20 Questions With Moby: On Trump, The 25 Year Anniversary of ‘Play’ & Fame: ‘I Experienced It Firsthand and It’s Stupid’

20 Questions With Moby: On Trump, The 25 Year Anniversary of ‘Play’ & Fame: ‘I Experienced It Firsthand and It’s Stupid’

In the Y2K era, even if you lived far from electronic music hubs like New York, Chicago and Los Angeles, it was possible to tap into the scene through an American Express ad.


Moby’s 15 Best Songs: Critic’s Picks


In 2000, the credit card company featured Moby‘s track “Find My Baby” in a commercial starring Tiger Woods. Another commercial for Bailey’s Irish Cream used Moby’s “Porcelain,” which was also licensed by Nordstrom, Volkswagen, Bosch and France Telecom. Maxwell House synced “Run On,” chocolate company Thornton’s attracted buyers with “Everloving.” The trend went on until every song from Moby’s 1999 studio album, Play — released 25 years ago this month — was synced at least once.

In this last era of the media monoculture, this strategy made the songs from Play ubiquitous. It also helped introduced many listeners (one suburban adolescent included) to electronic music, even if they didn’t really realize that’s what was happening.

While album sales were initially anemic — Moby famously thought it’d be the last album he make before becoming a community college teacher — the synchs injected the album into mainstream consciousness and helped make it a major hit. The 18-track LP ultimately sold 2.7 million copies in the U.S., according to Luminate. It spent 94 weeks on the Billboard 200, becoming a mainstream breakthrough moment for a genre then referred to as “electronica.” In 2000, a version of Play’s “South Side” reworked to feature Gwen Stefani reached No. 14 on the Hot 100, spending 32 weeks on the chart.

“I don’t want to throw [my managers from that time] under the bus in any capacity,” Moby, 58, tells Billboard on a recent Monday afternoon in Los Angeles, “but they’ll talk about a strategy, and I guarantee you, there was no strategy. Or rather, the strategy was, ‘People were interested in the music, so we let them use it.’”

The success of Play of course changed the producer’s life, making him a pop culture fixture and setting up a career that now encompasses 23 studio albums, with a 24th, Always Centered At Night, coming June 14 via Mute. The project will feature different collaborators, including Serptenwithfeet and the late British writer Benjamin Zephaniah, on each of its 13 tracks.

This September, Moby will play seven European shows commemorating the quarter century of Play. Asked if he might bring this tour to the U.S., he essentially says no: “I hate touring. My manager realized the one way to get me on tour was to say, ‘How about you tour and give all the money to animal rights organizations? He knew that was the trick that would get me to do it. When the tour ends, I will literally have less money than when the tour started.’”

Next week in Los Angeles, however, he will take part in two very low-key anniversary celebrations, live recordings of his Moby Pod podcast happening at the 200-person capacity at the Masonic Lodge at the Hollywood Forever Cemetery. These May 30-31 events will also include live acoustic versions of songs from Play.

Here, Moby talks about how the the success of the album changed his life, the “egregious selfishness” of modern pop culture and the movie he’d write about Trump.

1. Where are you in the world right now, and what is the setting like?

Well, as a clichéd, sober, middle-aged musician, I’m in Los Angeles driving my electric car on Melrose past Paramount Pictures, wondering if Paramount is still going to be in business in three weeks. I read some article over the weekend that they’re hemorrhaging money and they’re trying to sell it off and that all these different investment people are trying to buy it. So I’m driving by the beautiful Paramount lot right now. And who knows, maybe it’ll be a Walmart or a Costco at some point.

2. What is the first album or piece of music you bought for yourself, and what was the medium?

I remember it so clearly. My friend Ronald Little found five dollars. I was living in Stratford, Connecticut and was 10 years old. It was the late ’70s. I had never held five dollars. Like, it was so much money, and he found it, so it seemed like the greatest day ever.

We went to this discount store called Bradley’s, and Bradley’s was the cheapest of cheap discount stores. I grew up really poor, so we did a lot of our shopping at Bradley’s. And Ron Little, in his generosity, gave me a dollar because I had been with him when he found the five dollars. I used it to buy a seven-inch single of the song “Convoy” by C.W. McCall. I took it home, and I’m not kidding — I listened to it 40 times in a row, to the point where my mother was concerned. After the first 10 times she was like, “This is kind of cute.” After 20 she was like, “You’re still listening to the song.” I wondered if at that point she might have figured out I was going to be both a musician and a drug addict.

I went back and listened to it recently and realized it’s really good. It’s actually pretty special. They also made a movie with Kris Kristofferson based on the song. I don’t know how often that’s happened since, where a hit single became the foundation for an entire narrative film.

3. What is it typical day for you? Is there such a thing?

Every day is exactly the same. As a sober, old guy, my days — I love them, but they’re so boring. I wake up around 4:30 in the morning. I have a smoothie, and I read 20 different online newspapers. The Washington Post, the New York Times, Financial Times, The Guardian, etc. My big indulgence — it’s so boring, I’m ashamed of how tedious I am — I make a big pot of organic white tea and read fiction for an hour.

Then I do a bunch of work stuff in the morning. My friend Lindsey and I have a little film and TV production company. So I do a lot of meetings and emails, then exercise, lunch, more work. Usually I go on a hike. After dinner, from 6:00 p.m. until 10:00, that’s when I work on music, because the world gets quiet, and I can just sit in my studio like a little middle-aged monk.

4. What’s the last great fiction book you read?

I’m a little bit ashamed. I’m going to be honest, when I started touring, I was a literature snob. This is going back to the early ’90s. When I was on tour I would bring some work of challenging fiction. I was like, “I’m going to read it in the airport and on the tour bus.” But then I realized I was actually much happier reading the sort of plot-driven airport fiction that I bought in the airports. I would bring like, Aldous Huxley’s Eyeless In Gaza and end up reading Stephen King.

To this day I’m kind of ashamed to admit this, but I love what I call “airport fiction.” Like plot-driven fun. A lot of it’s incredibly well written. So I’m going to be honest, the book I’m finishing right now is from a series called Orphan X. It’s basically this guy who was trained to be the world’s greatest assassin, but he also has to remember how to be human. They’re sweet, funny, and well written. I could lie and say that I’m re-reading Eyeless In Gaza, but the truth is, I’m reading the new Orphan X.

5. I was reading about how the licensing songs from Play for commercials and other synchs really triggered its success. How involved were you in the strategy of getting the music out by licensing the songs?

Well, I am kind of pleased you think there was a strategy… When Play was released, it kind of failed. It didn’t sell very well. It didn’t get great reviews for the most part. The tour was tiny. The first show I played was in the basement of a Virgin Megastore in Union Square and around 20 people showed up, and it was free. The only interest we received was from people who wanted to license the music for advertisements, TV and movies. We kind of just said “yes” to almost everything, because it was the only sort of interest we were getting.

6. Everything I’ve read about the synchs from Play emphasized how fabulously lucrative the whole endeavor was. How did that money change your life?

I grew up in the world of hardcore punk rock in and around New York in the early ’80s, and one of my favorite bands, like everybody’s, was Minor Threat. One of my musical and spiritual heroes was Ian MacKaye from Minor Threat who famously would only charge $5 for a show. As you know, the straight edge punk rock scene of the early ’80s was aggressively non-capitalistic. So when I started licensing music and making money from it — and it’s tricky because it might sound self-serving or even self-aggrandizing — the deal I made with myself was, “Make money so you can do something good with the money.” It seemed creepy to draw too much attention to that, so I’m very I’m very hesitant to mention it. But my idea was, “if I have money, I can try and use it to a good effect.”

To be fair, I did some very selfish, stupid things where I spent money on myself — and realized that even if you buy a giant house, no matter where I lived, I was still an insecure, anxious little weirdo. So I was quickly disabused of the idea that buying a giant house was going to fix any of my problems… Rather, I said, okay, I’ve made some money. Let me figure out how to live a comfortable, simple, life then ideally use the money to sort of move the needle away from this current, terrible status quo, this current terrible system regarding food production, environmental destruction, attacks on democracy, voter suppression. In my way, I’ve been trying to stay true to that.

7. It seems like it’s worked. Those things are kind of pillars of your career and who people know you to be on a public perception level, right?

I do feel weird talking about it. Of course I have an ego, but I don’t like publicizing it necessarily, unless there is a utility — because obviously we live in a time where a lot of pop culture and entertainment is egregiously selfish and egregiously gratuitous. My hope is that maybe I can, and I know it sounds immodest, remind people that gratuitous self-interested culture and life is not really what’s called for as the world is collapsing.

8. You’ve been working for the animal rights cause for as long as I can remember. Are there things happening now that are encouraging to you?

I became vegan in 1987, and in 1987, I believe there were two vegan restaurants in the world. No one even knew how to say the word “vegan.” Now I’m in Los Angeles, and there 50 vegan restaurants in a 10 mile radius of where I live. The progress has been remarkable. There’s so many politicians who are vegan and celebrities who are vegan. Almost everyone’s aware of what “vegan” is. In fact, one of the big problems now is on a legislative level and PR level is fighting the vegan backlash. The Florida State Legislature with [Governor Ron] DeSantis recently passed legislation

banning alternative protein production in Florida.

So [the awareness] is very widespread, but at the same time, meat consumption keeps going up. The fact that human beings are responsible for the deaths of [billions] of individual animals every year, means that I can’t for a second feel good about where we are, because it’s so far from where we need to be.

9. If you could share one piece of information with someone who’s not educated on the cause, in the hopes of influencing them, what would you say?

What makes being a vegan activist so interesting strategically is that everybody responds to different types of information. I was talking to one person who, maybe they were a sociopath, but they didn’t like animals. My argument to them was like, “What about the climate? What about human health? What about workers rights? What about antibiotic resistance? What about rainforest deforestation? Do you care about any of those things?” They were like, “Yeah, I care about all those things.” I was like, “Well, then this is why we should stop using animals for food.”

It’s hard to pick the one thing that everyone responds to. One thing I keep coming up against that’s so baffling is how the majority of the people on the planet either like animals or at the very least are horrified by the idea of animal suffering. But yet the majority of people on the planet routinely contribute to and cause animal suffering. It’s so confusing that if you try to show someone a picture or video of how their food is produced, they’ll recoil in horror, because the logical extension of that is to say to them, “then stop eating what you’re eating.”

10. What do you think that is, that disconnect?

One could argue that it’s the disconnect that’s behind a lot of baffling human behavior. What I mean by that is, people who want to be healthy, but they eat food that kills them. Or people who think of themselves as good people, but they steal, cheat, lie and do terrible things.

You could argue that there’s a neurological component or even like a neurotransmitter component, that we have these different brains cobbled together in one brain. There’s our prefrontal cortex, this sort of seat of executive function that makes rational decisions. But then our pleasure centers, the older parts of the brain, are so powerful that you can hold on to these ostensibly paradoxical ideas, because they both make people feel good. Someone can say “I love animals,” but they can also say “I love foie gras.” We can be like, well, rationally, it’s not possible to do both. But both things make them happy, and so the well-being they feel is what determines the epistemological narrative around it.

11. This is a clunky segue, but in terms of pleasure centers, I’m thinking about you in the Play era when things got so big. What was the crest of that wave like for you, and how well did you ride that wave of fame?

Some people are great at being famous. I was not one of those people, because I had never expected it. To my shame — again, as someone who grew up listening to Minor Threat — I embraced fame way too hard. I was drinking and doing drugs and going to fancy events. I really went whole-hog into the world of idiotic fame. But I’m really grateful for it, because it was the greatest education I’ve ever had.

We live in a culture that prioritizes and glamorizes fame and famous people. I, for a brief period, was very famous and had a lot of famous friends. I realized, “Oh, this kind of is shallow and idiotic.” And so it’s made it very easy to not be tempted by the trappings of fame, because I indulged in it so hard, and I realized how shallow it is. I don’t mean that in a academic dismissive way. I mean, I experienced it firsthand, and it’s stupid.

12. Can you give me an example of it being stupid?

I mean, there was a period where I went to every award show, even if I didn’t have any business being there. Even though I met some very nice movie stars and musicians, the conversations were never, ever as interesting or funny as the conversations I have with the people I went to high school with. A dinner party with your best friends from college will by definition be a thousand times funnier, smarter and more interesting than any dinner with any celebrity ever.

13. Before you mentioned the gratuitous selfishness of culture of large and celebrity culture in particular? Having lived that life, do you have a level of compassion for people you see who are currently in it?

You’ve touched on something that I really have to edit myself on, because it’s that really underlying question of: as a species, why do we do what we do? Why do we make the choices we make? Why do we value what we value?

In the broadest sense, to me, everything has an existential underpinning. We are scared, weird little monkeys who have no understanding of who we are or our place in the universe. And so we desperately grab for anything that either provides answers or makes us feel good for the next five minutes. It’s kind of sad how we’re wired. I don’t think I’m exempted from that, but I think I’ve indulged it enough where I can take a step back and understand the sort of flawed utility of a lot of those conventional choices.

14. You described your sort of quote unquote boring day before. Has that structure eased the existential dilemma of daily life for you?

Oh yeah. For me it really has. But part of this is also that I live across the street from Griffith Park in Los Angeles, and Griffith Park is wild in the literal sense. I go hiking every day in parts of Griffith Park where there are no humans, and I see the coyotes, the rattlesnakes, and all this nature in these plants. To me that — sorry, if I sound like a complete Paul Stamets or John Muir hippie — but that’s what heals my existential dilemma, being reminded that the concerns of humanity are kind of sad and shallow, whereas nature actually embodies a wisdom that humanity has yet to figure out.

15. Okay, then this is probably going sound like a really shallow question, but what do you consider your greatest career achievement? Or do you think you’ve done it yet?

My greatest career achievement is a really simple one, and broad — which is that I seem to have, at times, made music that has given people emotional comfort. That’s it. That’s the only thing. Nothing else matters. There are no metrics, or sales figures, or revenue streams. All of that is nonsense. The only thing that matters is every now and then, someone will tell me that a piece of music I’ve made has provided them emotional comfort or outlet.

16. Well then maybe having done that, there’s no answer for this next question, but I’m wondering if you have any professional regrets?

Well, it’s a wonderful question. Here’s the thing: I have tons of regrets, but at the same time, one of the things I’m most grateful for is the perspective that I have. And perspective, at this moment for every single person on the planet, is the result of our experiences. So if you’re grateful for your perspective, it’s really hard to criticize any of the experiences that have informed or contributed to that perspective.

17. If you were going to take one song from Play and turn it into a “Convoy”-style spinoff movie starring the modern-day Kris Kristofferson, what song would it be?

Oh, boy. Wow. It’s a cover song, the song “Run On.” It’s an interesting one, because when I did my version of it, I knew it was an old standard. But by releasing it, so many people told me just how much of an old standard it was. Like, Elvis did a version of it. The Carter family did a version of it. It’s an ancient song. The narrative of it, for some reason, every time I listen to it or play it now, I think of Donald Trump.

18. Why?

Because it’s basically about some evil, terrible, horrifying person reaping the fruits of their evil. Sorry if you or anyone you know is Trump supporter, but I’m stunned that this horrifying — I mean, he’s almost like some evil, lizard, space alien person pretending to be human because it’s like he’s cartoonishly evil, but yet 50% of Americans want to vote for him. So, the story of this soulless psychopathic, antisocial personality disorder, a person who has basically gilded themselves and done everything to amass wealth and power. It’s like, when do the consequences show up?

I don’t want him to suffer, but I think the song “Run On” does kind of describe a narrative that in my lesser moments, I think, would hopefully apply to Trump. If you’re bored, listen to the song and think of someone like Trump — who, as we know, is currently on trial for cheating on his pregnant wife with a porn star. And yet the Evangelicals love and support him. The cognitive dissonance I think we all have around this is literally mind-boggling.

19. What’s one piece of advice you’d get you’d give to your younger self?

What we were talking about earlier: If you’re grateful for the perspective you have, you couldn’t go back in time and change anything. So even if I went back in time and met myself at my most idiotic, my most entitled, narcissistic and selfish, I might just say to myself, like, “Yep, just keep on doing what you’re doing, because even though it’s idiotic, it hopefully will lead to something. There might be some wisdom that is the product of this idiocy that will prove itself over time.”

20. That sounds like someone who likes themself in this current moment can say, yes?

Like I said, I’m so grateful for the weird perspective that I have. We all have adversity, but ultimately adversity is a part of learning, and I don’t want to suffer. I don’t want anyone to suffer. But boy, I’ve certainly learned more from mistakes of my own making than I have from any success I’ve been involved in.

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