Huey Morgan: Life of crime

The Fun Lovin' Criminals frontman tells Nick Duerden about doing time, serving as a US marine and taking on the role of a transvestite drug dealer
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The Independent Culture

The young Robert de Niro comes pimp-rolling into the hotel bar, a mischievous grin on his face, a cigarette screwed tightly into the corner of his mouth. His wrap-around shades are so impenetrably black they shield not just his eyes, but most of his soul, too. The frayed Evisu jeans and red, sleeveless T-shirt that reveals muscled, tattooed biceps mark him out as the lone scruff - albeit a fashionable one - in a room full of suited gentlemen and Chanel-dappled businesswomen. As he sits down, the sunglasses come off and the cigarette finds an ashtray.

It is not de Niro, of course, but the similarity is nevertheless striking: Huey Morgan could be the great American actor's doppelganger, circa Mean Streets. He plays up to it, as well. "How you doin'?" is the first thing he says, in a heavy Noo Yoik accent. And then, the wannabe goodfella who ploughed his first record company advance into a waste disposal company à la Tony Soprano, does this: he holds up a slimline mobile phone and takes my photograph.

"Now I got your picture," he says. "If I don't like what you write, I'll circulate the photo to some friends of mine. They'll come find you." He puts the cigarette back into his mouth and smiles, revealing teeth. The balance of power having thus been established, he looks extraordinarily satisfied. "Anyway, good to meet you."

Huey Morgan has been famous - and, sometimes, infamous - in the UK since his band Fun Lovin' Criminals released their début album back in 1996. Come Find Yourself was a heady, brilliant mix of hip hop, blues and jazzy riffs, all tainted with the grime and humour of their native New York. Morgan's vocal delivery was gruff, supercool and cinematic; Sinatra with scars. He sang about drugs, Mafia dons and stick-up jobs. "Scooby Snacks", for example, which featured snatches of dialogue from Quentin Tarantino's Pulp Fiction, was about holding up a bank while high on Valium. It remains the best song about bank robbery ever written, and certainly the funniest. The album hung around the charts for almost a year, and went on to sell over a million copies across Europe. But back in the US, meanwhile, the band was making little impact, their style apparently not rock enough for white radio, not rap enough for black. Falling between two stools in a nation that seemingly relies very heavily on stools, Fun Lovin' Criminals were rendered insignificant. Perhaps as a consequence, Morgan and guitarist Brian "Fast" Leiser began to spend a lot of time on this side of the Atlantic. Leiser began dating Saffron, the British singer with pop act Republica, while Morgan, who looked like a star and acted like one, became a regular face at every party in every bar in town. He had a taste for beautiful women, and before long his notoriety began to dwarf the band's success.

The man is in town today for several reasons. Mostly, it is to talk about the Fun Lovin' Criminals' fourth album, Welcome To Poppy's, as well as his role as a drug-dealing transvestite in the upcoming, award-winning film Headrush. But there's also a party to attend tonight, thrown by MTV. Earlier this afternoon, somebody from Dolce & Gabbana called, hoping to suit him out for the occasion. It was Dolce himself. "I seem to be big in the fashion world," he says, almost lasciviously. "What can I say? They like me. I spoke to the editor of [Italy's] Uomo Vogue recently, and he wants to set up a photo shoot of me in designer gear surrounded by lots of beautiful women." He fingers his delicately trimmed goatee. "I think we can come to some arrangement."

But times have changed for Huey Morgan. He is no longer such a constant on the celebrity circuit. Why? Well, he is 35 years old now, and in a steady relationship with actress Connie Nielsen. These days, he prefers the discretion of a candlelit restaurant to the glare of the spotlight. But because MTV has always been supportive of Fun Lovin' Criminals, he feels obliged to put in an appearance. Plus, of course, Mr Dolce has promised he can keep the suit. Nevertheless, Morgan wants it known that tonight is an exception to the rule. He is louche no more.

"I was very naive when we first came to London," he claims, arranging his face into an expression of angelic f innocence. "In the early days, we always stayed at a hotel called the Metropolitan, and so naturally enough we went to the hotel bar. As far as I was concerned, it was just your regular hotel bar. I was wrong."

Indeed he was. The Met Bar was in fact the capital's then-favourite mecca for B- and C-list celebrities. "I didn't realise its significance until much later on," he says. "Sure, the place was always full of pretty young girls, but I thought all London bars were like that."

His evenings would follow an almost ritualistic pattern. He would arrive at the bar, accompanied by nothing more than his aura (which is palpable). He would order a drink and, within minutes, women would flock towards him, drawn by his fame, wealth and considerable sex appeal. After a few cocktails, Morgan would raise an eyebrow the way Roger Moore once did, and suggest a change of location. Usually, this meant walking back through the hotel lobby towards the lift, but too often the young women wanted to leave through the front door instead.

"It didn't make any difference to me which exit we left by," he shrugs, "but as soon as we got outside, bang, we were greeted by hundreds of paparazzi. The next day, I was all over the papers."

Now, Morgan re-tells this story as if he were nothing more than an innocent pawn in a cynical game, but the singer isn't quite so stupid. It is probably safe to assume, therefore, that he knew exactly what he was doing, and manipulated events accordingly. The feigning of innocence is merely part of his charm. "A lot of people I was hanging out with back then were very concerned with getting their photographs in the papers," he continues. "I guess it didn't help that a couple of the women I dated were rather well known themselves."

After a brief, but very public, relationship with a pre-Robbie Williams, pre-Liam Gallagher Nicole Appleton, Morgan moved on, again briefly, to TV presenter Cat Deeley. They became inescapable, snapped everywhere they went. Then they parted, the singer moving on to pastures new. Whenever the tabloid exposure became too intense - like, for example, the time a stripper Morgan claims never to have met announced to the world that he possessed 8in of heaven - he simply took the next flight home, back to the safe anonymity of Manhattan.

"I never really cared what was written about me," he confesses. "Mostly, I thought it was funny. You know, I went through a lot of shit in my life before being in a band, and so I came into the business with my eyes wide open. Very little riled me."

Which is fortunate, as you wouldn't want to rile him.

HUEY MORGAN was born in New York in 1968. He grew up in the notorious neighbourhood of Alphabet City, on the Lower East Side, and by his early teens he was in regular trouble with the police. "Nothing too big, just your typical kid stuff: stealing cars, selling drugs, fighting with knives." He was sent to prison, he says, "a whole bunch of times", but unlike the current slew of US rappers, who now boast of their incarceration as if it were a badge of honour, Morgan feels nothing but regret and shame.

"I don't understand how they can be proud of having been in jail. I hated every fucking minute of it. Prison is a brutal place, as anyone who has ever been inside will tell you, if they are honest. I am a sensitive man, and it very nearly destroyed me. I hated what it made me become - a crazy guerrilla motherfucker - just to survive, just to get through another night."

After his final offence, Morgan was brought before a judge and given an ultimatum: more jail time or the military. He chose the latter, and was immediately sent to the Gulf. It was 1991. America was at war with Iraq.

"It was not a good place to be," he shudders. "But to a certain extent it saved me. When I got out of the army, I never looked back. I started working nightclubs in New York and making music. There was no way I was going to make any more mistakes in life."

In the years following Come Find Yourself, Fun Lovin' Criminals continued to release albums. There was 100% Colombian in 1998, Mimosa two years later and, most recently, the overly laidback Loco. While their musical recipe has never changed very much, each successive album failed to match either the sales or the sheer sense of style of their début. Welcome To Poppy's is a return to form, of sorts, but it lacks anything anywhere near as immediate as "Scooby Snacks". Morgan, a realist, isn't expecting fireworks.

"We are absolutely a band not everybody should get," he insists. "We're a cult act and we're happy with that. Enough people like us around the world to keep us in work." They remain a hugely entertaining live draw, and much in demand. They recently played in Budapest to a crowd of 50,000 and, just last week, headlined a Hell's Angels convention in Stratford-upon-Avon. "It doesn't take much to encourage us to turn up: a couple of hundred dollars, a case of beer and some electricity is all we need."

But music, it transpires, is just one of his interests, for he and Leiser are at the helm of a burgeoning business empire. Back in 1996, the "working-class and pragmatic" duo established DiFontaine Inc, and invested in one of the constants of New York life - garbage. Their Carting & Asbestos Removal Co thrived, and they began to branch out. Seven years on, they now employ over 100 people worldwide, and have a trucking company, two pizzerias and two bars in Dublin, a film company, a record company, and a stake in a copper mine factory in New Zealand. As soon as they have negotiated the necessary red tape, they will open a fancy restaurant in London's Covent Garden.

They must be worth a fortune.

Morgan smiles expansively. The watch on his wrist is laden with jewels. "I can't complain. But I don't judge success monetarily. I'm simply happy having many interests in many different avenues. You know, so many people I know are stuck in a rut. Me, I'm in a groove ..."

His latest groove is a move into movies, thanks to his old friend, actor Laurence Fishburn, who cast him as a Puerto Rican drug dealer in his 2001 directorial début movie Once In The Life. Morgan enjoyed the experience so much that when another friend, Shimmy Marcus - a recipient of a Miramax screenwriting award - asked him to play another drug dealer in his film Headrush (released this Autumn), he jumped at the chance, but with conditions.

"When I was a kid buying drugs, drug dealers gave this brief glimpse into a whole new fascinating universe," he enthuses, "and so I decided to play my character completely in drag. No really, I'm serious. I play this gay, gun-toting drag artist. As it happens, I know a lot of transvestites back in New York, and they helped me prepare extensively for the role, teaching me how to walk, how to speak, how to run in heels. I even shaved my legs so I could fully inhabit the mindset of my character." He laughs out loud. "I'm pretty convincing!"

It's a role, I tell him, few would expect from someone so self-consciously masculine as he.

"Exactly," he says, triumphant. "And that's because there is more to me than meets the eye, my friend, a whole lot more."

Fun Lovin' Criminals' album 'Welcome to Poppy's' is released on 8 September. The new single 'Too Hot' is released on 1 September