Interview:Talkin' Techno Trash
Gary Numan vs. Moby:
Talkin' Techno Trash
Looking like two pale androids walking down a New York city street, '70s auto-pop progenitor Gary Numan and '90s techno-boy-turned-metal-punk Moby represent twenty years of man-machine music. When Numan hit U.S. charts in the late '70s with the Kraftwerk-inspired "Cars" (from Are Friends Electric?), his robotic movements and tinny, freakish voice were a Top 40 breakthrough. Like Ziggy from Mars with bad hair and acne, Numan was an unlikely pop star. More antihero than preening pop wannabe, he stood in stark contrast to the "soft rock" sounds of James Taylor and Carole King which dominated U.S. radio of that era.
While Taylor comforted you with "You've got a friend," Numan's ominous keyboard riffs, mechanized rhythms and eerie vocals implied anything but a cozy future. Numan provided quirky relief from good vibes and the saccharine back-to-nature movement. Predating techno, Numan integrated primitive synths and his cold melodies into catchy, ethereal pop songs.
Moby's reign as the great white dope of techno now seems a distant memory, but his Animal Rights album holds its seeds, as he flails at punk and hard rock with the same calculated intensity he brought to his early '90s techno performances. Still a one man band, Moby creates his music at his spacious East Village loft (painted entirely in white), where a small room stuffed with recording gear bears walls covered with eight-foot posters of, you guessed it, the Moby-man himself. Who needs mirrors when the walls tout your own glossy image?
Mr. Numan and Mr. Moby met at Moby central, lower east side. Moby asked only one thing before we entered his pristine quarters: "Please don't touch the walls."
Moby to Numan: Would you like a chair?
Numan: Thank you.
Moby: The floor in here slopes. When they laid the floor six hundred years ago they made it really high in the corners so when they're hosing down all the water runs to a central drain.
Numan: Or the blood.
Moby: This building was a prison during the civil war, then a hospital. More recently, part and parcel of being a musician in New York meant you had to rehearse in the basement. Sonic Youth, Beastie Boys, Pavement, Helmet, they were all in here.
Musician.com: It's very sparsely decorated in here.
Moby: I think there is too much stuff in here. Stuff makes me crazy.
Musician.com: Well, what do you want to get rid of? We'll take some stuff off your hands. (laughs)
Moby: My studio is behind that door and it's full of stuff. (Moby addresses Numan) I did an interview once where the journalist asked me about electronic music that had influenced me and I mentioned you. The journalist said, "Gary Numan? But he's a Tory." So one thing I wanted to talk about was politics. Especially with the impending [U.K.] election which is May 1. [The election resulted in labor party candidate Tony Blair defeating Conservative John Major.]
Numan: God. Utterly depressing.
Moby: You think so?
Numan: Yeah. They all turn out to be big liars. I've totally lost interest.
Moby: What I don't understand is that the English economy over the last three years is one of the healthier economies in Europe now.
Numan: It's a financial success story. The recession had hit pretty badly. People had been encouraged to buy their own homes for years, then the recession hit and it was all taken away. People were in terrible shape and the government was blamed for pushing people while not seeing that the recession was coming. It didn't bother me too much. I was able to hang on to mine. I got criticized really badly for voting conservative when the bulk of English people vote conservative as well. I hadn't voted for the Rape Our Children Party or anything like that, yet I was criticized. Seems to me that the music business in Britain is very left wing.
Moby: I grew up in a very Liberal household, with a kind of knee-jerk, liberal approach to things. But watching what happened in England with privatization, the conservative government seems to have had a really beneficial impact.
Numan: My experience, when I came of age to realize what was going on, was at the peak of Labor's desperation. There were strikes every day. You couldn't travel. Rubbish was piling up in the streets. I thought, "If this is socialism, you can stick it." I remember about a newspaper that had moved from printing plates to computers. The man who washed the plates was out of a job, but the union would not let him be fired. This man, making 500 pounds a week, would go to a hole in the wall where his sink used to be, and he'd sit there and read the paper. The unions were ruining the very companies where their members were still employed. So to save the few, they were sacrificing a hundred. You can sympathize all you like, but the world is changing. You can't stop it all because a few people might lose out. You have to do all you can for them. The conservatives have a better grasp of that than Labor. Labor was so union controlled. There were no solutions. Now Labor has changed very much, their approach and what they're saying have changed.
Moby: They're just as free-market as the conservatives. In France, they had a Socialist government under Mitterand and the Socialists. Now they have thirteen percent unemployment and they're paralyzed by strikes. When I was on tour there they had the truckers strike. They shut down all the highways for a week. They were striking for retirement at fifty with full pay. How can you make a case for that in an economy that is increasingly global? Countries have to remain competitive.
Musician.com: Here we have two progressive-thinking musicians saying conservatism is the hope of the future?
Numan: No, no, no. I'm not saying that.
Moby: It's pragmatism.
Musician.com: When the Republicans, who are the conservatives here, get in power, all sort of shenanigans usually take place to shift power away from individuals to corporations.
Moby: I'm speaking more on an economic level.
Musician.com: That's the same as industry isn't it?
Moby: Yes and no. It has to do with a pragmatic assessment of the global economy. Fiscally, I'm fairly conservative. Socially and culturally, that's where I part ways with conservatives. They feel they should be able to legislate what people do in their private time. Well, that's an individual's own choice.
Musician.com: Can conservatives and liberals work together?
Numan: That's what's happening now in Britain. The conservatives realize people are used to being better off. So now they're looking at things that aren't so good. The first thing that people worry about is the money in their pockets. You sort that out and they're happy for a bit. Then things swing back to the left. It's funny how it seesaws throughout time. But now I'm moving away from conservatism. We have this new labor, they've dropped the anti nuclear thing and gotten rid of the old school nonsense. People don't follow the union line anymore.
Musician.com: What about "burn baby burn"? With the increasing concentration of wealth among fewer and fewer people, is there ever a need for radical solutions? Increasing wealth among the few is not helpful to the many, which is what this country is about, individual liberties, giving everyone a chance.
Moby: But at the same time it's really difficult. If you look at it from an economic or political viewpoint, history works cyclically. You might have a period where wealth is concentrated in the hands of a teeny percent of the population. Then it gets spread, it seems to flow like that. You can't legislate one person's view of how the world should work. I avoid the broad stereotypes like conservative and liberal. I think each issue demands its own approach. It's hard to make blanket generalizations about anything being all good or all bad.
Musician.com: But the world is shrinking and wealth and power is more concentrated than ever before. In the 80s the Republicans called it trickle-down, the poor get the crumbs off the master's table kind of thing. What's the answer Moby?
Moby: Accepting that things are more ambiguous and gray than people want to admit. There aren't simple answers or utopian solutions. You can't make legislation and suddenly life is perfect for everybody. You have to accept that the best you can shoot for it is to make the quality of everyone's life as good as possible. You try to eradicate poverty, but it's recognizing how confusing things are.
Musician.com: Moby has a non cynical attitude. Are you cynical Numan?
Moby: I'm cynical about certain things. In general I think things are pretty good.
Musician.com: I think they're getting worse.
Moby: It depends on your criteria. Are you talking about new housing starts, mortality rates, gross domestic product, percentage of debt...
Musician.com: In New York city small businesses are disappearing because K-Mart, and Circuit City and Barnes and Nobles have moved in.
Numan: That's not worse, just different. I live in a little village called Great Easton, just around the corner from Little Easton. It was very much a village community with little stores, very low key. Two years ago they built a massive department store right in the middle of it. It's packed all the time. But now the main street is closing down, the department store has taken over everything. But I see the life that was and the businesses that were that are now struggling.
Musician.com: It's also about the communities that were.
Numan: It's destroying community as it was. In the long run, it's hard to see what will happen.
Moby: It's erroneous to judge something as it is because its part of a process. Ten years from now the way people interact with goods and services might be completely different.
Musician.com: In the '60s music in the U.S. had a distinct style in every city, from Detroit to Muscle Shoals to San Francisco, with different radio markets. Now it's all the same radio across the country, part of this mass corporatizing effect on every part of culture, which is also why every city looks the same. The endless strip mall.
Moby: Esthetically, I agree with you. I see all these K-Marts and think what a shame. Too bad it's not all organic. But there is a philosophical fallacy called the is-ought fallacy, which is basically saying because something is, it ought to be that way. The three of us might agree that communities should be smaller and businesses should be locally owned, but you can't legislate that.
Musician.com: But the politicians are courted by big business. The little man is out of the loop.
Numan: But it's you and I that go to their businesses and we could chose not to. But we dont. So whose to blame? We make the companies successful. We are contributing to the breakdown of the community we knew and are moaning about it all the while. I'm doing it. I go the mall instead of main street. We're always in a bloody hurry and you can park and it's convenient. You can't have it both ways.
Moby: We're all responsible for the homogenization of global culture. I buy major label records. I'm not searching for seven inches on small indie labels. Things are so complicated I resist generalization. I'd rather figure out a semi-objective criteria for evaluating things. My parents hate Bill Clinton because he has affairs. But he's doing a good job as President. Are you going to fire him cause he's cheating on his wife?
Musician.com: We are Bill Clinton. We're a big horny nation that wants to fornicate whenever we get the chance.
Moby: We labor under this Judeo-Christian-Catholic notion of penance. Being a human being is a really difficult thing. We're saddled with this overwhelming desire to spread our seed. What bothers me is fingerpointing. Like on talk shows when the audience wants to hang some guy who slept with his wife's mother. We're all equally guilty.
Musician.com: Now Moby, how are we all equally guilty? Of screwing your mother in law...this I gotta hear.
Moby: I did an interview today and the journalist's mother wanted to know if he was still possessed by Satan and into rock and roll? I said go to her and say "You drive a General Motors car. The car is assembled in Brownsville, Texas. A river runs through Brownsville, then down to a city in Mexico, from where they get their drinking water. The rate of encephalitis babies born in Mexico is 150 times the national average. The paint they use causes babies to be born without brains. So which is worse? Rock and roll music or babies born without brains?" Which is more evil? K-Mart, or the things that go to wrap things in K-Mart? You have to evaluate things according to strict logical principles. That's what I mean by esthetic criteria as opposed to ethical criteria. So we're all equally guilty. Whether you're sleeping with your mother-in-law or eating dairy products. Look at the suffering that comes from that, that's a lot of suffering cows. Maybe she drives a car. Think of the pollution she's responsible for. We're all responsible. We pay taxes to support our government that does horrible things. We're all people who wake up depressed because we're getting older, not having enough sex, and want to make more money. We all get lonely, we all want to live better. We really only have each other and community.
Numan: I don't have any faith in that, I'm afraid.
Moby: I don't either.
Numan: I've no faith in my common man to be supportive. I find him the most scary thing of all the dangers on the planet.