It's a calm, warm afternoon in Los Angeles. The hum in the air is a comforting blend of chatter and birdsong, the smell a curiously intoxicating mixture of city and greenery. It's a very “L.A.” vibe-soup — “natural oasis” and “new world” making for fascinating bedfellows. And that all suits Moby, whose public persona, the image that he lives through the many aspects of his work, mashes nature with technology.
The Trails Cafe in Griffith Park is the ideal location to meet, too. The outdoor picnic tables are surrounded by stunning, overhanging trees, which, together with the dusty path and nearby families, offer a rural island in an urban ocean.
Moby ambles into it all and, with his typical air of serenity, only enhances the mood of SoCal relaxation. That's quite a feat for an artist who has sold 20 million records worldwide and is seen as a pioneer of electronic music. Moby was one of those who smashed the wall between underground dance-cool and mega–pop success. There was a time when his songs were heard on what seemed like every commercial on TV, as his profile lit up the mainstream. That earned him as many critics as plaudits, but that comes with the territory.
But in person, Moby is the anti-star, the very definition of an Everyman. Only the two assistants who accompany him to this interview, one somehow appropriately buying him granola before merging into the foliage, betray the fact that he is who he is. The nearby mothers, playing with their kids, sure have no idea.
At 52, Moby is as passionate as he's ever been about his music, and recent albums prove that he's more interested in challenging perceptions and conventional genre boundaries than shifting units. Sales are a bonus, of course, but Moby is a true artist.
There are other elements that fuel him, too: His desire to see President Trump out of office is something that, when approached, elicits a passionate response.
“I doubt that Trump will finish out his term — chances are super slim,” he says. “If I had to guess, that means he is going to resign at some point. What's going to happen is that Mueller is going to come to him and say, 'Look, here is what we have on you. This will tear the country apart, you should just resign.' The stuff they have is so deep and so gnarly and he is so corrupt. Like Nixon.”
Moby's public persona is that of a very sedate, almost monklike, EDM guru. He's a tireless activist for animals and the environment, yet his slight frame and quiet demeanor, together with his famed veganism, fit comfortably with the punk-rock fire that's undoubtedly in his belly.
When we meet, he's dressed down in Adidas sneakers; a white hat from his vegan restaurant, Little Pine (100 percent of the profits go to animal rights causes); jeans; and a black T-shirt from the Broome Street Ganesha temple, a South Indian Hindu temple in Brooklyn. We ask if he's wearing the shirt because he misses New York City.
“No way,” Moby bites back. “My friend Eddie sent it to me. I like it cuz it's comfy.”
Moby's 15th studio album, Everything Was Beautiful, and Nothing Hurt, drops on March 2. Fans of Kurt Vonnegut's Slaughterhouse-Five will recognize the album's title, and that sort of literary reference should come as no surprise. Extremely, notoriously well-read, though with little interest in contemporary authors (due to what he views as a worrying lack of literary heroes nowadays), Moby has a knack for borrowing ideas from bigger concepts and fitting them into his own work. Two of the new album's song titles (“Mere Anarchy” and “The Ceremony of Innocence”) are taken from W.B. Yeats' poem “The Second Coming.”
“My literary heroes were mainly writers and artists in the 20th century. [Jean-Paul] Sartre, [James] Baldwin, [Albert] Camus, [Ernest] Hemingway,” Moby says. “Maybe this is the old guy complaining, but a lot of art and literature was really consumed with giant existential questions. Very broad and far-reaching.”
Moby feels compelled to, in his own tongue-in-cheek words, steal ideas from 20th-century writers, because he feels that there is nobody today addressing the baffling qualities of the human condition. Modern literature leaves him feeling empty, as if he's been told nothing of value.
“What's going on now is that a lot are either escapist or provincial,” he says. “White people in Brooklyn writing books for white people in Brooklyn. The only insight is, like, 'Growing up suburban, upper-middle-class was interesting and had issues.'?”
The deep dives and heavy reading seem to be helping; Moby just finished his second memoir, though it's currently untitled. The plan is to release it as two books, covering childhood and adulthood, the parts of his life that he felt weren't covered in the first one, 2016's Porcelain: A Memoir. On their own, he says, neither book was strong enough.
His disdain for the behavior of humanity is a theme that fuels pretty much everything Moby does; his activism and philanthropic endeavors, certainly. But his music, too. In describing the subtext for the new album, Moby points out that, up until 100 years ago, all the adversity humans encountered was foisted upon us: being eaten by bears, being caught in an avalanche or having our teeth rot out of our heads.
“But something happened at the end of the 19th century, into the early 20th century, where we learned how to control everything,” he says. “All the things that used to kill us, we now were able to master them. So we are created with this blank slate, this tabula rasa of a planet, that we could do anything with. Yet what we did was create hell. Every problem, from climate change to war, rape, antibiotic resistance to child abuse … we are the ones doing it. And it's so stupid. The album title and the cover art are about that.”
Moby is visibly shaken by this, to the point of downright pessimism, though always focused and eloquent. He looks as if he has the weight of the world on his shoulders when he discusses the tantalizing notion that all the world's ills could be fixed tomorrow if everyone woke up and said, “OK, no more war, rape, violence, misogyny, use of petroleum products or overuse of antibiotics.”
It's that passion, that determination, that pushes him to get things done — to actually make things happen rather than simply complain.
He created the concert festival Circle V, which benefits nonprofit Mercy for Animals, and the website Animal Echo Chamber, which shares the latest activist news with animal rights groups. More recently, he started the Richard M. Hall Foundation (his birth name), which raises funds for animal rights organizations, focusing specifically on legislation and health, and is helping to produce a few animal rights documentaries.
He refers to animal rights activism as his life's work, and then acknowledges, almost guiltily, that he occasionally spends his time on activities that he considers “time-wasting.”
“In a perfect world, every single thing I did would be unimpeachably virtuous, but unfortunately it's not a perfect world,” he says. “If we live in this world that is an inch away from complete catastrophic apocalypse, why do I do anything other than try to either draw attention to that or try to make things better? Everything else, even if it's really pleasant, ultimately, makes me feel guilty.”
Yeah, Moby hates wasting time. That attitude holds true when it comes to performing live, too. As a musician, touring has been a part of his life since the '80s, including in 1996 when he released a punk album called Animal Rights and toured with Soundgarden, a move that manager Eric Härle says almost ended Moby's career. But he soldiered on and, three years later, the Play album was an enormous commercial and artistic success. Still, even today he has a love/hate relationship with performing live.
“I like the relatively unstructured benign chaos of it,” Moby says. “What I don't like is when everything is too planned and too regimented, like when you go on tour and you are playing the exact same set list 200 times in a row. That just feels rote and pointless.”
In 2018, as he tours his new album, Moby will have ample opportunity to switch things up, improvise and please his fans by pleasing himself. He plays three times at the Echo this month and then, in October, performs with the L.A. Philharmonic. There is, at least, genuine appeal to the hometown shows for Moby.
“I like playing acoustic shows here,” he says. “This is the only place in the world where, if you play quiet music, people are quiet. I've been to other cities where finance guys attend and they are talking over what you are doing. I'm a peaceful person, but when that happens I just want to break my guitar into shards and stab them.”
Moby puts that down to a general appreciation of and respect for other people's art in this city. There's also an open-mindedness that he finds refreshing and relatable. That show with the L.A. Phil will be his debut with an orchestra, and he's planning to record an album, too.
“I grew up playing classical music, studying music theory,” he says. “I have always just had this profound love, that is clearly shared with a lot of people, for melodic, beautiful music. I have never had allegiance to genre, because genre is arbitrary. The ability of music to communicate and convey emotion. Sometimes the best way to do that is playing dance music to 50,000 people in a stadium. And sometimes it's a simple cello/piano piece played at Disney Concert Hall.”
Midway through the interview, we're joined by indie singer-songwriter Daniel Ahearn, and Moby's mood visibly changes. He seems far more relaxed in the company of his friend and longtime collaborator.
The two worked together on the scores for the films The Ever After and Mark Webber's Flesh and Blood. They also share a passion for meditation.
“Moby has taught me a lot about saying 'yes' to the world,” Ahearn says. “We've talked deeply about consciousness, the nature of the mind and, of course, veganism. He uses his celebrity for beautiful things and never wields it solely for ego or advancement of himself as a product. I admire that. It's a rarity in this town.”
Ahearn recently released an album, Can You Face Me; also an actor, he appeared on a recent episode of Showtime series SMILF. He acknowledges the influence of his friend through all of it.
“Moby has always encouraged me to get weirder and at the same time to do less,” Ahearn says. “Finding this balance between the words you don't need, the rawness you can articulate, the noise for the sake of itself, and then, when appropriate, the quiet that is called for. As a result, I've learned to strip away whatever is not the truth of the song — to find the word or the melody, the sound, whatever the truth is, and surrender to it.”
For his part, Moby is intrigued by Ahearn's music, in particular pointing out the way Ahearn plays with conventional and unconventional melody, overlaying the two on top of each other while, lyrically, looking at three facets of the human condition — loss, love, and longing. It's a depth that the two men share.
Throughout Everything Was Beautiful, and Nothing Hurt, Moby references man's fractured spiritual relationship; one can hear the longing in the song “Like a Motherless Child” (which already has surpassed 700,000 views on YouTube).
Taking all of that into account, it's little wonder that mindful meditation is an integral tool for Moby when dealing with the current social and political landscape and attempting to make sense of it, to make a difference, through his own art.
“We live in stressful times,” he says. “We wake up, look at our phone. Grab some coffee, look at the phone. Get in traffic, look at the phone. By the end of the day, we are just depleted. That feeling of, 'I'm so exhausted, I've had such a hard day,' getting angry at my phone and drinking coffee.”
This is why Moby needs people in his life like Ahearn, people who help him achieve a certain peace (though the relationship is certainly symbiotic). Ahearn teaches meditation at local drug-rehab centers and to children with process/behavioral addictions. He and Moby acknowledge that meditation affects their art and helps them maintain an equilibrium through stressful moments.
“Meditation creates the ability of having a moment of pause, before you work off that impulsive fear and anger,” Ahearn says. “Now, more than ever, people need to meditate and learn how to take a breath. They are so caught up in building their brand and all these things that operate in the land of illusion, which continue to create so much pain and suffering for people. Meditation goes a long way to help with that.”
Yeah, not everyone is going to appreciate these sentiments. But Moby really lives this stuff. He practices what he preaches. It's a lifestyle, right down to how much clutter he retains in his life.
“I am getting rid of 99 percent [of my studio gear],” he says. “I don't use it, I have like five pieces of equipment I like to use and everything else is on my computer.”
Not only that, but in the most un-Hollywood move one could imagine, Moby is getting rid of his swimming pool.
“Because I'm insane and an environmentalist I'm getting rid of my pool … as in: removing all concrete, etc., and replacing it with soil and trees and plants,” he recently tweeted. “I never use my pool, and it just sits there, wasting water and energy. So, goodbye pool, hello trees. I'll let you know.”
That's the impulsive, quirky, thoughtful and compassionate nature of Moby. To some he's a brilliant mind, to others he's simply an oddball. As an artist he remains interesting, and that's the most important thing. As an activist, his heart is certainly in the right place, and he makes a real difference thanks to the causes that he tirelessly supports.
At the end of the day, though, Moby is as prone to a “what the fuck” moment as any other successful musician in L.A.
“I did something a little weird recently,” he says. “I moved to a new house and, in the process, got rid of a whole bunch of stuff. I moved in, realized I didn't like living in the new house, and so I moved back to the old house. But the great thing is, in moving, I got rid of tons of stuff, but then moving back, I got rid of even more.”
Whatever makes you happy.
Moby will be signing records at Amoeba Records on Friday, March 2, at 5 p.m. All of his performances at the Echo (March 14-16) are sold out. He makes his orchestral debut at the L.A. Philharmonic on Oct. 12 at Walt Disney Concert Hall.
Daniel Ahearn's music can be found on Spotify and ITunes. https://open.spotify.com/album/2Nf083FTdZ1r2nzt2Ojxsb?si=ZktfpoKgTg6LDo37xQN0wA.