Moby Talks ‘Reprise,’ Natalie Portman, and His Trump-Russia Claims
The musical artist and activist sat down to discuss his new orchestral album and documentary, the Natalie Portman controversy, Eminem, and much more.
Moby’s sumptuous, bohemian home is guarded by a garrison of trees. To get inside, I’ve been furnished with a detailed map, accompanied by a series of guidelines for our interview. It’s early April, and although COVID-19 case numbers are relatively low in Los Angeles, the electronic-music artist is not taking any risks. Our talk will take place outdoors in his verdant backyard, seated 30 feet apart in chairs, and masked. Moby is also recording the interview with his own device; he says this is merely a security measure for my own benefit, in case something goes wrong with my recorder.
The twin occasions for our interview are Reprise, a new album on which Moby—joined by Hungary’s Budapest Art Orchestra, as well as guest stars like Jim James and Mark Lanegan—reimagines some of his biggest hits in classical music fashion, and Moby Doc, a documentary co-written by Moby examining his “turbulent personal life and iconic music from underground punk bands to chart-topping solo artist, and from struggling addict to vegan activist.” Both projects are out May 28, and both projects serve as an invitation of sorts for Moby’s many critics to re-evaluate his contributions to the zeitgeist—in the realms of music and animal rights.
If the 55-year-old artist formerly known as Richard Melville Hall (yes, he’s a distant relative of Herman Melville) is to be believed, he won’t be reading this interview. According to Moby, he stopped reading about himself in the early aughts, when the New York blogosphere began to turn on him following the success of Play, which sold over 20 million copies worldwide.
“I remember this one piece, in Gawker or Gothamist, and there was this one comment where this guy said he hated me so much that if he saw me on the street, he would stab me and watch me bleed to death in front of him,” Moby recalls. “At that point, I realized, OK, I need to stop reading about myself.”
That has not stopped Moby from writing about himself. His 2019 memoir, Then It Fell Apart (his second, after 2016’s Porcelain) attracted plenty of headlines for its claims that he once rubbed his penis against Donald Trump as a prank and that he’d briefly dated the actress Natalie Portman when he was 33 and she 20. After Portman came forward to say she was actually 18 when they dated, and told Harper’s Bazaar that she “was surprised to hear that he characterized the very short time that I knew him as dating because my recollection is a much older man being creepy with me when I just had graduated high school,” Moby issued an apology and canceled his book tour, saying, “I’m going to go away for a while.”
Well, Moby is back. During our backyard conversation, we discussed the Portman controversy, his new projects, and his legacy.
How have you been handling the past pandemic year?
Well, it’s a difficult thing to talk about because basically, and not to state the obvious, so many people have been suffering and struggling. I was born and raised in New York, and I feel like my friends on the East Coast, especially in the last year, they’re locked in apartments—and it’s cold, and it’s dark—and I was just trying not to send pictures of me hiking in a T-shirt in March. All I can say is, as far as a place to quarantine, a house that’s pretty near to the park is not that bad, and being a 55-year-old misanthrope who doesn’t like socializing anyway—I mean, I live alone, I work by myself—so in the grand scheme of things, I have nothing to complain about.
Did you make any strange online purchases? I certainly made a few.
The one purchase indulgence that I made was I bought a backup blender. I have this blender that I love, and I use it constantly, and I was like, “Oh no… what if something happens and I can’t get another blender?” So that was my panic purchase—buying a second blender.
Before we get to Reprise, you said you were asked to DJ Trump’s inauguration, is that right?
Sort of. What happened was no one was willing to play at his inauguration, so my booking agent was laughing about this, and he basically said that his agency was given a blanket invitation of, “If any of your artists are willing to play or they’re Republicans or whatever,” and so he jokingly came to me and said, “Do you want to play Trump’s inauguration? Because they’ll take anybody.” So I was asked to play, but it wasn’t a direct request from Eric or Don Jr.
You did make another interesting claim regarding Trump, which was that you knew active and former CIA agents who told you that Trump was colluding with Russia, and that Trump was being blackmailed by the Russian government “beyond the pee tape.”
So basically, after I left college, I had a girlfriend whose dad was high up in the CIA. We’re still in touch—we’re friendly—and I have a few other friends who used to work at the CIA or other intelligence agencies, though none of them are active. When Trump was elected, they all know Christopher Steele, and they said that most of what he’s written is completely accurate, and his sources are all being killed off in Russia, and everything Trump was doing was trying to gear up for a war. There is a strait by Iran, and there was a fleet being moved in there, and these friends of mine said, “The only way you would do that is if you were getting ready to go to war.” They were genuinely concerned, so they said, “Look, you have a large social media audience, and we don’t, and also we can’t say anything, so will you just put this out there?” I wasn’t in a position to fact-check it; I was just sharing what they shared with me.
Although there have been a lot of disproven claims in the Steele dossier.
Sort of. I wonder… I don’t know. I wish I knew more. All I know is, my friends who lived and breathed intelligence for a long time said it was largely accurate.
Well, not many people have had the opportunity to rub their dick against Trump, as you say you did.
It was a gentle brush against the edge of his suit jacket, it was not full-on frottage. I remember it so clearly. You know those giant restaurants that used to be on Park Avenue, around 19th and Park? It was one of those restaurants on the west side of Park Avenue—a very drunken dare—and as innocuous as a wiener-brush against fabric could be. At the time, Trump was just kind of a failed real-estate mogul. He was a tabloid joke. You know the “John Barron” story, right? A friend of mine used to work at Page Six, and Trump called every morning and told her what Trump was going to be doing. Every morning, seven days a week, without fail, he would call Page Six and tell my friend his schedule. I was like, wow, that’s insane.
OK, let’s talk Reprise. Is this something you cooked up during the pandemic?
Four or five years ago, I went to go see Bryan Ferry at the Hollywood Bowl, and he was playing with an orchestra. It was great. I went backstage, and the woman who had booked the orchestra asked me if I’d considered playing with an orchestra, and I had never even considered that that was in the realm of possibility. I was like, “That’s for the Bryan Ferrys of the world, that’s for Led Zeppelin.” I thought maybe she was just being polite. But it turns out they actually wanted me to do the show, so I did a show at Disney Concert Hall with the L.A. Philharmonic, and I say this self-involvedly, but from my perspective, it was great. After the show, this woman from Deutsche Grammophon came backstage and said, “Wow, I really liked that. Would you like to make an album version of that?”
There’s a beautiful tribute to Bowie on the album, and there’s also a section of the documentary dedicated to your friendship—which is an incredible thing to have happen to someone.
I’m sure you get this as well, but you get to meet, encounter, and work with your idols. David Bowie is, like many people, my favorite musician of all time—but not just as a musician, but as an artist, as a situationist, as a singer, as an everything. I don’t even know how to describe what he did. In 1999, I got a random email from David Bowie saying that he was moving across the street from me, and would I like to get a coffee. We became friends, we worked on music together, we had holidays together, and we got coffee together. This one phenomenal moment, that may inspire jealousy—although it shouldn’t because it was so beautiful—was when we were going to be playing this Tibet House fundraiser for Philip Glass, so to rehearse, David came over to my house. He brought coffee from Cafe Gitane. And I had the temerity to suggest that we play an acoustic version of “Heroes,” the greatest song ever written. I thought he would shut it down, and he just said, “Sure, let’s try it.” So, we sat on my couch, I played acoustic guitar, and he sang “Heroes.” Just the two of us. It was spiritual, it was beautiful, it was one of the most wonderful moments of my life. So, the version on the album is an homage to that moment.
One cultural incident that’s not in the documentary that I did revisit prior to this interview was the Triumph-Eminem thing at the VMAs. It’s interesting how much backlash you got from it, because if you rewatch it now, you’re not the one who was uncool in the situation. Eminem is dressed like a fool at this ceremony, trying to slap around a puppet.
My recollection is, I love Robert Smigel, the comedian behind Triumph. He has abused me so much, but I keep going back, because I think he’s a comedic genius. I foolishly, naively assumed that Eminem had been told about this—because I had been told about this. I thought it was scripted, and someone would have told Eminem. But they didn’t.
But that “feud” with Eminem in general was pretty nuts. At one point, he erected a puppet of you on stage during a concert and shot at it. And yet this hurt your reputation. And all you did, I believe, was tell him that his music was misogynistic and homophobic.
I don’t know all of Eminem’s music, but it’s really good. What frustrated me was, misogyny and homophobia, which I thought had been banished from popular culture—I thought the Clinton generation had all decided that popular music wasn’t going to be homophobic or glorify the abuse of women, and it turns out we were wrong. By the late ’90s, it was everywhere. I was genuinely taken aback and offended by that. The thing with Eminem is, some of the misogynistic and homophobic musicians back then were just idiots, but the reason I was more troubled by Eminem is because I felt he was better than them, because he was clearly so sharp and very intelligent. I’m sorry that it happened. Clearly, it didn’t hurt him. It was very weird.
There is one quote that you deliver in the documentary that I think might get you in trouble, and it’s where you say, “We’re on the right side of history… It is just a given that at some point, people will look at animal agriculture in the past the way that we now look at slavery.”
You’re right. I kind of wish that wasn’t in there. I think, if I understand contextually what I mean… and it’s actually something that I talked about with Cory Booker, who’s a friend of mine. When he got elected, we got on the phone and I said, “You’re a senator now, what can I do to help?” There’s a quote by Dr. King that goes, “The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.” And it also bends toward reason. I think what I was trying to say in that quote—and you’re right, I probably might get criticized for it—is that there are a lot of things in our past, so I wasn’t necessarily comparing animal agriculture to slavery, but there are a lot of things in our past that we have slowly recognized are not in keeping with who we aspire to be as moral people—and slavery is an example of that. So is smoking cigarettes on airplanes. So is denying people the right to marry who they want to marry. So is not allowing women to vote. It wasn’t a point-to-point comparison; it was more saying, “There are a lot of bad things in our past, and at some point, animal agriculture will be seen in the same light as all these bad things.”
Your last press tour pretty much exploded because of the Natalie Portman allegations, and you announced that you were stepping away. But looking back on that and how it unfolded, how do you feel about it? When someone calls someone “an older man being creepy,” it’s tough to move away from that.
Yeah. It’s so complicated, because there are just layers and layers—many of which, if we were friends sitting down to have a bowl of açai together, there’s stuff I would be able to go into that, for a whole host of reasons I just learned not a long time ago, I can’t. I like the idea of candor, I like the idea of deconstructing things in public, but there is a lot that unfortunately I can’t go into. But also, as I mentioned with that story earlier about the early days of Gawker and Gothamist, I can’t pay attention to how the world perceives me. Because if the world loves me, it fuels my narcissism; if the world hates me, it makes me want to blow my brains out. I learned a long time ago that handing my sense of self over to the opinions of strangers is a very dangerous, bad thing to do.
When that was going on, I largely tried to ignore it because it entered the realm of, I didn’t even know what was going on. I had TMZ camped outside. I was running a restaurant and the numbers went down quite a lot, and I was running it as a non-profit, so it was hurting the non-profits I was working with. Again, I wish I could have more candor about the contextualized nuance of it, but I did realize—and I guess it’s a form of privilege—that my quotidian existence is not affected by the opinions of strangers. If everybody in the world decides that they hate my guts, I get to sit out here and drink tea. If everybody in the world hates my guts, I still get to have a smoothie in the morning and sleep in my bed. The idea of inviting the hateful opinions of strangers in my head? I realized that I have to do everything in my power to not let my emotional state be decimated by the opinions of strangers.
It was very much characterized by her as a 33-year-old preying on an 18-year-old.
But the thing is, I know based on sales that no one read the book. I mean, the book sold 5,000 copies. And if you read the book, it’s pretty clear that it’s very innocuous. The rest of the book is filled with salacious stuff. The irony is, this was the chapter that was kind of one of the more innocent ones. I was like, how do I defend myself? Because the only way I could defend myself is say, if you read the book, you’ll see that it was actually innocent.
Did it cause you to reflect on the relationship at all?
There really wasn’t a “relationship.”
Or “courtship,” or whatever you want to call it. Because there is a scene in the book where you’re 33 and she’s 18 in a dorm room. Did it cause you to reflect on what she was going through during all that?
Uh… Again, there are so many complicating variables that it’s hard for me to discuss it with candor without including the variables that I can’t actually go into. So I apologize. I hope I don’t sound too evasive. I don’t know how… when I can’t fully explain, by definition, I can’t fully explain.
There’s this tension in the documentary between wanting attention and not wanting it. Some people are going to say, “Moby just made a documentary on himself and has released two memoirs in the last five years.” So what is this tension?
There are a lot of elements to it. If I was to break it down a little bit, on one hand there’s this dialectic of, “I’m an only child, I grew up alone, I live alone, I work alone, and I spend a lot of time alone, and as a result, I don’t have a lot of objectivity as regards me.” I don’t have family or people around. I think a lot of people have an understanding of themselves based on their culture, their tradition, their family, the people around them, etc.—and I don’t. Maybe if I was brighter and more self-aware, I would. So, there’s this dialectical aspect where—and it’s part of the reason I like writing memoirs or doing interviews—if you put yourself out there, you can glean some understanding. The other aspect is, growing up very poor and insecure with a feeling of persistent inadequacy, putting yourself out in the world and looking for a degree of validation is proving to yourself that you do have validity. I think I used to be a lot more guilty of that. Now it’s an interesting dialectic, but pre-sobriety, it was a compulsion—needing validation from the media, people I was dating, etc. It’s nice to have a degree of daylight around that now.
Are you concerned about your legacy? Because memoirs and documentaries, even if it’s not the intention, do burnish one’s legacy. You did receive a disproportionate amount of hatred from the Pitchfork crowd, I must say. Everyone listened to Play, and it then became cool among some folks to clown on you.
To be honest, when it first started happening it was really hurtful, because the same arbiters of taste, before Play, invited me to their parties, and I presumptuously thought I was one of their friends. And I remember around 2001, I went to some cool party, James Murphy was probably DJing, a bunch of underground artists were there, and I noticed people weren’t being nice to me anymore. And I hated it. My solution was to drink more and do more drugs, but in New York for a long time, that had been a group that I’d felt a little bit of a connection to, so when “they” first turned on me, it was really hurtful. And the press was a reflection of that, so it led me to stop reading.
It must have been surreal because it’s something that’s almost out of your control. It’s something that’s happening around you.
I’m sorry to interrupt, but if I’m really looking at it, if I wasn’t me, I probably would have joined in on it. That’s the culture in which we live. When someone has success, you want them to fail—unless they’ve already failed so publicly, or unless you love them unconditionally—and it would be egregious and hypocritical of me to say that it’s categorically unfair when I’m probably guilty of indulging in it as well.
The veganism thing is fascinating, because at the time it seems to have contributed to the perception from this crowd that you were an uncool person. But now, that same crowd thinks veganism is cool.
I have enough cultural awareness to know that a reasonably affluent cisgender white man really has no place to say anything is unfair. So no, nothing is unfair. I don’t feel mistreated. Apart from baldness, I feel like I really have nothing to complain about. But the subtext of that is, my commitment to animal rights—my commitment to veganism—is more important and takes precedence over my commitment to myself. My health, my well-being, my happiness are not as important as my belief that the world should no longer hurt and kill animals. To that end, I can’t complain about anything. The moment I feel sorry for myself I have to think, “No. My job is animal rights. Everything else is fun. That is my job. That is the thing I’m willing to die for, and it’s more important than any other aspect of my life.” Nothing else matters. If people hate me, who cares? I mean, obviously it hurts, but when I go to an animal save and I see the eyes of pigs who were about to be slaughtered, I’m like, “I’ve got nothing to complain about.”