Moby is a magician, his career a series of tricks. Which is no insult. His are audacious tricks. A nerdy punk-rock kid from Connecticut, he became the first major star of techno in the early nineties, later fused his music with noisy rock, then engineered a genuine breakthrough when he unearthed long-forgotten tracks of blues and soul singers and mashed them into new, modern songs. This was 1999’s Play, a worldwide sensation that lodged itself in the public consciousness.
Moby, now 43, has mellowed since Play; his albums have become gentler, more cerebral. He promoted his latest, Wait for Me, by booking a spa so that journalists could listen while getting massages. Which doesn’t diminish the obvious fact that his mastery in the studio has only grown. But what are the limits of this talent? To find out, I proposed a challenge, or more like a dare. What could he make of a song I had written, in a genre completely outside his expertise?
The not-so-divine inspiration: Years ago, when Rent was the rage on Broadway, my friend Ted Cohen and I considered it the phoniest possible baloney: the bohemian story of the Lower East Side set to suburban arena rock—kill us now. While driving on the L.I.E., we plotted our own rock opera, Lady Ronkonkoma, set on Long Island, where suburban arena rock makes sense. Ted wrote lyrics for the title song, and I came up with a melody and chords. But like most plans made by 25-year-olds, our opera went nowhere. Until …
The rough cut: I presented our one song to Moby as a primitive demo—me bashing away at an acoustic guitar and singing wretchedly into a digital recorder. He said he liked it, but he’s a very polite guy. I explained my vision: a soaring, orchestral ballad, the type that inspires people to hold their Bic lighters aloft in a darkened room, the aural equivalent of a black leather sofa smelling faintly of Marlboro Lights and Aqua Net. “No problem,” he said.
Inside the Moby cave: We met at his studio in an old tenement on Mott Street. It used to be his apartment, and has a bed perched on a loft. Near the bed is the entrance to the roof where, before he gave up drinking, Moby used to find himself at 5 a.m. with a bunch of strangers. The closet-size studio is tucked away under the loft, jammed with enough machinery to land jets at La Guardia. Moby sat in front of two computer screens with a synthesizer keyboard; guitars, a bass, and a small drum kit were within easy reach. “Do we embrace the 38 Special that your song wants to be,” he asks, “or do we try for something cooler, like the Motels, a half–New Wave, half-rock thing?” My instinct was 38 Special; Moby favored the Motels. His studio, he wins.
The talent problem: To create the spine of the song, we established vocal and guitar reference tracks. Moby set a simple beat, and I played the song through on his Gibson guitar while also trying to sing it. A disaster. “You’re constantly trying to find ways to work with what you have,” he said. “That makes it interesting.” I botched another couple of takes on the guitar before handing the instrument back to Moby. Reading the chords off a sheet, he ripped through it, messing up just once. No problem; he went to the computer screen, clipped a good section, and dragged it over the defective part. “My secret,” he said, “is being not terrible at a lot of things.”
A sundae of sound: Moby added a live drum, a cool bass line he came up with on the spot, and lead guitar. Naturally, I wanted strings, for that faux-symphonic, November Rain effect, and Moby happily obliged, summoning an actual live orchestra sampled into his synthesizer—their life’s labor repurposed for my cheesy ballad. But the strings instantly lifted the song into, if not quite the major leagues then closer than I ever deserved. “Strings are the ultimate crutch,” said Moby. He asked if I wanted piano. Hell, yeah, I replied. I wanted everything! Moby gently drew the line at horns.
The Frankenstein moment: Did I mention the lyrics are completely ridiculous? They’re about a suburban cad begging his wife to take him back: “You’re my lady, my lady Ronkonkoma/ Let me take you to the batting cage/ I’ll hold you by your hips behind you/ Help you swing through all the rage.” And not easily sung without the aid of alcohol. Standing in front of the mike, headphones on my ears, looking like a pro but feeling like a fraud, I slaughtered my own melody—couldn’t nail the phrasing, croaked and warbled like Ira Glass being run over by a tractor, just blew it. Moby, clearly the most tolerant man alive, reminded me that he can’t sing either; even after years of performing, it still paralyzes him with dread.
On one take, I half-sang, half-talked and his expression brightened. “Try talking the whole thing.” My rock-star dream had officially hit the brick wall of reality. I’d failed at the guitar, and now I’d been advised not to sing. But he was right: It sounded better. I carried a tolerable tune on the chorus, and Moby added his own backup vocals, then manipulated my voice with compression and reverb to lend it character. “Every once in a while, it sounds like Lou Reed,” he said, as we listened to the final version. “There are worse things.”
This one’s for you, Brussels: As we sat in his living room, sipping tea (Moby remains a partner in Teany, the Lower East Side tea salon), Moby discussed his immediate future: two months of European festivals. His fame may have plateaued at home, but he remains a huge star almost everywhere else. “My last album sold more in Belgium, a country of 10 million, than the U.S.,” he said. “If ‘Lady Ronkonkoma’ has a chance, it’s there.”