Published Oct 11, 2013It's been over two decades since Moby, born Richard Melville Hall, released the Twin Peaks-sampling "Go," launching the then-25-year-old American musician into the international spotlight. In the following years, Moby became known in Europe for his outspoken opinions on veganism and environmental issues almost as much as for his music. At the tail end of the '90s Moby finally found mainstream success, at home as abroad, with Play, his lauded album based around overt samples from an album of Alan Lomax's field recordings, which famously was the first album to have every track licensed for use in film, TV and advertisements, including car commercials. Now 48 years old, and with his 11th studio album under his belt, we talked to the producer from his home in Los Angeles to discuss celebrity friendships, his worst day job and how drinking tea is the new getting drunk.
What are you up to?
At the risk of making a self-evident statement, I'm talking on the phone with you! Beyond that I'm thinking how creepy and strange it is that September 11 is my birthday, and that I share my birthday with Bashar al-Assad, the dictator of Syria.
What are your current fixations?
U.S. foreign policy is one of them. I also just watched this documentary on plate tectonics, so I'm currently a little bit obsessed with super-volcanoes and the possibility that there could be a huge mega-tsunami that hits the Eastern coast of the United States. There's a volcano in the Canary Islands and there's this huge part of the volcano that's just about to fall into the sea and if it falls into the sea they anticipate a 300 foot wall of water travelling at 600 miles an hour hitting the entire Eastern seaboard of the United States. It could be tomorrow or it could be in 100 years, no one really knows, but it would be basically like [the tsunami in] Indonesia but with New York, Boston, DC, etc.
Why do you live where you do?
I live in Los Angeles now and the two main reasons I live here are because it's warm in the winter time and because David Lynch lives here. One of the strangest things about being a public figure is that I've been able to meet a lot of my heroes and either become friendly with them or work with them. David Bowie is my favourite musician of all time and over the years he and I have had BBQs together, we've done acoustic sets together and we went on tour together, which is always disconcerting because David Bowie is like a god and royalty in equal measure. But with David Lynch, I had Christmas at his house and I learned how to meditate in his studio. We went to Iowa together and we've played music together. We've done all sorts of strange things. He directed the video for my song "Shot In The Back Of The Head" and I'm currently working on a remix for his new album. We pretty much have this ongoing, strange collaboration.
Name something you consider a mind-altering work of art.
There's so many good possibilities there. I can honestly off the top of my head think of a few hundred things but I would say Hieronymus Bosch and "The Garden of Earthly Delights." I remember being quite young — maybe seven or eight — when I first saw it. I was raised by artists: my mum was a painter, my one uncle's a sculptor, my other uncle's a photographer, both my grandparents were painters, so I was raised around a lot of contemporary art. When I saw "The Garden of Earthly Delights" I couldn't believe it had been painted such a long time ago because it's so deeply, profoundly and disconcertingly surreal. When people talk about surrealism they usually mean it as an adjective to connote wackiness but the stated goal of surrealism was to actually enable the viewer to transcend the rational, conscious mind and go to a deeper level of consciousness and reality. Surrealist art and literature wasn't strange for the sake of strange, it was trying to access deeper levels of consciousness.
What has been your most memorable or inspirational gig and why?
It's a very obvious answer but an honest one. In August of 2001, U2 were playing at Slane Castle in Ireland and they asked me to play with them. It was huge and it was a wonderful show. U2 hadn't played in Ireland for a long time and when they played "Sunday Bloody Sunday" in front of 125,000 people who were all singing along at the top of their lungs, it was one of the most powerful experiences I've ever had.
What have been your career highs and lows?
My career high was the first job I ever got DJing in New York City. There was this nightclub called Mars that had opened in 1988 and it was the coolest nightclub I've ever been to in my entire life. It was five levels and each level had amazing sound systems and all the coolest DJs were playing there. I gave the DJ booker — his name was Yuki Watanabe — a cassette of one of my DJ sets and somehow he booked me to play in the basement and paid me $50. I remember so clearly when I got the phone call from him, I couldn't believe I was finally DJing in New York!
The lows: In 1996 I put out a punk rock album called Animal Rights and I went on tour. The album got terrible reviews, I was suffering from panic attacks during the entire tour and I had found out that my mother was dying of cancer and my girlfriend and I had just broken up. [Laughs] I remember this one show in particular in Paris — we played a venue that held 200 people, we sold 90 tickets and by the end of the show there were only 20 people in the audience. [Laughs] That was a particularly low moment, personally and professionally.
What's the meanest thing ever said to you before, during or after a gig?
[Laughs] Most of the mean things that are said to you are pretty generic, like someone in the audience yelling out "You suck!" but you've heard it so many times it's hard to really take it too seriously. I was playing a show in Germany in 1991 and I was opening up for the band Front 242 and the show I was doing was all sequencer-based, playing programmed music. When I came off-stage the person from the record label was there and the only comment they had was that "The show had been very tight." [Laughs] It's like when you can't think of anything nice to say, so you pick the one thing you can say honestly and the only comment they had was that the computer had done a good job.
What should everyone shut up about?
I guess people should generally shut up about anything that generally doesn't improve the quality of their life. There's no point of complaining and whinging about things if it doesn't improve the quality of your life and the quality of life of those around you. Life is short, so why engage in activities that don't have any benefit? Not that there's anything wrong with complaining. A lot of my friends are really funny when they complain but I also have a lot of friends where it seems that the act of complaining makes them miserable and I just wonder why they do it.
What traits do you most like and most dislike about yourself?
The traits that I most like about myself are that I'm still very enthusiastic about a lot of things and I think I'm quite open-minded. I try not to prejudge or judge most things. So I guess enthusiasm and open-mindedness and I would say in a weird way my two least favourites are the opposite of those. I can sometimes be quite fearful and small-minded. It's very contextual and circumstantial but when I find myself being small-minded and fearful I have to take a step back and remind myself that's not who I wanna be.
What's your idea of a perfect Sunday?
This is gonna sound really bourgeois but a perfect Sunday is when I look at my schedule and there's nothing on it. Every day my schedule's filled with all sorts of random things, some of which are kind of interesting but it's still psychologically a little bit tiring when you're always doing something, or on the verge of doing something, that's already been scheduled by someone else for you. A perfect Sunday is when I wake up and I literally have nothing to do and I can spend the day reading and drinking tea and swimming, maybe going out to dinner with friends and listening to Led Zeppelin's Greatest Hits.
What advice should you have taken, but did not?
[Laughs] To go into therapy sooner and more regularly. In hindsight that would have done me a lot of good.
What would make you kick someone out of your band and/or bed, and have you?
I once had to kick someone out of my band because they were too much of a dysfunctional alcoholic, and that's saying a lot because I'm a dysfunctional alcoholic myself, but they were simply incapable of doing their job because they were always drunk and it was just causing too much trouble. I'm all in favour of people doing whatever they want if they wanna drink or party or what have you but in this case it was rendering this person unfit for their job so very sadly I had to get rid of them.
What would make me kick someone out of bed is cruelty, not even necessarily directed at me. About 20 years ago I was dating this woman and she was very attractive and very smart but she was also very comfortable with cruelty. And as smart and attractive as she was I just couldn't muster any romantic enthusiasm for her because cruelty to me is the death of lust and affection. It makes it impossible to be close to someone. It's profoundly unattractive.
What do you think of when you think of Canada?
I honestly think that Canada is like a smarter, more interesting, better version of the United States. I sometimes refer to Canada as the cooler, smarter cousin to the United States. No place is perfect and certainly politically there are some things in Canada that could use some improvement but generally every time I'm in Canada I think to myself "This is what a country should be like," especially compared and contrasted to the crumbling, dysfunctional United States that I live in.
What was the first LP/cassette/CD/eight track you ever bought with your own money?
The Live and Let Die soundtrack by Paul McCartney & Wings. To be honest I only ever listened to the song "Live and Let Die"; I never even listened to the rest of the record. I was maybe eight years old and it was one of the first adult-themed movies that I ever saw in a movie theatre and that song just terrified me. If you go back and listen to it, it starts off as so innocent and then it becomes one of the most malevolent, dark pieces of music and I happen to think that Paul McCartney and Wings are remarkably underrated.
What was your most memorable day job?
I'm gonna go with memorably bad in the interests of being anecdotal as no one wants to read about good memorable. For a while I was a dishwasher at a restaurant in a shopping mall in Stamford, Connecticut. It was quite a big restaurant and it was the single most disgusting job I've ever had because you spend hours and hours covered in other people's leftover food garbage. So, the next time you're in a restaurant look at all the plates when people are done eating and think of the dishwasher — who was me — having to go through all that stuff! I would go home afterwards and shower and try to get that smell out of my skin — the smell of six hours of cumulative food garbage and it was just impossible. So I always had this faint smell of other people's leftover food.
How do you spoil yourself?
I stopped drinking five years ago so if we were talking five years ago my answer would be that I would spoil myself by staying out until six o'clock in the morning getting drunk. Now that I'm boring and sober I would spoil myself by sitting down with a pot of white tea and reading a really crappy book. Makes me think I need to go out and hire someone to teach me how to be more indulgent because that's such a sad answer!
If I wasn't playing music I would be…
What I would like to do is to be an architect and a city planner similar to Oscar Niemeyer, the Brazilian architect. Last time I toured Brazil I specifically scheduled a show in Brasília so I could go look around at his handiwork. When I was at university, I was a philosophy major so I really thought I would spend my whole life teaching philosophy at community college and making music that no one would ever hear. So I have a feeling that if I weren't a musician most likely what I would be doing would be teaching philosophy at some second-rate university somewhere.
What do you fear most?
Wasting the opportunity I've been given of being human. If you think about the history of the universe, everything that exists in the universe is extremely unlikely. So with the complete unlikeliness that there would ever be biological life and that I would ever be alive, my biggest fear is that somehow I'm squandering my biological life. But then again, because none of us know what significance our lives really have, in turn we're incapable of knowing how we might be squandering our lives. Maybe leading a meaningful life is the least meaningful thing we can do and sitting around doing nothing is the most meaningful life. I have no idea.
What makes you want to take it off and get it on?
This is a really uninteresting answer but it's the truth: Just having a really strong connection with someone. The connection is part conversation and part chemical. I wish I had a funnier answer but having a conversation with someone where I feel completely fully involved. I think that's the most seductive, exciting thing that can happen between me and another person.
What has been your strangest celebrity encounter?
There have been so many weird ones but it was election night 2000 and I was in a bar with a friend of mine and David Bowie, his wife Iman and Dennis Hopper walked in. I knew Iman and David Bowie so we all sat down and we looked up as the TV was reporting that Al Gore had won the election and I was so excited and I was like "Drinks on me! Al Gore won the election!" and noticed Dennis Hopper sitting there looking very unhappy and said "Do you want a drink?" and he said "I'm a Republican. There's nothing to celebrate about." So we ended up having a strange debate about Democrats vs. Republicans and while we were talking the news changed and they decided that it was too close to call and nobody could call the election and Dennis Hopper perked up because he thought maybe Bush is gonna win. Arguing politics with Dennis Hopper on the night of the presidential election sitting between David Bowie and Iman was pretty strange!
Who would be your ideal dinner guest, living or dead, and what would you serve them?
I guess it would be Siddhārtha Gautama, aka the Buddha, so I can ask two simple questions: "What exactly did he mean by enlightened?" Because I think it's created so much confusion for so many people because that word for some people means a crazy, mystical experience and for other people it means just having a more rational approach to being alive. My second question would be "What do you think the rest of us should do to achieve whatever enlightenment we're capable of achieving?" I'm not a great cook but my grandmother grew up in India so I grew up eating a lot of Indian food. And as the Buddha is also Indian I'd make homemade chapatis and chick peas and potatoes and rice and just a whole bunch of spicy Indian things.
Did your family ever wish you were doing something other than music?
Not really. I was raised by a bunch of broke artists. Everyone in my family had some weird, artistic outlet and I honestly think they would have been disappointed if I'd become a doctor or a businessman. The question when I was growing up wasn't whether I would work in business or work in art but if I was going to work in art, just "What kind of artist did I want to be?" and I kind of picked music because no one else in my family was a professional musician and also because I love music.
What song would you like to have played at your funeral?
This is kind of a self-involved answer but I wrote a piece of music in 1995 called "God Moving Over the Face of the Waters" and it was used in the movie Heat by Michael Mann and it has an emotional quality that I really love. So, at the risk of sounding completely narcissistic, I would choose that.