In the early '90s, Moby was a popular DJ in the U.K. club scene. He played techno, house and electronica — all genres that weren't really big in the U.S. at the time.
But with the rise of British groups like The Chemical Brothers and Prodigy in the mid-'90s, all of that changed. When Moby released his fifth album, Play, in 1999, the States were finally ready for him: The album would go on to sell more than 10 million copies worldwide, a feat that was unheard of for an electronic artist. Big singles like "Southside" and "Porcelain" were soon featured in everything from TV commercials to movie scores.
Moby's latest album, Destroyed, represents a departure from those pounding club hits. It's much quieter and more introspective, filled with electronic loops, lyrics and melodies that evoke feelings of sadness, solitude and loneliness. Moby tells Weekend All Things Considered guest host Rachel Martin that the album's title was inspired by an experience at New York's LaGuardia Airport, where he passed a scrolling LED sign that read, "Unattended luggage will be destroyed."
"It was a little sign that only fit one word at a time," Moby says. "So I stood there, and every time the word 'destroyed' flashed, I took a picture of it. Somehow, for me, it just summed up the feeling of disconcertion and exhaustion that I have when I've been on tour for a long time."
That photo became the cover of the album — and of an entire book of Moby's photos, also titled Destroyed and released at the same time. Moby says he's been taking pictures for 35 years, just as long as he's been making music. It wasn't until Destroyed, however, that he'd created a photo project he wanted to share.
"I guess what I wanted to do with the photography in this book is show a very different side of touring and life on the road," he says. "There's no shortage of books showing the very glamorous and sexy side of rock 'n' roll touring — backstage parties and private planes and whatnot. Whereas for me, touring tends to be a very strange and isolating experience."
"I'm not complaining. I love going on tour and playing music for people," Moby adds. "But living in this endless series of anonymous, isolated spaces, whether it's hotel rooms or dressing rooms or cars or airports — after a while it does very strange things to your psyche."
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
MARTIN: In the 1990s, Moby took techno music out of the dance clubs and onto the pop charts. For his new album, "Destroyed," he's moving even further from the crowded dance floor into isolation.
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MARTIN: An insomniac for most of his life, Moby wrote the album while he was on tour, alone, late at night, in hotel rooms across the world. The music evokes feelings of sadness, solitude and loneliness. Alongside the record, Moby is also releasing a collection of photographs: images of long hallways, empty dressing rooms, views from the windows of buses and airplanes. It's the view of a musician's life that fans don't normally see.
MOBY: I've been a photographer for as long as I've been a musician, which is 35 years. And for some reason, I've always been really hesitant to show people my pictures. And I guess what I wanted to do, with the photography in this book, is show a very different side of touring and life on the road. I mean, because there's no shortage of books showing the very glamorous, very sexy side of rock and roll touring - you know, of backstage parties and private planes and whatnot. Whereas for me, touring tends to be a very strange and disconcerting and very isolating experience. And so that's what I was, at least, trying to accomplish with the book.
MARTIN: What is isolating about it for you?
MOBY: Well, being on tour, you have this strange juxtaposition between standing on stage in front of 50,000 people, and then being completely isolated in a dressing room that's anonymous and soulless and alien. After a while, it does very strange things to your psyche.
MARTIN: You capture some of the feeling of this loneliness of touring, particularly in "The Broken Places."
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "BROKEN PLACES")
MARTIN: I wonder if you could talk a little bit about where that came from.
MOBY: A lot of the music on the album does have a similar feel to this song, in that it was written in hotel rooms at 4 o'clock in the morning. Or I'd been sitting at a desk, looking out a window at a completely empty city and feeling like I'm the only person alive. I'm certainly the only person awake. And just that sense of solipsism and isolation that on one hand, it is strange and disconcerting. But there's also a sense of comfort to it.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "THE BROKEN PLACES")
MARTIN: Insomnia - you say this is something that you've suffered from for a while. When did it start for you; when did you have start having problems sleeping?
MOBY: Well, the first time I remember having insomnia, I think I was 5 years old. So I've basically had it on and off for about 40 years.
MOBY: And in many ways, I have the single worst job for an insomniac.
(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)
MOBY: You know, like, if I were a farmer and I got to sleep in my bed every night, and go to sleep at the same time and wake up at the same time, I'd probably do OK. But I travel around and sleep in different hotel rooms, and go between different time zones. And I have to make it very clear, I'm not complaining because I choose to live this way. But it is a really terrible job for an insomniac.
MARTIN: What happens to you in those moments when you can't sleep?
MOBY: Well, what I've tried to do recently is get up and do something. I either get up and go for a walk or work on music or take pictures, or do something as banal and quotidian as playing Scrabble on Facebook. But just something so I'm not lying in bed just cursing the fact that I have insomnia.
MARTIN: A lot of these photos evoke that. They look as if they were taken late at night when the rest of the world is sleeping. Is there something different revealed in that time of day?
MOBY: I think so. Because it's the time of the day where the world that we've created is, for the most part, being ignored. And I think that's why I'm so fascinated by empty airports and empty hallways, almost on a forensic level. Like, what does it say about us as a species, these places that we've created for ourselves but when they're completely empty and just sitting there and waiting for us?
MARTIN: So how do you fix this for yourself? So I hear you saying that you - that this isolation is difficult, but there are parts of it that are beautiful to you. Where is your respite? Where do you escape that isolation?
MOBY: Dogs are nice.
(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)
MARTIN: Do you have a dog?
MOBY: Unfortunately, no. I travel too much. But it's - I've sort of made a deal with myself that at the end of this tour - I just moved to Los Angeles, and I actually have a yard. So the deal I made with myself is when the tour is over, I'm going to go back to L.A. and try and have a girlfriend, and maybe have a couple of dogs.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "THE DAY")
MOBY: (Singing) I'll be right here 'til all the pain just disappears.
MARTIN: We're talking to the musician Moby. His new album, "Destroyed," was released last month. So you've got this new album out, and you're out there promoting it. And at the same time, though, it seems like all anyone wants to talk about are comments you've made recently in interviews - made some headlines - comments about pop music today: songs by Ke$ha, Rihanna, Britney Spears. You were quoted in an interview as saying their songs are fun but too manufactured, that they're more like advertising for ringtones - which is pretty tough words, considering some of your music - and I'm thinking some of the more popular songs on "Play," for example - could perhaps be described in the same way by some.
MOBY: Well, I guess there's a difference. When I was describing a lot of contemporary pop music, when I say that it's constructed to be sold as ringtones, I almost don't mean that as a criticism. I mean that anthropologically, it's really fascinating. It's just by my criteria, it's not music, you know? When I think of Leonard Cohen or Neil Young, or Joe Strummer from The Clash, sitting down to write music, you know, they're trying to express themselves passionately through playing guitar and singing. And although in the course of my life I have made some commercial compromises to get my music heard, which meant licensing music to advertisements or movies or TV shows, the music itself was written as an expression of myself.
And so I was willing to sort of, like, make a Faustian bargain in order to get the music heard, but I was never willing to compromise the music itself. And there was also a part of me that always thought it was probably a lot cooler to take money from big corporations then give money to big corporations. If you give money to a corporation, you know, if you buy a car, you're supporting a car company. And if you take money from the car company, it's almost like there's a Robin Hood thing of taking money from the car company and giving it to environmental organizations.
MARTIN: I want to get back into the new album. One of the songs is called "The Right Thing," and it seems to be about this inner struggle between these polar extremes, between the good and the evil. Let's listen to it a little bit.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "THE RIGHT THING")
MOBY: (Singing) One day I know I'm going to leave it all alone, going to leave this, leave this all for heaven. I know exactly, I want to do the right thing...
MARTIN: You talked in the past about your own - kind of spiritual journey. How has that changed as you have grown older?
MOBY: Well, when I was a lot younger, I was a militant atheist. And then almost overnight, I went from being a militant atheist to being a militant Christian. And then I became interested in Daoism because I had a crush on a girl who was a Daoist. And then I had some friends who were interested in Buddhism and Hinduism. So over the years, I've just been a spiritual dilettante. And at this point - I have deep aversion, at this point, to what I would refer to as like, competitive spirituality. You know, when someone believes that their Christianity is better than someone else's Christianity, or their Hinduism is better than someone else's Islam - like that, to me, reeks more of like, professional sports teams that anything pertaining to the pursuit of God.
MARTIN: You have released this book of photographs. You have moved to L.A. into a house, into a neighborhood that feels more like home to you. Are you starting a new chapter for yourself?
MOBY: I have no idea because, like, if I answer yes, that's just an invitation to step out on a street and get hit by a bus, you know. So if I say to you that, yes, this is a new chapter and I'm so optimistic and everything is going to work out, that just means a piano's going to fall on my head. So you know, the best-case scenario, things work out and - we all still die, so it seems like our effort should go towards trying to make - not necessarily understand the universe in which we live, just try and make peace with our role in it.
MARTIN: That's the musician Moby. His new album and photography book, both called "Destroyed," were released last month. Moby, thanks very much for talking with us.
MOBY: Oh, it was my pleasure. I feel like we've had a therapy session. I'll send you $250.
MARTIN: Check's in the mail - I've heard it before.
MOBY: Yeah, OK. Yeah.
(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)
MARTIN: Thank you.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.