DIY Rock: A Word With R. Stevie Moore - DIY Week on BTR

ADDITIONAL CONTRIBUTORS Matthew DeMello

Photo: R. Stevie Moore c/o WikiMedia Commons

From recording to shameless self-promotion, Doing-It-Yourself is a mainstay career ethic for the Internet age musician. However, for 59-year-old songwriter, multi-instrumentalist, and legendary lo-fi auteur R. Stevie Moore, it has been way of life for over four decades.

As a journalist, I’m obliged to mention how preposterous it is that Moore has been forgotten in the annals of rock history. The static slopes of his abject-success give too many rock writers cause for hyperbolic statements that often feature the prefix ‘under’: “underappreciated,” “underrated,” “under-admired,” etc. You can read a full list of such accolades rock scribes have bestowed on Moore via his website. To the credit of the man’s tenable work ethic, descriptions like these may not be relevant for much longer.

Moore’s titanic body of work, consisting of over 400 home recorded tape-albums, has influenced such indie-pop staples as Sufjan Stevens and Ariel Pink, the latter of which Moore has shared stages and tours with on numerous occasions. In a nostalgic age where so many artists have been born too late, their retro-grade talents speaking to a by-gone era (i.e. Eli “Paperboy” Reed), Moore is enjoying a much deserved tenure of relevancy. His digital-age promotional savvy, penchant for intricate arrangements and light-years-ahead-of-his-time taste for hiss and noise make his music fit like a Cinderella slipper for those who have worn out their Guided By Voices collection.

Moore speaks with BTR about his two separate discographies, early recording days, discovering the Internet, and how his now-exploding career may not allow him to fly solo for very much longer.

BreakThru Radio: What was the first recording you made that convinced you that you could be your own band, or at least make music entirely on your own?

R. Stevie Moore: That I heard by someone else?

BTR: Of your own, specifically.

RSM: That goes so far back and there’s so many. I mean, there’s one song or even one album, meaning tape. My earliest tapes would probably be the best answer to that but there was not a single epiphany where I thought, “Oh, this is it! Now I know I can do it.” Because I sort of fell into that gradually. We’re talking around 1967, 1968 , sound-on-sound, reel-to-reel tape recorders – that kind of thing. That’s what that would be.

Actually, there’s a song called “Midsummer Reflection,” although, no–that doesn’t apply either because that was sort of a live session with other friends in the room, so that goes against what you’re asking where I could figure out if I could do all the instruments myself. That’s about the answer to that. I really don’t have one specific answer to that, but my first tape is called On Graycroft, which was the name of the street that I grew up on in Madison, Tennessee.

BTR: So you had been recording and experimenting before that, but there wasn’t a single, incendiary moment where you thought “I don’t need anybody else”?

RSM: No, but I was recording before that, yeah, but more or less just high school hijinks but everyone was doing that with little, cassette or three-inch reel-to-reel tapes just making sounds and goofing off with jokes and stuff. But not pure composing or arranging and overdub, overdub, overdub. None of that.

BTR: You started formally in 1967-68 and you mention you had a reel-to-reel machine. What other recording equipment did you have for recording purposes by that point?

RSM: Just that and microphones, and I don’t really recall brand names. My father [Elvis Presley bassist and Nashville A-Team session musician, Bob Moore] was a musician so I had access to consumer things. I wasn’t deeply into gear, whether I was 16 years old or even today. I’m not really into knowing about model numbers, you know.  We just had tape recorders around and all you needed was the microphone and some noise makers, like instruments. But I had no other gear, there were no mixing desks, no consoles–all very, very primitive.

BTR: Did you have any control over the volumes of the instruments on record? I noticed on Phonography everything sounds very well placed and even panned in some places.

RSM: Well, that’s interesting that you say that, though, that stuff isn’t until ’74 to ’75. At that point, I was getting much deeper into it and was actually having two tape recorders. And, as you say, placement of sound levels and even the stereo perspective of panning and stuff–I was definitely self-taught when it came to that. But the early high school recordings, even though I did do overdubs, they’re kind of just really haphazard compared to the Phonography days.

BTR: Phonography contained recordings between 1970 and 1975, correct [as per its title on iTunes]?

RSM: Well, actually, the recordings really started in ’74.

BTR: So it’s not so much a collection of those five years, it’s just the two years before it came out.

RSM: Yeah. Even though there were a lot of recordings building up to the songs that are on Phonography, but they didn’t make the cut. Of course, they are available through me. I had several home albums, in fact, I have many home albums that are by the time Phonography came out officially, which was ’76. But I started around ’72-’73 starting my own home albums–the legendary “home tapes” which I would just record until I ran out of space, then it’s over and I’d start the next one. I never did sequencing; I never did the whole thing of “well, these aren’t good enough to go on my home tapes.” I’ve never had outtakes, or cutting-room-floor things like that. Everything I’ve ever recorded, every song is on the album of the time. I call them ‘albums’ but really they’re home tapes, self-released.

BTR: But those were on cassette tapes, even in the early ’70s.

RSM: No, although cassettes existed, those were reel-to-reels. 7-inch reel-to-reels on quarter inch tape that you could buy at Radio Shack, or any place like. You could get expensive tape or super cheap tape. But, as I was saying, I never went and re-compiled and re-sequenced and chose only the best. My whole method was to record and then the next song I recorded would inevitably be recorded in sequence, right after the song I had written before it, until I filled up the tape. Then I considered it done. Never was anything re-sequenced. When I look in retrospect that just baffles me because it’s very chronological. Not only is my entire work chronological, but within each ‘album’ there’s no re-sequencing.  It’s amazing to think about.

BTR: Do you still think those albums have a very interesting flow, even though they were sequenced chronologically?

RSM: Yes I do. In fact, I’ve never really thought about it until we’re talking about it right now, about how unusual that is because normally–and I’ve even done that recently with my most recent big-time professional studio album–how changing sequences can be so important to the overall listening experience. But, duh, everyone knows that, you know. There’s sometimes when you hear a song and it’ll be followed by another song and something just won’t click, then all you have to do is shuffle sequences around–and then, “Bingo!” It’s like, “Woah, that’s much better.” My early days were never like that. Every song that follows another was done chronologically. Again, it baffles me. I’ve never really thought about it that much but now–it’s just amazing to think about.

BTR: Was Phonography the point where you began to concern yourself with sequencing?

RSM: Yes. That’s a very good question and [Phonography] is totally a compilation and re-sequenced, unlike what I was just talking about. But that was not done by me but by my uncle, Harry Palmer.

BTR: Whose record label Phonography was released on.

RSM: That’s right, although he was just my uncle and one of my only main supporters. I was stuck living in Nashville, Tennessee and had nowhere to go with my music. I was not out playing it live. I was the ‘bedroom pop guy’ even way, way back then. We’re talking 30 plus years, 35 years ago. But my uncle- and this is long before he got into the big music industry, he was dabbling in it, in retail, and trying to get something happening in the ’70s. He was my biggest supporter, helping send money and he loved what I was doing and I would send him tapes, taped copies and that’s what happened in ’76 where he took my tapes into a professional studio and doing what we just talked about: Re-sequencing them, making a master compilation, re-sequencing by dropping this there and this there. Phonography is his doing, totally.

BTR: Yet the songs are still yours.

RSM: Yeah, I’m talking about the flow, the sequence itself, the very compilation itself, which again, I was never doing compilations and I really still don’t do that too much as far as my own home stuff.

I have two different discographies, my huge discography, or my own home tapes, which number over 400. They go way back, and again, they are never, hardly ever compiled. They’re just a diary of what I’m doing and that album finishes when we’ve run out of space and then the next album will start. It’s all chronological, never compiled. But my other discography are my many, many compilations that mostly others put together. I’m often called ‘the man who needs an editor’ because I just throw my hands up in the air and think “Well, I can’t edit myself, because that’s not my style.”

I’ve been recording diaries of sound and that’s all that I do. For some, they like to re-edit and re-sequence and choose what they think are the best but they don’t always agree with me, and they don’t even agree with each other often; but I’m really not seriously concerned about that and if people want to edit, I’m all for it. When they want to compile and choose what they think would be better accessible then I’m for it. But I’m also all for stuff that, I mean I can’t worry about. I play all different styles of music, so I can’t be concerned with what’s going to turn people on or off as far as my styles, whether it’s pure pop or noisy anti-music, which I love both equally.

BTR: I notice there’s a real blend on Meet The R. Stevie Moore, a compilation I like to recommend to those who aren’t familiar with your music yet. There’s disco on there, a lot of different genres and sounds. One thing that I find pretty remarkable for where you were at in the early ’70s was that you used a lot of synthesizer–was that a Moog?

RSM: Yeah, just basic, old-school synths. I hardly ever owned them, I just had access to them. I would borrow them or I would live in a house where somebody owned them.

BTR: And then you’d just bring along your reel-to-reel machine?

RSM: Yeah, or at some points, I was in a lounge band on the road and coming back home from being on the road, or just doing covers and stuff–we’re talking the ’70s. But I would actually live with the guys in the house and they would have the equipment. I would own certain equipment sometimes, but I was never in pursuit of all the latest Moog synthesizers and Harp sequencers. They were just toys for me.

BTR: Even compared to most in your generation, you’ve taken to the Internet like a fish to water. When did you first set up your website or start taking your music online?

RSM: About ten years ago, and ironically, I was real slow to embrace computers. I sort of taught myself HTML-code, way back then but not on computers. I got the thing called Web-TV. That’s the thing that’s made for the elderly so they can e-mails and pictures through their television sets. It was really big around ten years ago, but that’s the only thing I knew. You could never sit me in front of a PC or a Mac, because I would just freak. I would be in way over my head, but Web-TV was so funny because it’s so basic. It’s not good for audio or video, but it’s good for teaching yourself how to deal with the browsers and Internet. I was sort of self-taught on doing my own website, back then. Ironically, I don’t even pay attention to my website that much these days because of lack of free time and also that awful addiction that is spreading around called Facebook. It’s driving me crazy, but I’m loving it and hating it.

The whole social network thing is fantastic for me, and it’s also just an awful time-suck. There’s so much triviality you need to weed out. I mean, let’s face it–it’s the ultimate for self promotion, and that’s pretty much what I do. I’ve been doing this long before the Internet, as far as trying to take my art to the masses directly, straight from the artist, no middlemen, no corporations. Of course, that’s a hard way of doing it. And now things are taking off extremely huge. I need a staff, I can’t take care of it all myself. The interest is just pouring in. Like you said, The Meet R. Stevie Moore Cherry Red compilation was extremely important to get me in stores. Forever it’s always been a problem where “I’ve heard of him, but I’ve never seen his records in shops.” Of course these days, [sarcastically] ha ha, there’s no such thing as shops anymore, except on the Internet.

Record stores, sadly, are a thing of the past, almost. They’re trying to turn it right around and have it come back–I love that–the resurgence of vinyl. I love all of that, but as far as trying to reach my own fan base directly, the Internet was tailor made for me. Again, how great is it that I can email someone in Norway and have them download my album with a mouse click? For years, I was big on my cassette club which became the CD-R club to where I was sending big stacks of packages all around the world of hard copies. But now, that’s out of hand, I ca not handle all that. I’ve just thrown my hands up in the air and thought “Well, the Internet is the only way I can deal with it.” So I’m all over iTunes, all of a sudden now I’m getting into Bandcamp, where I can sell my music and get paid directly. Downloads–that’s the new thing for me.

BTR: Besides those three you mentioned, Facebook, iTunes and Bandcamp, do any other social networking or Internet services for music appeal to you that are up-and-coming?

RSM: Not too much. I guess I’ve got to bring up the charming, old–remember Myspace?–I was into that big time.

BTR: Weren’t we all.

RSM: Yeah. Everybody’s kind of abandoned that because of spam and viruses and it’s just junky. Myspace is terrible, but it was cool for music. Ironically before Myspace, there was a great thing called mp3.com which a lot of young, indie musicians were dealing their music that way, whether it’s to sell or just to stream and get people to hear it. Mp3.com was great, of course, they imploded and went under. Besides Facebook, I’m not into Twitter. I can’t stand that whole thing–these one-liner things. I’m addicted to my Facebook but I don’t go out with an iPhone, I hate cell phones. I don’t deal with any of that either and I don’t go out try to social network with all the other many sites. I could care less about those, really. For music too, the music thing is very important to me. Soundcloud has been a great new thing, of course, that’s not to sell that’s just to upload and play for people.

BTR: Concerning technology, how did the advent of digital recording from the ’80s, ’90s through today change your recording style if at all?

RSM: Not too much at all. I was a late comer to it and to me, the format wars and arguments are so redundant that I could care less about having favorites or ranking one format over another. I could care less. Everyone wants me to get back on cassettes and I think they’re crazy. I think it’s silly. I mean, I love little cassettes. They’re just so obscure and you have to a cassette deck and if anyone wants to order my music on cassette for old time’s sake, I think that’s kind of silly. But if they do, it’s a hassle for me to go and get blank tapes.

That wasn’t the case 10, 15 years ago, but now it’s either blank CD-R spindles, big stacks of blank CDs or again, now it’s all about the mp3s and .wav files. So, maybe your question is more about for the recording process but that doesn’t effect my recording at all either. I just naturally made that transition from analog reel-to-reels into using my ’80s port-a-studio. Everybody had the little four-track cassette or high speed cassette [recorder]. I love doing that, Task-Am, in that whole era. But now, I don’t do a whole lot of recording on computer or on Pro-Tools, unless somebody else has it. I don’t have it. I’m not into that too much, but I do have some work stations. Nowadays, you can get a little recording studio that’s the size of a brief case. So that’s what I’ve been doing for the past, say, 10 years, is just work stations. Again, it’s digital. I’ve got no argument like so many people do about, ‘Oh, digital ruined the warmth of analog and everything’s brittle.’ I don’t agree with that at all. I could go either way. I love lo-fi, too. I continue to love making little hand-held recorder recordings that have hiss and background noise. I could care less about all of that. I can go either way–super-polished studio or real lo-fi. I love to blend them all.

Again, I stress that’s pretty much the main thing about my music, besides being the DIY bedroom-pop guy, is that I continue to preach the gospel of diversity and variety. I have a terrible problem with the current world of tunnel vision where people just do not have open minds, and the top of the pops is always dance pop little divas with auto-tune. I don’t know why that even bothers me anymore, because at my age, I should just accept it. Kids got to have their own music, but I’m just saying my music has always been and always will be like a mix-tape. Not just stylistically but I mean there’s just no rhyme or reason, it’s like listening to a radio show. That’s just how I want to live my life. I don’t want same-ness.

BTR: Does the radio format still appeal to you? On your records, there are these humorous ‘radio breaks’ where it’s meant to feel like you’re listening to a radio show.

RSM: Well, of course it appeals to me. Definitely. It always will. It’s hard for me to get away from it. In fact, my most recent album, coming out soon, is shockingly devoid of any little messing around and fooling around with that stuff. It’s pretty much safe, mainstream-y. I even have some fans that aren’t going to like it. It’s not true, genuine R. Stevie Moore, because I have a tendency of always putting in a train-wreck here and there. But the new album is all pretty much pop-rock, song-song-song kind of thing.

BTR: Kind of ironic how there are no train wrecks so people are going to be disappointed.

RSM: Exactly.

R. Stevie Moore will be opening for Ariel Pink at Irving Plaza in NYC on June 2nd. For more information, you can visit his website at www.rsteviemoore.com.

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