With a new album release and an forthcoming concert in the UAE, Moby talks about balancing fame and music.
Moby has a taste for music and he's going to share it in the UAE
The Hollywood tan comes as quite a shock. Moby, the archetypical pasty New York techno geek, is looking bronzed and healthy on his flying visit to London. Fresh off the plane from his newly adopted home of Los Angeles, the artist formerly known as Richard Melville Hall jokes nervously as he plays a low-key acoustic set for a packed café full of invited journalists and BBC Radio employees. We get two songs from his new album, Destroyed - plus, tellingly, three from his blockbuster bestseller, Play.
Moby has spent the past decade juggling the twin roles of semi-underground artist and tabloid celebrity, often very uncomfortably. At the peak of his fame, this pint-sized pop polymath was a prolific collaborator working with a dazzling superstar guest list, from David Bowie to Debbie Harry, Britney Spears to Ozzy Osbourne, Michael Jackson to Metallica. Outside the studio, he also dated a string of famous beauties, including the Oscar-winning actress Natalie Portman. But he made some powerful enemies too.
Right now, at the age of 45, Moby seems far more comfortable being an artist than a pop star. His freakishly successful 1999 album Play may have sold more than 10 million copies, touching a universal nerve with its innovative fusion of contemporary techno with antique blues and folk recordings, but nothing he has made since has come close. As the pressure to be an alt-rock icon eased, his music has become steadily more rich and interesting. Perhaps because he was always more comfortable as an electro-pop eccentric on the margins of the mainstream.
Moby's 10th album, Destroyed, feels like a return to his pre-superstar roots as a composer of warm, soulful, emotive electronica. It is being released in tandem with a deluxe photography book of the same name, a globe-trotting gallery taken on Moby's musical travels, from Malta to Melbourne, Berlin to Brazil. Both music and photos share an "aesthetic theme", he says, which is deserted city streets in the dead of night.
"Not cities rammed with people going out to clubs and dancing," Moby explains, "but cities like Stuttgart, Tuesday, 3 o'clock in the morning. You're looking out your hotel room window and the city is empty. You tell yourself people are asleep, but the evidence all points to the idea that there's no one else left in the planet. You go for a walk and it's just these desolate, empty streets. It's off-putting but there's a strange comfort to it as well."
Destroyed is Moby's second full-length release on his own Little Idiot imprint after almost 20 years signed to the groundbreaking London-based indie label Mute, which became a semi-detached offshoot of the corporate giant EMI. Although relations remain cordial with Mute, which still releases his records in North America, running his own label allows for much more artistic autonomy.
"It boils down to complete creative freedom, and the ability to do fantastically stupid things," Moby laughs. "The first album I put out by myself was Wait For Me. To celebrate my emancipation, the first single was Shot in the Back of the Head, a weird instrumental single that would never get played on radio, with a weird video by David Lynch that would never get played on TV. And we gave it away for free - all stuff that EMI wouldn't have let me do."
Lynch has been a key inspiration for Moby throughout his career. In 1991, the cult film director gave his blessing to this then-unknown underground musician's breakthrough hit Go, a moody dance anthem based on Angelo Badalamenti's brooding theme to Lynch's TV drama Twin Peaks. More recently, Moby credits a 2007 talk that Lynch gave at Bafta in London with inspiring him to stop chasing a populist audience and believe in himself as an artist again.
"I heard David Lynch speak a few years ago, and he said something so simple," Moby nods. "He was talking about art and he simply said: creativity is beautiful. And I thought: he's right! Music is an end in itself, and the power that music has to affect people emotionally, that's what my life is dedicated to. And the times when I've been distracted from that are the times I regret. When I saw music as a means to an end - more fame, more money, dating celebrities - that's when things have gone wrong."
Besides working on Destroyed, Moby has been busy with various side projects in recent years. In 2008, he launched his mobygratis.com website, licensing soundtrack music to low-budget filmmakers for no fee. If any make money, all profits are donated to charity. In 2009, he co-wrote Gristle: From Factory Farms to Food Safety, a non-fiction book attacking America's food industry.
Moby's diet has been vegan since childhood, but he is wary of appearing to lecture. "Honestly, some of the main reasons I'm vegan is because I'm ethically lazy," he explains. "My friends who eat meat or eggs have to sometimes wrestle with the ethical consequences of their actions. By being vegan, I take the easy way out. I truly don't judge others people's actions, but I think factory farming is an abomination, and that's what the book Gristle is about."
Over the years, Moby has acquired a cartoon image as a clean-living, meat-shunning, pleasure-hating puritanical egghead. In fact, hedonism has been a big part of his lifestyle, sometimes getting out of control. He now confesses to being a virtual alcoholic for much of the last decade, until he finally gave up drinking three years ago. This coincided with a growing disenchantment with New York city, his home base since his teens. Last year, he relocated to Los Angeles. Currently single, he lives alone in a Hollywood Hills mansion once occupied by Marlon Brando.
Moby raves about Los Angeles's sunny climate and buzzing arts scene with all the passion of a new convert. The city's community of musicians and actors, he argues, shares an endearing collective solidarity caused by years of rejection. The huge rural spaces and overall "dysfunctional strangeness" of this sprawling "anti-city" have also seduced him.
"Florence, Paris, Rome, London, New York," he muses. "In all these cities the centre is the beautiful part, and the further you get from the centre the less attractive it becomes. Whereas LA, the centre is disgusting, and the further you get away the more beautiful it becomes. And also the hidden nature of it. In New York, everything's on the surface, what you see is what you get. But in LA everything is hidden. And if it's not hidden, it's not worth looking at."
For such a thoughtful and soft-spoken character, Moby manages to attract a surprising level of hostility. A decade ago, music critics routinely attacked him for cashing in after he licensed every track from Play to TV commercials and film soundtracks. Nowadays, such deals are an industry norm, and one of the few remaining ways musicians can earn money. Ironically, Moby no longer sells his songs to commercials. "The greatest luxury I have is I can make music and not worry about record sales," he nods. "My lawyer comes to me once a week with a lucrative offer, and I always say no."
Of course, his most famous critic was the rapper Eminem, who verbally battered Moby in his 2002 hit Without Me, angry at the techno star's criticism of his violent, misogynistic lyrics. That led to strangers abusing him in the street and even, on one occasion, physically attacking him. But living well is the best revenge. At 45, with his Hollywood tan and sunny outlook, Moby seems unflustered by old enemies and ancient battles.
"This might sound a little touchy-feely and LA, but I like how things have ended up," he says. "Some people hate you, but hopefully some humility and compassion comes out of that. I can't sit here and complain about my lot in life because there are so many musicians, friends of mine, who play shows for 10 people a night, or always desperately wanted a record contract. So even if every person on the planet loathes me, I have nothing to complain about."
Moby performs at Dubai World Trade Centre on July 4