Leave it to Moby to time the release of his latest studio album, “All Visible Objects,” for when a pandemic is well under way. Although truth be told, it hasn’t really impacted his routine: an unapologetic homebody, the Los Angeles-based musician spends his days working on music, hiking, reading, thinking, repeat. Touring, like drugs and alcohol, he seems to have given up in recent years. In its place? Advocacy for animal rights and living vegan as well as political activism.
Of late, Moby’s positive deeds have been overshadowed by social media criticism, first over his characterization of a relationship with actress Natalie Portman that appeared in his second memoir, 2019’s “Then It All Fell Apart” (she denied that the two dated), and more recently, by reports of disgruntled former employees at his vegan restaurant, Little Pine, one of many L.A. eateries that was forced to shut down due to the COVID-19 crisis (the matter is ongoing).
It’s been almost three decades since Moby became the unlikely poster child for electronic music with his 1992 self-titled debut album. The astronomical success of his 1998 release “Play” cemented the artist’s place in the annals of modern music history. “All Visible Objects” taps into both ends of the ’90s spectrum: euphoric rave-y tracks of the early part of the decade and the emotive ambient ones that came towards the turn of the millenium (plus a spooky cover of Roxy Music’s “My Only Love”) creating a musical Venn diagram all his own. Moby spoke to Variety by phone ahead of the album’s release.
For the last 10 years, you’ve been giving away profits, not just from your music, but many of your other ventures as well. What brought on your sense of philanthropy?
It partially comes from being raised by hippies who were not very materialistic, and then getting involved in punk rock when I was in high school, which is also either not materialistic or ashamed of the profit motive. But in the early 2000s, I went to the other extreme of trying to be a really good materialistic rock star. I moved into some unnecessarily over-the-top apartments and houses and I had an assistant whose job was throwing parties. There was an empirical aspect to it, which was: the more time and money and energy I spent trying to impress people, trying to have great stuff and to live in Jay Gatsby-esque homes, the less happy I was. It was simple, emotional empiricism. I was bending over backwards, trying to be a big public figure. I wasn’t good at it, and it made me miserable. It led me to think, ‘Being a materialist doesn’t make me happy, what are the alternatives?’ To me, the alternative was to live a relatively simple life, and enjoy the work that you make, and if you can, use your platform and money to help organizations who are trying to fix problems.
Has that made you happy?
Much more so. My idea of happiness when I was growing up was, in a way, divorced from the human condition, as I think a lot of people’s conception of happiness is. The idea that I would have the right portfolio of perfection and that would give me unspeakable bliss and a sense of belonging until the day I die. The truth is, no one has that. I see people who have a lot and are not very happy try to get more. There’s no logic to that. If someone is worth $100 million dollars and they have three planes and five houses and they’re miserable, having four planes and six houses is not going to make you happier. The Einstein quote that everyone loves: “The definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results.” There isn’t nobility around my philanthropy. It’s just informed by evidence.
In “Then It All Fell Apart,” you said the need to write hit songs came from a desire to maintain your celebrity. Do you not feel the need to write a hit anymore?
Thankfully no. There are a bunch of things that have helped me shed that need. One is when I had hits, it didn’t necessarily create any sustainable happiness for me. Also, I’m a 54-year-old bald guy. For me to be trying to write a hit that will compete with the music of 19-year-olds, the level of sadness and compromise and disingenuousness, even if I tried to do it, I couldn’t do it. 54-year-old guys should not be trying to compete with 19-year-olds for the attention of other 19-year-olds. It would just be super-weird. It’s emancipating knowing that not only should I not try to write hits, but I absolutely couldn’t if I had to.
Have you reached that enlightened place where you’re making music just for the art of it?
I don’t know if it’s enlightened, but I definitely love being in my studio and working on music and putting out records with the understanding that very few people will actually listen to them.
Your post-pandemic life is not all that different to your pre-pandemic life, is it?
That is my guilty truth. I stay home and I drink smoothies and I work on music and I go hiking and I read books and I occasionally watch bad TV. It’s not all that different, but I have a sense of guilt around that and the only way I can assuage that guilt is by respecting and listening to what other people are going through.
But you have been helping out your friends and fellow musicians during this time.
Being of service and helping people and helping organizations, the one thing I’m trying to remember is there’s a very good chance that this might be a marathon. Lots of people are desperate for income and work right now, especially nonprofits. I want to be able to help people and support organizations six months from now, a year from now, 18 months from now, two years from now. Part of that means not blowing your philanthropic wad in the first couple of months, which is a disgusting choice of idiom.
What advice do you have for musicians who aren’t in your financial position?
You have to think long-term. I have friends who are musicians who are understandably very anxious and scared and panicking. What we’re going through is so unprecedented that the only thing we can do practically is try to think as long-term as possible with everybody figuring out, institutionally, personally, professionally, how to work through this and plan for the next year. If any of us want to be of use and service over the next couple of years, we have to think self-protectively and take care of ourselves as much as we possibly can. I don’t want to conflate my experience with anyone else’s. I feel comfortable not trying to make money from the work that I do, but that certainly doesn’t apply to other people. I encourage musicians, artist, writers, directors, everybody to take care of themselves and if they can make money, they should.
You’ve been active on social media since the early days of Friendster and MySpace. Do you find it’s a dangerous arena for you at the present time?
It’s dangerous to my well-being if I read comments. It takes me a while to learn lessons. When websites like Gawker and Gothamist started [in the early 2000s], back then, I was a voracious egomaniac so I read everything that was written about me. When the critical tide turned against me and I was becoming a pariah, I remember one of those sites had a snarky bit about me and one of the comments was someone saying how they wanted to stab me and wanted me to bleed to death in front of them in the street. At that moment I should have stop reading all reviews, all articles, anybody who comments about me. For the most part, I’ve been pretty disciplined about that, but every now and then, over the ensuing years, I’ve slipped.
Avoiding social media comments takes a great deal of self-control.
This is kind of a disgusting comparison, but comments are like a single pubic hair in a beautiful plate of food. If you get 100 wonderful comments and one nasty one, all you notice is the nasty one. If you have a beautiful plate of food and there’s one pubic hair in it, you don’t notice the beautiful plate of food, you notice the pubic hair. If you’re walking down the street and a drunk screams at you, you dismiss it. “That’s a drunk, they don’t know me, why would I take their words to heart?” Give that same drunk an iPhone and have them comment on one of your posts, all of a sudden it ruins your week.
We have to ask: as a vocal animal rights activist, what are you thoughts on “Tiger King,” the Netflix phenomenon?
It didn’t exactly fill me with pride for our species.