With the release of ‘Resound NYC’, a reimagining and orchestration of his New York-centric hits, Moby reflects on the influence of the Big Apple, the power of the human voice, and hanging out with David Bowie and Lou Reed

‘Resound NYC’ is proof, were it needed, that Moby’s heart is never far from New York City. Born in Harlem, Manhattan on 11 September 1965, Richard Melville Hall grew up in a single-parent household in Connecticut, spending his young life yearning for his city of birth and obsessing about how he might get back there one day.

Towards the end of the 1980s, Moby found himself some space in an abandoned industrial building in Manhattan’s crack and heroin-infested Meatpacking District, where he began to build his reputation as a DJ and musician. By the time he left NYC 20 years later, he was inhabiting a £5 million, four-storey penthouse in Central Park West – a rags-to-riches story with caveats, as detailed in his eye-poppingly honest memoirs, ‘Porcelain: A Memoir’ (2016) and ‘Then It Fell Apart’ (2019).

Around a decade-and-a-half ago, he decided to swap East Coast for West. Speaking from his home in Los Angeles, Moby has requested that we do the interview with audio only, meaning I’m unable to check out his latest neck tattoo, which reads “VEGAN FOR LIFE” in inch-tall, upper-case lettering – a calligraphic slab running from below his jawline on the right-hand side to just above the top of his ribcage. He makes up for this lack of visual contact, though, with an openness and self-awareness that you’d usually be hard-pressed to find outside a 12-step recovery meeting.

“When I was growing up, I fetishised New York City and I couldn’t imagine anything better than being a musician living there,” he remembers. “But when I got sober about 15 years ago, I very quickly realised that New York is a paradise if you are a drunk, drug-addicted musician, and that it’s a very challenging place to live if you become a middle-aged, sober musician. LA’s more about waking up early and going hiking. It’s just an easier place to avoid temptation. For better or worse, I’m a Los Angeleno at this point.”

For ‘Resound NYC’, which is Moby’s second orchestral album on Deutsche Grammophon (the first being 2019’s ‘Reprise’), he’s decided to home in on work written and recorded in the Big Apple between 1994 and 2008, featuring outlandish arrangements and sonic surprises. It’s quite the undertaking for an electronic musician who once assumed he’d be a philosophy professor and make music in his bedroom that no one would ever hear.

While residing in the derelict factory, the 20-something Moby got himself a job at a local record shop alongside his DJ gig at Mars nightclub, which all helped him scrape by.

“I was working in this weird record store, and part of my job was putting the records away,” he remembers. “Every time I put a Deutsche Grammophon record away, it almost felt like I was holding something sacred, because the artwork was really beautiful. That big yellow label logo was just so European and very sophisticated.”

The fragments that form ‘Resound NYC’ were already configuring, though he had no idea until several decades later, when Deutsche Grammophon asked him if he’d like to make an orchestral greatest hits album.

“I immediately thought of those moments in the 80s when I was living in my abandoned factory and holding Deutsche Grammophon records, these precious totems.”

As the follow-up to ‘Reprise’, ‘Resound NYC’ is a sequel of sorts. There are key differences, though.

“That first record was very traditionally orchestral – we recorded a quintet here in LA and went to Hungary to record a giant orchestra,” he states. “My A&R person, Christian Badzura, encouraged me to explore what an orchestra could be in 2023.”

So what might that entail?

“It could involve putting cannons onstage,” he suggests. “It could involve turntables and analogue synths. So for this record, I let each song be a hybrid of very traditional orchestral elements and much less traditional orchestral elements, like Mellotrons and Moog synths and distorted samples, in order to build an ‘orchestra’.”

On ‘Reprise’, Moby worked with some of the best in the business – engineer Alan Meyerson and renowned conductor and arranger Joseph Trapanese, although this time he felt confident enough in what he’d learned to do most of the arranging himself. Furthermore, he jumped on a Mellotron belonging to famed songwriter Linda Perry to add some analogue authenticity to proceedings.

“The Mellotron is, as you know, an incredibly temperamental piece of gear,” he says. “The first time I used one was on ‘South Side’ from the ‘Play’ album. We rented one and it took hours just to get it in tune. But once it was in tune, it sounded phenomenal. My friend Linda Perry had a Mellotron, too, so we would play around with it quite a lot. For this record, it was a combination of using an old idiosyncratic Mellotron and trying to get it to work and then, if I’m being honest, using some of the Arturia Mellotron samples.”

It’s interesting that Moby mentions A&R because, in a sense, he’s always been something of an A&R man himself. He’s a connoisseur of the human voice, going to great lengths to capture it in all its infinite glory, both with living persons and with preserved voices from the past.

The most obvious example of this is 1999’s multi-platinum seller, ‘Play’, where he sampled the field recordings of American ethnomusicologist Alan Lomax and breathed creative life into long-deceased singers such as Bessie Jones and Vera Hall. On the new album, there are household names such as Gregory Porter, who also appeared on ‘Reprise’, and others you may be less familiar with, like Lady Blackbird.

“When I was 13 or 14, I desperately wanted to be a great singer,” says Moby. “I would listen to David Bowie and these other amazing vocalists and think how remarkable it would be to be one of them. And then I realised pretty quickly that I’m an average singer. I’m not terrible, my pitch and range are OK, but I’m certainly not a great singer.”

Photo: lindsay hicks

By the time he started making records himself, sampling voices was de rigueur for most electronic musicians. Once he achieved some success, it also became apparent that he would need to learn how to work with singers who had fabulous voices.

“I’ve worked with so many – everybody from David Bowie to Britney Spears, from Michael Jackson to Ozzy Osbourne to Chris Cornell – probably thousands. Finding and working with a vocalist is one of the most frustrating and rewarding aspects of making records.”

He’s not feeling threatened by AI – yet.

“Forgive me for stating the obvious, but AI is remarkable at creating synthetic vocal perfection,” he says. “However, as far as I know, it will never make Leonard Cohen. It’ll never make Lou Reed. It’ll never make a duet between Mark Lanegan and Kris Kristofferson – like on ‘Reprise’. Maybe I’ll be proven wrong when quantum computing hybridises itself with AI, but I don’t know if there’s enough computing power in the universe to fake that authenticity and that experience of the human condition.”

Referencing the French film director, Jean Renoir, he goes on: “‘Technical perfection can only create boredom’.” To counter such boredom and stave off technical perfection, he has collaborated with some extraordinary vocalists from around the world on his innovative new electronic label, Always Centered At Night. Launched in June 2022, it pushes in the face of algorithmic digital divination – or at least that’s the aim.

His stated goal with the imprint is to create “uncompromising” material that is “emotional, atmospheric and potentially beautiful”. So far, he has worked with Aynzli Jones, Serpentwithfeet, Akemi Fox, José James and Gaidaa. Every track is extraordinary in its own way, with remixes attached to each one.

“Always Centered At Night is a way of working with really special writers and vocalists to make idiosyncratic music inspired by the spirit of musical discovery I had in New York in the 80s,” he says. “Maybe you had the same experience… you go into a weird record store and hear something you’ve never heard before, and it opens up a new world to you. You’re so fascinated by this piece of music that you walk up to the guy behind the counter and ask, ‘What is this?’. I would like each track and remix on Always Centered At Night to be that song.”

The project also seems to be about human connection – between the label and its audience, and between Moby and other artists.

“I’d say that 85 per cent of the collaborations are done remotely,” he estimates. “Gaidaa, for example, spends her time primarily in Amsterdam and Sudan. Obviously, Amsterdam and Sudan are quite far away from Los Angeles!”

Always on the hunt for new voices, Moby will go to great lengths to find them, whether that’s walking the streets or surfing online. A quick DM or email to an artist can often lead to something significant and unique.

“I’m always looking,” he declares. “I guess I feel a bit like a more benign version of Arnold Schwarzenegger in the first ‘Terminator’ movie. You go out into the world only looking for one thing, and I’m looking for voices. Sometimes it’s about going on YouTube. Sometimes it’s Spotify. Other times, it’s just walking around Lower Manhattan going to karaoke places, where I’ve actually found a couple of singers. It’s this constant process of looking for voices, and getting excited and inspired when you find a wonderful voice.”

The releases have only been digital so far, although there is some talk of vinyl coming in September, possibly beginning with a compilation – watch this space.

On ‘Resound NYC’, there’s a cluster of versions of songs from ‘18’, the 2002 album that maintained Moby’s celebrity after the massive success of ‘Play’, despite the cracks that were starting to appear both personally and creatively. Four tracks take up the first disc, including ‘Extreme Ways’, featuring the line, “Then it fell apart”, which he borrowed for the title of his second tell-all memoir. Looking back, those lyrics seem almost premonitory.

“Oh, it was definitely a premonition,” agrees Moby, nodding to the alcoholic rock bottom that was to come. “The lyrics in ‘Extreme Ways’ are very predictive and anticipatory and, in hindsight, very prescient. But at the time, I had no idea.

“I look back at those years of narcissism, self-involvement, entitlement, drunkenness, debauchery and stupidity, and it’s such a challenge to recognise myself. Who was that person who thought all of that stuff was important?”

Moby gained something of a reputation as a ligger, while his promiscuity at that time has passed into legend. Yet in his more urbane moments, he was hanging out at David Bowie’s place for dinner with Laurie Anderson and Lou Reed.

“I was one of the three or four people that Lou was nice to,” he remembers with a mixture of pride and bafflement. “Every second I was with him I expected him to hate me, because he hated everybody. It’s hard to take it personally because he was incredibly unpleasant to everyone except for me and David Bowie. And Laurie Anderson and Bill T Jones. It was almost ridiculous how kind he was to us, and how gentle and lovely, as opposed to the way he was with 99 per cent of the other people on the planet.”

There’s a delightful story in ‘Then I Fell Apart’ where Bowie takes Moby aside and plays him ‘Slip Away’ from his then-unreleased album ‘Heathen’. Most children of the 1970s and 80s have to be content with being indirectly introduced to the Stylophone by a since-disgraced children’s entertainer (now deceased), but Moby was handed one by Bowie himself.

“If you listen to ‘Heathen’, the Stylophone keeps popping up there,” he says. “It’s still such a wonderful, special, broken, fascinating VCA synth.”

Bowie had famously used a Stylophone on ‘Space Oddity’ and went on to snap up a number of them on the nascent eBay website at $100 a pop, which he would then gift to friends as eccentric keepsakes.

“David gave me a bunch of presents,” reflects Moby wistfully, as indeed you would if your hero had become your pal. “The most special being the hat that he wore during the making of ‘Station To Station’, or maybe ‘Low’. On the brim he wrote, ‘To Moby, love David’. I still have that.”

In recent times, Moby’s existence has become far more manageable without the drink and drugs, especially since he has given up touring. He now has time to make films, like ‘Punk Rock Vegan Movie’.

I mention how his memoirs seem to me to be about moving away from absolutism – whether that’s to do with faith (Moby was a serious Christian until the mid-1990s) or hedonism (which he embraced with religious fervour) – although having a “VEGAN FOR LIFE” tattoo on your neck leaves little room for equivocation. These days, Moby sees himself first and foremost as a vegan activist, and the music he makes brings him succour.

“Music is a refuge,” he explains. “But, in the interests of self-preservation, I don’t read reviews, look at comments, or read articles. I don’t.”

As for being a “vegan for life” without equivocation, well, he seems cool with that.

“It’s been the only unshakeable part of my life,” he reasons. “I mean, for me, it hopefully is unshakeable. Although I might feel differently if the apocalypse happens and I’m starving to death.”

‘Resound NYC’ is out on Deutsche Grammophon

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