“I never expected to have a career as a musician,” says Moby.
Richard Melville Hall is being amiable and candid about life as a star.
“I thought that professional musicians were other people,” he says. “I thought I was going to spend my life teaching in a community college, working in a bookstore and making music that no-one listened to.”
Instead, Moby has sold more than 20 million records and is touring the U.S. in support of his album “Destroyed.” I catch up with him just before the end of the European section: Moby is sitting in a hotel suite in Knightsbridge, London.
In his concerts, rave anthems with firecracker beats catch the excitement of the best nightclubs. The soundscapes are recreated by a live band, the vocal samples of the originals given a brighter life courtesy of a flesh-and-blood singer.
Melville Hall, 46, says he is related to Herman Melville and took his stage name from the writer’s fictional whale. His first hit was “Go” in 1991, which used a simple sample of Angelo Badalamenti’s “Laura Palmer’s Theme” from Twin Peaks.
“I really like simplicity,” Moby acknowledges. “Nothing makes me happier than when I can write a song that only has one or two chords in it, because it seems like a fantastic affront to all that complicated music theory I was brought up with.”
In 1996, “Animal Rights” explored his roots in punk rock. “No one liked it,” says the star, adjusting the spectacles on his bare head. “We played concerts to 20 people a night. By the late ‘90s I was essentially a ‘has been.’”
One More Album
Daniel Miller, the head of Mute Records, Moby’s label, encouraged him to make one more album.
“I made this weird lo-fi obscure record,” says Moby, wearing a black tee-shirt and jeans. “I started looking at going back to school and figure what sort of job I should get.”
That weird record, “Play,” mixed downtempo electronica with scratchy samples from the Alan Lomax folk archives. Gradually, it started to sell and has now passed 10 million.
“All of a sudden I was playing to 10,000 people and being invited to crazy celebrity parties, drinking too much, doing a lot of drugs and going to red-carpet events,” recalls Moby. “It took me a while to realize I really didn’t enjoy it.”
At the height of his fame, he bought a compound in upstate New York, put in a disco and a spa and held wild parties. It has since been sold. “That abject pursuit of debauchery and degeneracy, I’m not constitutionally capable of it.”
He attracted criticism because all the tracks on “Play” were licensed to advertisements -- many for cars, seemingly at odds with his environmental views.
Moby points out that many publications that attacked him relied on the same advertisers. “I realized it would be more interesting to take their money and give it to environmental organizations.”
These days, he is more relaxed. He talks engagingly about politics, aesthetics and the perils of the rock lifestyle.
The deluxe version of “Destroyed” comes with a book of his photographs, mostly taken on tour. He is wary of pinpointing what makes a good image, arguing that this is subjective.
“A grandmother looking at a terrible photograph of her grandchild is going to think it’s the greatest ever taken,” he says. “She’s not going to notice the composition or the lighting. All she is going to know is that it is her grandson.”
Moby is a classic backroom boy, who has what Frank Zappa called “studio tan.” He’s also an insomniac who recorded most of “Destroyed” in the middle of the night. It is full of big chord sequences, easy-on-the-ear electronics, and a warm, fuzzy tone, because he decided to work with old analog equipment.
“I just ended up with a more idiosyncratic and vulnerable record,” he says. “At this point I’m not interested in making pop songs, getting commercial radio play or record sales. I am interested in trying to make music that I really, really love.”
The Moby tour continues with dates in Seattle (Sept. 30), Mexico City, Montreal, Toronto, New York, Washington and ending in Asheville on Oct. 28.
“Destroyed” is on Little Idiot/Mute priced about $12 or 8 pounds for the standard edition or about $16/ 17 pounds for the hardback book version. Download fees vary across services.
(Robert Heller is a music critic for Muse, the arts and leisure section of Bloomberg News. The opinions expressed are his own. This interview is adapted from a longer conversation.)