrassing in equal measure. You're standing on stage and realize they had to close off the balcony because you didn't sell enough tickets. So this empty balcony is just staring at you, reminding you that no one likes you. Of course, someone with a healthier perspective could look at the 700 people and say that's evidence that at least 700 people like you. But I'm always a pessimist so I see the negative aspect of it.
Right. And what will the sets be like?
The North American tour will be, I'm guessing, like 40 per cent songs off the new record and 60 per cent older songs. I'd be thrilled to play more music from the new record, but when you tour, people want to hear hits. So it's like The Sound of Music, where a spoonful of sugar helps the medicine go down. If you play a hit then you get to play a new song. And then you play a hit and you play two new songs. But because the album is doing okay here I think people might actually want to hear music from the new record.
Especially in the kind of venues you're playing.
That's the nice thing is playing smaller venues—you can experiment more. Like when we were playing these gigantic festivals, you have to have the most polished, honed, greatest hits set. Here we hope to be able to experiment a little bit.
What will the instrumentation be like?
At present it looks like there is a string section with two or three strings, two singers, a drummer, a keyboard player, a bass player, and then me playing guitar, keyboards, percussion, and vocals.
Speaking of singers, “Mistake” is the only song that you sing on on the album. Why is that?
You know, one of the things I like about making records is the sort of dialectic of, I put something out and then people ask me questions about what I put out. It forces me to think about my process.
I did a DJ set recently and I was talking to some kid afterwards and he was very disappointed—he was like, why didn't you play any of your own music? And suddenly it dawned on me that someone coming to hear me DJ might want to hear me actually play my own records. I felt really bad. But—so someone asked me a while ago why I'm only singing on one song on the record. Whereas to me it seems like the most normal way to make a record. And I suddenly tried to think of other artists who will make a record with sixteen songs where they only sing on one of them. And I suddenly realized that what seemed very normal to me is in fact kind of odd.
But—for the longest time I've wanted to have a great singing voice, but I don't have a conventionally great singing voice. And sometimes when I listen to songs I've sung, it just reminds me that I don't have a great singing voice. But over time I've learned to work within the limitations I have. So I can't sing like Bono. But I can carry a tune a little bit. I've also realized some of my favorite singers didn't have conventionally great singing voices—like Ian Curtis and Lou Reed and Johnny Cash, I mean none of them had great singing voices, but they were able to convey a lot of emotion through their singing.
So why did you sing on this song?
Originally I sang on every song, but then I found other people to replace my vocals. And this one, I guess I just liked the way my voice sounded on it. There have been some of these more, like, I guess new wave songs, and when I've tried to get other people to sing them usually they sing too well and the vulnerability of the song is lost. Like there was a song on the album Hotel called “Slipping Away,” and I had this guy sing it. And he had a great voice, but the song was just—it wasn't nice to listen to it being sung by someone with a great voice. All of a sudden it sounded too professional and intimidating.
The song seems to be about regrets. What went into that?
Well, when I write more personal songs they're rarely about any specific thing. It's more about an emotion, or the product of a lot of different experiences. This song in particular is looking at the number of mistakes I've made, specifically regarding just like, you know, I mean—the old standby is like relationships and just mistake after mistake. Was it Freud or Einstein who said like the definition of mental illness is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results? But that's sort of what the song is about. It’s just saying, like, I'm just exhausted from putting myself in the same situations over and over again. One of the only things I can give myself credit for as I get older is that I get involved in bad situations less and I get out of them faster. Because in the past, I would meet someone—this was, let's say, fifteen years ago—I'd meet someone, have nothing in common with them, have nothing to talk about, and date them for a year and a half. And like after three months realizing we had nothing in common, then we'd move in together. Genius.
You've talked about this song in particular being almost, like, inspired by Ian Curtis….
I think it's the product of growing up obsessively listening to Echo & the Bunnymen and Joy Division and New Order and David Bowie. At some point like an archetype was carved into my brain that said, this is what songs are supposed to sound like—they're supposed to be sort of melodic and vulnerable and emotional. That's what I like. You know, I like fun music and I like lighthearted music but it never means that much to me. And I never—I'm just not that good at writing fun, lighthearted music. I've tried. And I get asked a lot as a corollary to that, why don't I write more political music? It's also because I'm not good at it. I've tried. It's just not my strong suit.
So, David Lynch. Actually I interviewed him like a couple months ago for the book I'm writing. He was great.
What's the book?
The book is about how the Internet is changing storytelling. And so one of the ways that it's doing that is it's making things nonlinear. So I talked to him about nonlinear films and nonlinear storytelling in general.
What did he—it's funny, he and I have been friends for a couple of years, and we’ve spent quite a lot of time together, but I never talk to him about his work. I wanted to, like I want to ask about everything. The closest I got was—I've since given up drinking, but I was playing a show for his foundation as a benefit and the night before I had had a crazy, like, liquor and drugs night. And at like seven in the morning I had this epiphany about Bob from Twin Peaks. And so from the stage I told him that I understood Bob. I was like, Bob doesn't want to be evil. That's the key. Like, Bob is necessary. We need Bob—he is an integral part of the universe. It's his lot in life to be evil—but he doesn't want to be. So that's the closest I've ever gotten. But it was kind of a one-sided conversation, because I was onstage and he was in the audience.
[laughs] Right, very funny.
I saw him interviewed at BAFTA and he was talking about his work. But he doesn't really go into much detail—like a lot of sort of vague—it seemed like his perspective was, I'd rather you look at the work than hear me talk about it. I don't know if that's how he was with you or—
Pretty much. I wasn't asking him specifically about his movies. I was talking with him more about nonlinearity in general. But you're right, he doesn't talk much about his work at all. I mean, Mulholland Drive was like—people are still trying to figure out what it's about.
And Inland Empire, which I saw four times in the theater because I loved it so much. But I took some other people to see it and—it's so interesting how unconventional, nonlinear narrative upsets people. I took one friend to see Inland Empire and he was pissed off. He was like, This is stupid, I hate this, this is stupid! I was like, I don't know that your reaction is warranted.
How did you meet him? Was it after the BAFTA talk?
Yeah. I'm hard-pressed to think of anyone else in America in the last 50 years who I have more reverence for—just his work and his approach to work. He's so—I never know if you can qualify “unique,” like can you say he’s utterly unique? But if you can, then he's just utterly unique. Like, how many people have an adjective based on their last name? Lke Lynchian, you know.
Exactly. Worked for Hitchcock. So there was this interview he did with you, like a short video interview where you talked about living in an abandoned factory.
That interview was about six months ago. And I like it because his way of asking questions is like, Is it true that you sometimes send me songs? And is it true that you used to live in an abandoned factory? That's one of my favorite things about the way he speaks—it's so straight and disarming. Mel Brooks described him as being like Jimmy Stewart on acid.
So, the factory. I've spent most of my adult life living in factories. When I first left home a friend of mine was a youth minister in Greenwich, Connecticut. He didn't get a salary but he got to live for free in this carriage house on a huge estate in Greenwich that was adjacent to the Bush family compound. It was beautiful. It was a three-bedroom carriage house and I got to stay in one of the bedrooms. That lasted about six months and then we got kicked out because he had pissed off his boss. So I moved from eighty acres in backcountry Greenwich adjacent to the Bush family compound to I'm guessing about 75 square feet in an abandoned factory in a crack neighborhood in Stamford. I had no running water and no bathroom and no heat, but I had free electricity. And there wasn't really rent—I paid a security guard $50 a month. There were a lot of artists throughout this compound, and the deal was you’d pay the security guard and he would sort of look the other way. It was this huge, huge, huge, huge compound called the Yale Lock Factory—acres and acres of old industrial buildings. So I lived there for a few years. And then I moved to New York and actually lived in an apartment for a few years. The place I've been in for 17 years now—it's got such a weird history. It was built in 1830, 1840. It was a prison hospital during the Civil War, and then it was a meat processing plant. The great thing about that is that all the floors slope to a drain. At the end of every day they would hose down the walls so all the blood and offal would get sluiced down to these drains. So in one corner of the apartment the ceilings are ten feet, and in the other corner of the apartment they're twelve feet. But it has electricity, heat, hot water—when I tell people that I lived for two and a half years without heat, water, or a bathroom, most people's response is, you're kidding, right? No, there was a bathroom about 300 yards away. But you basically just took your water jugs, filled them up at the tap, which was disgusting, and you peed into a bottle. And for heat, because the electricity was free I just had space heaters.
So how did the video with David come about? It was really fun, by the way.
He hosts this David Lynch weekend in Fairfield, Iowa—it's the world center for Transcendental Meditation. He said, Moby, come on out to Iowa. I’m hosting an event talking about meditation and quantum mechanics. How do you say no if David Lynch invites you to the middle of Iowa to talk about meditation and quantum mechanics? So I went. And then I DJ’ed at his wedding, which was really fun. I was the most stereotypical wedding DJ, I played Van Morrison’s “Brown-eyed Girl” and Beyonce and that was fun. And then I sent him the song “Shot In The Back of the Head.” I emailed him and said, hey, if you have any footage lying around I'd love to be able to use it as a short film for this video. And about a week later he sent me the finished video that he had animated himself. And he was really happy because in doing it he had forced himself to learn the new version of Flash. So he was like, thanks for asking me because now I know how to use Flash again.
it just made me so happy to have a first single that's an instrumental that can't get played on the radio and a video that could never, ever get played on TV. And we gave it away for free. But the strangest thing about giving it away for free is it's also in the United States the best-selling song off the record. It's still available for free. Like if you go to Moby.com, it's free. But yet—and maybe this is some sort of lesson the record companies can learn—it's still the best-selling song on the record.
I just read about a study last week that showed that the people who download music off peer-to peer sites buy more music than anybody else.
This is the nice thing about having my own record label—we can give stuff away for free. It's basically making music, putting it out there, and making it available. If people want it for free, great. If they want to pay for it, fine. I don't download music for free for the simple reason it's too much work. I don't think it's unethical, I just use iTunes out of laziness. It's not that expensive and for me paying a little is worth the convenience of being able to listen to it beforehand, knowing that they're decent quality MP3s. But I'd much rather someone steal my music than not listen to it. And then there are people in the middle who do both.
I think the worst thing you can do is penalize someone. I think when the postmortem on the major labels is written at Harvard and Wharton, they're going to say okay, what mistakes did they make? One, arbitrarily overcharging for things. Two, forcing people to buy a crappy album to get the one song that you liked. Three, not letting creative artists be creative artists—you know, forcing them into little shoeboxes. And the two last ones—the way they responded to downloading was to try to do everything in a difficult, proprietary fashion. You know, like Sony saying, if you want to buy Sony music online you have to use our proprietary software, our site, our this. And why in the world would anyone do that when it's available free on a different site? You know, that idea of making it difficult for someone who wants to do the right thing was the stupidest thing they ever did. And then lastly, punishing people who want to enjoy what you make.
I interviewed the head of legal at Sony Music in 2002, so before the downfall, and it was quite clear in talking to him that basically he saw the shift to digital as—first, they had all the time in the world, and second, they had a chance to redress every issue that they wanted to redress, like the fact that radio wasn't paying them for music in the US as it does in Europe and that sort of thing. You could not have been more delusional.
My favorite moment from 2003, maybe even 2004, was talking to a friend who ran a fairly big label. They were putting out a record by one of their bigger bands and I said, what's your online strategy? And he said, oh, we're going to wait a month before we release it on iTunes. And I just looked at him, like, oh, okay. So, anybody who wants to buy this record online won't be able to.
So what’s with the Little Idiot?
Okay. In 1984 I dropped out of college—I was going to the University of Connecticut—and I started working at this record store in Darien called Johnny's. Johnny's started in the mid-'70s as a head shop, and then to try to get more legitimate they started selling records. And like 90 per cent of their business was selling Grateful Dead bootlegs. It had that weird sort of record store-head shop-bootleg smell, like that smell of black velvet Jimi Hendrix posters and bongs and whatever it was. So I worked there, and every bag that left the store had a drawing on it, so I had to start drawing. So I started drawing this little cartoon character. And then in the early '90s when I started making my own records, every now and then someone would want an autograph, and just a scribble seemed inadequate. So I started drawing these little cartoon characters in lieu of an autograph. And people liked them, so I started putting them on a T-shirt or throwing them in a music video. And the name Little Idiot came when—I guess it was 1992, I was in England and I had just put out the single “Go” and it was becoming successful. And some really tacky TV show wanted me to be on, and I said yes. And my manager at the time said, Well, if you're going to run around like a little idiot and do everything that's offered to you— And I started laughing. So that's why henceforth I had Little Idiot as my sort of alter ego know.
With this record, because it was all made at home—you know, recorded in my bedroom, the art was drawn on a kitchen counter, so I wanted the record to be—it's hard to talk about it without sounding disingenuous, because it's the same stuff that every musician says. But I wanted it to be more personal. I wanted it to be more vulnerable and more honest. I didn't want it to be intimidating. I don't like intimidating culture. And I find a lot of music and art and film and whatever intimidates me because it seems like—like so many records seem so cool. Like Animal Collective. I like some of their songs, but everything about them seems cool. Like their fans seem cool. They seem cool. Their manager seems cool. Their record art, everything about it is cool. And honestly, I’m intimidated by that. It makes me feel inadequate. Like I hear about some hip-hop artist or some new indie rock artist and it's presented as if they're cooler and better than me. And quite possibly they are. But it doesn't make me feel good. It reminds me of when I was in high school living up in Connecticut and I used to read Interview magazine when I could afford it, and it just made me feel bad about myself. I'd read these interviews with these people who had such cool lives—
Andy interviews Mick Jagger.
Yeah. In adulthood I’ve come to realize that nobody has a cool life. Everybody is scared and everybody deals with sadness and existential angst. But the way so many people are presented, it's almost like they somehow transcended that, through either innate coolness, like they're just genetically better than the rest of us, or like they're like weird Gnostics who have figured out some secret that enables them to not be affected by the doubts that rest of us have. And I love theater. I love like Mark Bolan and David Bowie—when it was theater, that's fun. But when theater is confused with an honest representation of someone—if that makes any sense.
Yeah, it does. That makes me think about your “Lift Me Up” video, which I thought was one of the—I hate to say the word, but coolest concert videos I've seen in a long time.
It was just sort of a rip off of “Smells Like Teen Spirit.” [laughs]
Actually it reminded of seeing Elvis Costello in the '70s. I was writing for the Village Voice then about music. And he had this sort of very architectural style at his shows, like punk meets Albert Speer. It was really weird. Your video reminded me also of what David Lynch said about nonlinearity, which is basically all these images flashing by that ostensibly have nothing to do with each other but—
My friend Evan made the video. I've known him forever. He lived right across the street from me, so we'd see each other in the deli. And over time he became a very accomplished video director. So I was like, oh, this is easy, I just yell across the street to Evan—Hey, Evan, want to make a video? He was used to shooting car commercials, so he took that professionalism and applied it to that concert. My only input was like, there should be random but really cool visuals going on behind us. And an enthusiastic audience.
So in your years of covering music, who stands out as being great or awful?
I covered music mainly in the '70s. I loved the Ramones. But probably the most fun piece that I did was a Brian Eno story for the Voice. I was in London doing a Bee Gees piece for Rolling Stone, which was sort of like my mercenary work, and so I tracked Eno down. He was living in Maida Vale in this modest flat. This is a couple years I guess after he had left Roxy Music.
So, like, '76—
'77, yeah. Because this was when the Bee Gees were doing Saturday Night Fever, so it was the Rolling Stone cover story. I just went back several times and spent probably five or six hours with him. It was great.
I've tried to make friends with him over the years, because actually I did one of my first ever remixes for him. And it was so intimidating because he's—I can't think of anyone who's influenced me more than him. I mean the first three Roxy Music records, his own solo records, My Life in the Bush of Ghosts, the first Devo album, the Talking Heads records he produced, and some of the stuff that he did on EG that was more experimental. And I was so intimidated. Over the years I've tried every now and then to email him, hoping he'd respond or....
How did you hook up with Ken Thomas [the producer]?
There's a stable of people who seem to work on a lot of Mute records, and Ken Thomas is one of them.
I know he had done Maps.
Maps and the Dave Gahan, the singer from Depeche Mode, his solo record. But also a lot of the really dark, weird stuff that's on Mute that no one ever buys. So it was his history with Mute working on the weird stuff. I mean if you look at his pedigree it's so strange—like everything he worked on was interesting, from the Buzzcocks to Throbbing Gristle to Sigur Ros. And I wanted the record to be mixed in a very old-fashioned way, with no digital effects—basically a quieter, more expansive record. Because I don't like the way modern records are—I sound like Grandpa Simpson. But I don't like the way modern records are recorded and mixed because there's no subtlety. Engineers have become so good that everything is mixed as loud as it can be. The kick drum, the snare drum, the high hat—it's like everything's a bombast. Even the ballads are bombastic. I get tired when I listen to those records. My favorite records, like sometimes you can barely hear the drums. Like Surrealistic Pillow by the Jefferson Airplane, or the first Doors album. That's how I wanted to approach mixing this record, and it's hard to get modern engineers to understand that—to say, you know, the guitar should only be in the right channel, and the electric piano should only be in the left channel. I don't want to prove to everybody that I can make a loud record. I just want it to be pretty and subtle and nice to listen to. And Ken really understood that.
By the way, there's this one-minute track on the new album that’s almost like an intro to “Mistake.” What's that?
That's—there are a few things on the record that are me celebrating the fact that I'm not on a major label anymore. [laughs] And realizing—you know Metal Box, Second Edition by Public Image Ltd.? My favorite song on that was “Radio Four.” It's just this quiet synth and bass thing. I just really like when musicians let themselves be weird. So I had this—a friend of mine collects Bakelite, and for her birthday I bought her an old Bakelite radio. You turned it on and it just made this sound—it didn't actually pick up any stations, it just made like the sound of broken tubes. But there was something soothing about it. So I put a microphone in front of it and put it through an old Electro-Harmonix pedal. It sounds nice to me. The same ethos as putting out “Shot In The Back of the Head” as the first single. I got quite a lot of pressure in the last few years to make creative decisions that were marketplace-friendly, and it really left a bad taste in my mouth. So having the first single on this record be a song that can't get played on the radio or on TV, and giving it away for free—it's kind of like a palate cleanser.
Have you thought about what’s next?
Well, I'm on tour 'til January. And we're putting out a deluxe edition of the album. It will be a three-CD thing—the main album with two more songs, because there were two songs that didn't feel right to me, but then I played them to my friends and they really liked them. I made an ambient version of the album. It's really pretty. It's focusing more on like the atmosphere and the orchestral bits. The whole album is remixed with almost no drums. It's really quiet. And then the DVD with the videos. So I guess you could almost call it the Director's Cut edition. Oh, that's awful. It's a deluxe version. I know maybe 500 people will want it. But it's actually quite nice, especially the ambient version. And hopefully—I want to make records until the day I die. But now part of the challenge is figuring out how to get people to hear the music. In the old days you put out a record, it appeared in Tower Records, and you hoped that people would listen to it. Now you actually have to figure out how to get the music in front of people. But I want to just really focus on trying to make a record that people will love. And I hope that if I make a record that people love, it doesn't matter how it's presented—that people will find it on their own.