A Fish Tale
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.
The problems at the concert, which Moby refers to as "the worst show of my entire life," began many hours before he was scheduled to appear. "We were on a bus from Tulsa to Boulder, and our bus broke down," he recalls. "So we sat in a cornfield for six hours and then got on another bus and chartered a private plane that flew us to Boulder. So we got there, and the Prodigy played their set and it was fine. But then I started playing my set, and the monitors weren't working. And when we stopped and tried to fix the monitors, everything at the front of the stage stopped working. Then the microphones stopped working, too, and everything that could break down did break down. And I felt that the members of the local crew were about as unhelpful as they could possibly be. So I lost my temper backstage and ended up breaking a mirror and insulting the local crew, who then just turned everything off in the middle of one of my songs.
"The promoter and whoever else was involved responded to all of this kind of histrionically. The only thing I did was break a mirror, and they were threatening to throw me in jail--and one guy broke a beer bottle and tried to attack me with it. There was this guy and five or six huge bouncers threatening me and attacking me. And I'm five-foot-eight and 130 pounds. The balance of power was a little skewed in their favor." As he remembers it, he was allowed to leave only after one of his representatives paid an inflated price to replace sound gear that he did not harm.
Predictably, the folks at the Fox have a considerably different memory of the situation. In the February 3, 1993, Feedback, which covered the altercation, Mike Johnson, who co-promoted the date via his Poor Boy Productions firm, pinned the blame for the troubles firmly on Moby. "He was saying really rotten things to the sound guys," Johnson asserted at the time. "Instead of dealing with the situation, which was that there was no time to do a sound check, he kicked over his music stand, threw a bunch of microphones around and broke about $2,600 worth of equipment. And he was on the mike saying, 'If I were you people, I'd ask for my money back.'" He added, "At around 2:30, I saw [Fox co-owner Dickie Sidman] run past me saying, 'He just kicked in one of my monitors. That's it.' And he cut the power." Cheryl Ligouri, speaking for the Fox, confirmed that Moby's tour manager was forced to write a check to compensate the venue for damages. "They didn't have any choice, because we weren't going to let them leave."
Today, the Fox's Don Strasburg admits that Sidman, who died in 1995, waved a broken beer bottle at Moby, but he feels that the performer was never in any real danger. Moreover, he insists that Moby broke thousands of dollars' worth of sound-system accoutrements in the midst of his tantrum--a charge that Moby strongly denies.
"I'm not saying I'm innocent of everything," he says. "I got emotional because things weren't working. But these people were bullies, and what they did reeks of what bullies do, which is blaming somebody else for their problems. So it was a situation where everyone was sort of guilty. But I try very hard not to bear ill will toward people. I don't really see the point in holding grudges or being upset about things that have happened in the past. It doesn't serve any purpose. I want to look forward, not back."
In conversation, Moby seems utterly incapable of provoking such chaos. His speaking voice is small, even timid-sounding at times. And although he grows intense when discussing topics about which he feels strongly, such as the destruction of the environment and the irresponsibility of many right-wing religious organizations, this "lover of Christ" (his words) is unfailingly polite and reluctant to judge others who believe in the live-and-let-live doctrine. "My ethical understanding of the world is pretty much whatever an individual wants to do to him- or herself, that's really their choice. So if they want to take drugs, if they want to kill themselves, if they want to get tattoos and piercings, that's their choice. And if it involves other people, as long as it's consenting, the state should not be allowed to intervene. As long as no one is hurt, it's fine."
A similarly freewheeling aesthetic infuses Moby's approach to music. "Five years ago I felt much more of an allegiance to the world of electronic dance music than I do now," he concedes. "I like it, but I've never really seen any reason to like one thing to the exclusion of anything else. Just because I like techno or electronic dance music doesn't mean that I don't also love classical music and punk rock and folk music and jazz--and I do. And to be honest, I don't really like one more than the other."
For proof, look no further than Moby's Elektra catalogue. Everything Is Wrong, his impressive 1995 debut for the company, included plenty of wonderfully invigorating dance beats, but they shared space with alternately somber or uplifting mood pieces and nasty guitar riffing that was pure rock and roll. The following year he took an even greater risk by issuing Animal Rights, which put electronica on the back burner in favor of punk and metal that proved far clunkier and radically less imaginative than his dance-music output. Listeners and critics alike were united in their revulsion for the disc--reactions that disappointed the man who created it. "I kind of hoped that people would evaluate the record on its own merits and put it in a broader context. But because it wasn't what people expected at all and it was in a style that most music journalists despise, they just couldn't deal with it. Afterward I realized that when people get confused, they don't become reflective; they become reactionary."
Such folks will likely be relieved to discover that the next Moby disc, due in September 1998, won't be as homogenous as its studio predecessor. "It's very, very eclectic," he says. "It'll have some dance things on it, some instrumentals, maybe one or two punk rock songs. I don't feel the need to make another record like the last one--something that's self-indulgent and difficult. To an extent, I got that out of my system."
Not entirely, though. Moby is not going to produce the next record by Guns N' Roses, as has been long-rumored, because of schedule conflicts, but he expects to help out here and there; he describes the legendarily volatile Axl Rose as "a very smart, aware, sensitive person who I get along with very well." And while he isn't preparing Animal Rights II, he declares that he continues to love punk and metal--"so that definitely will be part of what I do." But for the moment, he's pleased to be a dance man again--and happy that electronica is finding a larger audience.
"My perspective on the world of electronic dance music has always been formed by traveling around the world, where it's already part of the mainstream," he says. "So it doesn't really surprise me that America is finally catching on. I'm only surprised that it's taken this long."
Moby, with Juno Reactor and Skwidboy. 8 p.m. Friday, November 28, Boulder Theater, 2032 14th Street, $12.60-$14.70, 830-
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