"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)
While the rise of Napster in 1999 administered a fatal injection into the arm of the music industry, that same year also delivered one of the most important releases of the last fifty years—Moby’s Play, a 63-minute electronic music odyssey that would sell over twelve million copies, generate nine singles and that would ultimately see all eighteen of its tracks licensed for use in commercials, movies and television.
It’s hard to believe that in the weeks leading up to its release, the artist himself, then 33 years old, viewed the album as an inauspicious clutch of experimental jams that were destined to reach little more than a modest group of electronic music buffs.
Boy, was he ever wrong.
Play emerged as a proverbial game-changer; a smooth, melodic handshake between millennia, draping the gravitas of soul music with the shimmering possibilities of electronica. The line between styles began to blur, and as artists from all genres rushed to stake a claim in this bracing new territory, Moby transcended the fringes of electronica and claimed a seat at the head of pop music’s most exclusive table.
It boggles the mind to consider that 14 years later, Moby sees himself as an artist with essentially nothing to lose. The digital revolution has eviscerated more than just the profit margins of major record labels; it has leveled the playing field for both musicians and fans. Vital new music can now be created, distributed and consumed with the click of a mouse, reducing the long-standing, album-oriented industry model to a fine dust. It’s all about downloads, streaming radio and YouTube hits now.
Standing on the scorched earth that was once a lush and verdant music industry, for the first time in over a decade, Moby has found the freedom to sidestep the commercial expectations that have dogged him since Play; a realization that has inspired him to write Innocents—his most ambitious album yet.
Released this October, Innocents sees Moby turning his entire creative process on its head; for the first time he has brought in an outsider—Mark “Spike” Stent—to assist with the album’s production. He also recorded the album in a new city—Los Angeles—and he has collected easily his most eclectic group of collaborators to date, from velvety-voiced crooners such as Cold Specks and Skylar Grey to more eclectic performers like Wayne Coyne, Mark Lanegan and folk singer Damian Jurado.
I sat down with Moby to talk about his new album and the future of music, and to find out why Innocents is the album he has waited his whole life to write.
Joe Daly: You’ve recently said that you recorded your new album amid the rubble of a music industry that has “fallen apart”. Is this a commercial assessment or do you see creative deterioration as well?
Moby: Well, when I say that the music business has fallen apart, in many ways I see that a lot of the most egregious, sort of uncreative aspects of the music business are slowly falling by the wayside. I think the low-water mark for the music business, in terms of creativity, was about 1999, when pop music was ubiquitous and selling tens of millions of copies; now there’s certainly still a lot of mercenary pop music, but it seems like it’s the last gasp of a dying industry.
Then I look at a lot of the music that’s come out in the last five or six years—whether it’s Bon Iver, Arcade Fire, even a band like The National–bands that wouldn’t have had a chance with the major labels in the 90s. So I see the demise of the record business as benefiting music itself.
Is there anything left in the industry that needs repair, or does this implosion need to play out so a new industry model can rise from the proverbial ashes?
The music business has changed so much from what it was; every aspect of it has changed, like the way in which music is made, the way it’s listened to, the way it’s distributed, the way it’s marketed, the way it’s sold…every aspect of it has changed, and if your criteria for judging the change is, “to what extent does it reflect decreased revenue streams,” then the changes are seen as negative. But even if that’s the way you look at it, there’s still nothing that anyone can do about it, so complaining about the changes in the music business is akin to complaining about the weather. It’s a fact of life and in the last few years I’ve met with lots of different record companies and publishing companies, and the companies who are desperately trying to hold on to the old revenue streams and the old business models are sort of sad, crumbly places; but the companies who recognize the way the current climate actually is are like thriving, interesting places that are doing well and filled with dynamic people.
But I guess that’s true for everything. It’s akin to dealing with actors during the Vaudeville silent film era as it moved into talkies and color. I’m guessing people back then who lamented the end of silent film probably woke up everyday depressed and they hated going to work.
It certainly follows that an unwillingness to adapt will inevitably lead to suffering.
Yeah, and I certainly understand the reason for doing so. There are a lot of people whose livelihood is based on the way things were, and I certainly can’t criticize them. I mean, I’m single and I don’t have kids. I imagine some person in their fifties who had a job with a major label—and they have a mortgage to pay, they have alimony, their kid’s tuition—it must be profoundly disheartening and depressing to see these changes, but nonetheless the changes have happened.
The next huge change that I’m really curious to see how the record business responds to is the move away from people owning music to a pure streaming model.
Well that fight erupted into a new battle quite recently when Thom Yorke began yanking his music off of Spotify.
I mean, that does sort of seem like Ahab fighting Moby-Dick. It kind of reminds me of Lars Ulrich from Metallica fighting Napster. Even if that’s how you feel, why fight a battle that is one hundred percent unwinnable? Not only is it unwinnable, it should be unwinnable. Personally I find the democratic chaos of the Internet fascinating, and for the most part really benign.
In the wake of these massive industry changes, you’ve recorded what you’ve said is the album that you’ve always wanted to make. What freedoms did you enjoy in making Innocents that you might not have experienced in other projects?
One of the most emancipating things is the fact that, in the past—say the late 90s—you’d make a record and you’d really need to make the label happy and you’d really hope that a lot of people would go out and buy your record. Now, I honestly love making records and I have no idea if anybody’s ever going to listen to them, so I made this album because I love making albums and I don’t really expect too many people to actually listen to it, because it’s 2013 and I’m 47 years old, and so a) very few people listen to the eleventh album made by a 47-year-old musician; and b) very few people listen to albums. (laughs) So if there were a Venn diagram of that, the number of people who might actually listen to this album from start-to-finish probably could be counted on two hands.
If you can step away from that prediction, how do you see this album fitting into your overall catalog?
It’s a good question, and I wish I had an equally good answer, but I don’t have much objectivity or perspective as regards me and my work and how things relate to each other. Like when the album Play came out, I thought it was kind of an average, slightly-experimental record that would disappear without a trace. And I was proven wrong, thankfully. So, how this record might hold up, compared to other things I’ve done, I honestly have no idea, except for the fact that I like it. Granted, I’m biased because I made it.
To the extent that you can remember, could you compare the level of satisfaction you felt after creating Innocents with how you felt after finishing Play?
Well, making Play was incredibly frustrating, because I’ve made my records pretty much all by myself in a bedroom studio, but making Play was during a time when I felt like everyone else except for me was making huge, amazing-sounding, successful records, and Play is quite a lo-fi record. I was signed to Mute Records but I was trying to get a deal in the United States, and record label after record label had rejected me, and so when I was working on Play, I was fully aware of the fact that at the time I was kind of a has-been making a lo-fi record in his bedroom that no one would likely ever hear. And I’m not just saying that to be self-deprecating; that was the objective truth. So it was a very frustrating record to make because I never thought it sounded good enough, whereas when making this record, even though Innocents is also quite a lo-fi record, I was working with (producer Mark) “Spike” Stent, who really knows what he’s doing, so he helped sort of allay my fears that I was making a lo-fi record that was unlistenable.
I’m glad you mention Spike because Innocents sees you turning your creative process on its head in a lot of ways—for example, bringing on an external producer. What was it about Spike that made sense for this record, and for that matter, why now?
Mainly the fact that he and I grew up listening to the same records, and now a lot of people know him as a pop producer, but his background was working with Throbbing Gristle and Psychic TV and the KLF and Massive Attack and Björk and lots of really weird, interesting, experimental electronic music. When we first met up to talk about possibly working together, I really liked the idea of introducing some element of objectivity and perspective, because when I work by myself, there’s no objectivity at all. And also, I really liked his perspective. In one of the first conversations we had, he said to me that if this record were going to be successful, it would be successful due to its emotional qualities. That became our criteria for evaluating the music—do we think it’s interesting and does it affect us emotionally?
Going back to an earlier question, it’s really nice when that can be your only criteria for evaluating the music; where you’re not thinking to yourself, “How is this going to sound in a shopping mall in Cleveland?” or “How will radio programmers in Stuttgart respond to this?” The criteria is really immediate in that way.
You said that Innocents reflects a conscious effort to make things imperfect, and even awkward. Where might a listener hear those qualities on the new album?
Everywhere. (laughs) There is almost nothing in the record that’s perfect. And I’m really happy with that, because a lot of producers, when they’re making music, are trying to exorcise anything that’s technically imperfect, any vocal imperfections and any performance imperfections. I sort of see an album as being a little time capsule; it’s a little snapshot of the context in which it was being created, and I like allowing the imperfections to remain. Also in this case, a lot of times, it was almost about intentionally creating imperfection. I could go on for the next ten minutes as to what that says about the human condition and the efforts that we all make to present our best selves, when our best selves tend to be kind of anodyne and disingenuous, but suffice it to say, I love imperfect music.
Another quality that stands out is the permeating sense of melancholy throughout the tracks. That seems to carry through a lot of your work. How intentional is that?
Hmmm…maybe I’m just depressed. (laughs)
Maybe that’s a loaded question, then. Do you see your music as melancholic?
The way I’ve always thought of it is that I really like happy music, but I really love sad music. In the course of my life, I’ve made some happy songs but it’s the more sort of like pathos-laden, emotional, melancholic music that either I make or that other people make that really resonates with me. If I look at the last hundred years, it seems like that’s kind of true for us as a species—the music that sticks with us tends to be the slightly-sadder, more introspective melancholic music. Just think of which has had better staying power—”Imagine,” by John Lennon or “Yummy, Yummy, Yummy“?
It’s that beautiful, heartfelt, emotional, pathos-filled music that’s really what is really most precious to me, and when I’m making records, that’s sort of what I’m striving for.
This is the first album that you’ve made since moving to Los Angeles. How did the experience of living in L.A. inform your approach to songwriting?
That’s such a good, legitimate question and I wish I had a really good, legitimate answer, but the truth is that my studio in New York is a small bedroom studio and basically when I moved to L.A. I set up a studio in my guest house that’s almost identical to my studio in New York, and they’re both kind of quiet and monastic and closed-off.
Clearly there are huge differences between living in L.A. as opposed to New York—the weather, the access to nature, the industries that sustain those places… If I could point to one thing it would be that New York is very concentrated. I walk out my front door in New York and I’m out on the street and there are people everywhere. L.A. is so much more spread out, so it’s really easy in L.A. to have a little more isolation and to just not see as many people. So if there is a sparseness to this record, maybe it’s a product of that. I’m not sure.
Also, now that I’m thinking about it further, my studio in New York is very isolated and monastic, but I also know that 50 feet away there are millions of people, whereas in my studio in L.A., it’s sort of in the country and when I look out of the window of my studio in L.A., I just see trees. Maybe there was sort of an underlying sense of isolation informing the writing on this record.
You’ve assembled arguably your most diverse team of collaborators on this album. What are the artistic qualities that you look for when you invite musicians to work with you?
First and foremost, when I’m listening to their voices, I want really interesting vocals, because there are so many people who have really good voices, but a lot of those people don’t have that sort of idiosyncratic, interesting quality to their voice. Whereas all the people on Innocents technically have really good voices, each has a very distinct timber and other characteristics to their voice. Also, in a lot of the collaborations, the collaborators were the ones writing the lyrics, so I wanted smart oddballs who would write smart, odd lyrics. Finally, I had to like them as people, because it would be really depressing to collaborate with people you didn’t actually like. Like having someone in your studio and thinking to yourself, They might be a really good singer, but I really don’t like this person…
Luckily with all these collaborators, they’re just really nice, odd, interesting people who are sort of fun and interesting to hang out with.
You couldn’t have gone much more diverse than bringing in Mark Lanegan on one end and Damien Jurado on the other.
The funny thing is that they’re actually friends! So when I mentioned to Mark, “Oh, I’m working with a whole bunch of people like Wayne (Coyne) and Damien Jurado,” he was like, “Oh, Damien Jurado? We toured together.”
Lanegan is not known for his contributions to electronic music. What part of his catalog were you thinking about when you invited him to participate?
I grew up playing in punk rock bands and in the 80s I knew SST and the Screaming Trees, and his voice is one of the darkest, most distinctive voices of anyone in the history of popular music. He sort of stands alone, just in the quality of his voice.
I went to hear him perform, I guess two years ago, and he did a cover of a Gun Club song, “Carry Home,” which is one of my favorite Gun Club songs, and he did such a poignant version of it. It turns out that he and Jeffrey Lee Pierce were actually good friends and I guess that’s one of the things that made it so poignant. But I was listening to him sing this and I just thought, I need to somehow work with this person. Anyone who has that voice and could pick one of my favorite songs—which is a pretty obscure song from a fairly obscure band—and do such a beautiful version of it, I knew I had to work with him. So I went backstage to introduce myself. Mark is kind of a scary-looking guy, and I expected him to be really dismissive or mean, but actually he was incredibly gracious and kind and he was excited to work together.
I’m going to give myself a little more credit because I was also the camera man, the craft services man, and I went to the Halloween store in Burbank and I bought all the Halloween masks.
So what was your favorite part of the experience?
I bought underwater housings for my cameras, so shooting underwater, I love it. The moment you turn on a camera underwater, it’s just a really strange, surreal and different world. And I sort of love the fact that you can take a fairly generic suburban backyard and it just has this pit of surrealism, which is a swimming pool. And getting my actors to wear Halloween masks and wrap themselves in sheets and to exhale and then sit in the bottom of a pool…that was interesting.
You’re shooting underwater, you’ve got women wrapped in sheets and the bear mask, among other curious imagery. What was the underlying theme?
I was a philosophy major at SUNY Purchase, and SUNY had a really big experimental film program. I think it was the last school in the United States to have a major in experimental film, so a lot of my friends at SUNY were experimental filmmakers, and I would help them work on their films, shooting on 16 and super-8. There was this idea of going out with a camera and bringing a bunch of weird stuff along and seeing what happens. So that was kind of the ethos behind all the album art and the video. I mean, back in the old days, shooting was expensive because you had to buy and process film, but now I just shoot on video and it cost nothing and we tried to get as much odd, interesting stuff as we could.
There’s also such a history of weird cults in Southern California, so a lot of what I was shooting was originally putting together a kind of off-putting, but ultimately benign cult, but when I finished shooting I realized that the meaning of the images had changed for me quite a lot and it was all about people in this other world trying to conceal themselves because they were deeply ashamed.
Wow. That’s heavy.
(laughs) So that’s the significance to the masks and the sheets and the video and the art. It’s all about people hiding.
Would you ever consider directing a video for another artist?
You know, I actually did once. In the mid-90s, I got a call from Johnathan (Donahue), the singer in the band Mercury Rev, and he asked me to direct a video, so I directed a video for Mercury Rev. I had no idea what I was doing, so I basically showed up with some cameras and directed this video and I don’t remember if it’s good. I haven’t seen it since I made it. I think it was maybe a little more conventional than I had wanted it to be, because I think when you don’t know what you’re doing, you err on the side of convention. And sometimes when people do know what they’re doing, they err on the side of convention, but in my case I had never directed anything, and so I ended up with something that was a little bit conventional.
But as far as directing things for other people…I don’t really like working for other people. It’s one of the reasons why I don’t do much film composing, because I’m really pretty happy being left alone in my studio, working by myself.
There’s a question that I’ve been meaning to ask you for years. The first time I saw you holding a guitar, I vividly recall wondering who your inspirations were for that instrument.
That’s a really fun question because I’ve been playing guitar since I was ten years old. My biggest guitar influence would be Tom Verlaine, from Television. Especially the first album, Marquee Moon, side A—we’re talking about vinyl—and I guess Richard Lloyd was the other guitar player, but I especially think of Tom Verlaine—that super plaintive, melodic approach to guitar solos. Also, Daryl (Jennifer), from the Bad Brains. One of best guitar solos, if you’re looking to listen to an amazing guitar solo, is the solo in “Banned in DC.” It’s a punk rock song, but the guitar solo is beautiful. And in a weird way, I’d say Nick Drake, but that’s more from an acoustic perspective.
Yeah, all those weird tunings…
Yeah, I’ve never, ever experimented with weird tunings because it just seems like too much work. So when I was eighteen or nineteen years old, trying to learn how to play songs off of Bryter Layter, I’d never figure it out because I didn’t know that they were weird tunings, but apparently, that’s all he did. It’s one of the reasons why his live shows never worked, because he’d spend like five minutes between songs trying to re-tune his guitar to all these weird tunings and people would just leave.
Your tour supporting the new album will be just three shows in L.A. in October. What’s the deal?
A couple of things: one, I feel like every musician I know tours constantly, and so in a weird way, I feel like—and this isn’t really legitimate—I feel like by not touring, I make a tiny bit of space for other people. Everybody else wants to tour, but I don’t really like touring that much. But the main reason is that I really like staying home and working, and when I go on tour, I stop being creative. I’m not going to complain, because when a musician complains about traveling around the world and playing music, I think it’s within everyone’s right to not listen to them, but I don’t like sitting around so much and when you go on tour you sit a lot, and I can’t work on music and I can’t take pictures and I can’t write as much as I can when I’m home, so basically it’s just from a desire to stay at home so I can make more stuff.
You’ve noted that you’re a 47-year-old artist on his eleventh album, but you’ve also accomplished more creatively and commercially than most musicians ever have or ever will. Is there anything left for you to achieve as an artist?
The only artistic goal I have is to just try and make music that I really love, and that hopefully other people will love. And I know that might sound either glib or disingenuous, but I promise it’s the truth. That’s the main reason I keep working. I guess it’s this work ethos of someone like Solzenitsen and Woody Allen and Henry Moore. These are the people who inspired me in terms of work ethos when I was growing up because they’d just keep working, so I kept working. So that’s my approach—just keep working and hope that something good arises from it. Because I know that if I’m not working, nothing good will happen. The easiest, biggest guarantee that I won’t make anything good is to stop working. But as long as I’m working, there’s no guarantee that something good will happen, but at least it increases the chances.
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)
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