A year ago the name Moby and the word techno were practically synonymous. As the hard, fast electronic dance music began to seep into pop culture, it found a spokesperson in Moby, a club DJ who had released a bevy of dance hits under pseudonyms like Brainstorm, Voodoo Child, UHF and Barracuda. In the process, to some in the techno scene, Moby also became the genre’s first traitor. And it wasn’t just because he remixed a single by Michael Jackson.
The 28-year-old New Yorker is a devout Christian, a hard-core environmentalist and a strong advocate of healthy living. Moby doesn’t drink alcohol, eat meat, smoke cigarettes, drive automobiles or bleach his clothes (bleach is bad for the water supply). Despite the staid outlook, Moby, a.k.a. Richard Melville Hall, the great-great-grandnephew of Moby Dick author Herman Melville, is one of techno’s most outrageous performers. In concert he stands on top of his synthesizers, dives into the audience and pummels his instruments.
Sitting on the rooftop of the East Village building that houses his small studio, Moby gazes up at a formation of birds flying across the big blue sky. Petite, genial and very humble, Moby doesn’t look or act like a star. In fact, the pious musician, who has been working in the studio with Julee Cruise all day, says he feels like less than a pinprick in the cosmic consciousness. But a pinprick is all it takes to let a little light inside.
For a while you were the only real personality associated with techno. Has that kind of attention helped or hurt you?
It helped in terms of getting a record contract, and it opened a lot of doors. I wouldn’t be doing a song with Julee Cruise if it hadn’t happened. Its hurt a lot in that my credibility has really suffered. Within that core techno community, I’m a pariah. But I’ve done a lot to encourage that, too, because I don’t like that sort of really conservative, cliquey mind-set. I’ve turned on my heroes in the past, so it makes sense that people will turn on me. I’d be disappointed if they didn’t – to an extent.
You can only sustain yourself as an underground cult figure for so long.
That’s right. People expect the same thing from you over and over again. The figures that interest me most when I look at pop history are the ones that change. I look at a band like Bad Religion that’s doing the same thing now that they were doing 12 years ago, and it’s boring, But then there are people like Bob Dylan or Brian Eno, who started off here and ended up at a completely different place. If Bob Dylan hadn’t upset a lot of people along the way, he’d be in the same place as Peter, Paul and Mary – playing folk festivals to 75 people.
A scene can exist for years after it has lost its relevance or vibrancy. Is that what’s happening with the rave scene?
I’m just really disappointed in the whole rave movement. To me it was at its best a few years ago. It was just about naive, genuine, uninhibited expression, and now there are rules about what you can and can’t do. It’s like you’re expected to respond a certain way and wear certain clothes and take certain drugs and like and dislike certain kinds of music. Two years ago that wasn’t the case. People would just raise their hands in the air and blow whistles and dance like crazy for seven hours. Now you go to raves, and people sit on the dance floor, which is a lot cooler, I guess. But something unique and wonderful has been sullied.
Do you think the uninhibited atmosphere of raves two years ago exists today in another kind of music?
I think it does. I played at a festival in Sweden, and they had two tents the day I played. They had the speed-metal tent and the dance tent. A friend and I went to see Biohazard play in the speed-metal tent, and there were about 8,000 people slam-dancing like crazy, jumping up and down, everybody just having a wonderful time. Then we went to the dance tent, and St. Etienne were playing, and 5,000 people were standing still. So I think there’s something fundamentally wrong with dance culture when you have 5,000 people in a dance tent not dancing, but in the speed-metal tent, everyone’s dancing. That Biohazard concert was closer to a rave than anything I’ve been to in the past two years.
In the 10 years you’ve been DJ’ing, have you noticed anything about the way youth culture has changed?
To me, there’s been a very positive change where, somehow, over the last couple years, youth culture’s been defining itself. I think in the ’80s, youth culture was fragmented and undefined and all over the place. But now when you have the Breeders and Green Day and all these fairly underground bands getting a lot of mass attention, it seems more organic.
When I was a punk rocker in 1982 or 1983 and desperately looking for other little punk rockers, I never dreamed of a day like this when punk bands sell 10 million records. When I was getting beaten up by guys in flannel shirts and Timberland boots saying, “Oh, you’re a faggot, you’re wearing a Devo T-shirt,” it’s like – lo and behold – 10 years later, they’re listening to punk-rock records.
Why do you think people who like rock often say they hate techno and people who like techno often hate guitar-based music?
To me it’s this pernicious tribal mentality we all have. We desperately seek out a tribe with which we can align and identify ourselves at the expense of all the other tribes. Defining yourself as a white supremacist and saying ‘I hate techno” are – in very broad terms – the same thing to me. It’s exclusionary, and it’s wrong.
When you look back at it, I think the whole techno-rave thing will be seen as a seminal event. Ten years from now, suddenly in the United States there might be a No. 1 techno record, just like Nirvana had a No. 1 punk album 10, 12, 14 years after [the birth of punk]. If techno or the rave scene dies, to me that’s fine. What will sadden me is if that naive, uninhibited spirit dies.
What would you do if you abandoned music?
I’ve been making music since I was 8 years old. It’s the only thing I know how to do. As to what I would do if I stopped, I don’t know. One of the only major goals I have for my life is to just start walking, To not have anything and just start walking and see what happens: where I end up, who I have to stay with, where I can get food, who I talk to, whatever. I almost did it about seven years ago. I had the keys in my hand. But I didn’t. I kind of feel in some ways that that’s what I should have done. Sorry, I’m sort of rambling on. Do you do your own transcription?
I do, but it’s no problem, especially since what you’re saying is interesting.
The interviews that I really like to read are with people that tend to be flippant and humorous, and I wish I could do interviews like that. But I take the interview process very seriously. It’s a way of reaching a lot of people, so why not speak seriously? If I am open, and I expose myself, it might set a teeny precedent for other people to do the same thing.
In talking, I’ve also had Rolling Stone in the back of my mind and your average Rolling Stone reader, which is probably, like, predominately 27 to 35, probably male, probably white. I’ve been thinking of that and thinking about what’s challenging to a white male 34-year-old, and I don’t know anymore. Your stereotypical 34-year-old white male would be sort of set in his ways, cheats on his girlfriend or his wife, likes to watch sports, is sort of boastful and full of bravado, and it’s, like, how can I reach that person? How can that person re-evaluate their life and live maybe more responsibly and a little more reflectively? What can be done to get people to change?
I think 500 years from now, people are going to wonder what was going on now. They’ll see this race of people that smoked cigarettes and drove cars and fought wars and persecuted people for their beliefs and sexual orientation, and none of it accomplished anything. They knew it was wrong. As cruelly nihilistic as it might sound, I think this is the darkest period of human history, right now. This might even sound like a plug for my album because it’s the title of my album, but everything is wrong. Everything is absolutely 100 percent wrong, and how do we change it is the question.
This story is from the November 17th, 1994 issue of Rolling Stone.