'The Musical Equivalent of Star Trek': Moby on Team-Ups, Touring, and Sci-Fi


"Somehow, I've become an electronic musician, and I have a recording studio that looks like the bridge of the Enterprise."

In Aspen, Colorado, recently Moby spoke with The Atlantic's Kasia Cieplak-Mayr von Baldegg for her "Future of X" series. Earlier, he sat down with Tim Brown and a packed roomful of others to discuss architecture, photography, and science fiction, along with his music and music generally.  

Here are a few excerpts below ...

Ricky Savi/Aspen Institute

On what makes collaboration worth it

It starts with the fact that I never expected to have a career as a musician. I thought that my life would be spent working in a bookstore, teaching community college, and making music in my spare time that no one would be willing to listen to.

If one of my heroes comes to me and says, "Do you want to work on something?" I just say, "Yes." I don't ask for details; I don't expect to get paid anything. I just love working with my heroes.

How he works with collaborators

It's all random. I keep collaborating with David Lynch. It's the same thing: I love David Lynch, and if he came to me and said, "Moby! We're making a movie down in Patagonia! That's in Chile! We need someone to come clean the toilets! Would you be willing to do it?" I'd say, "Yeah, of course. I'll fly tomorrow and meet you in Patagonia and clean the toilets on your film set."

He and I have done so many weird things. We've done remixes for each other. We've played music together. I learned how to meditate in his studio. I was the DJ at his wedding.

So it's basically just this availability to any type of collaboration. If I respect the artist, the musician, the whomever, I'm just open to do whatever -- even if it's just sitting in a living room playing guitar, drawing pictures, whatever.

How collaboration affects his music

I don't know. The way I work on music is that I go into my studio, and I start playing music, and I see what happens, and ... I never think about it. It's always sort of a monastic, automatic process. Maybe 0.001 percent of the time do I have an idea beforehand. Normally I just go in and pick up a guitar or the keyboard and just start playing around until something interesting, at least to me, results.

Even when he did a James Bond track 15 years ago?

I did a cover of the James Bond theme, and I felt like such a fraud, because the original is so good. I was like, "Why am I covering this iconic, amazing piece of music? There's no way I can improve on it. I'm just going to do a contemporary, bastardized version of this classic, iconic piece of music?" So when I released it, I was a little embarrassed. I'm not saying it's bad; I'm just saying the original is so much better than what I did.

The difference between performing art and creative art

My job of being a musician in a recording studio has nothing to do with being a musician being on tour performing. Playing acoustic stuff, it's more improvisational, so there is a creative element. But a lot of times, when musicians go on tour, it's fun, but it's not terribly creative, especially if you're playing -- I'm not complaining -- but if you're playing songs you wrote 20 years ago.

Over time, it's led me to not like touring: Sometimes when you're on tour, you're standing on stage and you're playing a song you've played 1,000 times, and you can't experiment with it, or else people in the audience will get irritated. If you go to see the Rolling Stones and they do a Bossa Nova version of "Satisfaction," or if you go to see Radiohead and they decide that everything they do is going to be improvisational 12-tone experimental music, you're going to be like, "Okaaay, I can see how that's fun for you," but when I go to see a band, I want to hear the hits. I go to see Duran Duran, I want to hear "Hungry Like the Wolf" sounding exactly like the record.

So I assume that if people come to see me, they want me to play some of my songs and have them very closely resemble the versions that they're familiar with. So as a result, touring and performing, it's fun but not terribly creative. And that's why I hope to spend the rest of my life touring as little as possible, because I'd much rather be at home in my studio creating new music, even if no one ever listens to it -- just because it's so much more satisfying having something at the end of the day that didn't exist at the beginning of the day.

I won't complain about touring, because I really do believe that a public-figure musician complaining about being a public-figure musician is just absurd. Like, "Boo hoo hoo! I have to stand on stage and people pay attention to me!" But it's a really weird way to live, and it does strange things to your psyche, because you can spend months, if not years, if not decades, living in these artificial environments. I did one promotional trip -- it was in winter in Europe, about a month long -- and I realized, in the entire month, I spent 99 percent of the time breathing recycled air. I was only outside walking to a car. And I was like, "What am I doing?!" How is this a healthy way to live, going from one artificial environment to another artificial environment to another artificial environment, and to base your quotidian experience on that. So that's another reason why I don't want to tour, because after a while, it starts to seem normal.

Science fiction has had a huge impact on contemporary culture. Is that true of music, too?

I grew up watching Space 1999 and Star Trek. Star Wars was kind of science fiction for people who don't like science fiction -- except for the second movie; that was good -- the one in the clouds. I grew up obsessed with science fiction, and when I was really young, I wanted to be a scientist. What that meant was, I wanted to work in an environment that looked like the bridge of the Enterprise. I wanted to have oscilloscopes and buttons. Somehow, magically, I've become an electronic musician, and I have a recording studio that looks like the bridge of the Enterprise.

When I first heard electronic music, whether it was Kraftwerk -- this was in the mid-'70s -- I was like, "Oh, my goodness! This is the musical equivalent of Star Trek!" I grew up playing classical music, but I've always loved electronic music, because it always to me sounds like the future.

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J.J. Gould is the editor of TheAtlantic.com. More

He has written for The Washington MonthlyThe American ProspectThe Moscow Times, The Chronicle Herald, and The European Journal of Political Theory. Gould was previously an editor at the Journal of Democracy, co-published by the Johns Hopkins University Press and the National Endowment for Democracy, and a lecturer in history and politics at Yale University. He has also worked with McKinsey & Company's New York-based Knowledge Group on global public- and social-sector development and on the economics of carbon-emissions reduction. Gould has a B.A. in history from McGill University in Montreal, an M.Sc. from the London School of Economics, and a Ph.D. in politics from Yale. He is from Nova Scotia.

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