Like many disaffected teenagers of the early ’80s, Richard Melville Hall found succor in the noise of punk. He began taking the Metro-North train from his home in Connecticut to see shows in New York City, falling not only under the sway of hardcore but also of Lou Reed, Dylan Thomas, and artists from George Maciunas’s Fluxus scene. While now a separate musical-genre signifier, at that time punk meant an embrace of outsider sounds, so it was de rigueur to accept them all: reggae, country, hip-hop, new wave, Afropop, disco.
Receiving his nickname in homage to a distant Melville in his family tree, Moby played in a few punk bands before replacing his bandmates with machines, ultimately moving to the forefront of the early-’90s electronica wave. He was all but forgotten by 1999, when he released Play, his at-first-ignored fifth album, constructed primarily with small samples of old blues and gospel recordings. But Moby was at the vanguard of slotting his music in unsuspecting places—advertisements, especially—and Play went from overlooked to inescapable. Same with Moby’s bald visage: he parlayed his electronic music-making anonymity into celebrity-grade ubiquity, which meant invites to art-gallery openings in lower Manhattan, but also pop-cultural ridicule from everyone: Joan Rivers, Eminem, Will Ferrell.
Now living in Los Angeles, Moby returned briefly to New York to promote his most recent album and a book of photography documenting the particular estrangement that comes with playing before thousands of adoring fans every night. We spoke in his Manhattan apartment. Before ascending to his roof deck on a particularly lovely April day, I found myself in his ascetic bathroom, which I recalled from an episode of MTV’s Cribs. There now hung a shower curtain and mirror where before there had been none. No doubt, Moby has changed as well.
I. GO THROUGH THEIR PURSE WHILE THEY’RE IN THE SHOWER
THE BELIEVER: How is it when you come back to New York? You’re this quintessential New Yorker, so it must be weird.
MOBY: I was born here, up on 148th Street. First time I got drunk in the East Village was 1978, and I’ve lived in or near lower Manhattan for all my life. A few things happened, though. I stopped drinking. Being a drunk in New York City is one of the greatest things in the world. Certain places have a specific or accidental utility. Perth, Australia, is a great place to be a surfer. The institutions accommodate being a surfer. And lower Manhattan is a district for drunks. For the thirty years I was a drunk, lower Manhattan was flawless. No one comes to New York to be healthy; they come in listening to “Walk on the Wild Side” and get off the plane wanting to get drunk. Lower Manhattan is a nurturing environment for drunks, because you don’t have to drive anywhere. Three years ago I stopped drinking and realized lower Manhattan isn’t a fun place for sobriety.
BLVR: What made you stop drinking?
M: The thousands of soul-destroying hangovers. When I was twenty, I would be hungover and feel this camaraderie with Dylan Thomas and Charles Bukowski and Johnny Thunders. But as I got older, the hangovers started lasting longer. Toward the end, I was constantly hungover, and it was too depressing. I had to drink to combat it. I found myself turning into a pathetic old-school rummy. Alcohol is an amazing drug for fighting depression and anxiety. It’s an even better drug for creating depression and anxiety. I would drink to make the hangovers go away, and they would come back fivefold. The more I drank, the more I relied on it. Eventually, the negative consequences of drinking became greater than the positive consequences.
BLVR: Did you have social anxieties?
M: Oh, yeah. I grew up very poor in Darien, Connecticut. My mom and I were on food stamps and welfare, poor white trash in one of the most affluent places in the United States. So from an early age, I just assumed that everybody else knew what they were doing and knew how the world worked and felt comfortable. And that was one of the reasons I drank. I would walk into a party and immediately assume that everybody else understood the social codes that were going on. They were fitting in and were comfortable and I wasn’t. They had everything right. It didn’t matter how much external career validation I had, I still felt like the poor white-trash kid from Connecticut who had no idea how the world worked. The moment I drank, everything made sense. In not drinking, I realized no one knows how the world works. No one feels comfortable. It’s the human condition. The only people who are not baffled are sociopaths and the developmentally disabled. The rest of us— if we’re not crippled by narcissistic disorders or crazy— everyone walks into a party and is scared and confused. In hindsight, I saw drinking was the solution to a problem that turned out not to be a problem. I felt that if I didn’t drink, I’d never have a love life or feel comfortable in social situations. I have both now that I’m sober. It’s not nearly as exciting as it was when I was drinking, but still, now I never have that experience of waking up next to a complete stranger and having to go through their purse while they’re in the shower to find out what their name is. Every decision you make drunk at four in the morning seems like the best decision you’ve ever made. So, NYC, I don’t want to be a complete whiner, but my goodness, it’s changed. I can’t say it’s better or worse. It’s not the New York that I fell in love with. When I was growing up here, I fetishized it: the Velvet Underground, Dylan Thomas, Jack Kerouac, Fluxus— and everything seemed exciting, degenerate, and grimy. Lower Manhattan was exclusively populated by crazy people and artists, and it was all I wanted my life to be. My friends and I would do all that we could to sneak into NYC. The first time I went to the Mudd Club, in
1981, to see the band Fear, we drove from Connecticut to TriBeCa—before it was TriBeCa—snuck in, came out at 2 a.m., and the car wouldn’t start. We had to call my friend’s dad in Connecticut at 4 a.m. It was embarrassing. Our tough autonomy fell away waiting for a paneled station wagon to show up. Now NYC is not cheap, and the degeneracy has taken on a different tone. Artists are entitled to degeneracy because they make stuff. By day they make stuff that enriches the world, and by night they do degenerate things—almost like their reward. Stare into the void during the day, and the void stares back at you, so you drink and pretend otherwise. Whereas corporate attorneys and hedge-fund managers—their degeneracy is the type of entitled, narcissistic degeneracy that they feel they’re entitled to: to have a good time because of the amount of money they made. For all your fantasies of Lou Reed and the like, the next generation’s fantasies of New York became Friends and episodes of Seinfeld. The cultural touchstones changed. And then the Strokes. Now that I come back and visit, I love it. It’s a beautiful place, but there’s such a quality of entitlement, on one hand, and desperation, that doesn’t seem to be healthy. My Wall Street friends are really rich and entitled, and then I have friends in Brooklyn who are writers and musicians, and they are so scared. Every minute is suffused with the sense of terror that they are never going to own their own apartment, that they can’t afford to have kids or a backyard. There’s a relaxed weirdness to East L.A., where I live, that hasn’t existed in New York in such a long time. I guess being a quintessential New Yorker, though, at some point involves a move to L.A. Beachwood Canyon is all former New Yorkers.
II. KARL ROVE
BLVR: Were you an only child?
M: Yeah. Though I had this weird experience. I know there is one person on the planet who is not my brother. Six years ago, I was in a bar in D.C. for this screening of Nancy Pelosi’s daughter’s film, back when Nancy was still the Speaker of the House. After the screening, I was getting drunk in a hotel bar, and I started talking to this journalist from Politico.com, and we were talking about being only children. I do have a half brother somewhere. I never met him. But I jokingly said to him, “Maybe my half brother is Karl Rove.” The next day, he wrote a fun little article about my half-brother joke. Two weeks later, I got a handwritten letter on official White House stationery, which I have memorized. It read: “Dear Moby, It’s not me. I’m seventeen years older than you and I have no musical ability. Have you considered James Carville as your brother since he’s bald and plays the guitar, too? Sincerely, your pal, Karl Rove.” It’s framed and in my closet. But that was so disconcerting, because at the time he was the most powerful person in Washington. The fact that (a) he had a sense of humor, and (b) he read his own press, and (c) he knew who I was, and (d) he had the time to hand-write me a letter— all of that freaked me out. If you have paranoia that they’re out to get you, a letter like that doesn’t help.
BLVR: As an only child, you must’ve grown up entertaining yourself. What was your first creative endeavor?
M: It was writing. When I was five years old, I wanted to be a writer, so I wrote stories and poems. My mom was a pianist and painter, and she rented her loft to a few bands, and while she would paint I would play the band’s equipment. My mom would invite her musician friends over to rehearse in our house, and it drove me insane. I realized I hated my mom’s boyfriends more than I hated music. So I played their equipment. A deadbeat boyfriend left his guitar there, so I started taking classical guitar lessons and music theory, and when I was thirteen, I discovered punk rock.
BLVR: Did you have a punk-rock epiphany?
M: My punk-rock epiphany was Devo. Which, granted, they are not a punk-rock band. When I was thirteen or fourteen, my mother took me to see a movie called Mr. Mike’s Mondo Video. Mike O’Donoghue, who was a writer for Saturday Night Live, had put out a movie that was sort of a collection of his favorite video clips. So we went to this theater, and one of the videos was Sid Vicious doing “My Way,” shooting at the audience, and it was the coolest, scariest thing I’d ever seen. But I didn’t know that that was punk rock.
BLVR: It was Sinatra!
M: And then I was at a friend’s house and he had the first Devo album. The cover terrified me to where I couldn’t even look at it. He put it on and I tried not to like it, but then I suddenly just gave up and said, “I really like this.” I recently had a funny Devo moment. I’m a little embarrassed to admit this, but I joined Soho House in L.A., and when I was picking up my card, there was one other person picking up his membership as well, and it was Jerry Casale from Devo. Some thirty-two years after this man gave me my punk-rock epiphany, he’s picking up his Soho House membership card next to mine. We’ve been emailing back and forth now. For me, part of getting into punk rock is not just hearing the music but realizing that someone you know is getting up there to do it, as well. To where you go, Oh, I can do this, too. That was the beauty of hardcore. It was primarily suburban, and it was people who looked like us. We’d go to hardcore shows as fifteen-year-olds and there’d be seventeen-year-old kids onstage in jeans and sneakers, and we went, “Oh, that’s us.” You’d buy an Exploited record and it was foreign: it was from the U.K. and they had huge hair and leather jackets covered in spikes, and I didn’t understand that culture at all. Or you see a popular newwave band on a bigger stage with lights, and it wouldn’t connect. But then you’d go see a hardcore band like Void and go, I understand this and can play this.
III. THE ROLLED-UP CARPET THEORY
BLVR: So when did your dance-music epiphany occur? Both genres seem diametrically opposed now, but were they connected for you?
M: It was New York in the early ’80s, and we were punk rockers into new wave, into Dead Kennedys and New Order. We’d go to Danceteria to see Bad Brains or Echo and the Bunnymen, and the DJs prided themselves on being as eclectic and obscure as possible. So you’d be at this show and the DJ would be playing Johnny Cash into Liquid Liquid into hip-hop into the Tubes. And if you were to go to those shows, you couldn’t turn your nose up at anything. You had to like it all. So we just assumed that we had to be really weird and eclectic as well. So my first dance-music epiphany was hearing Liquid Liquid’s “Optimo” in 1981. I was, no doubt, uptight, but all the while I was thinking: Wow, I’m in a nightclub in New York dancing to dance music made by weird New Yorkers. It was remarkable. In 1984, I dropped out of college and was dating an older woman. Her boyfriend had just left, and he’d left behind a 4-track, so I could finally make my own music, and then I got my first synthesizer and drum machine.
BLVR: Making music by yourself—even with your celebrity—it seems like the creative process is still a lonely endeavor.
M: I’m wary of using the word lonely, as it has a very pejorative connotation. I prefer to think of it as “monastic” or “ascetic.” I have this weird theory about personality.It’s the rolled-up carpet theory. When you buy a carpet that has been rolled up for a while, and you plop it on your floor, it stays rolled up. It keeps wanting to go back to that original form. I think our personalities and psyches are like that— they take their form in childhood. In adulthood, we try to push them into these different forms, but all they ever want to do is go back to that original form. When I was fifteen, I sat in a room by myself making music. I’m forty-five years old now, and I sit in a room by myself making music. It’s a little bit like Groundhog Day. But it’s better than saying that when I was fifteen I played video games obsessively, and now I play video games obsessively. At least I have something to show for all my perpetual adolescent behavior.
BLVR: What do you listen to these days?
M: For years, I really hated the idea of being an old guy listening to the music he grew up with, but now I just love listening to old music that was produced in ways that no one produces records anymore: music from the ’40s and ’50s. No one knew what they were doing. By definition, every record made was experimental. It was engineers going, “Well, I guess we could put a microphone there, or move the tape heads farther apart from each other. I guess we could invent the reverb tank.” I love listening to strangely produced records, up to about 1972, when I lose interest. In the ’70s, they sound very slick. With punk
rock, people again forgot what they were doing and made things up as they went along. And I think early-’80s dance music, when it reverted back from disco bands to just producers and drum machines, made for weird records as well. Early house music, which I collected obsessively in the ’80s, is amazing. Dance music now is great. But everyone who makes dance music uses the same software— Ableton, Logic, Reason—and so, as a result, I’ll be DJing and they all sound the same. It’s hard to get worked up about idiosyncratic techniques when everyone sounds clinical. You listen to old Chicago and Detroit records and no one knew what they were doing.
IV. A MIDDLE -AGED MAN IN HIS BEDROOM
BLVR: When did you realize you were going to have a career as a musician?
M: I never expected to have a career as a musician. The last twenty years of making records have been baffling to me; I never expected to have success. Because Play was so hugely successful, I had a couple of years where I wanted to be a successful musician. Then it was made clearly apparent to me that I’m really bad at trying to be a successful musician. Any effort I made to comport myself in the manner of a successful musician was just embarrassing. One time, I wanted to stand out at the MTV Awards so I wore an all-red suit, and Joan Rivers picked me out as “the worst-dressed person” and I went, Wow, I’m not good at this.
BLVR: You seem to be an expert at getting people really mad at you.
M: There’s nowhere else on the planet where people hate me more than in New York. I wonder, What did I do to get so many pundits in New York to hate me so much? How am I so offensive? Journalists ask me that question and I don’t know. Maybe I’m too opinionated or too ubiquitous, out too many nights a week.
BLVR: Now there are the David Guettas and Paul van Dyks, the Will.i.ams of the world, who mix celebrity with dance music. Being a DJ is no longer so anonymous.
M: When Play came out, I was a has-been. Most journalists wouldn’t review the record. I had a hard time finding a record deal in the United States. It was supposed to be an obscure record made by a forgotten, middle-aged man in his bedroom. That was what my manager expected, that was what I expected, that’s what the record company expected. The success was wholly unexpected. There was no strategy for it. The licensing for it was “necessity being the mother of invention.” We didn’t know how else to get the music out there. Now everyone wants to license their music. I don’t know if musicians get criticized for that anymore. Journalists criticizing musicians for allowing their music to be used in advertising was odd, as the journalists get paid because of advertising in their magazines. Maybe they shouldn’t write for magazines that have advertising, then. What cool musicians do is just license their music in other countries, like South Korea and Portugal.
BLVR: How much has the process changed for you between that and Destroyed?
M: Hmm, it hasn’t changed at all. The only difference is that it’s easier to make better-sounding records. Even on the most recent record, I intentionally used old drum machines, old synths, old effect-processing with very little digital stuff going on, mixed on a desk from the BBC, which is now at the Magic Shop studio on Crosby Street. But yeah, I’m not doing anything all that different. Twenty-six years later, I’m not even much better at anything.