Jonathan Nesvadba/Courtesy of the artist
Jonathan Nesvadba/Courtesy of the artist
Here is the story of how Moby got his second neck tattoo: In early September of 2019, on the eve of his 54th birthday, the electronic music producer born Richard Melville Hall was having lunch at the vegan restaurant in Los Angeles that he owns, Little Pine. When a pal asked Moby how he intended to celebrate, another responded with a quick quip before he could answer: "Get a tattoo."
For Moby, this declaration made in jest was an epiphany. The joke reminded him of a wedding he once attended, where a retired porn star solemnly sang the Lord's Prayer. He was struck that day by the power of the ordinary wedding vows, bold public assertions of permanent intentions. Moby was a long-single celebrity activist and a musician whose last major hit was now nearly two decades old: Why not turn his body into an animal-rights billboard?
Then and there, Moby texted his friend, the celebrity tattoo artist Kat Von D, and told her he'd like to stop by for his birthday. In thick, clean letters, she stamped "Vegan for Life" on the right side of his neck, just beneath the chin, as though her tattoo gun were equipped with a caps lock key.
"My friend must have thought we'd get something small, where no one would see it," Moby recalls seven months later, speaking with me on the phone while shuffling through the halls of his home at the edge of Los Angeles' Griffith Park. "But I thought, 'What's the simplest declaration of my beliefs? How can I get that in a way that's really unsubtle?'"
I had been looking forward to seeing that tattoo for myself in April. I was going to visit Moby in Los Angeles and eat at Little Pine, set to celebrate its fifth anniversary this winter. We were going to talk about his new album, All Visible Objects, a surprisingly moving mix of many of his longtime interests. I'd ask, awkwardly, to inspect the ink up close.
Of course, that never happened. In March, as the coronavirus pandemic began to stretch across the United States, Moby quietly shuttered Little Pine and fired all its staff. Every few days in early April, I'd call Moby's landline in Los Angeles, and we'd talk for around an hour about philanthropy and politics, about ambient music and losing religion, about his deep desire to change the world and how he's failed to do that, including the loss of Little Pine.
The Moby that emerged during nearly four hours of conversation — a multi-millionaire at least somewhat responsible for our unsteady national acceptance of both electronic music and veganism — is perhaps more perplexed about how to do the most good in the world than you or me, in spite of or maybe because of his resources and recognition. These days, after decades of putting his ego on the roller-coaster of public perception, he wonders if he should just stop trying.
"We're all battling the human condition," Moby told me toward the end of our first call, closing a tangential loop that had connected his hatred of Newt Gingrich to his observations of Alcoholics Anonymous meetings to his experience selling 100,000 records a week, as he says he did when his career was booming. "And the human condition is truly challenging for everybody. Everyone gets sick, and everyone dies. Everyone loses the things that give us meaning."
Here is the story of how Moby got his first neck tattoo: In the mid-1990s, while touring with Lollapalooza, Moby had a black cross inked on the nape of his neck, a hidden-to-him memento of the resolutely Christian past the newly promiscuous electronic music star was leaving behind. For a moment, it seemed like a gateway to more ink — he designed his own tribal tattoos to cover his body, but says he simply forgot to follow through.
Two dozen years later, though, he's obsessed. Since having his neckline branded "Vegan for Life" in September, he's accrued six more tattoos in as many months, even if it hurts like "burning fire-and-acid pain," as he says. He has a V inside of a circle, the international insignia for veganism, inked into his right index finger. He's added "VX" alongside his right eye, to symbolize his meatless and booze-less lifestyle, and a second cross surrounded by four letters alongside his left eye — "LRSC," for love, reason, service and compassion, the principles he says he wants to live by.
In November, he added a mark even larger and more daring than his neck stamp, running in blocky letters from each bicep to the back of each hand: "Animal" on the right arm, "Rights" on the left. He then crowned that first cross, the one on the back of his neck, with the commandment "Thou Shalt Not Kill." Finally in February, another Los Angeles ink icon, Dan Smith, tattooed "protect the innocent. defend the vulnerable." on the left side of Moby's neck.
"I wake up, look in the mirror, and go, 'This is my life's work,'" says Moby. "They are a declarative vow in public — a way of saying, 'These are my beliefs, and they are permanent.' And that's a conversation starter."
This ongoing dance between an extreme commitment to ideals and an intense desire to sate his own ego by putting himself on display has defined and sometimes hindered Moby's life and career. As an impoverished kid raised by a single mother in Connecticut, Moby clung to Christianity and hardcore punk. He taught Bible studies and DJed religious dance parties, and played in a series of punk and noise bands, too. He would pray after sex, repenting for his sin, and chastise rich New England neighbors for not being pure or poor. As a young producer squatting in an abandoned factory, he was so inspired by ideals of monastic austerity that he almost abandoned his music career before it even started by selling what little he owned "to wander the Earth, ministering to people," as he writes in his first book, Porcelain.
Gabe Palacio/Getty Images
Moby (with guitar) performs with David Bowie at the Tibet House Benefit Concert in 2001.
Gabe Palacio/Getty Images
Instead, Moby moved to New York and, in the early '90s, became America's totally sober, very scrawny disciple of rave. He nearly obliterated his career with an unruly alt-rock record, Animal Rights, the phrase that now stretches down his arms. But a string of themes for hit films and the surprise worldwide smash of his fifth album, Play, made him so famous he could tour with David Bowie, feud publicly (and lose, by his own admission) with Eminem and launch his own extravagant touring festival. No matter your memory of Moby's Gwen Stefani-led "South Side" or "Natural Blues," centered around an African-American spiritual he infamously found in a set of field recordings, he played an indispensable role in making American audiences comfortable with electronic music.
Moby went wild with the success, becoming a globetrotting cad who downed 20 drinks a night, devoured cocaine and worshipped at the altar of his public image. The New York Post's Richard Johnson noted, in 2002, that Moby is "getting more ass than a toilet seat." He claims in his dual memoirs that he drunkenly brushed his penis against Donald Trump, smoked meth at a rave in a barn during a David Lynch spiritual retreat in Iowa and negotiated to buy an entire Brooklyn bar just so he could sleep through the daylight in its dungeon-like basement. After suicide attempts, he returned to sobriety in 2008, the point at which his second tell-all, 2019's Then It Fell Apart, ends. "I had been a king," he writes. "But I failed."
In the decade-plus since his star crested — sometime between remixing the James Bond theme for Tomorrow Never Dies in 1997 and scoring the credits for The Bourne Ultimatum in 2007 — Moby has applied his zealotry to social and political causes. He invests, he says, in "long-term systematic change," particularly organizations he thinks want to save the world and have the pragmatic wherewithal to try. During the last 20 years, he has donated millions of dollars and thousands of hours to animal-rights organizations, climate change groups and Democratic politicians and PACs. He has sold his personal record collection and music-making gear and launched a festival to fundraise for vegan advocacy.
Activism has supplanted his drive to be near music's vanguard, even when he has new music to promote. Again and again during our conversations, I would mention All Visible Objects, his album, and he would find his way back to philanthropy. If activism is how he finds his edge, music is his hibernaculum. He works a little on it every day, writing about 200 pieces a year, mostly for his private enjoyment. "If I had a hit," he says, "I hope I would have the decency to stay home and go hiking."
All Visible Objects ping-pongs from electroshocked anthems to clear-eyed comedowns, from reggae-laced rumbles to seraphic ballads. Moby turns video game-like slogans into agitprop dance floor fodder during "Power is Taken," and he conjures the placid piano reveries of Harmonia's Hans-Joachim Roedelius during "Separation." It unfurls like a quickly made mixtape, less about a singular narrative than about snapshots he recorded during the last year. Moby plans to donate the profits from All Visible Objects to 11 charities like the ACLU and The Good Food Institute — one for each track, so the album does less work than its songs.
"There are people who give 10 percent of a record to charity, but giving away all the money is very unusual," says Daniel Miller, the founder of Mute Records, Moby's home for more than 25 years. "That aspect was lying dormant for a while for Moby. As he realized his power and reach, it became bigger."
Moby was once an unlikely pop star, a fun-sized and bald white kid making worldwide dance anthems. But he has now become an unlikely and particularly ardent philanthropist, a kind of underground answer to, say, a tech entrepreneur who cashed out before the dot-com bubble burst, then spent decades funneling money into passion projects. That image, in turn, has sometimes made Moby a punchline, something he's had to learn to live with.
"Philanthropy is the most important part of my life," Moby says. "I had to realize that, at my core, these issues are more important to me than my own life and my well-being."
Moby, friend to animals worldwide, does not have a pet. He hasn't for decades.
When he was a pop star, the choice was pragmatic, perhaps even altruistic: How could someone constantly traveling and partying care for another being? But after he stopped touring a dozen years ago, Moby simply admitted he despised picking up a dog's waste and carting it around in a plastic bag. And though he finds house cats endlessly adorable, he cannot name a "more malicious, genocidal creature." He says the coyotes in the Los Angeles hills above his home are more merciful. He gets satisfaction, instead, from posing with his friends' pets at Little Pine and watching the assorted pumas, bobcats and rattlesnakes of Griffith Park, across the street.
Pets are, however, the protagonists of Moby's activism origin story. As a toddler, his life was chaos. His parents fought incessantly, so a tiny Moby found affection in their motley menagerie — a cat named Charlotte, a dog named Jamie and three rats rescued from the Columbia University lab where his father worked. They were his world. When he was two, his hard-drinking father intentionally plowed his car into a wall after a fight with Moby's mother, killing himself. Mother and child returned from New York to Connecticut, living next to a prison while she attended community college. They adopted squirrels and lizards, gerbils and hamsters.
Steve Eichner/Getty Images
Moby at an event in New York City in 1994.
Steve Eichner/Getty Images
"I had a psychiatrist once who told me that the only reason I'm not a psychopath is because of those animals," he says, noting that this same psychiatrist advised him to do more cocaine if he wanted to get clean. "The only stable constant in my life were those animals. My limbic system developed around them."
While playing at a garbage dump near an interstate years later, Moby rescued a kitten who'd been thrown away inside a tattered cardboard box. He named it Tucker, and it became Moby's closest companion, the friend whose steadfastness convinced Moby one day in 1984 that animals weren't for eating. Tucker lived to be either 18 or 23 years old — the two numbers Moby has cited in stories and speeches about being vegan. As an activist, Moby has made the story of Tucker his greatest hit, the stuff of TED talks and Rolling Stone jeremiads.
For years, Moby gave various organizations a few hundred dollars here or there. But two decades ago, he encountered the Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine (PCRM), a controversial coalition of doctors that advocates for the health benefits of plant-based diets. He was lured by its mix of science and advocacy, that PCRM was doing clinical research and then lobbying on its behalf, not simply trying to save a few animals at a farm sanctuary or facilitate adoptions. That mission gave Moby the rubric for considering how else he might wield his resources to participate in philanthropy — that is, he wants it to change the world.
"If an organization is not trying to push the needle toward what I think of as a more rational, sustainable future for us and the other creatures on the planet, it doesn't fit. That means saying 'no' to a lot of organizations I like," says Moby. "I applaud someone who is trying to save 10 acres near their backyard, but I don't know how that helps save the only home we have."
When Moby first arrived in Los Angeles more than a decade ago, he lived in what had been dubbed for a century the "Wolf's Lair" and what The New York Times called "his castle in the Hollywood Hills." From the century-old home, complete with a gatehouse turret and a requisite Rolling Stones fable, he had a clear view of the Hollywood sign — a picture-perfect make-out window, a pickup line in waiting. As an East Coast kid, he long assumed he would hate the fashion and wealth of Los Angeles. He had left New York in part under protest, he later wrote in The Guardian, because of its breeding culture of income obsessives, not artists. And here he was, a star amid Los Angeles' constellation of luxury.
A few years later, Moby sold the home for three times what he paid and bought two stately old houses a block apart near the edge of Griffith Park. He eventually sold one of those, and in the other — a brick-fronted Grand Tudor and "one of the simpler houses I've lived in" — he decided it was finally time to step away from the city, or at least pretend. A demolition crew ripped the pool from the backyard, and landscapers created a lush forest thick with pine trees. "Canary Islands, some sequoias and a type of tree I forget," he says. "Every window in my house, even though I live in the big city, looks out at trees."
Moby's attempts to turn a little bit of Los Angeles into an arboreal paradise didn't stop with his own yard. Three miles away — in the intensely gentrified neighborhood of Silver Lake, described by the Los Angeles Times as "a haven for creatives, writers and actors ... the markers for a transforming Los Angeles" — Moby opened Little Pine in late 2015.
Frederic J. Brown/AFP via Getty Images
Moby (center) with actress Kristen Bauer (left) and the YouTube personality Rawvana during a 2018 press conference at his restaurant Little Pine in Los Angeles.
Frederic J. Brown/AFP via Getty Images
The goal was simple, he says: He wanted to serve indulgent vegan food that enticed meat eaters and longtime vegans alike, then donate all the profits to at least a half-dozen animal rights organizations. He'd long chastised friends, or anyone who dared listen, about the evils of eating animals; now he wanted to show them that eating ethically didn't mean eating blandly. He calls it the "friendly, non-didactic side" of his animal rights activism, comparing it to Will & Grace as opposed to ACT UP.
"Being vegan in the '80s and '90s, I loved vegan restaurants, but my friends who weren't vegan categorically refused to eat at them," he remembers. "I noticed there was this new wave of vegan restaurants that non-vegans were happy to go to, people who would never watch an animal rights documentary. It's a way of reaching people who aren't being reached otherwise."
It's hard to imagine a more idealized vegan hub than Little Pine. There is the celebrity owner, of course, and it is beautiful, a white Art Deco oddity built in 1946, with wallpaper made from Moby's own photographs of the mountains that ring Los Angeles. Leonardo DiCaprio, Kristen Stewart and Miley Cyrus frequented Little Pine, and the gift shop sold pillows perfumed with pine needles, feminist literature and vegan cookbooks. The staff even found an orphaned squirrel in the parking lot and nursed it back to health, naming it Chip and festooning T-shirts, tote bags and enamel pins with its face.
For the last several years, every member of the management team has been a woman, and a feel-good pledge lined the bottom of every menu: "All profits go to animal organizations." Many of the employees were drawn by that mission, excited to "work somewhere I could stand behind and believe in," as one former manager recently told me.
"Little Pine has done a pretty remarkable job with branding. It's in the 'right neighborhood,' a bastion of liberalism," says Farley Elliott, a senior editor at Eater in Los Angeles. "Moby had created a restaurant modeled around his own ethos."
But some Little Pine employees drawn in by that ethos began to wonder if Moby took his animal rights activism more seriously than he took them, according to four longtime employees who spoke to NPR separately and on the condition of anonymity. As the restaurant's popularity grew, its office was relegated to a hot, leaky, plastic storage shed outside. Years ago, when a customer began to threaten the staff, they repeatedly asked for a new office and a security guard. Moby turned them down, citing cost concerns.
In January, after someone scaled a wall and broke into the ramshackle office, Little Pine finally got its new office — a metal-clad shipping container complete with a window and air-conditioning. But their request for a security guard was rebuffed again due to finances. "I've had multiple stalkers," Moby told the staff in an email about the incident, obtained by NPR.
One employee remembers repeatedly balking at things Moby said that betrayed his "white male privilege" and how little he understood it. "They would just make my jaw drop," she says. Multiple employees told me that he rarely spoke to Little Pine employees who weren't managers. One said that many of them took to calling Moby "Mr. Burns," Homer Simpson's miserly boss, because "he lives in a giant house and has an assistant who constantly shields him from the world."
Moby has a history of craving validation. In his books, he writes candidly and sometimes painfully about seeking it from sex with someone new every night and through the public's perception of him as a big deal, a hit-maker. For years, Moby would constantly send Miller and the rest of Mute stacks of new tracks and ideas, wanting instant feedback about what might work. Few others at Mute, Miller says, asked for that level of input.
That quest for validation, or for recognition of his actions, threads throughout his philanthropy, too. Scan the "employer" entry for his hundreds of federal campaign contributions over the years, and you'll occasionally spot "Me, Moby" when a designation of "self-employed" would suffice. Click "About Us" on Little Pine's website, and there he is in an Agnostic Front shirt, alongside his welcome letter. On Instagram, he poses for selfies at late-night slaughterhouse vigils, with impassioned notes about why he's there.
Bertrand Guay/AFP via Getty Images
Moby in Paris in 2002. "I need to help people who are making the world a better place," he says of the organizations he supports. "If I can help support them financially or by drawing attention to their work, it is incumbent upon me to do that."
Bertrand Guay/AFP via Getty Images
"There is a song on Moby's first Mute album called, 'All That I Need Is to Be Loved.' That is the essence of how I see Moby," says Eric Härle. He has been Moby's manager since 1991, around the time Moby performed his first hit, "Go," on Top of the Pops.
"He does a lot of things because he wants to be liked, because he didn't have that in his upbringing," Härle continues. "I like what he does now, but I hope he's doing it for the right reasons, not because he feels guilty."
I ask Moby if guilt plays a role in his activism, if, as an erstwhile Christian zealot who now believes in "a quantum unknowable majesty that points to the possibility of the divine," he is offering penance for an extended adolescence of jet-set debauchery. He considers the question for a long time, repeating it twice as if it's an unimagined possibility. "Not really," he finally says. "I behaved very inconsiderately, but I never did anything out of malice."
That seems too simple, though, as Moby's adult awakening as an activist has prompted a constant dance between being revolted by celebrity and indulging its trappings. He had been a punk-rock philosophy student who had even lampooned public philanthropy, after all, scoffing at tycoons who would fork over money just to see their name on a building or in a newspaper.
But at the height of his fame, private cars would ferry Moby from the airport after booming concerts and post-show bacchanalias in other countries to his luxe, multi-level penthouse in New York's Central Park West, in a building where his neighbors included Alec Baldwin and Bono. In the rear seats of those limousines, Moby would idly thumb through glossy glamour magazines and scoff at what he calls the "belligerent entitlement" of the celebrities in those pages. He worried he would be trapped in that lifestyle or that, worse yet, he already was. Ever since, he's tried to offset luxury with charity, to hold both at once.
"I would publicly pretend there was no ego involved, as every credible musician or philanthropist will do. I slowly became aware of my hypocrisy," Moby says. "I was lying — it was all I cared about. Ego, at its most basic level, is self-preservation, self-protection. You have to recognize that your ego is there."
Recognizing your own hypocrisy doesn't necessarily mean you can escape it. Two decades later, that conflict between being involved and being recognized for that involvement remains at the heart of Moby's work, not as a musician but as an activist. He admits that, for better and worse, ego still pushes him into the spotlight his philanthropy can provide. You don't get neck tattoos to start conversations if you don't want to be noticed.
"I need to help people who are making the world a better place," he tells me repeatedly during our conversations. "If I can help support them financially or by drawing attention to their work, it is incumbent upon me to do that." He is also, of course, helping himself.
This performative aspect of Moby's activism allows him to turn celebrity into attention and cash for his preferred causes. But the self-righteous, self-serious image it entails and the egotism it implies have made Moby a punchline for most of his career, too. Sometimes he's in on the joke, as in 1996, when MTV lauded the "bald-headed genius" for licensing a song for the Rover 400 sedan and handing over the money to environmental nonprofits. MTV concurrently lampooned his previous commitment to "never to allow his music to be used in a commercial promotion featuring demon cigarettes, or the horseless carriages."
David McNew/Getty Images
Moby at the 2001 Grammy Awards, where he performed with Blue Man Group and Jill Scott, at the height of the success of his 1999 album Play.
David McNew/Getty Images
A 2002 Spin cover story, which captured him in the throes of celebrity excess, dubbed him "part hair-shirt contrarian, part goofball gadfly" and landed a string of vegan bon mots at his expense. Just last November, a Vice headline teased, "Please acknowledge Moby's veganism before he gets a face tattoo." By that point, he'd had one for a month.
All this gets amplified when he actually makes a mistake. In 2018, Moby penned a 500-word editorial in The Wall Street Journal, defending the food stamp program he'd used as a kid and that was again being deployed as a Congressional political football. Moby criticized the program's unhealthy options and advocated for overhauling it, to "focus the program on cheap, healthy foods like beans, vegetables, fruit and whole grains." He never mentioned food deserts, agricultural subsidies or structural income inequality. Op-eds in New York, HuffPost and Eater lambasted him for being a classist and a dilettante.
Moby bristles when I bring up these backlashes, whether it's the editorial or his claims in his second memoir that he once dated Natalie Portman, which she dismissed outright while calling him creepy. He blames "Ukrainian and Macedonian bots" for harsh social media jabs. He opines that those who chastised his editorial or books never read them. He says it hurts when people in comment sections write they want to "watch me bleed to death in the street." He never mentions perhaps making a mistake, instead turning away from the criticism and back to his missions.
"I have realized that handing my sense of self and well-being over to strangers is foolish and self-destructive," he says. "Letting the opinions of strangers compromise my desire to be a good advocate and activist for the causes I believe in — no, I have a purpose."
Purpose cannot exist in a vacuum. On March 15, four days before Los Angeles issued its "safer-at-home" order, Little Pine served its last tofu scramble at Sunday brunch, forgoing the night's dinner service. A note soon appeared on the restaurant's website, briefly explaining the decision and promising an update in two weeks. "Thank you, and we love you," the post concluded.
The next day, the staff began scrubbing the place clean. Managers formulated plans for to-go orders and delivery services, hoping, like restaurants across the country, to test creative ways to generate income and retain employees. A week later, Moby rejected those plans "after going over the numbers," he wrote in an email obtained by NPR. On April 3, he finally sent a note to managers laying off all the restaurant's employees.
Six days after firing Little Pine's entire staff, Moby sounded nonchalant about their pandemic prospects. "Everybody who works there, for the most part, is really smart, quite young, and really savvy," he told me on April 9. "They'll land on their feet. If I was employing people in their 50s who were getting ready to retire, that would be a lot more stressful." Multiple employees say several of their former colleagues are in their mid-40s. One employee says others are also undocumented immigrants.
The grievances at Little Pine, though, soon began to leak to the Los Angeles press. In late March, managers had begun demanding their accrued vacation days and the rest of the staff's sick hours. Moby paid seven managers several thousand dollars from his pocket. Repeated written requests for the staff's accrued sick hours — an estimated $18,500, split between 29 people — went unanswered. And three weeks after the restaurant's staff began to inquire about the status of their health insurance, Moby's assistant notified the managers it had been canceled.
Elliott, the Los Angeles food journalist, says lots of restaurateurs have had to make similar decisions to cut health care and employees in hopes of keeping their businesses afloat during the coronavirus pandemic. Social distancing regulations and overall economic turmoil might reshape the industry at large, some argue, ending the recent rise of flourishing independent restaurants and leaving only chains in their place.
Moby legally didn't have to pay those sick hours, but Elliott argues that the dispute he's in now hinges on a question of values and perception — that is, should the multi-millionaire with the tattoo that proclaims "defend the vulnerable" be held to a higher standard than other business owners? Extreme standards are at the core of Moby's philanthropy, after all, one thing that led him to open Little Pine. His employees see it as a failure of the ethos they espoused at work.
"Moby is a good man who does good things, but, in this situation, he didn't do good for his people," says one. "He was the head of this community, and he had the opportunity to lead. But he did all the things he hates about the U.S. government. He took away health care. He made people feel not safe."
Or as another employee puts it, "You expect more from someone who has this image of caring for people — or animals, at least."
Moby insists he paid everything that Little Pine employees asked for, even going above the staff's requests. It cost him $50,000 out of pocket, he says. (The sick hours, the staff says, have not been paid.) Still, in a letter to staff members two weeks after firing them, he expressed his gratitude for their work and apologized for his lack of communication. "I fully accept that the shutdown could have been handled much better," he wrote, "and for that I take responsibility."
On May 1, Little Pine's employees wondered if Little Pine would reopen when restrictions eased in California. The note on Little Pine's website still promised an update, now a month overdue. But two weeks earlier, Moby had told me that running a restaurant was "a pain in the ass" and that Little Pine would not reopen. "My criteria is, 'What is best for the causes I believe in?'" he had said, exasperated. "At this point, I don't think me running a restaurant is best for anybody."
When I relayed this to the employees, they were disappointed, if not surprised. In protest of how they were let go, several employees had decided not to return to Little Pine if it reopened, anyway. "I don't think Moby ever had any idea how to close a restaurant, because he never had any idea how to run one," a longtime employee says. "It was fun for him for a minute. And then, when it was annoying, he threw it away like a toy."
When Moby was a teenager in Connecticut, he passed time behind the counter of the record store where he worked, Johnny's, by doodling on its paper shopping bags. A consistent figure began to emerge — a diminutive alien with exaggerated antennae, enormous eyes, and adorably wide feet. This became Moby's "Little Idiot," a caricature of himself that has stuck around. He named an album and record label for the Little Idiot, plopped it on a single and stickers, turned it into the paperback cover of his first book, transformed it into a cartoon and put it on a line of Swatch watches. It's his Twitter handle, and he uses it as his email avatar, too, so its bewildered eyes gaze upward at its maker's name, as if perpetually confused by Moby's prominence.
Moby has often called himself the "Little Idiot," but it feels more like a description than a diss, the self-assessment of someone who, at 54, still ponders just how he fits into the wider world and thinks that, deep down, he's got something figured out the rest of us have yet to comprehend.
Even his ascent, though pined for and labored over, took him by surprise. Play, the album that briefly made him a superstar, tanked for months after it was released. As he began renting its tracks to a string of commercials and movies, it formed its own ad hoc pirate radio network, delivering ear worms when listeners didn't expect them and becoming, some say, the first album ever to license all its tracks. It went double-platinum in the United States and has since sold more than 12 million copies worldwide. His music has remained discursive. Even All Visible Objects, which comes almost 30 years since his debut single, is the work of a perpetual wanderer, still scanning the horizon for new inspirations.
Jonathan Nesvadba/Courtesy of the artist
Since his 54th birthday last year, Moby has gotten more than half a dozen tattoos affirming his devotion to animal rights. "They are a declarative vow in public," he says, "a way of saying, 'These are my beliefs, and they are permanent.'"
Jonathan Nesvadba/Courtesy of the artist
This sense of searching and uncertainty animates his philanthropy, too. He talks now about needing a better system for deciding which organizations and politicians get what percentage of his money and mentions perhaps becoming the benefactor of Instagram influencers who can subtly promote veganism as a lifestyle fashion. Understanding that Moby is still negotiating how best to be an activist —wide-eyed and confounded, like the Little Idiot — helps explain how his commitments can seem so inspiring and how his specific actions (or inactions) can be so irksome. He's figuring it out as he goes along, and acknowledging the errors in the trials is not easy for him. To wit, in a review of All Visible Objects, critic Chal Ravens sharply noted that, in spite of the recent turmoil in his life and his willingness to disclose so much in his recent memoirs, this sounds just like any old Moby record, "as if his music has nothing really to do with Moby the man."
"He gets himself into trouble, and then he has to learn from it," says his manager, Härle, who chuckles when he remembers how many times his advice for Moby has been ignored. "It's frustrating, but I have to take the rough with the smooth. We all make our own mistakes. He tries to mean so well."
My hours with Moby were, with rare exceptions, enlightening and entertaining. We discussed 30 Rock, which he was watching again during quarantine, and Devs, a show starring his friend and fellow animal-rights activist Alison Pill. We surveyed his long-standing love of airport fiction and his new fascination with rattlesnakes. He noted how empowering it's been to see veganism spread, especially among African-Americans. He even offered some theories about the meaning of Moby-Dick. (Yes, he's named for it. Yes, Herman Melville is his ancestor. No, he's never read it.) Before hanging up, he'd sometimes say, "I really like these therapy sessions."
By the end, though, he was no longer having fun. We'd been talking about Little Pine, Natalie Portman and the lessons he takes or misses from such snafus. Moby ultimately apologized to Portman, but there's a more vexing issue behind the way he tells such stories in his self-mythologizing books — that the world (and, particularly, the women he'd meet at clubs or after concerts) were tools he could use to sort out his own insecurities. "There certainly isn't anything 'nice' about touting an 18-year-old girl's youth and beauty as a way to bolster your faltering ego," a Rolling Stone writer opined when that story broke.
"There's not much I can say about that," Moby finally offers after some hesitation, choosing his words about Portman carefully. "I'm still in the process of learning what I'm supposed to learn."
He then tells me, with a bitterness I've never heard in his voice, that he recently re-watched Almost Famous a few nights ago and was struck by the line about divulging secrets to the enemy, the rock journalist. It seems too convenient, but he goes for it: "The truth is, I shouldn't even be talking to you," he says, sighing so loudly the signal crackles.
"At some point, I will hopefully just become a complete recluse and be a John Muir or a Thoreau," he continues. "Just look around us: Modern life is terrible, and, as far as I can tell, we're not learning any lessons. No one is making things better in any meaningful way. It becomes a fool's errand, trying to fix this deeply broken, angry, flawed system."
We talk for another minute or so about Richard Powers' The Overstory, a book concerning that very idea, until he excuses himself. He hangs up. I sit still for a second, imagining Moby, tattoos and all, disappearing into the grove of little pine trees he planted for himself in his own backyard.