In May of 1999, Moby’s Play, an album of cerebral and soulful electronic music, sold 6,000 copies in its first week. Then, about 10 months later, after Moby had resigned himself to the album’s lukewarm reception, the record mysteriously re-entered the U.K. album charts, on its way hitting No. 1 in several European countries and selling 150,000 copies a week in its 11th month of release. Calling the record a hit would be underselling the phenomenon that Play became, which, in the process, made Moby, a soft-spoken and spectacled musician from New York, a bona fide superstar. Soon, he was touring arenas, sitting front row at the VMAs, and engaging in an unfortunate public feud with Eminem. All the while, he was battling an alcohol problem that nearly destroyed him.
Matching the success of Play would be impossible for even today’s most stadium-tested musicians, and with each subsequent album Moby released, his audience and public profile have dwindled. Today, the famously vegan, 51-year-old musician is sober and lives very comfortably (every song off Play was licensed commercially) in the Los Feliz neighborhood of Los Angeles, where he continues to make music, including his 13th studio album, These Systems Are Failing, which came out last month and is the first from his new project, Moby & The Void Pacific Choir. The record is a departure from the ambient and dopamine-shot electronic music he became famous for and more a return to fast and furious post-punk music of his 1996 album Animal Rights.
We spoke to a deeply reflective and self-aware Moby about how he summoned the discontent to make such a caustic record, what it took to survive fame and alcohol, and his friendship with Hillary Clinton.
I imagine you living a peaceful existence in the Hollywood Hills, but there’s a lot of anger on this album. Where did that come from?
I largely blame Spotify, and what I mean by that is, years ago, when I first got Spotify on my phone I tried to use it as an instrument for listening to new music and discovering things I hadn’t heard before, but then I quickly succumbed to using it as a nostalgia machine. It’s hard to resist the temptation to go listen to like a glam-rock playlist with T-Rex and David Bowie. So I was listening to The Clash, The Damned, The Buzzcocks, Magazine, XTC ,and Killing Joke—all this really energetic, post-punk music that I had loved obsessively when I was growing up. And then I had two little thoughts. My first thought was, Why isn’t anyone making music like this now? I like a lot of the modern music that is being made, but it seems very conservative to me and at times even quite cautious, and there’s nothing wrong with that, but I was like, Where’s the counterpoint to that? So then I sort of thought to myself, Well, I’m a 51-year-old musician making records in 2016, and I don’t go on tour, so why not just make a record that tries to sound like the music that I’m actually listening to?
So do the lyrics and messages on the album follow the style?
I’d say they sort of inspire each other, but it begs the question, for me at least, of what, if any, practical utility does releasing an album in 2016 have? Especially when I don’t expect that many people to either listen to it or buy it, and I’m not going on tour, so I’m not expecting anyone to buy tickets. It’s a little bit selfish for me because I love making records, regardless if anyone listens to them. But then the other thing is to use the release of a record as an opportunity to draw attention to issues and things that seem interesting or important.
After the huge success of Play, you must have assumed that millions of people would be listening to your follow-up, 18. What then, was the experience of making that album compared to this one?
Well, this is when I enter the uncomfortable world of shame. Basically, if I’m being completely honest, after the success of Play I had a few years where I really wanted the fame and being a public figure to just go on uninterrupted. So the couple of records that I made after Play, I wanted them to be good records, but I also really wanted to keep the validation going. It wasn’t even so much about money, it wasn’t so much about record sales, it was about the love that I had for the validation that came from being a public figure. It was strange for the four or five years trying to make music and incorporating that into the creative process. The amazing thing is how bad I was at it. I look at people who are good at it like U2 and Coldplay—the more I tried to maintain public figure status, the more it sort of elusively slipped away from me. Which in a way is great because I’m glad that I wasn’t good at compromising.
What is your relationship to your fame now compared to what it was back then?
Well, now it’s threefold. Really the only valuable or legitimate use of fame is to try and draw attention to things that either politically or socially or culturally you think are important. If I’m trying not to be in anyway selfish, that’s the only good use of fame that I can tell. And, of course, selfishly, it’s nice if I go to a party and someone knows who I am. I get a little bit of an ego rush in that, but I also really don’t—and I know this might sound glib or disingenuous—but I don’t trust fame, and I don’t like what it did to me, and I don’t like what it does to other people. Famous people just are a lot less interesting and a lot harder to deal with because, for example, if I go to dinner with a bunch of my friends, we’re all just there having dinner. But if you bring a big rock star or a big movie star, they would be hyper-aware of the fact that they are a famous person going out to dinner, and that level of self-involvement and narcissism I really hated when it was a big part of my life. And it might seem odd to say this, but I’m glad that whatever fame I had has waned to the point where it’s sort of minor and manageable.
When you look back at that time in your life, back to when you were playing live shows in front of tens of thousands of people and publicly feuding with Eminem, does it feel like a dream?
Very much so. I’m sober now, and I was drinking like a crazy person back then, and it was really fun at times. The good stuff was really good, and I’m glad that I was able to experience it, but when I look at how it—and I don’t want to seem too self-flagellating—it didn’t do me any favors as a human being, and it didn’t make me a better friend, and it didn’t make me a better family member, or make me smarter or more interesting or more spiritual. It just made me more self-involved and entitled. So that’s why when I look back at it, I cringe. It compromised a lot of the things I cared about. It compromised creativity and spirituality and health. I kind of wish Michael Moore or someone would make a documentary on how fame actually affects people, because the truth is, if we look at it almost like an epidemiological study of fame, the moment that someone becomes famous, their life expectancy goes down and they become a dick. Like almost without exception. It’s really rare to find someone who isn’t sort of diminished and compromised by fame.
When you look at how some famous people behave now, are you able to understand it on a level that we cannot, because you were able to experience it?
When I look at some musicians who are clearly waning but they’re desperately trying to hold on to the good days, I fully understand it because I was that person. When I look at very famous people now, I just see that sort of sad desperation and self-importance. I was backstage at a venue recently, and there were tons of concert posters with musicians posing. I was looking at them, and I was like, “It’s nice you guys have a few nice songs, but let’s put this in context. You didn’t run a needle exchange and you didn’t negotiate a peace accord. You got lucky and wrote two songs and they got on the radio.” Which is nice—I’m not downplaying that—but, like, it’s not cause for the egregious self-importance that so many of us musicians have.
What does your sobriety mean to you today in terms of your happiness?
It’s a very tricky thing to talk about because it sort of enters the realm of sober middle-aged Southern California cliched musician, but the funny thing about sobriety for me—and I think maybe for a lot of people—is sobriety is less about not drinking, even though I can’t drink, and more about understanding the sort of fear and compulsion to drink in the first place.
It’s about the underlying assumptions that are ingrained that I wasn’t even aware were there, about who I was but also who other people were. Every time I walked into a bar or a party, I assumed two things. I assumed, one, I was a worthless piece of shit and everybody else knew what they were doing. And then I realized over time that maybe I’m not as bad as I thought I was, and maybe other people are just as confused as I am. That’s the irony. Take any cocktail party, where everyone walks in and immediately goes to the bar because they feel insecure and awkward. Why does anyone feel insecure and awkward when literally everyone else is just as insecure and awkward? If they weren’t, they wouldn’t make a beeline to the bar. A friend of mine in AA described getting sober to cleaning off your mirror and getting a new pair of glasses so you can see yourself and see the world just a little more honestly and in a little less distorted, dark way.
What is it like for you when you go back to New York today?
At the risk of sounding pretentious, I feel like a Proustian ghost. The first time I got drunk in the East Village was 1979, so every last little inch—and it’s really disconcerting—but every last little inch of New York is equally familiar and unfamiliar now. I look at every street corner in the East Village or the Lower East Side, and I think to myself, I broke up with such and such person there, and I got drunk there, and I played a show with my high school punk-rock band there. But now it’s very disconcerting because it looks very similar, but it’s not in any way the same. My brain wants to on one hand find great familiarity and comfort, but on the other hand seeing demographically how much the city has changed, architecturally how much the city has changed, and how much I’ve changed by being away from it, it’s odd and there’s a sense of kind of denying dislocation when I go back to the city.
You’ve called Hillary Clinton a friend. Can you characterize that friendship?
I think it’s a one-sided friendship, I’m not sure. It might be a little more like being friends with Santa Claus. I saw her last week, and she remembered me, but like in my mind, I’m calling us friends, and in her mind, I am someone who she peripherally knew when she was a senator from New York. I had dinner with her and a whole bunch of people last week in L.A.
At a fundraiser?
Like a fundraiser/supporter’s dinner, and it was really nice because she was a little less guarded, and I was just reminded of how sharp she is, and I mean sharp in a good way, and how funny she is. But in my mind, she’s like sort of a distant friend, but she also is on a first name basis with every single person on the planet who runs the world. And it’s a little tricky because I have some very far-left friends who have honestly backed away from me and my friendship with them because of my support of Hillary Clinton. I have friends who are like militant Bernie supporters, or militant Jill Stein supporters, and some of them have gotten to the point where they won’t talk to me because I’m supporting Hillary, and in their mind, she’s this war criminal. And I’m like, “Well, actually no, she’s just a progressive woman with a complicated political history—that’s the nature of having a political history.”
What has it been like for you watching her endure this nightmarish election?
The whole thing has just confused me so much. Nothing makes sense to me except that she might win. That’s the only redeeming, rational part of it. The fact that people have maligned her so much—and there was a Jimmy Kimmel thing about this where he went out and he asked people who hate Hillary to explain why they hate her, and they all would say the e-mails or Benghazi, and then the follow-up question would be “Tell me about the e-mails and Benghazi?” And no one actually understands what those are. People have this weird, atavistic hate, and it’s not in any way challenged by reason or evidence.
What did you talk to Hillary about when you saw her last week?
I hadn’t seen her in a while, so she was like, “Oh hey, Moby.” We sort of just remembered how we had met and had worked on some John Kerry fundraisers together, and we had hosted some other fundraisers together, so it was a little more reminiscent. I’m just imagining what that’s like to spend decades with this right-wing machine just trying to destroy you every second of your day, and then people in her own party trying to destroy her, and doing five campaign events every day. And the truth is, her health is great. I couldn’t do that. When I’d gone on tour, I’d play like five shows a week, and I’m ruined by it. She’s almost 70, and she’s got more energy than I’ve ever had. I really am kind of baffled by that.