The New BIG Moby Interview
Morgen gaat A&Gallery opnieuw open - na een paar dagen rust, al is dat sterk relatief. Niet dat ik het tegenwoordig enkel nog over de galerij kan hebben, maar ik ben er intussen al een paar maanden intensief mee bezig en het besef dat ik nog tot 4 juni verantwoordelijk ben voor een 'plek' die van woensdag tot zaterdag (telkens van 13u tot 22u) open moet zijn, is nog steeds aan het groeien. Het enthousiasme over de vernissage en de eerste week maakt het uiteraard ook erg prettig, en dan moet de tentoonstelling van Sophie Van der Perre nog geopend worden - vernissage is morgen tussen 19u en 22u, en ik ben er érg opgetogen over. Vanzelfsprekend, maar toch.
Intussen loopt ook de expo van Moby verder (tot 4 juni, dus) en omdat nog niet iedereen The Moby Gazette in handen heeft gekregen, staat hieronder het interview dat ik vorige maand met hem had. Oh, en in verband met de krant: als je weet hebt van leuke plekken (in ons land) waar de krant zou moeten liggen (maar dus duidelijk nog niet ligt): let me now! We hebben ons uiterste best gedaan om hem zo wijd mogelijk te verspreiden, maar het kan altijd zijn dat we een coole plek (of twee) zijn vergeten.
MUSICIAN TURNS PHOTOGRAPHER
Moby: “Excuse me! I’ve been taking pictures for 35 years.”
You undoubtedly know him as a musician but what you most likely didn’t know is that Moby has also been a keen photographer ever since he was a kid. “I was a real darkroom rat”, he told us when we met up last month in Brussels. “So it’s not like I’m celebrity #376 picking up a digital camera and taking some photos – I’ve paid my photo-chemical dues!”
I first met Moby in the summer of ’99 when he was playing at Les Nuits Botanique – a not too big, not too small indoor festival in Brussels. The album Play had already come out but it had yet to sell the millions of copies it eventually ended up selling – which is probably why I got the interview in the first place (because I was only working for a student radio station at the time). Ever since, I had the pleasure of talking to Moby every couple of years, about music and stuff. Then, in the summer of 2008, we photographed him for our black & white series Angels & Ghosts – the result of that shoot you can see on this page.
Three years later, it seems like the roles have been reversed. Or at least, they’re different. Angels & Ghosts is about to be transformed into a gallery; Moby is about to publish his first book as a photographer. The book is called Destroyed and Italian art book publisher Damiani (which recently also put out photo books by Tom Munro, Yelena Yemchuck and Harri Peccinotti) describes it as “a litany of intriguing photo images taken all over the world – a by turns stark, poignant, amusing and beautiful cavalcade of surreally deserted cityscapes and urban ‘non-places’; airport buildings with endless corridors that seem to lead nowhere; and semi-abstract compositions of cloud forms and landscapes shot from airplane windows.”
At the same time, Destroyed contains a vast number of crowd pictures, as snapped from the stage. As Moby puts it, “Touring is all contrasts and strangeness, and that's what I'm trying to convey in these pictures.”
Destroyed is also the title of Moby’s new album – “a soundtrack for empty cities at two in the morning,” according to the artist’s copywriter. “It fluctuates with nocturnal feelings of anxious isolation and comfort in quiet solitude. The songs on the album were written mostly late at night; in hotel rooms around the world when cities had gone to bed and the insomnia that worldwide travel can induce fueled Moby’s need to create.”
I remember writing a review about your previous album Wait for Me and calling it dark and melancholic. Then I read the press release of Destroyed and it’s like Wait for Me was a joyous pop album!
Moby: “Well, I think they’re both fairly melancholic records. Then again, I’m the worst judge of my own music. When I’m making a record, I pretty much do everything by myself: write the songs, play the instruments, do the engineering. So by the time the record is finished, I have no objectivity and no perspective whatsoever. Sometimes I’ve made albums whose meaning have changed drastically over time – I hear them completely differently today than when I made them. Having said that, I think Destroyed definitely has a certain quality of melancholy and loneliness to it but at the same time I was trying to make an album that has a sense of warmth and comfort to it as well.”
A year ago, you told me you were thinking about making a double album – one side electronic, the other acoustic or maybe even orchestral. What went wrong?
Moby: (Laughs) “I still want to make an all-acoustic album one day because that’s what I grew up playing. When I was very young, I played classical music and even today I still really like the idea of making a completely non-electronic album. At the same time, I really love electronic music and when you’re making an album in hotel rooms late at night, it sort of limits the possibilities in terms of working with a lot of instruments. But even though it’s really electronic, there are a lot of orchestral elements in it. I guess you could say the idea of doing something acoustic didn’t make it but I did end up combining electronic and orchestral music.”
In a recent interview with Wired, you said ‘it really helps if you only know how to do one thing because then you have no fallback plan – I think it’s a key component for success’. Of course, you were talking about making music but now you’re also proclaiming to be a photographer. That’s two things.
Moby: “I think the key to success is twofold: to only know how to do one thing and to love what you do. For example, there have been so many times in my life when my career as a musician didn’t work out. In the late eighties, I was living in an abandoned factory, in a crack neighborhood and I was making about 6,000 dollars a year. I was broke, I was hungry, I had no running water and I didn’t know how to do anything else so I just kept working on my music. I’m glad I did. (Laughs) About me being a photographer, now that’s a whole different story. Destroyed is my first photo book but I’ve been a photographer since I was ten years old. I grew up working in dark rooms, shooting film, being a photo assistant; I just never felt the need, let alone comfortable sharing my work with anybody else. Even now, 35 years later, it still feels strange but I’m glad I’ve made this book.”
I’m a bit puzzled though because when I talked to you around the same time last year, I asked you whether you would ever publish a photo book. Your answer: ‘I don’t think that will ever happen.’
Moby: (clearly puzzled as well) “Huh. I guess it shows that up until recently, I never thought of actually doing anything with my photography. It’s only when I showed some of the images in this book to a couple of painter friends of mine in New York that the idea of doing a book slowly started to grow inside my head. They really encouraged me to look into it while I never – in all those years – started seeing myself as a professional photographer. Now my uncle, he really was one – working for The New York Times and National Geographic. He was also the one who gave me my first camera: an old Nikon F camera, the standard workhorse camera for professionals in the '60s and '70s. Compared to what he did, I was an enthusiast, not a professional.”
But you also studied photography, right?
Moby: “Right. When I was in college. They had these annoying darkrooms that led me to develop obsessively so other people wouldn't steal my chemicals. It kind of reinforced my belief in the DIY aesthetic.”
What really struck me about the photos in the book is that there are a lot of people in them but no real persons. It’s like you prefer big crowds to intimate encounters?
Moby: ‘Or maybe I’m just really shy? (Laughs) Actually, I am kind of shy so I never take that many photos of people. But it’s an interesting point you make because I feel that is exactly what Destroyed is all about. The book is a quite formal documentation of what I experience when I go on tour and yet it’s also a very unconventional touring book. Most books about touring involve guitars, sweaty musicians and packed tour busses. They show either the gritty or the glamorous side of touring. I document the strange side of touring: empty hotel rooms, weird airports, flying over odd deserts in Chili, the strangeness of being backstage in an anonymous dressing room and then suddenly being in front of 50,000 people. So in all honesty: on my tours, I don’t ‘experience’ that many people. It tends to be either 50,000 people or nobody – which I’m sure, psychologically, can’t be very healthy.”
Yeah, but surely you must have some friends while you’re on tour?
Moby: “Well, just to be clear on this: I like people. It’s just that, esthetically, I like formal compositions. So if you look through the photo book, you’ll see most photos are exactly that: formal and conventional. And it’s hard to do that with people. People don’t have angles. Also, as a species, when we see a photograph of a human, we don’t notice their environment. Our eyes immediately go towards the human. We look at their facial expression, we look at what they’re wearing – things I’m just not that interested in. I’m really much more fascinated by our environment. So I think that’s one reason why I – for the most part – left humans out of the book. But I also really wanted to create that strange juxtaposition of empty spaces and spaces filled with a couple of thousand people because that’s definitely the single strangest thing about life on the road.”
So models really needn’t bother?
Moby: “Oh, I’d like to work with models. I just wouldn’t know what to do with them – apart from putting them in clown costumes maybe. Wait! That might actually be a good idea: models in clown costumes submerged in tanks of water. I could make a whole series! Okay, that’ll be my next project.”
Yes, well. Let’s talk about André Kertész, who you list as a major influence on your work. Do you know that Kertész – despite being one of the most influential photographers of the 20th century – considered his body of work to be hugely overlooked? Basically, he wanted more recognition. What about you – as a photographer?
Moby: “Do I want to be recognized as a photographer? No. Just like I was never hoping to get recognized as a musician. I just really love making music and I really love taking pictures. Of course, I also really love that I have an audience; that there are people willing to listen to my music and look at my pictures. The fact that they also talk about them makes me feel really humble and thankful. Bottom line though: I just love the medium of photography and how ubiquitous it is, how powerful it can be, how it can take our world and show it back to us or how it can even create worlds that have never existed. For me personally, part of the appeal of photography is to better understand the world I live in and to better understand those moments of my life – to document experiences that are odd or personal and to re-examine them.”
Right, but all of that was fine when you just took those pictures for you and your friends to see. You might have even put them on your website or Facebook without anyone really noticing. Putting out a book changes all that. Now, you’ll have photo critics judging your work.
Moby: “And I’m a little concerned about that. There’s a long tradition of musicians trying to be visual artists or putting out photo books. Usually, their work isn’t very good. The only thing that makes me feel qualified to do this is that I’ve been shooting photographs for so long. And also, strangely enough, the reaction from the photo world thus far has been surprisingly good. I’m pretty sure somewhere down the line there will be someone who does not like what I do but so far I’ve had no complaints.” (Laughs)
What is it about André Kertész that appeals to you most?
Moby: “His ability to combine spontaneity with composition. He’d be in a hotel room taking a picture of the street and it would be accidental but the composition would be very formal. I appreciate people who approach photography almost like set design, but I also love the idea of finding that which is strange or disconcerting or beautiful and documenting it.”
Which other photographers have been important to you?
Moby: “Well, my biggest inspiration, from the time I was about five years old, is Edward Steichen – because the only art book we had at home was a Steichen book. I used to go through it obsessively, to the point where the images are burned into my consciousness. A more recent influence has to be Wolfgang Tillmans. Why? Because in the ‘70s and ‘80s, photography techniques almost took precedent over composition. Then Wolfgang Tillmans came along and said: ‘by the way, if you have a crummy little instamatic camera you can make remarkable images as well.’ There’s something really liberating about that.”
If you could ask any photographer on earth to take a picture of you, who would that be?
Moby: “That’s a hard question. (Thinks for about four seconds) Wolfgang Tillmans already shot me a couple of times so I think I will go for Sally Mann. She’s definitely one of my favorite photographers. Or you know what would be interesting? There’s this Japanese photographer called Hiroshi Sugimoto, who shoots very minimal, very abstract photographs. It would be fascinating to see what he would do if he took a portrait of someone.”
You told me you started out as a darkroom rat. Do you still shoot on film?
Moby: “No, I don’t anymore. The first and primary thing is the environmental aspect: developing film stock exposes you and the environment to a nasty array of chemicals. So the less film I use, the better off we all are. Digitally, I can shoot as much as I want – without having to worry about the cost to the environment. Other than that, a lot of what I shoot is still SLR. I also continue to shoot manually even though I have an automatic digital camera. I just like to be able to control exposure and depth-of-field. When it comes to the actual processing though, I’m a bit clueless. I have photographer friends who are real Photoshop wizards: they’ll chop up a photo into its component parts, brighten some, take some out of focus and move things around. Maybe it’s laziness or respect for the original image, but I don’t touch the image very much.”
I was rather surprised to find out you’ve moved to Los Angeles recently. I always pictured you getting a statue next to Lady Liberty one day. But then I remembered something David Lynch once said to me – something about the light in LA being absolutely perfect to shoot movies in. So you’ve moved to LA because of the light?
Moby: (Laughs) “If you mean sunlight, you might actually be right: I like to be warm in winter. But the most important reason for me moving to LA is that New York has become so expensive that artists can’t afford to live there anymore. When I moved to the city in the ‘80s, it was all falling apart. New York was edgy, dark, fascinating and attracting thousands of writers, musicians, all sorts of artists. Over time, New York has become a very rich place. My neighborhood used to be populated with artists; these days there are only hedge fund managers and Wall Street employees. That’s why the eastside of LA, where I moved to, feels like coming home. It’s this really fascinating creative community with lots and lots of artists. Plus: LA is such an inexpensive city – anyone can live there. You can get a big enough space to work in and still be able to pay the rent.”
Okay, but seriously: is LA light better than New York light?
Moby: “I think … (Pauses) You know, I think I like LA better at night. In a strange way, David Lynch might have also been talking about how this city looks at night – with its strange fluorescent lights that make for interesting illumination. There’s a real emptiness to it at night because it doesn’t have the concentration that other cities have. After dark, some of the streets really empty out. Like if you watch Inland Empire, David Lynch shot most of that movie at night, when LA becomes an even more messed-up city than during the day. I mean, it’s warm and beautiful in some places but it’s also this strange, crumbling, almost apocalyptic city as well. And then there are so many different cities within LA. There’s downtown, which actually looks like a city. There’s Beverly Hills, which is strange, sterile and manicured. There’s Hollywood, which still has crack heads and trannies walking down the street. And then you go up in the hills and there are mountain lions, coyotes and rattlesnakes. These are all reasons as to why I just have to live in LA right now.”