Media Diet: Moby

“I applaud musicians who imbue their work with a political view, but most of their politics are simplistic and naive.”Moby first made his mark in the early-’90s techno music scene, supplying rhythms for ravers and dance-clubbers across the United States and Europe. But the artist soon expanded his ambitions, injecting elements of punk, classical, gospel, and pop into his electronically sampled, hodgepodge compositions. His latest album, Play, goes even further, drawing some of its source material from the African American songs preserved by legendary archivist Alan Lomax in his famous Southern field recordings.Moby, 34, was born Richard Melville Hall and adopted his pseudonym from the masterwork novel of his great-great granduncle, Herman Melville. Raised in Connecticut, he now lives in Manhattan, where he creates all his music alone in his Soho loft. Mellow in demeanor but outspoken in his opinions, Moby proudly professes his veganism, his disdain for drugs and alcohol, and his love for Jesus Christ. He was on tour when he spoke to music writer Keith Goetzman from Madison, Wisconsin.

Have you ever actually read Moby Dick?
I’ve tried repeatedly and never finished it. I have a hard time with a lot of mid-19th-century literature, whether it’s by Hawthorne or Melville or Dostoyevsky. About halfway through, my attention starts wandering.What books and authors have influenced you?
I’ve always been drawn to late-20th-century Southern gothic fiction: Walker Percy, Carson McCullers, Flannery O’Connor. My mother, an English lit major in college, exposed me to writers at an early age. I started reading Faulkner when I was about 9, and Charles Bukowski when I was 10.
What are you reading now?
On tour, I invariably bring a couple of highbrow books I’ve been meaning to get through and end up reading a lot of what you could call airport trash: Patricia Cornwell, Stephen King, Nelson Demille, stuff like that.
If you could advise everyone to read one book, what would it be?
My fiction choice would be The Once and Future King by T.H. White, a sweet, wonderful retelling of the King Arthur legends. As for nonfiction, that’s a toss-up between the Gospel according to Matthew and Diet for a New Americaby John Robbins.
What magazines do you read?
I read The Economist cover to cover every week. I disagree with their environmental coverage–they seem to have an anti-environmental message–but their political and international coverage is objective and humanitarian. I canceled my subscription to The New Yorker while Tina Brown was editor, but now that David Remnick has taken over, I think it’s back on track.

Where do you get your day-to-day news?
Usually from the Reuters and BBC Web sites.
What else do you read on the Web?
Not much.
Does your media diet include any guilty pleasures?
I spent many years reading only highbrow books and magazines and going to highbrow movies, and then I realized I’d become insufferably pretentious and I wasn’t really enjoying these things. There are wonderful things to read and experience at both ends of the spectrum–great Hollywood movies that cost $100 million to make and great movies from Iran that cost $40,000.
What current trends in the media trouble you?
Most people are happy to take a little information and assume they understand a complex issue. That was driven home to me during the war in Bosnia-Hercegovina. From what I read and saw on TV, I got a one-dimensional view: The Serbs were the good guys and the Muslims were the bad guys. Right after the war ended, I went to Macedonia and Kosovo and Serbia, where I learned that the situation, like any human conflict, was much more complicated than the media had portrayed it.
Are there media trends that hearten you?
Just the ubiquity of information. I got into an argument with a friend who works for CNN who feels that a lot of important stuff never gets reported. I don’t believe that. There are certainly things the mainstream media don’t cover, but there are so many secondary and tertiary media outlets these days that eventually people will hear about an issue if it’s important enough. I may be naive, but that’s been my experience.
If you could make one law, what would it be?
A law that made education free and available to everyone from prekindergarten to advanced degrees in college. Public education should be a national priority on a par with defense. Teachers should be paid as much as lawyers and doctors. The future of humanity depends on its ability to be well educated.

I’ve heard that your loft is full of computers and other electronic music-making equipment. Do you still consider your music to be organic?
In one sense, the only really organic music forms are singing and hitting your body with your fists. A piano or a violin or a guitar is just as inorganic as a synthesizer or a sampler. I prefer to think of all music as being inherently organic. It’s basically moving air, and that’s pretty organic. The records I make are quite hybridized. There’s a lot of electric elements, but on the new album there’s also a lot of acoustic guitar, drums, and piano.
How did you manage to bridge the wildly disparate worlds of techno, hip-hop, and Lomax’s old field recordings?
By not thinking about it. I was just responding emotionally, as someone who loves music. I wasn’t thinking about genre and I wasn’t thinking about compositional elements. I was just trying to make nice music.
Is it natural for you to take this cut-and-paste approach to music?
On this album some of the songs are based around old vocal samples, some are based around my own singing, some are based around new vocal samples, some are instrumental. There are drum machines and there are live drums, there are synthesizers and there are live hipster men. I don’t have a hierarchy of compositional elements when I go in to make a record. I don’t think of live drums as being better than a drum machine. I think of them as having a different sonic quality that I can employ.
Are you a big gospel fan?
If I had to pick my favorite African American musical genres of the 20th century, they would be blues, R&B, soul, hip-hop, and house music. I like gospel and jazz very much, but I don’t know much about them.
You tend to make your music alone.
I do everything alone. I’ve made music in more gregarious contexts, but I grew up as an only child, I live alone, and for some reason I’m much more comfortable working on music alone. I like the way that process instills a sense of longing in the music. Sure, there is a strange dichotomy in making music in a monastic, solitary way and then presenting it live with a full band to thousands of people, but somehow it just works.
Do you think art and music can influence people to take political action?
Oh, yeah. Sometimes in a good way, sometimes in a very bad way. I applaud musicians who can imbue their work with a political view, but most of their politics are simplistic and naive. I’ve tried to write political songs, and they’ve been terrible. Great political music usually comes from someone like Woody Guthrie who has a specific political ideology. I don’t. I’m not liberal, I’m not conservative. Because I tend to understand the world as a very ambiguous place, I think that my beliefs are better served by the ambiguity in my music.

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