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The ‘Porcelain’ Touch: A Conversation with Moby

Grammy nominated singer-songwriter, DJ, and photographer – Moby – can now add “author” to his rolodex of career titles. Last month, Moby released his memoirs book entitled ‘Porcelain.’ In junction with the book release, the veteran artist also dropped an accompanying album, ‘Music From Porcelain,’ that capture his original songs and those that influenced his musical genius from his stint in New York from 1989 to 1999. Here, Slate Journal speaks to Moby about the unique creative process behind ‘Porcelain’ and the making of ‘LongAmbients1: Calm. Sleep.’

Photographed by Summy Khalsa


Last time we spoke you were releasing ‘Hotel: Ambient’ and unveiling the innocents gallery. You’ve been a busy man since then! How is the book tour going?

Moby: The book tour is great. I’ve been making records now for 26 years and as a result I’ve been doing concert touring for 26 years. What I’ve learned over 26 years is that I really don’t like touring. I’ve especially learned that I don’t want to be another middle-aged musician going around doing the same tour every two or three years. What’s been really nice about the book tour is it’s really, really different from doing a concert tour. I really like that it’s the type of travel [and] type of touring that I haven’t done before. So, it’s been really nice.

So, how’s the book being received?

Moby: I sort of have a personal moratorium on Googling myself or reading reviews or articles on everything I’ve done; because what I’ve learned over the years is if I put out a record or put out a book and I get a good review it makes me happy, but it also feeds my ego. Conversely, if I put out a book or record and it gets a bad review it makes me want to find a tall building and jump off of it.

Oh no!

Moby: So I guess about ten years ago or so I implemented a pretty strict moratorium on ever reading reviews, but I’m told by the people at the publishing company that the book is doing well and generally people seem to really like it. So, I’m basing that more on hearsay than actually going out and reading reviews. I can tell when I’ve made something that people don’t like. It becomes pretty evident when you’re doing interviews because you know, if I made something that people don’t like I’ll be doing interviews and simply no one will mention the thing that I’ve made. If you made a record that no one likes, people just don’t talk about it. They won’t offer an opinion; but if you made a record or something that people actually seem to like during the course of the interview someone will directly or indirectly let you know that they’ve liked what you made. Thus far that’s sort of been the case with the book, so I find that really encouraging.

I’ve been reading reviews about it because I haven’t had a chance to fully read the book. Just from the reviews I’ve read it’s been really positive too – particularly the interview I read in The Guardian. The writer mentioned just how much she appreciated how candid you are in the book which leads me to next question. Did you feel like you had to hold certain things back or were you just all out Bible writer honest with this memoir?

Moby: Well, before I wrote the book I tried to go out and read as many memoirs written by other people as I could. I read music memoirs and literary memoirs. I tried to figure out what other people had done well and what they’d done badly. When it came time to write my own book, I just tried to learn in reading other people’s memoirs what they’d done well and what they’d done badly. One of the things that I found that really frustrated me with other people’s memoirs was when they either told their story in a very sort of self-serving way or if they were just too self-involved regarding things that most people wouldn’t care about. So, I kind of decided with my book is that even if it ended up being bad, I wanted it to be honest. The culture in which we live we’re constantly exposed to public figures that present themselves in sort of a sculpted, crafted manufactured way and it feels very disingenuous to me. I knew that if nothing else I didn’t want to do that. I didn’t want to be just another quasi-public figure trying to convince people to think of me as something I’m not. First and foremost that was my goal to just be as honest as I knew how to be.

And did you think that presented a challenge? Did you think that people would view you differently?

Moby: Yeah, I mean there is that sort of vague concern. If you’re putting things out into the world that most people would not be comfortable putting out into the world, there’s a concern that you’ll be seen differently; but at the same time as I’ve gotten older I found myself not really caring that much about how people perceive me. I used to, but this was ten years ago or 20 years ago. The opinion of strangers meant a lot to me. Now I think I’ve gotten to a point that I just realize I shouldn’t let the opinions of strangers affect my sense of self or affect my well-being. It seems really weird to outsource your happiness and well-being to people you’ve never met.

Yeah, but I still find that as a challenge because you obviously want to make sure that people understand you, but at the same time like you said, you have to really just know yourself and be comfortable in your own skin.

Moby: Yeah and ultimately when we put something out into the world whether it’s music or art or writing, there’s a lot of things that people hope to accomplish when they release something creative into the world. At this point – and maybe it’s just because I’m old – I’m way more interested in trying to share my weird experiences of the human condition with someone and hopefully have it be meaningful to them. I don’t necessarily want to see people as an audience or see people as a demographic that people pay for what I make. I don’t want to increase my fame. I don’t want to have people think of me better or differently. If I communicate my weird experiences of the human condition with someone maybe possibly if I’m lucky it makes that person feel a little bit less lonely and maybe a little bit more comfortable with their experiences of the human condition. Then selfishly, it helps me to understand myself better. If I put myself out there in a sort of honest way and people respond to it, it’s almost like a form of therapy. That was really what I was thinking about in writing it and releasing it.

You read my thoughts! My next question was if this served as a catharsis for you. What do you feel like you’ve learned the most out of this whole process?

Moby: (Pause) What I’ve learned…and that’s the other thing about writing a memoir is in writing about yourself 20 something years ago you gain the objectivity regarding yourself. A very odd thing happens where you’re writing about yourself, but you’re also technically writing about a different person. It’s this weird paradox because who you were or who I was 26 years ago ostensibly were the same person, but we’re a different person. So writing about myself as a different person you can have an objectivity that you can’t have regarding yourself in the present. So it becomes very insightful and very therapeutic.

I learned a lot of very simple things. One of the things I’ve learned is that I have such a propensity towards overthinking things and towards worrying. The worrying especially doesn’t really do me too many favors. One other thing that I learned because it’s this recurring question that I’ve been asked during the book tour which is: ‘If I could go back to me in who I was in 1989 or 1990, what advice would I give that person?’ The truth is if I could go back to me in 1989 or 1990, I probably wouldn’t say anything to me because at this point in my life I’m really happy with how things have worked out and I don’t even mean professionally, I just mean in terms of perspective and world view. I’m really happy with the perspective that I have and the life that I have. Life and perspective are the cumulative effect of everything we’ve experienced. So you can’t really want to change the past if you’re pretty happy with where you’ve arrived in the present. It re-contextualizes mistakes. I look back at my life and I’ve made countless mistakes, like some huge mistakes. Mistakes coming from a place of fear and from ignorance, from ego; but I wouldn’t undo any of them even the really embarrassing, uncomfortable ones because I’m happy I’ve learned from them.


Moby: A memoir


In the human experience we all have something we regret, but it shapes us to who we are today. So, I definitely agree with you on that.

Moby: Yeah, as long as mistakes don’t have really dire, permanent consequences – they can be okay. I’m grateful I don’t have any facial tattoos, I don’t have any viral diseases and I don’t have unwanted children. The mistakes I’ve made – even if they were really bad and really embarrassing – luckily they haven’t had those sort of truly permanent, dire consequences.

That’s true. Now with the book, you have the accompanying album, ‘Music From Porcelain’ (out now via Thrive Music) that you just released. What’s really cool about it is its’ diversity – you have A Tribe Called Quest, 808 State and so many different artists. How did these various artists mold you into the artist you were back in your New York City days to now?

Moby: They shaped me largely in that they exposed me to musical idioms that I would never have been exposed to had I stayed in the suburbs. Growing up in the suburbs in the ‘70s I was exposed to a lot of interesting music, but I wasn’t exposed to much in the way of urban, Latino, African-American in dance music – R&B, soul, etcetera. When I started to spend a lot of time in New York in the ‘80s, I was suddenly exposed to music that changed cultural tradition that I hadn’t been a part of and that was so exciting to me. The book touched on this as well, but often times I’d go out to clubs and I would be the only straight, White person among like thousands of beautiful African-American queens and be in, like, Latino clubs and gay clubs being the only straight person there or White person there. It was such an honor being allowed into those environments and being exposed to these musical traditions that I really hadn’t know anything about. So, that really opened me up and shaped me and expanded music horizons. It expanded my musical interest and musical awareness.

The most amazing thing about being exposed to musical traditions that don’t necessarily reflect or represent the culture that you grew up with is often times you’re exposed to a musical language that is foreign, but makes perfect sense to the people who’ve created it. An example would be listening to some early hip hop from the ’80s and then hearing some old, soul record that they’ve sampled. The first time I’d hear these soul records, these R&B records, was when they were being sampled in hip hop records. So the hip hop record almost served as a form of education because then you’d go and find the original soul record and you’d fall in love with that. I think it’s funny that there’s so many people, for example if they hear “Crazy In Love” by Beyoncé they assume that she wrote that. I love Beyoncé and I love that song, but the music is 100% from an old R&B record.

Right. A lot of people are unaware of the sampling that a lot of artists dive into.

Moby: Yeah and so back in the ‘80s when the underground was truly underground, you’d have hit records in lower Manhattan that no one outside of lower Manhattan had ever even heard. Being a part of that, everything about it was so foreign and exciting and remarkable. I’m still really grateful that I was exposed to so much music from a culture that I hadn’t really come from.

Another cool thing you recently released is your free ambient album, ‘Long Ambients1: Calm. Sleep.’ Everything’s been so stressful in the world, so it’s great to have something that’s relaxing. How did that come about? What made you release it for free?

Moby: When I was growing up I fell in love with ambient music largely from David Bowie and Brian Eno. The B-side of David Bowie’s “Heroes” and ‘Low’ were basically just quiet ambient songs. Ambient music has the remarkable ability to sort of transform the space in which it’s being listened to, but in a very undemanding way. A few years ago I started doing yoga and started meditating and I was trying to find ambient music that was long and undemanding and very, very calm and quiet. I couldn’t find any. I found a lot of interesting ambient music and I found a lot of very good ambient music, but a lot of it wasn’t very long – four or five to seven minutes. They would add weird sounds and weird drums and vocals. I really just wanted 20 and 30-minute long ambient pieces that just sort of sat there. It would just sit there in the background and were just only designed to be peaceful, quiet and calm.

I started writing my own 20 to 30-minute ambient pieces not with the idea of ever releasing them, but just with the idea that they would help me to calm down when I was doing yoga or meditating or trying to sleep. So a few months ago I realized I had about four hours of these very long, quiet ambient pieces and I simply thought I’d give them away and hopefully maybe people would find them and I don’t know, get some calm comfort from them. The truth is you can either download the long ambient record for free or you can pay for it. I don’t know why anyone would pay for it when it’s free. I don’t like the idea of charging money for music that’s supposed to ideally comfort and help people. It’s music that’s 100% designed to be of service to people in their lives. I don’t want to profit off of that. I just want to try and be of service.

Well, that makes sense. For my last question – and this ties back in with the book – what’s been a highlight for you from this book tour?

Moby: You know, one of the nicest and the most unexpected highlight from the book tour has been encountering people from my past randomly at these book events – especially Boston, New York and Connecticut. I ran into so many people I’ve known from either the early punk rock world or that I’ve gone to high school with or were in the dance music world in the ‘80s to early ‘90s. Its’ actually enabled me to reconnect with a lot of people I’ve lost touch with. That’s been the highlight – encountering people who I haven’t talked to. When I did the event in Connecticut I ran into people I haven’t seen in over 30 years. It was really nice to reconnect with really old, old, old friends.


For further information or purchase on Moby’s book Porcelain please visit http://moby.com/book/