WHEN MOBY performed at Nation in September, he brought three other musicians and a mix of pounding techno, rippling soundtrack music and an Aerosmith cover. That reflected the range of the musician's latest album, "Play," and of a career that has branched in several directions since early dance-music singles like 1991's "Go." Calling from Paris as he awaits a flight to Thailand and then Australia, Moby denies that the purpose of such eclecticism is to unsettle techno purists.
"The only thing that's really important to me is making music that I love, music that affects me on an emotional level," he says. "And hopefully in that process making music that will affect other people as well. As far as incorporating all these seemingly disparate elements, I'm not trying to be weird. And I'm not trying to challenge people. I'm really just trying to make nice music."
Moby (whose given name is Richard Melville Hall) returns to Washington tomorrow for an appearance at Engage, a rave party at the D.C. Armory. This time, however, he'll be DJing, and he wants everyone to understand that. "I'm not really much of a DJ," he cautions. "I really enjoy DJing, and I did it for many years. But mainly I've been playing guitar since I was 8 years old. So I'm a bit concerned that people are going to come expecting a live performance. There's a huge difference between when I play live and when I DJ. DJing is me basically showing up with a box of records and playing house music and trance for people to dance. There's not much of a performance involved."
He DJs "very infrequently, maybe once every two or three months," Moby says. "Whenever time permits. I really enjoy it. It's much more relaxed" than live performance.
A lot has changed since Moby became a viable live-music act in the mid-'90s. Then the New York-based musician specialized in dance music and was far better known in Europe, with its bustling rave and dance-club scene, than in the United States. "In terms of Top 40 chart success, I still tend to have that more in Europe and Australia than the United States," he says. "This record is selling pretty well here, but I'm not competing with Puff Daddy in the United States.
"I'm not saying that's a good thing or a bad thing," he adds. "In some ways, I actually prefer the degree to which I'm a public figure in the United States. People's awareness of me tends to be more based on albums rather than singles. I like singles, but I do spend a lot more time working on albums."
Although he's subsequently released albums that emphasized punk ("Animal Rights") and soundtrack music ("I Like to Score"), Moby's way of working hasn't changed much since his first singles. "Technology has changed a lot, but the way I usetechnology hasn't changed that much. I still approach the recording process much the same way I did eight or nine years ago," he says. "I'm thinking that when I finish touring, which should be next August or September, I'm going to revamp my studio and update a lot of stuff. A lot of the stuff I use is pretty old."
Aside from the big beats of tracks like "Bodyrock," Moby is known for being a vegan who abhors cars and "loves Christ" (but isn't a member of any organized religion). So perhaps it shouldn't be surprising that he appreciates "technology only as far as it enables me to make records. I don't read technology magazines. In fact, I hate getting new technology that's really complicated. My ideal piece of equipment is something I can buy, plug in and understand from the get-go."
"Play" features lots of computer-generated beats, but many of its most striking songs are based on field recordings of gospel and blues singers recorded by folklorist Alan Lomax. "I grew up in a very musically eclectic household, so I was exposed to a lot of gospel and blues and old recordings growing up," Moby says. "But the first time I heard the actual Alan Lomax recordings was in 1995, maybe 1996. I heard them and I fell in love with them.
"When it came time to make `Play,' I was looking for interesting a capella vocals to work with," he continues. "I rediscovered those recordings, and they worked really well. The performances are great, they were recorded well, and because they were a capella they were very easy to set to music."
The album also features more of Moby's own voice, which has gradually grown more prominent in his music. "When I first started making records, I didn't have a tape machine," he explains. "I just did everything from a computer onto a DAT. Then about 1993 I bought an ADAT, which enabled me to sync up live instruments with the stuff on computer. That's what enabled me to start using more vocals. I don't think of myself in any way as being a great singer, but I really, really enjoy it. Although my vocal capacity is quite limited, I think it works fairly well on certain songs."
The musician hasn't forgotten his early, computer-only work, although he admits he hasn't even had time to file it. "I've got a garbage bag just filled with cassettes," he says. "Probably six or seven hundred albums worth of unreleased material.
"I started doing my own four-track recording in 1983. I had a lot of free time from 1983 until 1990. I just spent all my time making music. Then obviously for the last nine years that's pretty much all I've done as well. I'm not saying that any of the unreleased stuff is any good. But there's certainly a lot of it."
Moby has considered sifting this material, perhaps making some of it available to fans via a Web site, but hasn't found time to undertake the project. "I always intend to go back and listen to older stuff," he says. "I'm thinking that it's kind of foolish to have such an archive of music, that I should go back and cull some ideas from it. But I enjoy the process of making new music so much. I love writing new songs. That's one of the reasons why I have this huge backlog."
MOBY -- Appearing Saturday at Engage at the D.C. Armory. To hear a free Soundbite from Moby, call Post-Haste at 202/334-9000 and press 8108. (Prince William residents, call 690-4110.)