Singular art from the singly named musician
Photographs by David Bravo and COURTESY of XXX
In the world of mononyms – think Cher, Madonna, Beyoncé – there are few men. One who springs to mind is Moby. But though he goes by one name, he has many roles – musician, DJ, vegan, activist, photographer and Darien native.
Recently, NPR’s “World Café” program saluted him as one of the most significant music-makers of our time, giving airtime to “Run On,” the hit off his 1999 electronic dance album “Play,” which went on to sell more than 10 million copies worldwide. It also marked the first time a CD had every single track licensed for film, TV and advertising, making it a true global phenomenon. Perhaps a bit ahead of his time, Moby’s electronic dance music has had an influence on today’s pop genre, much of which relies on the use of synthesizers and a variety of sounds and other music.
“I don’t think I’ve ever done anything terribly new or innovative,” Moby said in response to his “World Café” selection.
“I guess I’ve just had more visibility than some other people. I’m sometimes credited with bringing electronic music to a bigger audience. If, in fact, that’s the case, it’s a complete accident, because all I’ve ever tried to do is make music I really care about.”
At 46, Moby is remarkably honest and polite. He seems grounded – he doesn’t drink alcohol and has been vegan for nearly 25 years. But he’s never pushy – “I don’t care if you wear leather,” he says, adding, “It looks nice.” He seems to know who he is. He’s maintained the same shaved head and rectangular, black plastic-framed glasses for decades. And he seems unfazed by the celebrity of the music industry, opting instead to be completely absorbed in artwork – which is heading in an architectural direction.
This past year Moby released his 10th studio album, “destroyed.,” with a photography book of the same name, his first. As it turns out, photography is no new venture for the artist, who’s been shooting as long as he’s been making music.
Last month Moby, clad in a black hoodie and dark-rinse jeans, made a stop at Greenwich’s Samuel Owen Gallery to celebrate an exhibit of his work, sign books and say “Hi” to gallery’s owner Lee Milazzo, an old friend and former Big Apple roommate.
An admitted insomniac, Moby nonetheless clutched a cup of coffee as he welcomed the excited throng, patiently drawing cartoon characters and autographing copies of “destroyed.” The stark white walls behind him showcased 32 by 60-inch framed crowd shots from his international tours, which he photographed in varying tints from sepia to green with a digital camera.
Moby’s ability to capture the crowd’s energy before a performance is what drew Milazzo to his portfolio. Plus, it’s something Milazzo got a taste of when Moby once brought his friend onstage before the start of a show:
“He said, ‘Brace yourself.’ The spotlight hit and the feel of the simultaneous roar of the crowd directed straight at Moby literally felt like I was hit by a car. All that energy and everyone screaming at once and towards you is a feeling that few people get to experience…. That is what he is trying to convey…. And then even still, you can see each photo is so dramatically different. In some of them the crowd is shirtless. Some are all guys. Some are really colorful.”
Moby’s “destroyed.” also reveals a thoughtful contrast between such high-energy moments and quiet spaces in touring.
“Normally when people take pictures of musicians on tour or when musicians take pictures on tour, they tend to document the glamorous stuff, you know?” Moby said. “So you see pictures of Eddie Vedder throwing himself into a crowd or Led Zeppelin on their private plane, and one of the ideas behind the book was to show this very different side of life on tour, which is basically a lot of strange emptiness.
“And oddly enough, friends of mine who are musicians or other people who have to live a lot in hotel rooms, when they see the book it really resonates with them because when you’re on tour only about 10 percent of the time are you doing something even remotely glamorous. The rest of the time you’re by yourself, usually in an empty airport or an empty hotel room or an empty dressing room.”
The title of the book and the cover photo come from a sign Moby spotted in LaGuardia Airport that read, ‘Unattended luggage will be destroyed.’
“But the sign only said one word at a time so I just stood there taking pictures of the sign whenever it flashed the word ‘destroyed,’” he said with a soft laugh.
It’s a word that encapsulates life on the road, he added:
“I’m not complaining, but they’re all these very anonymous, sort of lifeless environments. And when you try and live in these strange, anonymous environments, it ends up almost like destroying everything that’s familiar and regular about your life. So that’s kind of what the photographs are about and the music is the sort of music I wanted to make that would fill these strange, lifeless spaces and maybe try on one hand to be inspired by them but also make them feel a little less impersonal.”
Moby’s venture behind the camera is not surprising since he was raised in an arts-minded family and developed his passion for photography by “just spending days in the darkroom at (Purchase College).” (Nights were spent spinning songs from New Order as a DJ at The Beat club in Port Chester.)
Born in Harlem and raised in Darien, Moby describes growing up in “this weird artistic family.” His arts lineage begins with his great-great-great-granduncle, “Moby Dick” author Herman Melville.
The way Milazzo remembers it, “His name is Richard, but his (late) father said, ‘Richard is such a big name for such a little baby,’ so he’s always been Moby.”
The family’s creativity gene extends further, Moby said: “My mother was a painter. My grandmother was a painter. My uncle was a photographer. My other uncle was a sculptor. So everyone in my family did some sort of visual art and I guess I thought I’d do that as well. When I was growing up, photography seemed like the most powerful, immediate, resonate art form. With darkrooms especially, the fact that you could somehow capture an image on silver nitrate and reveal it through chemicals, that magical aspect of it really appealed to me.”
That passion found another vehicle this year with the launch of Moby’s architecture photo blog, inspired by his recent move to Los Angeles. It’s a far cry from his Lower East side apartment and many Connecticut dwellings, which have included an old factory in Stamford, a rent-free 1920s carriage house in backcountry Greenwich and homes in Darien, Danbury, Stratford and Norwalk.
But today, he literally lives “right below the Hollywood sign,” said Milazzo. “His backyard view is Lake Hollywood.”
Moby has restored his 1920s Hollywood Hills “Wolf’s Lair” mansion, which was built by real estate developer L. Milton Wolf. The home once counted Marlon Brando and the Rolling Stones as residents.
“Even though I’ve traveled a lot for work, I’ve never really lived anywhere else but New York or Connecticut, so I moved out here because Manhattan has become so expensive and it seems as if a lot of interesting people have been priced out,” Moby said. “My neighbors in the Lower East Side in the ’80s were writers, junkies and musicians and now in the Lower East Side my neighbors tend to be tourists and hedge fund managers.
“L.A. is a big, insane, dysfunctional city, but it’s still really weird and cheap so anyone – any musician, any writer, any filmmaker, any photographer – can still come here and find cheap rent and find a way to do their art. It makes for a really odd, interesting climate. Also, I really like being warm in the wintertime.”
The month-old blog features a mix of tightly shot, stately vine-covered country homes and anonymous mid-century apartments, all photographed in romantic black-and-white to reveal clean lines and intriguing shadows. Years ago Moby got the idea that “all good architectural photography should be in black and white,” like Julius Shulman’s photographs. The secret ingredient to the blog is a combination of his quiet humor; photographic know-how; and appreciation for homes, which comes in part from having lived in a fascinating mix, from an apartment in an old Lower East Side factory to the left tower of Manhattan’s iconic Eldorado to a 1970s Fishkill abode that he beautifully restored. Already the blog is earning kudos from the Los Angeles Times and Architect Magazine.
“I just love the weirdness of L.A. architecture because it’s completely random and it’s all these buildings that were either built really inexpensively or really fantastically by weird artists or cheap slumlords,” Moby said.
His non-celebrity ’tude keeps fans and paparazzi at bay.
Said Moby, “I dress like a used cars salesman.”
To view Moby’s blog, visit mobylosangelesarchitecture.com
Check out Moby’s book and album “destroyed.” sold together, (Damiani), $39.93.