At 51, Moby Considers the Baffling Paradox of Music’s Existence and Subjectivity

When Moby’s fifth studio album, Play, re-entered the charts one year after its release in 2000, it became one of the most unexpected dance music hits of the decade. Selling over 10 million copies worldwide, it catapulted Moby and his minimalist sound to stardom at a time when major electronic artists were beginning to collaborate with stars like Madonna to shift both dance and pop in new directions. With 13 albums to his name to date, a career in photography and film, a passion for animal rights activism and spirituality, Moby remains one of the most famous yet low-key dance music pioneers of the century – and a varied human being at that, too. In this excerpt from his Fireside Chat with Frosty on RBMA Radio, Moby discusses the miracle of music’s existence and the philosophical complexities of his subjective response to it.

Melissa Danis

The first time that I remember hearing music and being almost pathologically obsessed with it would have been, I think, 1968, and I was three years old. I was in the car with my mom. We had this beat-up old white [car], like, you could almost see the street through the bottom of the car it was so rusted, and it had AM radio. I remember we pulled up to the apartment building where we lived in Danbury, Connecticut, and “Proud Mary” by Creedence Clearwater Revival was playing. One of my earliest memories is I refused to get out of the car until the song had finished playing. It was the middle of winter, and it was cold, and the car didn’t really have heat, but I was so transfixed by this song, which I called the “Rolling on the River song.” It’s not just my first music memory. It’s one of my first real memories, and also probably a memory or an experience that presaged becoming a crazy alcoholic, because that level of compulsion definitely is also what fuels addiction.

Creedence Clearwater Revival - Proud Mary

I think there was such a magical quality to experiencing music. Luckily, I’m 51 years old, and it hasn’t dimmed. I’m trying to think of a way to talk about this and not sound either esoteric or grad student-y, but we take music for granted. It’s ubiquitous at this point. It costs nothing, and almost everybody, except for the Donald Trumps of the world, grow up loving music and having profound experiences with music.

What makes that so paradoxical and baffling is that music doesn’t exist. It’s technically just air molecules hitting your ear a tiny little bit differently, which is so odd when you think about it. Music is the one art form that has never had form. The delivery vehicles have had form, whether it’s a wax cylinder or a CD or vinyl, but that’s not music. That’s just a storage vehicle for music. The music itself has never been created. It’s just a manipulation of air molecules. The baffling paradox of music is that it, technically, has no corporeal entity. It doesn’t physically exist, but it makes us cry. It makes us dance. It makes us cut our hair funny. It makes us move across country. It makes us spend tons of money to go stand in a field with 100,000 other people. All these profound experiences – and oftentimes really inconvenient experiences – all in service of having air touch your eardrum a little bit differently. Sometimes, I think it’s hard for us. When something costs nothing and is ubiquitous and is so easy to access, we sometimes can sort of gloss over the strange, baffling miracle of that.

If I hadn’t experienced fame and record sales and whatever in a first-hand way, I would still hold on to this idea that “If only I could sell records, then I’d be happy.” But I sold records, and it didn’t make me any happier.

When I first started making music, I was around nine years old. I started playing guitar, and I studied classical music and music theory, and then I started playing in punk rock bands. It was all very naïve, because I never expected to have an audience. Like, my high school punk rock band, no one came to our shows, and we thought that was okay. That’s the way it was supposed to be. As a musician, when I was a teenager, I worked really hard on music, but I never expected anyone to pay attention, and there was a liberation of that. But at the time I thought that if ever I had an audience, like, if ever I was to sell records and make money and go on tour, that I would be the happiest person in the world. The only difference between then and now is, now I even have a little more freedom, because I’ve made records, sold records, gone on tour, and realized there’s nothing wrong with it, but being a public figure musician doesn’t make me any more or less happy than not being a public figure musician.

It’s almost like in order to move past something, you have to experience it in the first place. Which seems really self-evident, but there’s a truth there. If I hadn’t experienced fame and record sales and whatever in a first-hand way, I would still hold on to this idea that “If only I could sell records, then I’d be happy.” But I sold records, and it didn’t make me any happier. It just made me kind of like a narcissistic dick.

Woody Allen: A Documentary

At this point, the two things in being a musician that make me the happiest are making the music. I have a little studio in my house. I go in there every single day and I work on music. I have a work ethic that was inspired by a bunch of random people, everyone from Henry Mar to Woody Allen to Flannery O’Connor. These people who just worked every day. If you have a good day, go to work. If you have a bad day, go to work. If you’re working on something and people love it, keep working. If you’re working on something and people hate it, just keep working. There’s a Woody Allen American Masters documentary. It’s worth watching because the subtext to it is he just keeps working. When he’s winning Academy Awards, he goes back to work. When his world is falling apart and he’s tabloid fodder, he goes back to work.

I’ve been making records for 34 years. When I was in high school, I put out a couple of punk rock 7"s. Under my own name, I’ve been making records for about 26 years now. During that time, I’ve played around with a lot of different types of music. Not even intentionally – it just seems like a natural extension of who I was and what I wanted to do as a musician. Over the years, lots of people have understandably asked me why I play around with so many different types of music. First few times I was asked that, the question surprised me, because my assumption was like, “Oh, I’m a musician. That’s what we do.”

Then I took a step back and I realized, no, most musicians don’t. Which then begged the question, “Why do jazz musicians only play jazz? Why does Metallica only play hard rock? Why do indie rockers only play indie rock?” I don’t know. I guess there are only two possible reasons: one, because it’s the only type of music they love, or two, it just makes having a career easier. If you’re a musician and you stand for one and only one thing, I’m guessing professionally it makes things easier.

My love for music has nothing to do with genre. I love genres of music, but I don’t have any allegiance to genre. My allegiance is to that ineffable quality that music has to deliver whatever it delivers, whether it’s beauty or transcendence or sadness or joy or whatever. Every genre of music can do that. That’s why I’m not looking for genres. I’m looking for the music that can deliver that emotional, baffling transcendence.

Maybe on some Jungian level we’re imprinted with something that makes us respond to Bach cello concertos in a similar way, but ultimately it’s just that subjective experience.

The way I respond to music is subjective, of course. When I was in college I was a philosophy music. Again, I’m saying stuff in my head to hopefully not sound too crazy or oddly academic, but one could pretty compellingly argue that every experience that we have is subjective. Philosophy’s been concerned – for thousands of years, really since the skeptics – at figuring out if there is an objective world and is there any way to prove or establish that an objective world exists. The conclusion, after a few thousand years of philosophy, is there might be an objective world, but in our subjective lives, we are categorically denied an understanding of what objectivity might be, which is the existential dilemma. Then, what do we do with that? Do we accept it? Do we rebel against it? Do we pretend that’s not the case? Or do we just benignly go around and say that having our subjective experience of things in this human form is pretty interesting, and doesn’t last very long? To that end, the way that everyone responds to music is subjectively. It’s just confusing for us because sometimes you’ll have 100,000 people responding the exact same way to a piece of music, which is subjective collectivism.

I used to work with Oliver Sacks. He started an organization called the Institute for Music and Neurologic Function, where they actually looked at how music is a profound healing modality and how it affects our endocrine system, how it affects neurogenesis, how it affects our immune system, etc... The conclusions that they came to are, yes, music is a truly profound healing modality, but also the way in which everybody responds to music is subjectively. A lot of people say, like, “Oh, but there should be an objective standard for music.” I was like, “Well, no, there isn’t.” We all like certain things. Maybe on some Jungian level we’re imprinted with something that makes us respond to Bach cello concertos in a similar way, but ultimately it’s just that subjective experience.

Mischa Maisky - Bach Cello Suite No.1 in G

I was raised in a very weird, creative family, where my great-grandmother taught classical composition. One of my grandmothers was a painter, my mom was a painter, my uncle was a sculptor, another uncle was a photographer, both my aunts are writers; it was just this odd part of my family where everyone did something creative, and I guess there is an interdisciplinarian aspect to that where, growing up, when I looked at other people’s creative expression, even if I didn’t know what they were doing, there was always the question of intentionality behind it. Why have they made this choice?

It’s one of the reasons architecture fascinates me so much, because architecture is the opposite of music. Cooper Union in New York had this forum where they took musicians and architects and had them do these conversations, and the core question is, “What do architecture and music have in common?” And the answer was nothing. What they have in common is they have nothing in common, because architecture is the most physical of all art forms. Unless you’re talking about computer drawings or something, for the most part architecture is physical. It’s floors and walls and windows and plumbing and electricity and what have you, and music, as we were talking about earlier, is just air.

What excites me sonically, or what excites me musically, is honestly more of the same. Whether it’s me making music or someone else making music, is that moment when it works. Who knows where that’s going to come from. Who knows what form it’s going to take. It’s so unpredictable, but also deeply predictable. That’s exciting. That, right now while we’re talking, someone’s writing an amazing song that will reach tons of people and really effect them all profoundly. That’s great. It could be the simplest song in the world. It could be two chords. James Blake or someone could be writing a song with a chord that’s going to make people weep openly. Or someone’s writing a protest song that will actually, suddenly wake people up and get them to change the world. Who knows?

It’s sort of beautiful now, in a way: Music both costs nothing to make and costs nothing to buy. There’s almost like an externally enforced purity to it. I hope other musicians figure out ways to make money and pay their rent. For myself, I don’t care. I love putting our records and not even for a second thinking about monetizing them. Again, that’s part of just the freedom around it. It is that ineffable magic of just moving air molecules and getting people to cry or dance or have profound emotional experiences, just because someone has pushed air around a little differently.

By Moby on November 9, 2016

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