“I know a man without a purpose;
He isolates himself and seeks his own desire;
He argues with all wisdom;
As he sits alone while staring at the fire”
From “Man Without a Purpose” by R. Stevie Moore & Roger Ferguson
No one has ever called R. Stevie Moore a man without purpose.
He has been called “godfather of lo-fi,” “grandfather of home recording” and “hyper prolific do-it-yourself pioneer.” That is because decades before musicians were easily able to record and distribute their music from home with programs such as GarageBand, Moore was recording his music using reel-to-reel tapes in his basement.
Moore recalls his intrinsic motivation to make and record music. “A lot of it was uncontrollable – compelled without compulsion. I didn’t seek out to do this. It just came out of me,” Moore told me. “I had this music inside of me and I wanted to be a pop star.
“It was like a disease that I had to record and write.”
Most musicians seeking pop stardom follow a specific formula – write music, make a demo, and shop it around to labels who will then get them into a studio to make a “real” record. Moore saw no need for the middle man.
“That was never my case. I was never interested in that … I was always the champion of ‘why do demos just have to be demos?’” Moore described. “So what do you do? You make your own records. When I was writing I was the one-man band at home, on tape recorders – reel to reel. It was out of control. Perhaps if somebody might have come by with an offer I might have been interested.
“There was hardly any market for some rock and roll weirdo.”
And without pressure to conform for a record label or a particular audience, Moore let his tastes run wild. His individual songs were often unconventional and his albums would include songs that crossed stereotypical genre norms.
“I have very tuneful and ‘musicianly’ stuff … and I love bad quality sound tape of your little sister crying. And I mash it all up like in a washing machine,” he said. “I would follow a loud screamer rock and roll song with a tender ballad. And then I’d have a little organ recital. And then I’d do a little poem. And I just loved that kind of thing.
“It’s a blender of diversity and free form radio.”
Moore cites many influences including The Beatles’ The White album. And he specifically highlights Frank Zappa’s irreverent style as important in his musical development.
“I’m a huge record collector and music historian. I love beatnik, avant-garde, noise, jazz. I love attempts at all genres and styles – even if I fail. It doesn’t matter,” Moore explained. “Frank Zappa is a good reference point because his records were just all over the map … Zappa leaned into parody, and I’m all about that. I love humor.
“So that’s my religion pretty much – the diversity.”
Moore has long recognized that not everyone would appreciate his approach. He particularly bristles at the notion that music can be categorized into “favorites.”
“People like to play it safe – it’s just as simple as that. And that applies to everything … They rank their favorites and they stick to their favorites and that’s how they live their lives. It’s not right or wrong but it’s safe and easy,” Moore explained. “You’re defiant when you want to be diverse, because everyone else is tunnel vision. I have a problem with the awful habit – of people ranking and rating … I’m not going to worry about trying to claim which is the best Rolling Stones album, which is nonsense.
“Everything is like a David Lettermen Top Ten List.”
And Moore is certainly getting recognized for his principles. In describing Moore, Pitchfork said, “His work reveres the history of American popular music, yet his methods prove you can make an original contribution to that canon without bending to commercial conventions.” LA Weekly concurred, calling Moore, “…a legend in the experimental music world.”
But Moore acknowledges that it’s not always easy when you refuse to play by the rules. “I’m not going to play by the mainstream rules and corporate mindset. It’s kind of tough being a rebel without a cause … I want fame and fortune,” Moore said. “But ironically I’m getting the best thing here late in life and that’s the fact that I’m a number one reference point for the fiercely independent...”
And every so often he considers changing up the way he does things. “People want me to do a straight pop album,” Moore described. “If I wanted to I could make a pop rock R. Stevie Moore album without ruining it by inserting craziness into it. It’s not like I’m addicted to that.
“But in some ways I am.”
Michael A. Friedman, Ph.D., is a clinical psychologist with offices in Manhattan and South Orange, NJ, and is a member of EHE International’s Medical Advisory Board. Contact Dr. Mike at michaelfriedmanphd.com. Follow Dr. Mike on Twitter @drmikefriedman.