"One of the nice things about the demise of the music business," says Moby, sipping tea at a sidewalk cafe in downtown Manhattan, "is that a big production doesn't matter any more. Like in 1998, it seemed the criteria for determining the worth of a music video was how big the production was. Now the only thing that matters is the idea."
We're discussing the latest video for "Mistake," a track from his Wait for Me album that's being released as a single tomorrow. The song starts off as a synth-heavy, down-tempo ballad and gradually morphs into into an all-out rocker, replete with clanging guitars and propulsive drums. With this as a backdrop, the video — which Wired is presenting today in an exclusive preview — provides an oddly touching narrative involving a lemon and a tennis ball. Made by a friend who had never picked up a videocam before, it's a sidewise tale of flotsam love that's as quirky as anything Moby has ever released.
"I just think it's — I mean, it's just adorable," he says, his face scruffed with a week's growth of salt-and-pepper beard, his baseball cap and plastic-rimmed glasses on the table before him. "But it is safe to say that when I was writing the song, I never envisioned a lemon riding a sea cucumber in search of its lost tennis-ball love."
This is the third "Mistake" video to be released, following an animation by Robert Powers, whose New York studio produced the album's promo materials, and a "paranormal video" by Yoann Lemoine, a young French director who works in New York and Paris.
"I love the idea that there's the original version and then there's all these reinterpretations," Moby says."I feel like once the song is done, you put it out there and if people want to do bizarre remixes, if people want to make strange videos, great. You know, like chaos theory applied to the music business."
This video was shot by Katie Baugh, a choreographer he met in a New York bar. "I tried to flirt with her until she told me she had a boyfriend, and I was like, okay — now we can just be friends." Later, back home in England, she started taking photos of a lemon on vacation. That's when he suggested she make the video.
"At first she was quite daunted by the idea," he adds. "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. And so she made this."
With a career that over nearly two decades has ranged from techno to ambient to disco to the chilled-out soul that made Play a multimillion-selling hit in 1999, Moby has often confounded fans and critics alike. His 2005 album Hotel was huge in Europe but was greeted with jeers in the United States. Last Night, the disco throwback he came out with last year, received equally lackluster reviews.
"I got quite a lot of pressure in the last few years to do things that were marketplace-friendly," he admits. "And it really left a bad taste in my mouth." Apparently this explains why the first single from Wait for Me, "Shot in the Back of the Head," was an instrumental — "a song that can't get played on the radio or on TV. It's kind of like a palate cleanser." Nonetheless, it's the best-selling track from the album — even though it's also available for free on his website. Of course, it didn't hurt that it was accompanied by a video from David Lynch.
Like much of the new album, "Mistake" owes an obvious debt to the post-punk sound of Joy Division, New Order and Echo & the Bunnymen — bands Moby listened to obsessively when he was growing up in Connecticut. "At some point an archetype was carved in my brain that this is what songs are supposed to sound like — they're supposed to be melodic and vulnerable and emotional," he says.
"This song in particular is looking at mistakes I've made in relationships. 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? Because in the past, I would meet someone, have nothing in common with them, have nothing to talk about, and date them for a year and a half. And after three months of realizing we had nothing in common, then we'd move in together."
"Mistake" is the only track on the album that Moby actually sings. Eight of the remaining 15 cuts are instrumentals, and one — a 55-second interlude called "Stock Radio" — is the sound of a vintage Bakelite radio that no longer works. He miked it and ran the hum it produced through an old Electro-Harmonics pedal. The result is a kind of found sound, like something you might encounter in an abandoned power station.
When he was recording the album in his Soho loft — a former abattoir in a 19th-century industrial building, with floors that slope to let the blood run out — he did the vocals for every song. Then, one by one, he approached other people to sing all the tracks except "Mistake."
"I guess I just liked the way my voice sounded on it," he says, a little defensively. "I don't have a conventionally 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. And I've realized that some of my favorite singers didn't have conventionally great singing voices either — like Ian Curtis [of Joy Division] and Lou Reed and Johnny Cash."
Somewhat bravely, given his professed vocal deficiencies, Moby is starting a five-week North American club tour on Thursday, with more dates to come. He's also planning a three-disc "deluxe edition" of Wait for Me, to be released November 24. In addition to the already-released studio album with two bonus tracks — songs "that didn't feel right to me, but then I played them to my friends and they really liked them" — it will include an ambient remix and a DVD with all the videos.
"It's actually quite nice," he says, notching up the salesmanship. "Especially the ambient version." He pauses for a moment, grimacing as a street cleaner drags a garbage can noisily down the street. "It’s really quiet." And then he takes another sip of tea.
Cross-posted from Wired/Underwire