Moby - 'To my shame, I liked the attention'

Since 'Play' carried him into the homes of millions – and into countless adverts – 10 years ago, the famously outspoken Moby has mellowed somewhat. Maybe there's an art to it, writes Fiona Sturges
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I definitely lost the plot for a while," is how Moby, the multimillion-selling New York dance musician, sums up the past 10 years. All things considered, it's hardly surprising. It's a period that has seen him anointed the king of coffee-table pop, vilified as a sell-out, becoming unimaginably wealthy, hobnobbing with the rich and famous and developing a dependency on alcohol that he has only recently managed to shift.

To look at, the small, bald New Yorker with the intense stare and Woody Allen specs hasn't changed a jot since he burst into the charts 17 years ago with "Go", a song that sampled the Twin Peaks theme tune and became an anthem of the rave scene. A string of similarly euphoric hits followed, though Moby remained an underground figure beloved of clubbers and DJs, invisible to the masses.

But then came Play, the album released in 1999 that he swears he thought would end his career; it turned him into a household name. After being licensed for use on television commercials – a move for which Moby says he was "not so much criticised as crucified" – it became a global phenomenon, reaching sales of 10 million. Suddenly he was the toast of the celebrity circuit, with everyone wanting to know more about this diminutive musician and his famously Christian, vegan, Marxist ways.

Moby agrees that his career has been strange. "There have been periods of great success, periods of abject failure," he says. "I've made lots of different types of music and done lots of strange ancillary things. I marvel that I still get to play shows. Some musicians have what is probably a healthy sense of entitlement. When they announce a concert, they expect it to sell out. When I announce a concert, I expect maybe a few people to wander in."

Self-deprecation seems to be Moby's default setting. If there's a monstrous ego beneath the surface, he hides it well. He is good company – articulate and disinclined to take himself too seriously. In a startling reversal of pop-star protocol, Moby claims to enjoy interviews. Not only does he regard them as free therapy but, even now, remains grateful that anyone should care. He recalls an incident two years ago when he was shopping in west London and became aware of two photographers trying to take his picture. "In the end, I went over and said, 'If you want to take my picture carrying groceries, then go ahead, I'm flattered. You want to come to my hotel? I'll make you tea.' They just got in a car and drove off."

Of the other signifiers of fame – money, parties, famous friends – Moby is less impressed. "After Play came out, I started drinking a lot, taking a lot of drugs, dating all the wrong people," he recalls. "To my great shame, I liked the attention. I was on long tours and I had an assistant whose sole job was to throw parties for me. For about an eighth of a second it was fantastic, but then it was unsettling. I knew I wanted to spend my life making music, but I couldn't figure out whether I was a mainstream artist who did things like go to red-carpet events and make records in big studios, or if I should go on tour with Sonic Youth and make nothing but noise records." Nowadays, Moby seems to have struck a respectable medium between the two. He has been in London to play a show as part of Ornette Coleman's Meltdown at the Southbank, in the process offering a preview of his ninth album, Wait for Me, the catalyst for which was a talk given by the film director David Lynch.

"He sat on stage and said, 'Creative expression is beautiful,'" Moby explains. "He talked about how the success of art is measured by how much revenue it generates, and how that is just nonsense. I realised that I had bought into this idea that fame is a valuable currency and that money was an indication that someone had created something worthwhile. It was emancipating for me. It gave me licence to make the record I wanted to make."

Listening to him talk about his new record, you would think Moby had made something as uncompromising and wilfully uncommercial as Animal Rights, his extreme punk LP from 1996. In fact, Wait for Me is a meditative, often beautiful piece that couches dark themes such as heroin abuse and death in wistful synths and sweet melodies.

"I have no objectivity when it comes to looking at my own music," Moby admits. "What objectivity I have is gained over time and distance. I've put out records in the past that I thought were fantastic and no one liked them. But I've also put out records in the past that I thought were mediocre at best, and they ended up being very successful."

Such as? "Such as Play. I thought it was too eclectic. It was recorded in a bedroom with really mediocre equipment. The fact that it became as successful as it did is still baffling. Listening to it now, I realise I don't really like the first half of the album, and I only like the second half, which is the weird, experimental, dissonant part I don't think anyone's actually listened to."

It's typical of Moby to be agonising over decisions made a decade ago. He puts his analytical tendencies down to "an inherited disposition towards introspection and self-analysis. I come from a long line of depressed New England alcoholics, going back to [his great-great-great-granduncle] Herman Melville."

Moby lives in the same spartan apartment in New York's Little Italy that he did when he made "Go". It doubles as his studio. His biggest purchase since making it big is a vegan restaurant near his home called Teany's.

"I think the lack of ostentation comes from growing up poor in a very wealthy environment," he muses. "But I also saw that wealth wasn't making people happy. So when I got money I was, like, 'Why would I want to buy stupid things with it? Why not just get on and make another record?'"

Moby has been making music since the early Eighties. His first band was the noise-rock outfit Vatican Commandos. In 1983, they put out their first single, which sold 200 copies. It took another six years for Moby to get a record deal, with Instinct. "When I signed, they didn't have an office, they didn't have staff and they didn't have a logo," he says. "I basically signed to an idea."

Throughout the Nineties, having made his name as a techno boffin, Moby continued playing in punk bands, and wrote classical music for film directors including Michael Mann. Clearly he was keeping his options open.

Even now, he jumps at the chance to expand his repertoire. This month, he is exhibiting a series of cartoons in London, each of them linked to a song on the new album. Visual art has a precedent in his family – his mother painted in the evenings, and his grandmother was a watercolourist – though Moby is dismissive of his talents: "If you look up 'dilettante visual artist' in the dictionary, there's a picture of me drawing a cartoon with a magic marker."

Despite the self-deprecation, Moby insists he is now at his happiest. He has relaxed his once-dogmatic views on politics and religion and is comfortable with the ageing process ("I had my mid-life crisis when I was 11"), even if he is disapproving of a world that puts so much currency on youth. "Why anyone listens to pearls of wisdom from the mouth of an 18-year-old is beyond me," he notes. "Maybe 18-year-olds today are more wised-up than I was. When I was 18, I was basically still covered in placenta."

It is testament to Moby's brushes with the world of celebrity that he now finds it hard to fathom the pursuit of fame. "If you look at it empirically, it's hard to find any evidence to support the idea that success makes people happy," he reflects. "Successful musicians have roughly the life expectancy of a Welsh coal miner, one who smokes and shares needles. Famous people tend to die young and they die unhappy, so why does anyone want to be rich and famous? Success is about personal fulfilment, not gaining acceptance from others. For musicians, it should be about making music that has integrity. And then, in a perfect world, other people like it too."

The album 'Wait for Me' is out now on Little Idiot. The Wait for Me exhibition is at the Maurice Einhardt Neu Gallery, London E2, until 24 July. www.neugalleries.com

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