Moby has stories to tell. The artist has never been shy in telling them. As he puts it, “I have always been an oversharer.” Now, he’s not oversharing, he’s simply sharing. In the aptly titled Moby Doc, the artist leaves few stones unturned in a documentary exploring the highs and lows and everything in between and beyond about his life.
Based on the documentary and his new album, Reprise, in which Moby and an array of artists cover his past work, the
is looking backwards and forwards. As for the present, with 12 years of sobriety and more time spent in a studio than on the road, Moby is no longer obsessed with control. Now, he’s busy enjoying the little things.
How’s your day? Productive?
Moby: Yeah, because the record and the movie are coming out soon a lot of my day is spent talking to strangers. Luckily, generally speaking, I like talking to strangers. It can be a little bit solipsistic, but broadly speaking, I don’t think I have a lot to complain about.
You’re talking to strangers, of course, but I imagine you don’t feel like a stranger to a lot of people who know your music. Do you ever get that impression?
Moby: Yeah, because that’s the way I feel about other people’s work. If there’s a musician I love or a writer or a filmmaker, when you meet them, you feel that sense of familiarity. And then sometimes you have to remind yourself, I don’t actually know this person. I had a funny experience the first time I met Chris Rock. We were backstage at a concert, and we met each other and our immediate reaction to each other was one of complete familiarity. And then we actually stopped.
We were like, we’ve never met. We both then just talked about the weird phenomenon of feeling this intense familiarity with someone based on who they are and their work without actually ever having met them. I don’t think it’s a strange phenomenon at all.
Sounds like you can then skip the initial get to know each other conversation and go right into the deep end.
Moby: It does speak to this bizarre and challenging phenomenon. Maybe I’m saying this in a very self-involved way, but there is this obvious phenomenon; it’s been going on for quite a long time, where individuals are public figures. It creates a lot of confusion because the public figure and the private figure oftentimes share the same name. They, especially in my case, the public figure, a lot of my private details, are very much a part of the public figure aspect of it.
You sometimes have to remind yourself, or I have to remind myself like, what people are responding to this is confusing because they do know these very intimate details of my life, but I’m still separate; there are these two entities, the private figure and the public figure, but they share the same name and the same biography. It can definitely be a little bit confusing, especially when people end up hating the public figure.
And you have to remind yourself, they’re hating an idea. They’re hating an image. They’re not hating the person who goes to bed at 10 o’clock and wakes up at 6 a.m. and has a smoothie and reads The New York Times.
Sometimes it’s unfortunate, too, when you see people talking about an artist, but for whatever the reason, not about their work. As a fan, it’s sad to see, but what’s it like being on the other side of it?
Moby: It’s not something I can complain about, because it makes me think a little bit of this story that Ahmet Ertegun told me. Do you remember Ahmet Ertegun?
I do not, no.
Moby: Ahmet was this amazing figure, he started Atlantic records with his brother out of the trunk of a car. I think in the ’40s or the ’50s. And then, of course, he went on to sign Ray Charles, Aretha Franklin, Led Zeppelin, and the Rolling Stones. He told me this story before he died that in the, I guess the early ’70s, he was very friendly with Mick Jagger. Mick Jagger kept complaining to him about how wherever he went, people wouldn’t leave him alone. So, Ahmet said, “You know what? I’m heading back to the village in Turkey where I was born. It’s this obscure little village. It’s very pretty. It’s on the ocean. Why don’t you come with me and spend two weeks there?” And he said, “I guarantee you, no one will know who you are.” Forgive me for rambling on, but it’s quite a funny story.
Moby: So, Mick Jagger went with Ahmet Ertegun back to the town where Ahmet had grown up, this obscure Turkish farming town. The first day they walked down the main street of the town and Mick Jagger was wearing very austere clothes. He walked down the street and no one recognized him, no one cared who he was. Ahmet said, by the end of the trip, Mick Jagger was wearing the most flamboyant rockstar clothes and was driven insane by the fact that people weren’t recognizing him.
When you see like paparazzi swarming a public figure in Los Angeles and the public figure complains, I’m like, yeah, but you’re going to Nobu. You’re on La Cienega where the paparazzi hang out. If you stay home, guess what? They’re going to leave you alone. If you go to Gelson’s, for the most part, they’re going to leave you alone. It’s a little weird when public figures, and I’m including myself in this, make such a huge effort to be public and then complain about being criticized for being public or get attacked in the public. There are very easy ways to not get attacked as a public figure. Just stop being a public figure.
Your Mick Jagger story reminds me of a Keith Richards quote. I’m paraphrasing, but he said at some point, an artist inevitably becomes a parody of themselves. Can you relate?
Moby: Oh, yeah. I got lucky in two senses—one was that I became a public figure a little bit later in my life. I didn’t have big success until I was 30 years old. My identity was a little bit well-founded just by normal life, growing up in the suburbs and living in crappy little apartments. I’m grateful for that. But the other is the fact that I’m bald, but that’s not really identity. That’s just the fact that I don’t have hair on the top of my head.
I’m fascinated by this because in Los Angeles, if I had extra time, I would try to make a coffee table book of people who decide on an identity, public figures who decide on an identity when they’re young and decades pass and they’re still holding onto it. I don’t want to name names, because I don’t need more feuds, but I’m sure you can think of these people.
Moby: They’re in their sixties and seventies and they’re doing their hair the exact same way they did when they were 22. They’re wearing the same clothes from when they were 22, and they never are not presented that way. If you see them in the supermarket, that’s how they look. If you go to a pool party, that’s how they look. I’m so fascinated by that. Or on a more figurative or esoteric level, when someone has an identity, like if a rapper has an identity for being tough, how exhausting it must be to always have to be tough, because no human being, except for maybe some ex-cons, are probably always tough.
Or always cool.
Yeah, or cool. It just must be so sad to have this identity and your main goal is to protect and preserve that very sort of limited identity. I’m grateful that I somehow seem to have exempted myself from that.
Moby Talks Sobriety
In the documentary, you’re very honest about yourself and your past. If I went back to your interviews from the ’90s, were you just as open then?
Moby: I think that I have always been an oversharer, and I’ve always kind of appreciated those public figures, or even people, who are really good at being elusive or esoteric. I remember maybe years ago reading something about Thom Yorke and how he had moved to this remote part of the North of England and didn’t actually interact with anyone. I just felt like, wow, that’s so cool. I need to take classes from him on how to do stuff like that, because I think I’ve definitely been a pretty constant loudmouth oversharer. The difference I’d say now is, and this is sort of germane to High Times, it’s 12 years ago I got sober.
Moby: Oh, thanks. Before getting sober, I really wanted to control how people thought of me. I really tried to check in with what was being said about me and what people thought of me. I read articles and reviews and comments. Of course, it’s very upsetting when a lot of people hate you or you get bad reviews, but I kept obsessively reading about myself. Then I got sober, and I found myself being so grateful for the people in the 12 step meetings were willing to be honest. They would tell their story in an honest, vulnerable way. I realized that there’s so much power in that.
The liberation you get to just be yourself. You’re not trying to control how people perceive you. You’re just being honest in the hope that maybe that connects with someone, maybe that makes someone else feel more comfortable with their own hidden, shameful things. I think, if you had gone back to the mid-’90s, you’d see that I was definitely an oversharer, but I was definitely trying to get people to see me in a certain light. Now, I’m like, just be honest, just be yourself. If someone writes something terrible, I’m never going to know about it because I don’t read my own press.
Was cannabis ever a vice for you?
Moby: I was what we call in AA a garbage head. Meaning, I loved drinking. Drinking was my drug of choice, but I would do anything that was put in front of me. Sometimes I would do things put in front of me without even knowing what they were. There was a risky roulette quality to that, being given white powder and you snort it and you’re like, I don’t know what that is, but sure. Every now and then, it would go really wrong. Especially when people lace marijuana with other drugs, that can be very scary. I remember one time in Colorado, smoking marijuana with people at a party and finding out later it was laced with PCP.
I was already drunk. I already had other drugs in my system, but I remember going back to my hotel room that night and I was lying in bed, and I looked around my bed and there were 12 people standing around my bed. The problem being, I was alone in my room, and I closed my eyes, had the spins, opened them five minutes later, the same 12 people were standing there. I was like, “Oh, this is what PCP does.” It was the most real hallucination I’ve ever had. People would start lacing marijuana with angel dust, with meth, with all sorts of terrible things. But it was kind of exciting, because you never knew what you’re going to get.
Some artists question, did I do better work when I was high? How do you think your work changed when you got sober?
Moby: It’s a wonderful question. There’s this odd part of my addiction that I still don’t understand, which is, I never once drank or did drugs when I was working on music. It’s the only carve-out to my life for decades where I would not be drunk or high. I never once performed drunk or high. I would immediately get drunk and high afterwards, but I don’t know what little self-protective part of my brain carved out working on music and performing.
I have no experience of what it’s like to work on music and be high or drunk and the same thing with performing. I just don’t know what that’s like. Oddly enough, the biggest change is a little more esoteric or spiritual, which is once I got sober and I did my step work and I went to therapy, I realized one of the biggest problems that I had. Let me see if I can explain this relatively succinctly, because I don’t want to ramble on that much.
No, take your time, please.
Moby: But it’s realizing that underpinning a lot of my addiction and a lot of my other issues, was simply this desire to control things. To control how I felt, to control how I saw the world, to control how the world saw me. After getting sober, I realized a few things, one, I was really bad at trying to control things. There’s tons of evidence that whenever I tried to control things, it just went awry and it was sort of disastrous.
Also, realizing that the world is generally, one, it can’t be controlled and two, we largely, without omniscience, it’s not our place to control things. Having those sorts of realizations made me realize I want to work on music and art and other things simply for the love of doing them. Not trying to control commercial success, not trying to control people’s reactions, not trying to control sales or reviews, but just simply this emancipating ethos of working on things for the love of working on them.
When you made Play, a part of the reason it was a success was because you never thought it would be a success. You made it without expectations. Now, it sounds like you’re creating again with that same naivete, right?
Moby: I very much agree. In fact, it’s almost with a newfound appreciation for the naivete where, maybe it’s similar to like the friends you grew up with, where when you’re growing up with them, you like your friends, but you’re annoyed by them. You spend too much time with them, and you think to yourself, well maybe at some point I’ll have better friends. And then, you go out into the world, time passes, and you realize those friends were actually pretty great.
When you go back to them, you almost have this newfound appreciation because you’ve gone out into the world and you’ve tried other things. When I was working on music, when I was really young, I did have that naivete, but now the naivete, you could almost say it’s like empirically supported. I’ve seen what it’s like to work on music in a more mercenary way. It repulsed me. Now for me, the naive approach of working on music or art or anything, it’s a refuge as opposed to just a de facto way of approaching things.
You’re clearly the most at peace in the documentary when you’re performing. Even when times were especially rough, was it a great escape?
Moby: Performing, yeah. More actually writing music or being in my studio, working on music. Sometimes I would beat myself up, because I wasn’t able to mix something very well or I wasn’t creating what I thought was going to be a successful piece of music. But still, in spite of that, I still found so much comfort and refuge just working on music.
Touring is obviously a little more stressful, because there are people watching. You can’t improvise too much, which is one of the reasons why I don’t tour that much anymore. In fact, I don’t tour at all. Just the act of working on music in any context, any capacity, any place, in Buddhist terms, I would call it a grounding, a refuge. I’m not a Buddhist, but I like those ideas of just finding comfort and joy and refuge in this practice.
Something you said in the documentary about not caring about relevancy anymore reminded me of a Noel Gallagher quote. Someone asked him how he feels about his biggest hits being from the ’90s, not today. He said he felt great, that to even have reached people at that level at a point in your life is incredible. Do you feel the same?
Moby: Yeah. It’s the natural order of things. I tried to fight against it for quite a while and the people who fight against it, it sort of corrupted them. The people who get into their forties, into their fifties, into their sixties and they’re just holding on and they’re desperately trying to regain that external validation and the relevance, it’s so much work.
You just have to ask yourself, why do it? Learn to be happy with what’s in front of you, learn to be happy with, you can almost say, the fruits of quasi-irrelevance. Be happy not going on tour, be happy drinking a smoothie and reading the New York Times, be happy going to a party where people aren’t being nice to you just because you’re a public figure. I sort of understand there’s a comfort and a liberation that does come with diminished relevance. Also, it happens to everyone. Where do you live?
Moby: Okay. It is this subtext of Los Angeles, and it’s not even the subtext, it’s actually the dominant narrative of Los Angeles, is irrelevance. No one advertises it. To get a sense of it, just walk down Hollywood Boulevard and read the stars. I guarantee you, 80 percent of them are people we’ve never heard of before. People who were probably driven crazy by their diminished relevance. And we go to parties, you go out, you go to Gelson’s, you go wherever, and you see people who where it’s clear, myself included, your most star studded days are behind you.
There’s a sadness to it, a wistfulness to it. It’s the way of all things. We age, we lose our youthful vitality, we lose our sex appeal. You can fight against it. Like Eugene O’Neill, do not go gently into the good night. But you can also say, “Hey, eventually we all end up in the same place.” Why not, just to some extent, accept it and learn from it and generate almost a sense of understanding and compassion for all the other people who are going through the exact same thing.
It seems like you enjoy the little things more now.
Moby: I sort of realized this, because there was a period in my life that I was, and I talked about it in the documentary, just desperately trying to create this untouchable world where I had this five-level crazy apartment on Central Park West. I had a compound in Upstate New York. It was all fueled by looking for legitimacy, looking for validation. I remember I had a party once and I think someone referenced Citizen Kane, and I thought, I’m trying to basically Citizen Kane myself. I’m trying to build a castle that will fix everything. I had this little epiphany. If you can’t enjoy the smallest thing in front of you, you will never fully enjoy the bigger things. If you can’t enjoy eating a perfect organic orange, you will never enjoy being on a private plane.