The Handshake Interview with R. Stevie Moore
by Jacob Singer / Photograph Courtesy R. Stevie Moore
One way to think about contemporary American music is to put pop music on one end of the spectrum and independent music on the other. Both are looking to reach a broad audience, but have very different ways of going about doing so. Musicians like Taylor Swift have a team of agents, lawyers, public relations gurus, professional backing musicians, and production assistants, all working for Taylor Swift. On the opposite end of the spectrum is Robert Steven Moore, America’s most prolific DIY musician. Since his first album, Phonography (1976), Moore has self-released over 400 albums, mostly distributed through his mail-order catalogue, and has made dozens of videos, now available on YouTube.
Moore started out in the thick of the Nashville music machine playing music with his father, a backing musician for Elvis Presley. He could have been a part of the pop machine, but he decided to do things differently. And now, at age fifty-nine, Moore is planning his first world tour. -Jacob Singer
The Handshake: At age nine you were brought into the world of music. You grew up in Nashville. Your father was a session musician who played with Elvis Presley. Tell me about your musical influences as a child.
R. Stevie Moore: It’s such a long story, so involved. On one level it’s so middle class and ordinary, and yet on the other hand we’re talking about a massive musical and cultural avalanche. With my father, we had a swimming pool and everything was amazing, but there was an abusive, distant relationship, which I don’t even want to get into. There was all this money but not a lot of human interaction. He played great hillbilly music, but I hated country music. All I cared about were hits and 45s.
HS: Who were your influences?
RSM: I was influenced by my age and my peer group. I was the perfect age in 1964 for when the Beatles exploded. I was a Beatles kid. And that means Hendrix, Zappa, and smoking pot…I was the perfect age for the Woodstock Generation. I had nothing to do with what was happening in Nashville, which was regimented hillbilly music. Now it blows my mind. It’s fantastic music, just like the blues. I was never into the blues. In the ‘70s I had no patience for what was happening in Nashville, which was Allman Brothers southern blues. It was three, four chords only. I was following Bowie, Roxy Music, Sparks, 10cc, Queen…I had to split. From then on I was DIY, which was pretty much what the Beatles were. They burst all the rules. They didn’t tolerate mediocrity.
HS: Tell me about your first home studio. How did you build it?
RSM: There’s never been a home studio. It was a simple matter of having a reel-to-reel tape recorder in the bedroom. I did it at home when I was living with my parents, in the basement, just like many kids in the ‘60s. Recording has never been more than tinkering with recorders. Back in the old days I had no multi-track, meaning I had a little stereo tape deck. And back and forth, bouncing, tape generation…5, 6, 7, or 8 passes until the first track sounds like static. Now everything’s digital—a mouse click. I’ve never had a home “studio.” It’s always just been pieces of equipment: little microphones, mixers, keyboard. I’ve used them all. I’ve lost some, gained some. But I’m not a techie person. I also have financial problems where I can’t just go out and blow money on upgraded compressors. I don’t even care. How good does it have to sound?
HS: Are you recording now?
RSM: I’ve recently started on the most important record of my entire career with money from my Kickstarter success, which happened two to three months ago. I raised eleven grand to record a brand new album. I will be doing that with a friend who has Pro Tools, which is great, even through it kind of works against my lo-fi philosophy. I don’t really have a set philosophy. It’s all or nothing at all. I don’t mind being very commercial and mainstream and being over produced. But I also love the lo-fi, off-the-cuff. Stop making all those edits.
HS: After all these years, do you like having someone there to help you?
RSM: I will always be known as the man who needs an editor, and I’ll totally agree with that. I’m a diary recordist. To me, everything I record is valid. I can’t pick and choose. I can’t think about which R. Stevie Moore fan will like this piece or that piece. There are some people who love my most bizarre stuff. I can be profane. I love noise and the worst possible incorrect music. But on the other hand I have this talent for re-arranging Beach Boys and Beatles or whatever it is I do. I love it all.
To me, everything I record is valid. I can’t pick and choose. I can’t think about which R. Stevie Moore fan will like this piece or that piece. There are some people who love my most bizarre stuff. I can be profane. I love noise and the worst possible incorrect music.
HS: Has it always been just you playing solo?
RSM: I went through the whole rock combo thing. We were doing covers. I was in bands we played dances, sock hops. But that was the late ‘60s, and people were growing their hair out and experimenting with vices and getting in trouble and dropping out of school. I didn’t drop out of school, but I dropped out of college. I was a great high school student—graduated in 1970 and then went to Vanderbilt. It was way over my head with all these egghead, smart people from all over the country. I just didn’t care about it at that time. I’ve never been that good of a book learner.
On the other hand, I have also had a well-honed talent for learning overdubs. All those one-man bands were major influences on me: Paul McCartney, Stevie Wonder, and Todd Rundgren. They came out with these albums where they played all these instruments. People ask if I became a one man band because I couldn’t find other musicians or because I didn’t like to play with other musicians. It’s all of the above. There’s no right or wrong. It’s a convenience factor. Go figure, Todd Rundgren sitting around all these instruments and equipment—much more expensive than anything I’ve ever had—he’s gonna make a record. It’s a no-brainer. That’s how it has been. It’s not because I didn’t like working with other musicians. I’ve done both, but I started as the alone-in-the-bedroom guy.
HS: Tell me about your decision to move from Nashville to New Jersey. Did you know people there?
RSM: I had to get out of Nashville. I split and came up to New Jersey, and I was twelve miles from the Lincoln Tunnel. I didn’t just go on my own, though. I could never do that. I had a job waiting for me at a Sam Goody record store. I had an uncle who was a long-time supporter of what I was doing, who helped me put together my first album, Phonography.
The Talking Heads and the Ramones were exploding. I was never big on playing live in Nashville, never had my own band. There was a rumor that I had a band in high school called The Marlborough, but that was kind of a joke. They were just my buds. I was in bands, a lounge-rock band playing inns, but they were never R. Stevie Moore. I never had a band. Once I started making home recording around ’72 or ‘73 I was never out playing clubs, hanging, schmoozing on the street. I hated that. I’m a hermit. I have social problems with trying to mingle with the business. It didn’t matter. It was great to stay home.