Moby: 'I am a messy human being, and I don't have a problem admitting it'

He sold 10 million albums then nearly lost his mind. Now Moby has found a new life running a New York tea shop. Nick Duerden drops in
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The Independent Culture

Within minutes of meeting Moby on his home turf of Manhattan's Lower East Side, conversation has given way to a lengthy discourse on the neighbourhood's recent gentrification. He tells me of its history, its troubles and, in conclusion, the fact that he no longer gets mugged by drug dealers on the street. This can only be a good thing because not only does he around live here, but also runs a business. Teany is the name of his enterprise, and it is far more cute and welcoming than you would perhaps expect of a vegan café. It is popular with both locals and visiting dignitaries: Susan Sarandon is an occasional regular, while Coldplay's Chris Martin popped in this morning to say hello.

"It's a great place," Moby says fondly, with an almost paternal pride. "Its very existence fills me with such contentment, such pleasure." Over a house latte that comes served in a cup deep enough to bathe limbs in, our chat twists and turns, steered always by him, and presently turns to the first single to be lifted from his fifth album, the often meditative, occasionally anthemic Hotel. The single is titled "Lift Me Up", and I mention that the rather happy-clappy chorus, with its celebratory chants, sounds almost Krishna-like.

"That's weird," he frowns. "A few other people have said the same thing, but that's not what the song is about at all. Essentially, it's inspired by the anthropological seeds of fascism, and how easy it is for intellectuals to turn off the intellect and get lost in the crowd."

Of course it is.

"And the chorus is not actually a happy 'lift me up', but rather a quizzical one, one that ponders just why it is so easy for human beings to get lost in the moment. This isn't f something that's unique to this time, either. It happened in Germany in the 1930s, in Serbia and Rwanda in the 1990s, and now it's happening here."

He continues to expound on this somewhat oblique theme at length, mostly, you feel, because Moby likes to expound on anything and everything, and soon his stream of consciousness becomes circular. Long after I have lost his original thread, we have left the anthropological seeds of fascism mercifully behind and are back on the topic of Teany. He tells me that a friend wondered what his long-term plan was. Would it become the vegan equivalent of Starbucks?

"I told him that that wasn't an overriding ambition, no," he says, removing his heavy-rimmed glasses and pinching the bridge of his nose. "But if it does grow and multiply, then it will have to be organic, not calculated." Much like the man's career itself, then.

Moby has been making music for the past 26 years now. If his trajectory has followed anything but a typically predictable arc, then it is because this small bald man with the intense eyes and the slept-in T-shirt is a jumble of personalities all jockeying for position. Idiosyncrasy personified, he is a former celibate Christian and "vegan fascist" who subsequently became a voluminous drug-taker with a penchant for punk and one-night stands. Today, he is neither one nor the other, but rather a manageable mixture of both, and someone who throws himself into interview situations the way others do the psychiatrist's couch. He listens intently to questions, and then tries to imbue his answers with every fibre of his being. As a consequence, he is never dull, but neither is he always entirely honest. He recently admitted to telling the occasional lie or exaggeration in interviews, whenever the mood took him. The following potted biography, though, is widely believed to be true, and for the sake of chronology, we shall start at the very beginning.

He was born Richard Melville Hall on 11 September 1965 in Harlem, New York. His father was a chemistry professor, his mother a secretary, and his great-great-great uncle was the Moby Dick author Herman Melville (hence the nickname). His parents' marriage was reputedly an unhappy one, punctuated by arguments and drinking, and the car crash that killed his father when Moby was just two years old was believed to be suicide. After the funeral, mother and son left New York for Darien, an affluent suburb of Connecticut, to be close to her parents. Despite comparative familial wealth (her father owned a company on Wall Street), his mother struggled to raise her only son, often relying on food stamps and welfare to get by.

Under the influence of her - a woman he describes as "a free-thinking bohemian" who dated musicians, smoked pot and liked to paint - Moby was playing the guitar at eight, and had his first band, Vatican Commandos, at 14. Four years later, he was studying philosophy at the University of Connecticut, but wasn't happy. The restrictive calm of New England couldn't contain him for long, and after a brief transfer to New York's State University in 1983, he dropped out altogether in favour of DJing and playing in local bands. While a largely nocturnal existence such as his usually suggests a taste for hedonism, Moby had nothing of the sort.

"From the period 1987 until 1995 I was living a very clean life," he confirms. "I didn't drink, I didn't do drugs, and for the most part I was celibate." What ever for? "Well, having grown up in a very unstructured way, I found that I needed some kind of rigidity in my life. One of the dominant characteristics of fundamentalism is structure, and so I pretty soon became fundamentalist in almost everything I did. I couldn't be in the same room as someone eating meat, for example, and I looked down on anybody who used alcohol or drugs. I was pretty extreme and also, I suppose, something of a jerk."

Looking back now, he says, he feels rather embarrassed by his stance.

"My ethical beliefs haven't actually changed, but I have come to realise that it just doesn't make sense to be so rigid in a world that is inherently flexible."

Shortly after his mother's death from cancer in 1995, Moby had what he likes to call "an epiphany", and decided to experiment with drink, drugs and sex.

"It was very anomalous for me, but I loved it. Strip bars were great, I drank all night, and I thought ecstasy was fantastic."

He never quite lost his self-consciousness, though, and even when off his head in a nightclub, would be secretly contemplating various -isms (Buddhism and Daoism among them), later reading up on Siddhartha, and pondering the swing of his own personal pendulum.

"If you take into consideration the entropic nature of the universe," he says loftily, "then the swinging pendulum is ultimately bound to settle somewhere in the middle. And so after all that excess, all that swinging, that's where mine is right about now. I still have my moments, but they are no longer laced with such abandon. It's hardly surprising. I mean, I'm coming up to 40."

But as he approaches middle age, Moby has finally come to feel comfortable in his own skin, a nirvana of sorts he thought he'd never live to see.

"I've been guilty in the past of thinking things through too much," he says, "and so I've always suffered from anxiety and panic attacks. Everything would worry me, and I mean everything. But I've been practising a lot of relaxation techniques recently, and you know what? They've worked, they've really helped. They've made me into a calmer person, and that's good. In fact, it's great."

Success came comparatively late in Moby's life. Although he started out playing guitar in Manhattan indie bands in the late 1980s, it wasn't until the 1991 single "Go", which sampled the theme tune to Twin Peaks, that he enjoyed his first proper hit. In 1995, he released his debut album, the rave-influenced Everything Is Wrong, and followed it a year f later with Animal Rights, a thrash metal record so awful that it sold only in Germany, presumably a hotbed of thrash metal worship. In the rest of the world, however, his fanbase promptly vanished. The record died and with it, seemingly, his career. He was 31 years old.

But Moby didn't care. He was still in the middle of his self-styled epiphany, a time in which he courted the friendships of Hollywood starlets half his age (Natalie Portman, Christina Ricci), and threw parties in which free sex was, purportedly, actively encouraged. Then, in 1998, a friend introduced him to a series of recordings by forgotten blues and gospel artists of the 1930s. Instantly inspired to change musical direction once again, he wove these recordings into tunes whose sedate beauty was at distinct odds with his then lifestyle. The results became Play, perhaps the defining coffee-table album of its generation. In time, it would prove his commercial breakthrough. But only in time.

Six months after its release, it had sold just 10,000 copies. His record company was preparing to drop him, and Moby himself was considering a return to university to study architecture. But then his management team hit upon an idea, and began to license the album's individual tracks to any TV advert director that came knocking. Gradually, every last song became the theme tune to some or other product - Adidas, Reebok, Renault - and it wasn't long before the album itself was benefiting from TV advertising. A year on, and Play had shifted 10 million copies around the globe. Little Moby had become a very big superstar indeed.

"I genuinely believe it to be one of the biggest flukes in the history of the music business," he says. "It was eclectic where everything else was homogeneous and emotional where everything else was calculated. It was the exact opposite of everything else that was happening, so it should never have been a success. I'm glad it was, of course, but it was very confusing to me."

For the next four years, the world's most famous vegan lived out his wildest rock'n'roll fantasies. He toured relentlessly, he drank heavily, popped pills, frequented strip bars. He gave engagingly revelatory interviews, and once admitted to playing a game called "touch knob" at densely crowded celebrity parties that involved removing his penis from his trousers and seeing how many unwitting stars he could touch with it. Unsurprisingly, he became a staple of New York gossip columns.

"At first, there was a certain anthropological fascination to living out such a bizarre life," he says, "and I purposefully put myself into all kinds of situations to see how I would respond. But it soon stopped being an experiment and became instead real life."

His ego spiralled out of all control, and during his next world tour - in support of 2002's 18, which was effectively a sequel to Play - he became, he says, "an asshole", regularly throwing hissy fits and alienating himself from some of his oldest friends. It wasn't until the end of the following year that he took time out, realised how far the pendulum had swung, and began to make amends.

"I thought it was time to start living a normal life again, and, musically, to reflect that in Hotel," he says, with the serenity of a convert. "But I'm still me, which means that my friends are still terrified every time I open my mouth in interviews. They think I represent myself very badly in print, but I'm inclined to disagree. I'm of the opinion that I should present myself truthfully, warts and all, so it's just as well I'm not particularly concerned about my public image.

"If you think about it, the most interesting public figures of the last 40 years have always been the messiest: Kurt Cobain, Keith Richards, John Lennon, even Robbie Williams. They have so much honesty in them that they can't contain it, and why should they - why should I? Human beings expend so much energy covering up the parts of themselves that we all have in common. We all go to the bathroom, we all have sex, we all cry, laugh, despair, rejoice, and we are all deeply messy biological creatures who try to pretend that this is not the case. But why? I am a messy human being, and I don't have a problem admitting it."

And here, he stops, mid-flow, suddenly determined to right a particularly damaging wrong. "Incidentally, I have never, ever, played touch knob. That was a lie, a joke, and I said it only because the journalist was asking stupid questions that required a suitably stupid answer. I thought I was being funny. But my friends - well, they thought I was being an idiot. I probably was."

Later, still in Teany, Moby is having his photograph taken. He looks wide-eyed and, despite the unshaven chin, baby-cute. He is still talking, of course, now expounding upon what could well become his own Little Book of Calm. He tells me that he might just have hit upon the recipe for true inner peace.

"What compromises happiness the most is unrealistic expectations," he says. "A vital part of happiness, I think, is to look at things objectively and allow yourself to be content with them as they are, not as you desperately want them to be. I was guilty of this for a long time, but hopefully no longer. As I approach 40, I think I'm moving more and more in this direction. While I don't like to admit it, one night stands no longer appeal to me, which is amazing because I used to find them so exciting. But I think that my loss of interest in promiscuity could ultimately be a good thing because it will make me actively seek a steady, monogamous relationship, which I feel will make me truly happy.

"Years ago, back when I was a philosophy student, I thought I had the ability to figure out things in a way that could make the world a better place, but I now realise the world is too complicated for that. I still love talking about metaphysics and ontology with friends, but I'm no longer obsessed with finding all the answers. And that, I believe, is a considerable self-improvement."

He takes a deep breath directly from his diaphragm, then smiles benevolently, his metaphysical chakra in the metaphorical palm of his all-too-real cupped hand.

'Hotel' is released on 14 March

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