Moby: How a skinny, teetotal, vegan DJ with a Christian faith conquered dance music
Sam Hailes hears Moby’s story
Having sold 20 million albums, Richard Melville Hall, better known as Moby (a nickname derived from his ancestor Herman Melville, the author of Moby Dick), is one of a handful of DJs credited with propelling dance music into the mainstream during the 1990s.
In his new memoir Porcelain, the 51-year-old recounts his humble beginnings as a homeless vegan desperate to ‘make it’ as a DJ in New York City between 1989 and 1999. It tells the story of how Moby went from squatting in an abandoned warehouse, surviving on $2,000 a year, to becoming one of the hottest DJs in the city’s outlandish club scene.
On top of playing at underground raves and orgies, Moby wrestled with an addiction to alcohol and adopted a Christian faith. It’s quite the story, though Moby was always an oddity in the club scene. The self-described “poor skinny white kid” played hiphop and house music in black, Latino and gay clubs. His geeky demeanour coupled with his animal rights activism hardly made him your typical rock star. As Salman Rushdie has said, Moby’s life during the 1990s was “comically overcrowded” and “unbelievably noisy” all the while coupled with “some kind of Christianity”. This is a man who would pray for God’s forgiveness after sleeping with his girlfriend, then later on in his story turn up to DJ at an orgy. In the space of 400 pages – representing a decade of Moby’s life – he careers from teetotalism to out-of-his-mind drunkenness, and then back to sobriety again.
I was stunned to find the character of Christ was so different from what I’d assumed
Moby’s Christianity has always been as eccentric as the artist himself. In Porcelain he speaks about his faith in remarkably plain terms. He makes no apology for what he believed, said or did. He merely tells the story – warts and all. The memoir culminates with the release of Play in 1999. Rolling Stone magazine ranked it one of the greatest albums ever made. But nobody was predicting that at the time.
Moby had seen previous success with his hit dance track ‘Go’ but his 1996 album Animal Rights was an undisputed failure. The critics panned it. The record failed to even chart. Disheartened, the DJ believed his fifth album would be his swansong. Instead, Play defied all expectations and became a worldwide phenomenon at the turn of the new millennium. Dance music was entering the mainstream and Moby’s music was at the forefront, alongside other artists such as Fatboy Slim and Basement Jaxx.
Even if you’ve never heard Play, you’ve almost certainly heard the album’s hits – ‘Honey’, ‘Find my baby’ and ‘Bodyrock’. Not only was Play number one in multiple countries (UK, France, Australia, and New Zealand) with major radio airplay, but it became the first album to have all of its songs licensed for use in films (Gone in 60 Seconds), television shows (The X-Files) and adverts (Nissan). Adele – who was 11 years old when Play was released – has since said there’s something “holy” about the 18-track album. “It makes me feel alive,” she said.
Moby has gone on to produce the soundtrack for the Bourne films, win Grammys and collaborate with David Bowie and Bono. Alongside music, the only other constant in his life has been his staunch commitment to veganism. The other elements of his fascinating story – drugs, relationships and Bible studies – have waxed and waned.
Today, Moby enjoys sharing his political views as much as his religious ones. On Twitter (@thelittleidiot) he broadcasts #AnimalRights and #ImpeachTrump hashtags to his 1.4 million followers. Moby was tweeting against Trump (calling him an “actual psychopath”) for months before the election, yet the administration still asked him to DJ at the inauguration ball in January. Moby’s response? “Hahahahaha, wait, Hahahaha, really? I guess I’d DJ at an inaugural ball if as payment #trump released his tax returns…”
Moby knows that both his political and religious views aren’t shared by the many American evangelicals who voted for Trump. This may partly explain why he has at times been reluctant to call himself a Christian: he doesn’t want to be affiliated with the American cultural Christianity he grew up around. The vague Christian input he’d received as a child wasn’t enough for Moby. Even as a teenager, he longed for something more substantial. When a friend challenged him to read the Gospels, Moby unexpectedly fell in love with the person of Jesus, an encounter which led to a faith which has never gone away.
Since his dramatic conversion experience age 20, Moby has thought long and hard about what it means to be a Christian. When our conversation turns to theology, he says biblical commandments to serve the poor must be followed. But when it comes to “who someone chooses to kiss”, God isn’t bothered. The creation story in Genesis shouldn’t be taken literally, although the veganism espoused on the first page of the Bible certainly should be.
Moby can’t always quote chapter and verse off the top of his head (few can) and in retelling a couple of Bible stories he mixes up some of the details (you might spot them as you go), but when asked where his moral guidance comes from, his answer is disarmingly simple: scripture. The material success he’s enjoyed hasn’t led to an abandonment of spiritual matters and his description of God’s grace in his life is inspiring. You’ll also hear Moby’s faith in his music. An early hit was titled ‘God moving over the face of the waters’ and he sampled gospel spirituals for some of his biggest hits on Play – ‘Natural blues’, ‘Why does my heart feel so bad?’ and ‘Run on’.
It’s clear from our interview that Moby enjoys thinking about the big questions of life. He doesn’t claim to have all the answers. But he wants to engage with matters of faith and take Jesus seriously. Rather than object to my questions about his personal faith, Moby thanks me for the opportunity to talk about a subject which other parts of the media have ignored.
Moby used to think the only people who wrote memoirs were disgraced politicians. That was before he noticed a crop of “temporally contextualised” autobiographies. Moby mimics this style in Porcelain, using the context of New York City to reveal himself as the central character of the book. Despite being a dirty and depraved place at times, Moby likens the metropolis to a magical “cauldron” of living vitality. And if there’s a lesson to be learned from Moby’s life, it’s that God’s grace can show up in the most surprising and unexpected places.
What was your first encounter with Christianity?
I grew up in a very loose, culturally Christian environment. I was baptised in a Presbyterian church and my grandfather taught Sunday school. But to me, Christianity was an ambiguous, amorphous cultural background. There was nothing evangelical about it and people never talked about their faith outside of church.
I was also raised by hippies, so my mum and her friends would talk about Buddhism, Sufism, Daoism, Krishnamurti, meditation and tarot cards. So any discussions of faith that I was exposed to growing up had nothing to do with Christianity.
I tried to read the Bible. Really a 13-year-old should probably not be poring [over] Leviticus. When you’re reading about the building of the temple and spans and cubits – at 13 that was not the most compelling stuff. So I assumed that Jesus was a figure like Santa Claus or Buddha – nice people who might or might not have existed, who you could gently venerate when it was expedient.
You had a dramatic conversion moment aged 20. What happened?
I was talking to a friend who was a youth minister and I was telling him in my pantheistic magnanimous way how much I loved Jesus – you know, the same way that I loved pizza and flowers. My friend said, “If you’re going to have an opinion about Jesus, you might just want to read the New Testament to know what you’re talking about.” I thought I was an expert on Christ, but I’d never read the New Testament.
So one day I sat down and started reading the Gospels. I was stunned to find the character of Christ was so different from what I’d assumed. I thought the teachings of Christ were basically, “Everything’s ok, don’t worry, you’re doing great – just try to be nice to squirrels occasionally.”
Instead I encountered a level of harshness and severity that I hadn’t been expecting. And then I read – I think it’s in Luke – Jesus says, “Take my yoke and learn from me, for I am lowly and humble in spirit, and with me you’ll find rest for your souls.” Something about that really clicked with me. I thought, “Ok, I guess that means I’m a Christian now.”
I started going to church, teaching Bible studies, going on Christian retreats, and sometimes that worked and sometimes it made me very uncomfortable.
Time passed and I found myself deconstructing my faith and thinking, “To what extent do my beliefs just become an expression of me and my shortcomings and idiosyncrasies?”
You say you struggled with being judgemental…
Yeah, I was making $2,000 a year and living in this abandoned factory in a crack neighbourhood, and I had no running water and no bathroom. I was teaching Bible study at the home of a very wealthy businessperson. It’s really easy for me to lapse into smug judgementalism; regardless of whether we’re talking about politics, diet or spirituality. It’s one of my big shortcomings.
I sat down, getting ready to be smug and judgemental. The mum who lived in this house had bought me some vegan cookies. I remember I looked down and had this little tiny thought: “Oh...that’s God; that’s grace.”
It made me think of some of the powerful stories where Jesus is talking about the tax collector going to the temple and standing in the back – and being so humble and unwilling to approach the front of the temple. And Jesus saying, “That’s your person of faith” – not the smug, arrogant, judgemental person at the front of the church; it’s the humble. Really that’s like a subtext of the Gospels – the humble and the unexpected is what’s generally representative of grace.
You were clearly passionate about your faith. But by the end of your memoir, Christian faith appears to have taken a backseat.
It both did and didn’t. In my early Christian days, I was incredibly dogmatic and rigid. And then time passed, and I realised that my dogma and my rigidity said everything about me and my insecurities. It really didn’t express my understanding of God. When I was judging other people that had nothing to do with the nature of God. It had everything to do with me being insecure and finding comfort in dogma.
Then I had another pendulum swing and took my faith into strip clubs, alcoholism and degeneracy. The book I’m working on now – which is part two – goes even further into embracing hedonism, narcissism and entitlement. Luckily, none of that worked out. But the constant is this odd concept of grace. There are so many ways in which faith represents itself, but the part that always sticks with me is the idea of grace.
Would you say you’ve experienced God’s grace in a particularly full sense, because of some of the things that you’ve done in the past where you went in the wrong direction?
Oh yeah, sometimes the grace is loud and interventionist; sometimes it’s very quiet. But it always is wise and loving. A gentle, messy love; not the sort of stern, go-before-the-throne, rigid sort.
If we assume that God is the architect of all things – is present when cells combine in the womb, and is present when people have the messiest experiences of their lives – there’s nothing formal about the divine. It’s this issue that I used to wrestle with quite a lot: the conflation of morals and mores. We’ve all grown up with the idea that certain things are displeasing to God, but the truth is they’re just things that we’re uncomfortable with.
Clearly there are a lot of things that I presumptuously believe are displeasing to God. But they are more to do with cruelty and violence and despair, and not necessarily with who someone chooses to kiss.
So where would you say your guidance for morality comes from, then?
Through scripture. Also, we have God-given reason. So we hopefully are capable of extrapolating and looking at some of the teachings of the New Testament – the recurring themes of forgiveness, kindness, humility – and letting our morality be informed by those things.
I remember reading a quote from Jane Goodall and she said, “A fly is a creature of God who are you to kill it? Who are you to end the life of something that carries the mark of the divine in it?” Of course, I immediately forget that if I’m being bitten by a mosquito! But this is why I find modern Christian environmentalism to be very inspiring. The root of the word ‘dominion’ means to treat something in a God-like manner. Not to dominate, not to crush, not to destroy. To look at everything as the worthy creation of God.
The importance of animal rights seems to have been a consistent passion of yours…
Yeah, the only two constants in my life have been music and veganism. I’ve been a vegan for 29 years now.
It’s been a while since I’ve tried to justify veganism based on scripture. But there’s one instance I think in Hosea where it says to break the neck of an ox is as if to kill a man. Sometimes when I try and defend veganism to Christians, I’m like, “Well, have you read the first page of the Bible, when God prescribes a vegan diet?” It’s super clear, he says, “go forth and eat every plant that bears seed” – that’s it. It’s only after the flood that God says, “Ok, you’re starving, go eat meat.”
You could say that with Jesus and the reconciliation, we have returned to a pre-Fall state. And the diet before the expulsion of Eden, according to Genesis, is 100 per cent vegan. That’s the textual approach to it. But I feel like I’d rather err on the side of extending compassion and extending kindness than withholding it.
Is church part of your life at the moment?
It is, in a weird way. I’m a sober alcoholic, so I spend a lot of time in church, but usually it’s in the basement with other alcoholics! But it’s very hard for me to generalise about the concept of Christianity, because it means such wildly divergent things to so many people. If you took a Russian Orthodox and a Southern Baptist snake-handler and an Anglican and an Ethiopian Anglican and put them in a room and asked them to agree on things, they’d probably have a huge fistfight.
I mean, this is presumptuous and potentially arrogant of me, but the Christianity that resonates the most with me is the Christianity that seems to reflect that concept of grace and forgiveness and humility, and the Christians who are humbly taking care of the sick, and the Christians who are humbly visiting people in prisons. Not the Christians who are carrying guns and waving Confederate flags and not the Christians who are advocating war, but in the quiet, humble people of faith – I get so much inspiration from that. So when I experience that in a church, my spirit is nourished by it. When I think of the complexity of the divine – and even this is addressed scripturally in Job and elsewhere – it’s not understandable, which to an extent is why I believe we have Jesus – a representation of the divine in a way that is more understandable to us. As Jesus established, sometimes grace comes from very unexpected places. Jesus is basically saying grace is more likely to come from non-sanctioned places than from sanctioned places. Whether it’s a centurion, the tax collector, the woman bathing his feet with oil and tears – it just keeps coming back to that; we will encounter grace in very surprising, unexpected places.
To hear the full interview listen to Premier Christian Radio at 4pm on 8th April or listen back to The Profile podcast – premierchristianradio.com/theprofile