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“Well, I guess you’re the right person to write about this record,” a disembodied voice deadpans from my laptop, “since you’re the only one to give it a good review.”
The voice belongs to the electronic musician Moby, who’s speaking from his current home of Los Angeles (Los Feliz, to be exact), having moved from New York in 2011. We’re reminiscing about his fifth studio album, 1999’s Play – very much a product of Manhattan’s Lower East Side – which I reviewed 17 years ago in the July ’99 issue of SPIN magazine (not currently available in readable Internet form, i.e. you can try and zoom in on this). Gushingly giving the album a 9/10, I petitioned for it to be featured as the June issue’s Lead Review (coinciding with the May 17 release date), but a review of Pavement’s Terror Twilight was already in the can. May wasn’t an option because Blur’s 13 was the Lead pick. How much of a classic ’90s dogpile is that? You can practically smell the Dum-Dum Pops! Thing is, absolutely nobody would’ve predicted that Play would be more influential and far more successful than those other albums combined.
Coyly self-deprecating, Moby is obviously embellishing when he says that Play received only one good review. But at the time, the record was generally deemed neither danceable nor commercial nor cool. It was a gimmicky near-miss. An alternative what’s-it. Now, it’s sold more than 12 million copies worldwide and its songs have been repeatedly licensed to commercials, films, and TV shows, et al. (“It’s in the hundreds” says his publicist). But reading early reviews of the album, it’s remarkable how arrogantly dismissive and glibly patronizing many of the writers were.
Moby laughs when asked about the critical reaction to Play. “Oh, I don’t know,” he says, “if I’d been a music journalist in the ’90s going into the 2000s, I probably would have been so much meaner and so much more glib and so much more dismissive. [We both laugh.] When I suggest that music journalists in that era deluded themselves into thinking they had more power than they did, Moby interjects, “But they did have power. And honestly, why would a critic in give a Moby record a break at that time. I was in a prime position to get dismissed.”
That position was a career nadir after 1996’s Animal Rights, a shabbily recorded metal-punk mudslide that snuffed out any alterna-affection Moby had earned with 1995’s Everything Is Wrong, a transcendent, genreless wonderland featuring the cranked-to-the-brink testimony “Feeling So Real,” which earned him a Lollapalooza spot and a tour with Red Hot Chili Peppers and Flaming Lips. Animal Rights’ morose guitar-soloing and howling alienated his American label Elektra, which decided to cut bait. They cobbled together an album of Moby’s widely respected film music, the uncleverly titled I Like to Score, put him on tour to promote it (while providing no support), and then officially dumped him before the tour was over.
VMP: You’ve often said that you thought your career as a professional musician was over while you were recording Play. You really didn’t see any future?
Moby: Trying to have a viable music career back then, it felt like you were so limited in ways to reach people. The Internet wasn't a factor. Practically speaking, in 1999, there were only music magazines in the United States that had any real influence (<Rolling Stone and SPIN); there was MTV, a few radio stations, a few major labels. And I felt like I was in a very weird place personally. In the mid-1990s, there was suddenly a moment where “alternative” or whatever-you-want-to-call-us artists were considered to potentially have a place in this money-making system...
And Everything Is Wrong got you into that system.
Yeah, but it didn’t really work. And then with the Animal Rights record, it really didn’t work. So, it’s one thing to be in a place where they say, “Oh, we don’t know if this person can be successfully slotted into this machine,” as it were. But when you’re at the point, like me, where they can say, “Oh, we tried it with him already and it failed,” that really makes you an extra-special pariah.
It’s like, we gave you a shot, alternative human, and you blew it.
Exactly. And like I said, in my case, they were saying, “We tried! We did the best we could. And, boy, was that a big waste of time and money. So, please, at least have the decency to just go away. Like, if we see you at a party, we can talk, but please don’t embarrass us or yourself by trying to discuss what happened.”
Basically a year after the Elektra kiss-off, in August ’98, Play’s first single “Honey,” was released via Moby’s U.K. label Mute. I saw it on the wall at 8 Ball Records, a small shop near Manhattan’s Union Square, and grabbed it. A minute or two after I put the needle on the 12-inch vinyl back at my apartment, the song felt like both a secret and a sea change. Produced by the Beastie Boys’ sound designer Mario Caldato Jr., “Honey” would be Play’s revelatory opening track. Built on a pounding piano riff sampled from Joe Cocker’s “Woman to Woman” (a favorite of hip-hop producers), a chintzy breakbeat, a sliver of slide guitar (played by Moby), and a gloriously thundering chant by the late Bessie Jones, “Honey” rolled like an eternal river that had just been waiting for us to find it. A member of pentecostal “shout” group the Georgia Sea Island Singers, Jones was recorded by folklorist Alan Lomax performing mostly secular songs a cappella, with the group responding to her vocally, while also clapping their hands, tapping their feet, and patting their bodies with cupped hands. After borrowing the four-CD 1993 reissue of Lomax’s 1959 anthology Sounds of the South from a friend, Moby sampled Jones’ vocal from the song “Sometimes.”
He went on to sample and rearrange two other hauntingly mighty voices from Sounds of the South – raw blues harmonica belter Boy Blue for “Find My Baby” and epochally mournful Alabama folk-blues legend Vera Hall for the eerily swooning groove of “Natural Blues,” which later went to No. 11 on the U.K. pop charts. He also sampled vocals from two little-known gospel groups not recorded by Lomax – the Banks Brothers for “Why Does My Heart Feel So Bad” (a Top 20 U.K. hit); and Bill Landford and the Landfordaires for “Run On” (a Top 40 U.K. hit). It was the time-shift jolt of these “old sample songs” (as Moby refers to them) that gave Play its reason to exist.
On “Honey,” when the breakdown hits – a handclapping free-for-all that eases into a wah-wah-driven alt-rock jam with strings and a house-diva’s wail drifting by for dramatic effect – the song’s exhilarating collision of histories sweeps you up whether you’re feeling the rapturous spirit or not. Moby not only taps deeply into the roots of both spiritual and carnal African-American music (as much a testament to the music’s power to connect as to Moby’s gifts), but then he goes a step further, creating a living frame so we can witness the controlled fury and tender grandeur of this tiny corner of vast African-American musical accomplishment flourishing anew. Somehow, this “washed-up” (his word), bald, white, lapsed-Christian vegan provided an unobtrusive spotlit platform to honor the world-historic force of these voices. He gave us our own visceral, right-here experience of their timelessness. He showed us how these indomitable men and women, after enduring lifetimes of terror and degradation, had the ability to make time gasp whether a white man was holding a field mic or a sampler.
That’s my interpretation of Play’s importance, anyway. But before you go believing me, here’s a disclaimer: I do this every time. Whenever I love an album, I conjure up my own narrative, which is usually far more extensive and specific than the artist intended. In this case, I heard urgent defiance across generations and that fit me with a certain lens through which to view the album’s, uh, 13 other songs. Wait, Play has 13 other songs! Oh yeah, there’s that one (“South Side”) with Gwen Stefani on the single that I actively imagined was about the Great Migration. Heady call. Those five old sample songs are undoubtedly the record’s core, but they alone don’t make Play an album still worth celebrating. Moby created a kaleidoscope of music – the breathtaking glissando of “Porcelain,” the lush twinkle of “Rushing,” the techno-industrial jitters of “Machete” – around the sample songs that spoke to his own identity/story, yet was just as universally resonant. But how?
In Porcelain [Moby’s 2016 memoir, named after the third track on Play], you write about how the song “What Does My Heart Feel So Bad” was a turning point. In the passage, you detail the technical steps of putting a different, minor-key chord progression underneath the sample and tweaking the vocal. But what about the sample itself [recorded live in the 1960s at a Newark, New Jersey Baptist church] moved you to build an entire song around it?
I think, ultimately, it was the vulnerability in the voice. It’s that combination of longing and resignation and celebration that only comes from being vulnerable. And that is the quality that I love, and what I assume that other people love, in the best music. And it’s what I love about those old samples. It’s 1) the historical context in which they were recorded; and 2) the history that they represent. Most of them were not recorded professionally; and the more time passes, the more I realize that a big part of what I love about recorded music depends on how far away it is from a professional standard. If something is perfectly tuned and recorded, it’s off-putting. It’s like going to a party where everyone knows exactly what they’re doing and they’re all well-dressed. But a really beautiful sample is like a conversation you have in the deli with the guy behind the counter on the way to the party. Afterwards, you realize, that was the highlight, that was the moment when some humanity was revealed.
For it to be memorable, there usually has to be something a little off.
It’s funny, because especially when I used to sample more, Daniel Miller at Mute [Records, Moby’s label], plus some other people I worked with, would always say, “What do you think we can do to clean up these samples?” And I’m always, like, “No, no, no, it’s that noise, that grit on the vinyl and the ambient sound in the background when it was recorded live, that’s the beauty of it. And I also remember when a lot of electronic musicians would spend all this time trying to find a cleaner, more perfect stereo version of a sample and I didn’t, and don’t, get that at all. For me, the broken or awkward nature of these stray, orphaned samples is what makes them work so well. Of course, it’s the humanity and beauty of the voices themselves above all. But all the broken awkwardness can make the whole thing more welcoming.
The most fascinating thing to me about the sampled voices on Play is how all of them either have an androgynous quality or, in the case of Bill Landford on “Run On,” sounds eerily like your voice, if you were an African-American gospel singer. There’s a quality of fluid identity, of all these voices shape-shifting. It’s almost unearthly.
When Play started to become a little bit successful, and “Natural Blues” was released as a single, this British music magazine got some music producer to review it. And he loved “Natural Blues”; in his review, he said, “I’m just so impressed that, whoever this Moby guy is, he can sing this well!” And I was, like, apart from the fact that the voice on “Natural Blues” is a black woman who was recorded 50 years ago, thanks! It just showed the absurdity of this process where I was getting credit for having sung that part when it’s clearly credited to Vera Hall in the liner notes.
Yet one of the samples, the Banks Brothers and the Greater Harvest Back Home Choir’s “He’ll Roll Your Burdens Away” (which became “Why Does My Heart Feel So Bad?”) was miscredited originally and you even said in some interviews that you thought it was a woman, although you had actually pitched up the voice. There’s also the twist that Charles Banks, the lead vocalist in the sample, is actually saying “glad” instead of “bad.” I swear I still listen to “Run On” and try and figure out if your voice is doubled on the sly. It’s just too weird that this African-American gospel singer, in 1949, sounds so much like you. You’ve gotta be in there!
No, I’m not at all! It’s just that magical thing that you’re always trying to achieve. The mystery, the parts that don’t make any sense but stir your emotions. I mean, I’m sure you’ve had this experience, maybe not now, but in the “olden days” of AM and FM radio, when you’d be driving somewhere really remote, like the outskirts of Baltimore or somewhere in the middle of Nebraska, and these voices would just emerge from the radio. And usually it would be something banal and droning, but now and then, you'd hear something amazing, and hearing it in that environment, sometimes it’d be a scratchy, staticky voice, from some faraway radio transmitter, the magic of that, the aesthetics of that… I try really hard to try and recreate that feeling of a totally unique voice coming from a really lonely, unknown place.
There are instances of that all over Play and I think the care you take with voices, particularly women’s or androgynous voices, and how you’re able to have them communicate so much more than the words being sung, is one of the reasons that your records can speak to people in so many different ways.
I’ve gotten very frustrated over the years with different engineers and mixers who want to make the vocals more quiet. Maybe it’s a function of my attachment disorder, but I like records where the voices are strong and accessible, even if they’re not perfect. I remember being so frustrated in the ’90s with what I called the Pavement Ethos – mixing the vocals as quietly and obscurely as possible all the way back with the other instruments. It made me feel so lonely as a listener when people did that.
It made you feel lonely, yet with Play you were trying to capture a sense of loneliness with these samples and other voices.
I was trying to capture the quality of two lonely people reaching out to each other, or a lonely voice reaching out to a person who’s listening. I never wanted to create a record that made somebody feel more lonely, like the voice is pulling away.
For me, the most memorable scene in the book is the last chapter when you’re driving a friend from Manhattan to Boston and you’re listening to a cassette of some songs from Play as you drive. Nostalgia is hitting you in waves, like remembering what it felt like when your grandfather showed you the secret toll-free route out of the City (over the Third Avenue Bridge, through the South Bronx, past the strip club and fish markets); or the times when your mom sent you to the store with food stamps. It’s like you’re having these epiphanies about the kind of life that you want, but you’re also critiquing your music pretty harshly…
That was an odd time. It would’ve been ’98, I guess, and I didn't have a driver’s license. A friend of mine, a sober Christian porn director, was asleep in the back seat. And I was, like, “Oh, I’ve made this one last record. Clearly, it’s gonna fail, because it’s been proven that I don’t know what I’m doing and nobody cares. You know? I’m mixing it on this crummy equipment in my apartment. You, know, a funny thing about Play is that three of the songs on the final album are demos recorded to cassette. Because, at that time, I was totally lost and didn’t know what I was doing with these songs. I was thinking, “How could there possibly be an audience for this?” I’m wasn’t young and cool. It wasn’t dance music that could get played in clubs. It wasn’t going to get played on the radio. It wasn’t a huge-sounding pop record like Britney Spears. So I remember listening to that cassette and thinking, “Oh, I guess this is okay,” but beyond that, I didn’t have any hope for it being anything more than an okay album that nobody ever heard.
But the way you wrote that passage in the book, it felt like you were finally becoming convinced that you were close to having a real album. You connected emotionally with the delicate, doleful instrumental pieces – “Inside” and “My Weakness” – while it seemed like “The Sky Is Broken” spoke to your bewildered state of mind.
Sometimes musicians make records that mostly exist within the context of a career. Like, a musician makes their seventh album, and albums four, five, and six were successful, so that determines the next one. With a record like Play, it wasn’t done in the context of a career because I didn’t think I had one anymore. As a result, it felt sort of arbitrary and self-involved. But more than that, there was also a eulogistic quality. In retrospect, I was like, “Oh, I’ve had a career that’s been kind of interesting, but it’s sad how it didn’t really work out at the end.” So the album’s context was more of a punctuation of what I thought, at that time, was the end of a period of my life.
There are a few songs on the album – “Porcelain,” “The Sky Is Broken,” “If Things Were Perfect” – that are clearly vulnerable and personal. “If Things Were Perfect,” from the first time I heard it, felt like being alone in New York, really late, wandering around, letting the night take you wherever. The bass line and flickering sample and the spoken-word lyric got at New York’s special kind of isolation.
It’s so odd to be in such a densely populated place and feel so remarkably isolated. And you know what, I very rarely get nostalgic, but describing that makes me feel really nostalgic. Like, not going to exciting parties, but that feeling of, like, walking on the Lower East Side around the public housing south of Delancey Street at two o’clock in the morning on a cold, rainy Tuesday. It’s the weird, watchful eyes of all those windows in the projects and knowing that all those people are sleeping behind them. And then, like, walking down to the river and under the Manhattan Bridge. But yeah, that unique New York quality of emptiness and isolation was, and maybe still is, pretty magical. Yeah, I think that is really something I miss quite a lot at this point.
[He takes a minute, actually becoming a bit emotional.] But I’ll tell you this, I certainly don’t miss going to Max Fish to get drunk at four in the morning!
Charles Aaron’s writing has appeared in the New York Times, SPIN, Rolling Stone, Hazlitt, and many other publications from many other decades.