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Moby takes his politics to the polls with pop-up shows

Grammy-nominated artist Moby performs at a Katie Porter rally on election day.

Kicking off a concert Tuesday afternoon, Moby was on his knees, fumbling with an amplifier cord.

"Sell 20 million records, don't know how to plug in a guitar," joked the electronic dance musician, casually dressed in a graphic tee, jeans and sneakers. "We're only gonna play for a couple of minutes because, obviously, you guys have way more important things to do with your time than listen to a middle-aged bald guy play music."

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The Grammy-nominated artist was not performing at a festival or a formal music venue. Instead, he was onstage at UFCW Local 324 Hall, an unassuming auditorium in Buena Park that served as the headquarters of Democratic representative candidate Gil Cisneros. It was one of three pop-up concerts in support of Cisneros, Katie Porter, Adam Schiff and Harley Rouda — all Democratic candidates on the ballot in California — that the Los Angeles resident played throughout Orange County in Buena Park, Tustin and Costa Mesa on election day.

"Thank you for giving me something to do," he told the audience of canvassers before playing two songs on his acoustic guitar. "Otherwise, I'm just like a crack addict, checking CNN and waiting for stupid [anchor] John King to give me some sort of indication of how the election is going."

Rep. Adam Schiff introduces congressional candidate Katie Porter during a rally at her campaign headquarters in Tustin on Tuesday.
Rep. Adam Schiff introduces congressional candidate Katie Porter during a rally at her campaign headquarters in Tustin on Tuesday. (Gina Ferazzi / Los Angeles Times)

Most midterm elections slide by on one or two news cycles; this one, two years after Donald Trump’s election, came at voters in a wave of countdowns, districting maps and population graphics. So a pop-up concert or two does not seem out of place. And Moby, a vocal opponent of President Trump, has often lent his voice to nonpartisan causes such as animal rights, net neutrality and music therapy, as well as politically active organizations such as MoveOn.org.

"I grew up politically obsessed since I was 6 years old because I was raised by progressive academics and hippies," he explained over lunch in between gigs at Seabirds Kitchen in Costa Mesa. "I've had to try to figure out how to channel this obsession into effective ways, rather than just being a crazy person standing on a street corner and yelling at mailboxes."

He witnessed the cost of political nonaction in 2004.

"I was on tour in Florida — we had a show scheduled the day before the election and there was going to be a big 'get out the vote' thing as part of our show," he recalled.

"The show got canceled, and still, to this day, I think, would that have made the difference? Because we lost the presidency by 500 votes, and there were 5,000 people at my show, and if 500 of them would have been motivated to vote, and it was in Miami, so [Miami-]Dade county. … I said to myself, never again."

Actress and activist Alyssa Milano also lent her support to Katie Porter on Tuesday.
Actress and activist Alyssa Milano also lent her support to Katie Porter on Tuesday. (Gina Ferazzi / Los Angeles Times)

In a way, Moby has been working toward these impromptu concerts for two years.

"When Trump won, it felt like a cinematic, tectonic shift," he said. "I woke up on the day after the election in 2016, and thought, 'Nov. 6, 2018, that is my focus.' I've been trying to do as much as I can, ignoring every other cause and issue because every other issue that we care about is tied up in these elections, whether it's animal rights, women's rights or climate change.

"So much terrified, disparaging energy was created in the last election. You can only watch [Stephen] Colbert's monologue and post things on Facebook so many times, but actually getting out and doing something is burning off steam. Some of these districts will be won by 10 votes. And the idea that, two weeks from now, finding out that the balance of the House depended on one of these districts and 10 votes is not inconceivable. I don't think any of us could live with ourselves if we had decided to stay home and what if one of these guys loses by 10 votes, and we lose the House?"

Moby, along with fellow singers Mindy Jones and Julie Mintz, originally wanted to play at polling places while people were waiting in line to vote, but the legality of such an event is vague, as it could be seen as direct advocacy for a particular candidate. He turned to his longtime friend of over 30 years, producer and activist Julie Hermelin, who narrowed down the itinerary to impromptu rallies in the three key swing districts in California.

"The goal is to not take up too much of people's time — just to do something quick and dirty so people can get out and get back to work," Moby said.

Hermelin has been phone-banking and door-knocking for various elections over the years.

“My friends used to think that was ‘nice’ and something I just did,” Hermelin said, “but over these two years, more and more have been asking me about it. Is it scary? How do you get started? I told them it’s just about leaving your bubble. If we want to take back the House, we all have to get outside our comfort zone and do whatever we can, with whatever skills and specialties we have.”

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At each concert, Moby opted not to sing "because [Jones and Mintz] sing so much better than me!" Their first set in Buena Park had its hiccups, as they finished a version of Moby's "Natural Blues" off-mike due to audio snafus. But their second song — a cover of "Whole Lotta Love," made popular by Led Zeppelin — rocked the house. The scene even evoked new meaning to the tune. Said Jones, "It's normally a song about sex, but the energy while singing that final line, we really do need a whole lotta love right now."

Moby performed at three election-related events on Tuesday.
Moby performed at three election-related events on Tuesday. (Gina Ferazzi / Los Angeles Times)

Moby and his cohorts were received like rock stars at Katie Porter's headquarters, a small space in an industrial park in Tustin. They only stopped in to perform one song and introduce 45th congressional district resident and actress Alyssa Milano before heading to Costa Mesa to support Rouda.

“I’m not trying to sound dramatic, but lives are at risk here with this election,” Milano told the massive crowd crammed inside Porter’s headquarters, one of six stops on her own election-day itinerary. She took to the stage before introducing Schiff and leading the canvassers in a chant: “I believe that we will win!”

"They're being on the ground sends a really strong message that this election is important," Porter told The Times of Milano and Moby's in-person support. "They're giving their time, which is their most valuable thing, and that's the most valuable thing for voters today: Can they make the time in the next five hours to get to the polls? Can they squeeze in their day that mailing of the ballot, getting that stamp on there and getting to the post office? Having folks like them come here and perform and talk, it really reinforces how important this midterm election is."

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