My Greatest Hits: Moby

The electronic music pioneer picks his own career highlights, from discovering punk rock to performing ‘Heroes’ with David Bowie

From playing in local hardcore punk bands to becoming one of the most vital electronic dance music figures of the 1990s, for the last four decades Moby has been forging an inimitable path.

Obtaining a crossover success that helped bring the genre to the mainstream, the New York singer-songwriter and producer swiftly became known for fusing rapid disco beats with heavy distorted guitars and punk rhythms, drawing influence from pop, dance, and movie soundtracks alike. 

showcasing a groundbreaking new sound on 1999’s Play, this year marks the 25th anniversary of the acclaimed musician’s fifth album. Far from a commercial success upon its release – slated by music critics and largely ignored by the industry – after its tracks were licensed for dozens of television commercials and movie soundtracks, Play became the biggest-selling electronic album of all-time. This September, Moby will celebrate that milestone with his first live shows in over a decade, donating 100% of the profits to European animal rights organisations.

With a huge show at The O2 on the agenda, and the release of his collaborative new album Always Centered At Night imminent, we sat down with Moby to talk through his own career highlights; from introducing electronic music to the masses whilst touring with The Prodigy to working with his biggest heroes. 

Discovering punk rock

Moby during New Music Seminar – 1993 at Palladium in New York City, New York, United States.
Photo by Steve Eichner/WireImage

“I remember my first encounters with punk rock more clearly than anything that’s happened to me since because they were so monumental. I first heard The Clash on the radio when I was around 12 years old, in the middle of the summer. I would sit by the radio with my grandfather’s old dictaphone recorder, and I would hold it up to the speaker to record songs. ‘I Fought The Law’ came on one day, and I had never heard anything like it. The drums and the guitars… I was completely caught up in it. I didn’t even know it was punk rock because that scene had only just started, but the energy and aggression were incredible, even recorded on my grandfather’s barely functioning dictaphone.

“Over time, the ethos of punk became very important to me. I’m assuming this is the case for almost everybody who grows up in a conservative suburb, but it’s stultifying. The culture is all about maintaining and preserving an uninspiring status quo, and in the interest of fitting in, everybody tries to accommodate to that status quo. Eventually though, you discover the people from history who have said that the status quo is a waste of time and needs to be replaced. The 20th century was filled with interesting artists, writers, musicians and thinkers, all of whom were saying that the dominant paradigm is terrible and needs to be rejected. That was the driving ethos of punk rock, and so discovering that as a young person, it suddenly made me feel safe in rejecting the status quo. Up until that point, I hadn’t been allowed to admit that I had contempt for it.”

Touring with The Prodigy in 1993

NASA tour ftg. Moby, Richie Hawtin, The Prodigy live Dallas 1993

“It was The Prodigy, Ritchie Hawtin, and I, and we were all roughly the same age and mould. I liked The Prodigy’s records, but they hadn’t discovered the punk rock ethos yet. Their show was a rave show, and at this point, Keith [Flint, The Prodigy frontman] was a dancer more than anything. The discovery of guitars and punk rock came a few years later for them, but Ritchie, Liam [Howlett, The Prodigy founder], and me were just nerds who liked electronic music. Suddenly though, people were paying attention to us. It felt like we were part of a movement that didn’t even exist two years ago, and we were using equipment that didn’t exist two years ago. We were involved in creating this entirely new culture, and the whole thing was so new and exciting. None of us had toured before, and there we were on a bus together, travelling around the United States bringing rave culture to cities that had never had rave culture. We felt like weird electronic missionaries!”

Touring and becoming friends with David Bowie

Moby and David Bowie during Area:2 Festival at Jones Beach Theater on Long Island, NY
Photo by KMazur/WireImage

“When I was spending time with David Bowie, there was never even one second where I wasn’t aware that I was in the presence of the greatest musician of all time. I was constantly trying to pretend that we were just peers, but I fully understood that I was in the presence of a demigod. If I had been fawning and sycophantic with him, that would have made him uncomfortable though, so we were friends. On his end, he probably felt more comfortable than I did, because he was just in the presence of another musician. But I was in the presence of a living God.

“We worked together on so many different things, and we spent so much time together. Everything about it was remarkable and magical, but one of the strangest aspects of becoming a public figure of any stripe is that you get to encounter your heroes. You find yourself in situations that almost seem wrong, because they’re so unexpected. You’re talking about foreign policy with Bill Clinton, playing ‘Heroes’ with David Bowie, playing ‘Walk On The Wild Side’ with Lou Reed, or playing ‘Me And Bobby McGee’ with Kris Kristofferson. I never expected to find myself in any of those situations. I always thought I was going to be an academic who made music in his basement that no one listened to. I was okay with that, and that didn’t seem like a bad life to me. Nothing beyond that ever seemed to be within the realm of possibility.”

How did you work up the courage to ask Bowie to perform ‘Heroes’ with you, then?

“We were in my living room, and we were getting ready to play a fundraiser that Philip Glass had organised. He came over to my apartment one Saturday morning, and we were sat in my living room drinking coffee. I realised this was the only opportunity I was going to have to ask that question, because if we were out with other people in a restaurant or at a bar, it would have been easier for him to not respond. In this case, he had to at least respond. I asked if he wanted to try and play an acoustic version of ‘Heroes’, and I thought he would either storm out or stare at the floor uncomfortably, but instead he just said, ‘Yeah, I’ve never done that. Let’s give it a try.’”

Playing Glastonbury

Moby 'Feeling So Real' Live at Glastonbury

“I headlined Glastonbury in 2003, which was the third time I’d played the festival. The first time was a disaster. There was torrential rain, two feet of mud everywhere, and the tent I was supposed to play in had been filled with raw sewage. They moved me to another tent, and I played at around two in the afternoon. It was cold, wet, muddy, and almost nobody was there. It was about as bad of a Glastonbury experience you can have, and it was one of those years where people had to swim to their tents because the flooding was so bad. 

“The second time was paradise. It was the summer of 2000, and my album Play had gone from being an ignored, maligned record to being this baffling success. I played at dusk on the second stage, and it was idyllic. I played to 100,000 people as the sun was setting, which was beyond a dream. 

“So, my headline performance in 2003 should have been this phenomenal climax but whilst it was great, there were two and a half things that made it less than phenomenal. My then-girlfriend and I had just broken up on the tour bus going into Glastonbury. It was a surreal moment, because we were having our break-up conversation as we drove past Stonehenge, which was very cinematic. Aside from that, obviously by the time I played it was nighttime. A lot of festivals light up the audience at night, but Glastonbury does not. I couldn’t really see the audience, so even though I could hear that there were 150,000 people there, I couldn’t see them. I closed out the last night of the festival, and by that point the energy has gone in some strange directions. People have been sleeping in tents, doing drugs, and drinking, so if you’re the last performer of the last day, you’re dealing with a different type of festival energy. It’s an experience, that’s for sure.”

Collaborating with David Lynch

Shot in the Back of the Head

“I’ve often been asked what it’s like to work with my heroes, and over the years it’s forced me to think about common threads. What do the amazing artists, musicians, and writers that I look up to have in common? They’re all very intelligent, but the main thing that everyone I’ve ever worked with has shared is enthusiasm. Whether it’s David Lynch, David Bowie, or Lou Reed, they’re not just enthusiastic about what they’re doing, they’re enthusiastic about a myriad of things. They are so enthusiastic about art, literature, film, and documentaries, and they’re not going out into the world questioning how they can profit from that or manipulate it, they simply set out to experience things that fuel their enthusiasm. That’s what I’ve always admired about people like David Lynch.”

How did you come to work on Twin Peaks with him?

“David just texted me one day to say that they were finally doing the third season of Twin Peaks, and he asked if I wanted to have a cameo. He told me to come to this place in Pasadena at 2pm on a Saturday, where I’d stand behind Rebecca Del Rio while she sings. He’s my friend, so it was very light-hearted. I asked if I needed a wardrobe, but he told me just to show up. It was surreal because we were in Pasadena on a hot, sunny Saturday afternoon, but we were in a soundstage that had been built to the specifications of Twin Peaks. When you walk in, suddenly, it’s the middle of the night and you’re in the Roadhouse in Twin Peaks. That’s such a disconcerting juxtaposition.”

Celebrating 25 years of Play

Moby - 'Porcelain' (Official Video)

“When that record first came out, it certainly didn’t succeed. I don’t read reviews or comments anymore, and I don’t pay attention to anything regarding how I’m perceived in the outside world. Back then though, I paid tons of attention to everything. I would go to the newsstand and find anything written about me, and I was completely narcissistically self-involved. I read all the reviews, and if memory serves, there was only one good one. All the others were either dismissive or scathing, and in a lot of cases they just opted not to review the record because I was such a marginal figure. The first US show for the Play tour was in the basement of Tower Records, and between 15 and 20 people showed up. We were playing in the afternoon, and it was a free show. Before the show, I found a copy of Melody Maker and I read the review. It was so bad, and I really thought that was the end of my career. I’d put out a record that no one liked, and I was playing a show to 15 people. I thought that it was time to go back to school, get a PhD, and teach philosophy somewhere because clearly music was not working out.”

How does it feel to know that 25 years on you’re playing shows in celebration of those songs?

“At this point, my quotidian life is not for the most part informed by public figure musician stuff. That’s both by choice and age, but I live in Los Angeles where everybody’s more famous than me. It’s very easy to be humble when you live on the same street as Ryan Gosling, Jon Hamm and Chris Pine. They’re stars, I’m just a guy who is going to the supermarket to buy organic blueberries. It’s very profoundly unhealthy to believe in your own hype as a public figure. Having a normal life where I go hiking, read books, and hang out with friends is great, I don’t want anything else. When it comes to this tour, the goal is to go out and be of service. The goal is to go out and raise money for animal rights organisations, and hopefully play music that people enjoy. I do everything I can to keep the focus off myself.

“I did a few shows recently with orchestras, and we had this amazing show with the Los Angeles Philharmonic. We had a gospel choir on stage, the mayor came out and played piano, and Gustavo Dudamel was conducting. My favourite moment of the entire night was when we were playing ‘Natural Blues’ because I got to sneak off to the side of the stage and just watch what everyone else was doing. Other people were singing, other musicians were playing, and I just stood at the side of the stage playing guitar hoping that no one was paying attention to me. Those are the moments that I do this for.”

Working on my collaborative new album Always Centered At Night

moby ft. Benjamin Zephaniah - 'where is your pride?' (Official Music Video)

“Collaboration sits at the forefront of my new album, and working with all these different people is inspiring, but there’s also a very depressing common thread – pop music. I like some pop music, but the biggest challenge of working with new musicians is getting them to be interesting. They’re inherently interesting, but they’ve been told by managers and agents that they need to compromise, dumb it down, and write pop songs. With this album, I’ve had the same conversation with many of the writers and singers, because we’re not making a pop record. They don’t have to dumb it down, they can be poetic, they can be creative, and they can be idiosyncratic. In some cases, the musicians are like, ‘Wait, really?’ They’ve never heard that before. It’s about reminding people that music can be unconventional, and it can be idiosyncratic. It can aspire to be beautiful and creative. It doesn’t have to just appeal to the lowest common denominator.”

Moby plays a special one-off date at The O2 in London on 19 September as part of his European tour. Find tickets here.

Header photo by David Wolff, Patrick/Redferns