“The Humility That Comes From Being Hated”: Moby Interviewed

In a frank and funny interview, Moby tells Stephen Dalton about his life post-superstardom and sobriety, taking in sex tapes ("I looked like the love-child of Gollum & Mark E Smith"), Reginald Perrin, Charlie Sheen, celebrity dating, David Bowie, drugs, veganism, Eminem and God along the way

Fresh off the overnight flight from LA, Moby is back among his sworn enemies in London. One of the few cities, he laughs, where he is hated almost as much as New York. He is joking, but only slightly.

For such a cerebral and soft-spoken soul, Richard Melville Hall certainly winds an awful lot of people up, from snooty critics to superstar haters like Eminem. I always found this puzzling as he has invariably proved to be courteous and witty during our many interviews, conducting his career in an impeccably principled manner. But of course, this very modesty and intelligence may well have counted against Moby. Perhaps, deep down, we prefer our celebrities to be arrogant fuck-ups.

For most of the last 20 years, Moby was signed to the iconic London label Mute. He now runs his own indie imprint Little Idiot, but remains semi-involved with Mute (and signed to the label in the US), and with British pop culture in general. During our afternoon chat in London, he peppers his conversation with throwaway references to Vic Reeves, Reggie Perrin, Clare Grogan and Mark E. Smith. This may be a kind of calculated flattery, but it is certainly disarming.

Moby is about to launch his tenth album, his finest in a decade. Released in conjunction with a large-format photography book, Destroyed throbs with warm analogue sound paintings, emotionally charged chillwave and late-night soultronica. A decade after the phenomenally successful Play transformed him from fringe techno oddball to improbable pop idol, Moby seems to have finally rebalanced the equilibrium between left-field artist and brash populist. He has rediscovered his natural calling as a Brian Eno for the Britney generation.

Over the years Moby has been caricatured as a puritanical, Christian, po-faced, salad-munching New York intellectual uber-geek. This was a tiny fraction of the truth, and only some of the time. He was also a fiercely ambitious musical chameleon who co-wrote, produced or remixed tracks for Michael Jackson, David Bowie, Brian Eno, Pet Shop Boys, Britney Spears, New Order, Public Enemy, Guns ‘N Roses, Metallica and more.

Following the marketing-led freak success of Play, Moby also became a drug-taking, celeb-dating, highly unlikely alt-rock superstar. Before kicking booze three years ago, he claims he spent much of the last decade as a “falling-down drunk”. Now, after a spell in therapy and a healthy relocation to the Hollywood Hills, the 45-year-old recovering pop star tells The Quietus about his new album, his boozy past, and his “Charlie Sheen moments” on the road from celebrity to sobriety…

So you have given up drinking, quit New York, and moved into a mansion in LA. Is Destroyed your midlife crisis album?

Moby: I’ve been having a midlife crisis since I was four years old, but even more so now. The midlife crisis you’re having at 30 is indulgent, but the midlife crisis you have at 45 is to an extent thrust upon you. Is it a midlife crisis album? I don’t know, I have no perspective as regards my work. One reason I put out records and books is people respond to it, and it enables you to actually see the work more clearly. It’s a form of therapy for me. Sometimes abusive therapy.

The album and photo book are both called Destroyed – do they have a common theme?

M: There’s an aesthetic theme, which is cities at two o’clock in the morning. Not cities packed with people going out to clubs and dancing but desolate, empty streets. It’s off-putting but there’s a strange comfort to it as well, that desolate urban environment. Go to parts of London at three o’clock in the morning on a Sunday and it feels like the Rapture has happened and you’re the only person left. God has taken his chosen people, the problem being you are the only non-chosen person.

I’ve felt like that all my life.

M: Yeah, well my theory is the Rapture happened a long time ago. God took his chosen people and we are what’s left. He looked at what’s left and thought: I could kill you all, but let’s see what happens. A little social experiment.

Speaking of God, are you still doing all that Jesus stuff? Or have you grown out of childish superstitions now?

M: Umm, ha ha! What’s that expression? ‘No man with a heart at 20 isn’t a socialist, and no man with a head at 40 is…’? I feel the same about organised religion. When I was growing up I was an atheist, then an agnostic, and then I had a good eight or ten years of being quite a serious Christian. I taught Bible Study, and there was period where I thought all of my beliefs were right, and everybody who disagreed with me was wrong.

Yes. That’s called adolescence.

M: It’s called fearful adolescence. It was a desire to establish a clear us-and-them approach, the dichotomy of true believers and apostates. But I change my mind about things – for a while I was punk rocker, and if you weren’t a punk rocker you were an apostate. Then I was a dance music enthusiast, and if you weren’t a dance music enthusiast, you were an apostate. I was carnivore, and if you were a vegan, I didn’t want to talk to you. Then I was vegan, and if you were a carnivore I didn’t want to talk to you. And this seems self-evident, but over time I just realised the world is a very complicated place, and there is not a single structured belief system that adequately and comprehensively describes every aspect of our existence. So that is my new approach to life and spirituality – I don’t know anything, except on a very naive and subjective level.

But the album still contains religiously inspired titles like ‘Stella Maris’ and ‘The Violent Bear It Away’, which is both a Biblical quote and a Flannery O’Conner novel. So is Destroyed a kind of stealth Christian-rock statement?

M: Not at all. My interest in gospel music and liturgical art and Biblically-inspired literature has nothing to do with organised religion and everything to do with human beings trying to figure out their place on this planet. So when I listen to gospel singers pouring their heart out to God, it’s the act of pouring their hearts out that interests me. Who that God is and whether God’s paying attention, I don’t know. It’s not the cultural context in which it happens, what interests me is just the ongoing desperate human search for meaning and significance – and just that outpouring of emotion. Like, I’m not Catholic but the Virgin Mary fascinates me because she’s like a folk hero.

Like Debbie Harry?

M: Yeah, or Clare Grogan from Altered Images… It’s just fascinating when people pick these totems and ascribe all these characteristics to her. Whether the Virgin Mary existed, I don’t know. But the human need for her to appear in tortilla, that’s what inspires my interest.

Destroyed is your second album on your own indie label, Little Idiot. Being semi-detached from Mute and EMI, does that boil down to more creative freedom?

M: It boils down to complete creative freedom, and the ability to do fantastically stupid things. When you’re signed to a big label you’re always in the position of convincing them, especially now because labels are barely keeping the lights on, so getting them to spend a little bit of money is really hard. Whereas now we can just make, like I say, fantastically stupid decisions. I sort of use as my guiding principle that show The Fall and Rise of Reginald Perrin. Whenever possible, do the stupid thing.

You mean Perrin’s deliberately useless shop, Grot?

M: Yeah, ha! So my version of that is my website Moby Gratis, which is giving music away for free to film-makers. And if money is ever generated, giving it to the Humane Society. The demise of the monolithic record industry has been, for a lot of people, really liberating and emancipating.

You moved to LA last year after 25 years in New York City. I am not entirely sure why, but this feels almost like a betrayal…

M: Perhaps it is. But if I were to be really petulant, I would say New York is the one doing the betraying. Because the New York I fell in love with doesn’t really exist anymore. When I was growing up, I fetishised New York City. It was the land of Lou Reed and the Velvet Underground, it was where Leonard Cohen wrote ‘Chelsea Hotel’, it was CBGBs and all the punk rock clubs. Artists and musicians lived there, and it was cheap and dangerous. And now it’s a very attractive city where hedge fund managers and wealthy Europeans spend a lot of money for food. The interesting people have been priced out to the outer reaches of Brooklyn and Queens. The same thing has happened to London as well – I find London really exciting but there’s a lot of vicious success here. Like New York, there’s a lot of incredibly successful people who feel incredibly entitled, perhaps justifiably, but I don’t want to be around viciously entitled people. I’d rather be around broken people who have a degree of humility, and just get on with their work.

So you like the broken-down, grungy side of LA?

M: LA is such a crumbling mess of a city. Basically in all my years of travelling, I haven’t found another city in the western world that interest me as much as Los Angeles – which might sound like heresy, but most cities, history has already happened and the people living there are sort of living on the bones of the thousand years of history that’s already happened there. Whereas LA is always reinventing itself. There is a dysfunctional strangeness to Los Angeles that doesn’t exist in any other western city. The roads are crumbling, no-one knows what they’re doing, the city government barely works. You can’t find an uglier urban environment than the centre of Hollywood, but then you go to Griffith Park, you go to the beach, you go to the mountains, and it’s rural. I live up in the Hollywood Hills and I have frogs, owls, coyotes, mountain lions – but I’m ten minutes from the centre of the city.

Is it true you are living in Marlon Brando’s old house?

M: He lived there for a while. I live in this weird old castle from 1927, the Rolling Stones lived there when they were making Cocksucker Blues. It’s got a lot of strange history. There’s a house right across the street where I think Mickey Dolenz from the Monkees lived, and it was everybody’s degenerate crash pad. Jimi Hendrix used to hang out there, it’s where all the late 60s rock stars just got up to terrible degeneracy. Aldous Huxley lived around the corner. So it’s the weirdness of LA, the warmth in January, and the fact that it has that egalitarian thing because rent is cheap for a lot of people, so anybody can live there.

Giving up drinking three years ago was a factor in leaving New York too, right?

M: Yes. When I was a drunk, New York was the greatest place in the world. You walk everywhere, everything is open until four in the morning, and people go to New York looking for debauchery. So you’d have all these crazy, fantastic experiences. And then I stopped drinking and realised New York still has a lot of charm, but it has become so bourgeois and affluent – and I can’t really complain because I’m sort of bourgeois and affluent myself, but I like living in a place where artists and musicians and writers can actually pay the rent. So LA, well, first of all I love not being cold in January. The smug satisfaction that comes from sitting in the sun on January 15th and checking the weather in New York and London, seeing that it’s freezing cold and pissing down with rain. That’s nice, the schadenfreude of that.

How serious was your drink problem? Alcoholic levels?

M: Well, I like to quote Homer Simpson: ‘I’m like a chocoholic except for alcohol.’ Oh yeah, I come from a long line of alcoholics. It’s funny because when I first started making records, I was at the tail end of a period of sobriety, so I somehow got this reputation as Captain Sober. The irony being, for my most of my career I’ve been a falling-down drunk. Most of my interviews were done hungover, and for a while it was great. I’m sure most people have this experience: when you’re young you drink, you do drugs, you stay up late, and there are no consequences. Fast forward a few years, like when I was 42 and I stopped drinking, the hangovers lasted three days. The depression got worse, the anxiety got worse, it got to the point where I couldn’t go on a date without panic attacks. It just got really bad. And I saw people around me who were falling deeper and deeper into alcoholism and substance abuse. It’s seductive because alcohol is amazing and drugs are amazing, they work so well. Again, to quote Homer Simpson, alcohol is the cause and solution to all of life’s problems. I don’t think there’s anything wrong with drinking and drug use, if people can do it and not hurt themselves. But it got to the point where I was really hurting myself.

Booze was your main poison, not other substances?

M: Basically I was what’s colloquially referred to as a ‘garbage head’ – I would drink and drink and then at 3 o’clock in the morning take anything that was put in front of me. And I’d sometimes be disappointed when conventional things were put in front of me. Like, I’d do a line of something and be disappointed to find it was just cocaine.

What were you hoping for? Ketamine?

M: Ketamine’s such a waste of time drug. All you do when you’re on ketamine is go: ‘Oh, I’m on drugs. I don’t feel good, I don’t feel bad, I’m just on drugs…’

My main moral objection to cocaine is the industry behind it, which is way more evil than factory farming. If only they made a Fair Trade version, imagine the merchandising opportunities. Like, Moby-branded organic cocaine…

M: Yeah, or how about cocaine-infused vodka? Coca leaves, all organic, Fair Trade. Finally a product I can believe in! The reason I didn’t like cocaine is it made me do stupid things, have stupid conversations, and stay awake until 11 o’clock in the morning unable to think, read, sleep or speak. But every time I would always think to myself: ‘But David Bowie made Station to Station on cocaine! It can’t be all bad!’

You were friendly with Bowie for a few years. Have you seen him recently?

M: Not for couple of years. I think they’ve moved upstate and spend a lot of time in the country. There was a time when we toured together, had barbecues together – which was so disconcerting, when your favourite musician of all time comes over to have a barbecue. I always felt I was in the presence of someone who was equal parts deity and aristocracy. I would pretend to be normal, but I never felt 100 per cent comfortable in his presence.

You co-edited a book on factory farming last year, Gristle. A campaign advert for your vegan lifestyle?

M: A lighthearted read. Yeah, I like being vegan, I think it’s good for my health. But honestly, one of the main reasons I’m vegan is because I’m ethically lazy. My friends who eat meat or who eat eggs have to sometimes wrestle with the ethical consequences of their actions. By being vegan, I take the easy way out. I truly don’t judge other people’s actions. But I think that factory farming is an abomination, and that’s what the book Gristle is about. Most of the contributors to Gristle are not vegan – like, one guy’s a pork famer. Even my friends who eat meat are horrified by industrial agriculture.

You are being mealy-mouthed and diplomatic. Come on, admit it, not eating meat makes you feel morally superior, right?

M: This is very mealy-mouthed of me but I can’t comprehensively judge other people’s actions because I don’t know where they’re coming from and I have no idea where they are going to end up. For example, the story of ‘Amazing Grace’: it was written by a slave ship captain. If you’d met him when he was actually trafficking in slaves you might have found him the most unethical, horrifying person on the planet. But it was his experience of being a slave ship captain that led him to have a crisis of conscience where he became a monk and wrote ‘Amazing Grace’, which became the anthem of the Civil Rights movement. So I just don’t know. I’d almost say a vegan who beats his wife is far further down the ethical ladder than a meat eater who’s kind to his children.

Once again, you are being boringly reasonable. I suspect this may be why you annoy so many people. We prefer our celebrities to be meat-munching alpha-male Charlie Sheen fuck-ups, not level-headed, even-handed herbivores.

M: I completely understand that. I love it when celebrities fall apart, you want them to fall apart like Charlie Sheen. I mean, poor Charlie Sheen, I hope he gets some help but… ah, no, I don’t really care. But when Britney shaves off all her hair and beats paparazzi with umbrellas – that’s what celebrities are supposed to do. They’re not supposed to be reasonable, middle-aged guys drinking organic tea talking about semiotics.

You need to be more of a performing monkey, throwing diva tantrums and having massive breakdowns. Otherwise you are letting your public down.

M: But I’ve done the performing monkey stuff and massive breakdowns, it’s just they weren’t documented. Especially the last 10 years when I went a little bit off the deep end in a lot of ways – drinking, drugs, self involvement, entitlement. It had gotten pretty bad, it just wasn’t that well documented. I’ve had my Charlie Sheen moments, it was usually just at the Mars Bar on the corner of First Avenue with me and a few homeless guys.

I found a Facebook group site called I Fucking Hate Moby, but it only has around 70 members. Be honest, is such a low number kind of disappointing?

M: Nice. A few years ago, before I stopped drinking, I was feeling very sorry for myself and very drunk, and I Googled ‘Moby Sucks’. In less than one second something like 20 million responses came up… yeah, there has been a lot of loathing directed towards me, and it used to drive me crazy. No one wants to be hated, in public, by lots of people. And for some reason New York is the epicentre for people who hate me. Maybe this is another reason why I left New York but I get more hatred directed towards me there than any other place. And London is a close second. I don’t know, maybe I’m naive in saying this but I feel like people might be slightly less inclined to hate me as much as they did in the past, and I think part of that is selling fewer records. The moment a career is on a quantitative downswing, your loathsomeness is sort of attenuated.

Possibly, but surely some people will relish your commercial decline even more? What is that Gore Vidal quote? ‘It’s not enough that I succeed. Others must fail.’

M: Are you sure that’s not Stalin?

Possibly. Gore Vidal, Stalin, I often get those two mixed up.

M: Yes. Both large, gay men.

Have you not found musicians to be snide, envious and backstabbing, especially when you were hugely successful?

M: I used to have a lot of envy for those musicians who have been universally loved. The Thom Yorkes of this world, and Bjork, Thurston Moore, Jack White, James Murphy – people who have never had a bad review, I used to really envy them. But then, I don’t know, this might sound a little touchy-feely and LA, but I like how things have ended up. I like the humility that comes from being hated. Hopefully some humility and compassion comes out of that. There are so many musicians, friends of mine, who play shows for ten people a night, or always desperately wanted a record contract. So even if every person on the planet loathes me, I have nothing to complain about. My job is not a bad job, so I can’t complain.

You’re being annoyingly humble and reasonable again. Have you met Thom Yorke? Universal admiration does not stop you becoming a haughty, touchy, self-important diva.

M: But there’s really no reason for any musician, writer, actor to ever take themselves seriously. If you work in a needle exchange, take yourself seriously. You’re doing good work. If you’re involved in hostage negotiations and saving lives, you can have a sense of entitlement. Musicians, actors, writers – we’re all neurotic, odd people who’ve lucked into accidental careers. So I just don’t like being around public figures with that sense of entitlement, it just seems unhealthy, and it strips so much potential for them to develop as a human being. The worst case scenario is you really like someone’s work, then you meet them and they’re a self-involved, entitled douchebag.

OK, who? Name names. Britney Spears?

M: No, Britney’s actually kind of like a broken-down shell of a human being, that’s what makes her so endearing and compelling. She was lovely, but really broken. Like, Blanche Dubois-style broken. Actually, the most entitled people I’ve met are indie rockers and indie actors, because they really believe their press. Some of them are lovely human beings, but some are showbiz divas to an extent I can’t conceive of.

Go on, name just one appalling celebrity diva…

M: I can’t because in the past I’ve had public feuds with people, and I have really not benefited from any of them. The feud with Eminem did kind of torpedo my career in the United States, but it also introduced me to Middle America in a way I never could have conceived of. Still to this day, I’ll be in a parking lot in Iowa and some guy will walk past and go: ‘Moby, you can get stomped by Obie!’ I’m like – wow, that’s cool that this 29-year-old ex-con crystal meth addict knows who I am! That’s kind of interesting. So thank you, Eminem.

You were once physically attacked in a possible case of heterosexual ‘gay bashing’. It is quite revealing how many of your online haters clearly want you to be gay, which is the default insult of cave-dwelling cretins everywhere…

M: I’ve wanted to be gay! I mean, there was long period on my life when I was very disappointed by the fact I wasn’t gay. Because I grew up going to gay clubs, living in New York and LA, both very gay cities. When I’m around my gay friends I always feel apologetic than I’m not gay. One time I was doing an interview for a gay magazine and halfway through the journalist found out I wasn’t gay. He said, ‘Sorry, I can’t continue the interview.’ Because they only had gay public figures in their magazine. I felt so crestfallen. I wanted to tell him: but I play fundraisers for gay marriage! I’d rather my kids were gay than straight!’

Have you never even had an experimental ride on the gay bus?

M: No, but I’ve been in all sorts of situations where that could have happened. I don’t find it off-putting or repulsive, I’m just not that interested. I was in bar about 15 years ago, a relationship had ended badly, I was very drunk and I thought I would convince myself to try and be gay. Like, at one point I didn’t like coffee, then I learned to like it. At one point I didn’t like beer, then I loved the taste of beer. So I was trying to convince myself I could learn to be gay – but no. That’s one of my great regrets.

In a very non-gay way, you have dated some famous lady celebrities over the past decade, including Natalie Portman…

M: She’s pregnant, she won an Academy Award. Things are going great for her.

Are you taking credit for that?

M: Not in the slightest. Maybe my lack of involvement in her life is what’s led to her doing so well.

Which other famous women have you dated? Sarah Palin?

M: Sarah Palin. Angela Merkel. Charlie Sheen and I had a relationship a few years ago, back when I was a woman. No I can’t really say…

OK, no names, just a general question on this topic. Very attractive people are often said to make no effort in bed. Is that doubly true for celebrities? Is it like fucking a corpse?

M: Well, I’ve dated attractive people and I don’t find a correlation between amorous enthusiasm and beauty and public figure status. I’ve dated some very enthusiastic, attractive people and some very unenthusiastic, less attractive people. I see no correlation. But female friends of mine who have dated male public figures have found that is the case. They say male models are terrible in bed, because they feel like just showing up is all the effort they need to make. This one friend of mine was dating a man and he had mirrors positioned strategically around his bed so he could see every part of his body when he was having sex. He kept looking over his shoulder. Under no circumstances do I ever want to see any part of me having sex! I wouldn’t want to see video tape, pictures, in the mirror, nothing.

Come on, are you saying you never filmed yourself having sex?

M: I did once, drunkenly, a long time ago. I looked at it for an eighth of a second and realised that if I’d seen any more, I would never take my clothes off again for as long as I live. It was so uncomfortable and just wrong. I looked like Gollum. I never need to see that again. It was like if Gollum and Mark E. Smith had a love-child.

Are you courting at the moment? Is there a Mrs Moby on the scene?

M: I have to say, since I stopped drinking my love life has taken a really serious hit. Romantic encounters that seemed like a really good idea at three o’clock in the morning on the Lower East Side? Less so in sobriety. So no, at present I’m single and being depressingly un-promiscuous. I’ve got to do something because it’s been a bit of a barren wasteland.

You seem mellower at 45 than a few years ago, less agitated about your critics, more at ease with your post-superstar status…

M: I’ve had a lot of Saul on the road to Damascus experiences recently – on a much smaller scale, I’m guessing. But one of them was, I was in the back of a car reading a celebrity magazine, looking at all these celebrities and the desperate gleam in their eyes. And I simply had this realisation – is there any evidence that more fame and more money improves the quality of anyone’s life? I can’t see that being the case. The moment somebody becomes famous, 15 years gets knocked off their life. They’re gonna get divorced a few times, they’re gonna be addicted to things, they’re gonna be in therapy. Money can be nice because you can pay the rent, you can pay to take friends out to dinner…

You can pay for crack whores…?

M: Crack whores – or goddesses, Charlie Sheen’s goddesses. But just looking through this celebrity magazine, all these people using art as a way of increasing their fame, it really rubs me the wrong way. When I saw music as a means to an end – more fame, more money, dating celebrities – that’s when things have gone terribly wrong. Now my life is focused on just trying to keep making music. Because when it’s really good, it’s just the most remarkable feeling on the planet.

Moby’s album and photography book Destroyed are both released on May 16. A related photo exhibition opens at the Proud Galleries in Camden on May 18. Moby plays a DJ set for Mute’s Short Circuit weekend at the Roundhouse on May 13, and a full live show at the Roundhouse on June 2.

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