At 51, Moby Makes His Loudest, Most Political Album
Moby and friends
"I have the least rock & roll life," Moby insists. "Every morning I wake up at 6 a.m. By 6:15, I'm hiking."
He says this as he's sitting by the pool of his very nice house in the Los Feliz hills, wearing a T-shirt from Little Pine, the Silver Lake vegan restaurant he owns. But beyond the obvious trappings of success, nothing about the 51-year-old's calm, koala-like demeanor particularly screams "rock star." He's been sober for eight years and an L.A. resident for six; the straight-edge New York punk kid turned debauched electronic music superstar, a period of his life he chronicled in lurid, wildly entertaining detail in his recent memoir, Porcelain, is a thing of the past.
But quiet life notwithstanding, Moby is about to release his most rock & roll album in 20 years. These Systems Are Failing, out Oct. 14, is an "aggressive post-punk record" in his words, full of industrial rhythms, squalling guitars and angry, sung-shouted vocals. Even coming from an artist who has pretty much done whatever he wants for most of his career (a term he hates: "I really kind of loathe the idea of having a career"), it's a startling left turn.
It is also, as its title suggests, the most overtly political record Moby has ever made — his first real attempt at a wake-up call based on a worldview shaped by his veganism. "I've always wanted to make socially conscious or political music. But I've never been good at it," he says. "I would try to write vegan songs and political songs, and honestly? They were strident." He quickly adds, "I'm not saying that now I am good at it, but now I just feel more comfortable."
When he played the album for the people at his longtime label, Mute Records — a label that has released some pretty challenging music in its 38-year history — they were "genuinely nonplussed," Moby says. "It's weird when you encounter confusion around something you don't think is terribly confusing. To me, it's like, 'Well, I listen to a lot of new wave and post-punk, so not surprisingly, I made a post-punk/new wave record.'"
Once you get past the initial shock of hearing the man most famous for creating pretty, ambient electronic hymns ("Porcelain") and classic rave anthems ("Next Is the E") screaming over multi-tracked guitars, These Systems Are Failing is still recognizably a Moby record. One of his trademark soaring synth lines bolsters the chorus of "Don't Leave Me"; played at half-speed, "Are You Lost in the World Like Me?" wouldn't have sounded out of place on 18, the album that yielded another of his best-known tracks, "Extreme Ways" (aka "that song featured in every Jason Bourne movie").
Not that Moby was thinking about any of that as he made the record. He's long since abandoned notions of fulfilling anyone's expectations of what a Moby album should sound like. "It would be absurd to pretend that there are outside expectations," he says. "I see some of my middle-aged musician peers making commercial compromises, and it just begs the question: To what end? People aren't buying records anyway, so why compromise?"
Instead, These Systems Are Failing was primarily inspired by two things: the state of the world and, less grandiosely, the state of contemporary music, which he feels is mired in "this very pleasant indie ethos, where it never gets too fast, never gets too slow. It never breaks my heart; it never fills me with rage."
To him, the center is missing. "There's blindingly fast, Norwegian church-burning metal, and then there's James Blake," he says, only half-joking. "There's not really anything in between. So that was a huge motivating factor in this record."
He began work on what would become These Systems Are Failing immediately following the completion of his last album, Innocents, in 2013. The fact that the new album is credited to "Moby and the Void Pacific Choir" dates back to those early sessions.
At first, inspired by an interview he read with Queen producer Roy Thomas Baker, Moby essentially wanted to make his own version of "Bohemian Rhapsody," a process he had begun experimenting with on the guest vocalist–laden Innocents. "I really enjoyed the process of taking, like, five people and making it sound like 300 people."
After Innocents, he brought in seven vocalists, dubbed them the Void Pacific Choir — a reference to a D.H. Lawrence quote, "People in L.A. are content to do nothing and stare at the void pacific" — and made an entire album using the same techniques. "We were getting ready to release it, and I Iistened to it and realized I didn't like it very much. So I scrapped it completely."
A second attempt at an album was also abandoned.
In the end, he recorded These Systems Are Failing alone in his home's master bedroom, which he has converted into a studio. He points up to its second-floor location, overlooking the pool.
"It's a little weird because I don't have the most sonically insulated studio. So I'm sure that when I'm working on vocals, yelling at the top of my lungs, anybody walking their little Cockapoo down the street is hearing me."
The songs on These Systems Are Failing are, as Moby puts it, more about "the humanity behind the political statement" — so "Don't Leave Me," for example, couches its critique of industrialized animal agriculture in semi-cryptic lyrics written from the point of view of the animals themselves: "Fight for me ... My life's not for me." An accompanying manifesto spells out the album's themes in more explicit terms: "We built great cities, great industries, great systems," it reads in part. "These systems were supposed to serve us, but instead they're killing us."
Moby sees our present societal and environmental ills in anthropological terms. He has clearly read up on the concept of evolutionary psychology. "Everyone's still responding like it's 250,000 years ago," he says. "They're responding to the smallest slight as if it's life-threatening and responding to your next meal as if it might be your last meal."
Though he doesn't claim to have all the answers, he does firmly believe that veganism is at least part of the solution. "The ramifications of animal agriculture are so far-reaching, and most people are not aware of it: climate change, antibiotic resistance, famine, ocean acidification, water use, heart disease, diabetes, cancer, rainforest deforestation. Animal agriculture is the common thread to all of these things."
He rattles off some statistics to prove his point, and behind his dark-rimmed glasses, real anger flashes across his normally placid visage. "Animal agriculture in California contributes 0.5 percent of our GDP and uses 40 percent of our water. It's, it's, it's just nonsense," he sputters, then catches himself. "I have to reign myself in because I get a little crazy about this stuff."
Moby gave up touring years ago, but he hopes to get his album's message out in other ways. He mentions a possible book or documentary (" 'Cause that's what middle-aged guys do"), but more immediately, there is Circle V, a vegan food and music festival, which will have its inaugural event on Oct. 23 at the Fonda Theatre. The benefit for animal-rights non-profit Mercy for Animals will feature food trucks, lectures and discussions with various "vegan luminaries" and performances by Cold Cave, Blaqk Audio, Valida, comedian Jamie Kilstein — and, of course, Moby and the Void Pacific Choir, doing what he jokingly calls a one-show tour.
What made them choose the Fonda? "I'm so provincial," says Los Feliz's least rock & roll rock star. "I need to have a venue I can walk to."
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