In the beginning of 2008 Moby was about to release his eighth album, Last Night, which marked his return to dance music. I’ve known Moby since the ’90s and it became a tradition—at least in my mind—that with each new album we’d meet at his apartment on Mott Street in New York City and I would interview him. I always enjoyed these conversations where I was able to learn about the creative process that informed his latest effort. What added to our engaging chinwags was the setting—we were in the comfort of his home sans doting publicist. Musicians, like most of us, are are more comfortable talking in their kitchen as opposed to a sterile conference room.
I’ve always found Moby to be an approachable, often self-effacing anti-star. He’d probably agree with that sentiment. In fact, back when Big Shot was a print publication, I asked Moby on a whim if he’d guest edit our first anniversary issue in 2004. He didn’t have a new release to promote but was kind enough to curate a fantastic issue reflecting his diverse interests in music and culture. I fondly remember shooting the issue’s cover with photographer Bert Spangemacher in the hallway of Moby’s apartment building one afternoon as his tolerant neighbors squeezed past our makeshift studio setup.
When the press push for Last Night began, I started receiving press releases about legendary Japanese composer/electronic music innovator Ryuichi Sakamoto. I had heard that Sakamoto lived in NYC and was always interested in him and his music. I first discovered Sakamoto in 1983’s Merry Christmas, Mr. Lawrence, a film about a World War II Japanese prison camp which he scored and starred in opposite David Bowie. I dove deeper and soaked up the groundbreaking work as a member of Yellow Magic Orchestra in the late ’70s and early ’80s. So when I came across a missive about Sakamoto in my inbox, an idea popped into my mind: What if I got Sakamoto and Moby together for a one-on-one interview? I typed up my query and held my breath.
While Moby is ubiquitous in the media, Sakamoto has always been press shy. But the stars aligned and a few weeks later I was able to schedule an afternoon meeting between these two titans of electronic music at Sakamoto’s apartment in the West Village, a reader’s paradise that was filled with books and outfitted with a recording studio in the sub basement. Eight years later their conversation, which touched on politics to gentrifying New York City, is still riveting.
A key moment in the interview is when Sakamoto brings up his staunch anti-nuclear stance, noting that Japan has “3,000 earthquakes a day.” That fact wasn’t lost on Moby who made a prescient observation—three years before the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear disaster following the Tōhoku earthquake on March 11, 2011—when he mused that Japan is “not the smartest place to be building nuclear reactors.” Here is the full interview with Moby and Ryuichi Sakamoto as it appeared in issue 23.
As a member of Yellow Magic Orchestra, Ryuichi Sakamoto helped usher in the age of electronica. Moby picked up the torch in the early ‘90s and made an indelible mark on the genre. Big Shot brought these icons together for a chat at Sakamoto’s New York studio.
Images for Big Shot by Alex Cao
Ryuichi Sakamoto: Are you still supporting MoveOn?
Moby: A little bit. They learned so much from the last election because we lost. Through losing a lot of people learned how to be better and more effective at campaigning. That’s why I think the Democrats won in 2006. Everybody had learned from 2004 what not to do.
Sakamoto: What was the key?
Moby: The key is actually voter registration and getting people to the polls. What MoveOn did in 2004 with organizations like Vote For Change was to register millions of people, but then left them alone. The Republicans are good at registering people and driving them to the polls. For example, the MoveOn representative in Iowa was an Islamic man.
Moby: So you have Iowa, which is a white, Christian state, and they sent an African-American Islamic man. They realized they can’t be effective….. Imagine if they had sent a farmer from Iowa to get people in New York to register to vote; he wouldn’t know how to talk to us. So…have you been here long a long time in this building?
Sakamoto: Yeah. Like 13 years. This neighborhood has changed so much. Two months ago they opened a Marc Jacobs [store] here on this block.
Moby: One of the first clubs I ever DJ’ed at was a club called Mars. It was over by the West Side Highway in the late ‘80s and the Meatpacking District was all tranny hookers and meat processors. The gentrification happened so fast.
Sakamoto: I walk around in the morning and it used to smell like meat, but it’s all gone now.
Moby: I really enjoyed the records I got from sent [from your label]. They were very interesting and very quiet instrumental records that sounded very atmospheric. Are you doing a lot of film music?
Sakamoto: Um, yes and no. I have done music for film.
Moby: I mainly license music for movies. It’s so much easier!
Sakamoto: I your album I Like To Score.
Moby: It’s very eclectic. I grew up playing classical music, and I played in punk bands and was a hip-hop DJ. Then I went to dance music.
Sakamoto: I also like your Ambient compilation.
Moby: In 1988 or 1989 I signed a label deal with a New York label called Instinct Records. I was their only artist. I also answered the phones and did the owner’s dry cleaning. I had a studio set up in his living room, so I’d go in there and make music when I wasn’t answering the phones. Because I was the only artist, they invented different names for me. At one point, they put out a compilation that looked like it had all of these different artists, but it was just me using all these different names. He had copied a lot of my DATs, so after I left the label he kept putting out my records.
Sakamoto: So he owned the master rights?
Moby: Yes. There was nothing I could do. It used to happen to artists after they died. In my case, I was still alive at the time! [Laughs]
Sakamoto: Did you still see him after that?
Moby: Yeah. I don’t see the point in still being upset. He was just being self-interested.
Sakamoto: I’m pushing myself to speak out about issues I really believe in. I started an environmental organization called More Trees because we need to plant more trees. We are taking down forests everywhere in the world and this needs to stop for the good of the planet.
Moby: I was flying from Argentina to New York. You know when you fly at night you can see cities when you look out the window? I kept looking out of the window. As I looked more closely, I realized what I was seeing was actually fires in the Rainforest. It was as far as the eye could see, from horizon to horizon. Just lines of fires burning. It was horrifying and beautiful at the same time. What’s also interesting about C02 is I was part of a study at Columbia University about carbon dioxide and anxiety. If you elevate levels of carbon dioxide, you elevate people’s propensity for having anxiety attacks. I wonder as we elevate C02 levels if we’re becoming more anxious.
Sakamoto: Last year in northern Japan I helped bring awareness to a huge uranium processing facility at Rokkasho. It’s a nuclear reprocessing plant, and I contributed music and played an event. I got a lot of artists and musicians to also bring attention to it. It was very important to me.
Moby: Japan is such a densely populated country with so few natural resources.
Sakamoto: Right. No oil either and it’s prone to earthquakes. We have 3,000 earthquakes a day.
Moby: So it’s not the smartest place to be building nuclear reactors. [Laughs]
Sakamoto: What about you?
Moby: I work with a lot of animal rights organizations. I used to work more with PETA, but I found that some of their tactics offended people. If I want to make the world a better place and change people’s minds, you have to respect the people you deal with.
Sakamoto: It’s tricky, because you can wind up making more enemies.
Moby: Exactly. So now I’m trying to be a more effective advocate. In my youth, I thought the best way to change things was to be as loud as possible. Now being quiet, listening and thinking of effective strategies can work better.
Sakamoto: Do you still own your tea business, Teany?
Moby: No, I owned it with my ex-girlfriend and learned a good lesson: never go into business with your ex-girlfriend. It’s still going, but I am not involved. I still drink a lot of tea. I still own part of the beverage company.
Sakamoto: I drew a picture of Mount Killamonjaro for a coffee beverage [Lohas Club Café Ole] and the company donates one percent of the sales to More Trees.
Moby: You’ve lived in New York for a while. Do you ever think of moving back to Japan?
Sakamoto: I’ve thought about it, but I cannot decide. I feel comfortable here, and I am anonymous. When I go back to Tokyo everyone is calling, and I can’t concentrate on music. I like my studio and apartment in New York; it’s very peaceful. I like to take a walk in the morning, even though my neighborhood has changed. I feel calmer and safer here. It’s a good place for me to create music.
Moby: I was born on 148th Street, so I am already home. I like the musical history of New York and all of the museums, though there isn’t a music museum, which is odd. I love the cultural history and the constant change. I like the weather because it’s always different.
Sakamoto: It’s the same weather as Tokyo, only a little colder in the winter and hotter in the summer. Are you going to tour?
Moby: Hopefully not. I hate touring. That’s why I made a dance record [Last Night]. I’d rather go out and DJ. It’s fun to take credit for other people’s music.
Sakamoto: I’m working on many new things…. [Sakamoto plays Moby a few new pieces he’s produced in 5.1 and the two electronic music masters get lost for the next 20 minutes in a technical conversation about Pro Tools and hard drives.]
Sakamoto: Do you still play vinyl when you DJ?
Moby: I did until a year ago. I was flying to Belgium, waiting for my luggage, and I moment of panic that the airline had lost my records. Now I put everything on CDs that are never more than a few inches away from me. I started a rock band with some friends, and I play bass and guitar. It’s so much fun to play really loud. You feel so powerful playing bass, especially since I’m not the most powerful person in the world.