Moby: how rave culture made him lose his hair

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The Independent Culture

Rarely do you meet an artist who is just as happy talking about George Bush as he is rave culture and stress-related hair loss, but Moby is one such man. He describes his career as "a musical version of the Fall And Rise Of Reginald Perrin". Indeed, just before the multiple million selling Play he produced an album so universally panned that he says he effectively "jumped off a cliff into obscurity". Moby, or Richard Melville Hall (named after his great-great-uncle Herman Melville's Moby Dick), it seems, still can't quite believe that his career has lasted long enough to make a "Best Of" collection spanning 15-years.

Today he is in his New York apartment fielding questions in a manner that should be studied by all future rock stars. He's courteous, intelligent, thoughtful, open, and above all he listens instead of spouting a steady stream of tried and tested responses. He's remarkably honest and upfront when faced with any curveball that's thrown at him. He happily admits that he didn't personally compile the "Best of" because he believes that he'd have ended up making a record that no one else wanted to listen to, full of "obscure tracks that no one has ever seemed to like". And he remains fiercely proud of Animal Rights - the 1996 hardcore punk album that threatened to up-end his career.

"I think it's the most personal record I've made," he says. "And of all the records I've made it's the one that affects me the most personally. But it also proved that I'm the worst judge of my own music. If the record that I loved the most is the one that no-one else likes it means that I'm lacking in any objectivity."

Such was the commercial and critical indifference to Animal Rights that when it came to his blues-inflected 1999 album Play, he thought his career was finished. "I thought I would be this weird bald guy in New York who makes records that no one listened to. Because when Play was released most journalists wouldn't even review it."

His willingness to discuss social and political issues means he has always courted controversy, although he remains bemused by the idea that he's in any way an agent provocateur. "I've never tried to be controversial. I've never tried to upset people, but unfortunately it seems to happen naturally. In many ways I'd rather be known as a musician who isn't like that, but I don't know how to do it."

Take for example a recent blog on moby.com, in which he lambasts the fashion industry for creating stick-thin models who provide unrealistic role models for young women. "Women's bodies are supposed to be curvy. They're not supposed to look like 14-year-old emaciated boys, but you have this whole industry trying to get women to be something that they're not. It's really the absurdity of that that struck me, and I wanted to write something. New York is an incredibly gay city, and even though I'm straight I love gay culture. But I don't know if gay men are necessarily the best judges of what should be sexy for women."

Moby's first hit was the 1991 rave anthem "Go", but even back then he had strong opinions outside of the hedonistic dance environment. "I was raised by left-wing activists, and I grew up in the punk rock world where everyone was opinionated. So it just made sense to me that rather than talking about clubs and hedonism, I'd talk about politics and broader social issues. Back in the early days of the American hardcore punk scene Ronald Reagan was president and we were in the middle of the Cold War. So when I got involved in dance music I brought that obsession with politics with me... I do respect people's rights to be politically apathetic though, and as I said, I wish there was a part of me that could learn to be politically apathetic, because it would keep me from getting into trouble."

His penchant for politics must surely be attributed to his mother, whom he describes as having worn many hats. "She had a day job as a secretary and was also trying to be a responsible mother, but she was a hippy. We'd go to anti-war protests. My father died when I was two, so it was just my mother and aunts and uncles. The early Seventies was politically a very progressive time and I was brought up with that progressive leftwing ethos."

He's still involved in "progressive left-wing causes" but doesn't see himself as exclusively partisan these days: "If there were a good Republican candidate who wasn't inept and corrupt, then I'd vote for them. But unfortunately all of the Republicans today are corrupt and inept, as exemplified by the worst president in the history of the US, George Bush. It's a particularly dark time to be an American."

Moby's hard-line stance on drugs and alcohol is markedly more relaxed these days, but during his most arduous DJ and rave days, he often found himself in clubs surrounded by clubbers high on ecstasy. "My experience with alcohol and drugs is very strange because I started taking drugs when I was 10. A lot of people in my family smoked pot and I would steal drugs from them. So from the ages of 10 to 13 I smoked a lot of grass and I drank, but I didn't do it because I enjoyed it. I did it because I wanted to hang out with the older, cooler kids. Then when I was 13, I quit and became a straight-edged punk rocker. When I was 19 I had a very hedonistic period where I drank a lot, and then I stopped for about nine years. And during those nine years I became very involved in the dance scene. So it was interesting in the early Nineties to go out to raves and clubs where everyone was out of their heads on E, and I was the only straight, sober person."

"Now my approach to liquor and drugs is, I think, a lot more balanced," he says. "I'll drink occasionally, and I don't currently take drugs, but that's just because my brain can't handle them. If I were going out tonight and took a hit of ecstasy I'd be destroyed for the next week."

Bizarrely he believes that rave culture contributed to premature baldness. "I believe that those early rave experiences contributed to me losing my hair," he says. "It was a really fun period, but incredibly stressful. When I was in the UK in 1991-'92 I'd be doing three shows a night. I'd have a show in Portsmouth at midnight, then a show in Coventry at three in the morning, and then maybe East London at six in the morning. And so I'd be driving around trying to find these places, then setting up my equipment, then break it down and get in the car. I'd finally get back to London at seven in the morning, completely wiped out."

The only new track on the album is the single "New York, New York" featuring Debbie Harry. It's a playful disco number that the Scissor Sisters would be proud of, and Moby is hoping that his fans don't take it too seriously. "A lot of my heroes had written songs about hedonism in NYC. The Rolling Stones wrote 'Shattered', Lou Reed wrote 'Walk On The Wild Side', and David Bowie wrote 'The Jean Genie', so I wanted to write a song about New York, but wanted it to sound like the Pet Shop Boys-meets-Abba. I just hope it's not misinterpreted because my intention was to write a silly electronic disco song."

So continues the remarkable career of a remarkable musician. He's written over 300 songs for his new album, although he claims to have no idea what type of record it'll be, but estimates that it'll be released next year. Not bad for a guy who never believed that he would get a record deal, let alone release a "Best Of" album. There has to be a moral in there somewhere...

'Go - The Very Best Of Moby' is out on 6 November. New single 'New York, New York' is out on 23 October on Mute.

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