Moby | Inside the brain of a genius

Interview: Maranda Pleasant

Moby: I started working with Oliver Sacks on a music therapy program called the Institute for Music and Neurologic Function. Up until I started working with him, I had thought that music was a nice thing that I enjoyed and liked making, but it wasn’t a serious healing modality. What Dr. Sacks has proven is that music is actually a quantifiable, profound healing modality. I think that’s true for a lot of these other things that are joyful and expansive. On a very literal level, they are incredibly healing, they promote neurogenesis, they’re good for our immune systems, yet we sometimes ignore them.

Maranda Pleasant: I love that. How sometimes the things we see as electives or the things that we try to fit in are probably most important to our mental health and growth.

Moby: I feel like someone who’s meditating could possibly benefit their meditation practice and their well-being just by sitting down and thinking about things that they love for ten minutes. In my case, I really love dogs. So sit down, close your eyes, and think about dogs for ten minutes. On a very clear, physiological, and neurochemical level, your body is changed by these really positive thoughts.

MP: Wow. Yesterday I was so focused on getting from one place to the other—to the point where your heart feels like it’s palpitating because you’re just like, next, next, next—and I saw these women turn around and look at the mountains. I turned around to see what they were staring at. It was just one of those moments where you feel deeply fed, and you’re like, oh, yeah, this is really what’s important—just being in nature at this moment.

Moby: There’s a neuroscientist that I really like named Rick Hanson. He’s a Buddhist neuroscientist, and he’s written a couple of books. Two of his premises: one is that there’s something about the human brain, that it actually has a predilection towards negativity, which served us really well when we lived in an environment that was very threatening. But now we have this negativity bias, so we almost need to cultivate—I hate to sound New Age-y—but to cultivate a positive bias, and really work to focus on those things and notice those things that are wonderful and uplifting. In doing so, we actually change our brain and increase the chances that we will continue to notice the good things.

Sometimes people will think, I need to have pre-sanctioned spiritual joy. Getting joy from my contemplative meditation practice or getting joy from reading Thich Nhat Hahn books. Those things can be joyful but I think it’s the small, simple joys of playing with dogs or having sex with someone you love or going for a walk outside, stuff that we tend to ignore.

MP: That’s really beautiful.

Moby: I love Thich Nhat Hahn. One of my favorite quotes of his (and I’m paraphrasing), he’s talking about cultivating happiness, and he was saying, at the very least, just be happy you’re not at the dentist right now. He was talking to someone who was having a really hard time finding joy.

MP: As much as we talk about being positive and manifesting and creating, I still notice that my mind goes on those replay tracks of bitchiness. I seem to be catching myself more and more.

Moby: I also have this realization recently—the solution probably doesn’t look like the problem. Meaning, if we have this propensity to worry, to be anxious, to be depressed, to be angry—focusing on the worry, anxiety, depression, and anger? Probably not gonna be the solution.

MP: [laughing] This is really good advice. I’ve watched you over the years, and last time we talked, I asked you if you were going to be at South-by. You said South-by wasn’t as much fun since you weren’t drinking so much anymore. I want to know about your journey, this last year, and making this amazing album that puts me in a different emotional space when I listen to it. What is love to you now?

Moby: My subjective answer—for me, love is very non-academic. Love, it’s a very physical thing. I don’t mean physical in terms of—I mean, it can be sexual. But those moments when I’m aware of the fact that I love someone or love something, it really manifests physically. It tends to manifest—this is the part that’s going to sound really New Age-y—with a softness. That softness around your eyes, a softness in your face. Almost the way you feel when you’re about to start crying. That, to me, is love. It can be romantic love, it can be friendship love, it can be family love, it can be love for a chipmunk. It can be love for anything. The neuroscientists would call it “deep limbic attunement.” When you have that profound emotional response to something.

People who meditate and have a good spiritual practice, their immune systems are stronger. Generally, they are happier and healthier.

MP: What are some of the things in life that make you feel vulnerable?

Moby: Well, one is talking about spiritual issues and not sound too New Age-y. I spent so much of my life reading about spirituality and reading about neuroscience and trying different meditation practices. It’s a really big part of my life. But it’s sometimes hard to talk about. There are so many people in the world who don’t live in Southern California and don’t spend their time meditating. It’s perfectly natural for me to sit down and talk about meditating and spiritual practice with my friends. But then I realize, how would it sound to a drunk cynical guy in London? A lot of people have realized that a good spiritual practice and a good meditation practice have real benefit. It’s not just something nice to do to make the universe happy. People who meditate and have a good spiritual practice, their immune systems are stronger. Generally, they are happier and healthier. How do we present this work to people in a way that will reach them where they are?

What makes me vulnerable is any genuine expression of emotion in the presence of another person. It makes me vulnerable and my inclination is, of course, immediately to back away from anything that makes me vulnerable. By being vulnerable, either with yourself or in the presence of another person, that’s where all growth and ultimate well-being comes from.

To paraphrase Paul from the New Testament, he has a great soliloquy about love, where he’s basically saying, if I’ve figured out the secrets of the universe but I don’t have love, figuring out the secrets of universe means nothing. I can spend years studying and being in therapy and having a very analytic spiritual meditation practice, but without the emotional component, without the softening that comes with love and vulnerability, everything else I do is really just surface. One of the goals of a spiritual practice is self-awareness, and one of the best tools of self-awareness is simple emotional vulnerability.

Everyone feels awkward, everyone feels uncomfortable, everyone gets older, everyone gets lonely, everyone gets sick, everyone eventually dies. [...] We live in this culture where there are so many things that want us to pretend that we’re not truly human.

MP: I’m noticing how raw and how awkward I feel most of the time, and then the ways I get out of feeling awkward. Why don’t we just stay here and feel really weird and awkward?

Moby: What you just described is the human condition. Everyone feels awkward, everyone feels uncomfortable, everyone gets older, everyone gets lonely, everyone gets sick, everyone eventually dies. You’re at the Aspen Ideas Fest, and you have these really smart, really accomplished people who pretend like they’ve somehow figured out a way to bypass the human condition. We live in this culture where there are so many things that want us to pretend that we’re not truly human. That we can be exempt from the human condition, either through intelligence or accomplishment or success or humor. But biologically we’re all the same. We all get sad, we all get happy, and we all die. Anyone who pretends that that’s not the case is either a sociopath or utterly delusional.

MP: [laughing] I think this is the best conversation we’ve ever had. Are there any particular causes you feel connected to?

Moby: There are so many. They’re all valid. From the smallest to the biggest. From a cause that is trying to promote public school education in Los Angeles to someone who’s trying to work on climate change to someone who’s protecting the rainforest to someone who’s trying to fund their local library—they’re all amazing causes. That’s one of the problems with being relatively conscious and human, is that you want to help everybody.

MP: Are there any causes that you’re very passionate about personally?

Moby: There are so many causes. Gun control, climate change, deforestation, animal welfare, human welfare, education. Working on the big issues is noble and great, but being aware of what’s going on around you right at this moment, being kind to the people around you, extending compassion and decency, not just to everyone you meet but also to yourself—I think that’s one of the biggest challenges most people face. I feel like the vast majority of the world’s problems would disappear if suddenly everyone on the planet were relatively self-aware and capable of honest self-love and compassion.

MP: I don’t think that sounds unicorn-and-rainbows at all. I think that’s hardcore advice for change. It all translates into being a better CEO or being a better mother. It just meets you right where you are in the road. You’re still a vegan. You were a vegan before anyone knew what the word “vegan” even meant.

Moby: Last Thanksgiving was my twenty-five-year vegan anniversary.

MP: I know that that’s really important to you and I want to honor you for that. You have this new album coming up in October. Was there anything different about this one that separates it from what you’ve done before?

Moby: It’s an album with a lot of collaborators. The other thing is, I ended up taking all the pictures that are used in the album artwork. The theme of the album artwork is all of these people wearing masks. At first glance, the masks might look kind of strange or scary. But the idea is that they were these creatures who are just incredibly shy, so they’re wearing the masks to cover up their shame. It’s not people wearing masks to try to look scary. They’ve put on these masks as a way of masking their shame.

MP: What does that represent for you emotionally?

Moby: I worked with a producer called Mark Stem. He’s worked on huge records, Madonna and U2 and No Doubt and Bjork. It was really important to him that the record have a quality of beauty and emotion. I love lots of different types of music, but it’s music that has this up-swelling of beauty and emotion that is most important to me. That was the focus on the record—crafting something that reached me emotionally, and then hopefully would end up reaching other people emotionally.

MP: This is different. It transports you. It reaches you in places that a lot of other types of music can’t.

Moby: That’s why I make music. When I listen to my favorite music made by other people, that’s what it does to me. So as a musician, I’m just trying to do the same thing with music I make. Sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn’t. But when someone comes to me and says the music I’ve made has affected them emotionally, that’s the most gratifying part of my job.