Photo by Sebastien Micke

Moby: “I don’t want anything from music”

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Short Profile

Name: Richard Melville Hall
DOB: 11 September 1965
Place of birth: Harlem, New York, United States
Occupation: DJ, producer

Moby, a couple years ago you said you felt like you’d been having a midlife crisis since you were four years old. Is that still true today?

Oddly, no! The irony is that now that I actually am in midlife, now that I’m a fully-fledged middle age man, I don’t feel like I’m having a midlife crisis anymore. That said, I am very aware of the absurdity of being a 51-year-old musician in 2016. None of this is what I ever expected. I know that some musicians when they release an album, they try really hard to pretend that they’re 10 or 20 years younger and that their career is what it used to be. I actually find it quite liberating to be 51 years old making albums at a time when people don’t really pay that much attention to albums.

Liberating in what way?

I love the process of making an album, I like thinking about it, I like recording it… And then in the act of releasing it, I don’t really expect that many people to buy it or even pay attention to it. I don’t see it as a means to a material end, I just don’t really care if music generates money for me. The joy that I get making music has nothing to do with that. Once it’s done and released, in a way, I don’t care about it that much. My criteria for evaluating the success of an album has changed a lot.

“I thought I was going to spend my whole life making music that no one ever paid attention to.”

What did success look like to you as a young artist?

I thought that if I somehow managed to have the right record deal and the right girlfriend and the right apartment and the right membership in the music scene and the right amount of public attention… I thought everything in my life would be perfect if I could just have those things. And then the universe, with its sort of challenging sense of humor, gave me everything I wanted but times a thousand. And I was completely miserable. The least happy I ever have been as a person and as a musician was when I was having the most commercial success. I thought I was going to spend my whole life making music that no one ever paid attention to.

A realistic expectation when you consider that statistically, the odds of becoming a successful musician are pretty slim…

True, so when I did Top of the Pops for the first time, for example, it just felt wrong to me that I had somehow been included in this world. And for a while after that, I continued to desperately pursue it. In 2003, 2004, I toured constantly, I produced songs for other people, I had publicists in every country, went to every award show, tried dating public figures… In the end, the more I saw myself as a professional musician, the more unhappy I was and the more disgusted I was with myself.

Do you regret it?

I regret it only in that it was embarrassing and it didn’t work! But at the same time, I’m glad I went through it because you can’t fully understand whether something does or doesn’t work until you’ve experienced it. I’m glad that I went through a period of shallowness and narcissism and entitlement and alcoholism and drug addiction… I’m glad I went through it because now I simply know what didn’t work.

Do you think that made you a better musician in the end?

Hopefully it made me a more honest musician. As I was saying earlier, I don’t see the point in making music to present myself as something other than I am. I don’t want to be cool. And I don’t want to have a huge shiny successful career as a musician that would involve me touring and making songs for pop stars. I’m glad that that was knocked out of my system. 

Moby performing his hit single Go! on Top of the Pops in 1991.

What does making music feel like these days? Does it still make you happy?

Even more so, in a weird way. I don’t want anything from music, and in a way, that feels almost more pure and more precious to me. It doesn’t mean that I think the music I’m making is good or better than music I’ve made in the past… I just have a much more sort of direct and unsullied relationship with it. There’s nothing wrong with commercial success but to me it kind of muddied the waters. It introduced an awareness of creativity that hadn’t been there when I was growing up and making music without the expectation of an audience, you know? And that’s maybe one of the reasons why I’m one of the only musicians I know who loves the state of the music business in 2016.

Do you feel like you’ve finally got the music industry figured out?

I think there’s just less pressure to answer that question of figuring things out. When I was growing up, I kind of assumed that other people in the world knew what they were doing, that there were places in the world that had truly magical cultures to them. As I’ve gotten older, I’ve found that the human condition, no matter where it’s manifested, is kind of clueless and clumsy! There isn’t some magic place in the world where people are sexy and enlightened and know exactly what they’re doing and having the best parties ever. Everybody’s just sort of stumbling through life. I don’t even mean that in a pessimistic way, I think it’s kind of endearing! I’ve realized that there’s magic in the world but it’s not necessarily the product of humans or culture.

Where does magic come from then?

Well this is where I run the risk of sounding like a clichéd Southern Californian new age person. (Laughs) But to me magic is the complexity of nature and the ways in which the divine makes itself manifest through all different aspects of existence. The creative force of the universe.

“Music gives us a tiny glimpse of what’s actually going on in the universe.”

Is music one of those manifestations?

Music is one of the healthiest forms of transcendence and magic! As someone who used to spend a lot of time drinking and doing drugs, I can say that alcohol and cocaine are not necessarily the healthiest ways to achieve magical transcendence. (Laughs) Whereas music… Music can operate as such a powerful and profound healing modality even though technical it has no material substance, you know? But somehow it can make you dance, can make you cry, can make you sing, can make you drive across a country, can make you do all sorts of things…

And it’s just air movement.

Exactly, at its core, it’s molecules hitting your eardrum a little bit differently. One of the places where I look for magic is what I’ll almost call the razor’s edge between human perception and the actual truth of what existence might be. In our human form, we’re really denied an objective understanding of what might be going on in the world because the world is so unspeakably complicated. The most interesting stuff is when we can get a sense of what might be going on separate from humanity on a subatomic level. I think that certain things like prayer and meditation and music and science give us a tiny glimpse of what that might be, of what’s actually going on in the universe.