Musician, activist, soothsayer: the many talents of Moby

But did he really invent the iPhone and become a voice for the world’s anti-Trump security services?

After Moby got really rich, he bought a castle in LA called Wolf’s Lair and moved in, alone. It was so big that he would make popcorn in the kitchen, “put it on a little tray and walk, you know, across hallways, up a staircase, to go watch Homeland on Netflix,” he tells me. He had also got sober, but this place had a soundproof basement nightclub which he imagined locking himself in for ever if he relapsed into drink and drugs – “It was a great house for degeneracy,” he says – so when “a British friend” asked if he’d consider selling it all, Moby said yes on a whim. He won’t tell me who bought it, but the rumour is that it was Banksy. Now Moby lives in a marginally less grand house down the hill, where his neighbours are merely Ryan Gosling and Thom Yorke, and where, within five minutes of arriving to interview him, I need to use the loo. He is so polite and welcoming that when he nips off I follow, thinking we will be walking down endless tastefully decorated minimalist corridors to find the WC. Alas, I have accidentally followed him right into the lavatory, where he calls out, “Just cleaning up!” as I walk in on him putting the toilet seat down for me.

Still, if you are aware of Moby’s past life, a toilet encounter with a woman he’s just met seems about par for the course. One year ago, he posted online that he had been informed by “friends who work in DC” that the Russians had much more nefarious info on Trump than him simply “peeing on hookers”. The internet got very excited about this but my first thought was, I’ve read your memoir, Moby, about the New York parties you went to in your wilder days of dance music and pop hits, and I’ve heard the gossip, too – you quite possibly peed on hookers yourself, so it’s no wonder you want to move this dialogue on.

Of course, that was the old days and while Moby is not back on the Christianity of his early youth, he has been clean for 10 years, having decided to examine the evidence. “And the evidence was that I was the most straight-up, banal, old-timey alcoholic.”

So what does he mean by “friends who work in DC”? Why did they ask Moby to be the leak? Is this all a joke? He makes us tea and moves us out to the garden, where the gentle California wind rustles through the cypress trees and I ask if he thinks the helicopter flying past is black ops.

Moby with his head on the table
World view: ‘One day we will live in a non-human dictatorship,’ says Moby Photograph: Dylan Coulter/The Observer

“Some Russian guy, yeah,” he jokes. “Luckily, I’ve always done really well in Russia, so maybe the FSBs are like: ‘No, don’t kill Moby he’s… I like that techno song!’”

Moby says you meet an awful lot of people as a touring musician. “And I’ve just managed to make friends – friendly acquaintances, friends might be too strong – with a few people at different intelligence agencies around the world; you know , you’re in Israel, you’re in the UK…” So who were these DC informers? “A couple of people, one current CIA, one ex-CIA, and it all came down to this: their big concern, borne out by a lot of Trump’s rhetoric, is that he’s looking for a war. They were like: ‘He’s a sociopath.’ A year ago they thought it was going to be with Iran – I forget which fleet it is, but we had warships off the coast of Iran, parked in a place where, traditionally, the Iranians put mines. So we sent the warships in to be attacked. My friends were basically saying: ‘You have a big social media following, we don’t know how else to get some of this information out there.’

“And so the proof of what they told me – in my little tweet I said: ‘Watch Michael Flynn,’ and a week later he got fired. Sort of as to say, OK, this isn’t just spurious gossip, this is based on actual intelligence. Then just the day before the State of the Union address, Trump did an interview with PBS and he said something to the effect of: ‘The country will only come together if there’s some sort of big event.’” A common enemy. “I was like, you’re talking about a terrorist attack. You want a terrorist attack, you want war, because he sees how with the Bush presidency, GW Bush, before 9/11 his approval rating was in the toilet.”

The thing about Moby is that he often turns out to be right, even when he can seem a little ridiculous beforehand. He recently took a complex personality test which labelled him as a “futurist” – someone who sees what is coming next for humanity. He was a pioneer of electronic music: his multimillion-selling albums took the rave into your mum’s sitting room, but he got a hard time in the 2000s for selling every single song from his Play album to advertising or films. “I think the word you’re looking for is ‘crucified’,” he smiles, adding that the irony is he licenses his music a lot less these days than other people do. Indeed, you could argue that it has since become the standard business model of the music industry, almost replacing record label deals. But Moby went first and the scars are still there from his crucifixion. “Yeah,” he says drolly, “they act up when it rains.”

There’s his move to LA. New York musos like him used to shun the west coast, but after Moby went, many of them followed. Then there’s his veganism: he opened a vegan restaurant, Teany, in New York 16 years ago (he was no sleeping partner and would often be seen putting in a shift there, tea towel in hand) and he has since opened Little Pine in LA. Now there are hundreds of vegan restaurants in America and in the UK.

Does he feel gratified to be ahead of that curve?

“The growth of veganism – yes”, he says, “because last November was my 30-year vegan anniversary.” How did you celebrate? By ritually slaughtering a pig? “Yeah, I relapsed,” he sighs. “I went out and bought $300-worth of cocaine and a case of vodka and a big bag of McDonald’s and put it all into a blender.”

Moby at Rave in Riverside, California, in 1997.
Banging the drum: Moby at Rave in Riverside, California, in 1997. Photograph: Jeff Kravitz/FilmMagic

I put it to him that he is a pioneer. “Well here’s the funniest one and I’m hesitant to talk about this because it sounds either like nonsense, or self-aggrandising.” He goes on to explain how Apple launched iTunes and he told Jimmy Dickson, one of the heads, that they needed a proprietary Apple MP3 player. Their Newton device had failed and they weren’t keen, but he insisted. “A year or two later they brought me to a hotel room at the Crosby in New York, handed me the first iPod and said: ‘Steve wanted you to have this.’ I said: ‘You do know at some point this is going to have a camera and a phone attached to it?’ And they laughed at me and said that could never happen.” And that is how Moby invented the iPhone.

As for his new album, Everything Was Beautiful And Nothing Hurt, the song titles are all terribly apocalyptic: A Dark Cloud Is Coming, The Last Goodbyes, The Waste of Suns. “Hopefully the record is not as sad as the titles,” he says. It isn’t. It contains his trademark lovely uplifting sound, along with his reassuring, sad, gentle voice, and that of guest vocalists, but he insists that there are only “10 people on the planet who are willing to listen to it.” I say he’s being churlish. “OK, 50.”

“I wonder if other middle-aged musicians ask themselves this,” he continues. “Why make a record at all? You know, it’s 2018, I’m 52 years old and I refuse to tour.” So you’ll never play live again? “Oh I love playing live. I just played a fundraiser for my friend’s kid’s pre-school. Half the audience was under the age of four. But albums, in 2018, they’re entering the realm of viability of self-published experimental poetry, or interpretative dance. So when I make an album, I love making it and I find it almost emancipating that there’s almost no commercial potential for it.” Well that’s easy to say now that you’re rich, I tell him. “Oh, if I was 23 years old, I might have a different perspective,” he replies. “But I’m not, so it’d be silly for me to be disingenuous about my perspective.”

His first memoir, Porcelain, ends just before his album Play gets huge, and he tells me he has just finished drafting a second book, which will also cover childhood stuff. His editor at Faber & Faber has been asking if he’s sure he wants to include such dark material as suicide attempts. Moby does. With both his parents a long time gone, he feels pretty free now. “It’s much easier to throw your mum under the bus when she’s dead,” he laughs, but not cruelly, just matter-of-fact. He grew up in Darien, Connecticut; his dad was dead and his mum took drugs, became very poor, and was not focused on him emotionally.

There’s a joke his friends used to make about him, about a children’s book called Are You My Mother? “It’s a little baby bird walking around the world, going up to a dog, or a fire hydrant, asking if that is its mum. So I’d be out in a strip club with friends and I’d see some stripper who like archetypally resembled my mum, and my friends immediately knew and they’d be like: ‘Oh, it’s Are You My Mother?’

So what has he realised since? “More often than not sex is about validation; it’s about wanting another person to look at you and validate you – whether that’s recreating some broken family archetype. You know, it’s like the incontrovertible evidence that someone has found you to be legitimate. I think that’s certainly what I was always looking for, but I wasn’t aware of it at the time. Again, I feel like such a cliché; like a middle-aged musician in Los Angeles saying: ‘Oh, yeah, I got sober and things changed,’ but they did. Like these parties with these wealthy finance people in New York, but I kept going because I thought that was legitimacy, you know?”

Moby with David Bowie
Moby with David Bowie in New York: ‘His mind was like a super computer’ Photograph: K Mazur/WireImage

I ask if he crossed paths with the Trumps at such events. “Oh yeah, I mean I knew Ivanka, we hosted a fundraiser at the Museum of Natural History together. I knew Jared when he was the publisher of the [New York] Observer.” And were they interesting? “Not terribly, they were part of this sea of entitled white people and I felt such an outsider, because I was a musician who had grown up poor white trash. Every now and then I’d tell them stories about when I lived illegally in an abandoned factory and had to pee into old water bottles, and they’d just look at me like I was an alien with three heads. Trump always just seemed sad and puffy. You’d see him all the time and it was just like: ‘Oh, yeah, there he is, the real-estate guy who always seems to be scowling and bloated.’”

Someone Moby did love in the New York celebrity scene, though, was David Bowie, who would always say to him: “You may be younger than me, but my hair is way better.” Moby lived on Mott Street and Bowie and Iman lived on Lafayette and Prince, “And we could see each other from our rooftops,” he says. “We could wave to each other. We spent holidays together, we went on tour together, we had barbecues together, we went to the local coffee shop together.”

Bowie gave Moby the black hat he wore in The Man Who Fell To Earth. “I was leaving his apartment just before Christmas and he said: ‘Hang on, I’ve got a present for you,’ and he came running back with it. It was sort of like Jesus comes running back saying: ‘Oh, here’s the Holy Grail.’ There was never a second we spent together that I forgot I was an unworthy acolyte. And I never let on. Every second was me pretending to be normal and not this weird, incapacitated fan. His mind was like a super computer. You know those people who have minds that you’re just in awe of? Everything moves so fast, like clockwork. The mayor of LA, Eric Garcetti, is one of them, too.”

We discuss how Garcetti is one to watch in US politics, along with Claire McCaskill from Missouri – though for now, Moby favours Cory Booker to lead the Democrats; an African-American former mayor of Newark: “Super-interesting and the only vegan in the Senate.” Moby is “neither pro nor anti capitalism”, and says you can always tell that, “If a politician seems awkward during the campaigning, it isn’t going to work out. Enjoying meeting people, making speeches and kissing babies – Obama had it, Bill Clinton had it, Hillary didn’t. She never liked the act of going out and shaking hands. She and I are old friends.”

Of course they are! I ask the Futurist what the future holds: he says he has a feeling that “at some point it’s going to be a non-human dictatorship. Meaning, I think that people will get so tired of corrupt human politicians that, at some point, they will create an algorithm that makes these decisions for us that is non-corruptible. I’m not advocating it, I’m just saying that it’s the logical outcome that we will find ourselves governed by algorithms.”

You heard it here first. And the thing is, that when Moby explains it in that calm, sober voice of his, it sounds almost peaceful.

Everything Was Beautiful And Nothing Hurt is released by Mute records on 2 March


Sophie Heawood Portrait Dylan Coulter

The GuardianTramp

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