A Conversation with Moby: Innocents, Failure and What L.A. Traffic Can Teach You About Life

"I genuinely believe no one has ever learned anything from success," Moby tells TIME

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Eleanor Stills

Back in 1999, a relatively unknown artist named Moby released an album called Play. It was just over an hour long, but every second was packed with layers of samples and synthesizers, seamlessly blending soulful sounds with electric edge to create some of the most accessible electronic music around. The album would go on to sell over 12 million copies, generate nine singles and, perhaps most telling of the sea change it signaled, license all 18 of its tracks for use in commercials, movies and television.

It was also really good — so good that opened the floodgates for the current pop-cultural dominance of electronic music and DJs.

Moby, the now-iconic artist, is about to release his eleventh studio album, Innocents (due out Oct. 1). The album finds Moby working for the first time with a co-producer — he brought in Mark “Spike” Stent, who has worked with Björk, Massive Attack and Muse, to assist with the album’s production. The collaboration resulted in one of Moby’s most ambitious albums to date. The 12 tracks on Innocents show an expansive, energized and fearless experimentalism. They feature work with the Flaming Lips’ Wayne Coyne, indie-folk songwriter Damien Jurado, Mark Lanegan of Screaming Trees and Queens of the Stone Age, Cold Specks, Skylar Grey and Inyang Bassey.

We sat down with Moby to talk about the new album, what you can learn from failure and LA traffic.

TIME: Since you record at home, do you think the type of music that you make has changed now that you’ve left New York and moved to Los Angeles?

Moby: To a certain degree, yes, but my set-up here [in New York] and my studio in LA are almost identical. I could say that moving across the country has influenced me and my music is completely different, but I just don’t know that it is. My environment here is quite monastic, and my environment in LA is quite monastic. When I made records here is was with weird old drum machines and old synths and old guitar amps and in LA it’s with weird old drum machines and old synths and old guitar amps. I think the bigger factor is simply getting older.

How does aging affect how you make music?

It’s hard to talk about this without sounding like a Southern Californian New Age clichéd hippie—but getting older is the human condition. It’s the unavoidable fact of all our lives and there’s something kind of sweet and comforting about that. I had this realization this year when I was driving to Coachella. I don’t know if you know LA that well, but I was driving to Coachella on the 10, which is—short of the Cross Bronx Expressway—one of the ugliest roads in the world. I was looking around and I realized, ‘Oh, no one wants to be here.’ There was this sense of solidarity. Everyone was in their little car and confused and sad and struggling and unhappy to be in traffic. It just seemed like a huge metaphor for the human condition. It doesn’t affect any of us exclusively. So getting older, it’s like, no one is exempt. The only way you’re exempt is if you die. Again I’m just stating the obvious, but we’re living in this culture that wants to pretend that we can keep the human condition at bay. That never happens. It never has happened. Everyone has their own sort of stratagems for staving off the human condition. In Southern California it’s eat well and do yoga but, no, that’s not going to work. In New York it’s read Gawker and go to the Hamptons, but nothing works. It’s almost like my namesake, Moby Dick. The story of Moby-Dick is that. It’s the unwinnable fight and how you approach the unwinnable fight.

How do you think that has affected the way you approach making albums?

My entire life is dedicated to music. To listening to music, to making music, to thinking about music. There’s this life-long compulsive obsession with music, but what’s been happening lately is that I’ve almost gotten rid of all the tangential stuff that surrounds the world of music. I shouldn’t say this but I’m not too concerned about radio plays or press.

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Coming off of an album that sold as well as Play, do you find yourself trying to emulate it at all? Or maybe you totally hate it now?

No, no, it’s a fine album. To mark the 10 year anniversary of Play, I sat down with Rolling Stone and did a track-by-track look back at the album and toward the end I started laughing and told the journalist that it was actually kind of endearing, because when the record came out, they didn’t even review it. Now they are doing this big retrospective on it. My creative heroes like Flannery O’Connor, Henry Moore, Solzhenitsyn, Woody Allen, they just kept working. You work really hard on something, pour your heart and soul into it, put it out into the world and then just get back to work. I think as an ethos, for me, that’s a lot healthier. Post-Play …well, the albums that came out after that actually did better than Play in a lot of countries.

Right, you had a few number one singles in Europe that never got much attention in the U.S.

Right. None. There was a time after that was happening, because it was so unexpected, that it really baffled me. It’s really fun, but it’s overwhelming to go from being a 33-year-old has-been who is making music on broken equipment in his bedroom to being invited to the Versace mansion for the weekend. It was really fun and confusing and I’m really glad that period is done.

Do you think failure or success has had more of an influence on you as an artist?

I genuinely believe no one has ever learned anything from success. Success is like a really distorting mirror. When you look at yourself through the mirror of success, you only see the good parts of yourself, I think, meaning that when a musician makes a record that is successful, he thinks that he has done everything right when the truth is that it’s a fluke. Most success is just accidental. No one who has had success wants to take into account the accidental quality. Failure makes people realistically look at what went wrong. Failure is instructive. I have learned so much more from failure. The only thing I learned from success is that it’s fleeting, it’s arbitrary and ultimately corrosive.

Have you found your success to be fleeting?

Unless you’re Bono or Jay Z, success doesn’t last for too many people. There are so many musicians, writers, directors, actors, hedge fund guys desperate to get back to that level of success that they had and it doesn’t work. At some point you have to let go.

So how did you learn to let go? Especially as an artist who is reliant on album sales, whether you want to be or not?

Part of it was recognizing that the more I pursued conventional success the less happy I was. For example, I was forcing myself to tour more, to go on these really long promotional tours, and I wasn’t happy. I don’t ever want to complain, because musicians who complain, no one should listen to them. My experience though was that I was going out six nights a week and getting drunk six nights a week, trying to have more of everything, but at some point I had to admit to myself that I wasn’t happy.

When you were making this album, how did you deal with those pressures?

The only pressure I felt was trying to make music that I liked. One emancipating variable is that very few people buy records any more. If you’re a poet printing your own poetry books, your expectations of commercial success are pretty realistically limited. If you’re a 47-year old musician making a record in 2013, my expectations for commercial success have to be limited or I have to be willing to make the most horrifying compromises.

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You do work with a lot of collaborators on this new record, though, including The Flaming Lips who are fairly commercially successful and have a draw.

Wayne [Coyne] and I have known each other since 1995 when were both opening for the Red Hot Chili Peppers on tour in Europe. Being the opening act for a stadium rock band, the Chili Peppers were really nice to us, but you are still an opening act, playing at 7:00 at night when people are buying hot dogs. We bonded over that and have been friends ever since. I wrote the song “A Perfect Life” and it kind of sounded like a Flaming Lips song and I thought, if you’ve written a Flaming Lips song why not text Wayne and see if he’ll sing on it. I wasn’t thinking of it as ‘oh this will lead to record sales and radio play.’ It was just that I wrote a happy song and I could imagine Wayne singing on it.

When you write a song and it ends up sounding like The Flaming Lips, is that frustrating or exciting?

My goal as a musician is to make music that, when I listen to it, effects me emotionally. To that end, I don’t really care if the music is innovative or what genre it’s in. I don’t care if it’s me singing or someone else singing. All I care about is that magic moment that came when I was three and a half listening to Creedence Clearwater Revival, that magic moment when you’re completely consumed by your emotional reaction to a piece of music. All I’m trying to do is create that big emotional moment for myself and hopefully other people will have it too.

Listen to the first single from Moby’s Innocents, “The Case For Shame”: