Moby doesn’t want you to buy his latest album, These Systems are Failing. That’s mainly because the electronic pioneer would rather you donate that money to “a good charity,” as he says over the phone. He also doesn’t believe that people buy or even “believe in” albums in 2016. This conclusion, he notes, is what led him to create The Void Pacific Choir (taken from a DH Lawrence quote) and record the electrifying Systems—his first since 2013’s Innocents (not counting this year’s free download atmospheric record, Long Ambients 1: Calm. Sleep.).
“I felt like I was handed this gift of true creative freedom,” he remarks. “Because even if I wanted to be commercially viable, it didn’t seem like an option. And it would involve so much compromise that I might as well just give up on life at that point.”
The 51-year-old has also lost faith in the structures that bind our very existence. “We built great cities,” he writes in his press-distributed album manifesto. “Great industries. Great systems. These systems were supposed to protect us, to free us, but instead they’ve poisoned our air, killed the animals, butchered the land—and destroyed us. We think we’ve conquered the problems of food production and wealth distribution, yet we’re more miserable than ever.”
Much of Moby’s simmering frustration is what fueled These Systems are Failing, a kinetic grenade of punk and post-punk, funneled into shouted tracks like singles “Hey! Hey!” and “Are You Lost in the World Like Me?” It’s also a sudden departure from much of the material on which he’s built his career—an unfettered combination of pop, club, dance, electronica, techno, house, and ambient sounds. That’s also on purpose. As much as Moby enjoys the low-key (“I was listening to Cat Stevens’ The Greatest Hits this morning”), Systems was directly inspired by the raucous innovators he grew up with: The Killing Joke, The Clash, Magazine.
Below, Moby expands on System’s influences, why he’s decided not to tour anymore, and why Donald Trump “has everything in common” with religious fundamentalists.
Paste: What prompted you to work on These Systems Are Failing?
Moby: Part of it, I guess, was an increasing understanding on my part that as I got older, a lot of things were changing. Meaning my interest in touring was ending. One of my goals in life is to never go on tour again as long as I live. And also I noticed—and I’m going to very much state the obvious—I noticed that people weren’t really buying albums or paying attention to albums. And then I especially noticed that people weren’t paying attention to albums made by 50-year-old musicians who didn’t want to tour. So it then begs the question, as a 50-year-old-musician who doesn’t want to tour, the question became, why make albums?
For me, the reason to a make an album is, one, just the simple joy of being in my studio and working on music. Also, I love the dialect that arises when you release music or anything out into the world; you get to do interviews and help people learn how to respond to it. But given the fact that people don’t buy records, and they especially don’t buy records from 51-year old musicians who don’t tour who are making their 16th record. So my criteria for evaluating both the making of the record and any expectations around the record, any commercial consideration or criteria just kind flew out the window. There is something really wonderful and liberating about that. ‘Cause now as a musician you can make records and just not even think about reviews and not think about radio play and sales. You just make a record for the pure love of making a record. Then you share it with some people and see what they think. Then it helps you hopefully, I don’t know, maybe even gain a better understanding of yourself and what was motivating you in the first place.
Because that’s the context, I felt like I was handed this gift of true creative freedom. Because even if I wanted to be commercially viable, it didn’t seem like an option. And it would involve so much compromise that I might as well just give up on life at that point.
Paste: Who, in your opinion, is an artist that has handled the aging process with grace?
Moby: I feel like there are examples of musicians aging well, like Leonard Cohen and Neil Young. I’m like, “Why not just do that? Do what you love and try to have integrity around it and let your guiding principles be the love of what you do and respect for the potential integrity of music?” I don’t know, I guess I had this realization a few years ago. I was looking at what some other musicians were doing, the constant touring—I’m trying to be very diplomatic, which I really don’t feel like it’s my place to criticize other people, but at the same time if I see other people doing things that I find don’t reflect my values, it makes it easier for me to reject it based on the choices they’ve made.
Paste: Yeah, lifelong touring is not for everyone, even if they’re a musician. It depends on how your body takes to the lifestyle.
Moby: Well, I got sober about eight years ago. Pre-sobriety, touring was a very different thing. Touring was about hedonism and drunkenness, and then hedonism and drunkenness both were no longer options. But also, I just wasn’t interested in them. Suddenly touring felt sad. Being yet another middle-aged musician, standing onstage, hoping people wouldn’t notice that your commercial relevance was waning every year. So you hope that maybe by wearing new clothes or doing something, you know, something new, that people might grant you some of your waning relevance. I’d rather make peace with the fact that part of aging is either giving up that relevance or shifting the relevance.
Paste: Okay, so I have to ask—who else does the Void Pacific Choir consist of? Is it just you? That hasn’t been made very clear.
Moby: It’s just me. [Laughs]
Paste: Just had to be sure. You’ve been a little vague about it.
Moby: Yeah. So what happened was about two years ago I made a record that was very choral. It involved lots of voices. I became a little obsessed with how interesting it was and how easy it was to build choirs in Pro Tools. You could take eight singers and by mic positioning and getting them to sing over and over again, you could build a choir of 300 people. So I made this record that was very choral and I was all set to put it out and I gave it this name, The Void Pacific Choir. Then I took a step back and I realized that I didn’t like the record that much. I really enjoyed making it, but when I listened to it with some degree of objectivity, I realized it just wasn’t very good. I threw the record away and made a new record that was more post-punk inspired that’s really not choral at all. But I liked the name, so I kept it.
My manager wants me to pretend [The Void Pacific Choir] a real band. Every time I say it’s just me, he hits himself in the forehead. He’s like, “No, we’re trying to fool people.”
Paste: Well, These Systems Are Failing definitely sounds like the most energized thing you’ve done in a long time. What made you decide to go in a post-punk direction here?
Moby: When I was growing up I was obsessed with Killing Joke, and The Clash, Joy Division, and this obscure-ish band from Manchester called Magazine. And I guess the world of post-punk, where it had the energy of punk rock with a broader sonic palette and more personal subject matter, lyrically. Over the last few years I found myself—and I’m sure you’ve had this experience—where you’re listening to the radio and you’re listening to playlists on Spotify, and a lot of modern music is great, it’s really interesting, and lovely and nuanced. But there was this little itch in my brain, where I kept asking, “Where is the Killing Joke of 2015? Where is The Clash of 2015? Where is celebratory, passionate, intent music?” It’s almost like a Sherlock Holmes thing, trying to find something that isn’t there. And so I would go back listen to my old punk-rock records, and I’d be listening to The Damned or XTC, Echo and the Bunnymen. And I sort of asked myself then, about a year ago, I was like, “If you’re listening to this energetic post-punk music, why don’t you make an energetic post-punk record, because it’s clearly what you love.” Quiet music is great, but there’s a lot of very quiet music out there now. There’s a lot of very restrained, downtempo indie rock and electronic music. And it’s lovely and it’s great, but I just wondered, where’s the counterpoint to that?
Paste: Your mission statement for this record notes that pop music can and should be infused with substantive ideas. How do you feel you’ve done that here?
Moby: I’ve always wanted to write lyrics or have songs that were issue-oriented or political, but I never knew how to do it. And the bar had been set so high by Joe Strummer and Neil Young and John Lennon and Chuck D. So whenever I tried to write issue-oriented music, it ended up being really dry and didactic. But then I guess, with this record, I liked the idea of doing something that was both personal but sloganeering, like borrowing a little bit from glam rock. But trying to make something that wasn’t just esoteric and too self-involved. The world in which we live, there are a lot of super-important issues that at the very least are worth discussing. And I like escapism, but I also think that sometimes art and artists should deal with issues that are not just esoteric and escapist.
It’s hard because on one hand, I love being strident and didactic, but stridency and didacticism don’t necessarily make for the most engaging music.
Paste: It’s hard not to ask if the timing of the record has anything to do with the election cycle…
Moby: It’s completely accidental. Insofar as I can have at the degree of objectivity around what I do, but when I listen to the music on this record, to me it sounds kind of like the zeitgeist right now, which is such a bizarre accident. I made this strained, borderline angry record, and then I watched the debate last night and I was like, “Huh, was I accidentally channeling some weird abilities regarding that? It just seems like an accidental dovetailing of me and this weird zeitgeist.”
Paste: Whether or not it was intentional, the timing does feel fitting.
Moby: There’s a video we’re putting out in a couple of days, and it’s so good. I can say that because I really had almost nothing to do with it. It’s this animator named Steve Cutts, who had done this video called MAN, which was the greatest thing I’ve ever seen. I email-stalked him and begged him to make a video for me. We talked a couple of times, and I suggested some ideas, and he’s made this video that is so wonderful. I’m beside myself. It’s so political and personal, but its animation, so it’s funny and heartbreaking.
Paste: Animation is sometimes the best way to address politics. Look at South Park, look at The Simpsons.
Moby: That is the sort of ironic or paradoxical aspect of pop culture is that the most relevant voices are comedians and animators. When I think of John Oliver and Stephen Colbert and Seth Meyers and Samantha Bee, these are the only media voices I respect at this point. Occasionally Chuck Todd if he challenges one of his crazy right wing guests. But Family Guy, The Simpsons, and South Park have done a better job of representing politics and current events than almost any of the news outlets.
In a way it’s almost like punk rock. They have a remarkable message, they have great integrity, but they’re also super enthusiastic about it.
Paste: Your album statement also spends a lot of time noting how different “systems” are failing us. While you were writing, what systems were you thinking about that have perhaps failed you?
Moby: I can’t be so aggrieved to say that systems have necessarily failed me. But if I look at it—and this may sound overly grand—but our species has this acceptance of the systems in our lives simply due to familiarity and a degree of comfort. But that familiarity and comfort has slaughtered our objectivity and also our well being. And that is one of the things I’m hoping to do, is just to, not even start a process in which people may regain objectivity, but to continue that process. I think that you and I and most of the progressive people on the planet are largely re-evaluating a lot of these older systems. For everything, from energy to education to the environment, what have you.
My hope is that we figure out a way of replacing the most pernicious systems with more benign systems before we’re destroyed by them. Not to overstate it, but when I was watching the debate last night, this sounds overly melodramatic but I feel like the world is in the middle of this battle between people who are willing to move forward in a sane, rational way and people who are vitriolically lashing out against anything that resembles progress.
To that end, I see Trump is having everything in common with Islamic fundamentalists and Christian fundamentalists, and nationalists and xenophobes and what binds them all together is that profound, atavistic fear of progress. They want to retreat to this era of an oil-fueled vicious patriarchy. Then you have the people who in a weird way, the people who quite literally benefit from it, the Koch brothers, whomever, I almost understand them more, because they have financial benefits from keeping the status quo the way it is. It’s the people who are just, so fueled by fear and insecurity, and they end up being like these crazy pit-bulls who’ve been fed ground glass, like Trump, Steve Banno and Giuliani. It’s so hard to think that as a species, I’m technically the same species as these people. It really makes me doubt our DNA.