This article originally appeared in the June 2000 issue of SPIN.
Swallowed by a loaner Versace suit ($855 retail), Moby faces down a gauntlet of tabloid flashes outside London's Earl's Court arena. It's the Brit Awards 2000. the U.K.'s openly sloshed Grammys alter ego. and pop watchers are working up a buzz over grumpy Oasis geezer Liam Gallagher's feud with smirky boy-band geezer Robbie Williams ("He's a fat dancer." quipped Liam|. But frankly, nobody gives a toss. A star power vacuum exists in Euro-pop. and no better indication is Moby's presence as a Best International Male Artist nominee. As he shuffles into position, a publicist must inform the paparazzi who Moby actually is.
"Moby! Moby! Over here!" the photogs shout, and the artist, hands deep in pockets that don't belong to him. obliges, sort of. Alone on the sidewalk, he shifts his tiny bald head to and fro. Click! Click! But with his big-eyed stare, he looks like a milk-carton orphan, not gossip-column fodder.
"You know what I said before about how I'm starting to feel successful?" he asks me, referring to an earlier comment about his eerie dance floor ballad "Why Does My Heart Feel So Bad?" being such an unexpected European hit. "Well. I just changed my mind." Waving wanly, he's led backstage for interviews.
Formerly known in the U.K./U.S. as the Christian vegan rave DJ who was the American "face" of early-'90s techno, Moby spent much of the mid-to-late '90s alienating a potentially adoring fanbase. After "Go." his Twin Peaks-sampling kick-drum anthem, was a U.K. Top 10 hit in the rave blow-up of 1991.
He gradually morphed into an agitprop, Jesus-thanking, disco-punk pariah with a penchant for flinging off his shirt. Goaded by journalists who had tired of dance artists murmuring about "wicked" bass lines, Moby critiqued his peers and pontificated on the inhumanity of consumer capitalism. Signed by Elektra, only to mutually divorce later, he became perhaps the most hated "sellout" who never sold any records.
But with the startling popularity of Play, his most recent album, all's being forgiven. In the U.K.. where DJs are already taken seriously in the pop world, the album was No. 1 on the mainstream charts, outranking Oasis and Santana: "Why Does My Heart," which emanates from a heart-wilting sample of the Shining Light Gospel Choir, has moved 700.000 units throughout Europe and is being rerecorded by Elton John as a benefit single for his AIDS foundation. But in the U.S., where Play was snubbed by countless labels (Universal, RCA, MCA, Virgin, Astralwerks, Sony, Maverick) before V2 picked it up, it's also taken off. going platinum, being nominated for two Grammys, and breaking two modern-rock singles, "Bodyrock" and "Natural Blues." Moby also DJ'ed the MTV Video Music Awards (in a gold lamé tuxedo) and appeared in-studio to yuk it up for an entire week of Spankin' New Music.
Says V2 president Richard Sanders: "We never thought we'd go gold or platinum or anything close. We just wanted to rehabilitate a great artist's career." Other industry insiders who swore Moby was dead to them are even repenting. "When I met [big-cheese trance DJ] Sasha, he was downright mean and dismissive; he really hurt my feelings." Moby says. "Then after he heard the record, he apologized. But I can never be vindictive—people had decent reasons to hate me."
Still, whether your career was just rescued from the dustbin or not, few places are more disorienting for American musicians than the Brit Awards. Despite the fact that U.S. hip-hop, R&B, and pop have colonized the cosmos, house-proud locals still cling to their role as pop's tastemaking scamps. Or at least after downing a flute or three of the bubbly.
At the table for Moby's European label, Mute, everyone's been notified that their man won't be winning. But Play's chart triumph—released last June, it fell off the charts only to crawl back on and upward since— assuages the troops. Moby's longtime Euro manager, Eric Harle, a German ex-DJ dressed like a "hitman for Kraftwerk" in hues of black and maroon, winks and moans, "Why have I been associated with losers my entire life?" Standing and fidgeting nearby is Moby running buddy and New York City painter Damian Loeb. A six feet two, lantern-jawed reddish-blond who's nearly a foot taller than his sidekick—"We're like Jon Voight and Dustin Hoffman in Midnight Cowboy"—Loeb, 30, is a super protective relative by proxy. Moby, 34, has no surviving immediate family or current girlfriend.
"So. where is he?" Loeb barks impatiently. "Who's walking him through [the interviews] back there? He's not by himself with those assholes, is he?!"
Later, when Moby still hasn't arrived at the table, Loeb rolls his eyes: "Why exactly am I here? I just came from a place [new bud Elton John's palatial Kensington crash pad] where there were heated pools, a beautiful Swedish woman, and every DVD ever made!"
Me: "Damian. are you Moby's best friend?"
D: "Yes. I am."
Me: "Isn't that why you're here?"
D: "Yes, I suppose it is."
Moby takes a seat, and the show explodes with generic boy band 5ive, wearing long black leather coats and decimating "We Will Rock You" with the "surviving members of Queen." Brian May solos through gritted teeth as about 50 muscle boys and girls bang on giant, back-lighted tom-toms. "At the Grammys," Moby observes, "it was like every inch of the place had been hosed down with money. At least here it's kind of trashy...The Grammys were only worth it because 1 got to sit between Britney Spears and Jamie Foxx, and he was leaning right over me the whole time, macking on Britney, but in this clumsy, teenager-at-the-mall way. He was looking down her dress, going, 'Yo, baby, you look fine! You got a boyfriend?'"
Moby's nature—part hair-shirt contrarian, part goofball gadfly—is always dueling. The restless son of an often-unemployed single mom in late-'70s/early-'80s suburbia, his role model as a punk shorty was John "Johnny Rotten" Lydon ("He made a big splash with the Sex Pistols, gave it up to do a couple of bizarre, uncompromising records as Public Image Ltd.; then for partly selfish, partly fun reasons, totally sold out, but in a really interesting way"). Of course, on a mid-30s. am-I-a-loser? level, Moby was thrilled by the Grammy affirmation. But in a weird way, the attention he's received (for his most innovative record!) from both the masses and a bewildering celebrity coterie is even sweeter. You can see him, for a mad minute, taunting his elitist enemies: "Piss off, I got Madonna on the other line."
Mick Jagger, Tom Hanks, David Bowie, Oliver Stone, Matt Damon, Sting, Maxwell, Joe Strummer, etc., have all paid respects. Donatella Versace flies him around to DJ parties. Ellen DeGeneres and Anne Heche clowned with him on VH1 exclaiming: "You have no idea how much your record means to us!" John Waters, for whom Moby composed the opening theme of his film Cecil B. DeMented, says. "His music is sexy, dark, funny, and completely original. And considering all the sampling he does, I think he sees the incredible irony in me saying that." Even Lucy Lawless, a.k.a. Xena, Warrior Princess, is a convert. "His music lifts you out of tedium and takes you on some kind of fruity existential journey," she enthuses.
Says Moby, with his usual faux-naïf wit: "I like being alone, but only by choice, and I get lonely quickly. When these famous people are nice to me, it feels good, so I'm happy to hang out with them. It's better than being at home, depressed, reading The Hobbit."
The video for "Natural Blues," with its haunting sample of should-be-legendary folk-blues singer Vera Ward Hall, features a latex-aged Moby being wheeled down a corridor of deathly senior citizens, looking through a scrapbook and then watching home movies of his young life. Later, Christinia Ricci, a ravishing Angel of Death in a white evening gown, carries him to his final reward.
Directed by garishly arty photographer David LaChapelle, the video literalizes Hall's sampled lyric, "Ooh lawdy, trouble so hard/Don't nobody know my troubles but God," with a gorgeous flair. The story line: Moby, tortured artist, wincing bittersweetly as time slips away.
Which is effective, if self-indulgent, pop imagery. But the song is so much more than that, and so much more than Moby. "Natural Blues" is one of several Play tracks that recast vocals of rural blues-gospel artists, mostly from the Sounds of the South box set of 1959 field recordings by influential archivist Alan Lomax, Moby adds other samples, piano, synths. drum machines, and guitars to time-shift the context.
And for many listeners, hearing the aching grain of these voices transported into the digital present is an exhilarating yet sobering experience. Like Lomax, Moby is a white interlocutor of African-American voices who is crossing long abandoned roads; and that choice is fraught with a country's worth of emotion. As these songs join with the rest of the album—traces of hip-hop, house, techno, synth-pop. punk—there's a sense of immense possibility, both terribly lost and defiantly infinite.
"I'm not into much techno stuff," says Matt Barton of the Alan Lomax-founded Association for Cultural Equity. "But it struck me how deeply Moby seemed to respond to the source material on a musical/historical level, as well as emotionally. He wasn't juxtaposing sounds for the hell of it."
Beastie Boy Mike D adds, "As soon as I heard 'Honey' [which flips a vocal sample of gospel-blues singer Bessie Jones and a Super Cat piano break, via Boogie Down Productions]. I felt like. 'Man, why didn't I think of that!' Play is a record nobody expected from anybody."
What Mike D is too polite to say is that Play was the last thing anybody expected from Moby. After his too-visionary-too-soon, major-label album debut, 1995's Everything Is Wrong—similarly sprawling with house, techno, punk, blues, new age. classical—found little love, Moby began to unravel. His attempt to politicize the glass house of rave—which was becoming increasingly white, anal, and snooty, much like '80s punk/ indie rock—was translated as the haughty damning of an evolving scene. His admirable mission to make DJ music work as "live" performance somehow resulted in him cavorting like a headless chicken to a DAT playback. Or worse, assuming crucifixion poses atop a keyboard—naked. His pained "rock" album, 1996's Animal Rights, released at the height of "electronica" fever, was widely dismissed.
"It took me a couple of years of therapy to figure out that he wasn't doing this to hurt us," says Marci Weber, who's been Moby's co-manager/den mother for almost a decade. "We respected his individual vision, but after seven years of fighting to get respect as a dance artist, then to start playing speed metal or whatever...people felt betrayed."
To top if off, Moby began a sort of public, Andy Kaufman-esque satire of a debauched pop star. Here was someone who trumpeted a drug-free, fresh-squeezed, meatless lifestyle of prayer and devotion knocking back cocktails and scamming women at East Village hellholes. Or donning a powder-blue tux and howling 70s covers in an irony-sodden lounge act. Then there was the record-label party where Moby, loitering by the buffet table, decided to make his presence felt. According to one observer, "He and a friend were seeing who could gross the other one out. So Moby eventually just pulled out his, um, thing, and peed all over the sushi bar."
When I press Loeb about this period, he laughs and says. "I know. I know." Then he pauses and replies: "Well, the guy's mother did die, you know."
Moby's mom, Betsy Hall, went in for a routine February '97 checkup and was diagnosed with lung cancer; she passed away that September. "She really was a special woman," says Loeb, "just giving and kind and quirky and understanding; basically, it was always the two of them. Then that was gone."
Adds Moby: "I miss my mother as a friend more than anything else. There wasn't the tension that a lot of parents and children have. She was completely unjudgmental about my life and my music, so I have a tendency to throw things in people's faces, like, 'Why aren't you okay with this?'"
To this point, the myth of Richard "Moby" Hall reads as follows: suburban-bred white rave brat—supposedly great-great-great-grand-nephew of Moby Dick author Herman Melville—computerizes black voices (divas, toasters, rappers, blues/gospel singers) as an ego-starved piny to locate his lost soul. Well, Moby was actually born in Harlem, New York, the only child of broke college students. His parents' marriage was a mess, and his dad, a chemistry T.A. at Columbia, went out drinking one night and drove his car into a wall. The crash, a suspected suicide, was fatal. He was 26.
"Suddenly, my mother is a 23-year-old widow with a two-year-old son," says Moby. "It was fairly grim." The pair moved in with her parents in tony Darien, Connecticut, while she finished her degree, then celebrated her graduation in San Francisco's Haight-Ashbury in 1969. "These are my memories of being four in the summer of '69: Some nice businessmen giving me peanuts to eat on the plane; going to the most disgusting day-care center in the world; and my mother's friends sneaking me into Myra Breckinridge, an X-rated Raquel Welch movie."
As for many, the summer, and the hippie idealism, gradually darkened. Mother and son ended up in working-class Stratford, Connecticut. "This was '78-'77, the economy was bad, my mom was unemployed, we were living on welfare and food stamps," Moby recalls. Their house was a sort of communal hippie pad—"a lot of people listening to music and smoking pot" (which Moby tried at age ten). Then there were Mom's awful "bohemian" boyfriends. "There was the guy who played pedal steel in a country band and stole things from her; the guy who worked on a fishing boat; the guy who worked in a gas station and threatened to kill her with a butcher knife."
The two returned to Darien. moving into a house bought with a small inheritance from Moby's grandfather. Moby took music theory and guitar lessons (classical and jazz fusion), read Faulkner, Rimbaud, and Bukowski, discovered new wave/punk, worked in a record store, and envied suburban opulence up close. "My grandfather had owned a company down on Wall Street, so they were wealthy, but we had nothing...That, along with having no father, being short, no good at sports, and on welfare, gave me a sense of inadequacy that I think I'll hold on to until the day I die," he says with a rare belly laugh.
Music gave him a cause—"It made our little disenfranchisement seem romantic." Inspired by the Clash, Gang of Four, and Public Image, he formed the straight-edge punk band Vatican Commandos, wearing earrings and skirts to Darien High during '80s preppie mania. He lied about going away on "exotic" vacations. None of this was an aphrodisiac. "At that time, the most ego-shattering thing a girl could ever say was the word weird: I prayed for someone who just wouldn't look down on me. I remember a girl once mentioning Red Lorry Yellow Lorry, and romance was in the air."
"He was a brilliant, eccentric child," Geraldine Marshall, Moby's high school English teacher, told a local paper recently. "His writing was very odd, but 1983 was the age of punk rock, and he was influenced that way." The Commandos played Pogo's in Bridgeport, where Moby saw bands like the Gun Club and local heroes Mission of Burma; they released a seven-inch EP, Hit Squad for God. "We were anti-church, anti-suburbs, anti-long hair, anti-whatever." But after a year as a philosophy major at the University of Connecticut, punk's anti-Reagan-and-stuff denial felt just as stuffy as pink-pants, country-club Christianity.
"When you find yourself staring at some band in an indie-rock club with 50 other white kids holding Rolling Rocks, and nobody's moving, you realize your worldview is pretty limited." says Moby.
So, a good five years before grunge, Moby shelved his guitar to spin records. These days, with every ex-punk frontman, record-store clerk, and would-be fiction writer DJ'ing at a local café/bar laundromat, this isn't worth a shrug. But then, in the suburbs, it was a total, advanced-geek refusal. Building his skills at local dives, Moby earned one ardent fan. A jumpy high school dropout, Damian Loeb showed up at a Greenwich "alcohol-free, new wave" joint, and it was friends at first sight. "From the minute I met him I knew Moby was going to do really well; some people just have a unique glow."
Meanwhile, Moby was being drawn to the glow of the Manhattan club scene. "It was the late days of the [Paradise] Garage. Red Zone—what attracted me first to dance culture, as a white, straight kid from the suburbs going out to these mostly black, gay clubs, was just how foreign and interesting and wonderful it was. It really was alternative. New York was dirty and dangerous, and sexual politics were weird, but at these clubs, Latinos, blacks, whites, men, women were celebrating!"
Around the same time, a youth-minister friend challenged Moby's knee-jerk dismissal of the Bible, and later, reading the Gospel of Matthew, he was overwhelmed by the conception of Christ as "an iconoclast who was humble, and a stern and adamant figure who was loving and merciful." Jesus became a role model—a benevolent punk rocker of sorts—and dance clubs became Moby's sanctuary. "House music and dance music was so atmospheric and sexy and religious. It really, really affected me."
Around 1989-90. Moby, along with Loeb and an aspiring hip-hop DJ, Adrian Bartos (a.k.a. Stretch Armstrong, who's now a top New York radio jock), moved into an East Village apartment, turntables in tow. Moby set up a home studio, dubbing himself M.O.B.Y. (Master of Beats, Y'all), and started making house hip-hop mix tapes, naively dropping them off at clubs and radio stations. He finally got a gig at Mars, the multilevel West Side hot spot, where he even backed up Big Daddy Kane and Run-D.M.C. "Damian would bring a video camera," says Moby. "And we have some horrifying footage from when my hair was really long, and I'm playing tambourine along with 'The 900 Number.' and Serch from 3rd Bass is rapping."
Realizing he was no mixmaster, Moby decided to just spin for cash and kicks while producing tracks at home. His early work—as Voodoo Child, Brainstorm, Barracuda—was touched by hip-hop, house, and techno, but his punky, playful spirituality set a fresh pitch. When "Go" became a U.K. smash, Moby DJ'ed around the world. For a time, raves were his new place of worship, but the rush didn't last. He was drug-free amid an Ecstasy free-for-all, and unlike most U.S. DJ stars fetishized in Europe, he was neither black nor Latino. In America, techno (rooted in New York, Chicago, and Detroit's clubs) was becoming a Europhile novelty craze.
"What disillusioned me about the punk scene is what disillusioned me about the house-music scene and, later on, about the rave scene. It was always the tastemakers championing musical virtues I didn't care about. Hardcore punk decided to champion obscurity and aggression. With house music, you'd go to these industry events in '90-'91, and it was so bloodless and professional. Techno lost its celebratory quality."
Now a successful elder, he's optimistic, if still combative. On house music's ongoing outsider status: "A lot of these kids, white and black, want music that reaffirms their masculinity. House music still really pisses a lot of people off, but why? It's such warm, inviting, universal music. I'm straight, but I love going to house music clubs and flirting with women and gay men. This is a leap most of America seems unprepared to make."
But you feel Moby reining in his need to debate every issue. No less chatty, he's much less judgmental. "See, in the suburbs, you've got a lot of time on your hands, you're fed a lot of culture, and people don't see how their opinions simply reflect their own privilege. At one point. I thought about every ideological position I'd taken over the past 20 years and realized, more often than not. that I was generally full of shit."
You know you're on a real tour bus when the guy next to you heaves his legs over his head, yells "fire in the hole!" and ignites a fart with a Zippo. In this case, that guy is Moby. But even here, among his likably nerdy road crew, the "little idiot" (as he dubbed himself years ago) seems a tad out of place. When talk proceeds to deviant sex acts ("The Cleveland Shocker!") and unreleased Who rock operas, he takes his soy something-or-other and moves to the ground level of the double-decker to talk.
In the midst of a grueling 21-month tour, Moby is rightfully proud of Play and wants as many folks as possible to hear it. Tonight's London show was a roaring, sold-out stompathon. Backed by crack drummer Scott Frassetto, punky bassist Greta Brinkmann, and turntablist DJ Spinbad, Moby gave the new songs a sweaty flourish, soaking through his CBGB T-shirt. The band fleshed out older club tracks like "Ah Ah" and "Feeling So Real," as Moby played un-wanky guitar, worked the congas and keys, and bantered about the "good ol' rave days."
Now, on a ten-hour haul to Amsterdam, as the bus pulls onto the ferry that'll take us from Dover to Calais, we walk out on the boat's bow to watch the sunrise. Moby keeps clearing his very sore throat. With a hoodie over a rumply T-shirt, and more stubble on his face than on his head, he's gnomish or monkish, depending on the light. Either way, he's beat. Still, Moby is unnervingly cooperative, refusing to bitch about any promotional duty.
"I think some of the alt-rock heroes—Trent (Reznor). Pearl Jam. Smashing Pumpkins—got used to the music scene existing in a certain way and assumed that large numbers of people would buy whatever they put out. Artists forget that for every record that gets popular attention, about a million records get ignored. I know, I've made some of those records! When I went to England to promote Animal Rights, they could only find two writers to talk to me."
Even after a crap Amsterdam show the next night, he's coughing in the dungeon-like dressing room, doing a fanzine interview with a teenage girl in a pink Underground Resistance T-shirt. He knows how
much work, and luck, goes into a hit record. Mute/V2 had to license songs to ads ("Porcelain" cascades delicately for Microsoft), TV shows (Dharma & Greg), and films (The Beach, The Next Best Thing) to push sales. Tons of remixes were sent to DJs. "Bodyrock," a churning parley of sampled rap vocals (Nikki D, Spoonie Gee) and Moby guitar, benefited from vague parallels to rap-rock and Fatboy Slim. Moby showed up on VH1's Say What? Karaoke and just concluded an MTV-funded college tour with Bush.
Says Moby: "Maybe I am cheapening [the music] by hyping it in all these ways. But how can I condemn commercial pop culture if I've never even been a part of it?" His I'll-go-anywhere-and-talk-to-anybody vow finally exacted a toll after a 12-hour bus ride to a show in Prague. After losing his temper and kicking in a door, Moby returned to Manhattan.
Greeting him upon his return, however, was an unsettling sight. Plastered on the side of a building in SoHo, only blocks from his apartment, was a towering 90-foot-high image of a semi-hunched figure, standing beside a desert highway, tummy provocatively exposed.
It's "Moby for Calvin Klein Jeans: Dirty Denim."
Considering Moby's self-denying politics and weak physique, the ad raised the question "Who's he trying to kid?" Says the spokesmodel: "What, like I'm going. 'Hey ladies, check out my lack of a six-pack'? In reality, I know I'm not an attractive person, but it's like taking pictures on a bad vacation. When you look at them later, the vacation doesn't seem so bad. Of course, it could be a problem if I'm making out with a girl, and she's like. 'Uh. could you hold up that ad again so I can get in the mood?'"
He may be joking, but at times, Moby's lowly self-esteem is so relentless that it borders on performance art. The "Attack of the 90-Foot Moby!" as one observer calls it, is a promo move already making him squirm. "We both have these crippling insecurities, and it never seems to get any better." says Loeb.
The kick of so much dance music is its skin-tingling immediacy, but Moby's shameful, misfit ambition drives him to deepen and elevate those sensations. "I hopefully have made a record that can improve the quality of people's lives for a brief little time, and I know that sounds really arrogant," says the 90-foot-high pop geek with the lowly self-image. "But, you know, I am from the suburbs."