Monday, 8 October 2012
INTERVIEWED: R. Stevie Moore for Dazed & Confused
“It’s been a total shock,” bellows R Stevie Moore as he reclines in his chair at The Shacklewell Arms in Dalston, London, late one June afternoon. He’s referring to the kudos boost he recently received in becoming the cover star for that critical barometer, Wire magazine. His phone hasn’t stopped ringing during his current UK tour. “Everything’s changed immensely since then. People can’t believe it. My first ever magazine cover! It’s all good.”
Take the above quote out of its context and you might assume this is an artist in the first five years of his career. The excitement over his first magazine cover. The shock of sudden exposure. But this particular artist, white-bearded home-recording legend Mr Robert Steven Moore, is a little further into his career than that. Some 40-odd years in. “I was doing DIY before I even knew it had a name,” he explains. “And now they’re calling me the grandfather of DIY, because everybody’s doing it. The corporations are falling.”
Moore knows who to thank most of all for this revival of fortune – Ariel Pink, the nearest thing the blog age has to an iconoclastic, underground rock-star with the mystery and tunes to back it up. Pink has been bigging Moore up for years, and put together his selection of his hero’s output, Ariel Pink’s Picks Vol. 1, last year. Together with a little help from James Ferraro and a few others, Moore and Pink can be credited with influencing a whole (if admittedly almost entirely journo-made) genre, the awkwardly named hypnagogic pop.
A Moore obsessive, Pink introduced himself to his hero by writing him a letter, including with it a CD-R of his own 1999 record, The Doldrums, and a list of tapes that he wanted to purchase. He was surprised when an email from the man himself appeared a while later. “I had just set up my Hotmail account,” says Pink. “Signing on and seeing that my first email was from him was the most exciting thing to have happened in my life up to that point.” Moore immediately recognized similarities between their approaches – “although he doesn’t much sound like me,” he clarifies, and Pink seems to fetishise retro recording methods while Moore switched to digital years ago – and the pair have been firm friends and musical collaborators ever since, releasing the 61-track Ku Klux Glam together early this year.
Pink is one of the most persistent collectors of Moore’s discography around, owning over 200 releases. “There are periods where he was really inspired and musically driven, and periods when he was so frustrated with the futility of life that he was throwing any junk on tape and just called it a fucking record.
“At some point in the early 80s he just didn’t care, fell into the abyss and embraced it. I really felt that you got a feeling of the man from his tapes, that he was cataloguing his stuff like a diarist. You really get the sense of the times from him, just what it felt like to be a freak, tuned into the zeitgeist and becoming a product of it.”
Growing up the son of Bob Moore, one of Nashville’s most sought-after bass players, gave Moore Jr a natural predisposition to composition and performance. “I have my father’s ear,” he says. Bob Moore was abusive to his family due to the stress his fame brought with it, which partly explains his son’s willingness to avoid the industry at large. An outsider he may be, but it is probably impossible for someone whose Dad recorded with Elvis and Patsy Cline to feel completely separate from the lineage of rock’n’roll. “Elvis Presley was in his bedroom Roy Orbison was at his dinner table,” affirms Pink. “He was so close to the source and he knows it. It’s natural.”
Moore started recording on reel-to-reel in the late 1960s, creating early releases such as On Graycroft (1968), put together by a 16-year-old Moore in his parents’ basement using his father’s Crown tape machine and stereo deck. Though it sounds extremely primitive, even for a musician known for his lo-fi tendencies, the record saw Moore starting as he meant to go on, fusing together myriad styles and subjects, from the nasal bossanova croon of “Midsummer Reflection” to the folk-on- Quaaludes of “Grandpa Has a Beer Gut”.
He moved to New Jersey in 1978 to be near his uncle Harry Palmer, and stayed for 30 years. “My main thing was to escape Nashville, which was very backward musically. Country, boogie, southern rock, Allman Brothers. I was making Ziggy Stardust kinda music. The music Industry Nashville-style would never accept any experimentation, so I had to get out of there.” Palmer released Moore’s early records – such as Phonography (1976) and Delicate Tension (1978) – on his label HP Music. It was perfect timing: “When I got to New York it was skinny ties, spiky hair and Ramones.” Nevertheless, he went to CBGB sparingly, and remained on the outskirts of the scene despite the world’s press and A&R stalking the Lower East Side in search of the next new wave sensation. “I’m not a nightlife person. I should have really planted myself on the streets and plugged away, but I’m not a very good salesman so I never thought of going down and trying to convince people to sign me. It was a struggle.”
For Moore, postpunk took over where 70s experimentalists such as Beefheart and Zappa left off. “Public Image Ltd changed my life! That whole postpunk thing, minimalist dub, drums and bass. It almost sounds like fragments, not finished songs. I loved that music.” He became part of the underground homemade music scene. “Right after that was the cassette revolution. Indie labels. It was perfect.” While he received some good reviews and international exposure, the records “made a dent, but didn’t sell very well. I didn’t care about playing the game. Through the 80s, my uncle was hoping I’d get a band together, but I had no idea how to do it.”
He used to fantasise about trying to reach out to his heroes – Todd Rundgren, Frank Zappa, David Bowie – by getting letters to their doors. Recently things have changed. Mike Watt of the Minutemen, Jason Falkner, David Shrigley, Deerhoof, the Strokes and the Vaccines are all big fans. “And MGMT,” adds JR Thomason of Moore’s Texan backing/support band, Tropical Ooze. “After our first show we had these two superfine girls backstage. They were like, drop-dead gorgeous, not just like the girls on Bedford Avenue. I was like, ‘Man! I didn’t know that playing for Stevie Moore was gonna be like this, but thank God!’ It turns out they were the girlfriends of the two stoned dudes in MGMT. Those guys were like, ‘Man, Stevie’s the Godhead, Stevie’s the best!’ Totally bowing down to him. It was kind of surreal.” Moore, meanwhile, jokes about trying to find Jack White, who moved to Nashville from Detroit in 2006. “He’s taken over my hometown. I dig where he’s coming from, but I haven’t tracked him down yet...”
Pink aptly describes Moore as “an all-access enigma”. The phrase nails the fact that, for all his underground credentials, accessing Moore’s material has never been a problem. He has two YouTube channels full of curiosities, and there are over 200 albums on his Bandcamp page (he estimates that he has made over double that in his life). One reason why he has fit so well with the times is that, once the internet established an insatiable need for more and more content, he was on hand with hundreds if not thousands of hours of quality music; work that would make inroads into the heartland of a genre before careering 180 degrees into something completely different, via a parodic interlude. His music has long been eclectic and hard to define, yet pinned down by his personality as a songwriter and performer. Even if one song is inspired by the Beach Boys and another by hip hop, chances are you’ll recognise both as R Stevie Moore. He champions “freedom and diversity. Every album that I have made is like a mixtape of various artists. Never just one style. I always loved doing that.”
More than not knowing how to play the game, it feels as if there was an element of self-sabotage involved, as if Moore evolved an in-built characteristic to avoid succumbing to the pressures of fame like his father and heroes such as Brian Wilson. In return, he has kept hold of his creative autonomy.
He concedes that half of his job now is as his own archivist, but it’s hardly a new role. Years before he could export it online, Moore kept everything he had ever made in his home in New Jersey. “Stacks of tape were part of every room. (I had) a huge record collection. I have digitised most of it now but I still worry that I don’t have a lot of backups. Ideally I need all my music on external hard drives in climate controlled rooms.” A fan from Lisbon helped get his videos together on YouTube; now, if you search for him on that website, the first video that comes up is for 1986’s “I Like to Stay Home”. It begins with a dressing-gown-clad Moore eyeballing the viewer, and unravels into a nonchalant, deadpan performance that mocks the very act of making a music video. “Everything I do is like that,” he says. “I’m mocking myself all the time.”
Now 60, he had never extensively toured with a band until last year. “I started a whole new rock’n’roll career at age 59, as far as live performance goes. I had fantasised but just couldn’t coordinate it. There’s a lot of logistics you have to do, getting players and funds and a van and rehearsal space.” His band “fell into my lap” after filmmaker Jon Demiglio started hanging out with him to work on Phonography: the R Stevie Moore Story, a documentary still in its early stages. Demiglio suggested he go on the road with his friends Tropical Ooze as backing band. “I said, ‘You gotta be kidding. I can’t even get down the corner store – I can’t go on tour!’ But we all just did it.”
His live set-up is an unashamedly rock proposition, featuring beefed-up (yet still sensitive when needed) versions from Stevie’s huge back-catalogue. Thomason’s relationship with Moore mirrors Ariel Pink’s – he became a collaborator after first being a fan. “I had become infatuated with Stevie’s music through YouTube. When we agreed to tour with him, I didn’t know how famous he was – you see 50,000 views on YouTube or something, you don’t know what that means. We wondered if we were gonna play in front of 20 people or 500. But I was impressed with how many people turned up in the middle of the United States.”
“It’s gonna be like this until I drop,” says Moore. “I don’t have much time left to procrastinate. The beauty is that I don’t have to worry about coming up with new music that is vital; I have the back catalogue of a dream. Forty years of music. A lot of people are discovering the 70s recordings as if they were recorded yesterday.”
The photographer starts taking pictures as Moore orders his second glass of shiraz and immediately starts to pose. He’s always aware of the camera, sliding up against a pillar and acting coy when the snapper asks him to ignore the camera. “I’m sorry I’m posing,” he says. The photographer jokes that he is enjoying it a bit too much. “No, I’m not. I’m sick of it,” he says, sounding slightly hurt, before quietly and instinctively uttering “I like to stay home,” the title to one of his most celebrated songs. It feels like a glimpse into the wrench it must be to leave the freedom of home behind for somebody who has relied on it for so many years. Later on, as Moore and his band blast through a valedictorian two hour set in Dalston basement venue Birthdays, the song’s power is realised as an anthem for the post- Google age of terminal procrastination. Flipped on its head, distraction becomes the ultimate creative act – a defiance in the face of external pressures to be economical with time, to go get ’em. It describes better than anything else just how Robert Steven Moore got here: “I don’t care about going anywhere / I don’t care about appearing anywhere / I got enough to do right here.”