'He was dance music’s Adele: everyone liked his stuff.' Then he blew it with a thrash punk L
In an excellent interview with the Boston Globe, the techno musician Moby talks to Amy Sutherland performance, Walker Percy, and affording his former rock 'n' roll lifestyle...
The musician Moby grew up in Darien, Conn., where boys had names like Bill and John.
“I spent a lot of time explaining where my name came from.” The nickname, bestowed by his parents, was inspired by his very distant relative, Herman Melville. Moby reads from Porcelain, his new memoir, at 7 p.m. this Friday at Brookline Booksmith.
GLOBE: Did moving from New York City to Los Angeles change your reading?
MOBY: One difference is my subscription to The New Yorker lapsed, and I didn’t bother to renew it even though I love it. Something about being in LA and reading about hipsters opening pizza parlors in Bushwick didn’t have the same resonance.
BOOKS: Which books capture the time frame in New York you cover in your memoir, from the late ’80s into the ’90s?
MOBY: Tom Wolfe’s The Bonfire of the Vanities would probably come the closest. What characterizes New York for me is that strange dichotomy of extreme wealth and extreme poverty that exists 10 feet away from each other. For nonfiction, Robert A. Caro’s biography of Robert Moses, The Power Broker. It’s a biography of one person, but also a biography of a city.
BOOKS: Did you read memoirs in preparation to write your own?
MOBY: Before writing my book I bought any music memoir or biography I could find. What I found is that I didn’t like them. My favorite memoir, if you can call it that, is The Journals of John Cheever. I’ve been an obsessive Cheever fan since high school. There’s just a level of unflinching honesty to his journals. That became an inspiration. It was like someone learning how to play guitar listening to Jimi Hendrix.
BOOKS: What are you reading currently?
MOBY: Tablets have become a godsend for me. I used to bring 15 pounds of books on a trip. Now I can bring 1,000 books with me wherever I go. In the last week I was reading Bertrand Russell’s A History of Western Philosophy, which I loved when I was a philosophy major in college. I was reading books about early Sufi poets. I’ve become friends with some mystery writers so I make a point to read all their books. I was just reading Harlan Coben’s Fool Me Once. I’ve also started an obsessive rediscovery of Walker Percy (pictured below).
BOOKS: What started that?
MOBY: In the ’80s someone gave me The Moviegoer. I just loved it. Since then I had forgotten about him. There was a time when he was firmly established in the literary canon and maybe something about his weird, existential Catholicism just confused a lot of literary people. I hope there will be a Walker Percy renaissance.
GLOBE: Now that you use a tablet, do you try books you wouldn’t have before?
MOBY: There are so many weird self-help books I would have never bought in a million years in a bookstore that I’ve had a gander at on my Kindle. A friend recommended one because her therapist wrote it: The Tools by Phil Stutz and Barry Michels. There’s a reductionist simplicity to it that I really like.
GLOBE: What are your favorite books on spirituality?
MOBY: There’s a really wonderful book by Stephen Batchelor, Confessions of a Buddhist Atheist. Then not a month goes by that I don’t crack the classic, the Tao Te Ching, which I first bought when I was 16 because I had a crush on an 18-year-old girl who loved it.
GLOBE: Did you grow up with books in the house?
MOBY: I was a latchkey kid so, especially during the summer when I had nothing to do, I’d go through my mom’s books, especially the ones with the cool titles. When I saw A Season in Hell by Arthur Rimbaud I wanted to read it. Rimbaud, Faulkner, and Charles Bukowski were my junior high into high school reading.
GLOBE: Have you read Moby Dick ?
MOBY: I presumptuously think that because I’m descended from Melville that I have an insight into the book, which is doubly absurd because I haven’t finished it.
4 MORE MOBY SEE ALSO
ON THE NEW BIO
Before I picked up Moby’s new memoir, Porcelain, I thought of him as a small, bald, cheeky chappy who made tuneful dance music. I knew he had a few unconventional beliefs (wasn’t he vegan? Hardcore Christian? Maybe teetotal?), but filed him as essentially harmless. After reading Porcelain, well… Let’s just say his book is packed with incident. Lots of dodgy sex, oceans of alcohol, antics a-gogo. Plus: cockroaches, raves, death, celebrities (from Madonna to Robert Downey Jr, but not in starry situations) and good old Top Of The Pops. It’s a romp of a book. Such outrageous fun, in fact, that Moby tells me he’s noticed that people have regarded him differently after reading it.
“They have a look,” he says. “It’s odd being on the receiving end of that look. It’s a look of knowing, but it’s also a look of concern. Like, ‘Is everything OK?’”
The fact is, his book makes me like Moby more. For a start, he writes brilliantly, with none of the self-indulgence of most pop memoirs: “I wanted each chapter to be like an anecdote you’d tell in a bar, to have a punchline,” he says. And also, there’s something touching about who he was back then. At one point, he writes this, about some club kids – “They were all doing obscene amounts of drugs and having sex with strangers, but they still seemed innocent” – and that’s exactly how he comes across. “It’s quasi-Dickensian,” he says. “Naive boy from the country moves to the big city and things go wrong.”
We are drinking herbal tea and eating (very tasty) vegetables in Moby’s newly opened vegan restaurant in blue-skied Los Angeles. It’s a nice place and I am relaxed, but endearingly, Moby isn’t. He picks up a fallen cushion and plumps it before putting it back on the bench; he asks me if I’m too cold and alters the air con; he goes through the menu with me.
Moby has lived on the west coast for six years, but had no problem transporting himself back to his past for the book. Sometimes he would be writing about being blind drunk in New York, “covered in filth and squalor”, and look up from his laptop and be shocked to see his swimming pool, bathed in sunshine. “The writing felt true and the reality felt like fiction. It was like time travel.”
Let’s zoom back in time with him, then. Porcelain concerns itself with Moby’s life between 1989 and 1999, from when he moved to New York to just before the release of Play, his fifth album, and the one that changed everything. Play was packed full of sample-heavy, catchy dance tunes, which buried themselves into everyday life. Even if you haven’t actively listened to the album, you’ll know the songs: Honey, with its driving piano riff and Bessie Jones sample “get my honey come back, sometimes”; Natural Blues, featuring another blues sample (“oh lordy, trouble so hard”), this time from Vera Hall. (Moby sourced these samples, and others, from Alan Lomax’s folk music field recordings.) Why Does My Heart Feel So Bad? has featured on the GSCE syllabus for music since 2008. Anyway, the big thing about Play was that every single one of its tracks was subsequently licensed for advertising or films. This was a huge deal at the time, and a huge deal for Moby. It moved him from the electronica shadows into the big league, changed him from a musician who scrabbled for a few thousand dollars to a fully fledged, in-the-spotlight, pop star overlord. For a while, Moby was dance music’s Adele: everyone liked his stuff.
None of this is hinted at in his memoir, however, because none of it was foreshadowed in real life. In real life, before Play, Moby was bumping around New York, getting DJ gigs in now legendary clubs like Mars and Nasa, as well as awful swingers’ nights (he says he would play anywhere). His career, as careers do, took time. In 1992, he had success with one track, Go (particularly in the UK, where we have always been more open to his music than the US) and made a few well-received albums.
Then, in 1995, just at the moment dance music really crossed over, he blew whatever small chance he had by bringing out a thrash punk LP.
He is funny about this and his musical work is all present and correct in Porcelain, but it takes second place to the more fascinating everyday happenings in his life. He’s a dominatrix’s sidekick (he calls himself Master Bobby and shouts at a businessman wearing fuchsia lingerie). He gets Lyme disease, he dates indie girls and strippers; he lives in disused warehouses and crappy flats with weirded-out flatmates who want to set him on fire and buy the petrol to do so.
What is strange is how he chose to compartmentalise his life. He bounced between out-there clubbers and the suburban devout, between hanging out in orgies and having a mostly unconsummated relationship with his Christian girlfriend (they would hand out vegan sandwiches to homeless people for thrills). He was monastic in his home habits, then would go out and socialise madly. He was a vegan, sober, nonsexual God-botherer partying in the blood-soaked Meatpacking District with the sex-and-druggers. In 1995, after being teetotal for eight years, he took up drinking again. There’s a sort of relief in it. He had so many different personae to try to unite.
Is he still like that?
“Hmm. I still recognise that person, stumbling through life without much agency. There’s enthusiasm and a good work ethic, but ultimately complete cluelessness, being baffled by everything. It’s like being a snowball rolling down a mountain. The snowball might have started kind of pure, but by the end, it’s filled with dead squirrels and sticks and rocks and wellies and garbage. You’ve got this snowball at the end, but to what extent does it relate to or resemble that original snowball?”
Moby, as you see, does a good line in therapy talk (“Well, we’re in southern California, the land of veganism and therapy,” he says), but he’s also very funny. Salman Rushdie has given a glowing quote for the cover of Porcelain that references Moby’s supposed ancestor Herman Melville (hence Moby, after Melville’s Moby-Dick; his real name is Richard Melville Hall). He has started writing the next instalment, covering the 10 years post-Play. He says his publishers, so far, don’t approve. They think his excesses make him too unsympathetic. Such as? “Oh, fame, money, degeneracy, debauchery, bottoming out,” says Moby. What’s not to like? “I know! That’s what I want to read in a book!”
Because it focuses on his life from 23 to 33 years old, Porcelain doesn’t take on Moby’s childhood. Still, tellingly, it opens with a scene concerning him and his mother. She is working in a laundromat, unhappy, furious, and he is sitting in the car, waiting for her to finish her shift. He is 10. He tells me he could have written a lot more about his young life – “there are maybe five memoirs in there” – and he clearly had a tough time. His father died in a drink-driving accident when Moby was just two. His mother’s family was wealthy (Moby’s grandfather ran a successful Wall Street company), but she rejected her background and set off to make her own story. “Sometimes we would be living in a squat-ish house with three or four other drug-addicted hippies, with bands playing in the basement,” he says. “Which sounds fun, but when you’re in fourth grade trying to do homework and there are people smoking pot in the kitchen, or fighting…” Every so often, they would stay with his grandparents in wealthy Darien, Connecticut, which was nice, but made him feel poor and ashamed.
In the second half of the book, his mum dies of cancer, and there’s an awful – almost unbelievable – incident that happens around her funeral. “I remember it so clearly,” Moby says. “Someone had left a digital alarm clock at my house, and it was the most reliable thing in the world, and the alarm was as clear and easy to use as a digital clock can be. And so, the night before my mom’s funeral, I set the alarm. But this completely reliable clock at some point was set forward 21 hours, which meant that if it were 3am it somehow got set forward to midnight. The only thing that could have happened is that, at some point during the night, I woke up in a fugue state and set the clock forward 21 hours, so I would miss her funeral… I must have set it forward 21 hours, because something in my subconscious said that was the only legitimate and expedient way to miss the funeral.”
I ask him how he feels about that now, and his eyes mist up a tiny bit. He is sad: not for himself, but for his family. “She was my mom, but more importantly in some ways she was my aunts’ sister. And my grandmother’s daughter. I feel guilty. But for myself, I don’t know.”
Not knowing how you feel about things is a protective instinct. Moby is a lovely companion, in real life and on the page, but he can seem detached from his emotions. When his mum told him she had cancer, she also told him that he has a half-brother. I ask him about this, assuming he would have got in touch. But no.
“If it were a full brother, then that would be interesting, but it’s a half-brother,” he says. (“It”!). “In terms of my genetic sequence, I have almost as much in common with you and most of the people in this restaurant as I would with a half-brother.” And that’s that.
What Porcelain suggests is that Moby’s greatest love back then wasn’t his family, or a person, or even music, but a city. At heart, Porcelain is a love letter to old New York: that grubby, crumbling, dangerous place. Recently, Moby was describing it to some young friends, and they couldn’t believe what he was describing; honouring the city of that time was a major motivation in his writing. “New York completely changed in those 10 years. In 1989, it was old New York… cheap, murder-y, dysfunctional, fires… and by the end of the 90s, it was Jay Z and bottle service and condos.”
It took Moby a long time to fall out of love with New York, but he did. He gave up drink and his love ended. “I was walking up Orchard Street, and it was one of those shitty days, 36 degrees Fahrenheit, sleeting, grey snow, and I realised there is sometimes an elective quality to suffering.” New York suited his drinking; he classifies himself as “an old-timey alcoholic, I mean, there’s just no doubt, you know?” He would try going out for a couple of drinks and find himself “at 8am, with strangers in my house, bags of drugs, I’d had about 15 drinks, having sex with a complete stranger. Which is great, but that was my best attempt to drink in moderation. Also, I thought I was going on these great adventures, and the truth is I was going from one bar to another on Ludlow Street.”
So he got sober and moved to LA. For a while, he lived in Marlon Brando’s old house, the fabulous Wolf’s Lair, an actual castle, but it soon felt too big. Now he’s in a three-bedroom place: his musical equipment is in one bedroom, his exercise stuff in another, and he sleeps in the third. Hardly Jay Z, but he seems happy.
In the past few years, Moby has reassessed his life. He wants to carry on making music – he has an album coming out this year – but he doesn’t want to tour. He’s happy for people to pay for his music, but he doesn’t mind giving it away and, to this end, has set up a website so that student filmmakers can use his albums as soundtracks for free. He’s stopped caring what other people think of him (not much social media, just occasionally posting on Instagram, mostly cute animals or nature scenes). And he’s decided that animal rights are his life’s work.
“That’s my day job – animal rights,” he says. “Making music and writing books and doing other things is what I love, and it’s fun, but I don’t see it as work. You know, a lot of activism is single-issue activism. Like say, someone campaigns about turning land into a park. There’s the land, you turn it into a park, it benefits the community – that’s good. But it’s limited. But the thing with animal agriculture, everything is covered by it. There’s the animal side of it: most people who are not sociopaths can agree that animal suffering is not a good thing. But then there’s the climate change aspect, the rainforest deforestation, famine – the reason there’s famine is because food that could be fed to humans is fed to animals instead – then heart disease, diabetes, cancer, erectile dysfunction… Animal activism is my life’s purpose. If someone came to me and said if I could die, and my death would somehow serve the purpose of saving animals, I’d do it in a heartbeat.”
Then of course, there’s the restaurant, which he finds a constant trial. “Everything has to be perfect. I’m an emotional perfectionist – I just want things to feel as good as they possibly can for the people who are experiencing them.”
He did have another vegan restaurant, in New York, called TeaNY, which he opened in 2002, with his then girlfriend. This was a disaster, as they split up soon after, and, though they’re still on good terms, he doesn’t seem to know if TeaNY is still going. Relationships don’t appear to be Moby’s forte: he hooks up with a couple of women in the book who seem great, but he can’t make it last. Was he just a sex dog? “I don’t think I was driven by sex. The way I dated was motived by the desire to be validated in someone’s eyes. And clearly the desire to have sex as well, but it was like seeking validation without attachment or obligation.”
He also thinks his difficulties with his mum had an effect. “If you’re constantly ashamed when you’re growing up, when you become an adult you’re constantly ashamed. And when you get close to people you assume they will only like you as long as they see you in your best light. There is the profound desire for closeness and the profound fear of the other person. You start getting close to someone, they do something that might not be perfect, and it triggers a terror response and you run away… By you, I mean me, of course.” Anyway, he’s been in a relationship for eight months now, his first in 10 years. It seems to be going OK, though he can’t really tell. He calls himself a “developmentally disabled space alien or robot” and he keeps having to ask his girlfriend things: “Like, is it OK if I go to bed after you do?” He’s also pretty set on not having children. He says, “if the person I’m dating got pregnant, sure – I’d happily be involved and help out as much as I possibly can, but it’s not something I long to do”, which is about as detached as you can get without running away. He’s going to adopt a couple of dogs after he comes back from his book tour, he thinks. He seems able to feel great emotion for humanity and animals in general, but finds it harder one-on-one.
We talk a little bit about his Christianity; towards the end of the book, he starts questioning it, and he says now that he still understands the desire for spirituality, just not institutionalised belief systems or “ideological rigidity”.
“I don’t think that God cares what jersey you wear,” he says. “It’s not like Man United and Leeds… is that the right UK sports reference?”
“OK, Arsenal? Man United and Arsenal: that tribal rivalry is really fun in sport, but I don’t think it should be part of divinity.”
We are having a laugh now; I feel as though I’m talking to a friend. Moby is quite the most low-key multimillionaire I have ever met. He is modest. He looks the way he always did: unflashy with his shirt over a T-shirt, creative casual, unrich. He hasn’t even had his teeth done, which is almost prosecutable in LA. We talk a bit about money and he says he thinks materialism doesn’t work, meaning it doesn’t actually make anyone properly happy. He should know, of course.
Moby seems to be enjoying his life, now he’s not spending a big part of it drunk. “I love reading and travelling to interesting parts of the world, and having time to think and write and make music and do activism. Life is short, and we have a limited amount of time and energy, and it’s just so much easier trying to be your honest self.”
I take the opportunity to ask him about a long-standing rumour. Supposedly, years ago, Moby and his friends would play a prank at parties. One of them would unzip his fly and hang his willy out of his trousers, then the others would challenge him to go up to someone famous and “knob touch” them. I ask him if this ever happened, or if it was made up.
“It’s both,” he says, and pauses. “Hmm, there’s a funny side to this story. I might change it because I don’t know if I want it to follow me around. I had some friends from college who would do that. They would get very drunk, pull their willy out and just brush it up against people. Because it was funny. So what I will say is that a friend of mine once did that to Donald Trump.” I laugh. “It was a restaurant on Park Avenue around 20th Street, some fundraising event, when Trump was just a New York real-estate developer.”
You seem to remember it well. Did that person get extra kudos for Trump?
“You can extrapolate as to who that person might be, and that’s as much as I can say,” says Moby, a man who can’t resist a funny anecdote, who’s happy to tell the truth, who has lived a full and full-on life – but who is old enough now to know that he doesn’t want all the consequences that come wrapped in the adventures. Fair enough. As long as he keeps writing all those stories down, we’re good.