If a four-week "artist-in-residence" gig at the Detroit Bar sounds a little highfalutin for a too-cool-for-school outfit like the Incredible Moses Leroy, well, see, that's exactly what Ron Fountenberry is talking about. Or typing about, from his PC in San Diego—we did this interview via MSN Messenger, which is super-duper-ironic for an audio-pinball-machine of a band with an album called Electric Pocket Radio.
"I just want the music to speak," writes Fountenberry, the frontman with the horn-rimmed glasses and fiber-optic braids and 1970s Nikes, who most people assume is Moses Leroy, although the band is actually named after his union-and-civil-rights-pioneering great-grandfather. "Music—not clothes, not hair, not indie-rock bullshit."
It's been more than two years since the Incredible Moses Leroy wowed the 2001 South by Southwest music festival in Austin. Fountenberry and band raced through an encyclopedic set of bent-chromosome pop—'60s-style TV themes, cotton-candy synth, pile-driver rock anthems, sing-in-the-shower forays into jazz and funk—while video clips of old martial-arts flicks and home-theater sock puppets looped on a screen behind them. Subsequently, Fountenberry's sense of style—and vintage Nike shoe collection—was featured in a GQ fashion issue. There was a GAP ad. Oh, there was a bunch of stuff. It was fun.
But Fountenberry has spent more and more time explaining that it wasn't supposed to be that much fun. He is dismayed that people have missed the messages in his songs, the commentary on style-over-substance that this whole Incredible Moses Leroy thing was supposed to be about.
"People laugh at a song like 'Fuzzy,'" writes Fountenberry, referring to a catchy tune off his first album. It begins with a sweet melody that seems to lead into a tribute to a full-sweatered heartthrob, but instead reveals lyrically that this luscious girl-creature is a monster in cheerleader's clothing; it's about one of Fountenberry's ex-girlfriends. "But if they listened, they would understand that it is not a happy song."
Fountenberry acknowledges that he may have miscalculated. By overloading the visual aspect of his Incredible Moses Leroy persona, he may have overestimated the ability—hell, the willingness—of audiences out for a good time to delve into the music's darker side. He's concerned that the Incredible Moses Leroy could be mistaken for the image-driven fluff he disparages—and that he's being victimized by it, too. Because all this time later, after all this attention, the Incredible Moses Leroy is still waiting for its music-industry breakthrough as an indie-rock band.
"A lot of times, I think our music is ignored by the industry and the press because we're not skinny guys with greasy hair," says Fountenberry. "I think they think, 'Oh, hey, there's a black guy out at a show.' Not that people don't like me, but I can never really fit in—be truly accepted, that is. Indie rock is a white man's world."
Fountenberry pauses for a few moments before sending another instant message, trying to clarify: "It's not a racial thing, it's a style-over-substance thing. . . . I'm sure my image could fit in nicely in soul and R&B, but that's not me."
The screen sits idle for a few moments before Fountenberry continues. "Should I even be writing this?"
Well, sure, although it does seem to be a departure from the breezier conversations we've had in the past.
"Yeah, it's this damn typing thing!" Fountenberry writes. "Also, I've had some time to reflect. We haven't played shows in a long time, because I have been concentrating on what we really want to do here. That's meant writing new songs and doing a lot of recording. Now I think I see things more clearly. I am not angry or sad. I just understand."
During his August residency Monday nights at the Detroit Bar—and in a new album due this fall—Fountenberry hopes to untoss the salad of messages the Incredible Moses Leroy has been sending. While the shows will still be multimedia presentations, the film clips of Mr. T and the Sock Puppets are history. The songs will be more straight-ahead, too. The name of the band may even be changing, if the new album's title is any clue: The Incredible Moses Leroy Become the Soft.Lightes.
"We'll see which way the wind blows on the name change," says Fountenberry. "It might make it even harder for people to keep track of us."
But it is the music that Fountenberry wants to concentrate on, remember? Not style or gimmickry.
"I just wanted to record a soft and sublime album, something more serious, mainly because Electric Pocket Radio came off so silly," Fountenberry writes. "I love silly—and maybe that is the wrong word—but I want to be more focused, and show more courage. It takes more courage to back off and let people in."
Once they are in, what are people apt to find from the Soft.Lightes version of the Incredible Moses Leroy?
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"Songs about life," writes Fountenberry. "Real life, like . . . doing laundry . . . and taking a shower . . . and driving in the car to work, five minutes late."
And although writing songs about such mundane subjects could be career-suicide notes, anybody familiar with Fountenberry's gift for melodious whimsy knows they could also reach the heights of symphonic verit. Done right, these celebrations of our most-common accomplishments—the ones we do while executing the wary walk-through toward life's bigger picture—could epitomize everybody's struggle to be about more than their hair and their clothes. We'll see.
"I am still celebrating," Fountenberry insists. "I'm just not sure if, without the proper greasy hair, anyone will care."
The Incredible Moses Leroy perform every Monday night in August at the Detroit Bar, 843 W. 19th St., Costa Mesa, (949) 642-0600. 9 p.m. Free. 21+.