A Fish Tale

Instead of capitalizing on the electronica craze, Moby is going his own way.

When dance-music innovator Moby was first profiled here ("The Beat Goes On," January 20, 1993), what is now called electronica was about as commercial as tainted beef. The rave scene was flowering, and techno--a now-outmoded handle--was gaining greater popularity within the club and party scenes. But beyond this relatively small community, it was virtually invisible. "There's been an underground electronic dance movement in the States since 1990," Moby notes. "But the problem was that the people who were going out never bought records, so no one in the music business was aware of it."

They're aware of it now. For the past year or so, heavyweights at MTV and beyond have been trying to reverse the slump in which the industry has been mired by spinning electronica into gold. At this point, it's clear that the attempt to fill the trend vacuum by manufacturing one of their choosing has not succeeded on a large scale. Although Prodigy's latest CD, The Fat of the Land, has gone double-platinum, it's virtually the only example of the genre on the Billboard 200, a roster of the nation's top-selling albums. Still, the publicity barrage unleashed in support of the music has certainly had a measurable impact. Acts such as the Chemical Brothers and the Crystal Method have gained substantial followings; the Orb and other veteran outfits are gaining recognition for their noteworthy accomplishments; and performers from U2 to David Byrne are acknowledging the freshness of the style in time-honored fashion--by ripping it off.

And Moby? His was one of the first faces folks in this country were able to put on the electronic approach. But rather than repeat himself all the way to the bank, he has followed a quixotic creative path. He's made some great dance music, sure, but he's also dabbled in ambient, heavy metal and even punk, often to the detriment of his career. "Because I've been making music since I was nine years old and I've played so many different things, I don't really have any built-in restrictions for the types of music I like to play." He pauses before noting with a laugh, "I'm not saying that's a good thing. I think it definitely makes me a very frustrating musician to pay attention to."

Moby's latest disc, I Like to Score, illustrates this contention nicely. The twelve tracks do have something in common: They appeared previously in motion pictures such as Cool World, The Saint, Joe's Apartment, Heat and Double Tap. But aside from their pedigree, they are a widely varied lot. The opener, "Novio," is a quiet fragment accented by choral vocals; "Go," a remix of one of Moby's earliest DJ faves, is dark but propulsive (it utilizes portions of "Laura Palmer's Theme" from Twin Peaks); "Ah-Ah" is wild and occasionally atonal; the title track is funky in an early-Seventies way; and "New Dawn Fades," a Joy Division cover, is yelping art rock filtered through a heavy-metal prism. But this idiosyncratic blend is not willfully abrasive. "James Bond Theme (Moby's Re-version)," which is being tied into Tomorrow Never Dies, the upcoming Pierce Brosnan explosion-fest, accents composer Monty Norman's familiar strain with speech samples (a couple of lines from Goldfinger appear), brassy horns and appropriate wah-wahs. These elements combine in a manner that's pure fun--which Moby hasn't been very often of late.

So accessible is "Bond," in fact, that cynics may see it as a bid for, of all things, a Top 40 breakthrough. A strong argument can be made in favor of this conclusion. After electronica entered the mass marketplace, sales expectations began to rise for everyone in the field--Moby included. But he insists that he received no pressure from his record company to become more profitable. "Elektra's a strange company. They make their money off their R&B and hip-hop artists, and that kind of subsidizes the rest of us." If anyone made the decision to make something that might appeal to tastemakers at FM stations, he implies, it was him. "I hope it does well," he says about the "Bond" effort. "That's what they're taking to radio, and we've made a video that's getting played on MTV. It's certainly a far way off from being a hit single right now, but it would be nice. I've had successful records and hit singles in most other countries in the world, but never here.

"I think back to when I was fourteen or fifteen years old--and the only way I could be exposed to culture was through the media. So I don't really feel that what I do is esoteric or that I need to preserve it for the intelligentsia. I'm a populist."

As his chosen moniker suggests, Moby wouldn't mind being a big fish in the musical pond. Born Richard Melville Hall, he is a distant relative of author Herman Melville, whose signature work, Moby Dick, is honored by Moby's nickname. As a teenager, he learned to play jazz and classical music on guitar but subsequently drifted in a more aggressive direction. He was a member of punk bands such as the Vatican Commandos during the Eighties, turning to dance music only toward the decade's end. His leap to the top of the rave pantheon was shockingly sudden; for many, he became the format's great white hope. The pressures he felt because of this responsibility were tangible--and on January 25, 1993, during a gig at Boulder's Fox Theatre that was opened by Prodigy, they boiled over.

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