At this year’s Voodoo Fest, I had the opportunity to interview producer, songwriter, and one-man-band Mobley after his more-than-impressive set Sunday afternoon at the festival’s South Course stage. We discussed the creation of a human drum sampler he invented and used during his live show, as well as his motivation to create, his highlights of this year, the gamification of the music industry, his advice to young artists, and much more. The following is our conversation.
C: So just right off the bat, walk me through what your inspiration was, and what the process was like, for building the human drum sampler. I think that’s one of the coolest and most innovative things I’ve seen at a live show in a minute.
Mobley: Well thank you. I’ve got a background in programming and a very little bit of electrical engineering. I forget where I saw it, but there’s some video on YouTube of this person (perhaps this one?) who had built this thing with an Arduino, which is like a kit chip that comes preprogrammed with basically an OS on it, where they were plugging these fruits into the chip and then touching the fruits and it was making sounds. I was like “okay, a fruit is basically water, and people are basically water, so I could probably do that with people.” I actually gutted a guitar pedal and put the chip in there and built the first version, and it was very janky but it worked! So then I build a second, much more robust version, and that’s what I’m using now.
Mobley plays his “human drum machine”
But the inspiration mainly came from just, I’m kind of obsessed with the idea of a musical performance being something that emerges from the interaction between the people on the stage and the people off the stage. If you have a show going on stage, and there’s no one in the audience, it’s not a show; it’s a rehearsal. The people make the show, so I try to do as many things as I can to draw people in. That felt like a really good way to be like “look, you’re literally making the music.”
C: One thing I love about you, too, is whether it’s your on-stage show, building a machine like that, the multimedia stuff you work on, or production, it’s abundantly clear that you love to create.
C: Where do you think that comes from? What do you think your biggest motivation is inspiring you to create, and how do you think that manifests across the different creative avenues you explore?
M: I think the big thing, and honestly I’ve never thought about it quite on these terms before, but I think many kids, maybe even most kids, when you’re young you have this sense that there’s basically nothing you can’t do, and then over the course of the first twenty years or so of your life that’s slowly beaten out of you. I think that, probably mostly because of my parents and my family, I just didn’t lose a lot of that. I very strongly had the sense of “well, if there’s something you want to do, just do it. It’s not too late, just do it.”
I’m pretty imaginative. I was a really shy kid growing up. Even now I don’t have a ton of friends, so I spend a lot of time by myself just thinking, and I’ll have and idea and be like “well, I’m not doing anything tomorrow, I’ll try to make it happen tomorrow.”
But I think that’s the biggest place it comes from. Life is short, you know? When I was a bit younger, like a teenager, I had a job that I hated and was spending all my energy on that, and very quickly learned that it wasn’t worth living to me if I couldn’t direct at least some of my time towards taking care of my soul, feeling as though I was more than just somebody who moved paper from one place to another to make somebody else money. A lot of times I feel very connected to the fact that I’m just basically an ape on a big rock, and I have to do things to make that mean something. So I think that’s the biggest place it comes from.
Mobley plays the drums during his set at this year’s Voodoo Music & Arts Experience.
C: Whether it’s performing, recording, writing, or composing, or outside of that, is there a particular avenue that you tend to go to first, like the most, or feel most at home in? Or is it more of a balancing act where you’ll do one until it gets tired and then you bounce over to another?
M: So I make all my music alone. I play all of the instruments and produce and mix it and all that stuff. So it’s very solitary, but it’s also almost like not being alone. It’s hard to describe it in terms that aren’t mystical and mysterious, but it really does feel like you can just get yourself into this frame of mind and you become a conduit for something else. And I don’t mean that in grandiose terms at all. I mean it in the most mundane terms possible. Even if it’s just some little doodle that no one else ever hears, it feels like that isn’t me, you know? It’s like, I was there when that happened, and I got to help it happen, but that’s my favorite part: just sitting there being still waiting for something to happen and then it happens and you’re just trying to keep up with it. That’s by far my favorite thing. For the rest? I just try to make it fun for myself to keep it going.
C: You talk about that pure and solitary moment. is there, whether it’s a song or project, is there something that immediately jumps to mind where you think, whether it be the process of going through it or looking back on where you were in your life or your experiences at the time, is there one that really encapsulates that for you?
M: Of my own or somebody else’s?
C: Either, or both!
M: Okay, of my own honestly I would say, and this is a very convenient answer, but I would say my next record very much captures that.
C: What can you tell us about your next record?
M: I just got it back from mastering last week, so it’s done! Which, if anyone has ever made a record…
C: It’s a big weight off the shoulders, for sure.
M: It’s a massive weight, and especially for me, basically doing it alone, it’s a very neurotic, self-involved place to be in. I don’t like that, so it’s nice to put that down and not be so in my head.
C: On that, how do you know when a song is done? Is a song ever done for you or are you constantly playing with it in your head?
M: I’m not one of those people who believes that it’s never done. I actually believe there is a point where it’s done. And I respect the other view, but I think the trick is knowing whether it’s done. Because I’ve definitely finished songs that weren’t done, and then I’ve definitely worked on songs that are already done, way too long.
In my opinion, art is basically developing expertise in that question. People basically outsource taste to you. I’m basically a sound aesthetics expert. Everybody else is like, “we know we like sounds, we don’t have the time to devote to putting a bunch together that we like, so you do that.” And so I think that question of when is it done is the fundamental question of the whole exercise.
So I don’t think there’s a short answer. I think it comes down to purpose. For the record, where a song is done is a different question from where it’s done live. I might take it out and tour it for a couple weeks and it’s like “Ah, this thing that works really well in the recorded version just doesn’t work live. I need to come up with something new for that.”
It all depends on the context. Like I said earlier, I think a lot of this arises from that interplay between me and the piece of work and the people who are taking part in it.
C: How do you get through that?
M: I think the biggest thing for me, and I think this could be true for a lot of people because I’m a full-time musician and with the exigencies of just making a living at this, you can get in your own head about it and be like “oh, well are people going to like this? Are we going to be able to find a way to sell this? Am I going to be able to get booked?” All that other stuff can come in. But I think the trick for me is to have humility about how unremarkable I am. I think I have talent and I have expertise, like I said, but at the end of the day if I like something, I’m not so weird. I’m not some alien. A lot of other people are going to like anything I like; there are billions of us! So at the end of the day, I think it’s just trusting that gut. If I really like this, if I’m really responding to this, and I’ve found a way to put my ego to the side enough that I don’t like it just because it’s mine, but I actually like it, then other people are going to like it too. The hard part is just finding them.
C: When you look back on your 2019, what are some of your personal highlights?
M: For me, just about all of them are private, quiet moments. I used to record in a spare bedroom at my house, and I recently upgraded to the living room, so now we don’t have a living room. So I do all of my recording in my living room, and there’s probably been half a dozen or a dozen moments where I’m sitting in my living room at 4:00 in the morning, and some epiphany for how to do something on the record came to me. You keep a list of things you want to do as an artist, and I had an idea for an intro track for a record. I wanted it to be an overture that referenced all of the melodies of the other songs and kind of set the stage. It’s not an innovative idea — they’ve literally been doing it for centuries — but it’s not done that often in popular music.
And so I wanted to do it, and I was sitting in the living room strumming on a guitar, and all of a sudden, the whole thing just came to me. It’s hard to describe what that feels like, and it’s hard to convey that to anybody without playing the track, but it was monumental to me. I’ve wanted to do this for years, and now I can listen to it having done it. There’s just a million little things like that, or finding just the right way to do some distortion or reverb or whatever.
The way the music industry is set up right now, it’s very gamified. All the statistics…
C: It’s all about your followers on social media, streams…
M: Yeah, there’s a lot of scorekeeping. It can make it hard to have perspective. My biggest song on Spotify probably has like a million-and-a-half streams. On one hand, that’s not very much, but on the other hand, virtually nobody that’s written a song in human history has had it played a million-and-a-half times, you know what I mean? I’m in extraordinarily rare company in terms of human experience.
C: How does that feel?
M: This is the thing I’m talking about, because there are all these things set up to not let you feel it. You have to keep chasing endless growth. It’s like capitalism, you have to keep growing or else you’re dying. But I think it’s really important to just be like “how many f***ing hours is a million-and-a-half plays?” Like, where are all these people? What does that even mean? Like, who am I that I should be occupying all this time?
So, for me a lot of it’s that, just slowing down and being like “I know we have to get bigger and better” and all that, but this is really pretty amazing, you know? So I try to have that disposition towards it.
C: I totally feel you when you talk about the gamification of the music industry. What advice would you have for other young, up-and-coming artists who are grinding their way through that? Because as you know, it’s a huge struggle when you’re first starting.
M: It’s a massive struggle. I have absolutely zero business advice, because it’s completely opaque. Everything that’s worked for me, I have no idea why it worked. It was completely mysterious when it happened, and it’s still completely mysterious now. But I think this is the most important thing, and I just feel this deeply as an ethic and as a moral. When you’re on a stage, when you put out a song, or whatever else you do to demand to be the center of someone’s attention and take up a lot of space, I just think it’s massively important to actually have something to say. Your message can’t be “look at me, love me, and make me feel good” because everyone wants that and everybody deserves that. So that can’t be the message, it has to be something else.
At bottom, this is just a form of expression and a means of communicating ideas. What are those ideas for you? Why does the thing you’re putting in the world need to exist? I think we owe it to ourselves and to each other to ask that question as we’re making this stuff. There’s something like 20,000 songs a day that get put on Spotify. Like, really? Does all that need to exist?
C: It’s like throwing pennies in the Pacific Ocean.
M: Right, and that’s fine, but for your own sake, probably nobody’s going to hear it, so make it mean something to you at least. If no one can guarantee success, which they can’t, it’s better to fail on your own terms then to fail on someone else’s terms.
C: You talk about the importance of having a message. What do you think your message is to your audience?
M: I’m someone who’s very strongly of the opinion that all art is political. Even if you’re being “apolitical,” that’s a political choice, and you’re sending a lot of messages by doing that. So I have plenty of messages that would be characterized as political. Those basically boil down to: I think everybody deserves dignity, and whatever we have to do to set up the world in such a way that literally everybody has it, we should do those things.
And then in a broader sense, I like being inspired. There’s an article, I forget who wrote it, but it quotes one of the people from Sonic Youth saying something like “people go to a show to watch someone else believe in themself.” (Bassist Kim Gordon told this to The Guardian’s Jenn Pelly in October.) And when I see people doing it, I’m inspired. So probably the biggest thing besides the other thing I said is that I want to be inspiring. I want to be like “hey, I did this, and I’m just a body moving through space, so we can do this. If you want to go do it, just go do it!” So inspiring other people to feel like they can express themselves as well is probably the other big message for me.
C: So let’s look ahead to the future a little bit. I know you mentioned the new album, is there a release date on that yet?
M: There’s not a release date yet. I just signed to Last Gang records, and we’re going to be putting out the first single in January, and then the record will probably come sometime in April or May.
C: Anything you’re most excited about with signing?
M: Having help is nice. Having somebody waiting for your stuff is cool, too. Unless you’re one of the biggest artists in the world, nobody’s ever really waiting for you to do anything. You do it and then you let them know it’s happening. But to have a team of people who are waiting to hear what I do and tell me what they think about it is really exciting. They’re a great label. They’re very hands-off, very much like “you’re the artist. Make the art and we’ll help you get it out there.”
C: Any other big goals heading into the end of the year and into 2020?
M: You know, it’s all very mysterious at this point. You know how on the beach before a wave comes in all the water sucks out? We’re in that moment. The water’s all sucking out, and I don’t know how big the wave is going to be yet. But hopefully we can build it up so that as many people as possible can hear the music and join in.
You can check out Mobley’s most recent release, “Fresh Lies, Vol. I,” here.