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Moby on New Memoir, the Decade in NYC That Changed His Life

Electronica star on the debauchery, self-doubt and eclectic New York music that inspired ‘Porcelain’.

Electronica star on the debauchery, self-doubt and eclectic New York music that inspired 'Porcelain'.

“I’m trying to figure out what one is supposed to do in a reading,” says Moby, on the phone from his New York City hotel room the day before his ongoing U.S. book tour starts – he has just released a new memoir called Porcelain, and he has no idea what to share. “I assume they shouldn’t be too long because I don’t want to bore people.”

It’s hard to bore people when you’re Moby, though. DJ, producer, photographer, animal-rights activist, writer, key ambassador of electronica: Moby has lived many lives in one, and they all come together to form the riveting Porcelain.

Named after the sixth single from his fifth studio album, 1999’s Play, which sold more than 12 million copies worldwide and became the highest-selling electronica album of all time, Porcelain recounts the musician’s captivating – and at times, jarring – tenure in New York City between the years of 1989 and 1999. Moving among club culture, rave music and pure hedonism, Moby tells tales of excessiveness in a seductive NYC that was just as glamorous as it was destructive.

To accompany his memoir, Moby will release a two-CD album called Music From Porcelain on June 10th. The music – just as important a character in the book as Moby himself – is the soundtrack to his words. While the first disc spans the 50-year-old’s early discography and includes remasters of classics such as “Bodyrock” and “Natural Blues,” the second highlights his influences, the sounds that shaped and made Moby: A Tribe Called Quest, 808 State and more.

Born in Harlem as Richard Melville Hall, Moby grew with the city’s music scene and immersed himself in a club culture that would take off and serve as a launchpad for one of the most influential careers in Nineties dance music. “It’s really odd being back and essentially being a tourist in the city of my birth,” says Moby. “New York has always exerted this fascinating, historical hold on people.”

While Moby is most often celebrated for his contributions to electronica, his roots lie in classical, punk and hip-hop; he started as a hip-hop DJ before expanding into house music. “I’ve always liked dance music, but I never felt complete allegiance to dance music as a genre because I liked so many other, different things,” he says, a statement backed up by Music From Porcelain‘s hip-hop-leaning second disc. “The journey of the progression on [the first disc] is from nightclubs to apartments.”

Made entirely in Moby’s bedroom with the exception of “South Side,” the now-platinum Play was set to be his goodbye to music – and wound up his greatest masterpiece. Porcelain recounts the years leading up to the seminal album’s 1999 release, tackling the trials Moby faced as an outsider in a club culture he both loved and hated, with Music From Porcelain as the soundtrack to it all. The artist spoke to Rolling Stone about what it was like to revisit this formative time and the second memoir he says he’s already written.

What sections of your memoir will you be sharing throughout your book tour?
I think it might make sense to ask the audience what they want to hear – like, do they want to hear shame and degradation, or do they want to hear the glory of the rave days, or do they want to hear alcoholism and sobriety?

I feel like people will gravitate towards alcoholism and the glory of the rave days.
I mean, I would as well. It’s a little bit more bright and shiny, but I have a feeling I’ll figure out pretty quickly what doesn’t work. I’ll be in the middle of a reading and people are checking their phones and going to the bathroom, so that’s usually an indication that something’s not working.

moby bookHow was the idea for the book born?
I had been at a party in Brooklyn four or five years ago, and I was telling these stories about what New York had been like in the Eighties and early Nineties. The people I was talking to were really fascinated because all of them had just moved to New York in the last few years. Someone said, “These stories are interesting. You should probably write them down.” And that was the genesis of the book.

What made you decide to release music with it?
The music part made sense because the book itself takes place from 1989 to 1999, and it’s about me, but it’s also about New York during that time and the different music scenes I was involved in: It’s about the New York club scene, the rave scene; it’s about Lollapalooza; it’s about the festival world. We wanted to have these CDs that vaguely corresponded to the music that was mentioned in the book.

Out of all the music from your early career, why did you choose “Porcelain” to name your memoir after? What resonated most about that song?
Well, on one hand, it’s one of my better-known songs. Also, it’s white and fragile, and I’m white and fragile. A big part of the book is relapsing: halfway through the book I go from being a sober Christian to an alcoholic dater of strippers, and I did a lot of throwing up into porcelain toilets so it seemed like the perfect title.

“I did a lot of throwing up into porcelain toilets so it seemed like the perfect title.”

How did you go about making a timeline of your life through music?
The timeline was established by the chronology of the book and the songs that were included. I tried to imagine, if I were not me, what would I want to hear on this record? I didn’t necessarily pick the most obscure or the most difficult or the most challenging songs – I tried to pick some that people already seemed to like and to set them into this linear chronology.

When you released Play, it was set to be a farewell but turned out to be one of your biggest accomplishments. How did it feel to revisit that pivotal moment in your life?
I feel this sweet nostalgia when I listen to it. New York was a very different place. This was pre-9/11, and I was a very different person; this was pre-sobriety, so I was still able to go out and drink without consequences. A lot of the music on Play ended up having a broader, longer life than I imagined it would, and it’s nice to be reminded of that.

You conclude the first disc of Music From Porcelain with “Why Does My Heart Feel So Bad?” and you end the memoir on a similar sad note. Was this intentional?
It was tricky to write the book from the perspective of me in 1999 because clearly now, I know what happened after the end of the book. But at the time, in 1998 and 1999, I was convinced that my career had basically come to an end. I only had a record deal because some people felt sorry for me and were being charitable. I thought that Play was going to be my last record, that I was going to put it out and I would fade away into obscurity and teach community college and that was it. I thought Play was this lo-fi, weird record that no one was ever going to listen to. The song “Why Does My Heart Feel So Bad?” encapsulates that.

If you had ended up teaching community college, what would you have taught?
I studied philosophy when I went to school and I never quite graduated, so I assumed I’d be a philosophy professor at some New England community college.

moby shadow
“I thought ‘Play’ was this lo-fi, weird record that no one was ever going to listen to,” Moby says. Melissa Danis

Looking back now, can you pinpoint any specific themes in your early music that you weren’t conscious of at the time?
It’s hard for me to be objective about me or my music, but I guess there is an almost loathsome quality to a lot of it. Which in hindsight was weird, because traditionally electronic dance music was supposed to be relatively celebratory. When I go back and listen to a lot of the music I made, there’s a sparse loneliness to it.

The second disc of Music From Porcelain features a collection of music from other artists that inspired Porcelain. What role did those tracks play in your life?
There’s a lot of music talked about in the book and we’ve made a Spotify playlist that I think includes all of it. Hundreds of tracks, everything from A Tribe Called Quest to Pantera to Mötley Crüe to Derrick May – I mean, really, just a weird and eclectic list of music. This second record, though, they were some of the songs that were really important to me when I was DJ’ing in New York in the early Nineties. These were songs that you could play at a nightclub like Mars and, in an instant, get everyone to cheer and start dancing.

There’s a lot of hip-hop on there, which is interesting because New York’s hip-hop scene grew alongside its club culture. Can you talk about the connection between the two?
A lot of nightclubs ended up playing both, specifically the club where I worked for a long time, Mars. It would have house music on the first floor, hip-hop on the second floor, reggae and soul on the third floor, maybe more house music on the fourth floor, then hip-hop in the basement. You would have all the rappers showing up – De La Soul, Big Daddy Kane, Run-D.M.C. – but you’d also have drag queens showing up. And somehow, it was peaceful. Everyone kind of co-existed. Then there was this period for two years where all the rappers started making house music because it was a way to get played in clubs and get more exposure. The Jungle Brothers, Queen Latifah – everyone made hip-house, the type of hip-hop-inspired house music. There was a ton of overlap, which was odd, because demographically there were a lot of differences. Hip-hop was traditionally much more straight and house music was much more gay.

Porcelain ends in 1999. Why stop there? Why not keep going?
I realized that in order to write any sort of memoir or autobiography, you have to exclude quite a lot. I picked 10 years because it was an interesting 10 years for me, it was an interesting 10 years for New York, it was an interesting 10 years in the world of music. By dealing with those 10 years, I could go into more depth than if I tried to cover an entire life in one book.

Have you considered writing a second memoir?
I’ve already written a second memoir, but I might have to start again because it’s a little bit generic. It’s about fame, drug addiction, alcoholism, degeneracy, touring and bottoming out, and I feel like that book has been written many times already. I have to figure out a way to present in a way that doesn’t feel hackneyed and clichéd.