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What Do You See, Moby?

As Richard Melville Hall stands in a health-food market aisle in his rumpled sweatshirt and jeans, lunch hour shoppers have no idea this diminutive fellow rivals Beck as the hip pop auteur of the day. He looks like just another 36-year-old bald guy trying to choose between barbecue seitan and tofu.

Hall, better known to pop fans as Moby, puts a wheat-based seitan sandwich in his red shopping basket, alongside a fruit drink and energy bar, and heads to the checkout counter.

It’s not until a record company promotion man starts talking to him about seeing his new video on MTV that anyone senses that in their midst is a gifted artist whose work is helping open a door to 21st century pop. Studying the shaved head and thin frame, a shopper whispers to his friend, “It’s Michael Stipe.”

Moby may be anonymous in a crowd, but he has much of the pop world enthralled. If Bono were looking for a running mate in his campaign to save the world, Moby would be the one. The New Yorker is smart, talented and opinionated, as quick to write letters to the editor to express his views on social issues as he is to write essays in his album booklets about everything from the virtues of a vegan diet to the dangers of religious intolerance. There is also a warm, spiritual component to his music that shares U2’s uplifting faith in the goodness of man.

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His music is a liberating merger of classic blues, gospel and rock elements with the forward-thinking electronica world of samplers and computers. It’s music that seems to incorporate the best of decades of pop emotion into tracks that are fresh and affecting.

A specific track from “Play, his 1999 album demonstrates how Moby works. “Why Does My Heart Feel so Bad” is an expression of longing that is as gripping as any of the classic ‘60s and ‘70s soul hits, such as Percy Sledge’s “When a Man Loves a Woman” or Al Green’s “Tired of Being Alone.” When you think of those old songs, what really stands out in your memory is the title phase and the deeply emotional vocal. Moby combs through hundreds of blues and gospel and pop recordings for a vocal moment that touches him, and then he tries to create new music that places the vocal line in an original and absorbing setting.

MTV not only plays Moby’s videos, but also has also given him his own half-hour program, “Senor Moby’s House of Music,” in which he plays his favorite videos. He’ll be a guest on “Saturday Night Live” next weekend, and he touches on so many pop culture buttons that he has landed on the covers of both Spin and Wired. You’ve also seen him in those celebrity Gap and Calvin Klein ads. Moby is so much on everyone’s mind that rap provocateur Eminem takes a swipe at him in Eminem’s new album, revenge for Moby’s criticism of Eminem’s X-rated diatribes as irresponsible.

Underlying much of this fascination is the naive belief that Moby is a visionary with the answers to many of the questions dogging a complex pop world besieged by declining fan loyalty and an absence of clear musical direction. “Moby epitomizes the post-millennial downtown sensibility,” says Vanity Fair’s New York-based scenester George Wayne. “If Warhol were still with us, he would have been cozying up to Moby as his best new friend.”

One reason Moby is suspected of having special insight is an innovative marketing campaign that turned his last album, “Play,” into an international best-seller. Rather than turn to radio, which had been cool to Moby’s music in the past, he and his advisors reached potential fans by putting his songs in dozens of movies and commercials, from director Oliver Stone’s “Any Given Sunday” to ads for Nordstrom.

While all this is impressive, it’s an illusion to think that he or anyone has figured out the secrets of hit-making. Too many recording artists, from Puff Daddy and Marilyn Manson to Billy Corgan and Beck, have been hailed as figures with their fingers on the pulse, only to see their fan bases largely evaporate overnight.

Moby, whose new album comes out this week, understands better than most that nothing is a sure commercial bet anymore. That’s why he is trying to improve his chances of another hit with a five-month promotional blitz that has involved some 750 radio, TV and press interviews. Soon after “18" hits the stores Tuesday, he’ll begin a 15-month concert tour to further promote the album.

Rather than the all-knowing figure often portrayed by the media, he has the same deeply rooted insecurities of most pop stars. “Pathological low self-esteem” is a phrase he often employs.

“I feel I have to work 10 times harder than anyone else because I felt so inadequate growing up,” he says as he unwraps the seitan sandwich in the back seat of an SUV that is taking him to the next radio interview. “Feeling out of place is one of the things that drove me to fall in love with music in the first place, which is true of a lot of musicians, isn’t it? There’s not a lot of precedent for well-adjusted, normal musicians going on to make great records.

“When fans ask how to succeed as a musician, my answer is harsh. I tell them not to do anything else. Most people aren’t willing to do that--drop out of college, forsake relationships, anything that distracts you from your music.... I’m different.”

It’s three hours before the health-food shopping trip, and Moby has just arrived at the downtown studios of KFOG-FM, home of “world class rock.” The slogan and the photos on the wall--John Lennon, Mick Jagger, Tom Petty, Chrissie Hynde--tip off the station’s adult demographics.

The format is perfect for Moby because his music has a classic feel that appeals to adventurous older listeners. You’ll likely find his photo on someone’s wall at taste-conscious public radio stations around the country.

Because of the electronic elements in Moby’s music, he’s also popular with younger listeners, which is why he stops frequently at stations with “modern rock” or “alternative rock” formats, such as KROQ-FM in Los Angeles, where he’s a big favorite of morning hosts Kevin and Bean.

The KFOG lobby is still filled with the overnight chill as a receptionist greets Moby, his manager and two representatives of V2 Records, the company that British tycoon Richard Branson started after selling his Virgin label to Thorn EMI for nearly $1 billion in 1992. The entourage is ushered into a studio, where three DJs waste little time in starting an interview that will be taped and played throughout the week.

The one constant in these radio visits: The DJs say how much they love Moby’s music, and he stresses how glad he is to be visiting the station. At the end, he invariably tapes station ID messages.

“This is Moby and you’re listening to KFOG....”

Afterward, he poses for photos, shakes hands with other station employees and signs a few autographs before heading back to the SUV for the ride across town to the next interview. Besides visiting radio stations during the last four months, he has participated in their promotional contests, cooking breakfast for some winners, eating dinner with others and record shopping with still more.

Moby, unusually soft-spoken and polite for a pop star, is gracious throughout, but I wonder what he really thinks. In the hundreds of hours I’ve spent with artists on the promotion trail, it’s been rare to find anyone who enjoys the process.

Some, such as the late Kurt Cobain, find it demeaning and all but refuse to participate. Other musicians simply find it tedious. The road manager for a British punk band once delighted in telling me how he used to pretend to be the group’s lead singer in phone interviews, relieving the band of the burden of answering the same questions over and over. “It was easy,” he joked. “All I had to do was have an English accent and be rude.”

Eager young musicians often endure this type of exhausting publicity grind, but it’s rare that a best-seller approaches the task with the devotion of Moby. But the only time Moby gives even a hint of rolling his eyes is when someone at a station starts playing around with his name. When Moby explains he got the nickname because he’s a descendant of Herman Melville, the author of “Moby-Dick,” the DJ asks if anyone ever called him Moby Dick?

I later ask Moby the first time he heard that question.

“When I was 4.”

The second stop is at alt-rock outlet KLLC-FM, and it’s fun for Moby because he gets to play DJ for a half-hour. Between questions, he plays some of his favorite singles, David Bowie’s “Heroes” and U2’s “One.”

The choices are revealing. They are warm, uplifting, deeply emotional works--the tone that Moby aimed for in much of “Play” and even more of “18.”

Consumers seem more interested in individual singles than whole albums these days, and Moby has mastered the art of making albums in which every track feels like a potential hit single. In the process, he underscores the compatibility of competing genres.

Moby played in punk bands as a teen, but later became fascinated with disco and electronica sounds. Although most of the pop world in the ‘80s saw punk and electronica as incompatible, Moby thrilled to the sonic pleasures of both.

His ability to combine the various elements is what made “Play” such a vital album, one that injected soul into the often anonymous dance-music style. It’s music that sometimes seems too open-hearted and lovely for these cynical times.

Over thousands of hours spent alone in his home recording studio, Moby came to realize that the only thing important to him is the final product. It doesn’t matter if he sings the vocal or samples it from an existing record. It doesn’t matter if the song has extensive lyrics or just keeps repeating a phrase. It doesn’t matter if he plays the instruments or crafts sounds through synthesizers. His only allegiance is to the sound that finally comes out of the speakers.

This flies in the face of many long-standing guidelines for musical integrity and accomplishment.

“If you look at the history of pop music, any interesting genre is predicated on breaking taboos,” he says. He has finished his sandwich and is sitting in the lobby at KCNL-FM in San Jose, waiting to be interviewed by the DJ. “What’s ironic is the people who break the taboos usually go on to erect new ones. I’ve seen it with two of my favorite musicians.

“Brian Eno, one of my musical heroes, was complaining recently about the lack of real musicianship in popular music, and he’s someone who started out making noise on a Moog synthesizer. Keith Richards yelled at me because he thought my sampling old blues recordings [on ‘Play’] was wrong. I kept my mouth shut, but my first reaction was, here is one of those white kids from England covering and ripping off old blues records in the ‘60s. How dare you criticize me?”

He breaks off the thought because he has to rush into the studio for his third interview of the day.

At the end, he does his duty. “This is Moby and you’re listening to ... “

Because he spends so much time on the road, Moby travels light. On this West Coast swing, he has just a backpack that holds books and his laptop, which he uses to post a daily journal on his Web site. He’s got some T-shirts and jeans, which pretty much define his fashion choices, in a duffel bag. Both bags fit conveniently in the overhead bin on the flight from San Jose to L.A.

Moby also doesn’t appear to need much in terms of material goods. Despite the fortune he’s made since “Play,” which has sold more than 10 million copies around the world, he still lives in the same relatively modest apartment in lower Manhattan , and his biggest splurge since the album’s success, he says, was a $10,000 Christmas party he threw last year.

His spartan lifestyle may be a reflection of his semi-hippie upbringing or simply another sign of his insecurity.

Moby’s father was a Columbia University teaching assistant who was so prone to depression that there is suspicion that his death in a car accident when Moby was 2 was really suicide. Moby’s mother, an undergraduate at Columbia, then moved to wealthy Darien, Conn., where her parents helped her find a place of her own.

She worked at various secretarial jobs, often relying on food stamps to supplement her income. It was a traumatic time, Moby says, because he felt so out of step with the rest of the families in the exclusive suburban town.

“There’s just that feeling of always knowing I was poor and my friends were wealthy,” says Moby, an only child. “It was being raised by a single parent who smoked pot and painted and played music, while my friends’ parents were executives and housewives.

“I’m not complaining. I love the circumstances of my upbringing. But at the time I hated them. I desperately wanted to have the normal family with the father who made a lot of money and nice house and nice clothes. I longed for normalcy.”

Like so many youngsters, he found comfort in music. He identified with musicians and soon had a thirst to know more about them. A subscriber to Rolling Stone magazine at 13, he found it reassuring that many of the artists also came from difficult childhoods. “It made me feel there was a place for me too,” he says.

After leaving the University of Connecticut, where he studied philosophy for a couple of years, Moby, who took piano and guitar lessons as a child, began searching for that place. In 1989, he moved to New York City, where he worked as a club DJ at night and recorded his own music during the day.

Barry Taylor, Moby’s co-manager for a decade, says the musician has always been a hard worker.

“He’s basically the same person I met 11 years ago,” says the former rock journalist, sitting a few rows behind Moby on the plane. “He was never into material comforts. When we started working with him, he didn’t have running water in his old apartment, but he was happy because he was making music.”

Although Taylor and his partner, Marci Weber, always saw Moby as someone who could reach a wider pop audience beyond the dance-music world, it took years for them to prove the point.

Moby made some acclaimed records, including the 1991 dance hit “Go” and the 1994 album “Everything Is Wrong.” But sales were meager, and Moby started to think that a change of labels might help jump-start his career. He worked out a release from Elektra Records in 1997, but it took months to find any other label interest.

“It was a very debilitating time,” Taylor says. “When we couldn’t get a record contract for ‘Play,’ I didn’t want Moby to think it was because there was something wrong with the music. I kept stressing that record companies make their decision based on things other than the music. The great thing about V2 was they understood it was going to be a long haul. They weren’t going to give up if radio didn’t respond to the record in two or three weeks.”

Even after he got the record deal, Moby felt so beaten down by the rejection that he was sure the album was going to be another commercial failure. He walked around his neighborhood the night before its release, thinking about going back to school to study architecture.

Taylor and Weber, however, set about trying to place the “Play” music in films and commercials, something they had done with some success on earlier Moby recordings. To attract the attention of the film community, Moby performed at the Sundance Film Festival in 1999. The campaign resulted in songs from “Play” being licensed for films, TV shows and commercials--from the film “The Beach” to the TV show “The X-Files” to commercials for American Express and Adidas.

It’s no wonder that industry observers think Moby and his team are marketing masters. Even though Moby now has radio on his side, Taylor, however, knows there’s no guarantee that “18" will come close to “Play’s” sales.

“This business isn’t a formula,” he says. “It’s like the lottery each time out with a record. Moby isn’t taking anything for granted. He’s only had one vacation in the last five years. He went to an island for a week, but he’s on the phone to me the second day saying he needs to get back to work.”

When we arrive at Moby’s Los Angeles hotel, Le Parc, I assume he’s going to want to take a few minutes to relax before we continue the interview, but he pulls me along as he steps into the elevator. The only thing Moby likes less than a thick steak is wasting time.

The one time I see him irritated is the following day when there is a mix-up in the schedule and he arrives for an interview in West Los Angeles 90 minutes early.

It’s as if someone had tried to drive a dagger into his heart.

“How does this happen?” he snaps.

While the manager and record company rep try to move the interview up, I feel obliged to help ease the tension. But we had already spent hours talking and there really isn’t anything left to ask about his music.

Finally I say, “What five movies would you recommend to someone?”

We also go through his list of recommended albums, movies and books.(See sidebar.)

For a change of pace, I am about to ask this world traveler for a list of his least favorite airports, but the record company rep signals they are finally ready for Moby’s interview. I make a point of remembering the question--just in case of a future lull.

Like other rewarding pop artists, Moby really makes music for himself, and the important thing to know about his tastes is that he loves beautiful vocals and sad soul ballads, the kind Al Green and Teddy Pendergrass sang.

In making “18,” Moby listened to hundreds of records searching for vocal lines--often just two or three words--that moved him. When he found one, he listened to it over and over while playing different accompanying chords on the piano to build a new musical setting for it. Sometimes the process led to dead ends. He estimates he has pieces of 3,000 recordings stored in his studio.

When I ask him to walk me through the creation of a track on “18,” he chooses “In My Heart,” one of the songs in the gospel-driven style of “Why Does My Heart Feel So Bad,” one of the highlights from “Play.” The spirited solo on “In My Heart” is by a member of the Shining Light Gospel Choir.

“He’s singing in C major,” Moby says as he begins reconstructing the recording. “If I play C major or G major or F major, it has a very wholesome, calm, uplifting quality. I play something in A minor, it becomes very sad. E minor would be even more disturbingly sad. D minor, very mournful. It’s just basic music theory and it’s how I start. I’ll keep playing things until something feels right, then I’ll add some rudimentary drums, sometimes sampled, sometimes with a drum machine, sometimes live. Then I’ll add other instruments.”

Although the bulk of the tracks are done in this form, Moby sometimes brings in vocalists to join him (Angie Stone and Sinead O’Connor are among the guests on “18"), and he sometimes sings himself, as on the new single “We Are All Made of Stars,” a song with an everyman optimism reminiscent of Bowie’s “Heroes.”

In the energetic, character-rich “Extreme Ways,” Moby demonstrates his ability to work in a more conventional pop sense. He wrote the lyric, a gripping account of fast-lane excesses. The song is expected to be the second single from the album.

The new album doesn’t break ground the way “Play” did, so it may not be as acclaimed (“Play” was named the best album of 1999 in the Village Voice’s poll of the nation’s pop critics). But the album extends the discoveries of “Play” in ways both pleasing and joyful.

“I’ve softened as the years have gone on,” Moby says when asked about the gentle, reassuring tone of the new album. “I want people to feel cared for. I wanted to reach out to people, even take care of them a bit. There are some people for whom music can be inadvertent background music. For others, music can be an integral part of their life, and that’s who I’m trying to reach because I’m one of those people.”

It’s a week later, and Moby has been to Dallas, Atlanta, New York City and Toronto on his promotional trek. He’s now in a towering aircraft hangar in the high desert town of Victorville, Calif., waiting for the cameras to roll on the video that will be used to promote “Extreme Ways.” The video won’t be released in the U.S. until August, but these are the only three days he has free for filming.

Moby is surrounded by five look-alikes who are stand-ins in the performance video, which will show Moby playing all the instruments (drums, bass, guitar and keyboards) as well as singing the song. Wayne Isham, a veteran video director, came up with the concept as a way of underscoring that Moby does play everything on the record.

To keep Moby busy on the set, his U.S. and British publicists are both on hand. He’s scheduled to do an interview for V2’s electronic press kit and to be shadowed for a while by the British TV program “The South Bank Show.”

After the video shoot, Moby will head to Europe for some TV appearances and more interviews. Then he’s due back in New York for the opening tonight of TeaNY, the tea shop that he owns with former girlfriend Kelly Tisdale, who has worked on social activist projects.

Moby speaks vaguely about getting married and having kids someday, but it doesn’t seem very convincing. He’s got a network of friends, but everything seems secondary to his work. By most standards, he pursues his art and career with almost monastic devotion. Even when he isn’t recording at home, he is usually content pursing his solitary passions of reading, watching films and visiting museums.

“When I was growing up, I thought my ultimate happiness would be tied to some exclusive relationship with a monogamous partner,” he says. “But at some point, I stopped feeling that way. I became so thrilled by the fact that I could make music, I felt that anything else would distract me from what I was trying to do.

“If I spend a week in the studio working obsessively on music, there is a good chance nothing good will come of it. But if I don’t spend a week in the studio working obsessively on music, I know nothing good is going to come of it.”

Moby might apply the same philosophy to his promotional campaign.

When it’s clear that the break in shooting is going to be longer than expected, Moby looks glum and glances my way. I’m ready.

“What are the five worst airports?” I ask the man who has just taken 14 flights in 18 days.

Moby’s face brightens.

“Well, you’ve got to start with San Francisco,” he says. “The airport is closed half the time because of fog. Then, you have to add Atlanta....”

Moby is happy. He’s at work.

*

The Top 5, Moby-StyleAlbums, movies and books Moby recommends:

Albums

Julee Cruise’s “Floating Into the Night” (Warner Bros., 1990). “A consistently beautiful, romantic record.”

Massive Attack’s “Protection” (Virgin, 1994). “Lots of musicians seem more comfortable characterizing themselves as either aggressive macho musicians or very delicate, sensitive musicians. Massive Attack is comfortable being both.”

Gershwin’s “Rhapsody in Blue.”

David Bowie’s “Low” (RCA, 1977). “A lovely but disconcerting record.”

Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young’s “Deja Vu” (Atlantic, 1970).

Movies

“Dead Man Walking” (1995). “The frailty of the human condition was dealt with in a very graceful way.”

“Dogma” (1999). “I can’t remember a movie that dealt with the dry, clinical aspects of religion and presented them in a lighthearted, entertaining way.”

“Fireworks” (1997). “Takeshi Kitano is my favorite living filmmaker.”

“Man Facing Southeast” (1986). “This is an Argentine film about a man who thinks he’s a space alien, and you are never quite sure whether he is or isn’t.”

“Starship Troopers” (1997). “An art film in the trappings of a banal, generic science-fiction movie.”

Novels

“The Moviegoer” by Walker Percy. “This deals with the crippling, banal aspects of contemporary life and how we are all on the cusp of grace and epiphany, but are always running away from it.”

“Ender’s Game” by Orson Scott Cord. “I grew up obsessed with science-fiction books because I’m basically a geek, and this might be the best one ever written.”

“The Idiot” by Fyodor Dostoevsky. “If someone doesn’t have too much of an attention span, just read the first 200 pages and the last 80 pages. That’s where all the action happens.”

“A Season in Hell” by Arthur Rimbaud. “His poetry is so explosive, almost like poetry that is dripping off the fangs of some animal that has just killed something.”

“The Jungle Books” by Rudyard Kipling. “The movie is kinda frivolous, but the books are deadly serious.”

*

Robert Hilburn, The Times’ pop music critic, can be reached at robert.hilburn@latimes.com


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