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He's Wired About Life

Seal is on a quest to marry technology with the spirit of mankind in his songs. And while the sound's a departure, the harmonic message is the same.

May 16, 1999|GEOFF BOUCHER | Geoff Boucher is a Times staff writer

Sealhenry Samuel takes a seat on his porch that places him between the towering dead oak tree that dominates his yard and the humming nest of computer gear just inside the door of his den. It seems a good spot to talk about his life and music and the changing circuitry of both.

"I think I must explore machines more," says the singer, who's known simply as Seal. "There can be a very human element in the music filtered through a machine. But the most difficult thing is to retain an organic quality with a machine. But there's a very interesting and pertinent sound that machines can bring to music made by the human hand."

Seal shakes his head, not satisfied that he has expressed his point, but then he shrugs, smiles and reaches for a tray of fresh fruit. The gesture suggests a man who knows the answers will come in time.

The questions he is asking these days are no less than what the future of music and mankind will be when viewed through the prisms of technology and social healing. And, he says chuckling, he wants to know whether he can frame these heavy queries in an "out-and-out dance album" with "a real fat analog sound and big beat."

Launching his first tour in three years (which includes a stop Tuesday at the Greek Theatre), the 35-year-old Briton exudes a relaxed air of confidence and patience during a recent afternoon interview. Wearing a snug black suit, he appears the picture of serious serenity despite the suitcases and half-empty metal trunks littering his Beverly Hills ridgeline home on the eve of the tour. His home may be chaotic, but his life is in order, he says.

"My faith has been restored to a level at this present time unlike any time before," he says in his precise British diction. "It's just growing older, looking around me and realizing how great life is to me. . . . It's a very exciting time."

Seal would seem to be an artist for the age, a singer who is as comfortable behind the keyboard of his impressive computer array as he is at the microphone.

His diverse background includes a strict, working-class upbringing in London, some training in architecture and electrical engineering, and a stint in the fashion industry.

Seal's tastes veer wildly across the musical map from Frank Sinatra to Bob Marley to pioneering electronica by "guys who are making music in their bedrooms, these fascinating programmers." His lunchtime chat is equally eclectic, touching on the history of U.S. racial segregation, French avant-garde photography and the prospects next season for the San Francisco 49ers.

He leaves his lunch tray of soup, shrimp salad and a dozen vitamin capsules to jump on the Internet for the instant purchase of an intriguing album he has just heard about. "It's on the way," he says, picking up his fork again. "Don't you just love that?"

The technology that intrigues him most is the new recording innovations, and he admires the trance-like effects of cutting-edge electronic music. He cites U2's "Achtung Baby" and the music of Underworld as markers on the path he would like to follow with his new projects.

That would signal a sea change for an artist whose greatest successes have been arcing pop songs with lush strings and soulful soundscapes.

"I'm not going to stop writing lyrics and singing, it's what I do best, no matter how much I romanticize something else," he says. "But I'm trying to find a perfect blend with the organic and the machine."

If that is his quest, it's fitting that his springboard would be his current album, "Human Beings." While the sound is very much in line with his first two albums, he says the band assembled for the project and the imagery of the lyrics are pushing him in new directions. The cover of "Human Beings" has a bizarre photo of Seal, crouched, naked and glistening, looking "very dark, reptilian, alien-like," as he puts it. The photo is an unsettling companion to the title track, which explores the concepts of humanity.

That song has been a commercial disappointment, Seal acknowledges, and he is hoping his tour and a song featured in the film "Entrapment" will help.

"I'm used to this journey. My albums tend to start very slow, people not really getting it or not receiving it right away. . . . But something has happened and they become fairly large successes."

The album is elegant but includes themes of emotional rawness. Some of the ache is from two failed relationships in recent years--one of them with model Tyra Banks--and the title song is part inspired by the shooting deaths of rappers Notorious B.I.G. and Tupac Shakur. The umbrella themes are faith, fame, the grim cycle of prejudice, and, most of all, the role of love.

"We all need to ask, 'What can we do to improve the way we relate in our society?' " he says. "That's what I try to say in my music. But I try to say it in a metaphoric sense. I don't try to shove it down people's throats. At the end of the day, it's just my opinion."

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