Deep in the belly of a castle in suburban New Jersey, R. Stevie Moore has been recording and publishing more records than just about anybody you can think of, all by his lonesome.
R. STEVIE MOORE
INTERVIEW BY MATTHEW CARON, PHOTOS BY RICHARD PETRUCCI
Deep in the belly of a castle in suburban New Jersey, R. Stevie Moore has been recording and publishing more records than just about anybody you can think of, all by his lonesome. Since 1976 “The Godfather of Home Recording” has produced and self-distributed over 400 albums, starting with the brilliant Phonography, and tackling pretty much every genre of music to ever exist.
Despite being a fixture on such underground mainstays as The Uncle Floyd Show and WFMU throughout the 80s, Moore is only just now getting his big breaks. Thanks to the collaborative efforts of whippersnappers like Ariel Pink and Dr. Dog, the man who wrote “I Like To Stay Home” is increasingly making the trek out of the house to play few shows. But home is where R. Stevie’s heart is, and so it made sense to venture to his inner sanctum to speak to the artist himself. He’s also the kind of artist who gets in about five minutes worth of tape before you can ask him your first question.
R. Stevie Moore: This story is a huge 56-year career, starting in Nashville and here I am, babbling still with the indie rockers a third my age. It’s hilarious and it’s also tragic. My whole deal has always been criminal neglect. I’m still struggling to get anything I can possibly get. Things are finally starting to happen, but I’ve been saying that for years.
I moved up here from Nashville when I was 26 years old. In brief, my mother is from Patterson, New Jersey, so I’ve had northern connections all my life. My mother’s brother, Uncle Harry, is the guy that pretty much supported me in the 70s, through the mail, as I began to make my records. When it got to be 1977 and I was still out on the road with cover bands in the Midwest, he was the one who told me “You’ve got to get out of Nashville, it’s a running joke.” He helped get me a job up here, so I moved in 1978 to work at the Sam Goody’s in the Livingston, New Jersey mall. For decades that was my day job.
When I first moved, it was right at the explosion of new wave and punk rock. 1978, how perfect was that? And I had independent records out, which was unheard of except for punk bands. A big supporter of that whole movement was Trouser Press and legendary rock critic Ira Robbins. He was the one who helped turn people on to Phonography and those early independent records.
But forget the fact that I was early on making home-recordings before others, that’s not as important as how the music is. It became DIY simply because that’s the only way I could do it, playing all the instruments and doing it at home. Long before cassettes, on reel-to-reels, I was able to make my own albums. I would take the best songs from my tapes and resequence them. Phonography is actually a compilation. It’s my first vinyl record, but it’s really a compilation of songs that were on my reels, five six or seven different reels, all pulled together by Uncle Harry. I didn’t know if I had an audience and it didn’t really matter. That’s the beauty of what I was doing in the 70s.
It was all expressly homemade, and that’s what it continues to be 34 years later. I have not been part of the mainstream industry, almost by default. People ask “How did you manage to bypass all this? You should be proud!” There is tons of integrity to it, but I’ve had to pay the price. I just barely have publishing, I don’t have any management. It’s all on me and my wife, who’s been with me 23 years. It’s all still mail-order, just like before the internet. I can’t even work a day job.
Vice: Whew. OK, with over 400 albums, do you think there can ever be an R. Stevie Moore expert? Someone who gets the whole picture?
The purpose of my whole life and collection of original music is to get in touch with as many lunatics who don’t just want this many [making the “teensy amount” gesture with his fingers], they have STACKS of R. Stevie Moore records. They’re out of their minds, just like any Frank Zappa fan has all bootlegs, the Grateful Dead, that kind of thing. They’re hooked. It’s like an addiction.
As far as a genuine expert though, it could only be someone who has an open mind and a vast imagination. Someone who legitimately likes all kinds of music. Anybody that has a narrow viewpoint, maybe they’re not going to like my country music, which I’ve been bringing out more in the past few years.
I like your country stuff. Having been born to a Nashville session guitarist, do you see that as sort of getting in touch with your roots?
That’s what I grew up surrounded by, but I was also a 60s kid, raised on Beatles, Beach Boys, Frank Zappa, Jimi Hendrix, and marijuana. I could’ve cared less about was going on in honky-tonk Nasvhille. Divorce songs and beer drinking songs were something to rebel against. I was super influenced by the Beatles. And not just the pop Beatles. The White Album was one of the greatest things of all time for me because it sounded like a radio show.
Also maybe the Bonzo Dog Band?
Sure, but not as much as the Mothers of Invention. I didn’t dive deep into the Bonzos until around the time of Monty Python, ’72 or ’73.
It’s interesting you bring up Python because like you and Zappa and Bonzo, they’re all funny, which seems like something a lot of musicians are almost afraid of. Like everybody has to be a serious artiste.
I love all of it, and want to represent all that stuff in my own music. That’s why I have so many releases, and why one is not better than any other. People always say “The man needs an editor,” and I’m the first to agree with it. I shoot myself in the foot by releasing everything. Folks say I lose listeners who like my pop composition abilities because I’m always sticking in the weird stuff too or they say there’s a lot of filler in there, but so what? It’s a diary of sound.
It’s got to be diverse, have variety, no rules. A sense of humor. An outrageousness. I’m kind of reckless too, so sometimes I’ve got to be careful not to get myself in deep shit trying to get some exposure doing something desperate.
Have you come close to this?
I don’t know, maybe in my mind. Obscenity onstage, that’s not going to get you in trouble. I’m just saying, we’re living in an era that’s ripe for that kind of thing. “R. Stevie Moore finally makes it to the top of the charts because he jumped off the George Washington Bridge.” I have dreams like that all the time. [laughing] In the name of art! In the name of art, right?
But I’m safe. I’m a teddy bear.
Can you tell me about the recent live outings with your band?
I had the biggest gigs of my life back in August, at the Bowery Ballroom and Williamsburg Music Hall in New York. Both were strange, lucky breaks by the band Dr. Dog, who are big fans of mine. They asked if I wanted to open. Me playing for 500 people, jam-packed, it was amazing.
Is that the biggest audience you’ve ever played for?
Mmhmm. I’m glad about it, definitely. Dr. Dog, they’re very interesting because they sound like music your parents listened to, like the Band or something. They have great harmonies. They have a little bit of distinctive songwriting chops too, which I’m glad of.
It seems like a lot of younger people have been championing you lately, like Dr. Dog and Ariel Pink.
That’s another whole story too. Every Ariel Pink interview has my name in it. You wouldn’t believe how much he’s helped, simply by dropping my name. I’m his mentor, he claims, which has been a running joke between me and him. Forget the whole “Godfather of Home-Recording” title I’ve been saddled with, I’ve really become a figurehead for people like Ariel Pink, who appreciate the free-form diversity in my work. It has nothing to do with lo-fi. I mean, what does that mean anymore, fidelity? Who cares about surround-sound versus monaural one-track sound?
But Ariel Pink is funny because he can’t seem to branch away from that sound. Everything sounds like 70s transistor-radio kind of stuff. I think he has great ideas and great musical talents, but he shouldn’t always have to sound like the Bee Gees on Mars. We’ve talked about it at length.
It seems like technology is catching up with you and the way you work. Like ProTools now makes it easier for more people to be able to adopt this home-recording style of music. Everything fits inside a laptop. Does this excite you or do you think we’re losing something moving away from the old analog days?
I don’t even have an opinion—and this is old news by now—about digital versus analog. I think that’s a ridiculous debate. I like them both and I don’t rank them.
I still don’t know how I feel about the internet as far as file sharing goes. It’s worked wonders for me exposure-wise. Before I was just doing the mail-order, cottage-industry thing, “Please send me eight dollars for a cassette and get a letter from the artist himself.” The artist packs up the goddamn package and writes on it and sends it. People love that. But it never took off to where it was out of control.
Now it’s out of control. I need a staff, I can’t keep up with the demand. I should be saying that things are doing real well financially, but I’m still barely scraping by and paying my rent.
This is part of the cottage industry though. It’s wrong for me to bitch and moan and whine, even though that’s a major part of my thing these days. The poor guy! Save R. Stevie! I’m disabled and please donate. Pity the poor amputee.
It’s funny that you’d say you have mixed feelings about the internet seeing as how you’re all over it. I mean, you’ve got something like a ten separate MySpace pages.
I just wanted to put tunes up there, and you could only put four or five or six songs on a profile. So I don’t just have one MySpace, I have dozens, for all of my many projects over my whole career. It’s great, they’re like little EPs for fake bands.
I’ve had a blast discovering anybody and everybody who puts music out, simply because they have a player on their MySpace page. Like it or not, some of that stuff is great. I love the amateurs. I was a huge fan of this girl named Amanda who did homemade music in the 80s and had this weird, tiny little voice. Real lo-fi craziness, genius. Now there’s stuff like that all over the place. There’s this girl I’m in touch with in Argentina who sounds just like early, bad quality Throbbing Gristle. That’s fantastic.
A term that gets used a lot in reviews and articles about you is “genius.” Is it scary to be labeled a genius?
I guess it’s scary. It’s really something for others to say. But I do hate mediocrity, and I will not, could not, write a song that winds up sounding like John Mellancamp. Bad example maybe, doesn’t matter. The mediocrity thing is important though. I don’t know if that helps create whatever the R. Stevie Moore style is. It’s taking left turns and right turns. It’s too lazy to make music that doesn’t take left turns.
Go to rsteviemoore.com for updates on the movie they're supposed to be making about Stevie or to buy some of the senator's tunes. Or just check out a little sampler of his greatness on the Vice Blog.