Photo by Adrian Gandara | Design by Nick Hanover
Huddled on a stool up against a dark wall, Mobley tells me he’s “a really, really shy person,” and in the short time we’re talking at Royal Jelly I’m given ample reason to believe that. When one of his songs comes on over the bar’s speakers he looks away and pauses mid sentence. “This is embarrassing. They’re playing me.”
Mobley is just as bashful later when a bartender-slash-musician (this is Austin, after all) shouts him out and proudly says they once shared a stage. When the bartender tells the couple by the register that a rock star is in their presence, Mobley looks straight up mortified. And then as he’s trying to leave, a woman approaches him and tells him one of the very first shows she attended in Austin featured him and she was blown away. She quietly asks for a photograph and even though it’s clear Mobley is deeply uncomfortable with anything resembling recognition, he acquiesces.
“See, I told you! A real rockstar!” shouts the bartender, while I’m trying to order another Old Fashioned. “This one’s on the house,” he tells me, “for bringing a rock star here to our little bar.”
There’s a certain something about Mobley that brings this behavior out in people. He has the look and feel of a readymade sensation but he’s humble and quietly intelligent in a way you don’t expect from the hyper talented. Gifted with an irresistible voice and a knack for instrumental versatility, Mobley would be the first to tell you that none of this comes naturally to him, no matter how it may appear.
But regardless of whether Mobley is ready to accept it yet, the fact is he’s one of Austin’s fastest-rising stars.
Mobley’s path to becoming one of Austin’s most promising artists began humbly enough. Growing up in North Carolina, Mobley started a band (his current moniker originally referred to the entire band) and they worked their circuit, eventually landing an opening slot for the Octopus Project when they came through.
“We were so excited to get to play with a real touring band. And we were fucking terrible,” he says, with a chuckle. “I mean, they were just incredible. It was one of those things where you realize ‘Oh, they’re doing a completely different art form. I’m just standing up here playing guitar and singing, but they’re putting on a show.’ Having that experience was just a huge revolution in thought for me.”
Photo by Adrian Gandara
Suitably blown away by the Octopus Project’s presence, Mobley rethought his entire approach and hatched a plan to relocate to Austin with one of his bandmates. A year and a half later they were in Austin, hunkered down, taking the time to develop a show before playing out.
“I was really obsessed with putting across the idea of what I was making, and having control of the context,” Mobley tells me, “That was what was so amazing about Octopus Project. When they went on, it looked like a completely different room than the one we had been in before. They had their own PA they had painted over, they had all these inflatable things, their own projector and lights. So for those 45 minutes, we were in their world.”
Still, it wasn’t until some unanticipated setbacks that Mobley the Band truly became Mobley the Star. Specifically, it was a drummer’s sudden unavailability before a tour that prompted Mobley to figure out how to do everything on stage himself.
“I figured could either cancel the tour, do the tour acoustic or I do a solo show where I do everything, and I picked the latter,” Mobley recalls. “For whatever reason, the reaction to it was just night and day. It was literally the same songs and just occasionally I was playing drums, but the reaction was completely different and I thought ‘Okay, maybe I’m on to something.’”
“Occasionally I play drums” is a characteristically humble way of describing what Mobley’s shows are actually like, though. Unlike acts who make a show of building up loops of their singing and playing– what Mobley deems “making a show out of the process”– Mobley’s performances involve him juggling his own playing and singing as well as audience engagement and interaction, including a unique electronic percussion setup that has audience members playing along with their hands and contributing to the sound.
“It’s a way of giving them a stake,” Mobley says, “because with performances, you’re basically fighting against the crowd’s hesitance to have a good time. None of this works without their participation.”
A typically raucous Mobley performance at Empire Control Room
After some prodding, Mobley admits he sees his performances as a kind of magic act, where he hopes the audiences wonder how it happens while the songs remain key. That questioning nature ties in with Mobley’s branding, too, focused as it is on the simple question “Who?”
When I ask Mobley about his iconic use of Who? and how it came about he laughs and says he wishes he had a better origin story for it. “Once it became clear that Mobley was now going to be a solo project rather than a band, all of our social media handles were Mobleytheband and Mobley was taken already. So I thought ‘Mobley Who? is kind of provocative, no one knows who I am, anyway.’”
That self-deprecation paid off particularly well once Mobley designed shirts and hats for himself with Who? stamped on them, leading to fans asking where they could get some for themselves. “I stumbled into it, I wish I could say I knew it would be a thing,” he remarks.
But Who? also ties into Mobley’s explorations of identity, a signature trait of his music. It intersects with his collaborations with the community of artists BLXPLTN and Blastfamous USA have brought together, too, over a shared desire to break from some of the more exclusive habits and tastes of the Austin music community and to stop being overlooked.
Mobley performing at Blastfamous USA’s album release party in July
When I point out to Mobley that he has gotten more mainstream recognition than his peers in that community and ask if he feels like that enables him to be a bit of an ambassador on their behalf, he says he hopes so.
“I’m very much about holding the door open,” he explains, “For whatever reason, I’ve had some success, including attention from more mainstream players. The easy, gratifying answer is that I’m so special that of course they’re paying attention to me, but I think the reality is that there has finally been a sea change happening here, for reasons that I think are both good and bad.”
Elaborating, Mobley states that when he moved to Austin, the big bands that were in with media had different points of references, material that was more bland and nonthreatening. “Things are a bit more diverse right now,” he says, “in part because now there’s cache associated with diversity. My approach is to milk that for all it’s worth while I can, and hope it becomes institutional change.”
It must be said that for whatever Mobley claims, his most recent album, the ambitious and profound Fresh Lies Vol. 1, does not sound like the work of someone milking a moment. Dedicated to the lives and memories of his ancestors who were stolen from their homelands to be sold as slaves in America, Fresh Lies is a rich and invigorating album by an artist who successfully questions the American Dream while pursuing it. It seems like the kind of art that wasn’t so much designed as it was exorcised, which Mobley agrees was pretty much the case.
“The way I experience writing, especially in a lyrical sense, is I’ll create in what feels like a trance. Then I’ll take a break and come back to it and ask ‘Okay, now, what does that mean?’ And whatever meaning I can divine from that helps lead me down the rest of the path.”
Before Fresh Lies, that meaning was restricted to individual songs. But while developing what became Fresh Lies, Mobley realized something was different.
“I’d listen to a song and go ‘I think I know what this means.’ It would sound like a love song but I’d realize I never had any relationships that fit it. And then it happened again and again and again,” Mobley recalls. “The biggest thing happening in the news then was Eric Garner’s murder and shortly after, the grand jury declining to indict [the officers responsible]. That turned me into a different person. My life is divided between who I was the day before that and the day after that.”
Mobley realized that the songs he was writing were channeling that seismic event and that he was writing about America itself and his relationship with the country as a black man. “All of these things I was trying to say, where I didn’t know what I was talking about or what I was trying to talk about,” Mobley energetically recounts, “suddenly had a clarity as I realized this was what I was talking about. It felt like such a generative frame– a love song about my relationship with my home country. I could imagine writing those songs for the rest of my life.”
Mobley proceeded to work on those songs for the better part of a year, but he confesses to feeling trapped by the framework. The material had taken him over and he felt that pull to do lighter material again. So the compromise was to commit publicly to Fresh Lies as a series, with this year’s release being the first in what will be an undetermined number of volumes.
“It was about holding myself accountable to this idea, and allowing it to be something I return to as I age and grow older,” Mobley explains, “because my relationship to the country it’s about will surely change with me. Having this be a document of that for myself and those following along was key. It felt like too good of an idea to just do once and have it be over.”
Asked about whether he feels more of a burden now that he’s ostensibly a “political artist,” Mobley is emphatic about all art being political. “Even if your art is ‘fiercely apolitical,’ that’s a really powerful political statement you’re making, you know? And if there’s someone who listens to my music now and is turned off by me being political, well, that’s one less person I have to deal with who I didn’t want to be listening to my music in the first place.”
But Mobley is still dedicated to pleasing the audience in his own way. He asserts that with Fresh Lies, he wanted to make sure the tracks were as viable as individual pieces as they were within the context of the larger project. His goal was to make songs that “stood out on a playlist,” and resonated with people whether they read his mission statement or “were just in love, or going through a divorce,” because at the end of the day, he was still writing love songs.”
“I always say my genre is ‘post-genre-pop,’ because I don’t think pop is a genre, pop is just what pop does. Listenability and accessibility are always top priorities in my songwriting.”
Skilled as Mobley is at pop songcraft, he is nonetheless frank about how difficult it is to be a musician right now no matter what your background or genre is. His upcoming self-remix project for his single “Swoon” is in fact commentary on that.
“This project is a revolt against this moment we’re in where music is regarded as being so ephemeral and maybe even disposable,” Mobley bluntly states. “I put out a ten-track record in April and it’s old, y’know? That makes no sense at all to me. I killed myself making that thing. It’s old news now, that feels like an insult. So if the market is going to force me to get more mileage out of this then why throw away perfectly good work that’s already being devalued when I have something to say.”
Mobley was inspired to revisit “Swoon” in particular because when he went back through the sessions, he found that the unused tracks he recorded for it were still fertile.
“So many of the ideas I threw away during the ‘Swoon’ sessions when I revisited them I was like ‘Oh, this totally works, I can use everything I have here and not reuse anything I used in the original and it will be good.’”
That’s because Mobley takes a self-described maximalist approach with his recording process, stating that “I put as much raw material on it as I can and then sculpt it down to something I think works.”
For his hit cover of a A Flock of Seagulls’ “Run” for the newest All ATX compilation, though, his approach was a bit different.
“Honestly, they asked me to do it about four months before it was due, and I did it all the day before,” he says with a smirk. “I didn’t feel inspired and then the day before I was like ‘This is due tomorrow, I’ve got to do this today.’ I think with musicians you have the things you’re drawn to in a song, and when you’re deconstructing it, you’re like ‘Okay, this is the essence for me of what makes this work.’ So I just focused on that and thought about what I can do to deconstruct ideas about genre.”
And it paid off. Mobley’s cover breathes new life into what is arguably the quintessential, overplayed one-hit wonder, honing in on the angular guitar riffs rather than the melodramatic vocals, providing an ideal platform for Mobley’s underappreciated skills as a guitarist (skills which he, in typical fashion, downplays).
Now audiences in Australia will be witnessing those skills for themselves, as Mobley is currently touring that continent for the first time. Mobley tells me that he’s also excited for international touring because in his experience, American audiences often hear with their eyes, paying as much if not more attention to what a musician is wearing and looks like as they do the music. Meanwhile international crowds just let the music captivate their attention.
After Australia, Mobley will return to work on his debut full length, currently titled Post, which will be released some time in the first half of 2019. He’s also got plans for an EP that is tentatively untitled, that’s he’s been “writing like crazy” for. But really his plans for the future boil down to one strategy:
“I’m just going to keep growing, one step at a time.”
Mobley next performs in Austin at Empire Control Room’s New Year’s Eve Party with Grupo Fantasma and more, get tickets here
Nick Hanover got his degree from Disneyland, but he’s the last of the secret agents and he’s your man. Which is to say you can find his particular style of espionage here at Ovrld as well as Loser City, where he mostly writes about comics. You can also flip through his archives at Comics Bulletin, which he is formerly the Co-Managing Editor of, and Spectrum Culture, where he contributed literally hundreds of pieces for a few years. Or if you feel particularly adventurous, you can always witness his odd .gif battles with his friends and enemies on twitter: @Nick_Hanover