Moby is considering the question he is often asked in interviews: “Do I think I’ve been treated unfairly?” muses the 55-year-old musician, who, let’s face it, is hardly a stranger to terrible press. “Honestly, I don’t think I have been. I’m sure there are times when I’ve been portrayed badly and it was accurate. And even with some of the bad stuff I’ve been through, I don’t have any right to complain. When you look at the 8 billion people on the planet, a reasonably affluent caucasian cis-gendered male public figure musician is not necessarily the first person you think of as having valid criticisms about how they’re being treated.”
Moby is upbeat today – “I can’t think of many things to complain about besides baldness and mortality” – which is perhaps surprising given that the last time he was in the public eye, it involved rather a lot of the aforementioned terrible press. To summarise: in among the shocking confessions, rampant addiction and grotty sex of his second memoir, 2019’s Then It Fell Apart, was the claim that the “beautiful actress” Natalie Portman had asked him out when she was 20, at which point he would have been in his mid-30s.
She didn’t quite see it like that: “I was surprised to hear that he characterised the very short time that I knew him as dating, because my recollection is a much older man being creepy with me when I had just graduated high school. He said I was 20; I definitely wasn’t. I was a teenager. I had just turned 18. That he used this story to sell his book was very disturbing to me.”
At first Moby reiterated the claim, even posting what he said was “corroborating photo evidence” of the pair together. But then he posted an apology, accepting that some of the criticism was valid, that he should have run the book past her and that he should have acted more responsibly given their age difference. He declared his intention to “go away for a while”.
Before we get on to Portman, Moby wants to talk about his new album. Released next month, Reprise sees him rework old hits with the benefit of guest turns (Gregory Porter, Kris Kristofferson) and a philharmonic orchestra. It’s not quite the about-turn it first appears: Moby’s mother was a pianist, his great-grandmother taught classical composition and he had studied music theory himself, playing classical and jazz up to the age of 13, at which point he realised that playing Clash covers was more fun: “And that broke my poor music teacher’s heart,” he says, “because he wanted me to become this virtuoso prodigy.” Even so, Moby admits making the record still required him to get over “this cognitive dissonance around the idea that a 16-year-old kid who’d played punk shows to 10 people a night, at best, would ever be in the realm of possibility to work with an orchestra”.
If these restrained, melancholic reworkings aim to shift people’s perceptions of Moby – he’s a fan of Debussy, Vaughan Williams, Muffat – then so does the accompanying 90-minute documentary he has made about his life. In this, Moby gets friends to reenact the lack of interest his mother showed in him as a child, delves into his various addiction traumas and recreates, with the use of handmade wooden puppets, the drink-driving accident that killed his father when Moby was two. For light relief, he dresses as a scientist and describes the alcoholism that almost killed him via an anecdote about a time he got so drunk that he woke up after a session of group sex covered in someone else’s poo (he still doesn’t know whose it was). What must that have been like to make?
“There’s something obviously sort of a little bit shameful or embarrassing about using my intimate story as public entertainment,” he says. “Obviously there’s tons of historical precedent for it – I’m not pretending that I invented narcissistic self-involved narratives – but it’s especially odd to assess these intimate aspects of my life in terms of the lighting and sound quality.”
This is, I say, quite a detached way to talk about restaging your own father’s death as a puppet show. “Well, when you put it like that …” he laughs. “But I guess because of years of going to therapy, years of going to 12-step meetings, years of doing interviews – which can be very personal and therapeutic – I have familiarity with taking intimate things and objectifying them somehow. It wasn’t that hard.”
Perhaps the saddest moment in the documentary is when Moby recounts getting drunk and sleeping through his mother’s funeral in 1996. This takes the form of a black and white comic strip, violin music and Moby softly saying: “I’m really, really sorry.” You’re left thinking it’s about as low a moment as a person can have.
“Oh, that absolutely was not my lowest moment,” he objects. “I mean, sleeping through my mum’s funeral … yeah, I can imagine a therapist might find something they could work on there. But the actual lowest moments came later on, when the only happiness you can find is by being drunk and high, and when you wake up every afternoon disappointed and sometimes even angry that you’ve woken up. When the first thing you think upon waking is just disappointment that you’ve woken up again and you wonder: ‘What can I do to finally die?’ That’s much lower.”
Moby’s life story can be bleak, but it’s also wildly eventful. Born Richard Melville Hall in Harlem, New York, he moved to Darien in Connecticut with his mother after his father died. They were poor in an incredibly wealthy city. A permanent outsider, he found solace in punk rock, Christianity and veganism before ending up living in an abandoned warehouse in a crack-riddled neighbourhood and turning his hand to electronic music. The place had no running water, was full of cockroaches and seemed to feature a lot of murders – “a couple of people while I was living there, which considering there were only 30 or maybe 50 in this warehouse complex, is a pretty high murder rate”. But still, he says it was one of the “happier” times of his life. “I remember my cousin Ben visiting when he was four years old with my aunt and uncle. He walked into my space and said: ‘This place is terrible!’ That always makes me laugh.”
Since then his career has been a rollercoaster of highs and (often self-destructive) lows. He found fame with his 1991 rave track Go, then alienated his entire fanbase by releasing a hardcore punk album called Animal Rights in 1996. Three years later, the follow-up Play made him a global star thanks to songs, such as Why Does My Heart Feel So Bad? and Natural Blues, that sampled old blues and gospel records. He played huge shows and became friends with celebrities, including his new neighbour David Bowie (“Every minute we spent together I pretended to be normal, when the entire time I was a quivering teenager aware of the fact I was friends with the greatest musician of all time”). But subsequent releases saw his star wane and he spiralled into addiction, mocked in the music and gossip press during the especially cruel early 00s. Yet he won people around again with his first memoir, Porcelain, which documented his rise to fame with self-deprecating humour. His attempt to replicate that success with Then It Fell Apart – billed as a kind of spill-it-all-out therapy session – turned out disastrously, however, after Portman publicly called him out.
It’s something he doesn’t mention in his documentary. So what actually happened?
“That’s a good question,” he says. “I tried to describe it to a friend of mine and I had a hard time because there were so many layers to it.”
He tries to explain things by swerving into a somewhat tangential story about the launch of the gossip websites Gawker and Gothamist in the early 00s. “They were launched at a time when I was this out of control, utterly entitled, self-involved drink and drug addict and I loved reading about myself, almost pathologically, which I know is not something we’re supposed to admit. Anyway, there was this one snarky piece where someone had commented that they hated me so much that if they ever saw me walking down the street they would stab me and watch me bleed to death. And that was the beginning of a realisation: that I had three options in terms of how I dealt with public opinion. One was to aspire to enlightenment and be able to read things that were hateful and violent and rise above them. That was not feasible; I was never going to attain that level of enlightenment. The second option was to find every single person on the planet who hated me and try to either convince them otherwise or stab them to death. I realised that was unethical and also impractical as it involved potentially millions of people. And so the third option, which was the one I landed on, was to not pay attention. And so if you talk to my managers or people I work with, I only have one iron-clad rule, which is: don’t send me press links or reviews because I don’t read any of it.”
“So,” he continues, veering ever so slightly back on track, “when the lunacy was happening a couple of years ago, I took refuge in my ignorance. Obviously it became hard to ignore, especially when I had the tabloids camped outside my door. But I guess I realised that if everyone in the world hates me I can still wake up in my same comfortable bed every morning and go hiking.”
This is a rather long-winded way of saying: “I ignored the backlash.” But he must know he has not really addressed the issues here. Why did he write about Portman? Does he regret his behaviour or at least recognise her rather less rosy description of their interaction?
“A part of me wishes I could spend the next two hours deconstructing the whole thing,” he sighs, “but there’s levels of complexity and nuance that I really can’t go into.”
Does he regret anything?
“There is a part of me in hindsight that wishes I hadn’t written the book. But then, sales figures indicate that not that many people actually read it.”
OK, let’s try it another way: is what he wrote in the book true as he recalls it?
“Er … yeah,” he says, tentatively. And then he thinks about that and says: “You know, you’re asking me to open up such a can of worms. It reminds me of my favourite chess move, which my uncle taught me, where you move your knight so that it puts the king in check but also is going to take the castle.” This is known as a fork. “There’s no good way to answer: one option is terrible, the other is really terrible. So if we were playing chess right now, this is the part where I’d pick up my phone and pretend I’ve got an emergency call.”
It’s true that Moby is often the butt of the joke in both of his books, painting himself as a somewhat pathetic figure. When Lana Del Rey comes back to his penthouse in 2006, he mistakenly takes her comment that he is “the man” as a compliment, forcing her to explain what she meant: “You’re ‘the man’, as in ‘Stick it to the man.’ As in the person they guillotine in the revolution.” You don’t write that without a bit of self-awareness.
“In both books I basically decided the only person who will ever get thrown under the bus is me,” says Moby. And yet even before Portman’s objections, there’s something undeniably icky about his desire to include his pursuit of younger women just starting out on their careers. Portman described his behaviour as “creepy”. Would it be fair to say he acted creepily?
“I wouldn’t use that word,” he says. “But when I was an out-of-control alcoholic and drug addict I definitely acted selfish and incredibly inconsiderately towards family members and friends and girlfriends and people I worked with. But again, part of the 12-step programme is that it’s a programme of rigorous honesty. I don’t want to sound too much like a cliche ageing musician in southern California, but the idea of genuinely looking at your actions and making amends for them is a process that I believe I’ve gone through pretty thoroughly. And it does make me sad that I probably don’t do an effective enough job trying to communicate the addiction struggle and contextualise the stories that way.”
In a recent interview, Moby talked about wanting to use his new documentary to show people “the real me”. He said he wanted to counter the “misrepresentations” over who he is (a little odd, you might think, from someone who allegedly ignores all their press). But is he really just misunderstood? Towards the end of the interview we discuss another minor furore that Moby caused last month when he tweeted to say that if the world converted to veganism there would be no more pandemics. Some scientists called him out; Facebook flagged it up as part of its drive to stamp out false news. But Moby doesn’t really get why. “I wasn’t necessarily talking about how we eat, but a world in which humans do not impose their will on animals. So not encroaching upon animal habitats, not building developments in the tropics, no more wet markets. In that world, pandemics would certainly be reduced if not ended.”
Which is, of course, fair enough, when he puts it like that. “I understand one of my shortcomings is that I sometimes use language in ways that might make sense to me,” he concludes, perhaps stumbling upon a truth that has until now eluded him, “but they don’t always make 100% sense to other people.”
Moby’s Reprise is out via Decca/Deutsche Grammophon on 28 May, accompanied by a documentary available online.
• In the UK and Ireland, Samaritans can be contacted on 116 123 or email firstname.lastname@example.org or email@example.com. In the US, the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline is 1-800-273-8255. In Australia, the crisis support service Lifeline is 13 11 14. Other international helplines can be found at www.befrienders.org.