"Roman Candle" turns 20: Secrets of Elliott Smith's accidental masterpiece (slideshow)
Elliott and the friends with whom he recorded in middle school in Texas (photo courtesy of Dan Pickering)
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You may be sick of Moby, but he won’t hold it against you. His 1999 album “Play” was the kind of early success that can cast a shadow over an entire career: It sold 9 million copies, every song was licensed for some commercial purpose, and it injected techno music into the American mainstream consciousness — almost overnight. That kind of quick fame doesn’t come without cost, and Moby has since admitted he became the poster child for selling out. “If I wasn’t me,” he says now, “I’d hate me too.”
None of his follow-ups have been quite as successful, but that may not be such a bad thing. With his new disc, “Last Night,” which was released April 1, he has taken a much more low-key approach. The album’s a return to his DJ roots, revisiting the sounds coming out of New York in the late ’80s and early ’90s, and it’s about as reflective as a dance album can be. His label, Mute, has taken an understated approach to marketing it — no big campaigns, seeding music blogs and social networks, or giving away tracks online.
Moby is a confounding mixture of so many things — a vegan and a “barely functioning alcoholic,” bisexual and vaguely Christian, a DJ who doubles as a frontman — that the press often has a hard time knowing what to make of him. His outspokenness on issues ranging from the environment to electoral politics has irritated fans across the political spectrum, and the spoils of his successes — his former uptown New York residence is on the market for $7.5 million — continue to make him a target for cultural sniper fire.
His physical presence belies this reputation. Dressed in a simple a black hoodie and jeans, his eyes sparkling behind stylishly thick black glasses, Moby, 42, comes across as nothing so much as an earnest DJ. We met in his Manhattan apartment — cluttered with the evidence of his recent obsession, buying old drum machines off eBay — and talked about how New York has changed, why the gossip about him is more interesting than the reality and how he treats hangovers. (Listen to a podcast of the interview here.)
It seems like lately you’ve gotten back into DJing and performing as a DJ a lot more. What brought that on?
I’ve been playing music since I was 9 years old. I started out playing classical music and studying music theory, then played in punk rock bands and got into DJing after I dropped out of college — this was around 1984. But then I had this voice in the back of my head saying, “You’re a musician, you have to go out and play live.” And so throughout the ’90s and into the beginning of this century, I toured with a band and played live, living on a tour bus and waking up in parking lots. At first I really liked the novelty of it, and then about three or four years ago, I finally had to admit to myself I really don’t like touring. So I started DJing again, but in a very, very low-key way. You know Nublu, the bar on Avenue C? I was doing Monday nights there, for 75 people — it wasn’t really advertised — and I was having more fun than being on tour playing to 10,000 people a night. It was almost like this unquestioned idea that as a musician you’re always supposed to pursue a large audience, but I realized I don’t enjoy it. I really enjoy just playing records for a couple hundred people.
Is it a little bit more difficult now that you’re older, staying out late and going to clubs?
No — if anything, I go out more and stay out later now than I ever have. The only difference is, the recovery time is longer. When I was 19, going out and drinking all night, by noon the next day, you’re fine. And now, the hangovers really do last 24 hours. It’s almost like every hour that I’m out drinking is going to involve four hours being hung over. The ratio just keeps getting bigger and bigger.
See, as a barely functioning alcoholic, I’ve tried every hangover cure. I’ll stumble into the deli, and they’ll have some new Russian hangover medicine, or I’ll read online that it’s all about bananas; it’s potassium. The only thing I’ve found that works for me is water and Xanax. You take a Xanax, you drink a lot of water, you go to sleep for six hours, and that usually helps.
It seems like in New York, DJing in general has come back over the last four or five years. Does it have a cachet that it may not always have had?
When I started DJing in 1984, I’d just dropped out of college. I was living at home with my mom, and I was DJing Monday nights for about 10 or 15 people at a club in Port Chester, N.Y., called the Beat. And at this point, there was nothing glamorous about DJing. The successful DJs were guys named Sal, who were mobile DJs and had satin jackets with their names in script on the left breast pocket. So in the early ’80s, I was always a little ashamed to introduce myself as a DJ. It had all the glamour of being a tollbooth operator or something.
And the new album is an ode to the early days?
On the one hand it’s sort of representing my history with dance music in New York, but it’s also supposed to feel like a night out on the Lower East Side, eight hours condensed into 65 minutes.
You’ve been living here for 20 years, and visiting since the late ’70s. How do you feel the dance scene in New York has changed? Are you nostalgic for the old days?
It’s hard for me to make qualitative generalizations. You can make quantitative generalizations and say New York used to be really cheap — apartments were cheap and food was cheap and beer was cheap, and now everything’s expensive. But if anything, I see this as being this really remarkable golden era in New York for music and culture because there’s so much going on. The worst time, ironically, for music and culture in New York, was the late ’80s — ’88, ’89, ’90; it was exciting, but it was terrible. Lower Manhattan had been decimated by AIDS and crack, and so everybody you knew was scared, sick or in the hospital. There wasn’t a lot going on. In some ways it was a good time for dance music, because for a lot of people it was the only refuge they had. But at that time, the dance scene was very Latino, very black and very gay. When I was DJing in the late ’80s, more often than not I’d be the only white person in the club, and I found that strangely comforting.
And as a DJ in the late ’80s, you had people from the inner city that were looking for any sort of relief or refuge, because in the gay community, and in the Latino and black communities of the late 1980s, everybody was just being assaulted on every side. Either your friends were dying of AIDS, or they were crack addicts, or they’d been shot. So being a DJ in the late ’80s, you became almost like a comforter. Your job was just to create an environment where people could finally relax and have a nice time. Certainly things are a lot different now.
New York magazine recently called you a “stealth slut.” What does that mean?
More often than not, whenever gossip has been written about me, the gossip is more interesting than the reality. I know some public figures hate gossip, but personally I like it because it makes my life sound more glamorous and interesting than it really is.
A part of me wants to sort of try and sound cool and feed this myth that I’m some sort of glamorous lothario, but I was raised by women — my mother and her mother and my aunts — and as a result most of my friends have always been women. So I guess some people in the media will see me with lots of different women and assume that I’m dating all of them, and as unsexy as this might sound, they’re just my friends. Of course, I’m not a saint; occasionally I go out and get drunk and go home with a stranger, but I’m not at Tommy Lee levels or anything.
Do you feel like you have any sort of control over your public image? Sometimes there’s this perception of you as very canny, plotting things out very carefully. I think people got that idea from “Play,” maybe, that something so big could only have been orchestrated.
The success of “Play” was such an arbitrary accident. I mean, I only had a record deal for “Play” in the States like three months before it was released. And V2 Records, at that time, it was almost like they were doing me a favor. There was no advance for it, and I remember sitting down with them as it was being released and they were talking about their sales goals. Someone in this meeting said that they thought maybe it could sell 100,000 copies, and there was almost this chuckle, like no, there’s no way this weird, lo-fi record could ever sell 100,000 copies — that seemed absurdly ambitious. In the first week it came out, I think it sold 3,000 copies. And they were all very happy. So the success, the licensing, the whatever, was completely accidental. There was no plan. There never has been. Whenever I’ve tried to plan things, they’ve always failed. Whenever I’ve tried to pick singles, I always pick the wrong singles.
Has the backlash from “Play” run its course?
At this point, I don’t read my own press because I just assume people are going to hate me. The backlash was really intense and disturbing, but when I looked at it objectively, it made sense to me. I realized, if I wasn’t me, I’d hate me too. Like, “Would he just shut up, would he just go away for a while — it’s become annoying.” So I understood why people were annoyed with me, but it still hurt my feelings. I’m sure that there are some people out there who are just going to hate me forever. It’s bizarre being loathed by people I’ve never met. And usually for weird reasons. I recognize that there just isn’t much that I can do about that, except for hang out with my friends and make spaghetti and watch “Family Guy.”
Any thoughts on the presidential election?
Three or four months ago, if you had asked me that, I would have said I’d be happy with either [Barack Obama or Hillary Clinton], whoever gets the nomination. They had that debate in Los Angeles where they were being really collegial and respectful of each other. And one of the questions was about a Clinton-Obama ticket, and both of them responded in a benign, coy way. At that point I would have happily supported either one of them.
I hate to say that I have since found the way in which the Clinton campaign has comported itself to be so distasteful that I now enthusiastically support Obama. I think he’d make a great president. I think he’s run an amazing campaign. I think he’s smart. He’s dignified. I think it sends an amazing message to the rest of the world. But Hillary Clinton has surrounded herself with some really bad people. A lot of the people, Harold Ickes and Terry McAuliffe and James Carville — these guys are nasty. You think Democrats are all like soft, tree-hugging NPR listeners? The people she’s surrounded with are just … awful. Their approach to politics is sort of “take no prisoners.” They are like the collective equivalent of Karl Rove on the left. They don’t care what it takes; they want their person to be installed in office.
How is life as a blogger?
It’s been interesting. When I started the blog, I think it was 1999, and I started writing about being on tour. And then the election, the Gore-Bush election campaign happened, and I was really incensed that anyone was taking Bush seriously. It was also when Nader was getting his three and a half percent of the vote, and I was really incensed that anyone would support Nader, because it was pretty clear that to me that a vote for Nader was the equivalent of a vote for Bush. I started being more and more outspoken about politics, and that’s when I started offending a lot of people, on the right and the left. Some of the most vitriolic stuff I’ve been on the receiving end of has been from people who ostensibly agree with me. But they find my tone somehow arrogant and strident and didactic, which at times I guess it is.
I’m under no illusions. I don’t think I’m a particularly good writer, and I’m not terribly insightful. The reason people read my blog is because I’m a musician. And if I weren’t a musician, it’s pretty safe to say no one would pay attention to anything I have to say. I see myself as being the blogging equivalent of the annoying drunk in the bar in the middle of the afternoon who just has an opinion about everything, but the other people in the bar stopped listening to him a long time ago.
Scott Lamb is a senior editor at BuzzFeed.com.More Scott Lamb.
Elliott and the friends with whom he recorded in middle school in Texas (photo courtesy of Dan Pickering)
Heatmiser publicity shot (L-R: Tony Lash, Brandt Peterson, Neil Gust, Elliott Smith) (photo courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Elliott and JJ Gonson (photo courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
"Stray" 7-inch, Cavity Search Records (photo courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Elliott's Hampshire College ID photo, 1987
Elliott with "Le Domino," the guitar he used on "Roman Candle" (courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Full "Roman Candle" record cover (courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Elliott goofing off in Portland (courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Heatmiser (L-R: Elliott Smith, Neil Gust, Tony Lash, Brandt Peterson)(courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
The Greenhouse Sleeve -- Cassette sleeve from Murder of Crows release, 1988, with first appearance of Condor Avenue (photo courtesy of Glynnis Fawkes)