SPIN 30: Moby Recalls His ‘Everything Is Wrong’ Phase
We're revisiting a few of our picks for Album of the Year — today, Moby's super-eclectic dance crossover
On March 19, 1985, the first issue of SPIN hit newsstands. To celebrate our 30th anniversary, we’re revisiting a handful of records that the staff has previously awarded “Album of the Year,” a distinction the magazine started giving out in 1990.
Twenty years later, the Moby we know of today is virtually unrecognizable as the Moby of Everything Is Wrong. Angry, impetuous and boundlessly hyper, 1995 Moby ping-ponged among sounds, moods, and voices on Wrong like a pre-teen discovering caffeine for the first time. It’s a dance album the way that Sign o’ the Times was a funk album or Stankonia was a hip-hop album, using the base genre as a jumping-off point, but only really united by the energy of the songs — the first three tracks alone span a lush, beatless instrumental zephyr, a hi-NRG diva-house romp and a distortion-soaked industrial/metal rager. “I didn’t think anyone would actually listen to it,” Moby says now, over the phone. “I just had this weird opportunity to make a record, and I wanted to put as much random disparate stuff on the album as I could.”
Though today he’s much better remembered for his multi-platinum-selling, endlessly commercialized (and significantly more serene) 1999 album Play, Moby recalls the period surrounding the far more modest success of Everything Is Wrong as still being beyond his wildest dreams. “Things kept happening that were so bafflingly nice,” the Herman Melville descendant remembers. “Being asked to be at Lollapalooza with Sonic Youth, Pavement, and Beck, that was very surprising. Then, being asked to tour with the Red Hot Chili Peppers and the Flaming Lips, and then ‘God Moving Over the Face of the Waters’ being used in Heat... Then, the last really super nice thing was Everything is Wrong being named SPIN’s album of the year.”
Moby talked with SPIN about our then-favorite album of ’95, sharing his inspirations behind the LP’s ahead-of-its-time eclecticism, his memories of being dissed at a party by a Sopranos writer, and his reasoning for following the album with 1996’s controversial post-grunge excursion Animal Rights.
So let me start, do you remember the album being named album of the year on SPIN?
Yeah, I remember a lot about it. I specifically remember when the woman I was working with at the record company called me to tell me, because I think that she had been good friends with someone who worked at SPIN, so she found out a little bit before — earlier than she probably should have. So she called me and made me promise to not tell anyone.
I had just finished touring with the Red Hot Chili Peppers in Europe, and I just remembered thinking to myself, contextually, that I had never, ever even expected to have a career as a musician. I thought that I’d spend my entire life teaching community college and making music that no one would ever listen to. In 1995, I had this five-month string of baffling good fortune, meaning I did Lollapalooza, and then I went on tour with the Chili Peppers, and then I did music for this Michael Mann movie, Heat, and Everything is Wrong was named album of the year. And all of this stuff would have been amazing, I imagine, in any sort of context, but especially in the context of me working under the assumption that I would never even have a record deal. It was, like, sort of disconcertingly nice.
You had had some success too at that point, right? “Go” was a top-ten hit in some countries.
Yeah, [but] it was something about reading grown-up music magazines, Rolling Stone and SPIN. Basically, in the early ’90s, there was the dance world, of which I was a part, and that was a world that I knew, and then there was some more… I don’t want to use the word “legitimate,” but I guess more established world of SPIN and Rolling Stone and major labels. Basically, you could be the biggest dance artist in the world in the early ’90s, and your aunts and uncles would have no idea. But, if your record got reviewed in SPIN, there’s a good chance the people in your family might actually read it.
So there was a degree of legitimacy conferred with that, and I also think I was very surprised that in 1995, electronic music had been this almost maligned ghetto. Except for, and I’m not saying this just to be sycophantic, but there were a few journalists at SPIN who kept trying to champion electronic music. That also made having the Album of the Year even more surprising, because I was coming from this genre that had been the sort of maligned, bastard stepchild genre of the last few years.
So was that a specific goal that you had with Everything is Wrong, to try and break the crossover world a little bit?
Oh no, not at all. I just wanted it not to be terrible. It was my first album. I had put out a bunch of singles before that, and then in the ’80s I played in a lot of hardcore punk bands, and put out singles in the hardcore scene, but this was my first legitimate album, and it was coming out on Elektra and Mute. So basically, I wanted to make a record that almost served as a lifeboat for the songs I cared the most about. Honestly, I was just trying to make it good.
Did the success of “Move” affect the production of the album at all?
Mm, it probably should have, but I don’t think, no. When I look back on it with a little bit of perspective, Everything is Wrong is this strangely eclectic record, but it wasn’t my intention to make it strangely eclectic. Somehow, when I made the record, it just made sense to me. I remember one of my managers saying to me, “If you just left out a few of these songs and put a few more dance tracks on there, it probably would mean more in the dance community.” But, that seems like really arbitrary criteria to use when picking songs to put on a record. I guess from my perspective, the criteria was “How does the record affect me emotionally?” [and] not what sort of genre cohesion does the song collection create.
I wanted to ask about that, the eclecticism, especially concerning the first three tracks. Did you choose those as the first three tracks — “Hymn,” “Feeling So Real” and “All That I Need Is to Be Loved” — just to put it all out there, and make it almost as jarring as possible to people who were expecting only an ambient album or only a dance album?
I wish I could say yes. The truth is, that’s just what sounded good and right to me. It might also be an issue of just a lack of perspective. I think often, when musicians make a record, they’re working with a producer, they have very active A&R, they have other people in their band, so musicians’ solipsism is always going to be challenged by the other people making the record, and most of the records that I’ve made have never really had anything to challenge my solipsism, which is okay, but sometimes has yielded really strange results that weren’t supposed to be strange.
The only thing I can compare it to… my friends who have kids just make these choices that are completely baffling. A friend of mine who has a kid just decided he only wants to wear brown and purple. To this kid, it makes perfect sense, why he should only wear brown and purple. That’s kind of what my thinking was. I wasn’t trying to do anything terribly challenging. I wasn’t even thinking in any terms of meta-eclecticism, just, literally, this is all that made sense.
What kind of care did you put into the track order? Was there a governing principle, or a logic that you were using?
It was purely subjective. The criteria was: Did I like every individual piece of music? What sort of compelling juxtaposition was created from song to song? I also think, not having ever thought about this before, it was a function of having been a DJ for a long time. When you’re a DJ, you kind of have to be cohesive or people will stop dancing and you’ll get fired. If you’re DJing and you play a Dead or Alive song, and then a Hank Williams song, and then a Pantera song, there’s a good chance you’ll get fired. I feel like with this album, it was the first time I had the opportunity to pick songs purely on what I like and the sonics, and the emotional resonance of the music, without having to adhere to anything cohesive. It’s like if you let a kid make breakfast, it’s not uncommon to have a bowl full of Oreos with Matchbox cars in it.
The moment on the album that really stood out to me recently was when the distortion starts to cut out at the end of “What Love?” and the bass line from “First Cool Hive” starts to seep in. It shouldn’t work because it’s such a jarring juxtaposition, but it’s kind of cool. I think it works much better than something more obvious would have.
Yeah, and I think partially, it’s also a product of when I was growing up. My favorite musicians made eclectic records. If you go back and listen to the Beatles’ White Album, that’s a bizarrely shaped record. So I think that sort of established a sonic template.
I think there’s also a practical utility of having an unconventional track selection for an album. If you can wake up the listener with every new song, it increases the chance they’ll listen to the entire album. I’m sure we’ve both had the experience when someone gives you an album, and it’s a pretty good record, but by track three your ears are numb. Simply because tracks one, two, and three are really similar… you almost think to yourself, “Well, there’s ten more tracks. Why do I need to listen to them when, probably, the rest of their album sounds exactly the same as these three tracks?” I think if you can surprise people a little bit, A) it wakes them up at every song, and B) it sort of establishes a curiosity principle that makes them want to see what’s next.
Do you feel like that idea was almost a little ahead of its time, considering that now, in the age of Spotify playlists, that can be the predominant way that people listen to music. Not necessarily as these cohesive albums, but as tracks running up against each other, that don’t really have much to do with each other. Do you think Everything Is Wrong sort of predicted that in a way?
If it did, it was a complete accident. This is a really interesting conversation because it’s like retroactive therapy, trying to figure it out. Trying to remember, and almost forensically figure out intention from 20 years ago. When I was growing up, I was obsessed with early-20th-century artists, like the Dadaists and surrealists, and looking forward to the Situationists and the Fluxus. Then when I was in junior high, I became obsessed with punk rock and the no wave thing. One of the things I loved about [all those groups] is their willingness to joyfully point out how arbitrary everything is.
So when I was growing up playing in punk bands, the enemy that my friends and I shared was the arbitrary adherent to cohesion. Whether it was food, music, art, literature, clothing, I think we just had this understanding that everything was arbitrary. Genre, especially on a compact disc, is arbitrary. So, I think, to some extent, the eclecticism of the album was just personally subjective. If there is a prescient quality to it, I think it’s just simply that as technology has changed, more and more people have come to recognize the fact that genres are arbitrary, especially at this point, when people make albums on their laptop.
How did you get hooked up with Mimi and Rozz, the guest vocalists on the album?
Oh, so Mimi Goese, she had been in this band called Hugo Largo, and they’d put out a couple of records in the ’80s, and I just thought they’re sort of an overlooked, experimental indie band. They made these records that were just beautiful, and I really loved her voice, so one of my managers said, “Oh, you’re making your album, do you want to have any guest vocalists?” And she was the only person I could think of. We reached out to her, and it turned out she lived a block away from me. She had never really been exposed to dance music or electronic music, but she was really open to it. The two songs that she sings on were instrumentals, and I sort of just handed them to her. I had absolutely nothing to do with the lyrics and the vocals, and I love them.
Rozz, I’d been in England, and I had to record “Move.” I think it was that, and we were doing Top of the Pops, and I needed a singer very last minute, and she was available. We were rehearsing, and I thought she had this beautiful voice, so that’s how that happened.
Did you think that “Everytime You Touch Me” had a chance of crossing over to Top 40? That was kind of the sound at the time, that hi-NRG, Real McCoy-type sound.
Yeah, it’s certainly a pop song. I think the record label thought that was going to be their big pop single, and we made a really embarrassing video for it. I wanted it to be sexy, so, I had this really embarrassing idea. I sort of said, “Why don’t we hire models, and I will eat food off of them.” Thinking that this is sexy, it was the only way I could eat food off of models, but the issue was I’m a vegan, so the food choices were kind of limited. One of the foods I went out and got was chocolate pudding, so we shot all these scenes of me eating chocolate pudding off of one of the models, and Julie calls me from the editing room and says “We can’t use this because it just looks like you’re eating poo.”
That would have been a great ’90s concept for a music video, though.
Yeah, that would have been, like, a Nine Inch Nails video. So I think that was the one people thought was going to the big single, and that came out and did nothing.
Was that disappointing? Was that even a goal of yours at the time?
No because at that point, the record had done so much better. I thought it was going to come out and disappear, and I don’t mean that in a self-deprecating way, I literally thought, “Here’s this weird record, it’s going to come out and no one’s going to like to it. Maybe it’ll get reviewed at a couple places. But beyond that, I had no real hopes or expectations for it.
Was “God Moving Over the Face of the Waters” recorded specifically for Heat, or with Heat in mind, or did Michael Mann use it after he heard it on the album?
The latter. We recorded it, it was on Everything is Wrong, and I think KCRW, the college radio station in LA…. the DJs are all music supervisors. I think the music supervisor on Heat [who worked at KCRW] liked the songs on Everything is Wrong and played some for Michael Mann, and that’s how “God Moving Over the Face of the Waters” got in that movie.
How did that make you feel when you saw it at the end? Are you a fan of that movie?
Yeah, remember at the beginning that things kept happening that were so bafflingly nice? I’d had songs in movies before, and usually when they license the song, they use three seconds, and it’s like: the car drives by a café, and you can hear the song for two seconds in the café. The fact that he used six-and-a-half minutes of “God Moving Over the Face of the Waters” — I didn’t know that could happen.
Do you have another favorite use of songs from that album in movies or television? Like, do you remember when The Sopranos used “When It’s Cold, I’d Like to Die” in the last season?
I’m ashamed to admit this, but I’ve never seen it. I was talking to, I forget, who’s the man who wrote… not the director….
Oh yeah, I think that was him. He’s a big writer-director, and I was at a party and he told me he was one of the people who made that happen, and I admitted to him that I hadn’t seen it, and he was genuinely offended.
What did he say?
I said that when it happened, I didn’t have cable. It was on HBO, and I didn’t have HBO at the time or cable, but he was actually kind of taken aback and mad at me.
Do you remember what he said?
Well, I apologized, and he just sort of walked away offended. I told him when he was walking away that everyone I know saw it and said it was great.
What about when “First Cool Hive” was in the credits of Scream?
Oh, the end credits of Scream. That was weird, I did see that and it was odd because the moment “First Cool Hive” plays in Scream, the movie changes completely. It stops being a sort of goofy horror movie, and takes on a strange, almost elegiac quality. It’s just this weird moment where, for a few minutes the movie is completely transformed.
You talk in the essays in the liner notes of the album about everything in the world being wrong, is that what the album title was inspired by?
It was, because I’d grown up raised by very politically active hippies, and I was in the hardcore punk scene in the ’80s, which was also very political. So I thought to myself, “I’m making my first album,” and I didn’t want it to just be fluffy. I didn’t want it to be esoteric or obscure. I thought that if people are going to pay attention to it, I want to try and communicate some things that are important to me, which is why the liner notes are so extensive and the title… At the time, I was — and am still — a vegan and an animal rights activist, really militant in all my beliefs. So I would wake up really angry every day, and sleep angry every night because I thought the world was in terrible shape, and I thought, “What small thing can I do to express my beliefs that the world is in such terrible shape?” And that’s where the title of the album came from.
Was there ever a thought to incorporate those beliefs from the liner notes into the lyrics of the album, or is there like a separation of church and state for you?
I’ve tried to write issue-oriented music, and I’m simply not good at it. For decades, I’ve tried to write songs that really reflect my political beliefs or touch on social issues or environmental issues. I’ve really tried, and they’re just not good. They’re embarrassingly didactic or way too literal. Then I go and listen to “Ohio” or “Southern Man” by Neil Young, or a Clash record, or a Public Enemy record, or even John Lennon, or Creedence Clearwater Revival — people who are really great at writing issue-oriented music, and it just makes me embarrassed at the issue-oriented songs I’ve tried to write.
Did you get a lot of blowback for the essays back then?
Oh, yeah. Especially in the world of electronic music, which was pretty much apolitical. It was pretty much all about hedonism, and I like hedonism, but yeah. There wasn’t so much blowback as confusion. Just like, “Why did you do this? You’re a dance guy, why are you so upset about this stuff? Shouldn’t you be taking ecstasy and partying all night?” So it was more of that, people nonplussed in the face of these tirades.
What about the recording or reception of the album led to you doing Animal Rights next?
A lot of it was that summer of 1995, I spent a couple of months in Europe doing festivals, and I would be put on the dance stage. At that time, the dance musicians… they would make good records, but their performances were pretty boring. You have a guy on stage with a laptop doing nothing. I’d play these festivals, and I’d see these electronic musicians doing what I’d think were pretty boring performances, then walk to the other side of the festival and see Biohazard or Pantera or Sepultura, and it was so much more exciting. And I thought to myself, “One of the things I love about dance music was how celebratory it is,” and honestly, at a lot of these festivals, the stage where the metal or punk bands were playing were a lot more celebratory than the dance stage.
Because I’d grown up playing guitar and screaming, I thought it’d be interesting to make a record that would be more guitar-based and aggressive. Then I toured with the Chili Peppers and the Flaming Lips and did Lollapalooza, I was around all these guitar-based bands, and they seemed to be having more fun than some of the dance people I knew. So that was what was sort of behind making Animal Rights.
I’m curious how much fans in 2015 talk to you about Everything is Wrong. What’s the most common comment you get on that album?
The most common comment is people telling me… two things. People will stop me and say that their older brother had Everything is Wrong, and it was the first time anyone in their family had ever heard electronic music. I hear that quite a lot from people who grew up in the Midwest, people who grew up in fairly remote places. For some people, it seemed like Everything is Wrong was a sort of introduction to the world of electronic music, which is weird, because it’s a very unconventional electronic music record. The second thing that I hear… I stopped drinking six years ago, so sometimes I’ll be in AA meetings, and people will tell me how many drugs they took listening to this record.
Is that flattering for you?
It’s like a compliment that makes me feel a little guilty. I just hope I’m not responsible for any, too many lost brain cells.