When Play was released, I kind of thought my career was over,” says Moby. He’s speaking from the sparse, utilitarian Manhattan studio where he recorded the 1999 smash in the years before the walls were dotted with awards documenting its 10 million copies sold. Play wasn’t the first album to make a rock star out of an insular techno nerdnik, but it was the first to make one a pop sensation. An effortless blend of atmospheric swoops, block-rocking beats and bluesy a cappellas nicked from 40-year-old field recordings, Play made post-modernism cuddly, slowly but surely striking a chord with critics and record-buyers alike.
But before that, Moby was basically bumbling around New York as a “has-been.” After years of being a techno wunderkind, he released Animal Rights in 1996, a dark, eclectic, guitar-fueled record built around the punk and metal records that he loved as a teenager. It was a critical and commercial disaster that left him considering quitting music altogether and going back to school to study architecture. “I was opening for Soundgarden and getting shit thrown at me every night onstage,” says Moby. “I did my own tour and was playing to roughly 50 people a night.” Career-wise, it was a low moment. Although, he adds, “I got one piece of fan mail from Terrence Trent D’arby and I got a phone call from Axl Rose saying he was listening to Animal Rights on repeat. Bono told me he loved Animal Rights. So if you’re gonna have three pieces of fan mail, that’s the fan mail to get.”
When he finally recorded its follow-up, Play, there was no sign that the album would perform any differently that his last flop. Moby says he shopped the record to every major label — Warner Bros., Sony, RCA — and was soundly rejected every time. After V2 finally picked it up, his publicist sent the record to journalists, and many of them made a huge production of saying they weren’t even going to listen to it. Released in May of 1999, Play had some good reviews, but wasn’t pushing units out of the gate. “First show that I did on the tour for Play was in the basement of the Virgin Megastore in Union Square,” says Moby. “Literally playing music while people were waiting in line buying CDs. Maybe 40 people came.”
As slow as slow-burners get, Play didn’t pick up steam until the following year. “Almost a year after it came out in 2000 I was opening up for Bush on an MTV Campus Invasion Tour,” says Moby. “It was degrading for the most part. Their audience had less than no interest in me. February in 2000, I was in Minnesota, I was depressed and my manager called me to tell me that Play was Number One in the U.K., and had beat out Santana’s Supernatural. I was like, ‘But the record came out 10 months ago.’ That’s when I knew, all of a sudden, that things were different. Then it was Number One in France, in Australia, in Germany — it just kept piling on.
“The week Play was released, it sold, worldwide around 6,000 copies. Eleven months after Play was released, it was selling 150,000 copies a week. I was on tour constantly, drunk pretty much the entire time and it was just a blur. And then all of a sudden movie stars started coming to my concerts and I started getting invited to fancy parties and suddenly the journalists who wouldn’t return my publicist’s calls were talking about doing cover stories. It was a really odd phenomenon.”
Keep reading, as Moby goes track by track through his breakthrough album explaining the birth of each song:
My friend Dimitri Ehrlich, who is a music journalist here in New York, got this Alan Lomax box set. He had listened to it and wasn’t that interested in it and he gave it to me, and I heard all those great a cappellas. I wrote “Honey” in about 10 minutes. My girlfriend at the time really liked it. And that surprised me because she didn’t really like my music.
Mario Caldalto Jr, the Beastie Boys producer, agreed to mix “Honey.” Keep in mind, at this point, I was a has-been and I knew I was a has-been. I was hanging out at Max Fish and Mars Bar and Motor City drinking with the few remaining people in New York who would still hang out with me. At this time the Beasties had Hello Nasty, which was doing incredibly well, and I just couldn’t believe that Mario Caldato, Jr. was willing to work with me. It came out as a single and did nothing. I think it got played once or twice and disappeared.
“Find My Baby”
Basically just me playing slide guitar over a vocal sample. I added what I thought were hip-hop drums to it. In the ’80s I was DJing a lot of hip-hip. At one point I was working at Mars and I used to keep a microphone by the turntables. Big Daddy Kane and Run-DMC and 3rd Bass and Flavor Flav and everybody would go to this club and get drunk, and I had the microphone. I was the weird white DJ for all these rappers where were drinking and rapping to impress their girlfriends.
Strangely enough, that’s probably the most signature song on the record, and I actually had to be talked into including it. When I first recorded it, I thought it was average. I didn’t like the way I produced it, I thought it sounded mushy, I thought my vocals sounded really weak. I couldn’t imagine anyone else wanting to listen to it. When the tour for Play started, “Porcelain” was the song during the set where most people would get a drink. But then Danny Boyle put it in the movie The Beach with Leo DiCaprio. It was Leo DiCaprio’s first film since Titanic and everyone went to go see it. He used the music so well in the movie. I think that’s when a lot of people became aware of the record.
“Why Does My Heart Feel So Bad?”
“Why Does My Heart Feel So Bad?” was written in ’92 as a really bad techno song. Just mediocre, generic techno. At some point I rediscovered the song and I tried doing it considerably slower, tried to make it mournful and romantic. My manager Barry talked me into including “Porcelain” and my other manager Eric talked me into including “Why Does My Heart Feel So Bad?” It became a big hit in Germany. “Why Does My Heart Feel So Bad?” for some reason struck a nerve in Germany and became a big hit single over there. I thought that was as far as any success for Play was gonna go.
“South Side” oddly enough is my least favorite song on the record. I just don’t think it’s all that interesting. My favorite thing about “South Side” is the subject matter. It’s essentially a song about abject amorality. I love that it’s a happy sing-along pop song about kids that become so inured to violence and become so desensitized that nothing gets through to them. It’s about people who have become so over-exposed to stimuli that nothing matters to them anymore. I like the idea of having subtle, very disturbing lyrics hidden in a happy-friendly pop song. And I also like the fact that no one stopped to listen to the lyrics — which is fine with me.
Gwen Stefani came into the studio while I was recording Play. And this was when the first No Doubt record was doing really well. So I couldn’t figure out why she’d want to go into the studio with me. She was a big rock star and I was a has-been. She came into the studio, she recorded the vocals and she did a great job. But my mixing skills are limited. I couldn’t get a mix with her vocals that worked. I tried and I tried. So the first album version didn’t have her vocals on it. I went back to it a year later and handed it off to a friend who was a good mixer, and he was able to actually do a mix with her vocals that worked. So, that’s why there’s two versions.
Those first five songs — they’re OK. None of those first five songs, which all went on to be fairly successful in some country, I think they’re all OK. But “Rushing” is one of my favorite songs on the record. This is why I should never be allowed to be an A&R person. I remember when I was listening to the demos of the album, “Rushing” was the only song I felt confident about. And I really didn’t change it much from the demo to the finished version.
“Bodyrock” was the song both of my managers tried to get me to take off the record. They thought it was really tacky. They thought it sounded like a Fatboy Slim ripoff — which I guess it kind of did. I like it because the hip-hop sample was off the first mixtape I ever got, maybe in 1981, off of the Mr. Magic Show on WBLS. The guitar is directly inspired by “What We All Want” by Gang of Four. And I thought it was kind of funny to have an orchestral chorus on what is essentially a hip-hip song.
Of all the successful singles on the record, “Natural Blues” is my favorite. It’s quite ethereal and mournful. It almost didn’t make it on the record. I had some friends over and I was playing them songs off the record and they thought it was too weird. I couldn’t get a good mix of it. This guy in England, 1 Giant Leap, he mixed that song and did a really great job so I was able to include it on the record.
It was the only song on the record that was really fun to play live. “Machete” was the only techno song. It’s such a weird song. To me it reminds of that late-’80s EBM. When I was recording it, I was trying to be like Meat Beat Manifesto, Frontline Assembly, Skinny Puppy. That song was my direct influence from listening to too much Front 242.
Again, this is why I should never be allowed to run a record label. Because it’s also one of favorite tracks on the record, even though it’s about a minute long.
“Run On was one of the first songs written and it was really hard to put together, because it has so many samples in it. I didn’t use computers at this point, it was all done with stand-alone samplers. When it was finished, I collapsed in exhaustion. I didn’t know this when I recorded it, but it’s a standard. Everybody’s done it. Elvis Presley did a version of it, Johnny Cash did it. If you were a gospel or country star, everyone covered that song. And I had no idea.
The only songs I really like off Play are the quiet instrumentals. All the songs from here on in, I really like. The first five songs on the record don’t interest me very much, but the last five songs I’m quite proud of.
“If Things Were Perfect”
Remember that band James? Before James became successful they put out some singles on Factory Records. One was called “Hymn From The Village” and “If Things Were Perfect” was the B side. For some reason I liked that title. So when I wrote and recorded this song, even though there’s no relationship between the title and the song, I just gave it that name. I don’t know why. Sort of an homage to James even though the song sounds nothing like James. I did meet [James vocalist] Tim Booth in a nightclub once and he was telling me he quit music to teach yoga. That’s one of the spoken-word songs. That’s the one that was directly inspired by walking around Chinatown, the two bridges area, at like 5 o’clock in the morning. That’s the most New Yorky song on the record.
This still makes me laugh. I recorded a rushed demo to cassette. I could never mix it in a way I was happy with, so I just ended up using the cassette demo on the album. If you listen to it, there’s hiss, there’s tape warble. It’s probably one of the only songs on a 10-million-selling record recorded to cassette. And what’s funny is that it’s been licensed. Oliver Stone used it in a movie, it’s been in a couple really big movies. And every time I hear it in a huge movie, I think to myself, “This is just a crummy demo on cassette.”
The idea with Play is to have this narrative arc, where it starts off energetic and then by the end dissolves into an opiated haze. “Inside” is like having done too much ketamine, because it’s just so numb. Whenever I put it on, I feel like I’m in a K-hole.
“Guitar Flute & String”
I’m the worst judge of my music. This is my favorite song on the whole record. Hands down, bar none. Also recorded demo to a cassette. When Play was released, I didn’t think anyone was gonna listen to it. So I figured towards the end, I will put on the songs that I like. No one’s gonna listen to this record, certainly no one’s ever gonna get this far in the record. Track 15 or whatever? So I put it on there for myself. [The title] is not very inventive. Brought to you by the people that invented the orange.
“The Sky Is Broken”
There’s only three elements in the whole song: really bad drum samples, and old Oberheim Matrix 1000 synthesizer and vocals. It was intentionally very minimal, very austere, very simple.
I never expected anyone to ever listen to this song. It was tagged on to the end because I love music that’s equal parts disconcerting and beautiful — you can get caught up in a sense of beauty, but also it’s unsettling. It’s why I like a lot of late 19th Century classical music like Debussy’s “Prélude à l’après-midi d’un Faune” ̬ I know it’s beautiful but it also makes me feel uncomfortable. “My Weakness” is such a strange piece of music. There’s no drums and it’s this odd African choir loop — I sampled it 12 years ago, I don’t remember what it’s from. What was most gratifying for me when Play became successful was when people liked the more obscure songs. Gillian Anderson used “The Sky Is Broken” in an X-Files. I was so flattered that someone had listened to the whole record.