To Be or Not Moby

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Why you should care

Because the surprisingly sad truth remains: fame fixes nothing.

When you first heard the hardcore band Vatican Commandos, if you were ever lucky enough to have ever heard them, you’re probably just as confused as to how dance music maven and seller of over 20 million records, namely Moby, got from there to here but that’s what we’re here for: to see if we can pick through the bread crumbs and figure it all out. So believe it: We’ve got Moby on this episode of The Carlos Watson Show. You can find excerpts below or listen to the full interview on the show’s podcast feed.

The Genealogy of Moby

Carlos Watson: Do you have sisters or brothers?

Moby: Okay. Do you want to hear … ? I think this is kind of a funny story. So before my mom died … because what funny story doesn’t start with the death of a parent? Before my mom died, she told me that I have a half-brother somewhere. I’ve never met this half-brother. I don’t know anything about him.

But then a few years after that, I was in D.C. with Alexandra Pelosi, Nancy’s daughter. And we were out in a bar and we were talking. This was pre-sobriety so I was quite drunk. And we were talking to a journalist from Politico, and I drunkenly started talking about having a half-brother. And just as a joke, I said, “Who knows? Maybe it’s Karl Rove.” Because at this point, Karl Rove was the chief of staff in George Jr.’s White House. So the guy from Politico wrote a funny little gossip piece: “Are Moby and Karl Rove Brothers?”

Then two weeks later, I got an official letter on official White House stationery, and I remember exactly what it said. It said, “Dear Moby, it’s not me. For one thing, I’m 17 years older than you. For another, I don’t play the guitar. Have you considered James Carville? Because he’s bald and musical, too. Sincerely, your pal Karl Rove.”

So I do have a half-brother and no, it’s not Karl Rove. Beyond that, I have no idea.

Watson: That’s pretty good. Now, have you done any of the 23andMe stuff or no?

Moby: I did 23andMe and I was so disappointed because … it’s sort of a spoiler alert. Guess what? I’m white. That’s what I found out. I’m not anything interesting. There’s nothing else in there. So many of my friends who’ve done it have found out all these fascinating things about their family tree. All of my ancestors are basically inbred WASPs.

Watson: No extra seasoning in there. No extra cayenne pepper, none of that?

Moby: Sadly, no. I’m like, why couldn’t someone have just, I don’t know, married someone from Madagascar? Why don’t I have uncles from Indonesia? Just something to mix up this unfortunate …

Watson: You know what? You were staying consistent in this life, but who knows what happens in the next life? Maybe the next life is a life where you kind of mix it all up.

Moby: I’m going to come back as someone with hair, someone who doesn’t look just like a piece of white Kleenex paper.

Watson: You never know what’s going to happen. These lives are going to get interesting between robots and DNA technology and all the rest. Who knows where we’re all going to end up? The first thing I noticed on your Wikipedia page, it said you were born in Harlem.

Moby: Yes, I was born in Harlem. So this is the odd thing. I am a white Anglo-Saxon Protestant from Darien, Connecticut. But I grew up poor white trash on food stamps and welfare. The majority of people in my family because of marriage are now South American and Jewish. And I don’t know anything about WASPy holidays. I know when all the Jewish holidays are. It’s just so odd. I’m an old school WASP who knows nothing about WASP culture.

The Becoming

Watson: … Tell me what it was like being in Darien [Connecticut], white, but not having a ton of money. Was that just your norm? Were you uncomfortable all the time?

Moby: I felt like … You know the expression a second class citizen? I felt like a seventh class citizen. It gave me a sense of inadequacy. And even if I’m being honest, shame that I still hold on to this day. Even if my circumstances have changed, to a large extent, my sense of self was formed when I was that poor kid on food stamps and welfare going to high school or going to junior high school. I still largely perceive myself that way even if externally, things are different.

I don’t know if anyone watching can relate to this, but when I was growing up, I thought wrongly that I was the only person dealing with shame or dealing with feelings of inadequacy. And as time has passed, I’ve learned even the kids who grew up in the most palatial homes whose parents were CEOs, they were dealing with their own issues. No one had a perfect childhood. And it’s only as I started to get into adulthood and encounter the kids I went to school with as adults realizing everybody was wrestling with their own issues.

I just assumed at an early age that if someone was comfortable, if someone came from money, if someone had carpeting on the floor, if someone had heat in the winter time, I was like, “Wow, they must be the happiest people in the world.” Turns out no, I was mistaken.

Watson: Wow. When you were a young person, if I had met you at 16, 17, did you think you were going to be a successful musician? Did you think you were going to have this kind of fame and acclaim?

Moby: No, absolutely not. I didn’t even think it was in the realm of possibility, even slightly in the realm of possibility. When I was very young, I studied classical guitar and jazz when I was from about 9 until 13. And then when I was 13, I started hanging out in night clubs in New York and I got into punk rock, I got into hip hop, I got into electronic music, got into all sorts of different types of music. And I started playing in bands. Up until the time I was around 24, a good night out with one of my bands was playing for 10 people. So my pie in the sky ambition was to play a show in New York City that involved more than 10 people attending.

Beyond that, I never expected to have a record deal. I never expected to leave the Tri-State Area. I never expected anything. And at the time, and then when I was in my early 20s, I was living in an abandoned factory in a crack neighborhood, and I was pretty happy there. So it’s strange, I had a lot of creative ambition, but professionally I never expected really much to ever happen.

Watson: So what did you think was going to happen? If you and I had been buddies and we were hanging out in your 20s, where did you think this was going?

Moby: I was mainly a philosophy major. My assumption, if I had been honest back then, was that I was going to pursue music for a while, if I was really lucky, really unbelievably lucky, I would release a single on an independent record label. And then at some point I would go get my doctorate and teach philosophy at some college in New England. I thought that was what was going to happen, and I was perfectly fine with that.

And Emerging Into Fame

Watson: What was the most interesting or surprising or wonderful thing about becoming famous?

Moby: Well, because I never expected fame … So if you and I had been having that conversation when we were 20, granted I’m older than you … Well, that would have been a little weird because I would have been 20 and I think you would have been 15 or 14. So let’s say I’m 24 and you’re 19. That’s a little easier. If you had said to me that at some point in my life, I would have record deals and sell millions of records and stand on stage in front of hundreds of thousands of people, I would have thought, “I’ll be the happiest person who has ever lived. I will have a happiness that no one can even imagine.”

But then I got to that point, and the happiness didn’t ensue. So that was for me, the most surprising part, is realizing, and it became fairly self-evident once I looked at all the evidence, that fame and external success don’t inherently deliver happiness.

There’s this documentary Moby Doc, and that’s sort of the premise of the movie, and we use as examples, like look at Robin Williams, look at Anthony Bourdain, look at Kurt Cobain, Amy Winehouse, Ernest Hemingway. The list of people who really were nominally successful and famous, but it didn’t fix their broken issues. And I expected it to fix my broken issues, and it was only by experiencing it firsthand that I realized, “Oh, external things. There’s nothing wrong with them, but they won’t fix internal broken issues.”

Watson: And say a little bit more about that, because again, for a lot of people, this is all secondhand and they’ll never get close to it. Is there a loneliness? What is happening in that moment?

Moby: It’s a bunch of things. And also, it’s quite possible someone watching might be thinking, “Oh, if I had fame and a lot of success, I would be the happiest person in the world.” Maybe they would be. They might be the exception to the rule, and if so, wonderful. I just know for myself and for quite a lot of people, you spend your whole life thinking that when you get to a certain point, happiness will ensue. Whether it’s with awards, career, salary, external things, all I know for myself, is it just simply didn’t work.

And that might be a personal shortcoming on my part, but what I found is, I was trying to use external things, fame, success, what have you, almost as a way of glossing over the older issues, pretending they had never happened, and also thinking to myself, “Oh, if I can just stay incredibly famous and successful for the rest of my life, I’ll be the happiest person in the world,” but that’s not true for anybody, ever.

It’s just part of the human condition that we age, we become less attractive, our career arc wanes, that’s what happens. And for me, a lot of happiness is both learning to accept that, and also to feel an honest sense of compassion for every human being, because we’re all going through it. Everyone wants to be exempt, no one ever has been.

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