Becoming A Big Fish

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He is slight, unassuming, eccentric, unconventional and at age 37, a darling of pop music.

But for Moby, celebrity is still a bit unreal.

"I'll walk down the street and someone will yell my name," said Moby. "And I still have that knee jerk reaction when I look over my shoulder and see if they're talking to someone else."

Besides being noticed, he says, it hasn't always been a good thing.

His real name is Richard Hall. He spent most of his childhood in affluent Darien, Conn. — feeling, he says, like an outsider.

His friends had ski houses in Vermont, spring breaks in Bermuda and visits to the country clubs, thanks to their parents.

"My mother and I were on food stamps and welfare until I was 18," said Moby. "We lived in a small house, and I was always ashamed to bring people home, and I always felt inadequate and kind of ashamed to go to other people's houses. Like, at some point, they were gonna realize that I didn't belong and, like, grab me by the seat of my pants and throw me out the front door and have the Dobermans chase me off the property."

For most of his life, it was just Moby and his mother. She died of lung cancer six years ago. He lost his father in a car crash when he was two. It was his father that gave him the nickname that stuck.

I'm related to Herman Melville, who wrote Moby Dick. And my parents before I was born said, OK, if he's a boy, he'll be Richard Melville Hall," explained Moby. "So I was born, 15-minutes-old, lying in my mother's arms. And my mother looks down and says, 'You know, Richard Melville Hall is a very adult name for such a tiny little baby.' So my father had a sense of humor, apparently, said, 'OK, we'll call him Moby.'"

Moby first made a name for himself in the early '90s. He thrived in the underground culture of DJs, dance and techno music. But, despite years of success on the inside, his music never quite broke out.

And then came the 1999 release of "Play." It was a hypnotic, soulful, pop album — taking vocals from vintage records, merging disco with blues and electronic beats with gospel.

It was a breakthrough album, praised by critics, but ignored by the mainstream. Moby decided that if the masses weren't going to find him, he was going to find the masses. Music from "Play" began to show up everywhere. It was in movies, commercials and television shows.

"One of the nice things about licensing music to movies or advertisements is you can reach a lot of people who normally wouldn't hear music," said Moby. "There are a lot of people who only hear music through very mainstream ways and I want to reach everybody."

And he meant it. Songs from "Play" were licensed to more than 500 different sources worldwide. Moby not only got his music heard, he made millions. He blurred the line between art and commerce like never before seen.

"When I licensed the music from "Play," it was never in the interest of making money," explained Moby. "I know in my heart of hearts, I don't do things for money. I make music because I love music and I license my music to things because I want people to hear it."

Sales of "Play" picked up. The album began climbing the charts — selling more than 10 million copies worldwide and going platinum in more than 25 countries. It is astonishing, considering it all begins and ends inside a tiny home studio.

It's almost like having an orchestra or having a whole group of musicians in your house all the time.

"I don't have to wait for other musicians," said Moby. "I don't have to wait for engineers and producers. I don't have to worry about the keyboards getting drunk and not showing up. I don't have to worry about two synthesizers getting in a fight, hitting each other over the head with beer bottles. They never complain. They are always here waiting for me. My little electronic friends."

You might call him a 21st century one-man band.

"One of the things that I love about the way that people listen to music is there's like this great leveler, which is the stereo system," said Moby. "That inherently renders the way that the music is made as kind of arbitrary because you're listening to two speakers. It doesn't matter if it was made by an orchestra. It doesn't matter if it's made by a kid in his bedroom with a sampler. It doesn't matter if it's made by a rock band. All that matters is the emotional reaction of the person listening to the music."

But, is a child playing with his computer making music?"

"People have always been resistant to change," says Moby. "If you go back to the 17th, 18th century, playing guitar was frowned upon. When rock n roll first started, no one took it seriously. So people always resist change and that's one of the things that makes change so exciting is because then the iconoclasts fight. Fight even harder to get people to listen."

These days Moby spends most of his time on the road. He hires a band for live shows. His latest album, "18," went gold.

But even away, Moby's always in touch — on his Web site, posting his latest artwork or sharing his thoughts on everything from his Christianity to cleaning his bathroom, to being a vegan, to the president.

Moby speaks his mind and he has his enemies. When Moby took on rap star Eminem, Eminem shot back by mocking him in a music video award show.

"His criticism of me stems from the fact that I have been kind of outspoken in criticizing some of his lyrics," said Moby. "I think he's a really talented guy, and I think he's a very interesting public figure. I really have a problem with the fact that his lyrics are overtly misogynistic and homophobic. And I guess he saw that as me personally attacking him, so he, then, felt the need to attack me."

Moby says he would rather not continue the sparring of words. It has become a public tangle Moby says he'd like to put behind him.

Despite how much has change for Moby, his time at home, between tours, is still in the same lower Manhattan neighborhood, the same apartment he had long before he made his fortunes.

Moby says he enjoys life in the spotlight, but he doesn't expect it to last forever or even much longer. But for the brief period of time, people are willing to listen to his music. Moby says he loves it.

He could be spending his money and buying expensive gifts for himself.

"There's a part of me that wishes I did seem like a real celebrity," says Moby. "I'll look through Us Weekly and I'll see a picture of Brad Pitt and Jennifer Anniston. And I'm like, wow, they just … they look so good. Even if they're like just wearing jeans and a t-shirt, they still look great."

He says there's a certain genetic inheritance that he missed out on.

"I mean, I'm perfect with who I happen to be. But you know, try as I might, I'll never be Brad Pitt," says Moby. "You know, it's a big world. There's room."

  • Rome Neal

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