Moby Talks 'Fast Post-Punk' LP, Embracing Commercial Irrelevance

Eclectic artist on why he made 'These Systems Are Failing,' an album he doesn't expect anyone to buy

Moby discusses the challenges of aging gracefully, why he's glad his 1996 album 'Animal Rights' flopped, why he had to leave New York behind and more. Credit: Melissa Danis

At 51 years old, Moby has accepted his middle age. When Rolling Stone visits his home in Los Angeles' Griffith Park, it's Windex-wiped, peaceful, surprisingly modest. A couple of books line the fireplace in his combination kitchen and living room, including three copies of his recently released memoir, Porcelain, which traces his life from the late Eighties up until the release of 1999's Play, which sold 12 million copies worldwide and signaled his arrival as a major force in the mainstream. Outside, a hired hand skims the cool blue pool in three-digit weather while Moby, who moved to the city six years ago, sits at his round kitchen table sipping from a cup of tea and wearing a black shirt from Little Pine, his Silver Lake vegan restaurant where he often pops in to trim the ficus plants.

"Forty was a very big deal," he reflects. "I remember turning 40 and I couldn't make sense of it. In my mind, I was a young person. I drank and I did drugs and I dated young people and I was a young person. I hit 40 and it really was, like ... it gave me existential dread and doubt to the core of my being."

By that point, he had scaled the heights of fame. Every song from Play had been licensed for inclusion in films and ads. He played hundreds of shows, and 18, his 2002 follow-up, sold more than 4 million copies. But in the years that followed, he says, "I bottomed out on liquor and drugs and got sober and started looking at the ways in which other people resist the aging process. … I may feel very differently when I'm 80 years old and covered in my own filth. But at present, it just seems so much more interesting and enjoyable to accept and almost even embrace getting older."

Today, he lives with relative ease. He doesn't tour anymore, and the only show on his current schedule is at the Fonda Theater where, along with No Doubt's Tony Kanal, he'll throw the vegan "Circle V: A Music, Activism and Food Event" on October 23rd and headline with a live set. Six days a week, he wakes up at 6 a.m. to hike the nearby trails, and when he feels inspired, he works on music in a studio on the second floor of his tucked-away home. His zen lifestyle seems at odds with the roaring tone of his politically engaged new album, These Systems Are Failing, out Friday under the name Moby and the Void Pacific Choir, a moniker inspired by a D.H. Lawrence quote. The record marks a clear turning point for Moby, whose prior album, 2013's Innocents, was hushed and at times ambient.

"I found myself listening to music on either end of the aggression spectrum, where I was either listening to Cat Stevens or the Damned, and rarely listening to anything in the middle," he says. "I was having a conversation with a friend of mine a couple of years ago and was like, 'Where is the 21st-century Sex Pistols? Where's the 21st-century Clash? Where's the 21st-century Public Enemy? Where's the passionate, at times really fast, loud music?' I was like, clearly not everyone's medicated. … That's how I ended up making this fast post-punk record because it was just what I was listening to. And if you don't expect anyone to buy it or listen to what you're doing, you might as well make something you enjoy."

For those not not familiar with your earlier work, particularly 1996's Animal Rights, it may come as a shock that this album skews differently than your dance-oriented music. Why did now feel like the right time to do a New Wave record?
Simply, it's the utility and criteria applied to releasing an album, and in ye olden days, there was a commercial utility. Many things have changed since then. I see this as a Venn diagram. First and foremost, no one buys records. Maybe Taylor Swift fans. Two, people especially don't buy a 51-year-old musician's 15th record. Three, people especially don't buy the 15th record of a 51-year-old musician who refuses to tour. You could even add a fourth one: a 51-year-old musician who refuses to make records with 19-year-old pop stars. It then begs the question: Why make a record in the first place? If you don't expect anyone to buy and you fully understand you're a middle-aged musician whose broad relevance ended a while ago, why then would I make a record? For two reasons: one, the simple love of making a record, and also the dialectic of releasing something into the world and seeing what happens. Not commercially, clearly, but when you meet people and you talk with them, you get feedback. It's this process by which you learn about yourself and your creative process, but mainly, you make a record because you love the act of making records.

When did you stop having commercial expectations for your music? Is that more a product of what the culture has done to the industry? Or is this all just a reflection of the journey you've been on personally?
I think it's three things. One, the fact for the most part [is that] people don't buy records or listen to records regardless of who the musician is. There are exceptions, but for the most part, like I was saying, that Venn diagram ... But it's also understanding that I'm a middle-aged musician whose most conventionally relevant days are clearly long behind me. Also, part of it is, where I'm trying to say this very diplomatically, there is a lot of precedent for middle-aged musicians not going gently into the good night, a lot of middle-aged musicians who are still grasping at youth and relevance in a way that just makes my cells ache. I really don't want to name names, but I'm sure we could think of lot of people where you look at them and you're like, "Come on. Stop it." You almost want to say, "You're better than this. Go be Leonard Cohen; go be Neil Young. Don't get the hair implants. Don't get the plastic surgery. Just age and be strange and interesting if you can."

I never expected to have a career as a musician, ever. Growing up, I thought I would make music on my own, I would have a day job, I would teach college, I would maybe get a job in a bookstore, and I would make music that no one would ever hear, ever. Any audience I've ever had has been a complete surprise. When it got very big, I fell in love with the fame and the attention. But then I found the more I loved the fame and the attention, the less I liked my life and who I was. It was an inverse relation. The more attention I received, the less happy I was, but the more I wanted the attention.

At some point, I took a step back. I was doing some endless tour and I was miserable. I never want to qualify that. I never want to be a musician who complains about touring; I just don't like it. I was backstage somewhere by myself in a cold dressing room in Leipzig, or some cold place, and I was so unhappy. But we were playing to thousands of people a night, the money was good, but it just felt sick and wrong to me. And I sort of asked myself, why am I doing this if it's not creative and makes me feel like I'm being injected with compromise on a daily basis? That makes it easier to leave something behind. It's like breaking up with someone who doesn't want to date you anymore. That's how I feel about my relationship to the commercial application of music. I don't care about it, and it clearly doesn't care about me, which makes separation a lot easier. 

The album is billed as you and the Void Pacific Choir. Are there other people helping?
There's a really odd timeline. The last record I made was made three years ago. It was a bunch of collaboration songs.

It was the first record you did in Los Angeles.
Yeah. I finished that and thought to myself, "I just want to make a New Wave dance record." I really like working with choirs, but I can't logistically record a whole choir in my studio. I can fit like six people in there, so what I could do is take a page from Roy Thomas Baker who produced Queen and big rock acts. What he would do is build a choir by getting five or six people to sing 50 different parts, and you end up with a huge choir. So I recorded this New Wave record. Every song had a choir on it so I made up this fake name, Moby and the Void Pacific Choir. But then, I ended up not using any of those songs. The name stuck around. So really, on this record, it's all 99 percent just me. I don't mean that in a self-congratulatory way. My friend Mindy sang backup vocals on a few songs, but for the most part, it's a choir of one.

There's something about the name that resonates with me, because D.H. Lawrence meant it in a derisive way. He was talking about California where people just stare into the void Pacific, and I love the language play of that, because traditionally, the void is either neutral or inimical to human life. And I like the idea of, instead, a benign void. I like the idea of California being the place where we first encounter a void that's not dark and scary; it's actually kind of benign. That's what, for me, the name means. And there is a practical knock-on effect of that, and it's where I start to get a little California esoteric, where if you look at the world in which we live, we have an orientation towards a very malignant world. We eat as if we're about to starve, we fight as if our lives depend on it and it's over a parking space or a pair of sneakers, et cetera. We're constantly acting as if the world is this vicious place, and the only thing that makes the world vicious is us. The world is remarkably benign, but we're still at war with it. I like the idea of sort of drawing people's attention to that, saying what would be a more rational, empirically supported approach to the world in which we live, rather than this habitual feral viciousness.

How much does the current political climate play into this record?
I think a lot. But whatever we make, we don't make things in a vacuum, and when I say "our," I don't mean it in the royal "we" sense, I mean our as in people, we make work that's an expression of our own perspective or self, but it's also informed by everything else. So I think that is an element of the zeitgeist somehow reflected in this record. I'm sure that lots of people, for the last few thousand years, thought that they lived at a really sort of broken end-of-times era. But if I take a step back, it really feels like we are watching the forces of old versus the forces of new, the forces of the patriarchy versus the forces of a benign patriarchy. The forces of Newtonian physics versus the forces of quantum physics. The forces of oil versus the forces of sustainable energy. There's this line in the sand, and the forces between fundamentalism and tolerance. I think some of the tone of the record has to be an extension of that, because I don't cloister myself off and not pay attention to what's going on in the world. If anything, I have to keep myself from looking at real clear politics 30 times a day. I could go to FiveThirtyEight.com 10 times a day easily. I kind of have to restrain myself.

Animal Rights was a pivotal record in your discography and your career because it was so different. People were telling you not to put it out at the time. And musically, These Systems Are Failing recalls that album. How does it feel now, looking back on Animal Rights, knowing you have the creative and professional freedom to put out a record that's similar, but not have to face any of the same obstacles?
It's nice. I know that's not a great answer. It's one thing about writing the memoir. The memoir started in '89 and goes to '99. And it's a really odd process revisiting the past in our long, structured, detailed way. Because you're not glancing over memories; you're fully inhabiting these memories. When I think back to who I was in 1996 when Animal Rights was released, there was a part of me that wants to put my arm over this guy's shoulder and just say, "It's OK." A fraternal sense of odd compassion, where I look back and it was a very strange, difficult time in my life then. I was battling panic attacks, I was battling alcoholism, my mom had cancer, and I was losing my record deal. There was a lot of unpleasant stuff going on. In writing this memoir, you sort of, to an extent, almost end up with a degree of temporal omniscience applied, because you're looking back at who you were back then and you see yourself as all your foibles, but you just have to observe it because you clearly can't build a time machine and go back. Nor would I want to, because sometimes, our perspective in the middle of something, as flawed and uninformed as it is, it's what leads to good growth and change.

"When I think of Animal Rights, I'm proud, like, 'Good for you in making a record that everyone hated.'"

When I think of Animal Rights, I'm actually, in a weird way, proud that I was able to do that. There's a little pat on the back like, "Good for you in making a record that everyone hated." Why not? I thought that was a part of the musician's job description. Not to make people hate it, but when I was growing up, all of my musical heroes at some point changed and at some point did something completely unexpected. I thought that musicians were only supposed to be predictable if you could predict what they loved. Meaning if you look at a musician's creative output and they do the same thing year after year, I was like, "Oh, that's OK if that's what they love." But if they're doing the same thing year after year because that's what they think will maintain and sustain their career, that to me is antithetical to the whole idea of being a musician in the first place. It sounds too judgy on my part. I'm sure people make safe choices for legitimate reasons, they have kids in school, they have to, I don't know, keep their parents in old age homes and pay for dialysis treatment. But it feels defeatist to me.

I was doing an interview with someone a couple of weeks ago and they asked me about my career. I hate the idea of having a career. It actually is like nails on a chalkboard to me, because if you dedicate your life to doing something you love and a career ensues, fine. But when you start making creative choices based on sustaining a career, especially if you don't have to, it feels like an affront to all that is good. You probably experience this far more than I do, when you encounter people where you're like, "This is a career choice." Like, come on. You could understand it if it's a bass player in an indie-rock band who needs to pay the rent, who needs to pay doctor bills for his kids. But when you have musicians who are worth 10s of millions of dollars making safe career choices, it makes me queasy.

Does this tie back into you saying you refuse to work with 19-year-old pop stars?
I would love to work with 19-year-old pop stars if I liked the music they were making. If it's either done for the love of their creativity and their creative expression, or ... There was one weird week maybe 15 years ago where I worked with Ozzy Osbourne and Britney Spears and David Bowie in the same week. It was just a weird experiment. And maybe it's not my place to judge other people's choices, but we know when something's being done for compromised commercial reasons. It doesn't mean compromised commercial stuff is always bad, but I feel like if you don't have to make compromised choices, why would you?

You seem perfectly comfortable being 51. A lot of people can't reach that point.
Aging doesn't seem that bad. It's the weird efforts people make to stave off aging. Like eating well and exercising, not smoking, those are good things. But when you start doing some bizarre procedures that people do to pretend they're not aging, [it] just seems really weird. Or like dating someone considerably younger than you in hopes that it will rub off on you.

I may feel very differently when I'm 80 years old and covered in my own filth, but at present, it just seems so much more interesting and enjoyable to accept and almost even embrace getting older. Also, I'm not a great singer so my voice isn't getting [better]. If you're an amazing singer and every year your range gets smaller and narrower, that must be daunting. But for me, aging at present isn't that big of a deal.

How much of that mentality is connected with having lived in L.A. for the past six years?
Quite a lot, because I thought I was going to live in New York forever. I was born on 168th Street, grew up in Connecticut, moved back to New York in the Eighties and I thought New York was my home forever. And then I got sober and very quickly realized New York is an amazing place to be a drunk. If I relapse, I move back to New York tomorrow. As time passed, my interest in fame has waned. My interest in parties has waned. My interest in being around rich people who work in finance was never there. New York is a wonderful place, but the quotidian values of New York just don't resonate with me anymore. I'm way happier going up to Angeles National Forest and hiking and taking some pictures. I'd rather in a million years do that than go to a party for a product launch somewhere in New York City. I'm just happy to be a middle-aged guy that still gets to make records and talk about them.