Ambient Moby: In Search of Sweetness & Beauty
When Moby released Hotel, his 2005 ode to overnight lodging, the album received, as the euphemism goes, mixed reviews.
Pitchfork, for instance, gave it a grand ratings total of 2.4 out of 10. To be sure, there were plenty of positive notices—but many of them were a bit backhanded, along the lines of “this is a great album to fall asleep to.” Even the producer himself distanced himself from the LP: “Some of the songs are nice, but I’m disappointed I made such a conventional generic record,” he remarked in one interview.
But there was a silver lining to Hotel in the album’s limited-edition bonus disc, Hotel: Ambient, a collection of subtle and atmospheric reworks that, even for many of the haters, outshone the originals. The out-of-print, hard-to-find Hotel: Ambient is being re-released on December 16, and the man born Richard Melville Hall is celebrating with a short series of live ambient sets, in L.A.’s Masonic Lodge on the 16th, 17th and 18th and at the Integratron in Joshua Tree on the 21st. We recently caught up with Moby to discuss his latest ventures.
DJ Times: As I was getting ready to talk to you, I relistened to Hotel: Ambient, and I was reminded of what a gorgeous-sounding album that was.
Moby: After it was released, I realized how much more I liked it than the actual Hotel album.
DJ Times: Really?
Moby: Well, I don’t know if I ever really ever listened to Hotel after I released it. But I kept going back to Hotel: Ambient and listened to it over and over again. Which is probably something a musician isn’t supposed to admit. It sounds either sad or narcissistic. But I didn’t listen to it in the way that I’ve ever listened to other records that I’ve made. Usually, if I listen to my own music, I try to listen a little bit critically, whereas with Hotel: Ambient, I was listening to it because I loved the way it was so calming, and how it could transform the space in which it was being listened to.
DJ Times: Those are probably two of the prime objectives of ambient music.
Moby: Exactly. I had wanted to rerelease it for a while, but for the past 10 years, we were trying to get EMI to do it—and not surprisingly, they were in no hurry to re-release an obscure ambient record with no vocals, songs or drums. But six months ago, I was able to get them to give me back the record, basically. So now I own it, and that’s why we’re able to re-release it.
DJ Times: You’ve scored a couple of very cool locations for your Hotel: Ambient live gigs, that great old Masonic Lodge at the Hollywood Forever cemetery and out at the Integratron at Joshua Tree. How did you choose the venues?
Moby: I really hate touring. For the last album I put out, Innocents, the whole tour was three shows at the Fonda Theatre here in L.A.—and the main criterion in picking the Fonda Theatre was that I could walk to it.
DJ Times: So closeness to home is your main requirement?
Moby: Sort of. My current approach to touring is: How can I stay as local as possible? But also, I’ve never done an ambient tour, and almost by definition, playing ambient music live is boring. There’s not a lot going on onstage; there are visuals, and maybe a couple of vocalist. It’s very quiet and very calm, so if you did it in a big conventional venue, I think people would be disappointed. There’s no huge performance or crazy theatrics. So I wanted to find venues where music would make sense. The Masonic Temple at the cemetery is this beautiful old Gothic building, and a lot of genres wouldn’t work there. If you tried to do a punk rock show in there, or if Skrillex wanted to do dubstep, it would sound wrong. But if the Cowboy Junkies were to play there, or if Aphex Twin decided to do Selected Ambient Works 85–92 live, it would be perfect.
DJ Times: And the Integratron?
Moby: The story behind it is that apparently, there was this astrophysicist in the ’40s, and he was visited by space aliens. They gave him the plans to build this acoustically perfect dome. So he did! You’re driving through the desert, and all of a sudden there’s this big white dome. Anyway, these women from Brooklyn have taken it over, but it needs some repairs—so I’m basically doing this as a fundraiser so that they can repair it. The dome itself only fits about 50 people, so we’ll have speakers set up outside as well.
DJ Times: It sounds like a compelling gig, to say the least.
Moby: Well, besides keeping it local, my other current approach to touring to make sure that it’s interesting. I had this moment when I first started touring—it would have been in ’90 or ’91—and was in Heathrow Airport, flying back to New York. I saw these older musicians, maybe in their mid-40s, and they looked really tired and beleaguered. I vowed to myself that I would never be like that. But a few years ago, in my mid-40s, I found myself in Heathrow, heading back to New York, and I was really tired and beleaguered. I realized I had become what I didn’t want to become: a tired, middle-aged musician in Heathrow who just done the same tour as he did three years ago and six years ago. Life is short—why keep doing the same thing with diminishing results if you don’t have to?
DJ Times: How will you be performing the Hotel: Ambient songs?
Moby: I’ll have a computer with me, along with a mixing desk. I don’t know what kind of mixing board yet, but I might just use a Pioneer DJ mixer, because I really like the built-in effects, and I wouldn’t have to bring outboard effects processing. I’ll probably have five or six submixes going into the DJ mixer. In terms of synths, some of the sounds will be coming from soft synths in the computer, but I’ll probably also be using an Arturia keyboard MIDI controller, and maybe this older Waldorf synth that I really like. I don’t know the model; I just know that it’s a really bright orange [Microwave XT]. And I’ll probably bring a Juno 106, because it’s such a fun thing to play. I was going to bring my Jupiter 6, but it weighs a lot, and I’m lazy—I don’t want to carry this big metal synth up three flights of stairs.
DJ Times: You’ll have some vocals as well, right?
Moby: I’ll be singing a couple of the songs, and I’ll have a couple of other singers to do a few things. There will also be some quiet, minimal, ambient versions of some of my better-known songs as well.
DJ Times: Can you say which ones?
Moby: I’ve sort of made a challenge to myself—I don’t know what I’m going to play. I’ll prepare maybe 30 different things, and then just kind of make it up as I go. Maybe that will work; maybe it won’t. Actually, now that I think about it, it’s really stupid! But I like introducing the possibility that things can go wrong. It creates an interesting dynamic, one that involves unplanned, imperfect, human variables.
DJ Times: What will the visuals be like?
Moby: I’ve handed over a bunch of my own videos and still images to a video artist in San Francisco, and he’ll take all my stuff and some other things and process them in a way that will hopefully make sense with the music. He’ll be doing that live. It’s going to be very lo-fi; I want the whole thing to feel humble and naïve.
DJ Times: Why so?
Moby: If you go to a big EDM rave, the visuals are huge and slick and high-tech, which makes sense if you’re playing EDM in front of 50,000 people. But with the nature of this music and the venues, there’s almost a gentle winsomeness. You’re not trying to overwhelm anyone with production; you’re just trying to create something that’s sweet and beautiful. At least, that’s the hope.
DJ Times: What do you personally hope to take away from these live sets?
Moby: One of the things doing repetitive, minimal music is how people react to it over time. I’m fascinated by the idea that the music might not change that much, but the audience’s perception of it does. In the first minute, you can be interested. By minute five, you might be bored. By minute 10, you can be totally caught up in it. I really want to see how that happens.
DJ Times: What’s next in the world of Moby?
Moby: Basically, I’m just trying to finish my next album. My manager actually ridicules me because I still make albums. He says, “Making albums is old. You should just make singles.” But honestly, I just love making albums, even though I fully understand that very few people will listen to those albums as albums. Really, being a musician who makes albums is slowly becoming like being a self-published poet. You don’t really expect anyone to pay that much attention.