Lisa Fletcher: You have about 20 million albums sold worldwide, 1.3 million followers on Twitter. You're called the pioneer of electronic music. For a guy who never set out to be famous, how did you end up so famous?
Moby: I think it's a combination of fortune favoring the well prepared and fortune favoring the well prepared who are incapable of doing anything else. Meaning for years and years and years, my career as a musician just didn't work out. But I'd never had a backup plan. A lot of my friends who wanted to be musicians, they were lawyers, they were accountants. They knew how to do other things. So when their music career bottomed out or never happened, they just went and did the other thing. But I never had that as an option. My options were keep making music and keep trying to have some semblance of a career or work at Denny's. You know, and as a vegan, working at Denny's would just be horrifying.
Is there something about being all in, though, that leads to success eventually?
I think for some people, it increases the chances that you'll have success with something.
But most people have a backup plan.
I'm also downplaying the fact that from the time I was 3 years old on, music was what I loved above all else. It wasn't just, like, "Oh, I'll arbitrarily choose music and work on it because what else am I gonna do?" It was like I loved working on it. The music, for me, was never a means to an end.
Some people might say you're in a great position to say that because you have had such enormous commercial success. Can you imagine, had you not had that kind of commercial success, would you still be doing what you're doing?
I think so. If I go back to, let's say 1988, and in 1988 I was living in an abandoned factory in a crack neighborhood, and I had no running water and no bathroom.
And no dates.
And surprisingly few dates. I mean, I wonder why women were so disinclined to date a musician making $5,000 a year living in an abandoned factory in a crack neighborhood without a shower.
With no toilet, right?
Yeah, with no toilet. I mean, that seems pretty attractive to me. But I was spending all my time working on music, and I was really happy. And of course I had professional aspirations and professional ambitions. But if nothing had happened, I probably would still be in that abandoned factory working on music and being relatively happy.
‘Glamorous dating, going to the right parties, et cetera – these can be fun. But they won't sustain you. It’s like junk food or cocaine.’
You were catapulted from being a relative unknown to being at parties with A-list celebrities and musicians. What was that experience like for you? Was it as gratifying as people on the outside may think it was?
I will compare it to a really intense drug experience. I'll out myself as someone who has had really intense drug experiences. At the beginning, it's great. You know, it's magic. I spent my entire life in relative obscurity. And then suddenly everything got 1,000 times better. Suddenly I was dating people who wouldn't have ever even spoken to me or acknowledged me. Suddenly I was invited to things that I hadn't even known existed.
For a minute, it was great. But like with any drug experience, it just goes downhill from there. Like, everything was just humming along. It was wonderful. But then, sort of issues start creeping up. And you start realizing, "Oh, well, I'm still a little depressed. And I'm still anxious." Then so you think, "OK, well, I'll drink more. I'll date more people. And I'll go to more parties." And then the depression and the anxiety gets even worse. And so then you start thinking, "Well, I must be doing it wrong. So I'm dating the wrong people. I'm going to the wrong parties. I'm doing the wrong drugs. So I need to shift that up."
Kind of like rearranging the deck chairs on the Titanic. And then eventually you just realize that, you know, I don't know. Glamorous dating, going to the right parties, et cetera — these can be fun. But they won't sustain you. It's like junk food or cocaine.
You're coming up on album 13 now?
I don't know.
"Baby Lucifer," right?
"Baby Lucifer" was the original title. And I really wish that I had called it that. But the title has changed.
What's the title?
The new title is "These Systems Are Failing."
Everyone around me — probably rightly so — said that having the word "Lucifer" in your record title might not be the best idea.
So tell me a little bit about the music that we're going to hear on this latest album.
I can tell you about the music. But I can't work under the assumption that anyone will hear it. Because the record comes out in 2016. And A, we're in a climate where people don't buy records. B, We're in a climate where people don't really listen to full-length records. C, We're especially in a climate where people don't listen to full-length records made by 50-year-old musicians who are making their 13th or 14th record. At this point, I love making the music. I don't really expect anyone to hear it. And if they do, that's great.
The music on the record is — the only way I can describe it, it's like new wave dance music. It's sort of New Order inspired, a little Depeche Mode inspired. But quite electronic, very song oriented. I have no idea if it's good.
Is it hard to be objective? You write, you produce a lot of your own music. And play the instruments. You're so immersed in it. Is it hard to get distance sometimes?
I'm sure this is true for anyone who works almost exclusively by themselves. The best I can come up with is a sort of less compromised subjectivity. I mean, I can have delusional subjectivity and less delusional subjectivity. I can never even come close to objectivity.
Most people have a collective subjective relationship to something, where we all agree that certain things are great. But it doesn't necessarily make it objective truth. It just means it's an agreed-upon subjective response to something.
You give a lot of your music away from free on Mobygratis.com. You don't have to do anything good with your money or your time. But you choose to. Mobygratis is one example. Another is your activism, which really runs the gamut. One of the things you've been very focused on for a long time is animal protection. You chose to become vegan. Why did you make those decisions?
I've been vegan now for 28 years. The amazing thing about veganism or let's call it, like, animal activism, is it's this magic bullet that affects all these, like, awful, awful issues. Because animal agriculture is responsible for 25 percent of climate change, 80 percent of deforestation, one could almost argue 90 percent of famine comes from animal agriculture, because simply we're feeding food to animals that could be fed to humans. That's the exciting part about being an animal activist is — it's about the animals, but the consequences are so broad.
What led me to veganism and animal rights activism, when I was 10 years old, I adopted a cat that was 3 days old. And I found it in a box by the dump. It was this barely alive kitten. I took it home. My mom and I took it to the vet. The vet said, "Don't get too attached to this cat, because it's really young and sick. It's probably not going to live." We took it to my grandmother's house. My grandmother's dachshund adopted the cat and mothered it and nursed it back to health.
About 10 years after that, I was 19 years old. I was playing with this cat whose name was Tucker. I looked at Tucker and realized I would do anything in my power to keep Tucker from suffering. If somebody tried to hurt this cat, I would lay down my life protecting this cat. I looked at the cat. I saw that it had two eyes and legs and fur and a central nervous system and a desire to avoid pain and seek pleasure.
Suddenly it was almost like a tectonic synaptic alignment, where, like, the gears aligned. I suddenly realized, "OK, if this animal who I love and want to protect and care for will do everything in its power to avoid pain and avoid suffering, I can work under the assumption that every animal with two eyes and a central nervous system wants to avoid pain and avoid suffering." At that moment, I just decided I couldn't be involved in any process that contributed to the suffering of animals.
Clearly, you either have to be delusional or a psychopath to believe that animals don't suffer. That's why I'm such a committed animal activist.
I was looking at some of your most recent Twitter posts. You've been tweeting about everything from Sarah Palin and politics to guns and water use by corporate agriculture in California. Where do you think you get your passion for social activism?
That's a really good question. Maybe it was being raised by hippies. I mean, I'm born in 1965. I was raised by very politically engaged people. I was born in New York City and grew up in Connecticut. There's almost a common sense practical ethics that comes from, let's say, like, old-timey New England.
Part of my criteria for evaluating the issues around us is not "Do I like it?" or "Do I not like it?" but "Does it make sense?" Like, looking at things and just saying, like, "That doesn't make sense.” Like, why do our tax dollars go to subsidize food that kills animals and makes people sick when they eat it?
‘Clearly, you either have to be delusional or a psychopath to believe that animals don’t suffer. That’s why I’m such a committed animal activist.’
One of the things that you try — to heal sickness through music. You're on the board of the Institute for Music and Neurologic Function. It’s really fascinating work, looking at the science of how to use music as therapy for people, from those who have Alzheimer's and Parkinson's to stroke. Can music heal people?
It can. It can in very real, nonanecdotal ways. Up until about 20 or 30 years ago, most neuroscientists believed that we had a finite number of neurons. Now, let's say you hit 10 years old, you had all the brain cells you were ever going to have. The goal was to just try and not get rid of too many of them. Thanks to, like, fMRIs and PET scans and new diagnostics, neurologists and neuroscientists have discovered that the brain can be involved in this process of neurogenesis, of making new brain cells forever, up until the day you die, largely based on what we do with the brain.
Neurogenesis is promoted by health and well-being. One of the best promoters of neurogenesis was music. That music actually had a real-world healing modality. Not just on the level of, like, "Oh, we listen to music, and we feel better." But it actually physically changes us. It decreases stress hormones. It promotes neurogenesis. It's pretty remarkable.
You just turned 50 a couple of weeks ago. For some people, that's easier. For others, that's more difficult.
Yes. What I also find is that as I age, I'm less interested in wasting time. That doesn't mean I necessarily need to be, like, jumping out of an airplane into a raft in the bottom of the Grand Canyon while reading (Michel) Foucault and lifting weights. What it means is in the course of my life, I've spent so much time doing things out of a sense of pointless obligation. I've spent so much time accommodating people who ultimately I didn't want in my life. And that's what I mean by wasted time. How many personal relationships, romantic relationships that really never should have started and ended up taking hundreds or thousands of hours? I feel like that's one of my biggest regrets is the amount of time and the amount of energy I've given up accommodating situations, people, what have you, that ultimately kept me from pursuing things that I genuinely value.
What's your measure of success?
Personally, it's "Am I in a healthy way acting in accordance with who I am and what my values are?" which also sounds kind of clinical. But when I think of the opposite of that, the opposite of success on a personal level is being unhealthy and compromising my values and acting in a way that doesn't create benefit.
I think we all have the capacity to create benefit for ourselves and for the people around us. I don't mean benefit on a necessarily material level. But we all have the ability to live better lives and to make the world a better place. The fact that we don't is sort of baffling to me. So that's success.
This interview has been edited and condensed.