Archive for November, 1999


Underworld's Karl Hyde (left) and Rick Smith backstage at Coachella 1999. Photo by Sean Flinn

Verbal sparring with Rick Smith of Underworld at Coachella 1999

The middle of an interview with Rick Smith of Underworld is probably no time start wondering about the pronunciation differences between Brits and Americans. Yet, here I was, baking in the Indio, Calif. heat at the Coachella Valley Festival of Music and Arts, puzzling over the pronunciation of the word “Tomato.” Underworld, you see, run a design firm called “Tomato,” which they, being British, pronounce “tuh-mah-toe.” And like every good American boy, I say it “Toe-may-toe.” In the course of this interview, Smith mentioned the design firm, and I found myself careening through a response on autopilot toward using the “T” word without determining first how to pronounce it. Gershwin was probably cackling in his grave. When you see that exchange below, know that I erred on the side of courtesy and said “tuh-mah-toe” right back to him. I haven’t felt quite right about that, but it feels good to get it off my chest.

It felt even better to interact with Underworld in some fashion beyond just taking in their stunning live show,which was the high point of the Coachella Festival. Comprised of vocalist Karl Hyde, producer Rick Smith and DJ Darren Emerson, Underworld are one of a very few techno ensembles to achieve crossover success without bending to the dictates of rock music. Unlike, say, Prodigy or Fatboy Slim, who incorporate rock riffs and rock song structure to go over big outside the dance music audience, Underworld adhere to the aesthetics of deep house and trance techno that piqued their creative curiosity back in the mid-’80s . This is not to say they stifle themselves to stay true to genre sub-genre limits. As their latest, masterful album Beaucoup Fish demonstrates, the boys have as much a penchant for musical growth as they do for making an audience shake its collective ass. And despite my little semantic wrangling, Smith spoke amiably with me about his band’s epic touring schedule, the reason behind Underworld’s irregular release dates, and the digital chasm between Britain and America.

Sean Flinn: I’ll start off by asking you how your three-day U.S. tour has been.

Rick Smith: Extensive. [Laughter.] It’s going fine actually. Boston was energetic, and last night – San Francisco with the Chemical Brothers – was great.

Big audience response?

Yeah, yeah.

What venue did you play at?

We played the Bill Graham Civic Auditorium to about 7,000 or something like that. Yeah, it was nice. Pretty mad. We enjoyed last night, actually, and in Boston. But last night particularly we were really fucking with the tracks and it was enjoyable. It was like, “Yeah!” And the audience was enjoying it too. Deconstructing, you know? And it felt nice. So we’ll see. Tonight’s a curious one, because this is very likely this century, so to speak.

Are you guys doing anything big for the millennium at all?


Lying low?

Lying real low, yeah. Horizontal.

No Y2K fears or anything?

Well, I had a little phase where I was like, “What the Hell is going on?” We’ll see … I’ve got me bunker dug. Stockpiled all the brown rice that I can manage …

Pulled all the money out of the bank?

Yeah. [Much laughter all around.]

Back on track … Have you guys ever played with the Chemical Brothers before?

Yeah, absolutely, yeah. This is probably the third or fourth time. I mean, more than that on festival dates. We go back quite a way, actually. It’s kind of nice, we played the Fuji Festival in Tokyo a couple of months ago, maybe three months ago now, and we did an interview with Tom and Ed for about two, three hours. It was the first time we’d had a real chance to chat and spend some time together for a long time. What happens most of the time is that you end up in places like this, and it’s “All right man, how’re you doin’?” “OK yeah, I’m just about to get some food and go sound check.” You know? So everything is like ships passing. I don’t socialize a great deal as well. I spend all my time in the studio so if I don’t meet people while I’m working I hardly meet people at all.

Speaking of that [the studio], I’ve heard you guys are quite gadget-friendly, quite tech-friendly. Has any of that fondness for technology spilled over into the area of online media at all? I mean, I know you guys offered up a download of a track …

Yeah, to some degree. My feelings with online stuff…You know I was just talking with this guy Jean-Paul just now and he was asking about the “Stay to Play” remixes, and you know in ’96 we stopped doing remixes. I find it really hard to spread my time between so many different things. And Tomato [the design firm that Underworld run] and Underworld both devour work that I make at an unbelievable rate. And my feelings about online stuff were that I never really had time to engage at all with it as a form because it couldn’t weigh up against this other stuff that I’m doing. But it becomes more present, doesn’t it? And these past six months have seen a huge change, as far as I’m concerned, from the point of view of … well, like modem speed in the past year in the U.K., things have improved greatly, and it becomes almost a pleasure going online. Waiting for hours I found immensely frustrating.

Have you had any chance to sample what the media market is around the Internet community in the U.S. vs. what it is in the UK at all?

In what sense?

Is the U.K. very Internet-friendly, would you say, as compared to the United States?

I’m really no expert, OK? But I’d say it’s nowhere as Internet-friendly as the United States. But, I mean, it all moves forward. It’s an old joke, you know, that the U.K. is about 10 years behind the States in many senses. Some of it’s kind of good. It was 10 years behind in getting McDonald’s. But other things are a little frustrating. We’re behind you in terms of DVDs and this kind of thing. So yes, [we’re] behind, but understandably so. I mean, the one shame, funnily enough, is that I know you’re far more advanced in terms of access speeds to being online, and there’s been testing going on here for years. You’ve got cable and speeds that are 50 times as fast as we have. And I find that’s really exciting, because these are enabling things for an artist, and it becomes something … you know, I’m starting up a label through Tomato called Bungalow with Stairs. The first release is coming out in a month or so, and my original notion was to have it downloadable off the Net. But none of the pieces are less than 15 minutes long. This is not realistic in the U.K. and Europe, you know what I’m saying? You know, spend hours online, it would cost you so much in phone calls, because also we don’t pay local calls like you do. The whole structure is very different. So we’ve got a lot of catching up to do, but it’ll happen. It’s happening really fast. It’s driven by people’s desire, that’s what I think is so good. So if the content continues to improve, which it seems to me it has, and the possibilities expand, then people will want it more and it will happen even quicker.

You mentioned the label, so I’ll get back into some music questions for you. What about this box set that you’re releasing? What inspired the release of that, and what are your hopes for it?

I have no idea what inspired the release of that. I think it’s a record company thing. I really couldn’t tell you. I can’t say, because I don’t know.

So it’s kind of out of your hands?

Yeah, to a very large degree, often. And then we get back to this stuff and go, “Hmmmm …”

Yeah, that seems to be changing the rules of the game a little bit.

My fear often is that people are being taken for a ride and being sold something again that they already had, and I really don’t like that notion. But if there’s something different about it, or if people found it particularly difficult to get a hold of…we have a very strange release schedule. You know? And I know that I’ve seen complaints from American fans on the Net on our site saying that they found it very difficult to get particular versions of tunes, and so there’s a good side to re-releasing these things, because it can include all these previously unavailable bits. There was a mix I did for “King of Snake” — that I don’t even think went on sale because I turned it in too late, which I quite liked, actually. So that can be good, because this stuff becomes available.

Do the weird release dates have something to do too with your schedule involving Tomato and Underworld and juggling your different projects? How do you manage your time between those two?

It’s very difficult. It is very hard to manage time and have some kind of family life as well. But, I’ve managed. I’m still reasonably sane. And, in terms of screwing with schedules, it screws with schedules in as much as you might notice this year that there are a lot of remixes being done by other people, which is something we never used to do. We actually had no choice. If we wanted to fulfill all the needs for the formats and fill up CDs and EPs and things we actually have to get other people mixing for us. Because otherwise it’s kind of like I’m making three albums, and I just can’t do that. I wouldn’t have a living, you know? I would not be paying my bills. And release schedules again are something that are very much dictated by strange business reasoning, by executives, which is sometimes good, and sometimes bad. I’ve got no particular axe to grind with our record company.

Do they give you pretty good control over the design of your album covers and things like that?

Pretty good, absolutely. There’ve been a few surprises over the past year or so. Curve balls as they call them. But on the whole it’s been pretty good. It’s an age-old problem, centuries old, for artists, how to marry … [at this point, Underworld’s publicist Janet McQueeny jaunts by, winding her hand in the air to let me know my time with her client is about up. Rick sees her out of the corner of his eye] … how to dance with a very strange sort of twirling motion…[laughter]…how to marry commerce and art, and for me it’s really THE issue. I’m not just interested in making art, I’m interested in marrying the two. I have to. I have a family to look after, and I want to continue. Karl [Hyde, Underworld’s vocalist/lyricist] and I have been together 20 years, and Darren [Emerson, Underworld’s DJ] and Karl and I have been together 10 years. It’s important. I don’t intend to stop.

Do you try to make Underworld and Tomato as “family-friendly” as possible?

In what sense, Sean?

In terms of time accommodations to your family and things like that.

Well, we’re doing three dates; this is what we call a tour. So, you know, very much. I want to see my kids grow up. It’s important. I have no time for the trappings of success. I only have time for creating what I create, and turning people on. That being said, I love to play live. It’s like, today is unfortunate: it’s an hour-and-a-half show, and there’s 24 hours in the day, and I just wish that it all kind of could accelerate. You know what I’m saying? But, you know, we need to do these things, otherwise people wouldn’t know what it was that I’d done. It has to be this way.

Do you find that the live performances really give you guys a chance to combine all of the elements – the visual elements and the design elements with the music?

Absolutely, yes. All of that and more. It’s a unique experience. It’s very much the music for the moment with this huge ingredient X, which is the audience. You know, it’s no joke that there’s a tremendous contribution by the people in the audience as to the energy and the flow of energy then within the music that happens because of them.

So they guide the live performance quite a lot and allow you to improvise on stage?

No, I guide the live performance, but they are a part of the journey with us. They are causing inflections all the time. You know, we never know what’s going to be the first song. We’ll decide at most five minutes before we go on stage, but often as a walkout on stage and as a feeling, which is a combination of common sense and intuition, of like, “OK, we’re gonna do this.” Last night was a good example. We kicked off and I really felt, “Tonight, this should be ‘Cowgirl,’ [from 1993’s Dubnobasswithmyheadman] but we’re gonna mess with this.” They’re not even gonna know – I didn’t even want the audience to know what it was we were doing for as long as possible. And I think we did pretty well. We went for maybe five, 10 minutes where we didn’t give it away. We just kept building the groove. And sometimes you know the audience is with you very quickly, you can sense that. Other times you can sense that the audience is so excited that there’s a need to calm down for a second, so that we can enjoy together, because you don’t want to go just completely mental and lose perspective.

It’s good to have crests and troughs and bring people a complete emotional experience.

There you go! Absolutely! Yes. Yes.


Ritchie Hawtin, aka Plastikman

"People can't appreciate what they don't know or what they've never heard."

[Note: This interview originally appeared on the now-defunct music portal,]

“The name is familiar,” reads Richie Hawtin’s bio … and yet, no one I’ve queried has ever heard of him or any of his more ubiquitous aliases: Plastikman and FUSE. Odd for an artist who has DJed to crowds larger than many rock bands ever play to (his appearance at the 1995 Glastonbury festival drew 20,000 people into the cramped confines of a DJ tent) and who has been commissioned by the French Government to compose two pieces of music for their Millennium 2000 celebrations. Hawtin’s anonymity in North America epitomizes the techno ethos of personality subversion to the end of bringing the music itself into sharper focus. As a musician, then, Hawtin is one of electronic dance music’s foremost innovators whose roots extend to the foundation of techno itself. A resident of Detroit-neighboring Windsor, Canada, Hawtin absorbed the influences of a Detroit radio DJ named The Wizard (Jeff Mills), who spun early records by techno forefathers Juan Atkins, Derrick May, and Kevin Saunderson. Inspired to begin his own DJ career in Windsor pubs, Hawtin quickly graduated to jaunts across the border to DJ in Detroit clubs. In the mid-’80, he and occasional collaborator John Acquaviva formed Plus 8 records and initiated an escalation of BPM (Beats Per Minute) that resulted in a worldwide stylistic revolution (gabba, hardcore, jungle and drum ‘n’ bass can all trace some branch of their lineage to Plus 8’s releases and live events). His later minimalist work as Plastikman utilizes slower beats, gentler textures and gradual (often microscopic) shifts in pitch and dynamics, pushing techno to a new frontier now populated by acts such as LFO, Aphex Twin, and Autechre.

Setting aside Plastikman’s minimalism for the time being, Hawtin’s latest release, Decks, EFX and 909 (Minus Records / NovaMute), showcases his often-imitated but never-paralleled DJ style (driving beats that seem a mile deep textured with radically reconfigured, stripped-down modulations of other artists’ recordings). The album occasioned his appearance at the groundbreaking Coachella Festival in October 1999, where, as a nod to his rock-solid reputation, he performed on the same DJ tent lineup as his adolescent influences Saunderson, Atkins and May. His Coachella performance also caught the ears of peers The Chemical Brothers, who asked Hawtin to perform with them at the Brixton Academy show on December 4, 1999. I caught up with Hawtin shortly after Coachella, while he enjoyed a short respite at home amidst a hectic touring schedule.

Sean Flinn: My first set of questions have to do with Coachella: What did you actually think of the festival? Do you have any general opinions about the event?

Richie Hawtin: I think in the overall picture, Coachella was definitely a really, really well-organized and attended event, and was really, I think, a good shot in the arm for that type of festival in North America. Because it’s generally something you see overseas, especially the combination of some of the bigger electronic — well, more mainstream and popular electronic acts — with some of the alternative stuff, which is still slightly interesting, and DJ culture.

Outside of the DJ tents, were there any artists performing on the bigger stages that you wanted to see perform?

You know, I don’t even really know the final lineup for Coachella. I flew in from Frankfurt to Coachella, and shortly after flew directly to San Francisco. There were about nine gigs in a row all over Europe before Frankfurt, so it was a bit of a crazy trip.

Sounds like it.

I heard Morrissey, because it was so loud that it was coming into the tent while I was checking out Juan Atkins. And then, I heard the Chemical Brothers because they were so loud that it was coming over my sound when I was playing in my tent. So that was a bit disappointing because I was getting drowned out a bit. That could have been set up a little bit better. I did hear that The Art of Noise was playing, which sounded remotely interesting, but then again it probably would have been 10 years ago.

I completely forgot that they were on the bill after about the first hour or so of the festival because I was running all over the place. I remember being in the tent while you were spinning and hearing the Chemical Brothers … the same thing happened with the Invisibl Skratch Piklz and Rage Against the Machine. So, yeah, that’s something they probably could’ve done better.

Yeah, they could have turned some of the things around or positioned things better. That’s unfortunate, but hopefully they’ll plan a little bit better next year. But you know, there were a lot of things that were done well at the festival too, so it kind of balances out. Especially when you’re talking about sound structure and things, it’s the most important [thing]; people are coming to hear music. They need to be able to hear one or another, not both at the same time. I think with, especially some of the electronic musicians, I know, even like the scratch guys and myself and some other people, the dynamics of what we’re doing are important in the way sometimes it’s about what we’re playing, but also, about what we’re not playing. And those pauses, those breaks, those lower volume sections, those EQ changes sometimes were getting drowned out by something else that was happening a mile away.

I know, just from listening to your recordings, that dynamics are extremely important with what you’re doing, so that definitely could have a negative impact. Aside from that, you mentioned that you felt the festival may have given that type of music — and I’m taking that to mean electronic music and underground hip-hop — a shot in the arm. Do you think the festival could have given electronic music a chance to sway over some new fans, or do you think they were just preaching to the converted?

As an optimist, I always hope that. That’s one of the reasons for doing an event like that. I’m not particularly fond of big events, but I also don’t want to preach to the converted all the time. So that was a good opportunity to have some people who were sort of wandering through tents in between Rage Against the Machine and Morrissey or whoever it was, and stumble upon someone who they’d never heard of or they’d only read about, and suddenly say, “You know? This isn’t too bad.” And whether that brings them to go and buy the CD, that could be a good benefit. But I look at it as really giving people an appetizer for myself. You’re not getting exactly what I do, but I’m giving enough of myself to the people with the equipment that’s provided to me to give them enough taste to know if it’s something for them. And then, hopefully, we’ll invite them to see me at another event, maybe, which is more surrounded around my self, where I can play four or five hours on a better system and really show them what I’m all about. You have to use these events for what they are. America has taken a long time for electronic music to grab hold of people. Part of it is the size of the country and the communication infrastructure for getting new ideas to people — which isn’t very good in this country. So you have to take these opportunities to try and open some ears. I’m not going to sit here and say “North America sucks” because no one is into what I do without trying and going through and giving people the opportunity to maybe get turned on by it. People can’t appreciate what they don’t know or what they’ve never heard.

That’s true. And you mentioned the lines of communication — do you think then that the rapid development of MP3 technology and streaming media and all of that is going to help open some of those lines of communication?

I think one of the only reasons that the whole DJ and rave culture — party culture has taken off so well in America and has started to come together is because of communication and the Internet. The Internet is at its most progressive in North America in the way that most of the areas are now wired. It’s getting to the point where everyone has e-mail or some type of opportunity to get online, and it’s a great flow of information, of music, of resources and of bringing people information about new ideas. That’s the thing that’s really kept this movement underground or at a smaller level than everywhere else in the world — it’s basically because of geography. The Internet is basically the first thing in our existence that bypasses physical geography.

That’s very true. Do you have any plans for yourself? I know you have

We have, and my record labels [have] and [for =8 Records and Minus Records, respectively, –ed.]. +8 has been online for about five years. We’ve been broadcasting RealAudio and doing our events for over four years, and MP3 has been up there for about two years. We’re not new to this technology.

That’s good to hear, especially since our organization deals with streaming media …

What’s that? What does your organization do?

Well, RadioSpy is actually a music portal that is … built around a piece of software that we developed to help people find SHOUTcast servers.

Oh really? So are you doing all SHOUTcast streams?

Actually, we picked up RealAudio and Windows Media.

OK, cool. We’re doing the same thing.


We have a new portal opening – going online — in a few weeks called Clonk… .com, .net, .org. and that’s gonna be similar, but precisely for electronic music.

Oh wow! I’ll definitely inform our station manager about that.

You should, because when we go online we’ll have a couple of weekly shows and things. There will be some Windows Media layers, there’ll be a helluva a lot of Real Media, and there will also be some SHOUTcasts.

Well it’s good to know that the technology is proliferating out there and that artists are getting involved with it directly.

Ritchie Hawtin at Coachella 1999

Richie Hawtin hits the decks at Coachella 1999.

That’s something we’ve been trying to get going, so it’s nice to see that other people are doing it — especially people with your clout.

We’re involved in the creative use of technology. That’s what my company does. We’re not a record company, we’re not really musicians or anything. We’re creative. We use technology to get our ideas out, and streaming media or using the Internet is just another form of technology to communicate with people or to communicate our ideas. So it’s all the same thing to us.

I’m going to change track a little bit here and talk about Decks, EFX & 909. Why did you decide, after working in the vein of Plastikman for a while, to release a mix album? It seems, at least at first blush, to be sort of a change of pace from your recordings — I know it’s not from your live performances. But what motivated you to do Decks, EFX & 909?

Well, I think, a couple of things. After so many years — like, since ’93 — of spending a lot of time on the whole Plastikman idea, philosophy and sound, it was time to move on to some new things — permanently, or for a little while at least. So I kind of ride the top of the fence — I run an electronic label, so I see the business side; I also see the creative side as a performer. I make some very strange abstract minimalism, but also as a DJ performer, I play some of that, but also keep it quite upbeat. I’m interested in forward-thinking electronic music. So I wanted to do something that would, I guess, show people the other side of my DJ performances, but at the same time cross the lines a little bit. I didn’t want to do yet another mix CD. I’d done one in the past. I’m sick and tired of mix CDs. It’s an open and shut case. It hasn’t done anything new for ages. So I went in with the idea of capturing what I do during my DJ live performances, and making it different enough and bringing ideas — both the DJ side but also my production side; using the decks and effects that I use as a performer, but also maybe adding some extra production and editing to create something which, to me, for lack of a better word, is definitely more than a mix CD.

Yeah, it definitely works well … I know a lot of mix CDs are geared for dancing and stuff like that …

Yeah, but the thing is, you’ve got to remember that mix CDs are, a lot of the time, just DJs going into the studio and recording exactly what they do in a club, or just a straight recording of a club. And I think that’s lazy, and quite shallow. If you think about recording that that type of set, especially from a club or a performance, you’re taking everything out of context. The majority of the people who are buying and listening to it weren’t at that performance. They don’t understand the reason you played those records. They don’t understand the atmosphere of the night, the size of the room, the temperature, the sound system that things were played on — and all these things wrap up together to create what I would call “a moment in time.” I don’t want to take that moment away from the people who were there by releasing it to everyone else. So I had to come up with something that related to that, but also, at the same time, was relevant if they were playing it back into a club, but if they were playing it in a car, listening to it while they were washing the dishes, all these different circumstances. So there’s all these extra things you have to think about when you’re creating something like this. That’s why I kind of wanted to cross my sides together and put a twist on the whole thing and do something which was different, with a little bit more of an edge than the rest of these quickly-recorded and packaged and marketed DJ mix CDs.

That leads me right into my next question: How did you approach recording the album? How meticulously did you lay it out, and how did you choose the records you were going to pull?

The records were … with mix CDs, you have to clear all of the records that you want to put on the CD, and not always can you clear everything that you’re actually playing in your set. Luckily, we cleared all the music right through my own production company — through Minus — and were able to get nearly everything I wanted, from a lot of my friends and a lot of really new upstarts and really small labels. So it’s a really eclectic mix of music. I also didn’t want to have a mix CD of all the tracks everyone knew. I wanted to use it to introduce some people to new artists. And so after I picked the tracks, it was really laying out a live mix at the studio, and then going through along with the live mix and adding live effects and some 909 drum machine programming, and then going back over and re-adding some extra things, touching some things up, and then taking what was about a two-hour mix, cutting and editing it up, looping some things to change the structure of the records that people knew. I didn’t want people to feel that comfortable with. I wanted the mix to be comfortable in the way that it really went together well and flowed, but I didn’t want everyone to know exactly what was coming next, even if they knew the record that was being played. That was important for me. I don’t like the idea of people getting complacent and nearly getting to the state of being bored with dance music. I like to pull the rug out from under people’s feet and have them expect the unexpected.

And when you were choosing the records, I know you mentioned wanting to give some exposure to some of your friends and some music that people hadn’t heard before. How did you decided what records you wanted to feature out of those, because I’m sure you have a rather large collection of them. Did you have to make any tough choices?

It was done in two steps, really. I do a lot of five or six-hour sets, and I’m carting 200-plus records around with me all the time. So I had to pare that down to the ones that, first, I knew I could get in contact with the people easily, and also, which I probably thought I had a chance to acquire the rights to. So that pared it down to about 70 records. And then, I probably got clearance on about 60 records. After that it was just kind of putting things together in a way that had a flow to it, that felt right. That pared it down to the 38 tracks that were used in the end.

OK. As just kind of an ignorant question on my part, what all is involved in getting a record cleared for you to use it on an album?

Basically, a lot of the records I play are white labeled [virtually anonymous releases of tracks made available exclusively to DJ’s], so you don’t even where they’re from, except from the postage stamp that came with it. So you have to track down, via catalog numbers or via information on the label — by fax or e-mail or phone — and get their permission, which involves a contract of how much you’re going to pay to the people, what territories you’re going to be releasing it in… it’s quite an involved process. It’s not just a typical “Hey I’m gonna do a mix CD, can I use your music?” And then some people want an advance, or money up front. Some people want bigger percentages than others. It’s a bit of a haggling game in a way. But luckily, because a lot of the people are my friends, and because I’ve been in the industry and I run an independent label, I know what most independent labels like myself would want from a mix CD like this, so we didn’t have that much trouble at all. It takes a little bit of time, just with talking in different time zones in different countries in different languages. There’s things [on Decks, EFX and 909] from German, from England, from Iceland, from Canada, from the U.S. — all different places.

So it’s a real geographical excursion.

Well it’s electronic music, it’s the really one of the first musics that’s grabbed hold of the world. Being a DJ who travels the world and is always picking up new records, that had to be mirrored in the production.

I noticed in the Media Guide from Coachella, they list you as using “out-of-date synth dinosaurs like the Roland TB-303 and the TR-808.” I’m wondering, why the fondness for equipment that other people consider outdated? And do you think equipment like this ever really gets outdated?

If I did a track with just a 303 and 808, it may sound outdated. But really, with electronic music, it’s about taking electronic signals from old things and from new things, passing them through something else, filtering them, modifying them, and coming up with something which is uniquely yours. And so my sound is made out of a mish-mash of old and new technology, from archaic to cutting edge. That mish-mash, which somehow I control in a way, that gives me my take on this whole electronic sound.

In that vein, and to lead back to an answer you gave me earlier about using technology, what features does a new piece of technology — or even an old piece of technology that you’re not familiar with — have to possess to really catch your interest and motivate you to use it?

It has to possess something which is unique to itself, it has to offer possibilities not offered on something else, and it has to have some type of programmability, which is inviting to the user — something which can be easily programmed and has a tactile edge to it. Personally, I’m not into — there’s a lot of interesting new computer technology which I would really like to use, but at the moment the problem isn’t in the programmability or the actual sound of these programs or machines, it’s the actual control surfaces that are lacking. It’s getting very tiring and boring coming up with lots of different sounds and using lots of different programs, but on the same PC. It’s always the keyboard and the mouse. Part of the whole interest to electronic music and the different pieces of equipment is the different control surfaces, the different interfaces that they all have.

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Moby @ Coachella 1999

Moby rocks bodies on Day 2 of the 1999 Coachella Valley Festival. Photo by Sean Flinn

True story — a confession, if you will: Prior to interviewing Moby, I knew very little about the man. I mean, I’ve read the occasional article about him, knew he was a born-again Christian, a descendant of Herman Melville (hence his moniker) and a vegetarian. I knew as well that he made electronic music but occasionally lapsed into fits of punk rock (as on his album Animal Rights) and movie soundtracks, e.g., I Like to Score. What’s more, I didn’t know I would have an opportunity to interview him until the evening before I was to chat with him. V2, his record label, approached me in the media tent at the Coachella Festival while I awaited an audience with Rick Smith of Underworld and told me I could speak with Moby on Day 2, if I so chose.

Ignorant but not idiotic, I seized the opportunity. With 24 hours to prepare myself, I took advantage of the Tower Records booth set up on site at the festival and purchased his most recent album, Play, which was released in June. Coachella’s fine media relations folks had provided journalists with a packet of bio information on the artists on the bill, so I figured I could use that and the album to bring myself at least partially up to speed on my subject. Except … guess whose bio the packet didn’t include. Bingo. Moby. And I would’ve gotten away with it if it weren’t for those meddling kids, I thought to myself.

Tense but not entirely panicked, I figured Play and the festival itself would give me enough to talk about to spark some sort of dialogue. That much I foresaw accurately. I didn’t anticipate Moby’s magnetic personality. Mild mannered and articulate, Moby also conveys the impression that he has a hard time sitting still. He doesn’t exactly fidget. He just exudes an energy that seems wasted on conversation; he belongs, I found out later, while watching him perform, on stage.

[Editor’s Note: This interview originally appeared on the now defunct streaming radio / music portal,]

Sean Flinn: My first set of questions have to do with the Festival. How much time have you been able to spend here? What are your general impressions of the way things are going?

Moby: I just arrived this morning, so I haven’t seen that much. But what I have seen leads me to believe that this is probably the nicest festival I have ever been involved in.


I’ve been playing festivals for at least the last eight or nine years in Europe, and I did Lollapalooza. I’ve done Woodstock. I’ve done tons of festivals in my life, and this is a really special event.

It feels really good. Last night had a good vibe to it. Are there any bands in particular that you’re interested in seeing at all or interacting with?

It’s interesting for me that, when I look at the lineup, every single artist I like. Either I like [them], or I have respect for [them]. I’m kind of floored. I’ve never done a festival like that. Like, when I did Woodstock, I found half of the acts to be — either I wasn’t interested in them, or I found them distasteful. Like, at Woodstock, I loved being on the same bill as Willie Nelson. But all the sort of generic alternative-rock stuff, the sort of testosterone-driven macho rock …

The sport metal …

Yeah, I hate that stuff. I mean, sometimes it’s kind of like — it’s cool if there’s a snowboarding commercial and you hear that kind of music underneath. That can be cool. But it doesn’t do anything for me.

Do you think the bands and the way they chose the lineup at that festival contributed to some of the problems they had?

I understand that, for Woodstock, they were trying to attract as many people as possible, so they had to appeal to the lowest common denominator. So they had a lot of aggressive, macho rock bands. But the problem is, when you have a lot of aggressive, macho rock bands, you attract a lot of aggressive, macho rock people — fans. And I think all the problems at Woodstock were the result of the bands that they had there. Exclusively. I mean, like, you can blame $4 waters, you can blame the weather, but if you didn’t have Insane Clown Posse, Limp Bizkit, Korn, etc. — all these aggressive, macho rock bands — you wouldn’t have had so much aggression.

To change track a little bit, I wanted to make sure we could get some time in to talk about Play, specifically some of the inspirations that you found for composing the different tracks on that — especially the more gospel- and blues-tinged tracks.

My only inspiration when making a record is to make music that I like and that, hopefully, other people will like as well. I wasn’t thinking about anything else. I just wanted to make nice music. I wasn’t thinking about whether it incorporated old elements or new elements; I was just trying to make something nice.

I’ve noticed over the course of your albums that people try to pigeonhole you as a purely electronic artist, and then they’re very surprised when you put out something that’s more rock-oriented. Do you see yourself as having to rebel against being pigeonholed at all?

When I make a record, I’m not really thinking so much about genre; I’m not thinking about the elements that go into making the record. I’m really just thinking about how the music makes me feel when I listen to it. So when I made Animal Rights — which two thirds of it is, like, a really hard punk, almost metal album — that was just, on a very selfish artistic level, the record I wanted to make. But I wasn’t rebelling against electronic music. I mean, I love everything. I love jazz and punk rock and classical and house music and hip-hop and R&B and everything. So it’s like, I just have all these musical styles at my disposal, so I like to incorporate them into the records to make the types of records I want to make.

I’m kind of the same way insofar as my listening habits go. Do you find this is causing you space problems with regards to storing your record collection?

I don’t have that many records. I have one CD booklet — you know, a book that holds 50 CDs or something? I just keep it filled, and if I get new records, I put those in and have to get rid of the old ones. I have a drawer that I throw all my old CDs in.

So you’re just constantly bringing in the new blood?

It’s kind of like my bookshelf. My bookshelf is quite small. If I get new books, the old ones that I don’t like leave.

To change track again, our site, RadioSpy, is devoted to streaming media and SHOUTcast servers and things like that. What are your opinions on how online media is affecting the record industry and how bands approach marketing their music and getting their music out to fans?

I think that one of the nicest things about the Internet is that people can have access to any information that they want to have access to. Like, when I was growing up, the only way I could find out about Joy Division was, like, hoping that someone would write about them in a music magazine. The only good thing about that was that it made it really precious when I found something out. Like, if I found an article on Joy Division when I was 16 years old, it was a coup because they were so hard to come by. But now that people have access to information, I think it’s wonderful. As far as how bands use that to market to people, I don’t know. I just use it on a sort of organic level. Like, I communicate to the people who run my Web sites, and they’re my friends. It’s interesting to hear what people have to say about people and my music.

So you’ve been in touch with some of the people who have Moby fan sites?

Oh, yeah. There’s this one Web site,, which is sort of the mother of all Moby sites, and it’s completely unofficial. The guy who runs it, Daniel Cerman, if he doesn’t like one of my records, he’s free to write that he doesn’t like the record. If he wants to write about a bootleg, [he can] write about a bootleg. So it’s very unofficial. We’ve met a couple of times. He actually came to New York once.

Wow, that’s terrific. That’s really good to hear because so many times you hear about some bands, like Oasis, really clamping down on some of the fan sites that are out there.

No! My feeling is that if someone is going to go to the effort to do anything regarding me and my music, I’m flattered. If someone buys a T-shirt, I’m humbled and flattered. If someone starts a Web site, I’m completely humbled and flattered. So, I would never in a million years think of clamping down, even if they’re giving away bootlegs, even if they’re doing — whatever — it’s very flattering.

At that, Moby’s publicist signaled that my interview had to wrap up, so I stopped tape and wished the man well. Like many of the other artists at Coachella who were gracious enough to give time to the media, Moby had almost overtaxed his supply of pre-performance free time in order to accommodate as many journalists as possible, and I didn’t want to take advantage of his generosity. Despite a grueling travel schedule and a long, long session with various members of the music press, Moby went on that night to deliver a highly energetic, upbeat set as the Festival’s second-stage headliner.

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