Moby on Moby
Fun facts about Moby: He's childhood best friends with Robert Downey Jr., was (probably) a member of Flipper for two days, and still (understandably) feels weird about having Gwen Stefani lick his head.
When I meet Moby in the hallway of his Soho apartment building, I’m struck by a obvious thought: Moby looks like Moby. Same bald head, same boxy glasses, same lithe frame swathed in same form-fitting hoodie you figure he’s been wearing his entire life. If there’s a clear advantage of clean living—he’s been a vegan for as long as you’ve heard of him—and premature hair loss, it’s that you don’t have to worry about the process of aging as much as other celebrities might. While Mick Jagger is still pretending to have the same boyish haircut he did in his twenties—please, that toupee is fooling no one—Moby will always look like himself.
This means more than you might think. It’s fatuous to say that nobody knows about being Moby more than Moby—obviously—but perhaps less fatuous to say that perhaps nobody has thought more about what it means to be Moby than the man himself. This is not always true of all celebrities—I would bet within an inch of my life that certain editors of this website have thought longer and harder about Drake than Aubrey Graham ever will. But Moby, nee Richard Melville Hall, has spent nearly 15 years as a pop culture phenomenon whose existence and success meant something other than itself. He was a stand-in for the rise of techno and an unwilling foil for Eminem, an unlikely celebrity who dated Natalie Portman and provided the leitmotif for the Bourne movies. He was a public vegan, and became the type of pop culture entity who could make a Funny or Die cameo hilarious through the simple act of appearing to parody himself.
We sit in his apartment, which is a living monument to his success—it was featured on MTV Cribs, after all—and is nice enough to immediately remind me that he is a Famous Person. This must be strange for a former punk rocker who admittedly grew up “poor white trash.” He’ll attempt to disarm the dynamic by offering to make me tea the moment I sit down, and by occasionally preceding a statement with a self-aware caveat meant to pre-empt the dismissive reaction (“Wow, that sounds like Moby”) to some of the things he says. He is powerfully aware that he sounds like Moby. He’s also fastidiously productive, having recently released Innocents, his fourth album since 2008 that, without getting into it too much, sounds as good as anything he’s done since becoming popular. We talked about the album, but more about what it’s like to be Moby in 2013—to know governors and senators, to return home for your high school reunion, and to receive a creative pep talk from David Lynch as you near your fifth decade of being alive.
Noisey: You’ve been so productive over the last few years while remaining more under the radar than a decade or so ago. Having the success you’ve had, what keeps you going?
Moby: I guess if I give an honest answer to this question I’ll potentially sound like a New Age hippie from Southern California, but what motivates me is… six years ago, I was in London and I went to go hear David Lynch speak. He was talking at BAFTA, and if you’ve ever met David Lynch you know his movies are dark and byzantine and very complicated but his manner of speaking is incredibly simple and very direct. He was talking about creativity and he said, “Creativity is beautiful.” And there was something so disarming and simple about that statement that really, especially since the journalist he was talking to was very sort of British and snarky and it was almost like the more verbose the journalist was the more simple David Lynch became. So he said “creativity is beautiful” and it just struck me like he was right, and that’s why I started making music in the first place.
And really that’s what has sustained me for as long as I’ve been making music, and this is where I potentially end up sounding like a new age guy from Southern California, is just simply my love of making music, listening to music, and my ongoing amazement at how music can be so powerful and how it can affect people emotionally. Cause really, at the end of the day, music is just air moving a little differently. It’s not, when someone makes music they’re technically not making anything. They’re just manipulating air that already exists. It amazes me that just the subtle manipulation of air can elicit such huge emotional responses in people. You play music and suddenly people want to dance or march into war or cry or have sex or move across country and cut their hair, all based on air hitting their ear drums a little bit differently. And so that’s what motivates me: my desire just to keep making music in the hopes that I’ll make something beautiful that will affect emotionally.
Is that something you feel you’d gotten away from?
Yeah, in a way because I never expected to have a record deal, ever. I never thought I would be a professional musician. I thought I would be a bedroom musician who… I really thought my job was going to be teaching philosophy at community college because I was a philosophy major in school, and so I thought I would teach philosophy at, like, Norwalk Community College in Connecticut and make music in my bedroom that no one would ever listen to. So when I became a professional musician 25 years ago, I was sort of confronted with this question of, what does that mean? How do I then comport myself as a professional musician, both in terms of the music I make, how it’s released, how it’s perceived. All these other sort of variables slowly entered the creative process and my perception of myself and the music I was making. Because when you’re making music for yourself with no audience, all you’re thinking about is making music for yourself with no audience. Then suddenly when there is an audience, you have to ask yourself what does that mean? And to what extent do you want to accommodate the relationship with the audience? Whether the audience is people listening to the music or people at the record company thinking about the music or people in the media responding to music, it creates a lot of subtle, strange dialectics and it can be really confusing.
Some musicians are really good at understanding the relationship they have with whatever audience they might have, and other musicians are sort of baffled by it. I was more baffled by it, and then also kind of seduced by some of the attention that came from it. I’m a little ashamed to admit this, but there was a time when I really found myself really liking the attention more than I should have. That, for a period, I felt like it was almost corrupting the creative process because I was making music but I was thinking, perhaps too much, about how it was going to exist in the world. And then when I heard David Lynch say creativity is beautiful, it just reminded me that the only thing I should be focusing on as a musician is trying to make music that I really love, and that if other people like it that’s a really nice byproduct of the process of making music but it shouldn’t really affect the creative process.
How did you begin to gain a sense of your image, and how you were being perceived as versus how you hoped to be?
I guess it’s just empiricism. Looking at, for example, there was a time after the success of PLAY where I found myself really loving being on tour and drinking and going to parties and being on the receiving end of public figure style attention, and like many people I wanted more of it. But then the more I received of it—and I’m not complaining—but simply the more I received of it didn’t make me happier. And then it was almost like a law of diminishing returns. I found myself touring more, drinking more, doing more promotional tours, going to more parties, but I was actually getting more and more depressed. Which again is not a complaint; I’m not trying to look for pity. But it just simply forced me, after a few years, I had to ask myself why am I continuing to make this huge effort to sort of build and sustain this weird career when the truth is it’s not making me very happy? And also because it kept going to more and more excess, excessive touring—instead of touring for six months, touring for a year, and then touring for 18 months and touring for two years. Instead of going out four times a week, going out five times a week and then six times a week and then having after show parties every night. It also became so excessive and desperate but empirically I stopped at one point and asked myself if all this effort was actually yielding good results. And I guess it was around 2005 or 2006 where I took a step back and realized, okay, all the work I’m doing is making me unhappy, and there was a time where I didn’t even like the music I was making, like around 2004 or 2005.
So I sort of felt like everything had gone wrong. The only reason I’m a musician is because I want to make music that I love. So I found myself putting out some music I didn’t really care about that much, and drinking for the sake of drinking and touring for the sake of touring almost out of habit than out of volition. That’s when I kind of stepped back and asked myself, well, if I’ve dedicated my life to making music why have I done that, what’s important to me, and what should I continue to work on and pursue? Because the culture we live in, of course, has this notion—and again, I sound like a weird, New Age cliche—but this notion that if you can have more, you should have more. If every musician is like, if you can sell more records then people believe you should sell more records. Every hedge fund guy is like, if you can make more money you should make more money. But rarely do people ever stop and take stock of what they’re doing and figure out if more is equating to actual well-being and happiness. Which ultimately, the reason why people work so hard is to create more well-being and happiness for themselves. But if it’s not creating more well-being and happiness, then why keep working in the same way?
You’re based in Los Angeles now, right?
How long are you in New York for?
I’m here for a few very glamorous reasons. I’m getting a root canal tomorrow; I really like my dentist here. And on Saturday I’m going up to Connecticut for my 30th high school reunion. Which anthropologically should be very interesting. It’s funny, I went on a date last night and I realized the person I was on the date with had been born just after I graduated high school and I felt like the creepiest old guy. Because I couldn’t really—I was going to talk to her about going back for my 30th reunion but I realized how creepy that sounding, like I was going back for my 30 year high school reunion and she’s 30.
Well, it’s not that terrible.
It’s not that terrible but it still made me feel… I was like (whispers) Oh, right. I felt kind of creepy.
Have you kept in touch with a lot of people from high school?
Only in two ways. One through Facebook. I, you know, see those utterly banal pictures, people post pictures of them with their kids at Starbucks ordering a pumpkin spice latte. And also when I’ve gone on tour people who I went to high school with come to shows and reintroduce themselves. That’s interesting, because when I was growing up I was in the AV club in high school and I’d wheel film strip projectors and VHS players into classrooms. My friends and I: We played in a hardcore band, we listened to new wave records, read science fiction and were in the AV club so clearly we were not very popular. And so it’s been funny is having the people I went to high school with who were popular—the football players—coming to my concerts and waiting in line to come backstage and say hi. It seems like it’s not in keeping with what should be the natural order of things.
Is this the first reunion you’ve been to?
Ten was interesting. 20, I was on tour so I couldn’t go. A lot of the people I went to high school with I’ve actually known since I was four years old. So I’m going back to see people I’ve almost known for 5 decades.
That’s cool. I can’t imagine there would be a fanfare that you’re coming back, but have you told anyone you’re coming or are you just showing up?
Yeah, just showing up, but also the town I grew up in—Darien, CT—is a town of 15,000 people and it’s incredibly affluent, though I grew up poor white trash there; my mom and I were on food stamps until I was 18. It always made me have an uneasy relationship with the town because I clearly never fit in, but in some ways it was an amazing place to grow up because the public schools were so well-funded because it was such an affluent town and all the teachers were really progressive. It also, per capita, has created more weird public figures that any other place in the world. When I tell people who grew up in Darien, it’s kind of baffling. A town of 15,000 people: Ann Coulter grew up there. Gus Van Sant. Robert Downey Jr. Steve-O from Jackass. Topher Grace. Chloe Sevigny. Kate Bosworth.
Oh, wow. Have you ever all gotten in a room to shoot the shit?
Every couple years I run into someone. I saw GVS just recently and we were reminiscing about Darien High School and his art teacher there. I’ve never met Ann Coulter, but I used to give Chloe rides to this all-ages club in Greenwich that we used to go to. Topher Grace, he was back shooting a movie in Greenwich I guess about a year ago, staying at his parents’ house in Darien sleeping in the bunkbeds. At one point he brought Robert De Niro to his house to show him around, like here are the bunkbeds I sleep in! Robert Downey Jr. and I made, because his dad was a film director—he and I were best friends when we were nine or ten—and we made, there’s no way this would exist, but we made a Super 8 film when we were 9 years old.
You recorded this album at home. Is that the first time you’d done that?
The only record I didn’t make at home is the least favorite of all the records I’ve made. It’s an album called Hotel, and that’s sort of what I was describing in 2004 when I was almost more focused on the public aspect of music as opposed to the music itself. That was the one record where I made it in an outside studio with a great engineer, so oddly enough of all the records I’ve made the one that I like the least is the one that technically sounds the best. Hotel was recorded really well, mixed really well, it sounds very professional, and that’s the one I never go back and listen to.
Do you hole up at home and record over a short period of time, or does it take a while?
When I make a record I write a lot of songs. Each record I’ve made, I’ve probably made around 300 songs and then it’s just a process of narrowing it down. In total it took about two years.
Your proper records are known for including essays in the liner notes; is there one for Innocents?
There is a sort of list-style essay. It’s nonsense. If you never read it, I’m sure you’ll be fine. It’s some stuff that seems important to me, but I can’t imagine it seems important to anyone else.
Those essays seem to feed naturally into your work with politics, and yet there’s the skepticism—that you alluded to earlier—about being seen as just another California weirdo.
It’s funny because I’ve been a vegan now for 26 years, and been quite outspoken politically—culturally, socially—for a very long time. What I’ve noticed, and this is really interesting, I wish some very smart social anthropologist would study this, that how it is that when a public figure is opinionated they end up really irritating people, even if the people agree with them. Think of Tim Robbins, who’s politically outspoken. Sean Penn. It’s so funny when you read online commentary about outspoken public figures, it’s almost all negative. But the irony is that the people writing it agree with the opinions they find irritating.
It’s like what people say about Bruce Springsteen—that he can’t be so concerned with the plight of the working man if he’s living in a mansion.
I can see that. Like Thom Yorke is very outspoken about income equality; as far as I can tell from following his Twitter feed, he’s very anti-capitalist. He supports anti-capitalist organizations, but also know that he’s probably worth $50 million. But I don’t think that makes his perspective… it’s hard for me to judge, because does that make his perspective less legitimate? Is it possible for someone to be very concerned about animal welfare and not be vegan? Maybe.
I think it’s the tension between having the will to execute one’s progressive beliefs to the point where you’re not just paying lip service in the interest of seeming correct.
It’s more this question of how to be… because there’s a cause you believe in, how to most effectively advocate for that cause. When I was growing up playing in punk rock bands, our approach to advocacy was yelling as loud as we could. Being arrogant and loud. If someone disagreed with us, we fully believed they were wrong so we yelled at them more. But over time I’ve realized that when you yell at people, they generally don’t listen to what you’re saying. Even if what you’re saying has validity to it, the moment you start yelling at someone they just get defensive and don’t hear what you’re saying. Over time, I’ve sort of had to figure out that if I want to be an effective advocate for causes that are important to me, how can you best communicate to people? And that usually involves not yelling. Which is unfortunate, because I really like yelling. But if a vegan, animal rights activist throws fake blood on someone wearing a fur coat, they might enjoy that act of throwing fake blood on them but it’s doubtful they’re going to convince the wearer of the fur coat to stop wearing a fur coat. They’re just going to be mad at the person who threw fake blood at them.
Okay, I feel like our time is winding to an end so I have to get some other things on the record. Were you a member of Flipper?
I was a member of Flipper. Here’s the problem: They don’t remember this. Flipper did a reunion tour about six years ago, and I went and played bass for a couple of shows. I was talking to Will Shatter, who’s the other singer, who died a while ago; I was talking to Bruce Loose, the other singer, and he was like, "Oh, I heard you were in Flipper for two days!" He basically they said they were so drunk and so high they didn’t remember. What had happened was, it might’ve been 1982 or 83. There was a bar in Connecticut called Pogo’s in Bridgeport, CT, and everybody played there. I was the luckiest little punk rock kid in the world but every single touring band stopped there because it was the stop in between New York and Boston. So a band would play in New York on Thursday, Bridgeport CT on Friday, then Boston on Saturday. We saw Black Flag, and Minor Threat, and the Misfits, and the Gun Club, and Mission of Burma, and Circle Jerks, and Bad Brains, and everybody stopped there. It was amazing, because it was an Irish bar with a little stage but a really engaged hardcore community. A band like Bad Brains would play there and sell it out instantly, which in 1981 or 1982 in the middle of Connecticut was kind of weird. But Flipper played there, and I was obsessed with Flipper. Generic is one of my favorite records. And they were playing, and they weren’t playing any of my favorite songs, so I was yelling out a song to Bruce Loose, you know, what about such and such song, and he said Oh, we can’t do that because Will is in jail. I said I’d write down the lyrics for you and he said, well, fuck it, why don’t you just sing? So I got drafted to sing all of Will Shatter’s songs, and it was amazing; it was one of the highlights of my life, to be 16 years old being carried around the crowd singing Flipper songs. The next night they played in Hartford and I went and did the same thing. They of course have no recollection of this.
I will amend Wikipedia to mention that. How was it getting your head licked by Gwen Stefani?
It was… [fumbling for words] It was probably the only time in my life anyone’s licked my head. I think I felt weird about it. I think I kind of felt guilty. Because, like, who wants to lick a bald guy’s head? It’s kind of gross. Joseph Kahn, the director said, oh, lick the back of his head. It wasn’t sexy. We were working and I felt like she was being such a good sport about everything that when the director asked her to lick my head I was like, now we’ve crossed a line. Now she’s going to storm off. I just felt weird and guilty about it.
Can you still jump like the cover of Play?
We just did three shows in LA. The entire tour for Innocents was 3 shows at the Fonda Theater, because I really don’t like touring. At one point onstage I think, because I like to jump around off things, I climbed a drum riser and jumped off that. It wasn’t an amazing jump, but still for a 48-year old guy it wasn’t too bad.
Eminem also has a new record coming out. When’s the last time you talked?
We’ve never really talked. He attacked me, once. But I would imagine, because he’s so successful, I would just assume I’m not on his radar anyway. I make weird records that probably sell internationally what one of his records sells in a suburb of Cleveland. So I feel I’m off his radar. I grew up obsessed with ‘80s hip-hop and he’s clearly a very talented MC. Watching just how he’s presented himself in public for such a long time now is really kind of fascinating… and strange. But it does seem odd when your whole shtick is youthful angst, and what do you do when you’re 50?