Moby: The secret of success? 'Don’t have a fallback plan'

Moby’s new memoir is less about showbiz and more about clawing hs way out of poverty in the late 1980s

"One, stay away from Class A narcotics. Two, avoid private planes. Three, love what you do. And four, if possible, don't have a fallback plan." This is what aspiring musicians hear when they ask Moby for advice.

On the fourth: “One of the things that sort of kept me going when I probably shouldn’t have, is that I had nothing else to do. At times in my life and my career, when things were clearly not working out I kept working because it’s what I love, but also the only other option was emptying the garbage at McDonald’s.”

Moby wanted to study semiotics but couldn’t afford to go to Brown, the only university offering a degree in it. So he became a philosophy major – and dropped out after a year.

That’s ironic, because if there’s one thing that Richard Melville Hall is, it’s philosophical. During our hour-long conversation in London, he hypothesises that it’s highly possible that he in fact works for UPS and his career is a hallucination, the consequence of wandering off into the desert after ingesting psilocybin.


As Moby's new memoir, Porcelain, demonstrates, it's these tangental observations that mark him as both a great conversationalist and an excellent writer.

His childhood nickname – a reference to great-great- great uncle Herman Melville’s whale – stuck. The title of his book stuck too, pitched because it was obvious, then because it made sense for a man who is also “white and fragile”, and because he spent a lot of time vomiting into porcelain toilet bowls.

Porcelain is a visceral trip through the beginning of Moby's journey to superstardom that cuts off just as he begins to write some of the tracks for Play. It's an unexpected sideways look at his career, focusing on the multiples of 10,000 hours that preceded his festival-headlining, movie-star-dating fame.

The memoir is not about VIP rooms and award ceremonies, but abandoned factories and crack-ravaged New York blocks. It’s not so much about him as about a dance scene in downtown Manhattan populated by gay African-Americans and Latinos, club kids and ketamine.

Porcelain is about the Moby who pushed his crates of records on his skateboard to clubs in desolate neighbourhoods, struggled with his Christianity, and tried to hook up with Keith Flint's girlfriend while he was on tour with The Prodigy. (Spoiler: that bit doesn't end well.)

Set between 1989 and 1999, it’s about a kid who realised his dreams as a DJ and electronic music producer, then lost it all before he had it all and then some again.

Ross on the radio

The memoir opens with Moby, 10 years old, hearing Love Hangover by Diana Ross on his mother's car radio. As she washed and folded neighbours' laundry in a launderette for cash, young Moby had a revelation.

“It represented a world I didn’t know,” he writes, “the opposite of where I was – and I hated where I was. I hated the poverty, the cigarette smoke, the drug use, the embarrassment, the loneliness. And Diana Ross was promising me that there was a world that wasn’t stained with sadness and resignation.”

That world was New York: the clubs, the DJs, the house music, the kids with their hands in the air.

The US rave scene in the early 1980s and 1990s is under-documented, a lo-fi pixelated image in the shadow of contemporary EDM’s overblown 3D technicolour.

“When I look back at New York in 1989, I’m very nostalgic for it,” Moby says, drinking coffee to counterproductively combat insomnia. “Even though it was dystopian and very difficult and dangerous and lots of ‘d’ alliteration, there was a wonderful cloistered quality to it.

“New York City is a huge city, but lower Manhattan is tiny. Everyone I knew lived south of 18th Street and north of Chamber Street in a tiny little area. All the writers, directors, musicians, record stores, book stores, everything was in this tiny little area.

“So, on one hand it was kind of magical, but part of the magic was also the fact that I was young, and I was doing what I wanted to be doing.”

There’s a beautiful scene in the book that anyone who has ever caught a break will recognise. When Moby looks for a DJing gig at the club Mars, he’s laughed out of it – only for the manager, who has listened to his tape (hip-hop on one side, house on the other) to call and ask him to play that Saturday. “I remember it so clearly,” he says. “It felt like baffling magic.”

“Magic” comes up a lot, but what comes up more is his honest appraisal of success.

Surprised by surprise

“I started making music when I was 10, and that’s all I worked on,” Moby says. “It’s another thing that I’ve learned in my old age. If you apply yourself to something and you work at it, results will happen, either good or bad . . . Someone who’s never played guitar, if they keep doing it eventually they’ll have facility with it and it’ll become second nature. I guess if I was looking at it with some more objectivity, I probably should be surprised that I’m surprised.”

By the time Moby released Everything Is Wrong in 1995, he was part of the electronic music boom, playing to raves in Europe and touring. Returning to New York, he realised that the sound in the clubs had taken a darker turn and there wasn't necessarily room for his euphoric music. The following year he basically torpedoed his career by making what was essentially a heavy rock record, Animal Rights. "If I'd been a little savvier, in 1996 I would have released a record that would have been a guitar-ish dance record, in the Chemical Brothers or The Prodigy realm."

That failure, however, created the context for Play.

"Play, for me, was made completely in a vacuum. I made this record working under the assumption that no one was ever going to listen to it. In hindsight, when I've written about that or tried to explain that to people I get looks of doubt: 'But that record was a huge success, how could you ever have doubted it?'

“Because before it was made, I was a has-been. My last couple of tours had been poorly attended and disastrous. My last record had failed miserably. I’d lost my record deal. My career was basically over. I made this record thinking ‘okay, I’ve got this one last opportunity to make a record. I’ll make an album, no one will listen to it, and I’ll be done’.”

Reaching the end of Porcelain, you want more. Moby mentions book two, but hasn't started writing it yet. At times, he says the fame that followed was "unspeakably fun", but it also gave him "a good four or five years of being this career-obsessed, entitled, anxious musician".

When fame failed to satisfy, he realised he was happier broke and living in an abandoned factory than rich in a penthouse apartment overlooking Central Park West, next door to Alec Baldwin and Bono.

"One of the most miserable days I ever had was in Barcelona at an MTV Awards, and I was staying in the fanciest hotel I'd ever been in," he says. "I had a three-bedroom suite. It was this duplex with 20ft walls of glass looking out over the Mediterranean, and there were only four rooms on the floor of this hotel, and P Diddy, Madonna and Bon Jovi were my neighbours.

More anxious

“And I had just won an MTV award, and I had never been more anxious and depressed, like really emotionally bottomed out. Maybe smarter, stronger, more self-possessed people would have been able to handle it better, but I just didn’t.”

Perhaps that's why Porcelain fizzes so much. This is a memoir about place and perspective.

“One of the things I’m profoundly grateful for is that I’ve been able to experience so many odd, disparate things,” Moby says. “I’ve experienced intense poverty and I’ve experienced wealth. I’ve experienced living in a sad defeated suburb and I’ve experienced going to A-list parties with politicians and movie stars.

“The perspective that comes from that direct experience to me is remarkable. But from that, the blinders come off, which is wonderful, but it forces you to dispense with conventional ideas about where magic and salvation might come from.

"Being invited to an A-list celebrity party is more often than not as banal or more banal than hanging out in the bus station with people you don't know. Meeting Bill Clinton, you're not going to learn anything. I've had conversations with the Dalai Lama and he's a nice guy. But that's it, a nice guy who had a couple of interesting opinions.

“Those answers aren’t going to come from people; it’s looking beyond the world of people that tends to be where the magic and wisdom might reside.”