Moby: 'Going to AA is the only chance in LA you get to see fellow musicians'

The electronica artist on his decades spent being a falling-down drunk, losing Bowie's hat and why he's not cool enough for James Blake

Hey, Moby, how and where are you?

I'm great. I'm at home in Los Angeles (1). I thought I'd spend my whole life in New York, but a few things happened. One, I stopped drinking. And two, I realised New York is the greatest place in the world to be a drunk, but not such a great place to be sober.

How much were you drinking?

It's funny. I was part of a study at Columbia University on panic attack sufferers, because, unfortunately, I've had anxiety since I was a little kid, and before doing the study I was given a questionnaire, and one of the questions was: how many units of alcohol do you consume in a month? And I realised I was drinking about 60 units a week. I remember lying to my doctor, saying it was somewhere between 30 to 40 and he was even concerned at that. I was having about 300 drinks a month. That made me realise it was maybe time to stop.

When was this?

Five years ago. Up until then I was a sad, passed-out drunk at the bar.

Any embarrassing moments?

I had probably a few thousand moments. And I don't fully remember most of them.

Did any of them make the papers?

Not that I remember, because nothing was too dramatic, just me humiliating myself. Nothing amazing like driving a limousine through a shop window. Usually just being sad and depressing in public.

You'd think people would have paid attention because it's so far from your reputation as the abstemious techno monk.

I guess some people were surprised. I remember back when I still read my own press being referred to constantly as a "teetotaller". And it was so ironic because I was out getting drunk six or seven times a week.

How did we get it so wrong?

When I first started making records, I was a sober teetotaller and that reputation stuck with me. Luckily, even after decades of being a falling-down drunk, healthwise, I emerged relatively unscathed, which is baffling to me. I will pass homeless people on the street and think: "Wow, if things had gone a little differently, that would have been me."

Did you drink all your money away?

No. I love drugs as well, but the good thing about alcohol is, it's not very expensive. If you're going to have a crazy night on cocaine, it's going to cost a lot of money. But a crazy night drinking lager costs, like, $30.

Were you just drinking lager?

My two favourite drinks were vodka and beer. I remember being in Serbia with these soldiers and they introduced me to what became my favourite cocktail: a pint glass, half filled with beer and half with vodka. Their name for it was Concrete. I would go out to old-man bars in New York and order them, and even the crazy bitter alcoholics would look at me with this newfound respect.

How many could you down in a night?

A few. It's pretty easy to become psychotically drunk on vodka because it doesn't taste of anything.

Were you in AA?

Of course. I have become a fully fledged southern California cliche. The good thing about it is, going to AA is the only chance in LA you get to see fellow musicians. I run into legends from the 60s, 70s and 80s.

Do you only hang out with musicians?

No, most of my friends are directors: Paul Haggis, Marc Forster, David Lynch. If you're a movie star in Milton Keynes, it's pretty big news, but if you're a movie star in LA, no one pays that much attention. The same with rock stars and directors.

The S&M gimp gymnasts and the obese bearded bikers in red Speedos in your video for the Perfect Life (2): what was that all about?

To me it sounded like a Flaming Lips song. So I thought, why not see if Wayne [Coyne] will sing on it? My idea for the video was to be absurd nonsense, so we thought, why not gather up a whole bunch of random absurd people and see what happens? We put on authentic mariachi costumes and spent the day downtown [in LA].

Did the police intervene?


Even with the random nudity?

To be honest, there was a lot less nudity than I was anticipating. We had about 70 extras and only about four of them took off their clothes.

Were you one of them?

In this case, I was not. I have been naked in public and I've always deeply regretted it. The last time was a political fundraiser at my house. It was a warm night and, once all the politicians had left, someone had the idea of going skinny-dipping. Nothing too debauched, but someone took a picture of me about to jump into the pool and I just looked so sad and middle-aged it made me vow never to take my clothes off in public again.

Did the picture get tweeted?

Thankfully, no. There isn't much interest in seeing a blurry, naked middle-aged guy standing by a pool at one in the morning.

Your new album features a lot of guests (3). How did that happen?

I came up with a list of people whose voices I really liked. Of the 10, the only two I wanted but who didn't get back to me were James Blake and Emeli Sandé. I guess she was too busy, and I'm working under the assumption that I'm not cool enough to have James Blake sing on my record.

Shame. But then you have worked with virtually everyone else: David Bowie, Lou Reed, Michael Stipe, Public Enemy, New Order … Is Bowie still the highest of the high in your personal hierarchy of heroes?

Yeah. About 10 years ago, I was over at his house and he gave me a present, the greatest present anyone has ever given me: the fedora that he wore in The Man Who Fell to Earth. And on the inside of the brim it said: "To Moby, Love David." I felt like I'd been given the holy grail, because Bowie is my favourite artist of all time. A few weeks later, I'd been in this terrible bar and it closed and I invited three people back to my apartment. Anyway, people were smoking crack in the bathroom, and at six in the morning I took out this hat and I was showing it off, and in the morning it was gone. I have two big regrets from drinking: that, and Joan Rivers once invited me to a seder (4) and, even though I'm not Jewish, I love Joan Rivers and I was too hungover to go. I was so incapacitated I couldn't get out of bed. I remember thinking: "Boy, I need to stop drinking."

Did you just not turn up?

No, I emailed and told her the reason I always give – that I was sick. And it was the truth. I was sick – because I'd had 15 drinks and a whole bunch of cocaine. I'm a Wasp, but half my family are Jewish – one of my aunts married an orthodox rabbi from Argentina – and when I told the Jewish half of my family, they were on the verge of disowning me.

You've been called "the Woody Allen of technopop".

Which, to me, is the highest compliment anyone can pay you. It makes me feel a little inadequate because I think of Annie Hall and Manhattan and Stardust Memories, and I will never in a million years make anything remotely as good.

Allen thinks the same – that he'll never do anything as good as Bergman.

He is actually the one who got me to stop reading my own press. Because, about 10 years ago, on one of the social sites I was reading some comments about me that were so scathing and upsetting. And the same day I read an interview with Woody where he said he never reads any of his reviews so, at that moment, I vowed I wouldn't either. Now, I'm blissfully unaware if people hate me.

You polarised people around the time of your album Play. Why?

If you sell a bunch of records (5) it irritates people. And, also, I have a unique form of Tourette's syndrome that compels me to be opinionated about everything. Plus there was a huge thing about me licensing my music to advertisements (6). And that seemed to bother people, which I always found ironic. Taking money from a car company was seen as evil; buying a car and giving the money to the car company was seen as benign. That seemed a little inconsistent.

Is Kanye the new you, the pop-culture pariah?

He certainly does seem polarising. I get kind of irritated by musicians like myself who seem relatively well-balanced and healthy. It's far more interesting when musicians go off the rails, like Kanye.

Will people now warm to you knowing you're not a teetotal vegan?

Perhaps. Except that when I was a falling-down drunk, I wasn't a very interesting falling-down drunk. I went to a lot of fun parties, but I usually just hit on people's girlfriends without knowing that they were someone's girlfriend and ended up causing banal trouble.

Did you ever get punched?

No, but I almost got shot by a drug dealer in Ibiza because I was hitting on his girlfriend. There was this very attractive German woman and I was chatting her up, and it turns out she was the girlfriend of the island's biggest drug dealer who was there with about 20 of the toughest people I've ever seen. I've learned a few lessons. Like, when I had my contretemps with Eminem a few years ago (7), I learned that if I'm going to have a public feud with someone, I should rather pick the bass player from some obscure indie rock band, and not the most successful musician on the planet who is always surrounded by people carrying guns.

Did you and Skylar Grey discuss Eminem when she came to work on your album?

I asked her about him and she said he's a really nice guy and a really good dad. I thought that was endearing. I assumed, based on his album titles [2009's Relapse and 2010's Recovery], that he, too, is in the sober club.

So you could be best friends?

We had very similar upbringings, both being the only child of a single mom and growing up very poor in a depressing suburban environment (8). So if we were to meet up, we would have that to talk about.

Maybe that was the cause of the hostility: that he saw too much of himself in you?

Possibly that. Also, over time I've just had to accept that maybe there's something about me that's really easy to dislike.

Innocents is released by Mute on 30 September.


(1) He owns a castle in the Hollywood Hills.

(2) S&M gimp gymnasts and obese bearded bikers in red Speedos appear in the video for Moby's new single the Perfect Life.

(3) Innocents includes cameos from Wayne Coyne, Cold Specks, Mark Lanegan, Damien Jurado and Skylar Grey.

(4) An annual Jewish ritual feast that marks the beginning of Passover.

(5) Play sold 10m copies – making it arguably the highest-selling electronica album ever – and helped Moby achieve a net worth of $30m.

(6) Every track on Play was licensed for advertising.

(7) On 2002's Without Me, Eminem ranted: "Moby / You can get stomped by Obie, / You 36-year-old bald-headed fag, blow me / You don't know me, you're too old, / Let go, it's over, nobody listens to techno."

(8) Moby told the New York Times in 2011: "We were dirt-poor white trash in arguably the wealthiest white town in the country," and admitted to using food stamps for most of his teens.


Paul Lester

The GuardianTramp

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