Embracing Idiosyncratic Weirdness

September 9, 2013

Since he moved to Los Angeles two and a half years ago, Moby has been documenting the “strange and beautiful architecture in Los Angeles.” During a recent visit to Chicago, Iker Gil and Andrew Clark met with him to know more about his relationship to L.A. as well as how cities are evolving, his love for emptiness, and his view on creativity and ownership.


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Brisbane, 2010. © Moby.

IG: You lived in New York for twenty years, then moved to Los Angeles two and a half years ago. Can you describe your relationship with those cities and the way New York influences the way you see L.A.?

Moby: I was born in New York City, and grew up in New York and Connecticut, just outside New York. So, in some ways, from an architectural perspective, I only had two environments growing up and they were very cohesive. One was suburban Connecticut and everything there looks like suburban Connecticut with colonial houses, very cohesive. Going to the city, everything in New York looks like New York. It was all really cohesive, and with that there’s a lot of predictability. Going to a Connecticut town, you knew exactly what you were going to get. Before you even got there you knew how things were going to be laid out, what the stores were going to be, what the houses were going to look like. In New York, it was exactly the same thing: you knew what it was going to smell like… everything about it was familiar. Two and a half years ago I moved to Los Angeles and L.A. is the exact opposite. There is no cohesion, no predictability; everything architectural and design-wise is completely arbitrary. That makes it really interesting, but also makes it very confusing.

IG: Do you relate to New York in a different way now that you live in L.A.?

Moby: What happens now is that cities become victims of their own success. To an extent, I feel that this is starting to happen in Chicago, perhaps at a slower pace than in other cities like New York, London, Paris, Sidney, or San Francisco, cities everyone in the world wants to be in and, as a result, people move there for the caricature of the city. Suddenly, wealthy people move there and they want the city to stay exactly as it is, and it almost becomes like a necropolis, or like a museum. In a sad, melodramatic way, it heralds when the city stops breathing. I feel like that’s what unfortunately has happened to New York. It feels like it’s a city of voyeurism. People who are not born in New York come to New York to look around, which is great because it’s a beautiful city, but I feel people are not contributing to it anymore, not in the way that I feel people were in the 60s, 70s, 80s and into the 90s. Then people would come to New York and be like, “Oh, rent is cheap, I can live here, what kind of weird thing can I do?” Now people move to New York thinking, “We need to preserve this museum of the city exactly as it is and get rid of the unseemly bits and make the nice parts even nicer.”

IG: Similar to Venice in Italy.

Moby: Yeah. Last time I was in Venice, it made so sad. I just thought, “I wish I had a time machine to go back to Venice 300 years ago,” when it was this vibrant, dynamic city that was the product of the people who lived there. Now Venice is a museum. It’s beautiful, unspeakably beautiful, but with no organic life. That’s one of the reasons why I moved from New York to L.A., because L.A. almost has too much organic life. It’s the weirdest urban environment in the western world that I know of.

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Chicago, 2008. © Moby.

IG: You mentioned Chicago earlier and you have been in this city many times. Your song “South Side” was inspired by that part of town. Have you had time to experience the city and its architecture?

Moby: I am not saying this because I am here, but in a way, Chicago is like a perfect hybrid of a city. On the one hand, it has the beautiful iconic elements that New York or Paris have, the things that you can go and take pictures of. But also, because it’s not so expensive, it enables people to live in a very natural way. Most big cities have lost that. San Francisco has lost that. New York has lost that. London has lost that. Paris has lost it. Certainly people live there and do great things, but those cities mainly exist for the very wealthy who just want things to be pretty, where I think Chicago has the wealthy parts where people want it to be pretty and there are surrounding parts where actually almost anybody can afford to live. L.A. only has the affordable part without the conventional urban environment.

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New York, 2010. © Moby.

IG: Among others, you have lived in an abandoned factory in Stamford, Connecticut, the El Dorado, an apartment in Little Italy, and an art-deco apartment on the Upper West Side (all three in NYC), a house you built in upstate in New York, and currently in a 1927 house with a 1962 John Lautner guesthouse. Quite a variety. What is it that attracts you to a place that makes you want to call it home?

Moby: My approach to space, to architecture, to home is almost reductionist, the reductionist values or qualities that someone wants in a home. To me they come down to light, quiet, lack of bugs, space, and access to interesting things. Those are the big ones. For example, I lived in an abandoned factory for a few years and it had such great light, such a great space, that I was really happy there. It was in a crack neighborhood, I didn’t have running water… but because the light and space were amazing, it was wonderful. I lived in other places that ostensibly were a lot nicer, but didn’t have basic light and space and, even though they were expensive and fancy, they felt terrible. When you are on tour, you are in a different hotel room every day. That provides this basis of comparison for what works and what doesn’t, and what works are the basics. For example, I stayed at this one hotel in London called The Hempel Hotel and it was excessively minimalistic. They put me in this very expensive, very fancy room, but it gave me panic attacks. It had tiny windows, relatively low ceilings and it was so minimal that it felt like hell. But people would stay there because it was in a nice part of town, it had a good name attached to it, and it was expensive. But it didn’t have those basics of light and space. It’s one of the reasons why I like the early modernists. They were really trying to figure out how they could craft a great domestic environment to meet people’s basic needs for light and space. When I lived in a very fancy art deco building, it was beautiful, but I was a little happier in my abandoned factory, because of the light and space.

IG: In a previous issue of MAS Context, we discussed the topics of ownership and creativity with Kirby Ferguson, the author of “Everything is a Remix.” He mentioned that the goal of his series is to illustrate that feelings of absolute ownership over a creation are illusory and he argues that Copy, Transform and Combine are the key ingredients of creativity. What’s your take on creativity and ownership?

Moby: Well, it’s interesting. A friend of mine is a painter, and now he takes his own photographs and paints those photographs. But for a while, he was painting other people’s photographs. He would take four photographs, in Photoshop make a collage of them, and then paint that. And, he would get sued for it. In one of the lawsuits, a photographer took a picture of a street scene, my friend painted that street scene, and the photographer sued him. But the fascinating thing is that the photographer was just documenting something that already existed and, in the picture, there were tons of copyrights: a Nike hat, an Adidas shoe, and those types of things. The photographer didn’t get sued by Nike or Adidas but the photographer who documented copyrighted material sued my friend for painting a document of copyrighted material. I understand the propensity that people have towards ownership. Sometimes ownership has a very specific utility that enables you to make money and pay the rent. But it’s also the compulsion that we all have to justify our own significance. To say, “I did this.” And it’s really hard to be able to step back and say, “No, I facilitated its creation, but I certainly didn’t make it.”

IG: It is also how much you are pushing it forward, how you take the original work to another level. The new work has its own identity.

Moby: Yes. It’s funny because in the course of my work, all I have tried to do is music that I love and I don’t really care what elements are involved. It’s almost going back to the beginning, when we were talking about domestic space. All I want is my music to satisfy some basic emotional criteria. Sometimes that means that I sing a song, sometimes it means I use vocal samples, sometimes someone else sings… I don’t care who sings as long as it has an emotional quality to it. I have sampled a lot of other people, but I haven’t sampled just for the sake of sampling. I have sampled because I want interesting music elements in my work. I clearly can’t take 100% ownership if I sample something. And I have been criticized for this. Anybody who samples gets criticized by other people who say, “That’s not original.” I was a philosophy major and I love logic, and a big part of philosophy is applying scrutiny to logic and say, “Does you argument hold up under scrutiny?” Nobody’s arguments hold up under scrutiny. It’s almost too easy poking holes in most conventional arguments. But the argument here is that if you make a record that samples a vocal, someone says to you, “Oh, that’s not your creation.” They’re right, but then if you make a record that uses synthesizers, drums, computers… that’s not your creation either. You didn’t make the synthesizer, you didn’t make the drums, you didn’t make the guitars, you didn’t make the microphones… how can you then claim ownership? You’ve used other people’s creation to make your own creation. How can someone say, “this is 100% mine”?

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New York, 2009. © Moby.

IG: Are you creatively satisfied?

Moby: I love that I have been able to spend my life making music. Some of the music I have made I like, some of it I always think could be better. I just finished making my next record [Innocents] and I like it but, of course, I think certain songs could be mixed better, I could have written a more interesting chorus… Almost every piece of music that I have made serves as an opportunity for me to be self-critical. I like it but, at the same time, there is always that critical voice.

IG: Is there any other field that you would like to explore?

Moby: Like everybody else on the planet I’d love to be a film director. Once I heard an interview with David Lynch where he was talking about the magic of movies. And he is absolutely right. To go into a dark space and have this audiovisual experience that has been crafted and giving yourself over fully to it, it’s just such an immersive experience that there’s a part of me that would love to play around with that more.

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New York, 2007. © Moby.

AC: In your album “Destroyed,” accompanying a photo of New York, you write, “I really like cities where there’s no trace of the people who actually live there.” Can you elaborate on that?

Moby: Part of it is that I’ve always loved, as silly as this might sound, emptiness in almost any form. Conventionally and collectively we all agree that certain empty spaces are special: an empty gothic cathedral, an empty monastery, an empty concert hall… everybody walks in and says, “What a beautiful empty space.” But going back to the idea of rudiments, every empty space does the exact same thing. It’s just that most empty spaces have not been sanctioned in the way a monastery has been sanctioned. What I especially love, and am baffled by, and sort of freaked out by, are completely artificial empty spaces. When you walk into an old monastery, there is stone, there is wood… there are some natural elements. But if you are in an airport at 2 o’clock in the morning and it’s completely empty, there is not a single living thing there. It’s a vacuum. I think that it’s fascinating that, as a species, that’s our penultimate accomplishment: creating lifeless spaces.

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Los Angeles, 2011. © Moby.

AC: Continuing with this idea of emptiness, there is another photo in “Destroyed,” this time of a hallway in Los Angeles, that is defined as “the world’s best hallway.” I am curious to know what defines the world’s best hallway?

Moby: Transitional spaces that almost nobody pays attention to. Yesterday I was in LAX, and United in LAX has two terminals with an enclosed walkway that connects them. There were people sitting there because there are outlets, and it felt so weird to see people sitting in this transitional space. Normally, transitional spaces are just ignored and people hurry through them to get from one place to the next. The utility of a transitional space is how effectively it enables people to move from one place to another. Nobody pays attention to it except for, is it wide enough? Is it well-lit? Does it smell funny? It’s almost the fact that we ignore these spaces that make them so interesting.

IG: A lot of your music is about creating a specific atmosphere. How is that compromised or challenged by the idea that people can be listening to your music with an iPod on the train, in a stadium at one of your concerts, or in their house in a more controlled environment? Does that challenge how you think about your music?

Moby: I haven’t read it in a long time, but at the very end of the Herman Hesse book Steppenwolf, if I remember correctly—and I probably don’t—it has this hallucination where he meets Mozart. He meets Mozart and there is a Mozart concerto playing on a crummy little radio. It’s a bad version of this concerto playing on a terrible radio and the Steppenwolf is very angry. I think that in the book the Steppenwolf is quite controlling. But Mozart is in the room laughing and I think the Steppenwolf says to Mozart, “How can you laugh at his travesty?” And Mozart basically says, “You know, life is complicated. Life is messy, to pretend otherwise is to drive yourself crazy.” I feel that way about making music now. You do the best you can, you put it out into the world and, once it’s out in the world, what happens is not up to me. In the analog age, it was very easy to control how people bought and experienced your work. If someone wanted to hear your record, they had to go buy it. You could control that experience. Then, they would take it home and they would listen to it on their stereo. Most musicians thought, “Well, people’s home stereos are similar to the environment where the record was mixed, therefore I am ok with it.” But now people don’t pay for music and they listen to it anywhere. Musicians are driven insane by this. Some musicians will say, “There is only one right way to listen to this.” My perspective is, “The world is messy.” A friend of mine was listening to Led Zeppelin’s greatest hits on her iPhone speaker and my first thought was, “What a travesty!” And then I was like, “It actually sounds pretty good.” It’s amazing that we can still have an emotional experience to music coming from a tiny tiny tiny little speaker. So my response is, I don’t worry about it. With so much music in the world, with literally hundreds of millions, if not billions, of pieces of recorded music out there, if someone would ever take the time to listen to one of mine, I certainly can’t criticize them for the way in which they listen to it. If they steal it and listen to it on an iPhone speaker, at least they are listening to my music.

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Moby during our interview, Chicago, 2013. © David Schalliol.

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Moby during our interview, Chicago, 2013. © David Schalliol.

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Moby during our interview, Chicago, 2013. © David Schalliol.