We’ve Got A File On You: Moby

Mike Formanski

We’ve Got A File On You: Moby

Mike Formanski

We’ve Got A File On You features interviews in which artists share the stories behind the extracurricular activities that dot their careers: acting gigs, guest appearances, random internet ephemera, etc.

Moby is an open book — literally. Few electronic producers across the last several decades have been the focus of such a sustained level of public and press attention the way the 58-year-old mononymous superstar (known in government documents as Richard Melville Hall) has. There’s a lot out there to know about Moby, and much of it he’s made available by his own design: His twin memoirs, 2016’s Porcelain: A Memoir and Then It Fell Apart from 2019, are at turns revelatory, highly entertaining, and straight-up deeply unpleasant to consume. Even as his own ability to be wholly truthful about the past has come under scrutiny (more on that later), his warts-and-all approach to laying out his own personal travails would leave one to believe that, when it comes to reflecting on his recent and distant past, Moby is simply out of stories to tell.

And yet: As we speak about his latest album, Always Centered At Night, a softball question about how choice in collaborators over the years yields yet another notable, very Moby-esque anecdote seemingly from thin air. “I’m not looking for commercial perfection,” he states about his choice in vocalists this go-round, which skews reasonably obscure with indie-R&B auteur Serpentwithfeet as the most easily recognizable name. “When I go on a streaming service and listen to a lot of pop music, the perfection leaves me cold. Over time, I’ve found that the voices that I love the most are the ones that have the most personality. They have technically amazing voices, but they still are able to communicate who they are as individuals — this great combination of strength and vulnerability.”

To emphasize this creative pull, Moby brings up the first time he ever met late Screaming Trees frontman Mark Lanegan, who collaborated with the producer a few times over his career. “The first time I heard Mark sing live, I was like, ‘Oh my God, that voice. How do I acquire that?’ I managed to introduce myself backstage and assumed he was going to hate me, but he actually liked my music and was the nicest person I ever met.”

Their last work together was on Moby’s 2021 orchestral reworks record Reprise, with Lanegan returning for an orchestral version of “The Lonely Night” from the 2013 record Innocence — alongside guest vocalist Kris Kristofferson, no less. By Moby’s account, the finished product was literally one of the last things Lanegan heard while on his deathbed before passing away in February of 2022. “Mark responded like I had just given him every Christmas and birthday present wrapped into one,” Moby recalls. “I was able to send him the finished recording right before he died, and he was lying in his hospital bed listening to it and crying.”

Across our conversation spanning some of Moby’s more arcane career milestones, I was frequently fascinated by the somewhat demure and, at points, even sheepish tone from a public figure who, less than five years ago, was publicly proclaiming that he once rubbed his penis on a former president. Moby’s tone across this interview suggested someone who’s become increasingly uncomfortable with his past behavior, the gestures of those around him, and his own relationship with memory. Time will tell whether his flair for controversy-baiting has truly been extinguished, but for now it was fascinating to explore a more thoughtful and loquaciously cautious side of his public persona.

Appearing In The Video For Ultra Vivid Scene’s “Mercy Seat” (1989)

MOBY: It was either 1988 or 1989, and I was DJing in a dive bar in Port Chester, New York. I was living in an abandoned factory with no running water or bathroom. I was desperately trying to make anything happen for myself — going around New York City, dropping off demo tapes everywhere, sending records, sending cassettes everywhere. My friend Julie Hermelin started dating Kurt Ralske, and Kurt was having an audition for a guitar player. I was so scared because he was on 4AD. To me, he was the most successful musician in the world because he was on 4AD.

I auditioned and, somehow, I got the job. I think I lasted all of three weeks before Kurt fired me. I like Kurt quite a lot. I definitely don’t have hard feelings. It’s, like, 400 years ago. But during those three weeks, MTV came and filmed us. I remember so distinctly watching 120 Minutes with my then-girlfriend Janet, and they played the video for “Mercy Seat” that MTV made for Kurt. They showed me for a grand total of three seconds in the video, and I was like, “Oh my God, this is awesome.” That was me on MTV for three seconds in the basement of a rehearsal space in New York City. Back then, even having two people listen to a demo tape was the height of professional music excitement.

Playing “Go” On Top Of The Pops (1991)

MOBY: The first solo record I put out was “Mobility” in 1990, and the B-side was “Go.” It was a 12″ that was very inspired by Detroit techno. I was listening to a lot of Transmat Records, and I was essentially trying to be Derrick May, but not nearly as good. We somehow licensed the song to the UK record company Outer Rhythm, and the man who ran Outer Rhythm said, “Great, I’d love to release this, but I need a remix.”

The next day, I was watching Twin Peaks and I heard those famous Laura Palmer chords. I was like, “Huh, let me try and put those on this remix.” I was beyond obscure, but with the Twin Peaks chords on top of it, the song became this big hit in Europe. Being on Top Of The Pops was so utterly baffling that I still am not sure it happened. It’s within the realm of possibility that it was actually just a hallucination. Maybe the truth is it’s 1991, I’m in the desert, I’ve taken too much mescaline and everything that I think has happened over the last 30 years has just been a bizarre hallucination.

I was flying to London leaving my abandoned factory, and looking at the newspaper. A newspaper — maybe it was The Guardian — had the top 20 singles in the UK, and “Go” was #10, in between Phil Collins and Michael Jackson. I was making $2,000 a year DJing in a dive bar, buying groceries with the money I made from returning cans to the A&P and Food Emporium on the corner of 14th street and Union Square. All of a sudden I’m on Top Of The Pops. I’d never been in a TV studio or in a dressing room before. It was so loud and there were lights everywhere. U2 were on the show, as well as Phil Collins, New Order, and then me and a bunch of other rave acts.

Smashing His Keyboard During Mixmag Awards Performance (1992)

MOBY: My friend David — I haven’t talked to him in a while — David Prince, he was the editor of XLR8R and works for Goldenvoice now. Back then, he was the editor of Mixmag, and they asked me to play at the Mixmag Awards, and I said yes. I’ll be honest, the other performers all made great records, but they weren’t…how can I say this very politely and diplomatically…

I didn’t feel challenged in any way by their performances. They were very static. Of course, I come from that weird world of punk rock, and my favorite live performers were GWAR. So I’m watching all these performers get up, mime to the track, and they’d politely walk off. I got so bored.

When it was my turn to perform, I was like, “You know what? I’m just going to do nothing and just destroy my equipment.” I remember feeling very guilty afterwards, like, “Uh-oh, what did I just do? Did I just do something very bad?” David was there, and he had a huge smile on his face. He was like, “Someone finally livened this up!” This is rave culture — craziness, joy, celebration, and anarchy. Why did these performances feel like just a couple of people standing at a keyboard politely pretending to play a song? To be fair, I did smash a lot of things during those years — mainly out of frustration because the equipment kept breaking down.

Did you see when Phoebe Bridgers smashed her guitar on Saturday Night Live?

MOBY: No, I didn’t. To be fair, guitars are very hard things to smash. I’m assuming it maybe didn’t go so well.

It was more that it generated a lot of discourse online about whether smashing a guitar is a point of privilege. I didn’t really get why it was a big deal, to be honest.

MOBY: I’d apply the quantitative criteria of, one, how much did the piece of equipment cost? Two, was it functioning to begin with? Three, if so, did it perhaps still function afterwards? Like, with my keyboards, here’s the thing: If you took an SM58 microphone and smashed the keys on a keyboard, the keyboard still worked. So I kept destroying my keyboards, and at some point it almost became like a challenge. How much am I going to have to destroy this Yamaha keyboard before it actually stops working? I had a good few years of digital equipment that I abused so much, and it just kept working.

With a guitar — maybe she was just trying to do a little stunt, and she got a broken $20 guitar from a thrift shop that was going to get thrown out. But if it’s someone smashing a 1957 gold-top Les Paul that costs $15,000, I’m like, “Maybe that could’ve been sold to buy people soup.” Who knows?

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Beef With Aphex Twin (1993)

You and Aphex Twin had issues while touring together in the early ’90s, and he insulted your music. Talk to me about the provincialism of electronic and dance music — in terms of a culture of taste, its tiers are fairly stratified.

MOBY: There was a sadness to it, because I really liked his records. I especially liked [Selected Ambient Works 85-92]. I went into that tour feeling like, “Hey, we’re all in this together.” I realized pretty quickly they didn’t feel that way. Luckily, that was a long time ago. I don’t have any ill will towards anyone. But it did feel like, on the part of the intelligentsia, there was a collective embarrassment about the emotional expression of rave culture. It rubbed me the wrong way, because I love underground electronic music. I always have, even going back even to the ’70s and the ’80s.

What I loved about house music and rave culture was the celebration and joy of freeing yourself from all the repression and inhibition. It’s been going on for a long time. Expressions of emotion make people uncomfortable — I mean, I’m a WASP from Connecticut. But I’ve always gravitated towards art that unapologetically wears its heart on its sleeve, and I felt like there was that period in the early ’90s where the intelligentsia were trying to kill off that joyful expression of emotion that made rave culture so transcendent.

The other thing I had to admit, even back then, was the music that was being championed — the “intelligent techno” — was really good. Whether it’s Boards Of Canada or the Warp Records stuff, they were making great records. But why can’t we have “intelligent techno” alongside a screaming disco diva that people jump up and down to? I guess this could apply to other genres as well — like, when it was the early ’80s and I was in the hardcore punk world, I was like, “Why can’t you have the Clash and Bad Brains? Why can’t you have the English Beat and Black Flag?” It’s all wonderful. But there were these arbitrary but unbroken lines being drawn between genres. Why arbitrarily reject something just because it might have more of a populist appeal than the super obscure stuff?

Moby Claims Billy Corgan Owes Him A Remix (1997)

Tell me about your general history with Billy.

MOBY: Oh, Billy. The Pumpkins, at their best, were phenomenal. I saw the live show when Mellon Collie came out, and I was like, “This is amazing.” Some of those songs were great — even some of the earlier Pumpkins stuff, when he had hair. We ended up making friends later.

I’ve had this problem — I’ve had many problems — but one of my problems is that I think I’m being funny, and I end up offending people by trying to be funny. That’s sort of what happened with Eminem. I thought I was making a joke, and he didn’t take it that way. With Billy, I jokingly said, “Yeah, Billy Corgan’s a deadbeat. He owes me a remix.” To me, that’s funny. But I’ve learned I should just simply not make jokes. It just gets me into trouble.

Did you ever go to his tea shop?

MOBY: I didn’t know he had a tea shop. If I knew he had a tea shop, I’d go.

It’s in Chicago. It still exists.

MOBY: Oh, okay, next time I’m in Chicago. I mean, we became friends. We went on tour together with New Order in 2001. I certainly never bore him any ill will. It was just that frustration of wanting to explain to someone, “I was making a joke, I’m sorry, it got interpreted badly.”

Moby’s Tea Shop TeaNY (2002-2015)

Something I find interesting about Teany is that it’s way more common now for pop stars to have side hustles like this — Dua Lipa and her newsletter, for example. You were a little ahead of the times here.

MOBY: It’s a tricky thing to revisit because it was quite a while ago — 23 years ago-ish. It was also the height of my drinking, drug-taking, and delusional narcissism. It was right after Play had been successful, as well as the height of the very baffling geopolitical insanity right after 9/11.

My then-girlfriend and I were walking around lower Manhattan after 9/11, where we both lived, and it was a war zone. There were National Guard and military trucks everywhere. Entire blocks had been cordoned off. Real estate-wise, everything emptied out.

There was this moment where we thought, “Okay, lower Manhattan is never coming back.” How does lower Manhattan come back from 9/11? I was drinking a lot and doing a lot of drugs already, but the insanity, stress, sadness, and chaos meant that I just started drinking twice as much and doing any drug that was ever put in front of me. I still remember one hungover morning where we were like, “You know what? Let’s open a tea shop.”

The idea originally came to me in 1987. I went to Paris with my then-girlfriend, and I used to like going to a tea shop. I was like, “Oh, that might be nice — to own a tea shop.” I’m sure there’s lots of other variables that contributed to it, but it was really just that simple. “Hey, let’s open it in our neighborhood.” The rents were almost nonexistent because no one wanted to be down there. And it seemed, potentially, healthy — as opposed to opening a dive bar, which I wanted to do as well. In our way, maybe absurdly, it was us saying, “Wow, this is our neighborhood, and even though it’s a war zone right now, we’d like to do something that, in our own presumptuous way, might be supportive of this city and the neighborhood.”

How long have you been sober for?

MOBY: Fifteen years.

Tell me what you’ve learned about yourself in that span of time.

MOBY: After I’d been sober for a while, I realized that sobriety came down to one overarching theme. I don’t know if this is going to make sense, but it was about finally being willing to look at evidence. My alcoholism, my drug addiction, those years of pathological narcissism, it was all magical thinking. “Every time I go out, I have 20 drinks and spend $300 on cocaine, but maybe tonight will be different.” “I’m a healthy vegan, even though I just did a bag of drugs I found behind a toilet in the dive bar.” Sobriety, for me, was just simply being willing to admit, “I’m an alcoholic. I’m a drug addict.” There’s no way to get around these things.

I can no longer indulge in that magical thinking — and all signs point to the fact that I was a terrible, entitled narcissist. I treated the people I cared about badly, and I was treating myself badly. But if we’d been talking in 2006, before I’d gone through sobriety, step work, meditation, and different spiritual practices, I’d have thought it was perfectly feasible to be a good person who also treated people terribly, or to be a healthy person who also was doing $300 of cocaine every night and drinking vodka.

And, to be clear, there’s nothing wrong with cocaine or vodka — but they just are, by definition, incredibly toxic and unhealthy.

Offering Free Music To Filmmakers Via MobyGratis.com (2007)

MOBY: For about a year and a half, I was part of the continuing ed program at SUNY Purchase — living in my abandoned factory, taking philosophy and film and photography classes there. SUNY Purchase was one of the last schools to have an experimental film program. As a result, a bunch of my friends from SUNY Purchase were in the experimental film program and all went on to develop — no pun intended — careers as underground filmmakers.

Years later, I was having dinner with a couple of my underground filmmaker friends, and they were talking about some films they were making and how the hardest part was music. These are people who would mortgage their houses, max out their credit cards, and borrow tons of money to get their films to the point where they might be finished. They’d run out of money to license music, and the fees that people were asking for licensing, even in the supposedly friendly and altruistic indie world, were really prohibitive. I just thought, “Why not start this site that gives free music away to indie filmmakers and film students and nonprofits?”

That’s where it came from, and we’re actually relaunching it within the next six months or so. I’ve got approximately 1,200 pieces of unreleased music that we’re going to put up there, and we’re also going to add this new feature where we’re going to include multi-tracks. Everything is free, and it has to be free. I was talking to my managers, and there’s invariably someone who is going to say, “How can you generate revenue from this?” I was like, “You know what, let’s just forget that.” I’m in the position where I don’t have to generate revenue, why? If you have enough, if you can buy blueberries out of season, why do you need more?

There are a lot of dystopian, terrible things about the world in which we live, but the democratic chaos of technology I find to be really fascinating. You make something, you put it out into the world, and you have no idea where it’s going to live or what’s going to happen with it. I know that drives some people crazy, but I actually like the unpredictable chaos.

Getting Electrocuted Onstage (2011)

Speaking of chaos: Let’s talk about how it felt to get electrocuted onstage.

MOBY: It wasn’t really a stage. It was in an art gallery in Amsterdam, and I was playing some acoustic songs with my friend Joy. I think the art gallery had put up some of my photographs, so as a little quid pro quo, I went and we played some acoustic songs. There was a shelving unit in this gallery, and I went and stood on top of it. There was this lighting fixture with two wires, and somehow I grounded the circuit with my neck.

It was so interesting, because I stood there and I felt something — like, this weird thing — on my neck, and I got off the shelf and fell down. I remember lying there, but I was never passed out. I was just in a very different place, and I knew something had happened. Eventually, I opened my eyes, got up, and realized, “Oh, I think I was just kind of electrocuted.”

I don’t advocate being gently electrocuted. But, for the next 12 hours, I was very calm. I think I accidentally gave myself electroconvulsive therapy. I remember going to the airport, sitting by the gate, reading, I was like, “Wow, I’m just so calm. I don’t want to check my phone. I don’t want to read a book. I don’t want to look at a magazine.” I just was just sitting there in this catatonic state that was surprisingly pleasant. I don’t know what getting a lobotomy feels like, but it definitely felt like it wasn’t an altogether unpleasant experience.

Moby’s Friend Gregor Asks For His Alan Lomax CDs Back On The Heavyweight Podcast (2016)

So, your friend Gregor went on this podcast and claimed you loaned him a CD that you sampled for Play and never gave it back.

MOBY: I’ve known Gregor and his brother Dimitri since the ’80s. They both worked for Interview, and my then-girlfriend Janet was an intern there. I met them, and I thought they were the coolest guys in the world because they were going out to gigs and people sent them free records. I’m still friends with both of them to this day. The podcast was interesting, but I don’t…I’m not going to…because Gregor is my friend.

But here’s the thing. I found the CDs. I was going through a storage locker a couple years ago. I found the CDs and I let him know and I was like, “Finally, after all this time, I found your CDs. When can I get them to you?” He was like, “Oh, I don’t really care.” I was like, “But, but, but the whole thing, the whole schtick, the whole narrative was that you just want your CDs back.” And I found them, they’re still in a drawer if he ever wants them, but, like, you know…

He’s a really funny, smart guy. There was, clearly, the fact that he doesn’t actually want the CDs. That made the whole thing a little funny, but I don’t know how earnest it was.

Appearing On Twin Peaks: The Return with Rebekah Del Rio (2017)

You talked a bit about your relationship with David Lynch in Then It Fell Apart, especially in regard to transcendental meditation.

MOBY: Yeah, I somehow became friends with David Lynch, and when you become friends with your creative heroes, you expend this huge amount of energy trying to pretend that’s normal. When I was friends with David Bowie, the whole time I was friends with him, I just kept wanting to, like, fall down on my knees like Mike Myers in Wayne’s World. But, of course, people like David Bowie and David Lynch don’t want sycophants. They want friends. So the entire time I’m aware of how strange and remarkable it is, but also how completely unworthy I am to be friends with these demigods.

With David Lynch, I went to his house, I spent Christmas with him one year. We did so much stuff together, and he made it very easy to be friends with him because he’s such a lovely person. A few years passed and he texted me and said, “Hey” — I was going to do his voice, but I won’t — “we’re shooting all these musical scenes for the new Twin Peaks. Do you want to come and pretend to play guitar with Rebecca?” I was like, “You tell me when, and I will move heaven and Earth.”

There were a few strange things about this. One, the David Lynch was texting me to ask if I would be in Twin Peaks. They shot it in Pasadena in the middle of June, so it was a hot summer day and I was driving to Pasadena in my electric car, as if I were going to Whole Foods to get a juice. You walk on set, and immediately you’re in the Roadhouse at the middle of the night, only it’s 11AM on a sunny Pasadena Saturday. The entire cast was there, and since he let the characters age, there’s Bobby Briggs, but he’s now a cop and he had gray hair. James Hurley was there. I was meeting all these people from the cast — I should know their names, but I know their characters.

Revealing That He Once Went On A Date With Lana Del Rey (2019)

When Lana was asked about this anecdote in Then It Fell Apart, she said that you have a mind like a steel trap. Sometimes, having a good memory can work out in different ways for people. How has it affected your life?

MOBY: When it comes to writing memoirs, I’m pretty adept at remembering scenes and building an environment. It’s a tool I learned where you start with one thing and build out. If you can remember the shoes you were wearing, then you think, “What pants was I wearing? What did the light look like? What was the furniture like?” Immediately, it’s like a mnemonic cascade.

The only thing I will say is that I don’t know if it’s true or not. There’s so many studies that have been done on memory, and as we all know, memory is very fallible. That’s why eyewitness testimony is almost always discounted. So I presumptuously think I remember things pretty well, but if some objective divine entity came down and said, “No, everything you’ve remembered is wrong,” what are you going to do? Memory is, by definition, subjective. There’s almost no way to prove or disprove it — even if there’s evidence, especially now that evidence can be manipulated. So I like to think that my memory is pretty good, but if it turns out it’s not, I won’t lose too much sleep over it.

The Genealogy Detective Podcast Debunks Moby’s Herman Melville Lineage Claim (2023)

I found something very interesting about the statement you gave after this podcast debunked this assertion of yours. You told Stereogum at the time, “It’s flattering that people I’ve never met would spend time looking into my genealogy.” I feel like, more so than a decent amount of your peers, there has been a regular and public focus on your personal life. What has that been like for you over the years?

MOBY: I came up with a strategy that might actually be applicable to a lot of people in the modern age — meaning in the ye olden days before social media, when there weren’t that many public figures in the world. And, to state the obvious, in the world of social media, there are now 6 billion public figures. It seems like almost everybody on the planet, at some point, goes through the weirdness of being a public figure where they’re being both praised and crucified by strangers.

Everybody’s trying to figure out how you process it. It plays into addiction a little bit, where it’s like, how do you have the highs without the lows? It’s very hard to do that., I don’t know anyone who can be attacked by a stranger and not have a negative reaction to it. Young kids have such a negative reaction to it that, sometimes, they hurt themselves. It’s a real thing and it’s terrible.

My giant epiphany happened a while ago — maybe 15 years ago, if not longer. I used to be so self-involved, and I think I still am, but probably, hopefully to a lesser extent. I was so self-involved. I wanted to know everything that was written and said about me. In the ye olden days, I’d go and read every article written about me and get very upset when someone wrote something bad. Then, social media started, and for narcissists, that was like toxic manna from heaven.

So I kept reading everything. I was reading the comments. I was reading the reviews. Either Gawker or Gothamist had some snarky little piece about me wearing an ugly sweater, and I was like, “OK, who cares?” But, being the narcissist, I read the comments, and one of the comments was from some guy who said, “If I ever meet Moby, I will stab him and watch him bleed to death in front of me.” I read that and I was like, “Oh my. This is not right. This is not healthy. I don’t know this person.”

And all of a sudden, I realized how foolish it was to hand over my wellbeing to someone I’d never met, and how bizarre it was that my entire sense of self and perspective of the world could be determined by a one-line comment from a stranger — as opposed to health, friends, family, creativity, spirituality, nature. I was basically ignoring my actual world to solely focus on this one comment. And at that point, I decided I’m done. I’ve had moments where I’ve lapsed, but for the most part, I’ve been remarkably disciplined.

I don’t read reviews. I don’t read articles. I don’t read comments. If I do something on TV or radio, I don’t listen to it or watch myself. I only have one rule with the people I work with, which is never send me or tell me anything about how the world is responding to what I do. I’m so blissfully, naively ignorant. Do my records get good or bad reviews? I don’t know. Do people like me or not? I don’t know. All I know is that my friend Lindsay likes me and her dog Bagel jumps around when I show up. My sense of wellbeing is informed by that world, not the opinions of people I’ve never met.

I was having lunch with some people a couple of years ago, and they were so upset at being attacked by trolls. They were livid, furious, sad, and scared, because they were getting attacked by all these right-wing and misogynistic trolls. I said to them, “Well, just don’t read the comments.” They looked at me as if I had said, “Why don’t you move to Mars?” They were like, “But, you have to.” I was like, “Actually, you don’t.” You can just make a smoothie and go for a hike. Lead a nice, little normal life. Go to Gelson’s and buy organic oranges. The world can be as simple as you want it to be for most of us.

Always Centered At Night is out 6/14 via Mute.

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