Music

See the Storm Breaking: An Interview with Moby

Photo: Jonathan Nesvadba / Mute Records

Released the same month as the 20th anniversary of Play, Moby talks about the ten-year stretch between what he thought would be his final album, and getting sober.

Then It Fell Apart
Moby

Faber & Faber

7 May 2019

This month marks the 20th anniversary of the release of Moby's iconic album, Play. After gaining critical acclaim with 1995's Everything Is Wrong, Moby released Animal Rights, an abrasive, metal-leaning album that drew upon his 1980s-era punk roots. The album bombed commercially and critically. His label, Elektra dropped him, and while he was making Play, Moby envisioned the album being his swan song from the music world.

Play's first-week sales in the United States seemed to reinforce Moby's pessimistic outlook for his musical career. The album's supporting tour only included a few weeks of dates. But Play earned rave reviews in music publications (Spin awarded it a nine out of ten). In addition, tracks on the album were starting to appear in everything from television series (The X-Files) to commercials (American Express and Nordstrom to name a few). Eventually, every track on Play was licensed in some form. He even modeled for Calvin Klein.

Play's yearlong steady rise on the music charts gave Moby fame on an international scale. The album topped the Village Voice Pazz and Jop critics poll for "Album of the Year," and in one of the ultimate displays of "making it" as a celebrity, he earned the ire of other celebrities like Eminem. Play eventually sold more than ten million copies worldwide.

Moby's latest memoir, Then It Fell Apart, nakedly recounts this whirlwind time in his life. It picks up just after his previous memoir, Porcelain, ended. The It Fell Apart is rich with celebrity name-dropping moments like dates with Natalie Portman, and "neighbor next door" hangouts with David Bowie. But it also details Moby's early life growing up in an environment rife with neglect, sexual abuse, and poverty.

Then It Fell Apart also retells Moby's releasing a series of lackluster-selling albums, and documents him moving from vodka and Ecstasy to cocaine and crystal meth. The book's moments of levity (he writes about taking a dare during a party to rub his genitals up against an unsuspecting real estate mogul who now occupies the White House) as well as moments of anxiety-inducing horror (smoking crystal meth at a party in Iowa, and then asking a ride back to his hotel with some strangers in a minivan). Speaking to PopMatters from his home in Los Angeles, Moby talked about his mental state during this time, the drug that scared him the most, and why he didn't like the mix of the album that brought him enough fame to fill two memoirs (so far).

When you were writing Porcelain, when did you come to the realization that a standard one-book autobiography probably wouldn't be enough to tell your story?

Porcelain is very much a memoir. It's about my life in New York from 1989 until 1999, and it's very much about the rave scene and life in this weird city. It's a memoir in a more traditional sense. This (Then It Fell Apart), in a weird way, is much more autobiographical in that it starts at birth, and it ends with sobriety.

Porcelain fell into a neat ten-year block. Then It Fell Apart seemed to fall in a similar ten-year block, picking up right when Play took off

The goal with this book (Then It Fell Apart), if I had to describe it … it's that, things happen in childhood that both form us and break us. And then in adulthood, we try to basically fix the ways in which we were broken as children. And oftentimes that leads us to make huge mistakes, and really do things in a very unskillful way. That's the subtext of the whole book. It's sort of like a psychological equation: a plus b equals c. Childhood plus trauma equals adult dysfunction.

This month marks the 20th anniversary of Play. It slowly became a huge critical and commercial success in late '99 and in early 2000, but those first initial weeks after its release were very much up in the air, sales-wise. What was going through your mind right after that album's release?

I lost my American record deal with Elektra (1998), and the album before Play was Animal Rights. And that record really failed. It sold nothing, it got terrible reviews, and the tour for it was really dispiriting. I didn't even bother touring the United States for it because the European tour had been a sad anticlimax, playing to 50 to 100 people a night. And when Play was released, I really thought it was going to be an obscure, idiosyncratic record that sort of represented the end of my career as a professional musician. This was going to be my last record, and I was going to move back to Connecticut, and live in a condo by I-95, and teach community college. And so when Play was released I was just happy that I've been allowed to release this one last album, and I certainly didn't expect that anyone would listen to it or that it would do well.

In your book, you said you didn't particularly like the way Play was mixed.

It has a sui generis charm to it because it was mixed on very inexpensive equipment in my bedroom. And in 1999, the albums that did well were albums that were made in huge studios with professional engineers and million-dollar budgets. Everything from Eminem to the Backstreet Boys to Limp Bizkit and NSYNC. Those were the records that did well … they were flawlessly produced and recorded and engineered. I just mixed the songs on Play while being hungover in my bedroom on Mott Street …with a mixing desk that had cost $2,000, which was probably the daily catering budget for a Backstreet Boys at that time.

If you play it next to a well-mixed record, you realize pretty quickly (that) it's not very well mixed. But I think in a way the fact that it was mixed in such an amateurish way gave it a charm and made it sort of stand out from the records that were so professionally made.

Play came out at a time when Napster and other file-sharing services were forcing artists to rethink the concept of "selling out," because so much music was being downloaded for free. Your album was routinely touted as a new standard in getting your music out in the age of file-sharing. But as someone who had came up from a punk background, how did you wrestle with the concept of "selling out"?

Clearly things have changed quite a lot. I don't think a musician in 2019 is ever criticized for licensing their music because that's just become the way in which people do things. I think instead most musicians and most people in the music business are instead concerned when a musician doesn't license their music. Because then you have to ask the questions 'How is that music ever going to be heard?' and 'How is the musician going to pay the rent?'

I remember articles that criticized me for licensing my music, but they were written in magazines that were wholly supported by advertising revenue. I guess I didn't feel like it was my place to point out that that's egregious inconsistency and hypocrisy.

Coming from the punk rock word, I knew people who thought releasing a seven-inch single was a sellout. There were these hardcore Anarchist punk rockers would not ever let their music be duplicated and sold because they thought that was inherently a sell-out.

Your book is extremely candid, going though many drug-fueled lows, and even instances of sexual abuse. What was the hardest thing to put on paper for this memoir?

None of it was difficult because my life now is very different. It's a sort of paradox. I'm writing about myself and the life that I've had. But who I am today is so very, very different.

I know it happened, and I know that that was me, but it's really hard to look back and say that I'm the same person when my world view and my perspective is so completely different now.

Film Strip by joseph_alban (Pixabay License / Pixabay)

Some of the stories in Then It Fell Apart where both humorous and terrifying at the same time. Especially when you set limits for yourself, like never trying cocaine, then crossing that line. Then moving on to harder drugs. Which drug scared you the most?

The only drug that really scared me, I only did it once, and it gave a me terrible panic attack, was acid. Everything else was okay, (but) that was the one drug that I just really tried to say away from.

You said the effects went on for weeks with you. You eventually went to a doctor to get treated.

The panic that was triggered by my LSD experience, it lasted on and off for a very long time. It taught my brain how to panic. As a result of that, I've never done acid apart from that one time. Everything else seemed okay. But the subtext to excessive drinking and drug use is a desire to die. Maybe it's different for some people. But deep down, I think that that's one thing a lot of addicts share is (that) every time you get really drunk and high, you sort of hope this will be the last time. You kind of hope that finally you've done enough to kill yourself. And that's why you wake up the next morning, or afternoon, and you're just a little bit surprised. You're like, 'Huh? Okay. Still breathing. That's a surprise. Well, maybe next time it'll work.'

At one point, you were considering buying a bar so you could live in a basement that was devoid of light. Did you ever wind up purchasing that?

No. And I don't remember 100 percent why I didn't. But I think while we were looking into it, I bottomed out and got sober. Clearly once I got sober I was like, 'Okay buying a lightless drug den on an abandoned street in East Bushwick or Williamsburg, clearly that's not something you need to be looking into doing as you're trying to get sober.'

The book ends with you admitting to yourself that you are an alcoholic, but it wasn't after any particular 'rock bottom' event.

It's tricky to describe in a way, because normally when something makes us sick or potentially almost kills us, you then make an effort to avoid that thing. I assume if you went to Japan, and you ate fugu (blowfish), and it almost killed you, there's a good chance you probably would never even come close to eating fugu again. And that's the weird thing about alcohol and drugs. When you're an addict it's like on a daily basis, it makes you sick and almost kills you but you keep going back to it.

How often do you get back to New York now?

I try to avoid New York in January, February March and April. But I love New York very much. And every time I go back, I'm reminded of how much I love it. I'm a weirdo … like I love the F train. And I don't know anybody else on the planet who likes the F train.

But L.A., in terms of day-to-day living, … is simply easier. I have my restaurant here and my recording studio's here and most of the nonprofit's I work with are based here. It's not that I like Los Angeles more, it's just that L.A.'s a much easier place to live and work for me these days than New York.

Play topped the Village Voice Pazz and Jop poll the year it was released. Because it was such a staple in New York, how did you feel when their publication ended?

I can't look at that in isolation, because so many things that I grew up with in New York have closed their doors. When I was growing up, the Village Voice was magic. It was basically the internet on 180 thin, newsprint pages. That's how you found restaurants, it's how you found bands, it's how you read about politics, it's how you bought equipment. The utility of it was so magical. To be able to find out who was playing at The Peppermint Lounge, how you could buy a used bass guitar, where you could get a roommate, how you could find out about a new hip-hop DJ. It was really remarkable.

In Then It Fell Apart, you spend a lot of time talking about growing up in poverty. Do those experiences ever leave you?

There's almost like an epigenetic quality to it. That experience, in a very real way, determines who you are. I'm 53 years old, and clearly my circumstances have changed a lot … geographically socioeconomically, every sense of the word. I'm a very different person than who I was when I was four years old on food stamps and welfare in Connecticut. But nonetheless, a lot of my world view is still seen through that prism. Growing up poor in a very wealthy community just simply means that you never feel comfortable, and you never feel that you belong. And I'm not complaining or looking for pity, but that ethos sort of sticks with you, even as you become an adult and your circumstances change. And eventually in a weird way, time passes and it almost becomes liberating.

How so?

I realized most people I know, especially people who had sort of like good stable childhoods, they spend the rest of their life being disappointed that the world has let them down. Whereas I go through life, thinking 'Oh, the world let me down when I was a child. Everything since then, even when it's been bad, it still hasn't been that surprising.'

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