On the last day of May 2016 Moby arrived in Waterstones, Piccadilly, London to talk about his new book Porcelain, a Memoir. This is a record of his conversation with the audience, including Shirley Ann Williams.
Porcelain, a Memoir is set in the ten years preceding the huge success of Moby’s break through album Play. It is a complex portrait of New York in the 1980s and 90s. A multi-cultural, multi-sexual city of crack addicts, murders, raves and a blossoming creative community. It is a city that no longer exists, a New York destroyed by gentrification, by the onslaught of wealthy stock-brokers and bankers. It is the tale of struggle for an increasingly successful, young and innovative DJ and musician. Moby’s writing is beautiful, even when the subject matter is painful or gross. In turns the story is really funny and very painful. It is always honest.
Moby is clearly a creative polymath and a perfectionist. Here he talks about writing the book, his friendship with David Bowie, his recently released ambient album and his day job, animal rights champion. He is faultlessly self-effacing but this belies a laser sharp and perceptive mind which is clearly expressed though his intense eyes, expansive vocabulary and his biting wit.
Porcelain: Chapter 4: Hands In The Air.
‘’I was a sober Christian who worked in drug-fuelled night clubs. I was living in a filthy city that was being torn apart by drugs, AIDS and gang violence. And I was sitting in quiet SoHo in reflected sunlight, drinking coffee at an ancient bakery while the man behind the counter smiled at me. I was so happy and so lucky. I had a perfect new record to play. I had a perfect little loaf of bread to eat. And I lived in a perfect city.’’
Moby without the fact that your mother encouraged your creativity, would you have been a musician?
My mother was a very complicated woman, very smart, very funny but wrestling with a lot of demons. But I am incredibly grateful that she had an amazing record collection and an amazing book collection. My entire family is very creative and their ethos was ‘devote yourself to creativity and never concern yourself about making money’. When I first moved into the abandoned factory my mum came to visit and she was jealous. I truly think she would have been disappointed in me if I had become a lawyer or a doctor.
I have a lot of friends with parents who did not encourage creativity and some were actively discouraged. I see what a hurdle that is for people. I have friends who are aspiring writers, painters, musicians and it is very difficult for them to get past the critical voice placed in their head from their parents.
There are lots of things in the world that terrify me and give me anxiety, but creativity has never been one of them. Put a musical instrument in my hand and I will bang around on it (and learn to play it) even if (at first) it sounds terrible. So luckily growing up in that environment, it’s one of the few areas of my life where I have a healthy relationship towards something.
Porcelain: Chapter 44: Dark Water.
….’’You’re in Connecticut?’’ (Darien) asked. ‘’How is it?’’
‘’Interesting’’ I said. ‘’I found out I have a brother I’ve never met, and, also my mom has decided to die.’’
How were you inspired to become vegan?
I’ve been vegan now for 28 years. Animal welfare is my life’s work. Music makes me happy, writing books makes me happy, but really my day job is animal rights. I was inspired by a cat, Tucker. I rescued him when he was about 3 days old. His eyes were still closed, he was barely alive and my grand mothers’ Dascshund, George, nursed him back to health. When I was 19 I was petting this cat and I had this neurological extrapolation.
I realised Tucker, whom I loved more than anything, had two eyes and a central nervous system and a rich emotional life and a desire to avoid pain. And I suddenly extrapolated and I realised ‘Oh all creatures with a rich emotional life and a central nervous system have a desire to avoid pain.’ And that’s what led me to become a vegetarian and then I read John Robbins, Guide For A New America, an old vegan book, and that was what really pushed me from vegetarianism into veganism.
Who would say has been the biggest musical influence in your career?
Brian Eno. It’s not him directly, but the fact that he had a hand in so many things that ended up inspiring me. Producing two or three remarkable Talking Heads albums like Fear of Music and Remain In Light and producing Devo and making his own ambient music, some of his own solo records and his work with Roxy Music. All these things as discrete entities really inspired me, especially his album with David Byrne, My Life in the Bush of Ghosts.
It was David Bowie, Brian Eno and also Marcel Duchamp (Dadaist artist). But mainly it was Brian Eno.
You’re writing a sequel for the period post Play. Are you also going to write a prequel?
It’s a very narcissistic and solipsistic thing to say but I love writing about myself. Even if no one ever read this book, writing it was just the best self-diagnostic tool. You can gain objectivity when writing about yourself in the past. It’s an objectivity that’s inaccessible in the present. In writing a memoir you can introduce lots of themes that I wouldn’t know how to introduce in fiction or in essay writing. How else do you write a book that’s about urban socio-economics, complicated demographics, veganism & animal rights, addiction issues and all sorts of attachment theory? You can have this polyglot approach to content by having it in memoir form. And so yes, maybe I want to write a prequel at some point.
Could you say something about your friendship with David Bowie?
David Bowie is my favourite musician of all time and the strangest thing is we became really good friends. I almost want to write a book about my pal David. He was my neighbour, we used to wave at each other from our balconies, we drank coffee together. I would see him and Iman in the deli at night.
We were doing a Philip Glass Tibet House fundraiser. David came over to my place as we were going to do some acoustic songs together. And I said ‘Oh we should do Heroes’ and so it was just me and David sitting on my couch on a Saturday morning and I was playing acoustic guitar and he sang Heroes. And if you came to me when I was ten and said ‘Oh at some point David Bowie is going to walk across the street to your house, you’ll make organic white tea for the two of you and you will sit there and play acoustic guitar while he sings the best song written by humans ever,’ I know I would never have believed you.
At Christmas one year I was at his apartment. As I was leaving he stopped me and he said ‘Oh I have a present for you.’ He ran into his bedroom and came back with a black hat and said, ‘This is the hat that I wore in The Man Who Fell To Earth.’ And then he wrote ‘To Moby Love David’ on the brim. And I thought that I’d lost it one night when I had about thirty people in my apartment smoking drugs. Turns out I didn’t (lose it).
Did you know that Why Does My Heart Feel So Bad is taught on the school music curriculum here in the UK?
No, but there are four chapters in the book about writing specific songs. My editor in New York had said ‘You know people might be interested to actually read about how these songs were created.’ And I didn’t want to get too technical because the whole utility of music is conveying emotion so I wanted more focus on the context and also how I had responded emotionally to a piece of music. There’s a very detailed description of how Why Does My Heart Feel So Bad was written, from conception to mix.
Porcelain: Chapter 34: Dust Motes:
‘’….Now I had two delicate piano loops bouncing around with each other….the way the sadness of the A-minor arpeggio pulled against the optimism of the C-major arpeggio made me want to keep it simple….I added some long orchestral chords, loosely following the cello parts….
I took a bass drum, a low tom and two crash cymbals and played them as an orchestral accent at the beginning of each measure…I added reverb to soften the drums and make them quieter…..
I listened to the music, put my head on the plywood table, and cried. Then I lay down on the floor and curled up underneath the table, listening to the sound of God moving over the empty oceans…..’’
How do you find the process of writing a book different to your previous creative projects?
Writing a book you can’t fake anything. If you are writing a song and you have a really good chorus, you can just hit control C and repeat it. You can’t do that with a book. You can’t say ‘Wow that paragraph is great, let me just repeat it three times.’ So it’s really satisfying but completely unforgiving. A single wrong word ruins it. And with music you can forgive out of tune guitars, you can forgive repetition. Although I don’t think writing music is easy, I find it much easier than trying to write a book.
When did you start to dislike touring? And will you tour again?
A lot of my touring was really unpleasant but I thought I was supposed to tour. For Animal Rights it was pretty grim. And then when Play happened I played La Scala to about four hundred people and it just kept getting bigger and I kept drinking more and dating more people and becoming more of a crazy entitled narcissist and it was so much fun. So Play was great. And then the next tour I completely bought in to this idea of being a public figure on tour doing these big things. And that’s when I really started disliking it. When it became more about touring as a vehicle for public figure stuff, that’s when I got creepier and that’s also when touring became less enjoyable.
I don’t want to be a middle aged musician with my best years behind me touring. Because lets be honest if I go on tour do you really want to hear songs from Destroyed or Wait For Me? (Audience: ‘Yes, yes we do.’). I don’t want to keep doing the same tour every two or three years to slightly smaller audiences with diminishing results. Life is short and there are so many things to do. I’d rather just grow old and hike and write books and learn things and stay home and have relationships and have dogs. So I might tour again at some point but right now I hope it’s not for a long time. Maybe holograms?
What was the reaction of your record company to the Animal Rights album?
I would say their reactions from first until last were pretty consistent, just, sadness and concern and dismay. Polite, for the most part and to everyone’s credit they worked on it, they released it but there was a lot of very understandable concern, both for me, for my career, for my mental health. In hind-sight I can appreciate their sadness around this because my peers were The Prodigy and The Chemical Brothers and Fat Boy Slim and they were all selling millions of records and playing huge festivals. Then I put out this super difficult record and I’m playing to thirty people a night and it was cold and I was panicking.
You are very honest about yourself in the book but also very honest about the people around you. Did you warn them up front about it?
Well, the only concerned editing that I did was around other people. There’s some personal stuff in there but there was awkward stuff about other people that I didn’t feel comfortable including. I’m perfectly happy throwing myself under the bus, but apart from my friend Lee farting when he was drunk and passed out there’s nothing too compromising. I would much rather use myself as a foil than try and use this as an opportunity to criticise or denigrate someone.
Are you currently working with David Lynch?
He made a music video for me and I DJd at his wedding. I was asked did you play Mark E. Smith acapellas with tooth and throat singing, backwards through distortion. N0! I played Beyonce. Just because its David Lynch’s wedding it doesn’t mean that his wife and the people at the wedding want to hear Mark E. Smith B-sides with ramshackle dying drums underneath it. They want to hear Brown-eyed girl. And there might be some things that we are collaborating on in the future that I might be contractually obligated to not say what they are. We just keep doing small weird things together.
Do you listen to your own music at home?
Almost never because when I listen to my albums all I notice are the things I could have done better. I couldn’t listen to Play because all I can think is that I could have mixed it so much better and my voice sounds thin.
The only music I listen to of my own is my ambient music. I released an album of ambient music, Long Ambients 1: Calm Sleep about four months ago. In theory you could pay for it but I truly don’t know why you would, because it’s free. It’s so baffling. Someone came to me the other day and said ‘Oh I bought your new ambient record!’ Its free, why would you buy it?
Other ambient music is sometimes a little too challenging. (Mine) is intentionally as minimal as possible, because I just want it to calm me down. I don’t want to prove anything with it. I just want it to be like Brian Eno’s idea of background music that you barely notice. And I just thought I’d give it away for people like me who have crippling insomnia.
Moby has created two albums to accompany Porcelain, a Memoir. The first is music that he made from 1989 to 1999, the period covered by the book. And the second CD is a music that he played in clubs and raves in and around New York in the late 80s and early 90s.
The album Long Ambients 1: Calm Sleep was released in February and can be downloaded free from his online shop at Little Pine. http://shop.littlepinerestaurant.com/collections/music/products/ambient
Moby is due to release his next album, ‘These Systems Are Failing’ in September 2016.
Just for the record. Moby’s punk album Animal Rights (released in 1996) flopped at the time, but it has received positive acclaim since. The album was simply badly timed, as Punk went out of fashion and Electronic Dance Music came in with The Chemical Brothers and The Prodigy filling stadiums, just as Moby released the album. Play followed and the trajectory of his career completely changed, leading to his world wide success. His most recent albums, Wait For Me, Destroyed and Innocents all consist of excellent tracks. But he refuses to promote his music extensively by touring.
Words by Shirley Ann Williams and Photography by Edyta K on 31st May 2016 at Waterstones, Piccadilly, London.
Moby was in conversation with John Doran from The Quietus. Porcelain, a Memoir is out now on Faber & Faber.