International Clash Day: Interview with Moby

International Clash Day, Interviews
photo by Matthew B. Thompson

Not everyone gets a chance to dance the night away with their idols. Producer, DJ, and songwriter Moby is one of the lucky few who has. KEXP caught up with Moby to celebrate International Clash Day, chornicling Moby's own life experiences from how The Clash guided him as a young punk in the late 70s and early 80s to dancing with Joe Strummer to Donna Summer.


KEXP: You hung out with Joe Strummer a few times. Tell me what he was like as a person.

Moby: Yeah I mean I grew up, like most of us obsessed with The Clash. I mean, I still remember the first time... I think the first time I heard The Clash was I recorded part of "I Fought The Law" off of the radio in the late 70s and I recorded it under my grandfather's dictaphone. So I had this terrible recording of "I Fought The Law" and I listened to it over and over again on this tiny little dictaphone speaker. And then, you know, of course bought the first album and then 'Give 'Em Enough Rope' and 'London Calling' and Sandinista and Joe Strummer was always sort of seen as like... it's hard to describe exactly what his role was because he was, you know to state the obvious, a musician and a songwriter and a singer and a guitar player. But he was also seen as like the voice of authenticity. You know, like there was no irony and he just seemed so passionate and enthusiastic about everything that he did. You know he's enthusiastic about the music, he was enthusiastic about other people's music, enthusiastic about politics. So when I first met him, I didn't know what to expect. In my in my mind, I was sort of stepping into the presence of true punk rock dynastic royalty. And he was so relaxed and gregarious and light-hearted and just like no pretense, no arrogance. I mean I know it's it's sometimes it's almost too easy and almost vaguely obligatory to speak well of the dead, but he really was just this kind gregarious prince of a human being. 

There was a period from like say 99 to about 2003 where I saw Joe, if not regularly, at least often. And the last time I saw him we were in Los Angeles and it was 3:00 o'clock in the morning and we were in this bar at The Standard Hotel I think on Sunset and there's a nightclub tucked away in the bowels of this hotel. And I walked into this nightclub and he was there and we hugged and we danced. You know tons of other people there, but I remember so distinctly he and I on the dance floor both. Well, I was very drunk – I assume he was pretty drunk. It's like hugging each other and telling each other that we loved one another dancing to a Donna Summer song. And you know I'm still very sad that he died, but as far as a last memory goes, that's a pretty special last memory. 

Which Donna Summer song was it?

I'm assuming it was "I Feel Love" because if you're a DJ playing a bar in Hollywood at three o'clock in the morning, most likely you're going to play "I Feel Love."


What does that say about the band that they eshewed genre?

Well, when my little punk rock friends and I were listening to The Clash and you know the Sex Pistols and The Damned and other punk rock bands in the late 70s and the early 80s, they were are our role models. They were our heroes. And The Clash in particular, because they had that authenticity, you know, like that complete lack of irony and they were funny at times but they were so earnest. And the fact that they championed hip-hop and reggae and disco and dance music you know. I mean The Clash, Joe Strummer in particular and Mick Jones and then Paul Simon as well, like I don't ever remember them championing punk rock. They championed other types of music. It was almost like they used punk rock as a gateway drug to reach suburban kids like me and through The Clash I was introduced to you know not just odd, interesting, salient political information but also you know hip-hop and dance music and reggae. You know the first time I heard about Junior Murvin and you know and to their credit they they really made such an effort not just to like support these other genres... I remember The Clash playing at Bonds Casino in Times Square in 1981 or 82 and they had Grandmaster Flash opening up for them. 

Did you see that show?

No, we tried. The first time we went there was a riot and we couldn't get in. And then I wasn't allowed to go back. So my friend Jim went and he came back bruised. I saw another Clash show but.. my memory is failing me a little bit regarding that because it was a blurry time, but you know the riot at Bonds Casino where we didn't see The Clash, in a way, that was disappointing to not see the Clash but being a part of that riot was pretty exciting.


What was it like being a kid and a punk rocker in the late 70s, early 80s?

Well, so I was born in New York City and then grew up poor white trash in Connecticut. But I grew up poor white trash in one of the wealthiest towns in the United States so I always felt like such a fraud. You know like my friends were wealthy and the people at school were wealthy and I was on food stamps and welfare and when I discovered punk rock it made me stop trying to accommodate the status quo. It was so empowering to find this music that didn't just sort of enable me to reject the status quo. It enabled me to passionately, enthusiastically reject the status quo. And it made the status quo that I'd been pursuing seem so trite and wrong in a way. So on one hand being a punk rocker in suburban Connecticut in the 70s and 80s was very lonely because there weren't too many of us. And you know we got we got beaten up, we got pushed into our lockers, we got spat on, we were ostracized, but it didn't matter because we knew that we were part of something better. So like every time some douche bag jock punched me or pushed me into a locker, it was sort of a badge of honor. I was like, 'Wow, Joe would be proud of me. 

It's interesting how powerful it was.

Well it's funny because we go back now and you listen to you know you listen to the Clash and you listen to the Sex Pistols and it's not too different from some Led Zeppelin or Black Sabbath or Kiss or the things that the cool kids were listening to, but at the time it seemed so radical. The fact that we had short hair and listen to The Clash was just like a lifetime away from the kids with long hair listening to Black Sabbath. And now it kind of isn't too dissimilar. 

I was thinking about this, what was different. There's no question that Steve Jones' guitar playing was almost a knock-off of The Stooges. But I think what was different with The Clash, The Sex Pistols, and The Damned is that there was a sneer to it. 

Yeah, I mean punk rock was, broadly speaking, it was 50 percent rejection and 50 percent celebration. You know there was nothing. There was nothing meek or cautious about it. And even though now with little hindsight like sonically punk rock isn't too different. Listen to like 'Communication Breakdown' by Led Zeppelin and then listen to an early Damned song. They're pretty similar. But at the time, the ethos of punk rock was such a rejection of that status quo. You know, the sort of like long guitar solos and the long hair and the self-importance and the double albums and you know along came punk rock. It's funny because I see Steve Jones pretty often. And one of the things that I think is funny is punk rock. Part of the ethos was this idea that like you don't need to be able to play your instrument. But you go back and listen to all the early punk rock records and they're really well played like you know the Sex Pistols in the first Clash album. I mean all the Clash albums are very musical. And clearly everyone involved knew what they were doing but they kind of pretended that they didn't. 

What's important to you right now, politically and socially?

I mean, what's important to me socially, politically, racially. Not to overstate it, but it's saving our species and saving the other species on the planet and trying to protect life on Earth. I know that might sound like hyperbole or melodrama, but we are... I sometimes think of us as like Wily Coyote when he's run off the cliff but he's still standing in air and hasn't started to really fall. Our species is at that point. And I do sometimes think we need to prioritize the issues that are actual existential threats to who we are as a species. And you know like climate change and antibiotic resistance and things that have the potential to make all our other cares and all our other concerns just simply seem irrelevant. I think of you know the fact that the last time the earth was this warm and the last time the earth had this high a concentration of CO2, sea levels were 180 feet higher. So we are in this weird bubble right before calamity and catastrophe actually affects us. And largely we're concerned with really provincial parochial things compared to these issues that have the ability to end our species. 


If you were to sit down with President Trump right now, what would you say to him?

Well, Trump is an interesting one – and by interesting, I mean horrifying – in that I don't think there's anything you can say to him. I don't think you could reach him on any rational compassionate level like he's he's a true sociopath. He's interested in him. He's interested in his status and his fame and and his wealth. You couldn't appeal to him with a sense of decency. I guess the only thing you could say to him is, 'You know, President Trump, you own coastal property. Aren't you concerned that your coastal properties are going to be destroyed by storms?' Like try to appeal to his sociopathic sense of self-interest to try to get him to do the right thing or maybe even say like, 'You know, President Trump, if fewer people hated you they might actually be inclined to go to your hotels.' So I don't think you can ask him to be magnanimous or philanthropic or even concerned with anyone outside of himself. But have you tried to advance good policy by appealing to his sense of selfishness, I think that's the only way to approach him.

You made headlines recently for saying the CIA asked you to be an "agent of change for getting the message out" of some sort. Would you mind explaining what that means and what you're hoping to accomplish? 

What happened was, over the years I've just become friends with a few people at intelligence services around the world. You know some at the CIA but other countries as well. And are in conversations with them, they've simply let me know a few things. One, that there is broad consensus in the intelligence community that the fusion GPS dossier on Trump is completely accurate as borne out by evidence. You know, the fact that the FBI briefed Obama and Trump on it like you don't brief the presidents with fake information. And then the other is that Trump looks at what happened to George W. Bush. You know before 9/11 and the war in Iraq, George W. Bush had terrible approval ratings. So Trump and the people around him, they want a war. And there's a lot of concern in the intelligence agencies that Trump, to boost his approval ratings, is gunning for a war. You know looking around the world figuring out who can we go to war with. And then the third, which is really insidious, is again a lot of people I know in the world of intelligence believe that Trump is actually a foreign run agent. You know that like over the years essentially you know appealing to his vanity and also his finances, he is being run by some pretty pernicious elements in the former Soviet Union. So those are just the three things that my friends have told me and they've not, I guess, asked sort of, but especially the concern for gunning up a war they've simply said to me like, 'Look you have a big social media following, just put this out there let people know that Trump and his administration are looking for a war.' So maybe by getting that conversation going, Trump and the Republicans know that people are paying attention and that they can't proceed in darkness, which is what they really want to do. 

Do you think they care?

That's a really good question. I mean like as you and I are speaking right now there's a news story that Trump cheated on his wife and had an affair with a porn star while his wife was at home with his newborn child and then paid the porn star 130,000 dollars to not say anything. And that's barely even a news story. Like in the past, that's the end of a president and the end of a political party. And nowadays it seems like people are so exhausted they don't care. 

KEXP is celebrating International Clash Day all day long, both online and on the air; click here to see more KEXP interviews and articles.

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