Moby is a musician, DJ, photographer, and soon-to-be author. His records have sold over 20,000,000 copies worldwide, and he has produced and remixed legends like David Bowie, Metallica, and Public Enemy. His website “mobygratis” provides free music to independent filmmakers; he was a fixture on the NY club circuit in the 80s and 90s; and he supports a wide range of causes, from animal rights to environmental issues. Nicholas Weist recently sat down to a vegan lunch with him in New York City to discuss his forthcoming memoir and new photography series, Innocents, now on view at Emmanuel Fremin Gallery.
NICHOLAS—How did you get started in veganism?
MOBY—I think Thanksgiving is my 28 year anniversary.
MOBY—In 1992 I was getting ready to do my first national tour, opening up for a band called the Shamans. I was scared that eating vegan would be really difficult on the road. So I thought I should relearn how to do yogurt. There used to be a tiny health food store on Prince Street, and I got some organic yogurt there. I took it home and had a bite of it, and it was so good. It was amazing. And I almost finished that yogurt! But then I realized that my commitment to veganism trumped being able to eat conveniently. That was my one lapse.
NICHOLAS—It’s not a flagrant departure.
MOBY—My friend Michael Stipe was vegan for a long time, and he relapsed on a bacon double cheeseburger. Now he’s just an everything-eater.
NICHOLAS—People talk about limited diets as a tool in their creative practice or as a transcendent experience. Is it the same for you?
MOBY—I like the idea of committing to something that is an elective practice, and then absorbing your relationship to it. For example, in 1990 I was the most militant kind of vegan: I would spit on people wearing fur coats, and do demonstrations outside of places that sold fur. I was so annoying! And I realized that my militancy said a lot about my need to control my environment but wasn’t a very effective form of activism. The more militant someone is, the more it actually turns people off.
NICHOLAS—And you have a number of philanthropic endeavors now.
MOBY—I try to help everybody!
NICHOLAS—Tell me about the Institute for Music and Neurologic Function
MOBY—That story goes back to 1985. That year, there was a bar on St. Mark’s Place called the Aztec Lounge. It was the scummiest place you can imagine.
NICHOLAS—Worse than Holiday Cocktail Lounge?
MOBY—Worse than Holiday. So we went there all time. I met this guy named Eddie Stern. He’s now the yoga teacher to the stars, but when I met him, he had a huge mohawk and was playing in a band called Chop Shop and selling crappy drugs to NYU students. We stayed friends for a long time. About ten years ago his dad started running the Institute for Music and Neurologic Function. So Eddie and his dad took me up to the Bronx to show me around and introduce me to everyone. I got involved in fundraising and helping them build studios. The work that they do… it sounds like hyperbole but it’s truly miraculous.
Say someone has a stroke. They might lose the ability to speak because that skill is located in a part of the brain that died off from lack of blood-flow during the stroke. But music affects the whole brain. For instance after a stroke, some people can’t walk but they can dance. And some people can’t speak but they can sing. So if you took an 85-year-old woman who couldn’t speak, and you played her favorite song from before her stroke, all of a sudden she’d start vocalizing! Music actually rewires physiognomy to bring blood-flow to damaged parts of the brain. I think it’s an amazing healing modality, but there’s no profit in it: it can’t be monetized, so the NIH is not in favor of it.
It’s remarkable, too, because there’s no objectivity to it. It’s not a situation where one “type” of music is more “effective” than others. Let’s say a heavy metal guy has a stroke. If you played him Louis Armstrong, there might be no benefits. But if you play him Pantera, he would get a lot out of it! It’s a subjective relationship to the music. Up until about 25 years ago, science thought that we had a finite amount of neurons. But then they started doing scans like MRIs and realized that the brain creates new neurons. There are certain behaviors that promote neurogenesis, and singing and dancing are among them. You create billions of new neurons!
NICHOLAS—Do you ever reflect on these ideas as you’re making your music?
MOBY—To an extent. There’s something empowering about realizing that art, music, and literature are not arbitrary. I’ve been realizing that there are remarkable tools for healing that are free and ubiquitous and wonderful. Allowing yourself to enjoy the process of music has real, cellular benefit.
NICHOLAS—Is there a connection there to your polymath approach to creative output?
MOBY—My biggest impediment for putting my visual art out in the world is a long history of musicians thinking they’re artists and actors, starting bands and so on. Not to malign anyone, but more often than not it doesn’t work out. Oftentimes I’ve gone to art shows by musicians I really like and I almost wished there was someone around them to suggest that they rethink some of those decisions! When I moved to New York all my friends were broke artists struggling to get by. And now I kick myself for not having bought some of their art then, because now they’re absurdly successful! Like Cecily Brown and Will Cotton and John Currin and Damien Loeb. But anyway, some of my artist friends were actually very encouraging. I showed them the photos I was working on and I assumed they would say: stick to music. Don’t be a bad, dilettante artist. But they were actually quite encouraging.
NICHOLAS—Let’s talk about your new photographs.
MOBY—I recently moved to LA—a bizarre, discomfiting city—and I’ve been spending time there making photographs to support the idea that we’re living in a kind of unfolding, benign apocalypse.
I like art that creates a degree of cognitive dissonance. We look at a chair at a table in a restaurant and our brain immediately makes sense of it as a chair. We can make reasonable assumptions about everyday things. But if that chair was in front of a lion about to attack you, your brain wouldn’t know how to process it because a lion is a threat but the chair is not. Your brain would have to ask: “is this chair also a threat or is it something familiar?” So in the show, I combine narrative elements that can create a degree of cognitive dissonance, and lead to the viewer having an ambiguous reaction.
The biggest motivator for people being interested in a thing like art or literature is questions and curiosity. Art fascinated me when I was growing up for a lot of reasons, but one was the ability for a piece of paper with some ink on it to elicit such strong reactions. I mean, ontologically it’s just a piece of paper with some ink on it. I incorporate elements of that thinking in the work—like a mask is just a piece of plastic with some ink on it. But it can trigger very intense, sometimes contradictory reactions in people. On the one hand they are familiar, but they can also be threatening. I take nuanced but subtle signifiers and don’t give them any resolution.
NICHOLAS—You’re also writing a memoir?
MOBY—Yes, I was born here in 1965. And then moved up to CT at some point and moved back in the late 80s. The memoir is about how dysfunctional and degenerate the city really was then. Like Michael Alig before he murdered his drug dealer. Seeing Jeff Buckley play to ten people at Siné and having him not be very good. It’s a little Forest Gumpy. Somehow being in lower Manhattan, you just encounter everybody. I just wrote a section about when I met Miles Davis.
Steve Lewis, one of the guys who ran the Limelight with Peter Gatien, had a wife that wanted to be a singer. So Steve got me and DJ Keoki, who was Michael Alig’s boyfriend, to start a band with his wife. And we had a show at the Limelight, in ’89 or ’90. In the middle of the day when we were doing sound check, I noticed that there was a tiny man standing on the dance floor. I thought, ‘that’s odd,’ and I took a closer look, and it was Miles Davis! It turned out he had been scheduled to meet Yoji Yamamoto at the club and he had gotten there six hours early. He wouldn’t talk to us or shake our hands or anything, but he listened to our soundcheck. He was wearing the most beautiful suit: I guess Yamamoto made him all his clothes.
NICHOLAS—Any other stories you could share?
MOBY—My favorite is from 1990. I had become friends with Maripol’s husband Gigi. Gigi and I decided to do a night at this club called La Palace de la Beauté. It was only open for about a year. I think it was Maripol’s connections that got us in there, because he and I weren’t well known enough at that point. So we both DJed, Gigi and I, and then I performed live. It was only my first or second live show! The venue could have held about 1,000 people, but there were only about 75 there. That was especially embarrassing because Maripol had brought Madonna! I remember Madonna came up after the show—she was in her Blonde Ambition phase, so she was all blonde and tough as nails. She stood there and looked at me and said blankly, “you’re very talented.” But she didn’t smile or anything. After she left and Gigi was DJing, I looked over at one point and realized I had been dancing next to OJ Simpson. The weirdest thing about that coincidence was that I got to see that OJ Simpson danced the way African American comedians parody white people dancing. He was so uptight! So awkward! Now that club is a Pet Smart.
Moby’s “Innocents” is on view now at Emmanuel Fremin Gallery, 547 w. 27th St, Suite 510, New York City. Click through the images for an exclusive preview.