Photography: Melissa Danis
Moby has always played by his own rules. An electronic music pioneer, he’s experimented with all different genres and sounds, producing records whose only connection is their integrity and heart. From the gritty industrial of his self-titled debut album, to the commercial success of 2002’s 18, the multi-instrumentalist and singer has continually crafted intellectual music, equal parts catchy and socially conscious. His newest release, These Systems Are Failing, as Moby and The Void Pacific Choir, is no exception, combining political analysis with a return to his post-punk beginnings.
A critique of modern politics and technology, These Systems Are Failing is both a post-apocalyptic surrender and a call to arms. The album, and even the name, Moby and The Void Pacific Choir, challenge the often vapid nature of modern pop, confronting the current state of cultural norms and ideologies. The instrumentation follows suit, providing an aggressive backdrop from which Moby questions all of society’s delusion and failure. A return to form and a reinterpretation of his earlier influences, These Systems Are Failing is both before its time and a product of it.
Album opener, “Hey! Hey!” references the original post-punk from band’s like Suicide and Magazine, mixing vicious synths with pounding drums and heavily distorted melodies, while lead single, “Don’t Leave Me,” fuses the jazzier sounds of The Clash with no wave vocals à la New Order. With “The Light Is Clear In My Eyes,” Moby elaborates on the heavy industrial of his early LPs, and on “I Wait For You,” combative synths create hardcore electro-clash reminiscent of his contemporary, Nine Inch Nails. “Are You Lost In The World Like Me?” brings together ’80s new wave with cartoon-inspired synths, as Moby channels Ian Curtis through droning hooks that embody the album ethos. “Are you lost in the world like me?” he sings, “if the systems have failed, are you free? All the things, all the loss, can you see? Are you lost in the world, like me?” With These Systems Are Failing, Moby builds upon the production and emotion of his first releases, joining aggression and optimism to offer up both a scathing cultural criticism and creative solution.
BULLETT called Moby to talk about Los Angeles, the new album and how he hates touring.
Tell me about your new album, These Systems Are Failing.
It’s a lot louder and faster and more energetic than some of the records I’ve made in the past, because when I was working on the record, I was listening to a lot of the older punk and post-punk records I grew up with—everything from The Clash to The Damned, to Killing Joke and Joy Division. The record definitely has a more aggressive sound, and largely that’s because, at this point in my life, I don’t really expect to make money from music. I hate touring, and I never really want to go on tour ever again, so 90% of the satisfaction I get from making a record has to be the act of making it. Then, if people like it or if they don’t like it, it doesn’t really matter that much, because at least I enjoyed making it.
The record sounds like a return to your earlier work. Why did you decide to focus on some of your original influences, like post-punk?
When I was growing up—I was born in 1965 and I remember when I was around 16 or 17, it was the late 70s, early 80s, and it was this really sort of wonderfully chaotic time in music, where there was the birth of hip-hop, there was a lot of punk rock, there was new wave, there was ambient music, there was electronic disco—there was so many things going on, but especially in the world of post-punk, there was just an energy to it that I don’t find in a lot of modern music. I think the music world in 2016 is great, but it tends to be quite conservative, unless you’re talking about speed metal. It’s good, and I’m not saying that as a criticism, but I’m saying, there’s the conservative, sort of restrained side of the music world, but there isn’t anything that’s more explosive or really fast and dynamic. I just wondered, ‘What happened? Where is The Clash and Killing Joke and The Damned of 2016?’ There’s a lot of music that’s very polite, but there isn’t anything that’s exuberant and super energetic—that’s why I wanted to make a record that sounded like this.
What inspired the lyrics? There’s the ‘These Systems Are Failing Manifesto,’ and a lot of your lyrics seem like a call to action.
On one hand, there’s a strong political and social undertone to the record. But in any conversation about politics, or even media and society, there has to be a look at the underpinnings at the ways in which the human condition manifests itself in our choices and our perspectives. I didn’t want to be academic in the way that I looked at that, or didactic, but I wanted to try and understand our political choices, our cultural choices, from almost a more subjective, anthropological perspective.
What was the recording process like?
I live in Los Angeles, and I’ve got a small studio in my house. The name of the band is Moby and the Void Pacific choir, but the truth is, it’s just me alone, in my studio. Technically, I guess making music is my job, but I really just think of it as something I truly love to do. So when I’m working on music, I’m not thinking about career advancement and I’m not thinking about monetizing what I’m making—I’m just so thrilled and happy that I get to spend my time working on music, and that’s it’s own reward. Once the music’s done, once it’s released, all I want to do is go back into my little studio and start working on music again. In 2016, there’s an absurd aspect to that, because almost no one buys music and it’s really hard to make money from music, which is either depressing, or I actually find it to be really liberating.
What was the hardest part of making the record?
Oddly enough, the hardest part for me is figuring out which songs to leave off of a record, because I write between 200 and 300 songs a year, and I think the record has only nine songs on it—that means there are about 291 songs that didn’t make it. Also, because I do everything myself, one of the hardest parts is trying to regain some semblance of objectivity regarding what I’m working on. If you have a band, or an A&R person at the label, or a producer, they can weigh in with their perspective. But if you’re just one person, largely doing everything by yourself, you lose perspective very quickly.
Were you able to accomplish something with this record that you haven’t on previous work?
When I think back to the ‘90s and the 2000s, there was just a lot more commercial pressure. Now, there’s no commercial pressure at all. It would be absurd for me, as a 51-year-old musician, to aspire to commercial relevance—that would be nonsense, and it would also involve a level of compromise that would feel soul destroying. So it’s just really nice being able to work in an environment where I don’t have to, even for a second, think about any commercial constraints or variables, and I guess with every record I make, that becomes more of the case—especially because I don’t tour. It would be different if I was worried about reviews, or worried about ticket sales, or worried about record sales, or worried about whatever. But the only thing I worry about it is trying to make music that I like, and that I feel has integrity.
I’ve never thought of you as a musician that acquiesces to commercial pressure, because your music has been so diverse—you’ve experimented with so many different sounds and genres. Is there a specific reason for that?
I don’t want in any way to be critical of artists who pick their sound and stick with it, because maybe they have good reasons for doing so. But for me, that seems really arbitrarily restrictive—you’d have to really love jazz to only ever play jazz. I like jazz a lot, but I also like speed metal and folk music and disco. I think my allegiance in music, is to how music affects me emotionally. So to that end, I’m not really too concerned with genre—they all have the ability to communicate something that resonates with me emotionally. With my own music, I guess I’d just rather try and make music that I like, that does speak to me emotionally, and not worry too much about what genre it is.
How did you decide on the album title, These Systems Are Failing?
If I’m going to release albums, one of my goals is to hopefully not waste people’s time, and to communicate something that hopefully has some relevance. I feel like I’m being very self-evident in saying this, but if I look at the world in which we live, there are a lot of systems that we’ve created that are destroying us. The only reason we put up with these systems is out of habit, familiarity and profit, for a few people. I feel like, we’re inured to so much that’s bad in the world, just because we experience it on a daily basis. I just want to be part of the conversation that draws attention to that, and maybe encourages us to replace the systems—whether it’s petroleum, whether it’s animal agriculture—all the things that are no longer working, that are just creating misery and destruction. It’s a hard thing to talk about and not sound too bleak and pessimistic, but I feel like we have this last little window to make a change, otherwise the change is going to happen to us, and it’s going to be really dire.
Why Moby and The Void Pacific Choir, if it is just you?
I moved to LA about six years ago and I read this quote from DH Lawrence, where he was being critical about Californians—he said Californians are content to just sit and stare at the void Pacific all day. I thought that was interesting for a few reasons, one of which was—not to sound too nerdy or like a grad student—but using Pacific as an adjective instead of a proper noun, where the void becomes this benign thing. All of human history, we’ve been staring into the void and assuming it’s this dark, malevolent thing. So we fill it with hedonism, we fill it with materialism, we fill it with the church, we fill it with politics, we fill it with anything, always assuming the void is this terrible thing. I thought, ‘Well what if the void isn’t? What if the void is actually quite benign?’ We’re having this adversarial relationship with the void, the cypher from which all things arise, and we assume that it’s this evil thing, so we fight against it. But what if that’s where all our problems come from? From fighting against something that’s actually benevolent.