The dank décor of the Hillcrest coffee shop feels like an environmental hangover, a career drunk's version of feng shui. Filled with the steam of grinding machines and bustling people who spill out into the Fifth Avenue chaos, this Starbuckian window into the world fits Ron Fountenberry's mood perfectly.
The soft-featured, freckly 20-something sinks listlessly into a cushy chair, allowing conversation for only a few moments before moving closer to the window. He hates missing anything on Fifth Avenue, he languidly explains.
"I'm always paying attention to everything else," he says, following a passerby with his eyes.
It's a prospect repeated all over America: a handsome young man spends a brisk fall afternoon in a coffee shop, breathing in the intoxication of the weekend and cleansing himself of the intoxication of the previous night.
"I never thought I'd be sitting here doing interviews," he says, stretching. "Music is still kind of a hobby, to be honest. I just would have never imagined this my life."
A native Californian, Fountenberry attended UCSD in the early '90s ("I did the freshman 50, 15 wasn't enough") and ditched his shy-kid campaign to try out music. The self-professed "creature of habit" used his daily childhood doses of television and radio to craft a quirky pop-star persona-The Incredible Moses Leroy.
His cast of bandmates has had high turnover since forming a few years ago, but Fountenberry recently settled down with guitarist Jason Blackmore, bassist Kristian Dunn and drummer Tim Fogerty for what he calls "the ultimate lineup to last."
"This wasn't what I geared my life towards-being in a band," he says. "Some people play music their whole lives and all they want to do is be in a band. I never had those aspirations. But writing songs makes me happy. It's one of the few things that make me happy."
He doesn't look all that happy. His new record sounds even less happy. Happy is as happy does, and he's doing something more like sad.
"I'm not depressed or anything," he insists. "I didn't know the record sounded depressing because I don't really listen to them after they're finished. No point. It's done. I'd rather listen to music to learn things and I can't learn anything from myself. It's like looking in the mirror and staring at yourself. Why? I'd rather go outside, see what's going on and look at other people.
"I always find it hard to say what I want to say, so it's easier in music to say it through someone else, a character. These people walking by become my characters," he says, motioning to the urbanites scampering outside. "If you're gonna be black and not do R&B music, you have to be very eccentric in this business. Prince? Crazy, wearing heels. Lenny Kravitz? Flamboyant. Jimi Hendrix? Dead. I don't feel like I'm like that so I sing through these other beings. It's really very complicated. No wonder people think I'm not happy on the new record."
This new record, Become the Soft Lightes, is less a practice in happy than 2001's Electric Pocket Radio and a whole psychological illness removed from the giddy elation of that disc's hit, "Fuzzy." Become the Soft Lightes gleams with sensitive verse and touching, childlike nostalgia. It's a stunner-an intermingling of singer-songwriter perk and the A.M. radio-style pop hooks that Fountenberry crafts so well.
"The last record was basically a bunch of people just telling me what to do," Fountenberry says, shaking his head. "I think that's why Electric Pocket Radio is so random. For this record, everyone just left me alone because they saw that the other way didn't work."
What works, apparently, is the vibrant production of Joey Waronker (Beck, R.E.M.) and his disregard for stylistic identity. While Become the Soft Lightes includes elements of pop, alt-rock, jazz, break-beat and hip-hop, it is not contained solely by any of these styles.
"People always ask what we sound like and that's a difficult question," Fountenberry says. "I feel like we're doing something really different. It's not like you need to play the music in a bathtub, backwards, but it is different. I try and say, "Oh, maybe we're like this band, that band,' but it never prepares them for my records. We don't fit anywhere. A lot of bands say that, but we honestly don't fit into one specific type. It gets confusing for people."
Lots of things about Ron Fountenberry and The Incredible Moses Leroy are confusing. Is it a solo act or a band? Are they called the Soft Lightes now or is it just a confusing album title? Is his name actually Incredible Moses?
"Yeah, Incredible is my birth name. Moses is my middle name. Leroy is my last name," he grumbles, obviously tired of the eccentric superhero he created.
"That's why we're becoming something else. I'm just not sure what that something else is yet."
The Incredible Moses Leroy holds their CD- release party with The Album Leaf and Che Arthur at The Casbah on Oct. 26 at 8:30 p.m. $8. 619-232-HELL.