by Jeff Gordiner / Entertainment Weekly
31st May 2002
MOBY IS A SPIDER. HE’S CLIMBING DOWN THE staircase in a midtown Manhattan rehearsal studio, but his feet are not on the steps and his hands are not on the railing. Hyper on green tea and immune to the usual laws of physics or human conduct, America’s unlikeliest pop superhero is literally climbing the walls, scuttling down the stairwell with his sneakers and fingers above the railing, on the plaster, like a certain arachnidified crime fighter crawling down an empty elevator shaft. “He does this all the time,” says a member of Moby’s posse. Moby has been known to vanish from a room, only to materialize on a ledge outside the window. Today the spider is facing off with the lizard, or at least that’s how David Bowie comes across. Slim, sharp-tongued, heterochromian, perched languidly on a couch on a couch in blue canvas Sperry boat shoes and a leaf-green taffeta Agnés B. suit, Bowie can’t help but give off waves of reptilian rock-stat cool.
Bowie is 55; Moby 36.
Visually and lyrically they’ve both got a fondness for stardust and astronauts, but their interstellar trajectories are running at different warps. Moby (real name: Richard Melville Hall) has released a new album, 18, and opened a downtown vegetarian restaurant, Teany. He’s still basking in the afterglow of 1999’s Play, a collection of digital doxologies and electrified sharecropper laments that slipped through the matrix and sold 10 million copies world wide. A vegan, a Christian, and paradoxically a picture on the Gotham swizzle-stick circuit, Moby embodies the prophecy in Bowie’s 1979 hit “D.J.”: “I’m a DJ / I am what I play / I’ve got believers / Believing me.”
Meanwhile, Bowie is gearing up for June 11 release of Heathen, a grand and haunted album that reunites him with Tony Visconti, the producer associated with 1970s classics like Young Americans, Low, “Heroes” and Lodger. Heathen marks Bowie’s return to a major label, Columbia, the home of similar shadow-casting giants like Bob Dylan and Bruce Springsteen. Once an openly bi-sexual provocateur with a jones for décolltage and cocaine, Bowie is now a fierce art collector, a devoted husband and father (he and his Somalian supermodel wife Iman, have a 22-month-old daughter, Alexandria), and a musical supernova whose influence rays can be spotted in every quadrant of the pop cosmos, from techno to garage rock. “As my album comes out,” quips Bowie, an omnivore, “I’m opening a brothel. It’s a vegan brothel. No meat in my brothel. No sex, either.”
Jokes aside, they are selling themselves, and it doesn’t take a diamond dog to sniff out their divergent coordinates in the marketplace. One’s a once-towering superstar whose albums have met with a commercial shrug since the late ’80s; the other’s an ascendant 21st-century geek – part egghead, part ecclesiastic, part entrepreneur – who’s about to see his new product debut in the top five. (Put it this way: Moby gave Bowie a summer job. Bowie’s coheadlining Area 2, the upcoming tour that amounts to a live-action version of Moby’s mix tapes.
They have a few things in common, too, as this super-heroic summit reveals: They’re neighbors in downtown New York City, they share a rebel rebel streak, and they both see the music business as a beached whale. Ladies and gentlemen, Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars…
MOBY I have a question, I was listening to Heathen yesterday. The song “Sunday”-to what extent is it based on living in New York after September 11th?
BOWIE It was all written before. Every single song.
MOBY That’s so bizarre. The lyrics on that?
BOWIE Ah, tell me about it. I know.
EW “Nothing Remains” is the first line….
MOBY Listen to it even closer. It’s chilling.
BOWIE Yeah. “Nothing remains”. We could run when the rain slows. Look for the cars or signs of life.”
EW And Moby, you have a song “Sunday (The Day Before My Birthday)” on your new album. Your birthday is September 11.
MOBY I’ve been asked whether certain songs might allude to September 11, but they were written before. I think we’re like farm animals before an earthquake.
BOWIE Yeah. They snuffle these things. As far as my album goes, the danger is that I don’t want it to reflect that situation particularly at all, because in fact that crock of songs came out of a general feeling of anxiety I’ve had in America for a number of years. It wasn’t that localized – bang! – thing that happened in September. We both live in New York. So it’s not so unlikely that you’re going to have a sense angst in anything recorded in New York or by New Yorkers.
MOBY New York has inspired more remarkable music than any other other city I can think of. I mean, you’ve had a copule.
BOWIE Yeah. I always write well in New York. Parts of Aladdin Sane….
MOBY What? “Jean Genie”?
BOWIE There’s my first New York song. I’ll tell you who it was written for as well – Cyrinda Fox. You know Cyrinda Fox? She was the girl in the “Jean Genie” commercial. I wrote it for her amusement in her apartment.
MOBY Sexy song.
BOWIE Sexy girl.
MOBY Can I confess something? I hope this isn’t disconcerting to you David.
BOWIE [Sounding genuinely worried] You don’t have to.
MOBY The first job I ever had, I only had for one reason: Lodger had come out, and I needed money to buy it.
BOWIE Wow. I forced you into work?
EW What kind of job was it?
MOBY I was a caddy [at the Woodway Country Club in Darien, Conn.]. I carried golf clubs for two weeks just to make enough money to go buy Lodger.
EW David, what was your first impression of Moby’s music?
BOWIE Well, I’d heard that he did, like techno. I went to see him at some club and he was fucking playing punk!
EW So this was Moby’s Animal Rights phase, around 1997.
BOWIE I thought, What the fuck is this? I expected to walk into an evening of Berlin, and instead I’m getting New Jersey!
EW Did you like it?
BOWIE No! [Hearty laughter] Then he got better. I knew what he was going through, because I do it myself all the time.
EW Which is?
BOWIE Which is, Try anything to see where it takes you. Bless him. And bless anybody who’s got the vision to actually do that.
MOBY Or stupidity.
EW Both of you are associated with extraterrestrial imagery. Care to explain?
BOWIE There’s a certain agency in intelligence in this universe that we have very close affiliations with, and we’ve been told specifically you are not to be told why we this concern.
MOBY It’ll all be revealed in good time.
EW Tell me about Area 2. What’s going to happen?
MOBY I have no idea. We had success with it last year, but this year I keep waiting for them to call me up and say, “We’ve come to our senses. We recognize that you’re a half-wit, and we shouldn’t have let you put this together.”
BOWIE The best DJs in the world know how to pull in music from all over the place and make it work as a cohesive whole, and that’s, I suspect, how this one is going to work.
EW Why are you doing it? You could just roll out on the nostalgia gravy train…
BOWIE Oh, God! I couldn’t do that. It bores the shhhit out of me. I’m not a natural performer, you know. I don’t like performing very much.
MOBY You did the coolest thing I’ve ever seen a musician do on stage. It was Giants Stadium and it was during “Young Americans.” It got to the part where you said, “Ain’t there one damn song that can make me…” The audience goes crazy. You sing it again. The audience goes nuts. “Ain’t there one damn song that can make me…” And you fell down on stage.
BOWIE And I just stayed there, right? I remember.
MOBY You stayed there for about 10 minutes.
BOWIE I know. I pushed it.
MOBY For the first minute, everyone was going nuts, but then you didn’t get up. You didn’t move. People getting uncomfortable.
EW What were you doing down there?
BOWIE Just seeing how far I could take it.
EW And what was going through your head?
BOWIE “Uh, am I going to get bottled for this?
EW Moby, you thwarted public expectations in a different way with Play, which sold 10 million copies worldwide and became a sort of end-of-the-century accessory.
MOBY It’s bizarre, and it never should’ve happened. Just think: I’m a weird, bald musician who makes records in his bedroom and lives in the Lower East Side. There’s not a lot of precedent for weird, bald musicians in the Lower East Side making records in their bedrooms and going to sell a lot of copies of the record. Especially if you look at the pop climate.
EW Play was ubiquitous-on car radios, in TV commercials, in coffee shops.
MOBY When it’s on an abstract demographic lever, I can’t comprehend it. If I’m walking down the street and someone stops me and asks, “Oh! A song that you wrote meant a lot to me, and I listened to it after I went to my sister’s funeral,” that’s when it hits me.
BOWIE See, I have a problem with that. I don’t know. Maybe it’s because I’ve got too many songs, and I wait for them to pick the right ones. “Ah! You’re right! That was a good song, and I’m glad you got married to that song!” There are certain songs that if people come up to me and tell me how much that song meant to them, I think, You should have better taste, then, because I don’t really like that song.
EW Give me an example.
MOBY You know, one record you made that had a really surprising utility to it…
BOWIE As a Frisbee? [Laughing]
MOBY …was Outside. Outside is a really sexy record.
BOWIE It’s a good album. It was too long. Much too long.
MOBY I was dating someone and we were listening to that record. As a soundtrack for being naked and sexy with someone you like…
BOWIE Being conjugal.
MOBY Yeah. For the conjugal bed.
EW Yeah, that serial-killer stuff is always really sexy.
BOWIE [Laughing] It gets you every time.
EW It’s probably no shock that people have detected a sonic and thematic similarity between Moby’s new single “We Are All Made of Stars” and David’s “Heroes.”
BOWIE …I don’t hear.
MOBY The only thing is the guitar part, which certainly wasn’t intentional. Considering that “Heroes” is one of my favorite songs ever written, it’s inevitable that I’d be influenced by it. But on a subconscious level. At least that’s what my lawyer told me to say.
EW Actually, watching Moby’s video for “We Are All Made of Stars,” with its cavalcade of C-list stars, I thought of Bowie’s line from “Fame”: “Fame puts there where things are hollow.” David, you’re responsible for landmark videos like 1980’s “Ashes To Ashes.”
BOWIE I did enjoy making them at one time. Yeah. [Wistfully]
EW But for Heathen, you’re not making one?
BOWIE No. I wouldn’t be played anyway.
EW The guy who made the seminal “Ashes To Ashes” video is not making a video?
BOWIE I’m pretty much a realist. There’s a certain age you get to when you’re not really going to be shown anymore. The young have to kill the old. The young, if they want to achieve their own platform, have to diminish the reputations of the ones that have gone before. That’s how life works.
MOBY See, in most cases, I would agree. But with you, that’s not the case at all.
EW We don’t want to kill you.
BOWIE Well, you do, in a way. Believe me. You have to. It’s how culture works.
EW Does it bother you?
BOWIE I’ve had a great life. It doesn’t bother me at all. I’ll go and live in the East, because they revere their elders there.
EW Moby, we always see you in the New York Post at parties.
BOWIE He’s a party animal, this little field mouse!
EW David, you’re not immune. You’ve got the celebrity plumage, the beautiful wife, the home in Tuscany.
BOWIE No! I’m so quiet! I have no home in Tuscany.
EW Anyway, my point is, to what degree is la dolce vita an impediment to the creative process? At what point do you get so swaddled in luxury that you’re insulated from the things that inspired you in the first place?
MOBY For me, it’s when comfort compromises my pathological low self-esteem.
EW When you start feeling good?
MOBY Yeah. Once the pathological low self-esteem goes, that’s when things go downhill.
EW So what do you do?
MOBY Look in the mirror every day.
BOWIE I’m exactly the same. I think looking in the mirror is fine. Hey, he doesn’t live in the lap of luxury! Have you seen his f—ing place? It’s spartan. The guy’s a f—in’ monk. I mean, it’s like this. [Bowie motions to the room, which is utterly empty except for a black sofa, two chairs, and a radiator.] But not as well furnished.
MOBY A man with a taste for hookers.
BOWIE Moby lives the simplest of any person I think I know.
EW Let me ask both of you about the state of the music business.
BOWIE Oh, s—.
EW These days, a lot of acts tend to hammer home one image and one message over and over…
MOBY Like Al Gore during the vice-presidential debates. “Bill Clinton and I, Bill Clinton and I…”
EW Could a new act have career like Bowie’s, with that constant series of metamorphoses?
BOWIE Well, he’s having one. [Nods toward Moby] He’s already thought of as somebody who doesn’t stay in his proper place.
MOBY But I’m a fluke.
BOWIE On the whole, you know, this whole world is run by brutes for the common and the stupid. Frankly.
MOBY Now what do you really mean to say?
EW What’s the state of the music business, generally?
BOWIE It sucks. Big time.
MOBY The only good thing is that it’s in such a state of flux. The last eight years in the music business have been disastrous. But now every aspect of the music business is about to change. Every single thing.
MOBY The way records are made. The way they’re distributed. Radio. Everything. So although it sucks. I don’t want to get too concerned with it sucking, because it’s about to change.
BOWIE I agree with him here. But I’m not sure it’s for our benefit, the change. For instance, I personally don’t think the copyright will excist in the next 10 years. We’ll lose all authorship whatsoever.
EW So, “Life on Mars?”? I can say I wrote it?
BOWIE Absolutely. And in a way you will have, because you’ll be doing the equivalent to mash ups, this thing that’s happening in Europe where they’re jamming two or three songs together. Plus the corporate companies roll come to an end.
EW They’ll all come to an end?
BOWIE I guarantee that. Yeah. It’s all over. They’re just Canutes. They’re sitting on the beach asking the seas to go back. It’s over.
EW On the other hand, Moby’s 18 can debut in the top 10….
MOBY There is a long and interesting tradition of really marginal left-field music that becomes commercially successful. And I will, for a brief minute, fit into that tradition. I mean, if you look at the history of popular music, the most successful musicians have started out being really marginal and esoteric. The Beatles and the Roling Stones. Madonna. Prince. Bruce Springsteen. Fleetwood Mac. David Bowie. Public Enemy. Nirvana. One of the the central flaws in the state of contemporary music is that the major record companies have failed to incorporate that simple fact into their business plans. They’ve come into an industry that’s based on idiosyncratic artists and tried to erase every idiosyncratic aspect of it.
EW Does anything make you feel old, these days?
MOBY [Rubbing the top of his noggin] What makes me feel old is having no hair on the top of my head.
BOWIE Oh, man, if only you knew. That’s the least of your concerns.
EW Do you feel old?
BOWIE No. The idea of feeling old is much more the worry of a slightly younger person. When you are getting old, that becomes-psssh-completely secondary to the absolute understanding of how short your life is. That’s the one thing you wake up with every day: How long have I got left? And that’s tha saddest thing in the world, because you have this absolute realization that everything you love you’re going to have to let go of and give up. I look at my daughter and I think, There’s going to be a point where I’m not going to be around for her. Even the thought of that breaks my heart.
After Bowie leaves for rehearslas, Moby tells a story about winding up in the downtown loft of painter and film director Julian Schnabel back in 1997, on the night of Bowie’s 50th-birthday bash at Madison Square Garden. At the time, Play was more than two years away, and Moby was still a cult-level nobody who’d somehow “finagled an invitation.”
MOBY I got so disturbingly drunk. Suddenly it’s three in morning and I’m at Julian Schnabel’s house at this birth-day party. I caused so much trouble. I was such a bad drunk that night.
EW What did you do?
MOBY You know Busby Berkeley trick where you stand on a chair and it goes forward and you walk over it? I was setting up there chairs and walking over them. This big, burly guy with a beard came over and said, “Could you please not do that?” I thought he was a security guard. It turns out he was Julian Schnabel.
EW Does Bowie remember that?
MOBY NO, no. He was the center of attention. I was just some drunk idiot in the corner.