Moby's got a brand new bag

The hit artist emerges from sound-effects and samples on new, emotionally charged disc


Musician Moby poses in the Lower Eastside neighborhood of New York last month.

The Associated Press
Published: Friday, April 1, 2005 at 12:23 p.m.
Last Modified: Friday, April 1, 2005 at 12:23 p.m.

People who view Moby as a techno artist might be startled upon hearing his new double-disc "Hotel." The crisp guitars, haunting piano and Moby's own warbling voice on emotive songs certainly don't fit his image, that of a cutting-edge disc jockey using electronic wizardry to make alluring dance music.

But they might be even more startled to hear that Moby - whose electronica-based grooves on "Play" established him as chart-topping artist and an unofficial spokesman for the genre - doesn't even consider techno music his milieu.

"I thought it was kind of interesting in that Eminem song `Without Me,' when he said no one listens to techno," Moby said, recalling the rapper's infamous Moby dis. "(But) I haven't made a techno name under my name in about 13 years. I like techno music but I wouldn't call my music techno music.

"Most musicians pick a genre, and stick with it. In the course of my life, I've written classical music for movies, I've made punk-rock music, I've made quiet ballads; I've done so many different types of music and had such an eclectic career, I think it confuses people, because most musicians are pretty easy to understand," he says.

"Hotel" may make it even harder to understand Moby, from a musical perspective. The sample-free album contains some of his most organic music to date, and he describes it as his most personal record, filled with lyrics about frayed relationships (the 39-year-old bachelor says he and his latest girlfriend are reassessing their union).

"The lyrics that he's written are very brilliant and personal," says Laura Dawn, the cultural director for the politically leftist group MoveOn.org and a close friend, who is the female voice heard on the album.

"You can really hear the emotion in his voice and in the lyrics. I think that's the biggest difference. `Play' is brilliant production, but you don't have those personal lyrics. ... He's really pushing himself artistically into a new realm, and pretty successfully."

Still, fans of the outspoken, balding, bespectacled star need not fret - he sound hasn't changed THAT much. The second part of the double-disc has its electronica side, a chill-out component that fans of his ambient music may be more comfortable with. And while he might not consider himself a techno artist, he still made an underground techno music album, "Voodoo Child," just last year (though he wasn't credited on the disc).

And, despite the mainstream success he enjoyed with "Play," and "18," he still relishes being very much out of the mainstream - from his ultraliberal politics ("I think that America collectively as a nation has its priorities so screwed up," he says adamantly) to his criticism of pop ("mainstream music is very much the domain of compromise").

Even his entree into the restaurant world is off-center; the tiny vegetarian eatery and tea shop called teany sits on an unassuming block in his neighborhood on New York's Lower East Side. The shop is also the subject of a new humorous recipie/essay/advice book he penned with Kelly Tisdale, his ex-girlfriend and co-creator of teany.

"The big difference of what I do with teany and what a lot of celebrities do is teany is really small and humble," he says, sitting in teany. "I thought it would be a lot nicer to open a little restaurant in my neighborhood I could actually go to."

While Moby's disdain for the celebrity world is apparent now, back when he basked in the huge success of "Play" - the album that made him and his music ubiquitous - he wasn't quite so conflicted. It was pretty standard to see Moby on the red carpet, hobnobbing with other celebrities, going to the exclusive parties, with gossip page mentions.

Moby admits for a while, he thoroughly enjoyed it.

"Fame, it can be kind of fun. It's nice to be able to call up and get a table at the last minute," he says. "But fame as an institution can be very corrosive and very corruptive, and it's not something I want to involve myself in too much.

"I had an epiphany a few years ago where I was out at a celebrity party and it suddenly dawned on me that I had yet to meet a celebrity who is as smart and interesting as any of my friends."

Fame has also changed his views on the success of his albums. Now that he's had hit albums to his credit, he's not interested in trying to replicate those sales.

"I learned in the last few years that it's really unhappy and really unsustainable to try and base your well being on something as arbitrary as record sales, and critical acclaim, and the interests of the public," he says. "All of those things are so fickle. So my approach now to music is I want to make records that I love, and I hope that other people love them, then that's OK."

He's particularly critical of what he considers the manufactured pop stars, bemoaning that music no longer is the focal point of upcoming artists.

"It just seem like musicians want to sell a few records and put out a perfume line, and I think it's so sad that there are so many musicians who don't want to change the world," he says, frustration clear in his voice. "Music has been so much more."

Even his former "South Side" duet partner, Gwen Stefani, doesn't escape scrutiny from Moby: "Her solo album, it's a good record. The truth is it probably would have been a much better record if she had written it and produced it herself."

Still, for all his criticisms, Moby hasn't extricated completely himself from mainstream pop. After all, didn't he help produce the last album from the artist considered one of pop's most manufactured - Britney Spears?

Though some might see that as an example of selling out, Moby sees his involvement as a way to improve pop's sorry state.

"There's a part of me that wants to just go off and make really obscure records," he says. "But if I make more acceptable records, it means I get to be a part of this dialogue, and try in my own small way to make the world of popular music a little better - which sounds presumptuous, but, otherwise, if the U2s and the Coldplays and the Radioheads of the world stop making great records, then we're left to the generic, formulaic, compromised crap that we all have to listen to on the radio."

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