His album Play sold tens of millions and became the soundtrack to our lives, but the man who created it is notoriously hard to pin down. As Moby’s new CD is relased, Sam Leith meets him in New York to talk about teashops and Kant
Just before I set off to New York to interview Moby, I had to send an apologetic email to a friend cancelling a weekend with him. My friend’s email back – grudging, amused, admiring – pretty much sums up Moby’s place in the public mind. “Curse that bald-headed woofy organic green-tea-drinking vegan!” wrote John: “But how exciting – I think he rules.”
What do we know about Moby? He’s bald. He’s vegan. He’s Christian. He’s polite. He’s named after an imaginary whale. If you passed him in the street you wouldn’t notice. He is an Unlikely Rock Star. But rock star – or pop star, or dance star, or inescapable global soundtrack to our lives – the 39-year-old Richard Melville Hall certainly is.
You hear his music on the beach and on The Beach; in your car, and in the advert for your car. His album Play didn’t sell in the tens or hundreds of thousands, or in the millions, but in the tens of millions. It was the first album in history to have every single track licensed for use in an advertisement.
So not being starry is one of Moby’s most determined pop-star decisions. He dresses down. He lives in the same, more or less empty apartment in which he has always lived – and to which interviewers are often invited, as if to say, look, I have nothing to hide. His chief indulgence, as a superstar, has been to open a small vegan/vegetarian café, Teany, down the street from his apartment in the East Village, where you can buy a club sandwich with pretend bacon and pretend turkey and pretend mayonnaise. He’s been known to do shifts there bussing tables.
But Moby also gets invited to Puff Daddy’s parties, hangs out with David Bowie and has been “linked” with Natalie Portman. The night before we meet, he plays a low-key benefit gig for the Asian tsunami in an upscale club on the West Side. He’s topping the bill – ahead of David Byrne and Lou Reed.
Yet – and the generosity seems in keeping – he’s doing three covers with a talented but barely known young singer called Rachel Loshak. They murder Bruce Springsteen’s
I’m On Fire first; then she doo-doo-doos backing as Moby sings Walk on the Wild Side; and then Moby steps back and gives her the last song of the night, strumming along on acoustic guitar.
Moby probably need never work again, if he doesn’t want to. Yet he tours remorselessly, and does publicity like a lamb – meekly accepting the difficulty of touring minor territories and, as he puts it, spending hours at a time explaining “nuanced or complicated thoughts when English is someone’s fourth language”. Moby reckons to have been interviewed 5,000 times. When I meet him he’s about to fly to Europe to do pre-publicity for his new album. So he’s either very humble before his public, or seriously interested in selling records, or both.
His success has brought with it a lot of stick. As an avowed environmentalist and sometime Marxist (“I used the word ‘Marxist’ loosely,” he says now. “Basically, I was a student. So I spouted whatever truisms sounded sexy and dramatic”), he attracted a hail of brickbats for licensing a track from Play for a car advertisement, and only somewhat appeased his critics by donating the proceeds to Greenpeace. People love his music, but they wonder whether he might not be a bit of a phoney, too.
The new record’s called Hotel, so we don’t go to his apartment. We meet instead in a chic, boutiquey, still-under-construction hotel on Rivington Street. Moby is friends with the people who run it. The hotel’s food and drink supremo is a woman in whose restaurant he used to DJ before he became famous. “She paid me in spaghetti.”
Moby arrives, a little late, and disappears straight into the loo. There’s a pause, a rattling, and it occurs to me, with an unworthy thrill of hope, that my interviewee might be irretrievably locked in the lav. But he reappears.
It’s not his only visit during the interview, and he has barely touched the carrot juice provided. Bladder the size of a walnut? “This is one of the unfortunate side-effects of owning a tea-shop,” he says with dignity, as he emerges from the loo for the third time in the course of our hour together. He’s the only pop star on earth who could offer that excuse and be believed.
When he got famous in the early 1990s dance scene, touring with the likes of the Shamen, he was a teetotal, celibate, non-smoking, drug-shunning Christian evangelical… ministering to crowds of sweaty godless disco-kiddies rutting like roe deer, gobbling Es and smelling horribly of Vicks VapoRub.
In 1994 he had an “epiphany” that has since been much mythologised. “I sat down and examined everything that was going on in my life and asked: why do I live the way I do? I didn’t like the idea of these arbitrarily-held beliefs. I took them out and looked at them and realised that there really is no place for militancy in such a complicated world.”
Now he likes a beer (“I used to be a celebratory drunk,” he complains, “but with encroaching middle age I’m not as much fun”), takes the odd E, and has admitted to occasional sexual shenanigans with groupies. But he continues to work ridiculously hard – he reckons to have written 300 songs before selecting the 15 which went on Hotel – and his worldview still owes a lot more to Pete Abelard than Pete Doherty. His weblog mixes fanboy discussions of The Simpsons with jeremiads against global evils, from the Bush administration to the use of glue traps to catch mice.
The earnestness with which he now propounds his live-and-let-live views is the same earnestness with which he once preached to the meat-eating damned. He talks intensely, self-deprecatingly, and in long periphrastic sentences with few jokes. The ends of his sentences rise, and he gulps his words down a little, like Kermit the Frog.
With most famous folk, there will be no-go areas in the conversation, but you’ll emerge with quite a strong sense of what the person is like. Conversely, with Moby, there seems to be no question he won’t answer, no impertinence that would offend him – and yet trying to get a purchase on him is like a small dog trying to sink its teeth into a beach-ball.
In part, that’s thanks to the sheer levelness of his delivery; but in part, it’s because you don’t really feel completely confident that he isn’t winding you up. He says different things to different interviewers. He tells the gay press he is bisexual. He titillates lad-mags with sex and drugs. He’s more than prepared to speak to the Telegraph about Kant’s Critique of Pure Reason (“Unless you’re an absolute masochist there’s no reason anyone would want to read that book”).
Do you tell the truth in interviews? I ask him. “Mmm,” he says, “most of the time.” That rather neat adapting to the requirements of the media outlet in hand is, he says, not so much a marketing device as a genuine desire to please.
“You know the movie Zelig? I’m like that. It’s more a desire, in a weird way, to fit in. From my perspective, it just seems accommodating… a little bit respectful. Like if I went to a dinner party and the host collected Fauvist paintings, we would talk about Fauvism.
“A lot of it is growing up in the environment I grew up – I grew up very very poor in a very very wealthy town… so my home environment was very very different from the one I found myself in in all my friends’ houses. I quickly had to learn.”
Moby grew up in suburban Connecticut, living, at one point, next door to the Bush estate (Moby worked on the Kerry campaign and has strong views on Bush, most of which you will be able to guess). He was raised by his hippyish, English graduate single mother after his father’s death in a car crash, and the house was full of books. He dropped out of a philosophy degree at the University of Connecticut when he started to suffer serious panic attacks, and by the time completing his degree was again in prospect, music had eclipsed that ambition.
You’d have to bet on Hotel being a big commercial success. The top end of the album is loaded with singles. It has a hugely accessible retro feel, with four-square beats, ’80s synths, euphoric chords and lush production. Before he became a punk, before he became a techno star, Moby was a new wave fan.
“When I was growing up,” he says, “albums were my closest friends, as sad as that may sound – Joy Division’s Closer, or Echo and the Bunnymen’s Heaven Up Here… I had a more intimate relationship with those records than I did with most of the people in my life.”
Hotel isn’t remotely difficult or challenging, but it doesn’t half do its work. It’s a great pop record. But, as with the man itself, it’s elusive. The lyrics are frequently mournful; the music uplifting. The music is highly polished; the lyrics so abstract and general as to tell you nothing that you don’t bring to them yourself.
“I like the idea of creating the CD as an artefact that doesn’t really belong to any specific time or place or nationality,” he says. “The titles are very neutral – and from the cover you wouldn’t inherently know what was going on inside the CD. Then, once you actually get into the record, the record is very personal, very emotional…
“I’m particularly fascinated by the fact that hotels on one hand are these great anonymous public places but they are also really personal intimate spaces as well, and it’s that paradox that one space, a hotel room, which is the most neutral, anonymous place in the world, becomes such an intimate space for so many people.”
It’s his first album not to incorporate samples, and Moby sings on a lot of the tracks himself, in many cases by default. The first single, Lift Me Up, was in Moby’s mind a Sisters of Mercy tribute. He originally tried to get their frontman, Andrew Eldritch, to sing it, but couldn’t find him.
“I wrote the songs and then I was looking to find other people to sing them, and for some reason I couldn’t find anybody whose voice I liked. I found people whose voices were a lot better than mine, but that were lacking a certain emotional quality?” One track, Slipping
Away, is, he says the most personal to him of any he has ever written.
“That would be the weirdest song to play for people because it’s… heart-wrenchingly personal.” What’s it about? “It’s not really about anything in particular. It’s not about a specific event… It’s just like emotionally descriptive.
“Yearning is the quality I respond to in other people’s music, and it’s the quality I just naturally want to include in my own music.” Amid the vast lexical resources of the English language, “what seem to be missing are words that describe two seemingly diametrically opposed states of being co-existing: happiness and sadness; longing and satisfaction; or pride and shame.
“A terrible but funny example would be, suppose someone goes out and has a drunken one-night stand with, like, their ex-girlfriend’s sister. The next day when they wake up, half of them feels something like pride, because they’ve done something really interesting; and the other half of them feels this incredible sense of shame. There’s no words in English to describe those two co-existing states…”
“‘Hoping my ex-girlfriend doesn’t find out?'” I suggest.
“Heh,” says Moby, the philosopher of contradictions. “Yeah.”
‘Hotel’ (Mute) is released on March 14.
Moby timeline: A star from the word go
1965 Richard Melville Hall – instantly nicknamed Moby in tribute to his great-great-great grand-uncle Herman Melville – is born in Harlem, New York City, on September 11.
1967 Moby’s father, James Hall, dies in a car crash. Moby and his mother Elizabeth move to Connecticut.
1978 Moby starts learning the guitar. He masters Crocodile Rock.
1983 Moby releases his first single, Hit Squad for God, with his punk rock band the Vatican Commandos.
1991 Moby releases his fourth single, Go. It goes on to sell more than a million copies.
1992 Moby releases Thousand, which is lodged in the Guinness Book of Records as the single with the highest beats-per-minute count in recording history. Clue to BPM count: the title.
1995 Moby releases – to general acclaim – his first album, Everything Is Wrong.
1996 Everything goes wrong. Moby suffers acute panic attacks. His mother is diagnosed with the lung cancer that is to kill her. His thrash-metal album Animal Rights surprises critics expecting some dance tunes, and tanks horribly.
1999 Without much expectation, Moby finds a new record company and releases an album – Play – based around samples of 1930s tape recordings, made by ethnomusicologist Alan Lomax, of blues singers across the American South. Play goes on to sell 10 million copies, three million singles and go platinum in two dozen countries.
2002 Moby and his ex-girlfriend Kelly open their vegan/vegetarian tea-shop and café, Teany, in New York.