Moby is leading a sedate existence these days, but it wasn’t always that way. Ahead of the release of his latest album, ‘Reprise’, he describes his route from excess to serenity
On a golden sunshine morning in Los Angeles, Moby is calmly adding up the personal cost of a global pandemic which may well have killed off his career. After years of distancing himself from fame, with all of its temptations and addictions and toxic narcissism, Covid-19 lockdown seems to have been a strangely positive experience for the recovering techno-pop superstar. Hunkered down in his Hollywood mansion like some post-millennial version of Norma Desmond in ‘Sunset Boulevard’, he certainly has no plans to tour again.
“I basically hate touring and one of my goals in life is to never do it again for any reason as long as I live,” he says. “I mean, I gotta say I don’t envy the 22-year-olds who want to go out and go to festivals and instead have to deal with the pandemic and lockdown. But it’s really not such a bad time for misanthropic, antisocial 55-year-olds.”
As ever, the artist formerly known as Richard Melville Hall delivers his deadpan responses with disarming irony and self-effacing humour, a tendency often missed by those who caricature him as some kind of pious, plant-based puritan preacher. Moby has spent more than 30 years as an easy target for lazy critics, keyboard warriors and even superstar foes like Eminem. But he has also made some of the most transcendent techno-gospel anthems and soulful rave-pop bangers ever, expanding the sonic vocabulary and commercial reach of electronic music along the way.
Half a lifetime has passed since Moby became an unlikely alt-rock superstar with his epochal, blues-inflected, phenomenally successful 1999 release ‘Play’ – still one of the best-selling electronica albums ever. With sales of 12 million and counting, ‘Play’ transformed him into a kind of ubiquitous techno-rock polymath, a Brian Eno for the Britney Spears generation. He spent the decade that followed promiscuously writing, producing, remixing and playing with a gallery of heavyweight talents including David Bowie, Pet Shop Boys, New Order, Debbie Harry, David Lynch, Public Enemy, Kelis, Lou Reed, Guns N’ Roses, Metallica, Bono and even Britney herself.
Despite his killjoy image as a straight-edge vegan with monkish Christian leanings, at the peak of his fame Moby was much more a self-destructive party animal, a self-confessed “garbage head” with a huge thirst for booze, drugs and sex. But since joining Alcoholics Anonymous 13 years ago, then relocating from New York City to LA at the end of the noughties, he has scaled down both his pleasure-seeking and his public profile. And while his record sales may have declined markedly, he remains prolific in his home studio, balancing social activism and animal rights charity work with a rich and eclectic output of self-released recordings, film soundtracks, improvised ambient soundscapes and more.
Moby’s latest album, ‘Reprise’, is a far more weighty and starry affair than most of his recent projects. Released on the venerable classical label Deutsche Grammophon, it features orchestral and electroacoustic reworkings of some of his best known tracks, all couched in lavish arrangements by the Budapest Art Orchestra and sung by vocal guests including Gregory Porter, Mindy Jones and Kris Kristofferson. Moby was first inspired to make ‘Reprise’ after witnessing Bryan Ferry’s orchestral show at the Hollywood Bowl in August 2017, which in turn led to his own collaboration with the Los Angeles Philharmonic at the Walt Disney Concert Hall a year later.
“What I’ve always loved about orchestral and classical music is the vulnerability,” he explains. “Subtlety compared and contrasted with the bombast – I just like being able to avail myself of that. A lot of modern music is kind of monolithic. You hear the first two seconds and you know exactly what the entire song is going to sound like, which is fine and can be fun, but it’s not nuanced, it’s not restrained – it doesn’t create a lot of space for vulnerability.”
There are many spine-tingling moments on ‘Reprise’, including a new version of ‘The Lonely Night’ featuring two gravel-voiced rock legends, Mark Lanegan and Kris Kristofferson, who lend this wistful small-hours ballad some of the ragged majesty of late-period Johnny Cash.
“It just seemed like it would really suit Kris’ voice,” Moby says. “And, you know, his sobriety, his battles, his demons… What I’ve found sometimes is that you ask some people and it takes 18 months for them to say no. And then other people, like Kris, take 10 seconds before they just happily say yes.”
His connection to Kristofferson dates back to a charity fundraiser in 2003, when Moby approached the grizzled actor/singer to suggest performing his classic ballad ‘Me And Bobby McGee’ with him.
“I thought he would shut me down, but he was so kind and generous and lovely,” he recalls. “Lack of shame has served me pretty well at times. I did the same thing with Lou Reed, and we played a 15-minute version of ‘Walk On The Wild Side’. Also with David Bowie – we did an acoustic version of ‘Heroes’.”
‘Reprise’ includes a reworking of ‘Heroes’, a heartfelt tribute to Bowie, who befriended Moby at the start of the millennium when he moved into the same downtown New York neighbourhood.
“Here was the most inspirational musician of all time, one of the greatest songwriters ever, just casually emailing to say that he lives across the street and do I want to get coffee,” Moby splutters.
Like a surreal scene from some alt-rock superstar remake of ‘Stella Street’, Bowie popped over to his apartment with takeaway coffee and the pair ended up playing ‘Heroes’ together. Friendship, joint tours and family barbecues followed.
“The version of ‘Heroes’ on this album is really inspired by that moment I had with him in my living room one Saturday morning,” Moby nods. “It was one of the most beautiful, wonderful, personal, professional moments of my life.”
In a previous interview many years ago, Moby told me he could not imagine a world without Bowie, the quasi-mythic figure that he regarded as “equal parts deity and aristocracy”. News of his death in 2016 came as a shock but not really a surprise.
“I hadn’t talked to him in quite a while before he died,” he says. “But to be honest, I was glad he lived as long as he did, because I think he had first started having health issues quite a while before that. Of course he died young, but I was glad he had those extra years with his daughter.”
Bowie also makes a guest appearance in archive clips in ‘Moby Doc’, the career-spanning documentary directed by Rob Gordon Bralver, which is being released concurrently with the ‘Reprise’ album. This unorthodox film retells his life story using lo-tech puppet re-enactments, bad wigs and Monty Python-style sketches alongside rare footage of his early days as an intense rising star on the New York techno scene.
“The movie is quite idiosyncratic,” he laughs. “I mean, the only two people featured in it are me and David Lynch. The few people who have seen it seem to really like it. The goal was to make something unlike the majority of music documentaries out there. So, for better or worse, this is absolutely not that. It gets happy at the end. Oddly enough, one of the lightest moments is actually inspired by an Ingmar Bergman movie.”
Bralver’s film also touches on Moby’s excesses, from all-night chemical binges to comically squalid scatological orgies. He once even filmed himself having drunken sex, only to instantly regret it.
“It was as if Gollum and Mark E Smith had a love child,” he quips.
Behind the self-deprecating jokes lies real trauma – the result perhaps of his father’s death in a car crash (which may even have been suicide), his cruelly disinterested mother, his misfit adolescence as a poor kid in a wealthy Connecticut town, his years of blanking out bad reviews with booze and drugs. Sober now since 2008, these days Moby feels he has a better grasp on his wounded rage at being rejected and on keeping it under control.
“One of the wonderful things about AA, or meditation, or therapy, is really understanding what’s underneath this stuff, this need to control,” he explains. “I’m 55 years old and I was never very good at being a controlling drunk. So if you can identify all the things you’ve done that didn’t work, it makes sense to do two things – stop doing the things that don’t work, then try and replace them with things that do, as supported by evidence. Which isn’t always easy, but it’s a lot less painful than punching yourself in the face multiple times a day and then blaming someone else.”
Moby may now be a calmer chameleon, but he can still stir controversy. In 2019, his second volume of memoirs, ‘Then It Fell Apart’, triggered widespread vilification by revisiting his relationship with screen star Natalie Portman when she was just 18 and he was in his mid-30s. Portman issued a withering response to this romanticised account, dismissing their brief involvement as “a much older man being creepy with me when I had just graduated high school”.
Hit with a bruising barrage of media criticism, Moby initially doubled down on his version, but later cancelled a planned book tour and issued a public apology for not consulting Portman ahead of publication. His reputation as the original Sensitive Woke Bloke of electronica took a battering. Two years on, he is uncharacteristically guarded on this still-sore topic, hinting that he is not really free to discuss the complex layers behind the furore.
“I never quite figured out what was going on there,” he shrugs. “That was a very odd period I could never really make sense of.”
Behind his pious image, Moby’s sleazy side has always been apparent, sometimes hilariously so. During his years of boozy hedonism, one of his party tricks was playing “knob touch”, which entailed taking out his flaccid penis and rubbing it surreptitiously on unsuspecting strangers. Did he really nudge Donald Trump with Little Moby back in 2001?
“Pre-sobriety, a lot of things happened,” he grins. “But thankfully liquor, drugs, age and inbreeding have softened or erased so many memories…”
Speaking of Trump, Moby is cautiously hopeful that Joe Biden will restore some dignity and authority to the debased office of US president.
“Biden’s a good guy, genuinely well-intentioned. There’s something to be said for smart, experienced politicians with a good moral compass. In a way, Trump no longer being president is like asking what’s it like to no longer have gangrene in all of your extremities. By definition, it’s great to no longer have gangrene. There are still a lot of issues and the underlying cause of the gangrene. But at least at this point things are better, as far as we can tell.”
Moby’s motto in 2021, it seems, is no sex, no drugs and not much rock ’n’ roll. His last romantic relationship ended on amicable terms five years ago.
“It was with this wonderful, wonderful woman who is still one of my best friends,” he says. “But when it ended, I kind of realised I don’t really like dating. I’m quite happy just living alone, working on music, supporting different animal or environmental philanthropic things.
“Who knows what will happen, but I think part of getting older is that potential and possibility are removed from you. Which means realising I’ll probably never be president, never be a hair model, never be in the NBA, and there’s a good chance I’ll never win a mixed martial arts cage fight… but also recognising I’ll probably never get married or might never even be in a relationship again. And being almost disturbingly sanguine about that.”
Ironically, in middle age, Moby has finally become the wholesome Fair Trade techno-hippie hermit he was once routinely and wrongly derided for being.
“My life on the surface is so boring,” he laughs. “I wake up at 6am, have breakfast, read The New York Times, make some tea, read a book, work on music, go hiking… that’s it. Every day, seven days a week, no exceptions. There are no anecdotes at all. And maybe it’s a testament to age, or therapy, or sobriety or whatever, but I’m able to find happiness in the calm and repetition.”
That sounds like a big win for Moby’s mental well-being but possibly a big loss for music. When does he next plan to make a gloriously uplifting hands-in-the-air techno-gospel anthem?
“Hopefully today,” Moby beams. “Although whether anyone will ever hear it, I have no idea.”
‘Reprise’ is out now on Deutsche Grammophon