Rank Your Records: Moby Spontaneously Ranks His Nine Records
Around the release of his new memoir, 'Porcelain," the artist takes a candid look back at his catalog and the late nights and substances that fueled them.
Photo by Melissa Danis
In Rank Your Records, we talk to members of bands who have amassed substantial discographies over the years and ask them to rate their releases in order of personal preference.
Moby didn’t know he was going to be doing this. When the subject of ranking his records came up, it was like I pulled a fast one on him. But thankfully, because Moby is Moby (read: the gracious and obliging electronic music legend) he agrees to accept to the task: “I’m happy to do it. It’s possible—and I’m gonna throw myself under the bus—but it’s possible that someone sent me an email about this and for whatever reason I just didn’t see it. So I’m assuming it’s my fault and nobody else’s.”
It’s no wonder Moby didn’t see this coming. Lately, the now 50-year-old producer/DJ/animal rights activist/vegan/photographer/TeaNY co-founder has been promoting his new memoir, Porcelain, not so much his music. The title of the book is in reference to his hit single, but also its “odd fragility” and the constant “throwing up” he refers to in it. (“Oftentimes when I was throwing up I was throwing up into things made of porcelain,” he adds.) Although he is self-effacing about being labeled an author, Moby has compiled a memoir that is not only warts-and-all in detailing the debauchery and hedonism that consumed him during his 20s and 30s, it ends right when he transitions from struggling artist to techno superstar.
“I think it’s because it seemed like a really nice, discreet chunk of time,” Moby says. “In those ten years, quite a lot happened to me, but also to New York. And I think in approaching trying to write a memoir, by definition, you have to omit a lot of stuff. You can’t cover everything that happened over the course of time, and so I realized I couldn’t condense my whole life into one book. I also like the idea of ending at a very low point, because in traditional memoirs, that is often the beginning of the narrative. I don’t know if it was the best choice, but a ten-year period just made sense.”
Yes, Moby cuts Porcelain off right when he is releasing Play, his career-reviving 1999 album that sold north of 12 million copies. Play, along with 1995’s Everything Is Wrong and 1996’s Animal Rights are also getting reissued on vinyl this month via his label, Mute. But like this interview, that too is news to him, but he’s fine with it. “Which reissues? Oh, I didn’t know I had reissues. That’s nice!”
As for ranking his records, it’s important to note that Moby chose not to include his very first two releases: 1992’s Moby and 1993’s Ambient. Mostly because he had nothing to do with them, other than recording the music. “Those first couple of records that Instinct released, I really like them almost as odd time capsules,” he explains. “When they released them, it drove me a little bit crazy because they made the artwork, they chose the tracks, I really had almost nothing to do with them. But now I appreciate them as time capsules that didn’t involve me. In a way, they almost have more objectivity because I made the music but I wasn’t involved in anything else.”
9. Hotel (2005)
Moby: Well, this is a real easy one for me. And I feel bad maligning these poor records because it’s not their fault I made them shitty. And I’m not trying to anthropomorphize compact discs and records, but the one at the bottom would be Hotel. It’s just kind of mediocre. There are a whole bunch of reasons. Maybe there are a couple good songs on there but for the most part I don’t think the songs are all that interesting. The production is kind of generic. Everything about it just feels like a charitable B minus to me.
In Europe, Hotel is actually the biggest album I’ve ever had. In France and Germany, it was bigger than Play. When I tour, if I play “Lift Me Up” in the States, that’s the song people use to check their phones or go to the bathroom. But in Europe, it’s the song that closes every set because it’s this huge single that wouldn’t go away for a long time.
Noisey: Wow. I did not know that. You’ve previous said this was your least favorite of all of the albums you’ve made, so it’s good to see this one sticks.
Yeah, and I think if I had been less cautious in making it, the record could have been interesting. If I let the production be a little more open-ended and lo-fi and idiosyncratic, it could have been a better record, but it was a very strange time in my life. I was drinking way too much and doing a ton of drugs and I was really anxious. And maybe this is an embarrassing thing to admit but I was really in love with having a successful career. A lot of the choices I made making this album were made from this kind of scared, conservative place. So there was this caution and substance abuse around the making of it. Normally, those two things don’t go hand in hand. When people are down the rabbit hole of substance abuse, musicians tend to make more experimental records, like Station to Station. But for some reason, this is the one that came out of me when I was at a weird bottom.
8. 18 (2002)
Hotel I actually don’t like very much, but 18 has this strange charm to it and I think I just made a bunch of mistakes in the process of making it. Like, one, it’s way too long. It didn’t really need to be 18 songs. And two—by the way, I’m going to name drop here—when I was getting ready to release it I sat down with David Bowie and we listened to our new albums together. He had made Heathen, and when I played him 18 he very politely suggested I cut some of the songs off of it because it was too long. And I ignored him, but he was very right. He never said “I told you so,” though. I also think it could have been produced better, sonically. It’s an awkward record. Even though I like it quite a lot more than Hotel, I think it is inchoate. It lacks a cohesion that I think some of my other records might have.
You’ve said this album was a sibling to Play.
Yes. They roughly came out at the same time, they both had 18 songs. They kind of look similar. They have the same font and the same layout. I don’t know, those reasons?
7. Last Night (2008)
This is the record that I made right before I got sober, and I really feel like such a cliché being a middle-aged musician talking about pre-sobriety and post-sobriety, but this was the record I made literally a couple of months before I got sober. So this record is an alcohol and drug-fueled mess, but I don’t know if it’s great. There are a couple of songs I think are great, but if I’m being forced to, I’d put this at number seven.
You called this “a love letter to dance music in New York City”...
There is a subtext to that: “a love letter to degeneracy in New York City.” It was basically a love letter to getting fucked up in New York City.
Yeah, you discuss that a lot in your book. I was surprised at just how fucked up you got. And how often. Was Last Night the end of all that?
Oh boy, yeah. While I was making it, I rediscovered DJing. And on one hand, I fell back in love with dance music. But I also fell in love with touring as a DJ because DJing is one of the only jobs you can do drunk and still be okay at it. Like, it’s really hard to play a concert drunk and high, but I could be really drunk and not make too many mistakes DJing. The other thing is that most people listening to you are also drunk and high, so they’re not paying too much attention if you make a mistake. So there were mistakes, but they weren’t as egregious as they are when you’re drunk or high playing an instrument.
6. Everything Is Wrong (1995)
It’s hard, because now we’re getting into the realm of records where, from here on in, I’m really fond of everything. So being hierarchical gets challenging when I subjectively like all of these. And I think that there are some very special parts to Everything Is Wrong, but I just don’t love it as much as the records that are in the top five.
In Porcelain, you call this your “first real album.” So it’s a bit of a surprise to see it down this low.
I mean, again, as a time capsule, I really like it. I had never really made an album before, so I was trying to put everything I could possibly get onto it. So there is a punk rock song, and ballads and classical music and rave anthems. I was trying to shoehorn all of these different types of music onto the record, not out of trying to be eclectic, but just because I was in love with all of these genres and I felt like this may be my only chance to make a record. So I put on as many as possible.
I enjoyed your chapter about writing “God Moving Over the Face of the Waters.” That song is brilliant.
Well thank you. Actually, of all the pieces of music I’ve made, that would be my favorite one. There are those chapters in the book about making individual songs because I’d finished my book and my publisher at Penguin said in a humble, wistful way, “Oh, it would have been nice if you’d written about making actual music.” I didn’t think anyone would be interested but he said he would be. So I went back and tried to describe the making of these songs.
Do you remember the response to the essay you wrote in the sleeve of Everything Is Wrong?
The only thing I remember is being ridiculed on MTV. I’d never done anything with MTV in the States before, so I was super excited they were talking to me. So I did an interview and they asked me about the essay and I think I was a bit strident talking about it. Then they cut to whoever the VJ was and she made fun of me for being such an uptight ideolog.
5. Wait For Me (2009)
Again, it’s tricky because I think that it’s quite a lovely little record. I like its cohesion, and there is this quality of resignation and sadness to it. I just don’t like as much as some other records. I made it with a bunch of guest vocalists that lived in the neighborhood. And it’s the first record I made after getting sober. It was also a time where I felt every dance producer on the planet was doing their best to collaborate with big pop stars and make very bombastic, commercial records. I wanted to go in the opposite direction and make something that sounded more like a quiet record I made with friends in my living room.
Was that your sobriety talking?
I think so. I haven’t gone back and listened to that record in a while, but I think there is a quality of retreat to it. And sobriety for me was definitely a retreat. I was still living in the lower east side of New York but I had to consciously retreat from a lot of the environments I had wholeheartedly hurled myself into before.
How did you find recording music sober? Was it more difficult to sit there and concentrate?
I actually had a lot more free time. When I was drinking and doing a lot of drugs I was going out five nights a week for six or seven hours a night, and that’s almost 40 hours right there just going out. And then you factor in another 80 hours being debilitated and hung over? There is 120 hours a week sometimes being handed back to me of free time. I remember watching a lot of 30 Rock and The Daily Show, and also taking a lot of pictures and spending more time on music.
4. Destroyed (2011)
I really like this as an odd, cohesive record. This is was an honest-to-goodness concept record inspired by that experience of living in hotel rooms, these weird artificial environments that have been created and curated by other people. And this strange, paradoxical tension that exists when you live in airports and hotels is on one hand, it’s horrible, but on the other hand, weirdly comforting and interesting. Unfortunately, I battle with insomnia, so a lot of this record was written at four in the morning inside a hotel somewhere in the middle of the city when everyone is asleep and I’m the only person awake and I’m desperately trying to sleep but instead I would work on music or take pictures. So I do sort of appreciate Destroyed almost as a solipsistic, Lost In Translation type record.
I like how you described the process of making this album as repurposing your insomnia.
Yeah, and that sense of dislocation of just finding yourself day after day in these otherly, baffling, anodyne, unnatural environments, and the weird sort of cohesion that comes from visiting all of these places. One day you’re in Belarus, and then the next day you’re in New Zealand, and then Los Angeles and then you’re in Toronto, and then London. So you’re travelling thousands of miles but you find yourself sitting in the same chair, in the same room, in the same car, whether you’re in London or Sydney. That is one of the reasons why I like this record. It reminds me so much of that off-putting quality of those environments, but also the comfort of those environments.
3. Innocents (2013)
This was my first record in LA, and LA is such a bizarre source of inspiration because it is such a bizarre non-city. Most cities in the world behave the same: there is a center and public transportation and a lot of tall buildings. But LA is just this bizarre, sprawling, confusing, warm, wonderful, dystopian place. So Innocents to me kind of reflects those qualities. At least from my perspective there is a folksiness to it. A lot of music that comes out of LA is very folky, like Joni Mitchell, Crosby Stills Nash & Young, and when you’re listening to Ladies of the Canyon while driving up to Laurel Canyon with the sun shining it just makes perfect sense. The music is so closely wedded to that. But then there is that weird, confusing dystopian feeling to Hollywood Boulevard and people dressed as Spider-Man smoking crack behind an empty CVS. So the album was the product of all the different elements of Los Angeles.
What made you bring in an outside producer for the first time ever?
Oh, because I realized while I was making it that I was a middle-aged guy, and I hate touring, and I didn’t really want a career as a musician, I just want to make records and not have to worry about it. To that end, I realized that I’d made almost all of my records in a similar way, and I simply thought it would be more interesting to try something different—work with a producer and then get in a bunch of these weird collaborators just simply to see how it would work as an experiment. It was almost like I was getting bored with myself and my usual way of trying to make records.
2. Play (1999)
I remember when this first came out, there were a lot of music journalists that refused to listen to this album. I just saw Pete Tong recently and said that when he was first sent Play he didn’t even bother taking it out of the shrinkwrap. He just assumed it was going to be terrible. Maybe not terrible, but super dismissible. In the UK, my shining moment had been in the early 90s with tracks like “Go.” And throughout the course of that decade, I became a lot less relevant in the dance world. So, in 1999, when Play was released, I was kind of almost seen as a slightly embarrassing has-been.
In the book, you write that you felt your career was over at that point. Would you say this album came to the rescue? Or if it had failed would you have kept going?
I would have kept going because I would have still be on Mute, for the simple reason that Daniel Miller has never, ever dropped an artist. He’s lost artists, but he personally has never ended a contract with an artist. So there is a good chance I could have kept making increasingly obscure records and Daniel could have kept putting them out, because there was definitely precedent for that in the roster for Mute. Considering I thought it was overly ambitious to think Play could sell 50,000 copies, and then it went on to sell millions, every last aspect of it was really surprising. It got to the point where the juggernaut that surrounded the record almost overwhelmed the music on the record. If it had never become successful, I still think this record has some cool qualities to it. I’m really proud of the production on it. For a very successful record, it’s super lo-fi. It was made with the cheapest of all cheap equipment. But the main thing I love about it, and this might sound odd, but I think it all sounds to me like some weird radio broadcast. Every song on Play sounds like some weird radio station that you later find out never existed. It’s the weird cohesion of the record that I really like.
1. Animal Rights (1996)
Why is this your favorite?
Animal Rights is the record I’m most proud of and I have such a strange love for. The truth is, it’s a super difficult record. Of all the records we’ve just discussed, Animal Rights is the only one I go back and listen to now and then. There is such a visceral desperation to it and the way it lurches from super fast, crazy speed metal and punk rock to the most delicate, despairing instrumental pieces. That’s because it’s my number one. I also really love the fact that it was so maligned and that everything around that was such a failure.
Well the first line in the chapter where you discuss it is “Even before it was released it failed.”
It just makes that Tolstoy quote, “the success of many parents and failure of an orphan,” the failure of Animal Rights very titillating. But at the time it was really upsetting and sad. My mom was dying of cancer and I was battling panic attacks, so it was a very rough, rough time. But now all of the unpleasantness around it just makes me like it more.
At least Axl Rose and Trent Reznor liked it.
Yeah, Trent might have just been polite. He’s a very nice man. But Axl really did tell me he listened to it over and over while he was driving through LA.
Was there any discussion about using a pseudonym to release the record?
Well, in hindsight, that’s what someone should have said to me. I guess I’m glad no one did, but had I been my manager or record label boss, I would have said to me, “Hey, why don’t you go make a super noisy and extreme punk rock record, but do it under another name. And then under your own name make something a little more melodic that people might want to listen to.” That might have been the smart thing to do, but I take deep pride in this album. Especially because we live in a world where people’s careers tend to be smart and cautious. If I look at it with a degree of objectivity, the list we just did, my least favorite record, I sort of damned it for saying it was cautious. And my favorite record is the one that wasn’t not cautious, but flagrantly stupid. I really love flagrant stupidity—people who make mistakes in public that are huge and long. There is something kind of liberating in that.
Cam Lindsay is on Twitter - @yasdnilmac