Prolific Lo-Fi Legend R. Stevie Moore on a Lifetime of DIY Recording

R. Stevie Moore. Mimi Gibson

Among the new generation of lo-fi artists who still release their albums on cassette tapes and thrive on an accelerated, unvarnished release cycles, Nashville’s R. Stevie Moore is a major deity.

At 65, Moore’s released 500-plus albums on cassette that wear different hats and skip across genres with gleeful abandon. The son of famed Nashville Music City session cat Bob Moore never wanted to hang out and listen to cowboy shit. R. Stevie Moore wanted to rock.

As Moore became a one-man operation, his R. Stevie Moore Cassette Club predicted the tape trading revolution of the ’80s, while his social media page, riddled with puns and non-sequiturs, exposes the hollow vapidity of modern music and feeds his self-stoked mythos as prolific, all-knowing gonzo oracle. “D.I. WIFI {started the thing} ~ NOT LO-FI. LO-IF,” reads his social media subhead.

If the whole DIY ethos embraces the idea that anybody can put on a show, and anybody can make a record, then Moore is living proof that dedicating yourself to your process brings great rewards.

As countless cottage industries around music that have emerged in the last 10 years have hindered local promotional practices from flourishing, and media companies are turning into tech companies, the man who steers his own ship remains a unicorn, or, as he says, a “fucktard.”

The Observer caught up with Moore recently to talk about his new(ish) record with Jason Falkner, Make It Be, his rich history of making music, getting rediscovered and touring the world a little too late in the game, and why there’s no shame in being King Troll.

R. Stevie Moore: I’ve gotta ask you, have we met before, or done this recently?

No, no, I met you online through mutual friend Tim Sommer, and I’ve been listening to your music for a while but enjoyed being Facebook friends with you and watching how good you are are at trolling.

Trolling?! Dude, I am King Troll.

You’re about my parent’s age and they’re very bad at using Facebook. But you seem to have hacked into this mode of using social media tools in a subversive manner that only my strangest, most psychedelic friends do. That’s my one question, re: trolling. What have you learned that my parents still need to learn about how information travels on there and the power of subjectivity? What’s your Zen on this?

I don’t even know that I have a philosophy. I don’t know what I’m doin’, I’m kinda just followin’ my wind, and, like many people, I love it and I loathe it. It’s really an addiction, whether I troll or not.

You seem to relish loathing it outwardly, in front of people.

Yeah, which is kind of my style anyway, it’s the kind of person I am. It’s all too much. You have to admit, it’s so fascinating, the modern world where everybody is on live broadcast. I won’t even bring the new Facebook Live video thing into it, that I don’t like at all.

More noise.

Yeah, and it’s too raw. You need some kind of editing. I hate to be down on it, but all of a sudden, somebody has opened their personal home to you and you sit there, watch it, see other people’s comments…it’s sickening. [Laughs]

How’s Austin? You don’t like to leave home and you sing “I H8 Ppl,” so it’s funny to me that you’re down there. Are you just surrounding yourself with 20-somethings and drinking Mai-Tais?

[Laughs] I’m not in Austin yet, I fly out tomorrow. I live in Nashville, so today’s the big day of packing up and trying to keep my anxiety down. I’m real excited, but I’m 65 now, so I do still like to stay home. In fact, I insist on it. And I have health issues that are worsening, which happens with age. I was touring the world for three, four years there and just had to give it up. Too much burden, you know? And my career started takin’ off, a little too late in life, you know? I was playing festivals, a dream come true, but way too late in life.

You have hands in a lot of little micro-scenes. I know you’re tight with Dr. Dog, Ariel Pink, and the Cambridge Mass kids like John Andrews and Quilt and Drug Rug, they all extol your praises. You’ve had this tremendous effect on the modern American lo-fi generation, and whether or not they give you a Budweiser sponsorship at SXSW, you’ve made your mark in the galaxy.

Yeah, I feel it. I feel it. I’ve been doing tons of interviews because of this Jason Falkner thing, which I love, and it sounds like you’ve done your homework, but everyone’s different in what they know. I’m just pretty much celebrating my aesthetic more than my latest hit single, you know what I mean? A lot of people don’t know that I had pretty much given up making proper rock and pop, rock and roll music. I just kinda maintain my back catalog, I don’t record much anymore.

You redo a bunch of your older songs on the new record with Falkner. You redo “Another Day Slips Away,” “I Love You, We Love Me”—are you in this period of looking back in the interest of sifting the pan through the silt and looking for gold nuggets?

Maybe, but that’s nothing new, I’ve always been like that. At least in the last half of my career. But the first half of my career was just total, unbridled passion with being prolific. I had no agenda except to just let this stuff out on reel to reel tapes, and then over the decades, I’ve seen all the formats—the cassettes and the CD-R burners—and now I’m finally into the .wav files. I don’t have Pro Tools, that’s way beyond me. I do some kind of recording on the computer, but just to sound paint. Not to do studio overdubs.

Just sketches or demos to get an idea?

Yeah, demos have always been part of my religion. I’ve never been stuck like most people are with putting down lo-fi bad quality demos and always assuming I don’t want anybody to hear this because it’s inferior. That’s the opposite of how I’ve worked my entire life.

That’s a very freeing process for a lot of young musicians. You’re a unicorn. Is your hair still blue, by the way?

No.

Well you were a unicorn, now you’re a centaur or something.

I’m a fucktard, man. Yeah. [Laughs]

The first recording you ever made, “But You Love Me, Daddy” with Jim Reeves, is a weird song. Maybe it’s the time I’m living in versus when it was made. Do you connect it to the sense of humor and snark that runs through your work?

That was just a voiceover, that wasn’t my conceptual thing. My father got me the session because they needed a little boy’s voice. And it’s ironic too, because of my fabled horrible relationship with my own father. So there’s big irony there—”But You Love Me, Daddy.” But there’s no agenda of that having anything to do with my career of comedy, not at all.

You don’t even hear the humor?

Oh I hear it, of course! But that’s in retrospect. I was eight years old, so I had no purpose to try and convey anything there, had no idea what my future was even gonna be. But again, it’s supreme irony that becomes my first recording ever. It even went unreleased for 10 years, posthumously, because that’s ’64 when Reeves was killed in a plane crash, during the height of Beatlemania, and there was a huge rush on putting out unreleased stuff. It become a minor hit in ’69 in the U.K. of all things, and I wasn’t even aware of it then. I was 17 years old in 1969. That’s a fascinating part of my career, but there’s not much you can say about it except that it happened.

How fabled is this wrought relationship with your dad? Even your approach to recording and perfectionism was so different from that of the country gentry you were growing up around. What you eventually wound up doing was such a left turn, and we all rebel against our parents in different ways. If our parents raise us super-religious, we’re probably gonna go off and get fucked. If our parents are super-hippies, we may grow up to only wear suits. Was this sonic approach a reaction against what you’re dad was doing?

I was defiant, but it was an automatic pilot defiance. It was easy to be defiant, because I came equipped with the weapons of Jimi Hendrix, Brian Wilson, Beatles, that’s what was interesting to me. And the country thing, I really had no opinion, but in the ’70s there were unwritten expectations for me to follow in his footsteps. And that maybe just means being a session cat. The money was incredible for those guys—they’re doing four sessions a day.

Well Chet Atkins produced that track. You must have some amazing stories about these guys buried somewhere in your brain, or about the history that surrounded you.

I just kind of rode the waves, and a lot of it I don’t remember, the intensity of how it was for me. I was a quiet kid, and knew that I had talent. My big thing was diversity.

R. Stevie Moore on the cover of his album Drip and Dribble (draft). R. Stevie Moore

You’ve also said diversity is your religion.

Yeah, and that’s in life, in art, and fortunately, I was able to make these home tapes and go all over the map stylistically. That was religious to me, and it kinda still is. My big pet peeve these days is that we live in a world where everything is ranked and rated by favorites. Talk about King Troll, I’m screaming my brains out, “No, there is no Top 10 David Letterman List!” Sure, we have preferences, but keep ’em to yourself, and don’t go around preachin’ that this is the very best XTC album. It’s ridiculous!

I know what you mean. We have to do a lot of lists in journalism because people read them, but I don’t rank things in them. I’ll collect things but won’t ascribe a hierarchy to them.

For me, the diversity of life is that every day is different. It’s ridiculous to have a favorite artist and throw everybody else in the gutter. Because it depends on my mood, what I wanna listen to. I’ll be into a heavy avant-classical thing and then I’ll forget all about it a week later and be listening to hardcore punk!

Is that why you like The Lemon Twigs so much? They come through many different songs, often in the same song. What is it about them that resonates to you so much?

The ’60s singer-songwriter thing, the Emitt Rhodes, Harry Nilsson, a lot of that. I like fucking hard, hard post-industrial punk rock, and certainly there’s not much of that in The Lemon Twigs music, but that’s fine. Hah! Everybody has their certain limitations, and that’s fine, too. I don’t expect everybody to be R. Stevie Moore or Frank Zappa, just ba ba ba ba ba, knocking you over the head with diversity. I like ambient music too, which is sort of anti-music, just sound.

But with The Lemon Twigs, it’s the whole thing—the image, the freshness of youth, that great brother thing they’ve got going, like The Everly Brothers. It just fell into place, they’re huge R. Stevie Moore fans. I regret one of the first things I said when somebody turned me on back in November to one of their YouTube videos was, “This is fantastic, but they’re gonna have to change that stupid band name.”

They found out I said that, and they laughed, kinda, and in fact I’ve met them since and they sort of understand what I was getting at. [Laughs] Sure enough, the reason I said that was because they were gonna get famous and wish that they had a better name, not it’s too late. And I can live with it now, their music is very Lemon Twig-like, whatever that means.

There’s an absurd whimsy, their name reminds me of Syd Barrett’s “Baby Lemonade,” a kind of paisley, traipsing, “I don’t take myself too seriously” kind of vibe.

Right, for sure. But they’ve got that whole other thing. They’re fantastic musicians and arrangers. And the album is just knockout incredible. Especially for it to drop in the age we live in, with stupid hip-hop and autotune. Nobody cares about retro, you know? And they don’t really sound like music your parents or grandparents listened to.

You left Tennessee for New Jersey at some point. Why?

For family. My mother was from Patterson, N.J., and all through my childhood I was always going up to visit relatives. And my mother’s brother is Harry Palmer, he was one of the first guys who really saw what I was doing, he was in the North and I was here in Nashville, sending him tapes, and he was loving it.

This was the psychedelic ’60s and ’70s—he knew that I didn’t care about country or boogie, which became this Southern rock thing that happened in the ’70s that was even worse for me than cowboy-hat country, what my dad was doing. And I never even listened to country once.

Then I graduated high school, and all through the ’70s I was into drugs and hard rock, growing hair long, and that’s when the Southern rock thing was going crazy. Allman Brothers, that’s all you could hear down here.

R. Stevie Moore (L) circa Phonography with his uncle, Harry Palmer. R. Stevie Moore

So that’s why I moved to New Jersey in 1978, because my uncle Harry said, “You’ve gotta get outta Nashville.” I was already starting with my bedroom home recordings, and we got an article in Trouser Press, a review of Phonography, my first album.

You mentioned Trouser earlier, and I was close with Ira Robbins and have still never even met Tim Sommer. I knew about him, he was part of the ’80s scene with Hugo Largo and Maxwell’s in Hoboken. But then, when he got on MTV, that was funny. Oh, I also remember Tim from the legendary Noise the Show! You know what I’m talking about? The legendary punk rock radio show at NYU. He just screamed on the mike and was playing all these amazing 7-inches.

So that was starting to happen when I moved to New Jersey, I worked at Sam Goody’s Records, my uncle Harry got me a job, and there I am suddenly in North New Jersey, you know, and I always understood and joked around with “why New Jersey,” but living there I never noticed much about that.

I was only 13 miles from The Lincoln Tunnel, but I never got into the city, I didn’t care about going to clubs or seeing bands, although I did make visits to Hurrah and Danceteria. And [recording] Clack! was only because of connections, it had nothing to do with me escaping New Jersey to get into Manhattan. I was at a little jingle studio right near Times Square, tiny, and suddenly I was on an eight-track reel, and after the session I’d get on the bus and go home.

This is jumping forward, but I moved back to Nashville in 2010 after 33 years in New Jersey because of a relationship dissolving, and I fled in panic not knowing what I was gonna do. I never thought I’d come back to Nashville. Of course, Nashville’s changed so much in 30 to 40 years. It’s still a little backward, as well it should be. It’s not an urban kinda thing here, although it’s really taken off.

All big cities are exploding with condos and all that shit. So I moved back down here and, lo and behold, some new friends in Brooklyn who are starting a new film documentary on me called me up and said, “How would you feel about putting a band together?”

I said, “I just escaped the North, all of a sudden you want me to come back?” They talked about putting together a tour and I thought, “Well this is ridiculous, I can’t even get down to the corner market!” But that all came to be.

My first tours were booked strictly on email, by the guys in Brooklyn, and all of a sudden I’m on a plane going up to Brooklyn. I was never in Brooklyn in the ’80s or ’90s, just Jersey and maybe Greenwich Village. But in 2011 I’m going up to Brooklyn, hanging with my new band, and we’re starting to tour around the country.

In three to four years I went global. I still can’t believe it happened. I was playing festivals in Europe. In 2013, in June alone, I played a show in Mexico City and Moscow—in the same fuckin’ month. And these were one-offs, not part of tours. It was cool money, and I’d started to build a great reputation. They said what you said: “Hey, I thought you liked to stay home, what are you doing in Scandanavia?” I enjoyed it, I enjoyed the shows, but I didn’t enjoy the burden of the work and doing one-nighters, long drives in the van…

R. Stevie Moore, combin’. Mimi Gibson

These young bands feel the same way about playing SXSW. Load in, load out kicks your ass.

Yeah, and nobody really cares on the success bandwagon. This is gonna be funny too, I don’t know how much you know about Jason Falkner. He plays with Beck, so he’s getting a kick out of this. He plays arenas around the world with Beck as a side guy, and now we’re gonna be doing this stupid taco truck SXSW thing with no payback, he’s not gonna be making any money. It’s not something he’d wanna do all the time, and he’s struggled, too, with his solo career, trying to play the game with the machine.

Falkner’s respected as a power-pop god. His output connects me back to Tennessee when I think about Big Star and the AM pop vibe that pops up on this record. Do you have a particular love for that sound? What was the intention with letting R. Stevie Moore sounds merge with Falkner sounds?

I don’t think we had any direction in doing that. He had suggestions of some of his favorite early R. Stevie songs, in fact, the first thing we did in the sessions was “I H8 People,” and that turned out to be the opener on the record, the first thing people are hearing. That’s an old song from ’80, and more even hard rock, which I love. That’s what I was doing with my band the past four years—not punk, not metal—more like Mott the Hoople hard rock, in fact, I called it “hard cock rock.”

There’s a glammy vibe to it for sure. But it definitely reminds me of Big Star at some points.

Yeah, there’s some of that. I was never a huge fanatic on Big Star, especially when I lived here. I own original copies of the first two records, which I’m proud of, and might even need to put ’em on Ebay if I need to pay the rent. But I wasn’t huge on Chilton. I liked Chris Bell more than Chilton, but I was never fanatical. For me it’s more the U.K., like Badfinger. I dug The Raspberries, they’re Cleveland. The power-pop thing, I don’t know, I always had it in my music anyway. But it was great to have Faulkner polish it up.

Chris Bell was kind of like Big Star’s Syd Barrett in a lot of ways. He laid a foundation for that band to be as good as they were, and was kind of the tragic, young sacrifice in the same way. Even The Stones had Brian Jones, who a lot of purists feel was the secret god of that band. Just to live past 27 in this business is almost enough.

Totally.

What’s the deal with this Huey Smith and The Clowns cover, “Don’t You Just Know It”? 

I don’t know! I wanted to do it, I wanted to leave it off of the album and let it be a cool bonus track or b-side. It was fun while we did it. There’s not much more to say about it. It’s kind of silly, a waste of three or four minutes that could be a killer song, but whatever. There’s no agenda. I grew up with that stuff. I love New Orleans stuff, and that song’s already been covered successfully. There’s no reason for R. Stevie and Jason Falkner to do it. [Laughs] But we did it anyway.

It’s interesting, too, that this album is five years old. That’s something people aren’t really realizing. We recorded it November 2012 in Hollywood, and nobody realizes that because we had so much trouble trying to find what to do with it! We didn’t wanna just give it away to some stupid independent label, you know, and I kept waiting for Jason to come up with some great news with his connections, with The Grays and Jellyfish, he’s really been burnt by the major label system, too.

We’ll it’s a good thing this record came out.

Yeah, and the Bar/None [Records] people I know from Jersey, Glenn Murrow and the Hoboken scene, WFMU. I was huge on FMU!

R. Stevie Moore at WFMU. R. Stevie Moore

So you feel more connected to that scene than any other I guess.

That’s right, and interesting connection here, too. We’re talking about R. Stevie Moore’s diversity, well, me getting on FMU was fantastic because it was free form! I was one of the first that did radio shows that would play Wagner, then The Sex Pistols, then hillbilly, then great funk.

And I was a huge music historian, still am, and record collector. When there was a brand new Buzzcocks single, you heard it on FMU first, you know? I was a guiding light there, and I wasn’t there that long. I had problems with transportation. I gave up driving, haven’t driven a fuckin’ car since the mid-’80s, I didn’t need to. I had record store jobs near my residence in Jersey.

How do you make this appearance at SXSW, be “in it” and do your thing, but also go at your own pace? Where do you draw the party boundaries for yourself?

Well I don’t know, I’m just lucky to be alive at this point. I have some severe health issues walking, some arthritis, so I’m not gonna be able to party on like I used to, and I’m down with that. No big deal. But I’m certainly not interested in checking out bands. There’s gonna be 10,000 bands.

The Lemon Twigs are playing.

I know that, hopefully we’re gonna cross paths. And just recently I got a Twitter message from Sean Lennon, who’s a big fan!

He’s got really good taste.

I was just pretty freaked out. We’ve had an ongoing messaging conversation, and I’ve been shipping him up packages of my merch and my vinyl. I’m sitting on all kinds of R. Stevie Moore releases, and I do some mail order, but that’s sort of a hassle. Too bad I’m not good with merch, because when I play gigs, even SXSW, I wish I could bring a whole bunch of merch and bring back a couple hundred dollars.

You mentioned the tape club, too, and through all of this, mainly in New Jersey, I was on top of everything. I was on top of the DIY thing, doing the cassette thing right before the cassette revolution happened, and that was perfect for me. I had this word-of-mouth thing happening, and somebody invented the World Wide Web, and that was perfect for me! All along it was, “Man, I love your music, but you can’t find it in stores here in Italy.” Now, everybody is a mouse click away. It’s been wonderful.

You do everything yourself, so I imagine having everything in one place like that is liberating.

Yeah, it’s a communication medium, and like we said at the beginning of this conversation, I’m King Troll, being vulnerable because I like to reach out to people, and then I pay the price! They’re like, “Wait, this guy is a lunatic!”

If people don’t get the joke, fuck ’em.

Exactly, but there is a price to pay for being too vulnerable and leaving my stuff wide open. I’m constantly looking for new relationships with women, which is a joke, given my age.

You’ve just gotta find the right woman, man. There’s a lot of young ladies who love LSD and would surely spend lots of time with you.

Yeah, but I’d get very bored, very quickly.

Prolific Lo-Fi Legend R. Stevie Moore on a Lifetime of DIY Recording