Moby On Fame, Getting Sober, And Creating Reprise

There is very little Moby has left to put on a bucket list — he’s won the awards, played to audiences as far as the eye can see, collaborated with his hero and idol David Bowie, and lived the rockstar lifestyle as much as one can without a fatal ending. Not to mention he is widely regarded as one of the most important and pivotal figures in dance and electronic music since music ceased to be purely acoustic. And yet, Moby has been very keen to let as many people as he can know that all that fame and success left him feeling empty (he goes as far as to say he’d pack it all in to spend more time on his animal rights activism), as seen in his brilliant new film, Moby Doc, and in this retrospective time where he releases his orchestral greatest hits album, Reprise.

Moby Doc, which was released in May 2021, is about as original, creative, funny yet sardonic a music documentary you could hope to see. It’s unconventional because it seeks to tell the fascinating story of Richard Hall and his road to becoming Moby and the eventual all-engulfing success.

But there’s no hint of self-congratulation or pats on the back: his traumatic childhood is wryly shown via quirky animations, and he narrates how his spiralling success and fame went hand in hand with increasing addiction issues and heavy depression.

We see him living in an abandoned factory with no bathroom or running water, but just enough electricity to make music on his basic equipment, which he describes as one of the happiest times of his life. Yet, when his breakthrough single Go sees him performing and appearing around the world, the fame lifestyle did damagingly seduce him.

As the film gets more existential and we see Moby stood atop a mountain (to show what tiny lifeforms we really are), lauded filmmaker David Lynch fittingly turns up to discuss what life really means.

Headliner kicks off our conversation by remarking that May 28 of this year must have been a pretty special date for Moby, as it saw both the release of Moby Doc, and his latest album, Reprise.

“I did go out to dinner with a few friends who had also worked on the movie,” he says.

“You would think, rationally, that releasing a big orchestral album and releasing a movie would be a day of joyful celebration. Of course, I was happy to be releasing both things. But I just kept working on new things. It's almost a compulsion. I feel like I should be dealing with that in therapy, the compulsion to work seven days a week. Friends have called me a workahoIic, but I think that I have more enthusiasm for work than for anything else.”

If you watch the film, you’ll undoubtedly agree that Moby being a bit of a workaholic these days is definitely a best-case scenario. After Go sees him become the biggest name in electronic music, Moby Doc charts his failed punk rock album Animal Rights, leading to the dizzying heights of his landmark record Play in 1999.

Its success was largely down to the song Porcelain, surely still one of the most beautiful downtempo songs ever released, and likely to have been heard by virtually every set of ears on the planet at this point.

With that being said, this period was the absolute height of Moby being completely and utterly lost in the bubble of fame and partying every single night, in which he would very rarely go to bed before 7am.

Hence why the film makes sure to cleverly downplay his huge material success by setting it against shots of nature’s overwhelming power and beauty, and the incomprehensible vastness of outer space.

The moment I was confronted with a degree of fame and wealth, I bought into it completely.

And that’s not even mentioning the point where, perhaps at his very lowest ebb, Moby was in Barcelona for an MTV Awards show. Staying at the opulent seafront Hotel Arts, he was sharing the ludicrously expensive top floor with Madonna, P Diddy and Bon Jovi.

At the peak of his career, where “I’d been given everything and I’d never been more depressed”. Moby spent his night getting drunk to the point where he says the only thing that stopped him killing himself was the fact that he couldn’t open the hotel windows wide enough.

With these kinds of life experiences, it’s perhaps not too surprising that the conversation takes a very existential turn quickly, as Headliner asks him about the decision to overarch Moby Doc with this implied question about humanity’s place in an infinite universe.

“That is one of my ongoing obsessions,” Moby says. “It started back in university where I was a philosophy major, and a bit of religious studies. And I don't want to sound too weird or esoteric, but for thousands of years, philosophy has been consumed with this question of, ‘in the human form, what objective knowledge are we capable of having’? Do our lives have any significance?

“There are lots of really nice aspects of religion: humility, service, charity. But more often than not, religion is just a structure that people employ to create fast answers to complicated questions. Like looking at a 15 billion-year-old universe and not understanding if we have any significance.

"We often think, ‘well, of course, there's significance because we all agree that there's significance’. Collective agreement can provide comfort, but it doesn't mean that it's right.”

Which leads very nicely into this question about whether success, materialism and being respected by our peers actually provides endless validation and happiness.

“I think most of us assume it will. Part of the underlying ethos of the movie is me, almost presumptuously and with a degree of hubris, saying I was a former punk rocker, philosophy student, and even I bought into it. If you’d asked me when I was 17 what I thought about the power of fame and wealth to deliver happiness, I would have towed the punk rock and philosophy student party line and said ‘these are shallow institutions.

"They are facile and promote leading an unexamined life’. But then the moment I was confronted with a degree of fame and wealth, I bought into it completely.”

Moby continues his Socratic line of answering with “you can wrap yourself in the darkest, most obscure philosophy, but the moment a public figure is nice to you, or the moment someone offers you money to sell your art, almost everybody buys into it. And to my great shame, I bought into it, but I'm also really grateful that I went through it; I was unsuccessful in trying to kill myself, so hopefully I have some degree of insight around this.

"The collectively held belief we all have that somehow, fame and public figure status are going to fix everything when, if you look at the evidence, it's just not true.”

Conscious that Moby’s words could be misconstrued as nihilistic, hopeless and self-defeating, Headliner asks why anyone would pursue a career in music (or anything similar) with these things in mind.

“What attracted me to music in the beginning as a teenager was simply the love of music,” he says.

“Listening to music, going to concerts, writing songs. And then after I got sober, it almost delivered me back to that original naive, simple joy that I had around music for the sake of music. I remember being roped into doing this terrible panel once for a talent agency in Beverly Hills. It was something repulsive like ‘the monetisation of digital brands in the 21st century’. I sat on this panel and I said nothing because I was so depressed that I was there.

“At the very end, the moderator, realising I hadn't said anything, asked for my thoughts. And I said to them that nothing I've ever bought has given me the profound joy and emotional release that I get from listening to Heroes by David Bowie. And listening to music doesn't really cost anything if you don't want it to.

"It shut up the entire room. Not because they were having an insight, but more that they were super annoyed that I dare challenge their assumption that monetisation of digital brands was the key to happiness.”

After I got sober, it almost delivered me back to that original naive, simple joy that I had around music for the sake of music.

Headliner then asks Moby, one of the world’s most passionate vegans and animal rights activists, where he feels the animal rights movement stands in the context of a world brought to a total standstill by a zoonotic disease.

Particularly as one of the film’s most upbeat moments sees him urging people to give themselves to a cause bigger than themselves. He does a huge amount of work and fundraising for charities such as Mercy For Animals, and is also the owner of the plant-based Little Pine restaurant in Los Angeles.

He even recently had ‘vegan for life’ tattooed on his neck and ‘animal rights’ inked across both his arms.

“On one hand, there's evidence to support the idea that we are making a lot of progress, especially in the UK,” he says.

“More and more people in the UK are now aware of the issues around animal agriculture — the deforestation, climate change, zoonotic disease and antibiotic resistance. But one trillion animals are still killed by humans every year. So on one hand, I'm encouraged by the progress, but I'm so overwhelmed by the enormity of the problem.

'If humanity were rational, we would all stop using animals for food tomorrow, because it doesn't just destroy animals. It causes diseases, causes climate change, causes cancer, diabetes, heart disease, deforestation, ocean acidification, just every aspect of animal agriculture causes destruction. It's the most self-destructive thing we're doing, and we keep doing it.”

While not wishing to enable the workaholism that Moby mentioned earlier, it’s at least an encouraging sign that Moby’s new orchestral greatest hits album, Reprise, is not his swansong and he’s been making new music since its release.

It’s a spectacularly star-studded record, both in terms of the greatest hits in question, and guest appearances from the likes of Gregory Porter, Kris Kristofferson and Mark Lanegan.

And intriguingly, it’s a very acoustic and orchestrally-based album from one of the most recognised names in electronic music. However, Moby does have thoughts on the ‘electronic’ label being plastered over him so often, saying “in a sort of self-involved way, the irony around being labelled an electronic musician is that my background is actually in music theory and acoustic music, and then punk rock.

"Long before I discovered electronic music, I was studying music theory and training to be a classical guitarist. And then I ditched that in a punk rock band in Connecticut.

“So when I started to be seen as a DJ or an electronic musician, I was very bemused, because my background was actually so different from that. Working on this record, it was a really nice challenge to make an entire record without any electronics, and just rely on humans playing instruments and singing.

"It reawakened some very old parts of my brain regarding orchestration and music theory. And I got some great support working with an orchestrator and conductor to be able to translate everything to the orchestra.”

It was a really nice challenge to make an entire record without any electronics, and just rely on humans playing instruments and singing.

Headliner asks about working on Extreme Ways in particular for Reprise, because Moby has been asked to rework this song a few times now — it was chosen as the closing credits music for the Matt Damon spy-thriller The Bourne Identity (2002). The song was used in the sequel also, and as the franchise gained more and more fans and popularity, Moby was asked to rework the track to be even more cinematic for the third, fourth and fifth films; The Bourne Ultimatum, The Bourne Legacy and Jason Bourne, respectively.

He explains to me how it was so odd to write the song when he did, which didn’t perform as well as he hoped as a single release, but took on a huge life of its own as it became the theme song that followed Matt Damon’s amnesiac super-assassin around.

“That's an odd song,” Moby says. “When I wrote it, I was so in love with fame. And somehow I wrote this really sad song about fame and degeneracy leading to destruction. I still don't know where that came from. I wasn't aware that fame and degeneracy were going to lead to destruction.

"It is so much more explicitly autobiographical than almost anything else I've ever written. The version that's on Reprise is so far from the original version. Even the versions in the Bourne movies are very big and orchestral. For this version, I wanted to strip it back and make it feel like a lamentation and get to that despairing, austere core of the song.”

Before he has to dash, Headliner lets Moby know how appreciated his work to help animals is.

“That is my life's work – everything else is fun, but if I had to pick one thing to focus on it would be working on behalf of animal rights.”

Photography by Travis Schneider.