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Moby on Seeking True Happiness After Years of Career Setbacks

New Documentary and Orchestral LP Reveal a Former Chart-Topper Cherishing the Essentials

May 28, 2021 Web Exclusive
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Prior to selling millions of records and packing out amphitheaters, starring in Calvin Klein ads and contributing to movie soundtracks, and achieving his latest goal of collaborating with an orchestra—before all that, Moby played punk rock gigs for audiences of less than a dozen, and DJed even sparser clubs. The electronica megastar recounts his rapid ascent from such meager 1980s beginnings in the new documentary, simply titled Moby Doc. Directed by Rob Gordon Bralver (known for writing other acclaimed music docs like Our Vinyl Weighs a Ton: This Is Stones Throw Records) the surreal interpretation of Moby’s life rejects most genre tropes like talking head segments. Instead, it favors stop motion animated segments about the abuse and neglect he faced as a boy; revealing vintage footage of Moby in the ’80s (with shoulder length punk hair, no less); not to mention portions of a concert film where he and an orchestra recently played stripped down versions of his biggest techno hits (that performance can also be heard on his new album, Reprise).

Below, Moby recounts his early punk days, recalls his obsession with success and struggles with an ensuing backlash, answers questions about his bouts with poor mental health and his social media row with Natalie Portman in 2019, makes the case for plant-based eating and listening to orchestras, and tells us about his friendships with David Lynch and David Bowie.

Larry Mullin (Under the Radar): What was it like to play your biggest dance hits like “Porcelain” or “Extreme Ways” with an orchestra?

Moby: Every single part of this weird career I’ve had as a musician has been surprising. But performing with an orchestra was especially something I never thought existed in the realm of possibly. Obviously creating emotion through guitars or electronics is great. But there’s something special about 120 classical musicians all playing together flawlessly, and the delicate vulnerably or overwhelming bombast of that.

Is there any through line between that and your sparsely attended early punk shows, in terms of the boundaries you try to push or the authenticity you try to maintain?

A friend of mine has written a new TV series set in the early ’80s, a suburban punk rock and New Wave scenes. When I was growing up in Darien, Connecticut, there were six kids in not just my town, but county that were interested in New Wave and punk. And we all knew each other. So my friend and I have been having this conversation, because he’s having to go to network executives and explain the ethos you’re talking about to a lot of those TV higher-ups. Because most people think of the cliched version of punk: spikey hair and anarchy. But the underlining ethos, at least from my perspective, was one of independent questioning. And not accepting anything that was handed to you, just because it was handed to you, be it music, food, or fashion. You questioned everything. And if it didn’t make sense, you replaced it.

So even though a lot of my music doesn’t necessarily sound like punk rock, I still sort of—in my own way, and someone can challenge this if they want, that’s fine—but that ethos of punk rock that was instilled in me at a young age is behind a lot of my musical choices. Where it’s not about the form of something, it’s not about the tradition of something, it’s simply about the individual choosing for themselves what seems right, what has integrity, what makes sense, what isn’t hurting other people or creatures. That’s the ultimate punk ethos criteria, from my perspective.

In the documentary you described how punk rock saved you as troubled young man.

It was liberating. Before that, I thought I would have to conform to the mores and ideologies that were common. Even though I was raised by hippies, I thought to get by you had to sand down the bumpy parts of yourself so that you can learn to like the music other people like, dress the way they dress, eat the way they eat, and vote the way they vote. Punk, and a lot of other twentieth century literary movements, were liberating because it said, “No. Move forward with conviction, with your own principals, instead of compromising with the principals foisted on you.”

It certainly didn’t look like you were compromising in the documentary’s early scenes, where you lived in an abandoned factory. That footage was amazing. What was it like to show those moments to viewers?

As you might have seen, paradoxically I was way happier being broke and living in an abandoned factory with no running water than I was being affluent and living in a five-level penthouse on Central Park West. You might find this with a lot of artists who age, and looking back at their early years of deprivation and struggle, they realize: “Wow, that was so much better than I thought.” You assume that when you have success, that’s when happiness will ensue. But no, happiness was already there. And the success pushed it further away.

Are you happier and more punk rock in the documentary’s later scenes, speaking out about animal rights and advocating for veganism at galas and huge outdoor concerts, than in the scenes where you were at your commercial height and the crowds might have been bigger, but you weren’t thinking about that important ethos of yours as much?

Yes. I mean, we might be using the punk rock ethos a bit too broadly [laughs], but I’ll continue with it. When Play and 18 and Hotel were very successful records, I was way too willing to compromise who I was to accommodate this institution of fame. Because I thought fame was going to heal me, give me love and validation. And there’s nothing less punk rock than compromising your principals to accommodate a commercial institution. The antithesis of punk was me in the early 2000s trying to think of a video that would get played on MTV.

But at the time, that wasn’t as clear? Or did fame and fortune just feel too good?

Yeah, I thought I’d not only discovered the fountain of youth, but of perpetual happiness. I thought if I could just stay famous my fears would go away, that my depression and anxiety would go away. That I would suddenly be, in a Fellini-esque way, welcomed into this earthly paradise. And once I was there, even though I wasn’t happy, I was afraid I wouldn’t be able to stay. That’s the paradox of successful misery. You’re miserable, but it’s familiar and you won’t give it up.

But the documentary touches on some of the famous friends you made after becoming successful, like David Bowie and David Lynch. When you were struggling with fame and insecurity and authenticity, did any of those superstar friends give you advise?

If I’m being honest, whenever I spent time with David Bowie or David Lynch I was so in awe of them that I never really talked about anything too personal. They might have seen me as some sort of peer. But I felt like I was in Wayne’s World, bowing and saying I wasn’t worthy. I never felt comfortable enough to bare my soul to them and address my concerns.

But also, at that point, I wasn’t even aware that I had those concerns. I was so much in the grip of every kind of addiction. I was an alcoholic. I was a drug addict. I was a sex addict. I was a fame addict. I was an addict addict. I was so consumed by this desperate compulsion. This desperate grasping. So, the questions you’re alluding to, were ones I wasn’t even aware I should be considering.

Speaking of David Lynch: there’s a great scene in the doc where you describe sampling Twin Peaks’ theme song on one of your early hits. Then it cuts to Lynch, who calls that brilliant. What was it like to find that out?

Every part of being a public figure and musician for the past 30 years has been surreal, even psychedelic, disconcerting—sometimes in a wonderful way. Because when I was growing up, I thought that there was a stratified caste system, and I was down there in the lower caste, buying people’s records and books. And I’d never meet the creators. To find out some of my heroes knew my name, or heard the music I made and liked it, even after all this time, that seems contrary to the natural order of things, because I’m just supposed to be a fan in the record store buying records. The best-case scenario would be someone working in the store, selling records. I’m not supposed to be someone whose work ended up in that store.

When you and Rob were planning this surreally offbeat documentary, did you intend to use David Lynch’s work as a muse?

We didn’t talk about that, which is such a testament to David Lynch. Because he has created a modern surreal lexicon. Whether it’s Twin Peaks or Inland Empire or Blue Velvet, he let us know it’s okay to be indulgent and experimental. Because there aren’t many other successful filmmakers who have done that. Most adhere, religiously, to structure and narrative. Even the other experimental filmmakers I can think of tended to live in one camp or the other, the camp of tradition or the camp of experimentation. But David Lynch managed to straddle the two. So we never talked about it because his approach to filmmaking is just a part of the lexicon now. It’s in our film DNA.

The one thing Rob and I did talk about very clearly: not using conventional documentary tropes if we didn’t have to. The first thing we jettisoned, because we had a lot of great interview footage, was 99% of those interviews. Because every documentary relies on that. We of course had to keep David Lynch. But apart from him, we got rid of all the other Q&As. Then, we tried to figure out how to tell a story in a documentary without relying on that.

That reminds me of the part of the doc where you strum a banjo and sing about the past few moments having a conventional structure, and being happy to get weird in the next scene. Even though those moments seemed far from conventional to me. How fun was it to do things like that?

It’s so liberating. Part of it goes back to me being a philosophy major. My school was one of the last to offer a degree in experimental filmmaking. I didn’t have any friends in the philosophy department, all my friends were in the experimental film department. Every week or two there would be some ad hoc film festival showing Luis Buñuel and Dali. Or Maya Deren. Or other experimental filmmakers’ works. I felt: “If you’re going to be a filmmaker, why not allow yourself the freedom of experimentation when you feel like it?” Be indulgent. Don’t necessarily use arbitrary criteria, just because it’s expected. Film can be anything. Any creative expression can be. But because it’s traditionally been so expensive to make movies, and so hard to get them distributed, people have made very conservative choices.

But a lot of the scenes in Moby Doc cost nothing to make. And if it doesn’t cost much to produce it, and you’re paying for it yourself, and you don’t expect all that many people to watch it, it gives you complete creative freedom.

So these friends of yours in the experimental film department: is that how there was a lot of footage of you when you were young, with long hair playing with early electronica hardware? This was long before the age of smartphones and selfie videos, and the number of old shots of you in the doc is impressive.

My friend Damien, when he was 21 and I would’ve been 23, he bought a really nice video camera, and at the time I was DJing a hip-hop show for a Japanese radio station. I never got paid for it, of course. But the station wanted a video about me, so Damien took his really nice camera, and we drove around Connecticut and New York, and made this little video of my DJing. So all that footage of me with long hair, throwing records down a factory hallway, was all done by Damien, who is a successful painter now and probably hasn’t touched a camera in 20 years.

You were working with a Japanese radio station from Connecticut, pre-internet? It seems like you were ahead of the curve, technologically.

This would’ve been 1989, it was before I made records, and I had a friend from Japan who gave me my first ever DJing job in New York City. He was Japanese, living in New York, and he found some New York DJs who were willing to work for free, and had them record DJ sets. It was for FM 802 in, I think, Osaka Japan. I never heard any of it. I don’t know if they actually aired it, though I assume so. But at some point he wanted videos made of all his DJs, and that’s where we got this footage for the doc.

How does it feel to you look at young people now, and how they can easily collaborate with people around the world online, and make beats with apps?

It’s always a double-edged sword. Back in the mid-’80s, making electronic music was so challenging. First, saving up the money to buy one piece of equipment was incredibly challenging. And there were some pieces of equipment that were MIDI, and some that were not. Getting equipment to talk to each other was challenging. By the time you actually had a finished piece of electronic music, so much work had gone into it. So I’m a little envious of people now who can turn on an app, and in three seconds they’re making great sounding electronic music.

But, I will say for the approach back then: every musician had a different studio. No two had the same setups. As a result, the records ended up sounding different. You could really tell who was making what record. And as much as I like a lot of modern music, it all kind of sounds the same. A lot of it is wonderful, but most of it is made with the same software. Which isn’t a criticism of the musicians— I almost feel badly for them, because it’s so hard to stand out when you’re using the exact same software as everyone else is.

The other thing, back then: because it was so hard to make electronic music, very few people did. So if you got to the point where you were actually releasing a single of electronic music, there was a good chance people would pay attention. Now, Spotify gets 30,000 new pieces of music uploaded to their site every day.

When it comes to then and now: when you got backlash after your commercial peak in the early 2000s, was it a blessing that it happened then? As opposed to the even more toxic internet culture of today?

The truth is I feel like, on a pretty regular basis, I’ve been attacked for something. Whether it was in conventional press, or online. I know this might sound odd or disingenuous, but I’m grateful for it. Even when it was unpleasant. Because the lesson I was forced to learn, multiple times, is it’s generally not a good idea to let the opinions of strangers determine your emotional state or wellbeing.

It’s so seductive to let strangers affect you. But I learned a long time ago to simply not do that. So I do have a categorical rule with my friends, my family, the people I work with: “Don’t send me reviews. Don’t send me articles.” If I’m on TV, I’m not going to watch myself. And I don’t read comments. That way, I have zero awareness of how the world perceives me. Because if the world likes me, that fuels my narcissism. And if the world hates me, it makes me want to kill myself. So there’s no benefit of knowing what people are saying about me. And I just love my cluelessness. I let my sense of self be determined by health, creativity, relationships, hiking, spirituality. My sense of self has almost nothing to do with the opinions of strangers. And I feel so much healthier.

This practice you’re describing—and this is a difficult question, so I don’t mean any offense—was it challenging to maintain that during the negative headlines about you and Natalie Portman in 2019?

The first time I really became aware of the dangers of letting public opinion affect me was in the early 2000s. I think it was a comment on Gawker or Gothamist, and it was someone saying they wanted to stab me. And watch me bleed to death in front of them. And that was when I realized: “Okay, maybe this new media is something I shouldn’t pay that much attention to.” And pretty regularly since then, there’s been enough backlash on regular media or social media, to remind me to simply not pay attention to it. It’s obviously harder to not pay attention when you have TMZ camped out in front of your house. But nothing—whether it was what you’re referring to, or other instances—nothing has made me want to spend more time paying attention to strangers. And everything else reminded me that I only love social media for one reason: it’s a great way to communicate effectively about animal rights.

So I’m pretty happy living this simple little life, where I go hiking, and work on music, and see friends, and pretend that the media doesn’t exist.

When you say social media is a good place to talk about animal rights, are you also encouraged by the growing popularity of plant-based foods?

My day job is trying to be a good animal rights activist. Working on music is something I love, but I don’t think of it as work. Animal rights work is my most serious job. In the morning I wake up thinking: “How can I, in my insignificant way, just move the needle away from this current world where people imprison and kill over one trillion animals per year?” And not just killing the animals, but destroying the rain forests, and contributing to climate change, leading to antibiotic resistance and causing pandemics, and so on and so on. That’s really what obsesses me, trying to create a world where animals can simply live their own lives. And I applaud anything that leads to that, whether it’s vegan activists posting cute pictures of animals on Instagram, whether it’s Beyond Meat burgers, Cowspiracy, anything that moves the needle away from this violent, horrifying status quo that kills a trillion animals a year.

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