The experience of video-chatting with weirdo legend R. Stevie Moore is best encapsulated by the man himself: “I enjoy doing this. It’s like performance art. I feel like I’m on fuckin’ Star Trek.” It’s surreal to video-chat with such an anachronism: Moore is the quintessential bedroom musician, the former president of a cassette club, and someone who references his personal history ad nauseum. And yet, the bearded songwriter is genuinely stoked about the self-promotion that’s possible with new technology. Video-chatting in general is odd, a kind of holographic experience that isn’t really akin to any other form of digital communication. Seeing a cult figure, a hero of many, on a laptop screen, beamed into my room on a cold night, is simultaneously distant and intimate.
Moore sits in his living room while we talk, occasionally getting high and tending to his dinner. For a man who sings pop-rock numbers, he’s got a voice that’s surprisingly deep, gravelly, like a dirt road that’s thawed on top, but still frozen underneath. He follows most of his own important truisms with self-reflection, questioning whether or not he has the authority to say them, despite having a 35-year career to back them up. Moore has toiled in obscurity, however, for much of those 35 years, living in the same musical outlands as Jandek or Daniel Johnston. Currently, he is on a crusade to dispel his mysterious legend—a “legend” is something one only hears about, rarely sees. Moore is getting his.
"I Love All the Girls" (1974).
Moore isn’t entirely a recluse. He’s made appearances on television and the stage in the years since his first album, Phonography, was released in the mid-'70s, but it’s a recent phenomenon that you likely know who he is. The musicologists, who obsessively sifted through his 400 or so self-released albums, became rapt first. And now, through technology, the young indie kids, who appreciate his songcraft and inherent obscurity, are following suit.
Moore isn’t really keen on deeming his albums as “albums” in the strictest sense—this might imply carefully tailored, neatly produced works that provide an easily traced growth of his musical career. They are instead his “aural diaries”: scattered, schizophrenic, touching upon all genres and all feelings, released with the same ease with which they were recorded. Therein lies the real magnetism of R. Stevie Moore: the loose, ramshackle, slice-of-life songs are so darn easy to listen to, Moore might as well be singing each and every one of our moment-to-moment soundtracks.
And yet, he’s only got one world tour under his belt. He played a few shows with his own band, and a few with handcrafted pop superstar Ariel Pink—finished several months ago. These shows followed a return to his hometown of Nashville, Tennessee after a break-up with a long-time girlfriend (Moore is unsurprisingly candid about it all). It was ultimately for the best: his archetypical hero’s journey would begin, appropriately, at home. Decades ago, it was Nashville where Moore’s father played bass for Elvis Presley; and it was here where Moore began his career as The Godfather of Home Recording. For anyone else with a long career, a return home might mean packing it in, hanging up the guitar. Instead, Moore is experiencing his second childhood.
[Ed. Note: Please enjoy the very abbreviated R. Stevie Moore video timeline, as well as some screen shots from the interview, scattered throughout the article.]
Let me close some stuff; I have so much crap open.
That’s the nature of the beast; that’s what happens here. Tabs and tabs and tabs.
I bet you have a lot of tabs open. You’re everywhere at once on the internet.
Yeah, and I’m getting sick of that! I feel I post too much on Facebook. I fucking take over Facebook. It’s like doing a live webcast or a podcast for me. It becomes a friend. It’s all about the ‘share.’ The internet thing is bizarre. I hate it, like all of us do. It’s a time-suck; everybody’s so full of vanity: ‘Look at me. I’m sharing this link. I’m the greatest. Here’s my opinion about Occupy Whatevs.’ I’m using it as a promotional tool. I’m trying to raise awareness about my thoughts, my music, my legendary long career, blah, blah, blah. That’s what it’s about for me and, of course, I’m having a blast, because it seems like it’s in real-time, and it almost is.
You used to have a lot of MySpaces...
What’s funny is that it still exists, and it’s horrible to look at. It’s ridiculous, whether you’re a professional or just a chick doing your high school thing. And I’m not a big fan of Twitter. I don’t get it. I’m there, but I don’t use it. It’s boring. I don’t understand what purpose it serves just to give quick one-liners. They’re so faceless—no pun intended! Even the layout of Facebook is appealing. In the beginning, there were people who said, ‘I don’t like Facebook. It’s so clinical.’ MySpace was the total opposite—everybody with bells and whistles. Pretty damn brilliant, when you think about it. But again, Twitter—that’s supposed to be another great promotional tour—tool, I mean, I keep saying tour.
Tell me about your tour.
It’s a weird story. The first question that journalists ask is, ‘Why now?’ That’s my big story: the headline of the old guy just getting started, and he’s thinking and acting like a teenager.
"Showing Shadows," from Phonography (1975).
Well, I’m also just curious about your experiences on tour.
It fell into my lap. It’s been like a major celebrity breakthrough for stuff that I’ve been doing for 40 years. The tour was up and down: great festival hugeness, and grimy basement clubs, and no money, and lots of money, and a lot of work. Again, the question is, ‘Why now?’ I was born and raised in Nashville, moved to New Jersey at age 26 in 1978, lived there for 30 years, most of which was spent in a close relationship with a lady. I was a stay-at-home artist. The relationship stopped, and I had to flee back to Nashville. I had no money, so I got together with friends, recorded a studio album, did a Kickstarter project. There was a guy—a film student—who wanted to do a documentary on me last year, and he asked if I wanted to go on tour. This is what people usually do in their 20s, 30s, 40s—not late in life. I’m starting to see that I have a fan base. When the internet hit, it was tailor-made for me—being in direct contact with fans and customers. I have to run to the kitchen because something is burning.
[A few minutes pass.]
What was burning?
I was making dinner! If that’s what you want to call it. So, that’s how the tour came about. I cannot do these kinds of things unless others do them for me. I’m the frontman of the band, but my hand has to be held for me to cross the street. Anyway, we did four tours. I had this great connection to Ariel Pink. He probably has a lot to do with the fact that everywhere I go, people have heard about me, whether they know my music or not. He hasn’t achieved this international success with hit records or radio play; he’s done it all himself. We met 10 years ago through the internet; we were email buddies in 2000. The big news is that, ‘Happy New Year’s, we’re going go on tour together as, like, a traveling circus, Haunted Graffiti and me.’ Ariel and I have already started recording new material, professionally and lo-fi. It’s been great.
Together? This is collaborative?
Yeah, it’s going to be a duo album. Ariel’s getting shit together. He’s a crazy little man. [Laughs.] But he’s been thrilled with my success this year, which he sort of helped lay the groundwork for. We’re very rebellious; we’re fucking the system. We hate mediocrity. Next year is going to be harder. I can’t wait, and yet, I don’t know how much longer I’ll be able to do this. It’s rough work.
So, the tour was exhausting?
Yeah, but I’m finding new adrenaline. I’ve had newspaper headlines in European papers that say, ‘The Second Youth of R. Stevie Moore.’ Now they’re going to tell me, ‘You need to lose a little bit of weight—get rid of the grandpa look.’ But it doesn’t matter: I just follow my whim. I come armed with a big back catalog. Of course, that’s my big story.
Yeah, ‘the 400 albums of R. Stevie Moore.’
‘The man who needs an editor.’ I’m the first to agree. But I don’t give a fuck whether I’m edited or not, because my whole thing has always been the diary of sound. I don’t make a new album as a new band does. I’ve been recording since 1966—constantly pressing the ‘record’ button.
Yeah, you’ve said everything you make is valid, and that’s why you put all of it out.
Yeah, but I don’t even put it out. It’s there for whoever wants it. I mean, the BandCamp thing is shameless promotion. I’m sure it’s way too much music; it scares people away. But that’s not my fault. You dabble in it—see what you like. You should never be overwhelmed by the truckloads of things available. I guess what I’m saying is… I forget what I was talking about.
Right. BandCamp is so cool because people can stream as much as they want and it’s not 30-second samples. They can listen to a whole album for free. I laugh at how everybody is freaked out about having music on their iPod or in their cars. They’re constantly digging their music. I don’t need my entire record collection in my pocket. And I have ten thousand LPs in the next room over there. For those that like their laptops, all you need is to be able to go on the internet and stream. And that relates to another thing—my philosophy about file sharing.
What’s your philosophy on file sharing?
Well, I don’t have a philosophy, but I think music is in the air; it shouldn’t be put in a box. People freak out and say, ‘I hope you don’t get mad, but I have a lot of your music and haven’t spent one penny on it.’ That’s not their fault. They should have never invented such a technology and made it so easy. I have stolen thousands of dollars worth of music by clicking on Google. Even before the internet, if people had a cassette tape of mine and traded it with a friend, that was never an issue with me. Music is to be shared. It’s all about barter. It’s all about survival, and the golden rule, and trying to do the best for others, but that’s not the way it works. We lose best friends. We have big divorces. I had the worst divorce. I don’t want to get into it, but I’m just saying, you never know who your friends are. Anyway, it’s about barter. You owe me back, but pay me back with a cookie.
So, even though the technology has changed in terms of making and sharing music, your feelings about it all haven’t changed?
That’s right. Pretty much. Although that’s starting to change. I’m being barraged by emails from booking agents and new prospective managers. I’ve never had a real manager. It’s all D.I.Y. This is the first time I’ve actually said the term, ‘D.I.Y.,’ because that’s really what my badge is.
How do you feel now that that’s changing? Things had been going a particular way for you, but I’m talking to you at a turning point, maybe.
Maybe! It’s a turning point as far as paychecks, the high profile of the gigs, getting press. I love doing fanzine things and the web thing, and out of nowhere, someone will say, ‘We’re sending a photographer over.’ I say, ‘Fuck yeah!’ I have to be wary. I’m going to be working constantly, having more demands for survival. I have special needs, naturally, that young kids don’t have. It’s been wonderful. I constantly have to be a figurehead for the D.I.Y. thing. I was doing all this even before cassettes. The reel-to-reels of the ’70s—being a post-punk, a country hillbilly, the philosophy of it.
You’ve always been considered a mentor or a godfather, even before this new recognition.
I was always invisible. Now I’m in the public eye. I’m on stage, doing gigs to 500 people, freaking out, screaming my bloody brains out on the last song, going running for my life, and they come chasing me. It’s Beatlemania, Justin Bieber-mania. That’s the funny part; it’s exactly what I want to happen. Fanaticism and massive acknowledgment of whatever it is I do so well. But I’m also starting to need a team: security, bodyguards. I’ve got to fend for myself. It’s harmless and gratifying, being on the internet or in press, as long as the doors are locked. I’m not talking about doing interviews like this. I just mean it’s building out of proportion.
"Chantilly Lace," from Clack! (1980).
But you do know you’re a genius.
Since I was about five years old. But that’s beside the point. People have constantly put me down because of narcissism. I’m thinking, what does that mean? Self-love? I need to work on it? Damn straight, I love what I do. I was born that way. It’s not just self-confidence. I feel like I’m Muhammad Ali [also a Capricorn]. I can be modest, but I’m unstoppable, and the ego bit is out of control. What am I supposed to do? Be humble and say, ‘Yeah, I suck’?
Did you feel this confident in what you were doing before you started getting so much press and attention?
Of course. But it was a struggle. It was suicidal. It was so frustrating, because of the lack of acknowledgment.
When you felt that confidence early in your career, were you just frustrated with the fact you weren’t getting that acknowledgment, or did you have a lot of self-doubt? Did you always know you were the shit?
It’s a mix of that. That’s the game: to try to never surrender to the threat that, ‘I’m not that good; it’s my fault, not the public’s fault.’ You can’t cave into that. Sometimes you do. Naturally. I struggled for so long. In some ways, I was okay with it. When I first moved to New Jersey, punk rock and new wave exploded. I was primed. I got some good press, because I was part of that thing—quirky music and D.I.Y. bedroom recordings. On the other hand, I lacked the skills and courage to hit the streets. I’ve never been good at hitting the streets. Not for picking up girls, not for picking up friends, or money, or jobs. Fuck that. I didn’t want to be good at it. That relegated me to just being this enigma, and that harmed me. I had no act; I’ve never even been that great at sitting in a room, playing a guitar. It’s all about my tapes. That’s always been my shtick. Elusiveness has always been part of being underground. My career has been a variety, with the ups and the downs, the loud and the soft, the young and the old. That’s sort of what all the press has been about: I’m unfocused. Proudly. There’s your headline right there.
"I Like to Stay Home," from Glad Music (1986). Moore's signature song.
Can you speak about the diversity of your own music?
It’s all about competing against single-mindedness. It goes all over the map, just like life does. It’s really selfish of people to think, ‘I can only really like one thing.’ That’s bullshit to me. Most people don’t want to break out of their trusted routine. You try to extend your tastes, unless you’re boring. It’s like rocket science to get people to enjoy classical music, death metal, hillbilly music, Aboriginal world beat. For me, it’s all the same. Today’s big Facebook rant was, ‘Who the fuck is Adele?’ I have no idea.
She has a really good voice.
She’s the number one song and number one album, and I’ve never even heard her name. I try to keep up with that stuff, but I don’t. The comments were flooding in, and I’m thinking, why does anybody even care? Adele, she’s just number one—chart-topper. I don’t even want to know what she sounds like. But I was making this complaint: another one-word name. Every year, we have these new artists. And I’m calling it ‘kiddy music,’ and people came on saying, ‘It’s not just kiddies who listen to Adele, Stevie.’ But for me, it’s all just cookie-cutter! I thought we all kind of got away from that. But then it goes back to my taste of loving all music. I’ve never even heard of her. I can’t even really hate her.
She’s very talented, though I do see your point. She’s got her own thing going on, but there’s no one making R. Stevie Moore. Your catalog is its own radio station, as you’ve put it.
Yeah, I have a mixtape mentality. Not all of the tapes are full of diversity. Everyone thinks they’re a good DJ, and often they are. I was on the radio—WFMU, the legendary freeform station in Jersey City, from the late-’70s to the early-’80s—but back in the cassette days, all the friends had their own unique record collections. I haven’t really thought about this in so long. We would buy good quality C90 cassettes, and we’d take great joy in putting our own mixtapes together before they were even fashionable. I know this is old-school talk. ‘This is my own personal radio show. These are my favorite records and it has ebb and flow and a nice dynamic, loud and fast, slow and soft.’ Everybody knows about that. Even if things don’t flow correctly, that’s life. You’ve gotta keep it real. I thought, by now, everyone was getting a taste of it. They’re sick of the government, of the banks. Everybody has to be individuals. We have to live together as a human race. I’m starting to sound like a goddamned preacher here. I’m just a musician; I don’t want to have all these philosophies. Psychology of politics. I keep bringing that in.
Well, it’s in the aether right now. People are frustrated. That’s why you’re bringing it up.
It’s going to become revolution. Pepper spray. Internet memes. [Laughs.] Can’t believe it. I want to go into outer space. But it’s lonely up there.
When you felt you weren’t getting recognition, what did you want to happen? ‘Fame’ is a subjective concept. What does recognition mean to you?
‘Famous’ doesn’t just mean Lindsey Lohan. For me, it was recognition, acknowledgement, which translates into payback and interest. The running joke back in the day was, ‘I’m sitting here waiting for that magic phone call.’ And how stupid: I have to make the phone call come. So when you ask if I was wanting fame back then or even now, this is what it’s turning into: simple acknowledgment, a means for earning a living. I was never able to do much. Now I have vinyl offers. I’ve always been self-released.
"Bladder," from The Future Is Worse Than The Past (1993).
When did you start the cassette club?
Early-’80s, when the Walkman was becoming huge. I had no grand motive. It just fell into my lap. It was always word-of-mouth. I would get something reviewed in an underground paper. But there was just nothing happening. The internet is tailor-made for me. It’s my own free platform for sound, for thoughts, ideas, text. After this year, I can’t really do all this by myself. It may be the end of me. But that’s all cool, all part of the story. I’m not gonna be swallowed up by the man. I don’t record as much as I used to, but why bother, because I have so much back catalog. It’s gratifying, because people hear a lot of the earliest stuff and it sounds like it was recorded yesterday. I don’t sound like the ’80s or the ’70s or the 2000s.
When you record now does it feel the same way it did back then? Why do you record?
It’s that natural, instinctive thing that just comes out. Otherwise, I don’t record much, because I get too fatigued at my age. And I’ve always had this knowledge in the back of my mind that I don’t really have to try so hard, because people are digging what I did in the ’70s and ’80s. So why bother? I don’t have any standards to meet up with the competition. It’s all about raising awareness. That’s the ultimate priority for all of these different chapters we’ve talked about. It’s a constant struggle. I’m also, admittedly, not an instant grab. I’m an acquired taste. There are a lot of young hipsters that just don’t get me. It doesn’t matter, I’m old enough to be their grandfather. I need a consultant so I can appeal to the youth market.
But I think you do already. Maybe that’s because I live in a world in which people know and like your music. For the people I know, the hipness quotient is upped if you like your music.
Yeah, I’m embarrassed that I even said that or admitted to being concerned! There are a lot of old hippies that are icons—Robert Wyatt. It doesn’t matter if they have a beard or a bald head or if they’re in a wheelchair. You can’t really judge it by age, this ageism thing. And I’m constantly struggling with it, because I’m a young-at-heart teenager, ready to rock the house. Sometimes it’s embarrassing and I need to take that down and not worry so much. I’m closing in on 60. That’s the cherry on top, because I’m just getting started.
Let’s backtrack. When did you start recording music by yourself?
[Packing a bowl.] Teen years. Nothing special. I had guitars, tape recorders. I grew up in the perfect decade. Between 1960 and 1970, I was eight to 18 years old—ideal impressionable years. The ’60s was the most incredible decade of them all. Don’t listen to what anybody else tells you. I was there and it was just outrageous, that changeover. When the ’60s happened, all that was before the ’60s—well, you know the drill: World War II, conservativism. Any original, creative thought was pushed way in the back. You had your exceptions as far as film—Orson Welles, Alfred Hitchock. Movies, that’s another chapter. It seems like everybody else is a huge movie fanatic. I hate the format. I love video. I have a short attention span, so I can’t be constantly into cinema. Everyone’s like, ‘Let’s see a movie. Let’s rent a Netflix.’ Who has time to sit and watch a movie for two hours?
You’re such a Capricorn!
Oh, no! I’m hanging up! [Covers screen with hands.]
I take it back! I take it back!
What does that have to do with anything!? Why am I 'such a Capricorn'?
You’re an Earth sign. You’re grounded. You’re like, ‘This is what I’ve gotta do. I don’t have time for bullshit.’
[Laughs.] This is brilliant! But this is bogus, too, because I’m not focused. I make it seem like I’ve really got my integrity down pat, but I’m a basket case. I know that I want it, but I don’t know what it is, or how to get there.
The video from Moore's Kickstarter page (2011).
When did you start recording obsessively?
I was in high school, learning how to use tape recorders. A lot of that early stuff still exists. They’re like baby pictures and I love them, and I don’t really consider them unlistenable. That’s why I have 400 albums. Call that philosophy naïve or egotistical, but everything I’ve ever done is valid. We all know about good, polished, pop songs. There’s nothing better. A lot of my stuff is just wankin’ and it’s so unfinished. I love that. I love anti-music, all kinds of different left turns, incomplete ideas. I come from an era of bootleg albums, where you hear this song that was incredible, but it sounded fuzzy. I never worried about that. I’m just constantly recording. I never say, ‘Well, I don’t want people to hear this, because it’s just awful.’ Nothing I’ve ever done is awful. By what standards? We love baby pictures. We love humanity. That’s the problem with culture: always trying to paint the most polished side of people or art. Sound is sound. I love sound. Even silence is a major sound.
I dabbled in making music, but I didn’t get on a roll until around ’73. ’73 is the year of Ziggy Stardust. I went through the roof with that stuff. I loved all of it: Zeppelin, early Elton John, Cat Stevens, Jethro Tull, and the glam stuff, like Bowie, T-Rex, Roxy Music. That predated Johnny Rotten, which changed my life forever. Punk and the Ramones was the greatest of all. Brian Wilson and Frank Zappa were also extremely important. I love Can, Krautrock. I’ve dabbled in all of it, the ’80s, Prince. I’ve constantly repeated this stupid thing: I blame Madonna for helping ruin everything. She’s style over content. Bubblegum is essential for the youth, but why did Madonna become like Beethoven? I can dig disco and club music, but she was like the epitome of just blowing away rock, until Kurt Cobain. That blew my mind, too. What’s happened since?
R. Stevie Moore & Ariel Pink, "Cherrybaby Come Out 2night" (2011).
I know what you dislike about what’s going on in the music world now, what’s atrocious about it, but what do you love about it?
That’s right! It’s unfair for me to go through my rant and whining. I dig all kinds of other stuff.
What do you like?
I like the indie. I shouldn’t have said that. I don’t like the indie. I like the independent one-offs who come up to me. I’m constantly doing gigs with these kids who say, ‘My father used to play me your music,’ and that just shows the age thing, but they’ve grown up knowing all about me, without me being in Pitchfork or on the front pages or on the radio. It’s the underground guy. Other great new fans are MGMT, who really bonded big time. I recorded with them. But who are the other oldsters who’ve been battling? Where are they?
"Post Break-Up Sex," Cover version of a Vaccines' track, (2012).
R. Stevie Moore & Ariel Pink's BandCamp Page
"I'd Be Your Slave," from Wedding Album (2012).