When Moby first erupted onto the rave arena with the Twin Peaks-sampling “Go”, little did the world realise just how far this New Yorker would go to confound the public. From house innovator to techno punk originator, thrash metal rocker to inadvertent soundtracker and composer, Moby has travelled disparate musical terrains with an insatiable thirst for fresh sounds and spiritual energy. It’s been a long and varied journey, and one which laughs in the face of the accepted take on eclecticism. Not for Moby the safe bet. Moby, you see, is one of music’s true mavericks. Something to be cherished in the current climate of rampant mediocrity.
And yet, unlike so many artists who map out their shape shifts with a marketing executive’s eye for demographics, the genre-bending that Richard Hall (as Moby’s mom called him) has explored has been nothing if not passionate, heartfelt and honest. Far from aiming to deliberately confound his friends and fans, Moby has simply followed the signposts laid out by his own creative mind, inspired by the world he lives in.
The story of Moby we all now know. Unfortunately, most of the clichs attached to Moby – strident environmentalist, Christian, non-drinker, non-drug taker – have kind of fallen by the wayside over the last few years as his take on the world has become more and more ambiguous. He is as engaging a conversationalist as you’re likely to meet; neither po-faced nor dogmatic in his beliefs, he is quite unlike the vast majority of the stars from the entire lexicon of rock’n’pop’n’techno. In other words, he is genuinely interesting. But then he could hardly fail to be when you consider his background.
Born in New York and raised in Connecticut, Moby’s father died when he was only two. Subsequently he was brought up by his mother, an open-minded woman who encouraged Moby to pursue whatever creative avenues appealed to him. By the time Moby was ten he was actively learning classical guitar, something which held him in good stead for the punk explosion which attracted him in his teens. By his twenties he had been involved in bands as disparate as speed metal kids The Vatican Commandos, anarchist noise combo Flipper and critically acclaimed 4AD band Ultra Vivid Scene.
With Moby’s love of new in music it was inevitable that he would be drawn to the house scene in the late 80s. His early singles were staples of the rave scene, with “Go” storming the top ten in the UK. With 1995’s “Everything is Wrong” album – his first true long player, the previous releases being little more than collections – he could be found pouring the styles that he’d grown up with into a hybrid of house, rock, hardcore, thrash and jungle, all laced with more than a touch of drama. The singles “Hymn”, “Feeling So Real” and “Everytime You Touch Me” revealed Moby’s ability to create uniquely moving music.
With Moby’s appearance playing on 1995’s Lollapallooza came the realisation that he had eschewed his dance roots and gone back to the hardcore thrash punk of his youth. A tryptych composed of industrial punk, speedcore and heartbreaking instrumentals, the following year’s “Animal Rights” album was a stab in the back for purism of any kind. “It was an intentionally abrasive, misanthropic record.” he recalls. Around the same time he also released “The End Of Everything”, an album of breathtaking synthetic orchestrations, under the pseudonym Voodoo Child.
In 1997 Moby released “I Like to Score”, a compilation of some of the many of his tracks which have been used in movies. Among these was the breakbeat-driven version of the universally recognisable “James Bond Theme”, a single which not only represented Moby ‘s return to the dance arena but also hinted at a new-found love of hip hop, a genre explored in a little more relaxed way on his latest opus “Play”.
As you would expect, the release of “Play” heralds yet more musical exploration from the man who gained his monicker thanks to being a direct descendant of “Moby Dick” author Herman Melville. Almost twelve months in the making, “Play” is a downtempo affair which is perhaps his most cohesive album to date.
“I suppose the genesis of this record can be found on the downtempo tracks on ‘Everything is Wrong'” he explains. “With ‘Everything is Wrong’ it was me bringing in all of the styles and sounds that I was into in a wildly eclectic way. With this album I wanted things to hang together far more naturally.”
If “Play” were a theatrical performance it would be in three acts. Act one finds Moby building his music around field recordings of indigenous black music from the early 20th century. Act two features Moby himself on vocal duties. The final act is represented by the quietly reflective instrumental tracks. The glue that holds the entire performance together is provided by the breaks of hip hop (“I listen to a lot of commercial hip hop like Jay-Z, Noriega, Timbaland, and Busta Rhymes”). Fear not because the overall effect is often moving, occasionally spooky and always breathtaking.
“The field recordings were made by a folk historian called Alan Lomax who, along with his father, amassed a huge catalogue of indigenous field recordings in the early part of the twentieth century. When I first heard these recordings I was so moved by them. These wonderful vocals became the starting points for my music.”
Interesting that, at a time when millennial fever has so many people running to their 70s and 80s records for inspiration, Moby has found it lurking in obscure recordings from the beginning of the century. These tapes held all of the energy that originally drew him to both punk and rave.
Moby’s use of these field recordings was heralded by the release of “Honey” in September ’98. A swaggering slice of b-boy swamp blues, “Honey” received accolades throughout the media with NME calling it “a sparkling diamond” while The Guardian described it as “joyous, hypnotic, romping blues”.
With “Honey” Moby set the scene for the astonishing bride-stripped-bare minimalist blues of “Play”. And, as is the norm for the man who is occasionally known as Little Idiot, he plays all of the instruments himself.
“I was playing the album to one of my friends and he asked me who the drummer was. When I said it was me he was amazed.”
He plays everything from classical guitar to Roland 303, he’s played everything from thrash metal to hands in the air techno, he’s remixed everyone from Michael Jackson to Metallica, and he’s turned down production offers from Hole and Guns ‘n’ Roses. One thing is certain about Moby : he can still surprise. With “Play” Moby has delivered another stunning head turner. And the best bit is, you get the feeling that there’s still so much more to come from NYC’s favourite maverick.