"We accept a reality that is slowly killing us"

Moby’s newest album proclaims that “These Systems Are Failing”. We spoke with the musician about why it’s worth putting up a fight.

You have named your latest album „These systems are failing”. It sounds very dystopian but actually the lyrics make it seem as if you are almost relieved that everything is crumbling. Is that true?
It’s tricky because the systems that we have created are working, but they are not contributing to our long-term benefit and well-being. It’s not obvious to everybody but once you realize how the systems – economic, political or social – are failing, it’s an ostensibly depressing thought. But our man-made, broken systems need to fail in order for something new to rise. So yes, there is optimism in the current catastrophe. It’s similar to going to the doctor maybe…
In what way?
Say you eat a lot of junk food and your health deteriorates and you have to see a doctor: he will tell you to change your diet to avoid chronic or deadly diseases. It’s a wake-up call and we often need one of those to see what’s going on around us.

”We are sponsoring our own demise.”

There is almost something like a myth of “the broken system” that everybody is well aware of but only few know what it translates to in reality or how to do something about it. You pointed out that as a musician, you can not fix the problems but only hint at them. Does that not evoke a feeling of helplessness?
Not really, because I can do something about it. We all can. There are so many ways to look at a problem. You can look at it from an anthropological or political aspect and it changes accordingly. There are three very easy things we can do to avoid humanity heading for calamity: stop subsidizing industries that destroy us. Animal agriculture, the tobacco industry, the arms industry – they all receive trillions of tax dollars. We are sponsoring our own demise. The other two things we should do is stop using oil and stop eating animals. If we would do these two things, climate change would be reduced by 75% and human health would skyrocket. People think that systems exist in a way that they can not be changed. Have you looked at old globes?
There is one in my living room, I am looking at it as we speak.
I collect old globes and one of the things I like about them is that they represent geopolitical shifts. A globe from 1920 will show a very different order. The status quo is in a way only temporary. It only takes democratic will to change it. I know this might all sound very naïve, but I prefer naïve optimism to depressed resignation. Throughout history people have made really good changes, it’s just hard if we believe the myth that everything is fine.

”We have become confused about what our needs actually are”

Because a reality has been created that distracts us from seeing an alternative, less shiny reality?
Absolutely. Do you know the boiling frog theory?
I hope it’s just a theory and not something somebody tried but the idea is that if you take a frog and throw it in a pot of boiling water, it will do everything to escape the boiling water. But if you put the same frog in a pot of water at room temperature and slowly raise the temperature, the frog will not try to escape and eventually die. We become so accustomed to the false beliefs and myths that everything is fine that we accept a reality that is slowly killing us. The underpinning issue here is the human condition. Every political or economic system exists to meet our supposed needs. But we have become extremely confused as to what our needs actually are. We have alienated us from ourselves.
There is a difference between power and cultural hegemony. If you exert power over somebody, that person will notice. Cultural hegemony however means that a ruling elite can establish their rules as cultural norms and thereby conceal their exercise of power or oppression. It sounds like that is what these systems you refer to are about.
Yes, no doubt. But that tactic means that there is also the possibility to use it for a good cause. Think about racism in the US: Here, like in so many other countries, racism was and still is a huge problem. But the ruling class can introduce legislation that can then shape social norms and beliefs. You can provoke a lot of change in society with some comparatively minor decisions in politics. The thing is that we want the system to change and we want people’s hearts and minds to change. Very often, the latter is the more difficult one but there is a connection between the two. Changing legislation on marriage equality in the US lead many people to reconsider their views. In a perfect world, we could just lean back and wait for people to realize that they are digging their own graves but we are in a dire situation that needs concrete action now. (pauses) I guess this is a bit different than most new album music interviews.

”Music needs substance, not just sounds”

Usually the Anthropocene does not come up that much, no. So on the more musical side…
Oh no, I’m perfectly happy not talking about music. I mean one of the reasons why I gave the record this name is because I really wanted an opportunity to talk about this stuff because it is so important to me. It begs the question: If you are a 50-year old musician and you make your 15th record and you don’t plan to go on tour: why make an album?
I’m listening.
There is the selfish aspect which is that I love recording new material. But there is also the activist aspect. A new album is an opportunity for me to give interviews and write articles.
Why not just write a book on these issues? Why record an album?
At the core of everything is the individual and we are an emotional species. As an activist, I want to reach people emotionally and I think music and visuals are far more effective in that respect than plain text. A few years ago, I put out a very dry academic book called “Gristle” that analyses the consequences of animal agriculture and it sold around 5.000 copies. There is place for academia and textual analysis but that place is not the mainstream. I believe music needs substance and not just sounds.

”Producing hit-singles just seems dull to me”

You recently said that a lot of your fellow middle-aged musicians are making too many compromises to be commercially successful but that you don’t see the point in that.
Again, I wish we would live in a universe where we have the luxury of being selfish. If we had a life expectancy of 500 years and infinite natural resources and everything would be fine, we would be in a position to make art that has no deeper meaning. But everything is not fine. I don’t mean to say that we only need strident didactic art and culture but at the very least it seems almost unethical to me to be like Nero as Rome is burning and we are all just fiddling. To me, the only thing giving my life meaning is trying to figure out this world and make this huge place a little bit better. Nothing excites me more than that. Producing hit-singles and making millions of money just seems very dull to me. You end up feeling like a self-involved pop star that has lost touch with reality – I’ve been there.
That is the big myth of show business: that fame and money will lead to happiness. You recently told the story of how during the height of your success in the early 2000s, you were staying in the most luxurious suite in Barcelona next to the likes of Madonna and all you could think about was killing yourself because you felt miserable. The next day you won an MTV EMA and it was back to business.
It was horrible. This again ties in with what I said earlier: at the core of everything is always the individual. But we individuals often overlook the facts. We don’t look at things based on evidence. We keep doing things without an empirical understanding of what we are doing. I thought to myself: I am a successful musician now, I draw huge crowds and make a lot of money – I should be happy. But I never looked at the evidence that all of this could not make me happy. I desperately tried to avoid looking at the truth. We all do.

”It’s better to fight and fail miserably than not doing anything at all”

The systems are failing because we are failing?
I don’t want to be too hard on us. We have a hereditary component, we evolved in very adverse situations. Think back to who we were thousands of years ago: we were just trying to survive, not starving or getting eaten by a predator. Therefore we still think that if we have enough calories and a place to sleep, everything is ok. Our brain just wants that. We are not conditioned to want a better system as long as the current one works for us. But we need to change our mindset. We still respond to the world like we’re crocodiles. It’s a bit like Don Quichote, I go out fighting in a way that might be completely pointless but I feel it’s better to fight and fail miserably than not doing anything at all.
Moby & The Void Pacific Choir – These Systems are Failing is out on Mute Records.