Interview: R Stevie Moore
The grandfather of home recording on hitting the top of his game at 60
Words Felix L Petty
Despite the long, drawn-out vowel when he says all, there’s not a whole lot more to identify R Stevie Moore with the American South and his birthplace of Nashville. Even in his recorded output over the past 40 years, across all the myriad genres and styles he’s dabbled with, you’d be hard pressed to guess that Moore and country & western music share a common ancestry.
What Moore has been called, though, is the Grandfather of Home Recording, and with his huge, bushy, grey beard and sunglasses, he looks every bit the elder statesmen of the scene. Thanks to his hugely prolific run of releases through the ’70s and ’80s it seems a nigh-on impossible task to compile an exhaustive discography of his work, though some have put his back catalogue at about 400 records deep. It’s even harder to sum up the man’s creative legacy, which sprawls across power-pop, ambient guitar sketches, synth-pop, traditional folk songs and albums of Beatles covers.
At his poppiest, Moore’s work twists the tropes of American AOR rock into the strange flights of fantasy of a man who spends all day at home recording on a tape-deck. At its strangest, it’s more like the members of Monty Python jamming with Captain Beefheart’s Magic Band.
Over the years, and in stark counterpoint to the modern lo-fi scene whose DIY ethos owes a lot to Moore and who relish the Ludditic nature of cassettes, Moore’s always readily embraced new technology. He’s moved swiftly from releasing cassettes to putting out CDRs, and more recently to running numerous Myspace profiles to accommodate that fearsome back catalogue of his. Now he’s using Bandcamp to present a large selection of his work in downloadable format. If there’s any place to start, it’s here, with a pot coffee, a spare afternoon and an open mind.
Whilst Moore has continued to record and release, most recently releasing a 61-track record with his current collaborator Ariel Pink, he never really toured, assembling odd bands for odd shows, but never quite hitting the road. But then Pink’s compilation of Moore tracks, Ariel Pink’s Picks, introduced him to a new generation of fans and renewed critical interest, culminating in a Wire cover feature last month, and, for the first time in his career, a series of world tours. After finally making it England for the first time last year — almost 40 years after he started recording — he’s back this year for another go around the country, which is where The Stool Pigeon catches up with him.
Hi Stevie, you’ve only just recently begun touring despite having made music for a long time, are you enjoying it? Why start now?
Of course I’m enjoying it! But it is very taxing for someone at my age. It’s a double-edged sword, because it’s very hard work, and I hate work! I can’t even figure what are my good tracks so it’s not very easy to work out what kind of stage show to put on, what songs to choose.
So how do you go about choosing?
I have a new band and they help me out with their favourites. One of the funny things about playing live now, is that I think people are expecting me to be as diverse musically on stage as I am on my records, and I try to do my best, but really I want to do ’70s glam-cock-rock, shaking our booties on stage, I love doing that! That ’70s Bowie thing. I’m enjoying the entertainment side of it, letting out my Captain Beefheart, dada craziness. I spent decades sitting in my bedroom recording, and now I’m doing these gigs and it’s brilliant to be out there.
Is it nice, after spending so long recording at home, to play with a band and have this collaborative thing?
Very much so, it’s magical, and fantastic, because I dabbled in playing live before, but touring is the difference, because back in the day I was doing solo shows, acoustically, or I’d form a band for one night as an experiment. But to do it night and after night is a whole different thing.
I read you only came to Britain for the first time last year?
It was a dream come true. We only played a handful of shows because we were touring when the riots were happening last summer, and we had to cancel a show in Manchester, sadly, because the venue was in a bad part of town. Hopefully this time the only riots are the ones I’ll cause.
You’re playing Field Day, which is known as a bit of a hipster festival — is it strange to finally find an audience with these kinds of people?
It’s very weird, but also gratifying. This is the career high-point, the toppermost of poppermost, I’m incredibly happy about this. And it also coincides with a new story, and that’s with Tim Burgess of The Charlatans.
Yeah, because he put out a record on his O Genesis label?
That’s true, he put out a single, and he’s going to do a compilation of his favourite R Stevie tracks. He’s been so supportive and this is what keeps me going, of course he’s important and a good supporter to have, because he’s still high-profile.
That’s totally fabricated. That’s a long time ago. There’s a big irony to that song, because it was created as a fantasy, and little did we know that 10 years later we’d be performing it in Paris. But it doesn’t really say much about our relationship, we’d only just met, he found me because he was a big fan of mine, and he was making his tapes when he was a teenager, he reached out and sent me his tapes, and I responded, he was awed that I’d even respond. I liked his tapes a lot, and suggested we collaborate.
That was 10 years ago?
And Ku Klux Glam has material on it dating back that far?
Yeah, it includes some material recorded back in the day, just to pad it out and fill it up a bit.Three songs came out on an EP in Germany, but the rest of the album, except for the very old stuff from 10 years ago, was recorded, just us two, dicking around on Ariel’s living room floor, super lo-fi, snippets and bits and pieces that we were intending to finish, and in true R Stevie form I just released it all. I don’t care about editing or improving or any of that.
I wanted to ask what you thought of Ariel’s selection of tracks for the Ariel Pink Picks compilation?
Love it. 100% love it. It’s overwhelming to deal with, the amount of stuff I’ve recorded, and I have no idea about which bits of my music are good or bad, because my religion is diversity, and preaching that everything is important. We try to polish too much, and make things as improved and big as possible, and of course we all know that some of the most genuine things in life are the most basic, simple, organic things. I never have problems with others making compilations of my material, I’m very easy to please, and it takes a lot of work off of my shoulders!
I wanted to get your opinion on the trend towards lo-fi sound over the last few years, and the ability of people to record at home, which is much easier now than when you started. Do you use new technology?
Well for a start I don’t record nearly as much as I used too, because I already have a huge back catalogue, and I’m not selling a song or a record, I’m selling an aesthetic that I’ve been doing for 40 years, which is the DIY, forget the lo-fi. I’m pretty much against that whole name tag, because what is ‘fi’? Do we all want to sound like Journey, or Madonna? Because that’s ridiculous, I go even lower than lo-fi in my taste for sound, it’s just sound, its not corporation records for the radio to play, and as far as ‘fi’, anybody making music with their computers shouldn’t be called lo-fi, because that’s pretty damn hi-fi. What’s lo-fi is tape-hiss, or field recordings of blues singers in the Mississippi Delta, and boy don’t we all love those, and we never say they are unlistenable because they’re lo-fi.
So I’m pretty much against the whole lo-fi thing, because what I’m interested in is the DIY, fucking the system, getting out of the mainstream, and doing exactly what you want and distributing it just however you feel, or don’t! Just play it for your friends. All I want is a little bit of recognition, and the ability to pay the rent. I’m very proud to be called the grandfather of DIY and home-recording. I’m not a gear head though, I have no preference for any kind of recording medium, or even how my material is released.
I was going to say actually, that you moved quickly from releasing cassettes, to putting out CD-Rs.
Well when CD-Rs became consumer available, it was just the natural thing, because suddenly it was like having a record pressing plant in your front room. I’m not nostalgic, cassettes were great at the time, but I chuckle about the youth who use them thinking they are so cool; I don’t even have a tape deck anymore.
You’ve always kept up with technology — you had about 15 MySpace profiles for a time — and now you’re using Bandcamp to distribute everything digitally.
I’ve had to cut back on my hard-copy mail-order because I’m touring now, and it’s just not possible for me to do all my orders, because it’s a lot of work, a lot of hassle — and I used to love doing it, designing the artwork by hand, cutting it out… All that stuff is wonderful, especially when it’s the artist doing it themselves, but these days I get an invoice for selling an album on Bandcamp and that’s brilliant too.
You’re no longer quite as prolific as you were with recording.
I am very exhausted, and if I feel pressured to make music then that’s not good, I have to make music on sheer impulse. And hey, here’s your exclusive, I’m going to Cologne, Germany, for a week, to sit in a recording studio with my band, and improvise and record a new album. I don’t have a stockpile of songs or anything, it’s always been that once I start they just come flying out.
How different is it from recording at home, to recording in the studio?
It’s the general thing that when you go into a studio and you have someone hired, then you’re always looking at the clock, and that’s really bad for your creativity. The upside is that you get really good quality, but like we were talking about earlier, with Pro Tools on your computer, your home studio can end up sounding incredible. And some of my favourite recordings are just done on hand-held Dictaphones anyway.
Do you ever think there’s this character, that is R Stevie Moore, that you have to play up to?
Well yeah, I’m aware of it definitely, and I’m always hamming it up, trying to make people laugh. I’m also a huge fan of nonsense, of dada. But it’s not really a plan, it’s just me, the way I work, it comes out that way. Frank Zappa is a huge influence on me, as is John Lennon, and Peter Sellers and The Goons and Python. I find it hard to escape from my influences in that sense, and if people don’t like it they can leave the room. I’m proud to say I think I’m very unique, and that there’s not a lot of artists who can put together Brian Wilson balladry, and Killing Joke hard rock, and who’s funny like the Pythons. I can even do some shit-kicking hillbilly country music if you need it!