Moby reflects on his new “best of” album and his not-so-new social activism
Earlier this month, DJ-turned-pop-star Moby released Go, a two-disc “best of” collection featuring songs from his multi-platinum albums and a new track with vocals from Debbie Harry. But despite reaching that benchmark, this is not your typical self-indulgent star.
While other musicians are jaunting across the country in multi-bus entourages, Moby has made a concerted effort this time around to limit his travels. While others have marketed their own flavor of pimp juice, reality show, or lickable cosmetics, Moby’s entrepreneurial spirit bore a vegetarian/vegan tea café in New York called Teany and the Little Idiot illustrators’ collective, both ventures that he has recently turned over to his partners.
In fact, Moby — born Richard Melville Hall and nicknamed after the literary whale whose creator was, yes, a distant relative — is all about simplifying his life these days. He spends his time working on the many political and social issues he’s passionate about — not the least of which is animal rights, a cause he’s been backing for more than 20 years as a strict, and sometimes outspoken, vegan.
You might even say he’s made an art — and a business — out of recycling. His cut-and-paste musical style combines beats and riffs from songs of all stripes — most notably, the haunting ’30s and ’40s blues samples featured on his critically acclaimed 1999 record Play — and repurposes them, lowering octaves or speeding up tempos to create something totally new. While you may not be able to hum a few bars of his most famous hits, you’ve no doubt heard them. Play was the first album in history to have all of its tracks commercially licensed for use in advertisements, television clips, and movie trailers, making its unique sound ubiquitous over the past few years.
Despite all the publicity — or perhaps because of it — Moby gives off the impression that he’s quite uncomfortable talking about himself. He’d much rather be talking about why the Patagonian toothfish was rechristened the Chilean sea bass, or why we should rename “crotch,” which he describes as “nice part of the body, terrible word.” But the self-proclaimed “simpleton” consented to a phone chat last week from his home in New York City, describing what social issues keep him up nights, why he got involved in the animal-rights movement, and how he’d be celebrating Thanksgiving a few days later.
What was it like putting together your “best of” album?
I realized a long time ago that if I were to pick my own favorite songs I’ve made, I’d end up with a record that no one would want to listen to. The music that I’ve made that I love the most is the music that has invariably sold the worst and gotten the worst critical reviews, so I let my friend Daniel Miller basically pick the sequence for the track listing. He runs Mute Records, which is my label overseas, and he’s very unique in the music business in that he’s had a lot of success and he runs a record label, but he’s much more of a musician and a producer than he is a record-label boss. I realize that his perspective on my music is actually a lot better than my own perspective.
On the liner notes, you talk about a lot of issues, including our reliance on petroleum and how sustainable energy isn’t a hippie idea, and also about how we kill so many animals for human purposes. Can you talk a little bit about these issues — is this what keeps you up at night?
Well, right now what keeps me up at night is the Democrats haven’t even [officially] taken control of the House, and already they’re fighting each other. But hopefully they’ll get their act together before they’re given the keys to the House.
We live in such strange times. There are so many different catastrophes seemingly looming just over the horizon — whether it’s deforestation or global warming or all the myriad different chemicals that we’re putting into our water supply. It’s almost like, depending on what night of the week it is, you have a choice of what you’re going to have panic attacks about.
Where does your passion for these issues stem from?
I was born in 1965, and I was raised by a family of very progressive intellectuals, so when we would get together for Thanksgiving or Christmas dinner, we would sit around the table and just talk politics.
I remember being about four or five years old and going to anti-war marches with my mom and volunteering at the War Resisters League. In fact, my first-ever, non-paying volunteer job was running the bookshop at the War Resisters League in Westport, Conn.
Then, as I got older, I started playing in punk-rock bands, and obviously, the punk-rock scene of the early ’80s was very, very political. So it’s always been — for better or worse — second nature for me to be a little bit obsessed with politics and social issues.
How do you incorporate it into your daily life?
It’s hard because I’ve tried to write politically oriented music, and I’m just really not good at it. There are a lot of people in the history of music who’ve written great political music. I think of Bob Dylan or John Fogerty, or even The Clash or Public Enemy. And whenever I’ve tried to write politically oriented music, it just doesn’t work. So I’d rather try and deal with my political ideas more in essay form and by doing interviews.
You’re involved in a number of non-music projects right now also. I know you just passed off ownership of Teany —
But you also have the Little Idiot —
Not really. I got rid of that too.
Oh, did you?
About five years ago, I tried to make my life as complicated as possible. So I started this restaurant, and I started this Little Idiot illustrators’ collective, and I started a bottled beverage company, and I bought this piece of property upstate. And suddenly I had this very complicated life, and I realized that all the complications that filled my life weren’t making me happy. So I spent the last year basically trying to get rid of everything.
So what is your life about now — what do you focus on?
Very simply, working on music, helping out on different political causes, helping out with different charitable organizations, and spending time with my friends.
Of these progressive causes that you’re involved in, what’s been the most important to you?
I love working on politics, and I’ve worked very closely with MoveOn over the years, and I worked trying to raise money for different senatorial campaigns. Sometimes that’s borne fruit, and sometimes it hasn’t. But what’s really closest to my heart is my work with the animal-rights movement. I work very closely with the Humane Society, and I work with PETA and lots of other different small animal-rights organizations as well.
Do you feel like, as someone who is in the public sphere, you’re able to have an influence?
It’s hard to say because I think there’s equal precedent for celebrities getting involved in causes and helping the cause, and also celebrities getting involved in causes and hurting the cause. I presumptuously thought, years ago, that just by my getting involved in something, I was helping. And then I realized that sometimes by being a loudmouth and sort of strident, I was actually hurting some of the causes I was involved in. Now, I try to be a lot more cautious when I get involved in something as far as how publicly I want to be involved with it.
When you do get involved, what capacity are you filling?
Pretty much any capacity, whether it’s being involved on a fundraising level, helping with legislative initiatives, or just making myself available for pretty much anything they need.
One of the reasons I love the Humane Society so much is because they’re so powerful, and they have such a strong legislative component as well. If you look at the history of civil rights and animal rights and equal rights — I mean obviously it’s great if you can change people’s minds — but you can accomplish so much with legislation.
What do you have coming up?
Basically everyone I know who was involved in the world of progressive politics was so focused on the midterm elections that I think now everyone is taking a breather. After the elections, a bunch of my progressive friends and people at MoveOn had a party — and it was the first time that we were able to have a party where we weren’t fundraising and there was no PowerPoint presentation. It was just the idea of getting together to have a celebratory party.
So were you heavily involved in the campaigning?
In my own dilettantish way. If you talk to most people in politics and ask them what they would want public figures to do, I think their first response would just be, “give money.” That’s the unfortunate reality; they need all the money they can get. So I just tried to be involved as far as organizing fundraisers and playing benefit concerts. I think one of the reasons why the Democrats were able to retake the House and the Senate and a lot of local legislatures is because they were better funded this time.
If you were talking to a friend or a fan who was interested in getting involved in some of these issues but wasn’t sure where to start, what would you suggest?
It’s hard because there are so many good and different organizations dealing with just about anything — whether it’s climate change or animal rights or human rights — there’s certainly no shortage of really wonderful people working on great organizations and great causes. So honestly, I would just say to someone, “Come up with a list of five things that you care about and go online and start looking around.” Google is really the best mechanism for educating yourself as far as what’s out there and what the different organizations are.
You mentioned spending holidays with your family, and I know you recorded a holiday hotline for PETA a few years ago. What are your plans this year?
When I first became a vegan, and when I first became a very serious animal-rights activist, I would go to Thanksgiving with my family and just go on tirades about how unethical it was to eat animal products and eat animals.
How did that go over?
Well, not too well. And I realized that I was selling dissent, and I wasn’t necessarily making the world a better place. Maybe this is too much of a compromise on my part, but my feeling is if I go home for Thanksgiving and my family’s eating turkey, I don’t think I accomplish anything by making them feel bad about what they’re doing.
I think that the best way to try to change people’s minds about things is by respectfully providing them with information and using yourself as an example. Whenever I’ve gone on a tirade and yelled at people to try to change their beliefs, they usually just end up responding by being defensive. So now, I’m still just as committed to trying to make the world a better place — I just don’t necessarily want to scream at people in the process.
Get Grist in your inbox