You know you’re important when Eminem disses you. The verbose, venomous Detroit rapper hurled a homophobic slur at Moby in his 2002 song “Without Me” and added salt to the wound by observing that “nobody listens to techno.” (False! I know of at least several dozen people who listen to it.) Moby, always a self-deprecating sort, shook off the verbal jab and thanked Em for the free publicity.
While Moby—aka Richard Melville Hall, now 50—once was synonymous with the mostly anonymous world of techno, he’s receded somewhat from public consciousness. Oh, he’s still releasing records, but the most recent ones only sell a fraction of what his peak releases—1999’s multi-platinum Play and 2002’s 18—achieved. And, despite what Eminem thought, Moby hasn’t had much to do with techno in many years.
True, Moby's early flurry of rave anthems perfectly encapsulated the euphoric rush and empathetic swirl of Ecstasy. But from the mid ’90s on, he’s dipped heavily into sample- and vocal-heavy downtempo in gospel/blues veins, watercolor-y ambient, majestic soundtrack fare, and good ol’ punk and metal. (For the latter, see the oft-scorned critical and commercial failure Animal Rights, which partially returned Moby to his ’80s hardcore roots as guitarist in the band Vatican Commandos and included a reverent cover of Mission of Burma’s “That’s When I Reach for My Revolver.”) Moby’s latest release, long ambients1 (available for free download on his website) was made, according to its creator, for yoga, sleeping, meditating, and panicking, but in a shocking plot twist, it also provides salubrious accompaniment for composing a blog post about Moby.
Speaking of plot twists, Moby has written a memoir. He figured being a descendant of Herman Melville obligates one to engage in this writing lark. So he’s just published Porcelain, a moving, vivid portrait of his turbulent journey in the music biz from 1989 to 1999, as well as life as a short, balding, vegan, Christian lapsed alcoholic in New York City during that decade. (He's reading from Porcelain Thursday June 23 at Seattle Public Library's Central branch.)
Moby’s descriptive powers of his post-gig sexploits, squatting in old warehouses, drinking to excess, playing in myriad live contexts, fucking on a dance floor populated by Stevie Nix drag queens, religious crises, the rigmarole of appearing on Top of the Pops, dealing with coke-fiend studio engineers, parvo-afflicted dogs, and his cancer-stricken mother, and bumping the needle while DJing one of his first gigs behind a Darryl McDaniels (Run-DMC) freestyle are impressive and affecting. His intricate explanations of how he created tracks like “Why Does My Heart Feel So Bad?” combine nerdy technical specs with poetic insights. Even if you don’t care about Moby’s music, you’ll get a detailed glimpse into a Manhattan existence that is virtually unrecognizable today. Brace yourselves: In the early ’90s, Moby and his roommates rented a three-bedroom apartment on the Lower East Side for $1,200.
Regardless of your views about Moby’s relevance today (it's certainly dwindled since his ’90s heyday), his lucid, witty writing style and keen eye for absurdity make Porcelain one of the better musician autobiographies. Its attention to detail and recall of dialogue are remarkable, considering how debauched Moby’s life had become starting around the time he was recording of 1995’s Everything Is Wrong. “I found it really easy to remember things,” he says over the phone at a Four Seasons hotel room in Las Vegas. “I found that there's this almost mnemonic cascade that happens. Think about Proust at the beginning of Remembrance of Things Past when he eats the madeleine and it triggers this flood of memories. In my case, when I started writing the book, I started remembering a few things. And almost synaptically, in turn, I almost remembered everything else.”
In the early '90s, Moby had risen from struggling hiphop and house DJ from suburban Connecticut to the summit of New York City's (and America's) rave world. Then at a certain point, he lost momentum and even became an object of ridicule among some electronic-music fans and critics. Did that affect how he went about his career and does he think some of the backlash occurred due to the moralistic (and mostly reasonable) essays that accompanied his releases? “Technically, I've been making records since the early '80s,” he clarifies. “In 1983, my hardcore punk band [Vatican Commandos] put out a 7-inch and I put out a new-wave 12-inch in '84. In a more public way, I've been making records for 26 years. During the course of that time, I managed to alienate people pretty regularly, for a bunch of different reasons: sometimes for being too populist, sometimes for not being populist enough, sometimes for being too opinionated. The nice thing at this point in my life is, I just don't care.
“There was a time in the '90s when I alienated a bunch of the electronic-music cognoscenti. It bothered me. But now, if I look at it with some degree of quasi-objectivity, what mental failing would compel me to let the opinions of strangers affect my emotional well-being? Why in the world would I outsource my well-being to people I've never actually met? If I'm home and I'm going hiking and reading a great book and making out with my girlfriend and making fresh-squeezed orange juice, why would I not let my sense of self be based on those things? It used to concern me a lot but now it's really nice having no concerns about the opinions of strangers.
“You asked me how many copies my last record sold? Honestly, I have no idea, because I never ask. Once a record or book is done, I put it out in the world and it’s interesting if people respond to it, but the real satisfaction just comes from being by myself and making it. If no one pays attention, that’s okay. At the very least, I enjoyed making it.”
Moby has the luxury of not worrying about album sales because he made what he calls “lucky” decisions about the stock market. “In the early ’90s, electronic music and veganism proved to be lucrative for me because everyone and I knew and myself were using Apple computers. So I started buying stock in Apple computers. And the first tour I ever did, in 1992, I went to this health-food store in Austin, Texas called Whole Foods. I fell in love with and did some research and found they’d just gone public. So I got lucky in the early days and bought Apple and Whole Foods stock. Basically, if I wasn’t making techno and I hadn’t been a vegan, I never would’ve discovered those two things. That’s why my opinion about monetization of music… I don’t think anyone should pay attention to what I have to say, because my opinion is invalid. Because I don’t really ever need to have a day job.
“If someone’s trying to monetize music or increase their market share or whatever, I fully appreciate what they’re trying to do. I’m almost embarrassed and grateful I don’t have to think about it.”
It seems like it would be difficult to go from being ubiquitous—selling 12 million albums with Play, for example—to being a more marginal figure in the music business— not that that there's anything wrong with that; I love marginal musical figures. Moby laughs and says, “Again, it doesn't really bother me... The thing is, I hate touring, and I hate worrying about records and their commercial potential. So in some ways I feel like I have the best of both worlds. I have enough of an audience so that if I make something, it doesn't disappear into complete obscurity, but not so much of an audience that I have to worry about the sort of things other middle-aged musicians have to worry about. I'm glad that I don't have to collaborate with pop stars. I'm glad I don't have to make records with Dr. Luke. I’m glad I don’t have to go on tour for a year and a half.
“There was a time in the early 2000s, as my popularity started to wane, that it bothered me,” he continues. “But now I think it’s actually a rather good thing. There are a bunch of problems that come along with being a well-known public figure/musician. First and foremost are the personal and creative compromises that you have to make. And then you have a really hard time not becoming a narcissist. In 2003, I was becoming a terrible narcissist, I was not very happy, and I was making a lot of creative compromises. So why would I want to consider going back to that?
“I look at a lot of middle-aged musicians who are desperately trying to be seen as younger and more relevant than they actually are and that kind of breaks my heart. I’d much rather let myself grow old and be who I am and not spend my time chasing after some sort of pop-culture relevance. Pop-culture relevance really is the domain of Justin Bieber. I’m very thrilled not to have to compete with Justin Bieber.”
Moby was in Las Vegas at the time of this interview to promote Porcelain and also to appear at Electric Daisy Carnival’s 20th-anniversary celebration. “I’m gonna be a 50-year-old sober guy standing onstage during a fireworks celebration while 150,000 19 year olds on Ecstasy stare at it,” he quips. Which leads into another question. Where are all the opportunists trying to cash in on rave nostalgia? It’s been about 25 years since rave’s peak popularity. We should be able to listen radio stations devoted to rave anthems and attend package tours with Moby, Altern8, Orbital, and other acts from that halcyonic time. Is that happening and does Moby think those tunes have the staying power and nostalgic pull to merit being revived?
"I’m sure there are nostalgic rave tours happening in the UK, maybe Australia. I would love to attend one. I would very much not like to be a part of one. I would be thrilled to stand in the audience and watch Altern8, Prodigy, and 808 State. I would take off my glasses so I wouldn’t be able to see how middle-aged I and the rest of the crowd would be.
“I keep getting offers to do nostalgic things,” Moby admits. “You know those tours where people only play one album? I keep getting asked to do that and I just cringe and say no. They’re lucrative, too. I get offers to play the album Play from start to finish. I love it when other people do that. I saw Devo recently and they did Duty Now for the Future from start to finish, and it was great. I’d rather get a job leading whitewater rafting trips then become a nostalgia artist.”
There’s a school of thought that says electronic music should always be forward-looking, and nostalgia is obviously antithetical that it. But, on the other hand, nostalgia can result in big paydays. It’s hard to resist, so Moby’s resistance to do it is admirable. “Thank you for saying that, but I don’t think it’s admirable. It’s more a product of shame. Maybe if I got married and we got divorced and we had a couple of kids and I had family members who needed medical care, then I might bite the bullet and do something like that. But if I don’t have to, why would I? Also, to state the obvious, whenever we do one thing, we’re not doing anything else. That means if I go on a nostalgia tour, I’m not home reading my favorite books or I’m not working on animal-rights activism or I’m not hiking.”
While Moby’s already started the second edition of his memoirs, he’s running into obstacles. “This first book is so idiosyncratic and weird and there are so many oddball anecdotes in there. The problem I’m having with the second book is it’s a bit clichéd. The second book the story is fame, alcoholism, drug abuse, panic attacks, narcissism, and entitlement. And then bottoming out and getting sober. That book has been written to some extent by a lot of different people. I’m trying to figure out how to write the second book in a way that doesn’t seem really obvious.”