R. STEVIE MOORE: MY LIFE WAS A MIXTAPE
R. Stevie Moore has been home-taping pretty much since audio tape became available, and after an uncompromising and idiosyncratic discography that feels like hundreds of distinct geniuses at work together, he has become the undisputed king of the righteous outsiders. Now R. Stevie says he’s past the DIY thing and into the NPR thing, where documentarians and record labels and websites and magazines are fighting to talk to the guy who never gave up the good fight. He has a new very limited 45 out with Ariel Pink, and coincidentally or not Ariel Pink will be DJ-ing the Echo with Black Bananas and Pink Mountaintops on Thursday. This interview by Chris Ziegler.
Things are just exploding through the roof lately. It’s all a blur! There’s so many different ones—every day I wake up there’s a new stunning development with a label or something on vinyl. My most exciting thing is L.A.-related: my recordings with Ariel Pink and Jason Faulkner. A dream come true! We’ve only done three songs so far, but they’re huge mega-smash-hit productions thanks to Faulkner. We’re getting all these labels in competition—bidding wars!
Is this your first bidding war?
We shouldn’t even say that. I’m exaggerating.
We could help you generate one!
OK—you got my approval. I’ve never been so busy in my life. I’m working so hard and I hate to work, but it’s like a locomotive—nonstop. I can’t step back and enjoy the ride cuz there’s so much work to do. And that’s the major story! Forget the DIY thing, the quality of the music and the diversity—it’s starting to become an NPR-style story of this old guy who’s just getting started!
From DIY to NPR?
It’s good to be armed with quality content—it’s not just the style. And I do have to deal with the age issue and today’s youth-driven market … ha ha.
What long-delayed R. Stevie dreams will come true? Will you do an arena tour and guest host with Terry Gross?
There’s so many miniature dreams. There’s no favorite. It’s all about raising awareness—let’s face it! I’m trying my best to promote-promote-promote and be in people’s faces till they bleed! There’s so much desperation because we’re racing the clock at this stage in my life.
That’s some brutal candor.
That’s me! I’ve really had to become somewhat of a personality. Not just the music and the DIY. I’ve having to entertain with my passion and conviction! I can’t stand mediocrity and I can’t understand why the arts have settled so much over the decades. Everything is accepted. There’s nobody doing anything original or even making an effort to twist and turn and try to be distinctive. The tunnel vision, too—the music thing is always so compartmentalized. Since I was a little boy, my life was a mixtape! I wanted to hear every extreme back to back.
You said once that ‘to be a versatile artist is to commit suicide.’ Is that what happens when you’re not sellable?
I guess—the way the internet has taken over the world, I don’t think I have anything to worry about to get into the commercial mainstream. I mean, I hate the commercial mainstream! Let’s face it—that’s the ultimate peak! Seeking acceptance means fame and fortune and all the other crap that goes with it. I’m sick of struggling and I’m so egotistical and into my viewpoint here that I feel I have to battle to get anywhere. It’s not as much suicide as it used to be when you had to worry about record labels and hit singles. I’m just floating on my overall resume and philosophy. I still have a teenage head and I’m approaching 60 years old. … But I gotta be proud of my punk arrogance as well! I’ve been beaten up my whole life, just psychologically—it’s a tough thing! The whole underdog thing. I love it and it keeps me going but I’m also sick of having to knock on doors and compete with generation of generation of new kids, and this year that’s all changing! Everywhere I go I’m treated like royalty! It’s a funny joke, but I gotta admit to it—being this professor, this old philosopher from another planet that used to do home recording before their parents were born!
What happened? Has the world come crawling back to you?
I enjoy going through my rants but that’s not really what I wanna do. I’m a musician and composer. I don’t wanna give speeches on what went wrong with civilization.
What did go wrong in civilization?
Madonna. Madonna. Madonna. Madonna. Madonna. … She’s just the ultimate poster boy for style over content. She was the expert manipulator, so she put herself to the very top. It’s the public I should blame, not her! That’s when it just became a dancefloor sensation, and there’s no songwriting or ability to play an instrument—not that that’s the end all, and if you can do it in a studio with a DJ mixmaster, go for it! There’s nothing wrong with that. I love all music, but that just cemented the teen-pop thing forever. I loved when Nevermind hit cuz that blew the roof off of it, although not for long. Though I am enjoying this twenty-year anniversary. Boy, did I love Cobain! I guess I loved him so much—like other people—that it killed him for me to love him so much. He just wasn’t prepared for all that. To become a spokesman and all that.
You said you’ve been a slave to music since 1955. What records drew you off the simple path and forever prevented you from becoming an investment banker?
I hate dealing with the preponderance of people having ‘favorites’ or ‘firsts.’ I can’t remember! ‘Who’s your favorite?’ I like them all! This isn’t a sporting event with number one, number two and so on. ‘We wanna know the record that was most important to your career.’ Well, I have no idea what that is! It’s all of the above, always. The obvious influences are there—Beatles, Beach Boys, Zappa, Captain Beefheart.
Are those the ‘idea people’ you say rock ‘n’ roll needs more of?
Ideas? Conceptually or musically or …
I’ll take any ideas.
It’s all about being creative. Sometimes it seems like we’ve ‘run out of ideas’ as a race of humans, but that can’t be true. People get dragged into nostalgia, or try to put two or three things together and make that new, and that’s better than not creating at all, and yet … I don’t know. When I hear a record, I want surprise. There’s gotta be a lot of listeners out there that have never heard this kind of stuff as much as I have, so they don’t need surprises. But I’m just desperate for surprises. Very impatient with mediocrity.
Are ideas finite?
Sometimes things come fast, sometimes things come slow. I don’t worry about it being finite. I don’t deal with writer’s block as seriously as I used to. I don’t worry about it. I’m tooting my own horn here, but by this time of my career, I’ve developed an almost automatic King Midas touch! When I do pick up an acoustic guitar, I might not come out with a complete brilliant masterpiece—that’s my main problem, I’m not able to complete things. … But I love my little unfinished shards. They’re all unique. It’s like classical music. You can come up with an impressive unique riff or chord progression and even if it’s incomplete, at least it’s there. There’s no mediocrity. I can’t believe I have this gift of not ever settling. That’s why I get so impatient with a lot of mediocre recording artists over the decades.
Who was this Uncle Harry who got you started? He helped you make that very first record.
He had great ears and he was of the perfect generation—he was ten years older than me. When I was 15, he was 25 and he knew all about the New York music industry and he was in a great progressive acid rock band from Boston. Ford Theatre, named after John Wilkes Booth. They had two albums on ABC Records, and just kinda imploded—they started to build a following, but the label didn’t supply the merchandise in the cities they were playing and blah-blah-blah. It’s great stuff, though—seek it out! He was the exception to the rule because I was stuck in Nashville in this middle-class family upbringing because my father was making all this money doing these amazing Nashville hit record sessions, but we didn’t have any kind of relationship hardly at all. I was just a normal growing-up-in-the-60s school kid, but just blown away by all the music that was happening in that amazing decade. And Uncle Harry was the only one besides myself that shared that, and he was always supportive, and once I started sending him reel-to-reel tapes, he was blown away. … The home recording thing, it used to be such a dilemma. ‘These are fantastic tapes but they sound terrible! There’s nothing I can do with them. I know somebody who’d be great to plug something with, but we’d have to go into a studio.’ And I hardly ever did. I couldn’t afford to, I didn’t know how to coordinate it—ironic, since I’m in the middle of Nashville, Tennessee. I just did the best I could do with what I had, which was tape recorders.
What did people around you think when you showed up one day with 100 copies of your own LP? That was really rare back then.
Friends dug ’em! My only friends were my musical friends. They never did what I did, as far as the creation of songwriting and playing all the instruments. Otherwise, nobody heard about Phonography! It’s only in retrospect now that people have gone back to it and said something about it now. The big break came cuz—and again this was Uncle Harry who knew Ira Robbins, the head of Trouser Press, who reviewed it in 1977. And the rest is history! We never went deep into advertising budgets or promotion—there was just no money.
Did you sneak them into the stacks at the Sam Goody you worked at?
I did that! Sam Goody even carried the HP catalog for a time.
So are uncaring ex-mallrats in New Jersey sitting on rare original pressings of Phonography at this very moment?
What do you want most and how can we help you get it?
Acknowledgement. Parentheses—bank deposits.