Definitely Moby

'I was a rigid punk rock Marxist. Then I was a rigid vegan dance music Christian.' Today, he's loosened up and become one of the world's hottest pop stars. Andrew Smith finds out what makes Moby go

In October 1991, the pop charts were awash with cheesy rave anthems based on themes from popular TV shows. Most would be forgotten the moment they spluttered out of the Top 40, but, even at the time, 'Go' seemed different. It was artfully constructed around the looming signature chords from David Lynch's Twin Peaks series, and on Top of the Pops its author threw himself about like a small, white, bald maniac. Soon a disbelieving music press was reporting on this vegan, Christian, teetotal, car-hating New York raver with intense eyes that betrayed such a disquieting mix of challenge and apology. Over the next three years, a string of euphoric hit singles followed. Then things got really strange.

Moby's friends will tell you that he lives in the same spartan Manhattan apartment as he did when he made 'Go'. He will tell you that he lives in his tour bus, because when his current travels end in December, he and his party will have been on the road for 21 consecutive months - during which time the material circumstances of his life have altered little, but the context has changed beyond all recognition. When he set out, Moby was considered yesterday's man, a talented musician with a penchant for aggravating others and shooting himself in the foot. When he released his latest album, Play, in May last year, the reviews were grudgingly favourable, but small. The US record labels which had turned him down seemed vindicated: Mute, the British independent which is his real home, watched as Play 'flatlined', shifting a meagre 10,000 copies in six months.

A year on, Play has sold more than 5 million, going platinum in 17 countries and topping the charts in seven. Few Britons will get through an entire day without hearing at least one piece of Moby music, as he finds himself re-cast as the world's pop star du jour, a phenomenon he likes to refer to as 'obviously a clerical error'. More peculiar still, we should find this comforting. For his is an extraordinary story.

Moby looks fit and fresh, but his mostly Brit crew look worn. 'Did you bring any British newspapers with you?' they ask with a hint of desperation as you're introduced backstage at the soon-to-be-rammed Bronco Bowl in Dallas, Texas. For the past few months, he's been treating his audience to some thoughts on the desirability of voting Al Gore for President, but this is very definitely George W Bush country, and last night in Houston, he forgot. I wonder whether this might have been an unconscious survival instinct, and Moby smiles and leads me to his preferred lair at the rear of his massive bronze bus. I'll be amused to note that he 'forgets' tonight, too.

We've met before over the years, and I find him little changed on the surface: the same bald head and alert but strangely neutral features. He's always been good company, talking fast, listening well, engaging in conversation with the whole of his being, ever straining to reach the essence of whatever it is you're talking about, even if it's only tape recorders or socks. He's 35 now and claims to have gradually retreated from his formerly dogmatic approach to life and morality. These days, he even gets pissed sometimes. He's relaxed. He's having fun. I was recently with some musicians who complain bitterly about touring the way he is. I ask how he finds the experience.

'I love touring because you never really get bored, and if you do get bored, your circumstances are always changing. Even a lot of the little irritants are addictive. Like, the other day, on our way from Albuquerque to Houston, we had a day off in Wichita Falls, Texas, which is officially the middle of nowhere. So you find yourselves walking through desolate places. And especially out west, America is full of them. There's so much space and so few people. Just standing in a parking lot in the middle of nowhere with a warm breeze blowing. You understand why film-makers are so drawn to making movies about the West - the weird guy sitting behind the counter selling cigars, the old lady on the porch… I love it.'

The name began as a kind of joke, almost from the moment Richard Hall was born. He was so small, so frail, that calling him after the fictional scion of his great-great-great grandfather, Herman Melville, seemed to carry hope, to provide a kind of grand raft for the little boy to cling to. His father, an academic chemist, died in a car crash when his son was two, and his mother, Elizabeth, was a hippy artist who smoked pot and hung out with musicians and struggled, with the help of welfare, food stamps, social security, to make ends meet. Both sets of grandparents were wealthy - mother and son were never going to starve - but in the affluent hamlet of Darien, Connecticut, only 15 minutes distant from the neighbourhood Moby's pal Rick Moody was writing about in his novel/film The Ice Storm, they were apart, other.

'The more I travel and see, the more I realise how conventional my upbringing was. But at the time, all my friends seemed to have stable, traditional, affluent homes. Now it turns out that lots of Americans were raised under similar circumstances to me, the difference being that they grew up in communities where everyone had messed-up home lives. I had new clothes, but from bargain shops, not Adidas and Levi's like my peers, and I'm sure a lot of people can relate to the sense of inadequacy that gives you. There was this sense of wanting to fit in and not fitting in, even if it was by no means unique to me. Every time I left the house, I was aware of those feelings.'

In retrospect, there were silver linings. The number of pop stars who had hippy parents is high: Beck, PJ Harvey and Jarvis Cocker being but three obvious examples (Moby has noticed this, too). A beardy, bead-wearing friend of Elizabeth's tutored the 13-year-old boy in classical guitar and jazz theory. Through examining his mother's book collection, he came to realise that 'most of the heroes of the 20th century had made a virtue of feeling inadequate or displaced'. He read Rambeau, Faulkner and Bukowski ('not my favourite writer, but…') and felt better. He went to study philosophy at Connecticut University, then transferred to New York, where he was disappointed by the inconsequentiality of the syllabus and directed most of his energy towards music. He played guitar with the punky Vatican Commandos and Flipper before graduating to the briefly wonderful New York psychedelicists Ultra Vivid Scene. Then he left for the visceral joys of rave.

He'd picked up his Christianity while at school, but dates the rigidity that came to characterise it from the punk period. He can laugh at it now. 'It lasted till 1996 - from the ages of 16 to 30, basically, which is a long time. First I was a rigid punk-rock Marxist. Then I was a rigid vegan dance-music Christian guy…'

And what ended those things, I ask.

'Empiricism. Going out and looking at the world and realising that fixed orthodoxies make sense on the printed page and in your head when your eyes are closed and you're going to sleep, but they don't make sense when you walk around and look at the world.' What did he want from the doctrines?

'Very simply, what I think motivates people to want to hold on to rigid orthodoxies is the simple desire to see the world as a simple, understandable place. The only epiphany I ever had was being able to say that the world is not a simple and understandable place and people who try to make it so are... jerks. They're unpleasant, and no one wants to hang out with them. They're fundamentalists. That's why the first essay in the Play sleeve is specifically about that. What I found was that people were looking to me to be a rigid vegan fundamentalist or dance fundamentalist or Christian fundamentalist, and I find that to be distasteful.'

Is he simply saying that Ewan McGregor won't hang with you if you have convictions? 'No. I think those beliefs and ways of living are erroneous as well. The thing is that I was proved wrong so many times that to try and insist that I know better than everyone else is just stupid.'

So the end of ideology has worked for Moby, just like the rest of us. Actually, more than the rest of us. Noticing with humility yet an unmistakable frisson of glee that women fancy famous blokes, he has used the belated realisation that his old semi-celibacy was 'erroneous' as a springboard to discovery. Remembering that when Moby goes for something, he really goes for it, you can't help but feel pleased for him. There was the reported romance with Star Wars actress Natalie Portman, a toe dipped into the world of a dominatrix, the games of 'touch knob' (don't even ask) at celebrity parties, even the tawdry affairs of rock'n'roll legend.

His most recent foray into the world of Big Celebrity was attending US R'n'B übermeister Sean 'Puffy' Combs's lavish ball in the Hamptons. There's a rare grin on Moby's face as he recounts this.

'I went mainly to see what it was like - I mean, that sort of ostentation. So you get there and it's this huge house right on the ocean. And his driveway is filled with Bentleys and Mercedes and Porsches and Jaguars… it's interesting. I can't judge that kind of consumerism, because I don't come from the same kind of cultural place that he comes from, but it was the weirdest mix.

I mean, the Hamptons is horrifying. Really horrifying. It's so much money, so much wealth, so much opulence. You go to these parties and its basically just people figuring out what they can get from each other.

'So the interesting thing about Puffy's party is that he wants to be part of that, so he'll go to the Hamptons' invitational polo matches, meaning that half the people at the party were moneyed old conservative WASPs, and the other half were homeboys who he grew up with, people from his record company, Bad Boy. And Salman Rushdie and members of boy bands. And everyone had to wear all white, so it was almost as though you couldn't tell who was who. Leo DiCaprio was turned away because he wasn't wearing white. He had to go buy something! The whole thing was just… interesting.

'What I've come to understand is that indulgence can lead to epiphanies more times that abstinence,' he declares. 'My old quasi-celibacy is a good example. I was celibate for the wrong reasons. I was celibate for the same reasons as I was a vegan and didn't drink - because it made me feel superior.'

It seems to me that Moby's being a little hard on himself here. The need to place himself beyond criticism surely stemmed from an underlying feeling that he deserved criticism. I suggest this, but he's having none of it.

'Well, I could have been criticised for being a rigid, uptight asshole. And then I found myself suddenly being drunk and occasionally having tawdry one-night stands and affairs. And at times it was wonderful, at times sordid and dumb. But it didn't fit any generalisations, and that was the lesson.'

At this juncture, I find myself wondering how Moby defines his Christianity these days. He has a problem with that title, he explains, because he thinks it implies self-righteousness. He became a lover of Christ ('in the Platonic sense,' he giggles) when he came across the Gospel according to Matthew at school, which 'just struck me as right'. Soon, church and Bible studies became a refuge from the alienation he felt elsewhere, fitting neatly into the strictured universe he was trying to construct for himself. In his newly chilled mode, he aspires to live according to the teachings of Christ, he says, adding as a casual rejoinder, 'at least some of them, because unfortunately, I have to be a bit selective'.

Intriguingly, Moby's personal and musical evolution has mirrored, and in many respects presaged, developments within British culture during the 90s. Just as political ideology appeared to wither away in those years, so did the tribes and factions that had always defined pop culture. Someone once noted that Britain was the only country in the world where someone might ask, 'So what's he like?' and be told, 'Oh, he's a skinhead.'

By the decade's end, the style tribes had dissolved, but when Moby released his debut album, Everything is Wrong, in 1995, minds had not yet been fully prised open. This was a couple of years before the Prodigy, Fatboy Slim or Tony Blair and when Moby, with his outsider's disregard for political or aesthetic correctness, released Everything is Wrong, which veered between swirling club anthems, punk thrashes and ambient torch music, it was met mostly with a mixture of disbelief and consternation. Some excited new listeners were won, but at the expense of fashionability: Moby was ahead of his time. Then, a year later, he tested his audience to destruction with a furious, hardcore punk album, Animal Rights, which very few people bought outside of Greece and Germany.

Shortly after its release, his mother was diagnosed with cancer and died in 1998, at the age of 54. A friend has referred to this period as Moby's 'dark night of the soul', and he has wondered at the conjunction of that truculent record and his mother's illness.

'You hear stories of farm animals getting jittery and running around before earthquakes,' he says. 'Maybe I was anticipating something.'

In the event, what followed bore no relation to what anyone expected. Moby scrapped early sessions for a new album, spooked by the vivid rock/dance crossover success of the Prodigy's Fat of the Land. 'It got very distressing, going to expensive recording studios and continually coming out with results I hated,' he confessed shortly afterwards. 'In the end, I went back to my bedroom and made an album full of flaws, quirks and brilliant idiosyncrasies.'

The turning point came when he stumbled across a series of recordings made by a couple of amateur American folk-music archivists named John and Alan Lomax. In the 30s, this father-and-son team had toured the South with a primitive 300lb tape recorder in the boot of their car, recording for posterity the gospel and blues sounds they heard at a time when no one else was. Moby found them inspirational and began to experiment with sampling segments of performance by the likes of the Shining Light Gospel Choir, Boy Blue, Bill Landford & The Landfordaires and Bessie Smith, re-situating them in his modern electronic arrangements. It is tribute to the sensitivity with which he did this that tunes such as the now uniquitous breakthrough single 'Natural Blues' and the rippling 'Why Does My Heart Feel So Bad?' sound as soulful as they do.

Interspersed with the usual eclectic and emotive range of his original compositions, they came to form the spine of Play. And that's why we're here.

Some people are asking whether Moby has relaxed his standards too much. As Play has grown in popularity, so have allegations that making money out of the mostly impoverished black artists recorded by the Lomaxes amounts to nothing more nor less than exploitation. Moby's heard the arguments and treats the issue gingerly, pointing out that his motives were sound; he never expected Play to be successful and has tried to make sure that the money generated has gone to the right people. He further posits 'collage and assemblage' as 'one of the dominant creative motifs of the 20th century', adding that most of the compositional elements are generated by him. He is right on all counts, but on the plane to Texas, I came across a more sophisticated argument, which could be seen as applying to modern dance music generally.

Boiled down to essentials, the American business academic Jeremy Rifkin claims in a new book that the days of the property-based capitalist economy are numbered. Companies such as Nike, he notes, own little other than a concept, a lifestyle, and more and more people are leasing large items like cars in preference to buying. He suggests that in the future we will be purchasing experiences rather than ownership and that this form of exchange will seep into every area of our lives ('We're moving from commodifying goods and services to commodifying culture'). He claims fusion music is a good example of this process: corporations scour the globe for culture to mine, just as their precursors mined copper or coal. In the process, they tear them from their roots.

'When you take a culture and homogenise it, transform it, package it and sell it back to people as paid-for experience, then it is just as possible to deplete cultural diversity as bio-diversity,' Rifkin concludes. Dance music has been doing this, or something very like it, for years. Moby comes to terms with the thesis with impressive speed, but takes a moment to work out what he thinks about it.

'When I hear people saying stuff like that, I want to sit them down and give them some nice warm soya milk and cookies and tell them everything's going to be OK. I want to tell them, "Just because we don't fully understand the complexities of the contemporary world doesn't mean that it's wrong or on the brink of collapse." You know, this idea that to remove something from its original context is contrary to contemporary life… everything is removed from its original context.

'But I think that, ultimately, culture is democratic. And a lot of supposed academic liberals really have a hard time with that.

I remember talking to my aunts and uncles at Christmas a few years ago, and they were complaining about popular music. They said, "Why can't radio stations play more Bob Dylan and less of that trite, vacuous Britney Spears?" The answer is because the majority of the people listening to the radio want to hear Britney right now and they don't want to hear Bob Dylan. I mean, I like both of them.

'A lot of people imagine conspiracies where conspiracies just don't exist. These big multinational corporations, all they're trying to do is prop up their quarterly share price so they don't get fired. They don't have any agenda apart from staying in business.

I think culture is suffering at their hands; the fact that all the record companies have been bought up by a couple of big multinationals… the music is definitely suffering. 'But you can't judge it from a static perspective. This is the ebb and flow of culture. We have a few years of generic pop music and crummy boy bands and then the next bunch of Nirvanas and Jane Addictions arrive to blow them away.'

For his own part, Moby was recently heard lamenting the demise of beauty as an aspiration in art, pointing out that one of the few places where it is still viewed as a valid end-in-itself is within the dance community - 'And a lot of people are not comfortable with that, thinking that it's not intellectually credible. Which is a shame, I think.' With almost the same breath, however, he will question the lack of virtuosity in modern music. Not long ago, he had a haunting vision of George Gershwin being around today and winding up as the guitarist in Creed.

'Now we have virtuoso computer programmers and drum programmers and that's wonderful because great records are being made. But I always wonder how many talents are being lost to mediocre records.

'Because I do use George Gershwin as an example. He spent his life becoming a phenomenal pianist, learning compositional skills, learning how to write and sheet-read music, and the world is a richer place for it. It's so sad to think of someone who could have been the next Gershwin, or Miles Davis, or Coltrane, instead churning out a couple of mediocre alternative rock records or dance tracks. Because if everyone around you is doing mediocre stuff, you don't really feel the need to push yourself to do any better. At least very few people do. I mean, much as I might applaud democracy in culture, I'm also selfish in that I love memorable, meaningful music - songs that stay with me and that I can listen to and get an emotional reaction to time and again.'

Interestingly, Gershwin's 'Rhapsody in Blue' was specifically conceived as a marriage of classical structure with contemporary jazz dance idiom. It was a crossover. Moby has it in mind to make an album in the spirit of Al Green or Bill Withers meeting Massive Attack, but he thinks it might take time to work up to this.

A dollar millionaire before the release of Play, mostly on the strength of his remix and film work, even Moby doesn't know what he's worth now. The most controversial portion of his fortune comes from the car ads he has licensed his tunes to. The first time I met him, he wouldn't even step into a car unless he could be convinced that it was a matter of life and death. He is heroically inconsistent and vague on the rationale behind his change of policy, citing flattery, the fact that some of the ads are decent pieces of art and a desire to support his independent record company as factors. He denies that personal gain was a consideration, because he lives an almost distressingly simple life, despite admitting to 'a sybaritic side' that likes nice hotels and flies business class on trips that last more than four hours. It's notable that even the alienated former mates and old enemies will accuse him of stupidity before greed.

I ask if he suffers from guilt over money.

'To an extent, but I think I deal with it on a very abstract level. Because there isn't really anything I want - at least the things I want are so huge that I could never afford them…'

By way of illustrating this point, Moby mentions an island with a huge jet boat with helicopters on the back of it; a menagerie with giraffes and monkeys and koalas (by my reckoning, he could probably afford this one) and a fleet of private planes to fly his friends around the world. Under the circumstances, it doesn't seem so very much to ask.

Win two VIP tickets to see Moby live in Wembley arena on November 18, with access to an exclusive after-show party where you can meet Moby in person. Click here to enter.

Andrew Smith

The GuardianTramp

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