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Trouble So Hard: Moby On His New Memoir & The 20th Anniversary Of ‘Play’
Moby is famous for two things: Making electronic music and not making electronic music. This contradiction has made for a strange career that opened electrifying raves with early floor anthems like “Go” as a DJ, before cycling through genres as disparate as ambient and punk rock not too many years later. It also serves as a fitting setup to his fifth album Play, which indeed famously turned non-electronic music—namely sampled field recordings of gospel hymns from Alan Lomax’s Sounds of the South collection—into electronic music. Several of those tracks (“Natural Blues,” “Why Does My Heart Feel So Bad?”), along with a couple that Moby sang himself (“Porcelain,” “South Side”) became huge hits all over the world.
But every one of Play’s 18 tracks (even many quiet, obscure instrumentals) was licensed for commercial use, saturating the year 1999 so effectively that the album eventually climbed to 12 million copies sold. As a result, the album crowned Moby with the best-selling electronic album of all-time.
Reading Moby’s new memoir Then It Fell Apart will tell you what a shocking turn of events this was, rising from the commercial wreckage of his 1997 hard-rock experiment Animal Rights to a surreal level of fame that involved dating Natalie Portman and beefing with Eminem. And uh, brushing against Donald Trump at parties.
The Recording Academy spoke to the man himself about how Play’s very millennial fusion of house music and gospel roots could’ve ended up sounding like Pantera, how the landmark album fits into today’s discussions of cultural appropriation and more.
Play changed your life 20 years ago; it’s the all-time best-selling electronic album. What does that mean for you?
The context was what made it so surprising. Before it was released, my career was in the toilet. The album that came out before Play, Animal Rights, had just been an across-the-board failure. Bad sales, bad reviews, no one came to the shows. My expectations, my manager’s expectations and the record label’s expectations were so low. Richard Sanders, who was running V2 [Records] at the time, said he thought that Play might sell 50,000 copies, and I scoffed at it. “Oh, it will never sell 50,000 copies.”
It’s not only the fact that it went on to sell absurdly well, but also that Play became this weird lifestyle record… the stories people told me about the ways in which they listened to it. I had people telling me that they had multiple copies of it, one for their car, one for their home, one for their parents’ home. Elton John told me he had a copy of it in every home and apartment that he had in the world.
I made it in my bedroom, it was mixed poorly. It was released at the time when Eminem and *NSync and Backstreet Boys were topping the charts. It was supposed to fail and the fact it did exactly the opposite of that was very surprising and still to this day seems anomalous. If you remove the albums Play, 18, and Hotel, my career and sales make a lot more sense. Those records really are the baffling exceptions to everything else.
You’ve said that you didn’t expect Play to do better than Animal Rights. But clearly you made a very different record from Animal Rights and making a punk album was kind of an obvious risk, no?
This might seem disingenuous or overly naïve, but I assumed all but the most conservative pop musicians made creative choices based on their enthusiasm for the music they’re making. When Joe Strummer decided to start playing reggae and hip-hop, to me, it made perfect sense. When David Bowie went from being a folk artist to a glam-rock artist to a disco artist and a new wave artist, it all seemed challenging and interesting because he was excited by these genres. Same thing when John Lennon started the Plastic Ono Band and started releasing crazy noise records, or when Lou Reed made Metal Machine Music. I thought this was part of the musician’s job description to be inspired by different genres and release records that might be challenging but were a product of that inspiration.
Yeah, but the sales figures for Metal Machine Music were very at odds with its eventual influence.
I didn’t expect Animal Rights to be successful, per se. But the fact that it was crucified and maligned was weirdly disappointing. That was sort of when the blinders came off; that even in the world of indie-rock and dance music, it was way more conservative than I thought it was. I thought that it was a critics’ job to support experimentation even if they didn’t like it, the Lester Bangs approach.
Were you specifically setting out to make a dance record again after that?
At the end of the Animal Rights tour, I was playing Glastonbury for the first time and it was grim. It was in the middle of the afternoon, I was playing in the pouring rain, there was a sea of mud in the front of the stage, the tent was maybe 20 percent full. On the tour bus, I was talking to my managers. I had just been listening to the most recent Pantera album and I told them, “So, for my next record, I want to take what I did on Animal Rights and go harder, I want to tune down the way Sepultura and Pantera are all tuning down really far and just make it as dark and hard and almost unlistenable as possible, doubling down on the aggression of Animal Rights.
And my manager Barry said something so simple: “That’s okay, but people really do like your electronic music.” If he had said “Your electronic music sells better,” the old punk rocker in me would’ve rejected it. But I suddenly realized in an almost existential way, if you’re going to release music and try to communicate with people… one, try not to waste their time and two, give them something that they can derive joy from. So in that moment, I thought, if I’m going to make super-dark death metal, I can do that on my own time. And that was what led to trying to make a more melodic electronic album.
But you also had low expectations for the sales of Play. How did you end up underestimating pop songs like “South Side”?
In some ways, that’s the weirdest song on the record because it’s not a weird song. Every other song on the record [has] something abnormal. The song “Run On” does have a verse/chorus structure, but it involves vocals that were recorded in the 1950s. “South Side” is the closest thing to a pop/rock song and as a result, I didn’t want to put it on the record. I thought that “Porcelain” and “Why Does My Heart Feel So Bad?” and “South Side” should be left off because they just didn’t feel substantial enough to me. But there was no thought of making pop music or making commercially viable music. I thought I was a has-been, I didn’t think that was even an option. Never once in the making of Play did I think that anyone would hear it or buy it.
You’d sampled before, of course, but was it a challenge to put new arrangements on an already-existing traditional song like “Run On?”
The challenge was actually more technical. This was all done pre-Pro Tools, a lot of really getting into the nuts and bolts of the Akai samplers, a little bit of time-stretching. Now in Pro Tools it would’ve been the easiest thing in the world. But back then, you had to do all your editing on the tiny little screen of an Akai sampler. When you watch an old movie, you’re just amazed at what they were able to do when they were cutting film. Making music before Pro Tools it was the same thing; it took a lot longer to get something to the place where it sounded normal.
Specifically that song “Run On” because there’s so many vocals, and obviously they did not record it to a click track, there’s no solid tempo in that song. As an engineer, that was the hardest song to make on the entire record. “Honey” was actually pretty easy because they’re clapping, which made for an ad hoc click track. And luckily, they had really good timing.
Did you struggle with worrying that you might offend the source material?
No, because I didn’t expect anyone to listen to it.
If someone had said, “You’re making an album that’s going to sell 12 million copies,” I might have given it a second thought. From the time when electronic musicians started sampling, there was only two criteria for sample-based music: Is it good? And are you gonna get sued? I’m not saying the criteria of historical sensitivity was invalid, just that it was never part of the conversation.
Of course, the world is a very different place now and people have a lot more understanding of historical sensitivity. I asked Chris Rock, “As a black man, what do you think?” And he said, “It’s good music, that’s all that matters.” I don’t know if he would feel that way today, but in 1999, that’s what he said to me at the MTV Awards.
There’s been a lot of debate about cultural appropriation in the 2010s. Has that affected your feelings about Play at all, or have you had any substantive conservations about it since then?
No. I have not. I’m not saying I shouldn’t have those conversations or that I won’t have them, but as far I know, you asking me is the closest I’ve come to a conversation about it.
In that case, any thoughts you want to share on the fly?
Culture is evolving and it’s fluid. I’m sure if I sat down with someone like Cornel West, I’m sure they’d have a different perspective on Play and I’m sure that I’d agree with their perspective.
I was in high school at the time and I remember reading press about Play summing up the century by tying those Lomax field recordings of hymns and gospel from the beginning of it, to the beats of the Y2K era. Did this future-meets-past thing ever cross your mind?
No, no. [Laughs.] There was no meta context or anything academic in the making of it. There was simply… the only way I can describe it is, like, emotional utility. Did it resonate with me emotionally? That was the sole criteria for evaluating the music when I was making the record. And we didn’t have a licensing plan. People still ask me about the licensing of Play, which seems almost like a cute nostalgic question. Now every musician in the world will bend over backwards to license their kidneys. But no, I just made a record I liked and my managers liked.
You’ve had a complicated relationship with Christianity, were the gospel samples on Play significant to you in a religious way at all?
Ahh… not in terms of any creed or dogma or denomination, just more so the human condition and emotional expression. Even “Natural Blues,” which is a lament to the divine, to me it was much more about the quality of the voice and the expression of longing and sadness in the vocals in the words, rather than trying to slot it into a Christian or secular tradition.
After reading Then It Fell Apart, the videos from this era felt a little darker to me. “South Side,” “Bodyrock” and eventually “We Are All Made of Stars” all express a kind of discomfort with the limelight.
I like being an agreeable interview subject, but the video directors made most of the creative decisions. I’d love to take credit for “South Side” and “We Are All Made of Stars,” but the director, Joseph Kahn, those are his videos.
It was just interesting that so many of them commented on fame to a degree. Even the “Natural Blues” video has this preemptive look back at your career.
You missed – which is not surprising because no one really saw it – what I think is the best of all the videos from Play, and the most entertaining look at the world of fame, “Find My Baby.” I came up with the plotline for it: “The world’s youngest boy band.” It’s a boy band throwing whiskey bottles and having debaucherous hotel times, but they’re one and a half years-old. It was released at the end of the Play album cycle so very few people saw it, but I think it’s really funny. I hadn’t really thought of it until you mentioned it, but there is a through line in those videos, criticism of the world of fame in both a lighthearted and cautionary way.
Which brings me to you and Eminem meeting at this very bizarre nexus of two different kinds of celebrity. I wanted to ask if you still have the drawing Eminem gave you of himself strangling you?
Oh yeah, of course. I framed it.
You were maybe his most bizarre target during a time when anyone was in his crosshairs. Have you come around to what he was trying to do artistically?
Honestly, I don’t know his music that well. I know the hit singles, but I’ve never delved too deep into the album tracks. It was clear to me from day one that he was very smart, very talented, and very aware. In hindsight, it sort of frustrates and saddens me that we were pitted against each other because I think our upbringings were very similar: scared kids in dysfunctional, single-parent households. I think a lot of misogyny and homophobia in popular culture comes from dumb, unevolved bigots. I don’t think Eminem is any of those things, for him it was almost like performance art. He’s certainly not the best poster child for me criticizing those things. I don’t need any more feuds, but I can think of a few thousand other musicians who are probably now wearing MAGA hats and watching Fox News, who probably made a lot more egregious music.
It’s funny that Elton John’s got your record in every property he owns, and then he’s singing with Eminem onstage at the GRAMMYs. For him, both your messages worked.
Then the Trump family appears in your memoir in random ways, particularly that “knob-touch” story. How did you end up in so many situations with the Trumps?
I grew up very, very poor. I longed for legitimacy and acceptance and validation, so in the 2000s, as I started getting invited to fancy events and parties, I jumped at the chance to ingratiate myself with wealthy New Yorkers.
But I also sort of use the Trumps as a narrative device in the book because there’s something really wrong with them. No one in the Trump family is ever allowed to serve on the board of a charity again because of the way they ran their foundation was so dishonest and so corrupt. That’s disgusting. So in an emblematic way, they’re representative of the corruption I was experiencing. The moment you say you’re at a party with Ivanka Trump and Jared Kushner, you’re establishing that things have gone terribly wrong.
You publicly stated/posted a couple years ago that you have sources who know things we don’t about Trump. Has the Mueller report illuminated any of that or is there still plenty to come?
The Mueller report isn’t even the tip of the iceberg, it’s like the picture of the hair above the tip of the iceberg. The depths of corruption regarding Trump and his businesses, his administration, his foundation, it’s so much darker. The Republicans are basically water-skiing behind the Titanic.
How did you come to receive this info?
I’m just going on what I’ve heard, that Trump was installed as a Russian asset. Among the intelligence community, that’s just a given, no one even questions that anymore.
Do you have personal ties to the intelligence community?
I don’t include this in the book, but after college I had a relationship with a woman whose father was one of the heads of the CIA and I’ve been friends with a lot of those people since then. And years of touring, you just end up meeting people on tour. I don’t know that many people in that world, but there does seem to be a complete consensus that Trump is completely corrupt and his only saving grace is that he’s dumb and incompetent and has no control over his emotions. We should all be grateful for the fact that he’s not Putin. If Trump were bright and could regulate his emotions, he would be truly terrifying.
You also find yourself talking to Putin’s daughter at one point in the memoir.
This was the mid-2000s so I had met plenty of heads of state, children of heads of state and I was also very drunk. I just thought she was very nice, this normal, soft-spoken person. Maybe in my drunken haze that wasn’t true.
Twenty years later, do you think of Play as your definitive work?
I think it’s a lovely little record. If I’m being honest, I like the second half so much more than the first. It has more depth, more nuance, more texture. When I hear songs from the first half, sure, I like some of them, but I don’t get terribly excited. “My Weakness” or some of the ones at the end, those are the ones that resonate with me a lot more on an emotional level.
Dumb question: Why did you name it Play?
It was a few things. There was a park on the corner of Spring and Mulberry that had a giant mural that read “play” and I saw it almost every day. At one point I was listening to the music in a friend’s car and I thought “Wouldn’t it be funny to name the record Play so it would be displayed on any system it was playing on.” And one of my favorite bands, Magazine, with Howard Devoto, one of the original Buzzcocks, released a live album in the ‘80s called Play, a slight homage to that title. And the fourth reason is, I have always worried and anxious and possibly taken myself too seriously and calling an album Play was a reminder to not be so dark and dour and self-involved.