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INTERVIEWS MITCH EASTER
BREAK THROUGHAfter nearly 30 years of producing, and performing with various musical outfits, MITCH EASTER has finally released his first solo album DYNAMICO and it only took him 18 years. One can't accuse EASTER of jumping on something while it's hot. After his band LET'S ACTIVE disbanded in 1989, MITCH fell back on that other thing he does best; producing. In the nineties, EASTER's production credits included the likes of MARSHALL CRENSHAW, PAVEMENT and VELVET CRUSH. As impressive as those indie credentials sound just imagine the attention and notoriety the guy received when people learned that it was he who produced R.E.M.'s groundbreaking single RADIO FREE EUROPE and their first two albums MURMUR and RECKONING. With all the recognition for working with R.E.M. it was easy to overlook the fact that he had a rather fine band of his own with LET'S ACTIVE and even easier to overlook that MITCH EASTER has resurfaced with an excellent new release.
MITCH EASTER TALKS TO ROCKWIRED
ABOUT HIS NEW CD DYNAMICO
PRODUCING R.E.M.'s EARLY ALBUMS
WHAT TOOK HIM SO LONG TO PRODUCE HIS FIRST SOLO PROJECT
INTERVIEWED BY BRIAN LUSH
ROCKWIRED spoke with MITCH EASTER over the phone. Here is how it went.
What took you so long to record your first solo record? Was it too many things happening at once? Busy with production?
No it was just being stupid. I was in the bands LET"S ACTIVE and that band split up in 1990 and I assumed that I would immediately go on to make the next thing but the thing was,I didn't know ho to do it. I' d have to get a record deal and all that and by then I was 35 and i was thinking I was sort of high and dry for the music business. It was very unimaginative to think that way. I had seen the difference between being a local band kind of person and and playing for tiny crowds that are sort of hanging around and looking bored and how it changed when we had a record company helping us and promoting us. It was like night and day. It was hard for me to imagine making a record any other way. I could've done but no one would've heard it and that kind of stopped me in my tracks in a way. I continued to write songs and over time I just accumulated them. i didn't really do anything with them. As time went on I would occassionally talk to people who had indie labels and stuff in a very casual kind of way. It started striking me more and more that this doesn't make any sense anymore. Most of those people (record labels) were trying to talk to me like I was twenty and trying to get on the radio and i was like "that's not gonna happen." There is a whole other music world out there that i should try to be doing. So I thought the Indie route was the way i needed to go rather than look foolish in trying to be something that I'm not. The record companies really weren't thinking that way yet. They still never have. They still go back to that same old model which now kind of showing it's age. The record business is really sort of falling apart. It exists but it doesn't have the power that it used to. Anyway, enough time went on and I continued writing songs and the world really did change to where I finally realized that it didn't matter how I put something out. The main thing was to do it purely for some artistic reason which sound kind of high and mighty - I don't mean it like that. But you know what I mean. To make music for the pure reason of "music is a good thing to do." I've always gotten letters and e-mails from people over the years who remembered me and wanted me to do something. I could have a tiny audience but it's still an audience.
I was reading in ALL MUSIC GUIDE where they described the last two LET'S ACTIVE albums as being solo records. Do you agree with that at all.
Yeah. It was my band and I was the one that wrote the songs for the most part. I did demos for the songs that I wrote and I did pretty complete demos and demos of the LET'S ACTIVE material sounds about identical to what you hear on the albums. That was sort of my heritage anyway. The original band was me and FAYE HUNTER and SARA ROMWEBER and we didn't last very long at all. After they left, I didn't want to quit so it was time to make another record and the band didn't exist and I just started recording again in my demo kind of way . That was the BIG PLANS record that we put out. A lot of it was just me playing everything.
I just want to say that DYNAMICO is a great CD. Who all did you work with in putting it together?
Not hardly anybody. Mostly me playing stuff. i engineered it too. The band that I've been playing with in recent months is on there in pieces. We really didn't track anything with that band. SHALINI CHATTERJEE on bass and ERIC MARSHAL on drums can be heard here and there, but most of it is stuff that I accumulated on my own. Weirdly enough working that way is the most efficient thing to do. I really like working this way. I don't have any kind of manifesto behind it. When I was listening to the tracks that I had, some of them had earlier versions that had other people playing on them. For some reason, they got the songs off the way I wanted them to. It really is a solo record.
Now that DYNAMICO is finished how do you feel about it?
I think it's OK. It's hard to do something and be 100% satisfied with it. Part of my methodology here was to be real sort of brutal. I didn't want to allow myself to go back and fuss with things. I'd end up doing that forever and it's already been forever since I've put out anything. The main thing is to move in a straight line to the end. There are couple thing there where if I had the chance, I'd mix certain things again but why? No one is going to care about that stuff except me. It's an Okay batch of songs. Right now, I just wanna make the next record. That's the way I think you should feel. I think it turned out pretty good.
Growing up what artists got to you?
I was really lucky in that when I was a kid, my parents listened to rock radio. It was kind of interesting for their generation. A lot of their peers didn't like rock music when it came out, but my parents did. When I was little I was hearing things like BUDDY HOLLY on the radio and th girl groups and STAX soul stuff. When the British Invasion stuff happened, I really did perk up. I was at the age where you really really get to be excited about music which is to say nine years old or something like that. I really thought that music made this great leap forward with THE BEATLES but it was the stuff that happened in the mid-sixties that really got me going but I didn't really think about playing myself. But after a while I had to figure out how I was going to do this, and I wasn't a musician. For me to start playing guitar really took some effort. THE MONKEES was a really big deal for me because I could imagine learning their songs. THE BEATLES songs just seemed impossible.
They are hard to learn.
They are. Actually, THE MONKEES songs were really good songs but somehow they came across as a little less sophisticated and a little bit more friendly to a kid. Some of the first stuff I learned to play on guitar was by THE MONKEES and also THE VENTURES. THE VENTURES were sort of already passe in the mid to late sixties but they were still making tons of records and they were great records. It was really helpful to me as a guitar player and I still listen to those records. I really liked psychedelic music and I really liked JIMI HENDRIX. There was guy in town here who was a couple of years older than me but he seemed like he was ten years older than me because if his sophistication. He saw me play one night and wanted me and the drummer to jam with him and it was this incredible experience where we learned to play PURPLE HAZE. that was incredible ./ I wasn't good enough to understand how any of that stuff worked but I couldn't believe how it sounded and that guy showed me how to play those songs and somehow that was my escape route from reality. I stopped worrying about junior high after that. Growing up I kind of stayed with a lot of the big time rock n roll music that everyone else was listening to. In the mid to late seventies, i was getting kind of depressed about music and I was getting to the age where I was thinking that it was time to be a professional rock musician. The stuff on the radio I thought was terrible.
Like DEBBIE BOONE?
Yeah but that was off the radar. The stuff that was supposed to be rock was kind of unappealing to me.
I just didn't care about THE EAGLES. Every now and then you'd hear something like THE SWEET 's FOX ON THE RUN and ROXY MUSIC's LOVE IS THE DRUG were the only things on the radio in 1975 that didn't depress me.The
The year I was born.
But you know what I'm talking about though. You look back on the music from that time and you're like there was so much sappy, lame music back then, but it was also the begining of slickness and slickness is really kind of exciting. It's coffee table music not rock music. Then punk rock kind of saved me. I couldn't quite buy into the punk thing but I loved the attitude and the freedom of it. It kind of blew the music business open. that was what really got me going.I was in college around the time that all of this was happening and when I got out of college I started my own recording studio.All of these bands had popped up that were influenced by those years. hose bands were my clientele and that was great. That suited my humble studio.
The first band that you're kind of know for is this band called THE SNEAKERS and you guys released an album IN THE RED back in 1978 and then you were gone. Why so briefly?
Actually there is another record before that.
Yeah it's a 7 inch EP and that record is kind of interesting. THE SNEAKERS was CHRIS STAMEY's band. He's been a friend of mine forever and I've played in that band. That record actually did very well. It had some sort of publicity through TROUSER PRESS MAGAZINE. It was kind of pre-punk transitional magazine.CHRIS had gone to New York and saw the dawn of the punk movement happening and saw TELEVISION play and bought these early PATTI SMITH records. He had seen the future so he got this record made which was a pretty smart thing to do because that whole indie thing had just started. Then the band immediately broke up because it was all college kids. Half of them were taking it seriously and the other half saw it in a completely different way. I can't even remember but the band fizzled out. The album that you're talking about (IN THE RED) is the one that I was involved with and it's basically just me and him. Not the SNEAKERS per se. Believe it our not, that CD has been re-issued twice. Once by EAST SIDE DIGITAL and now just recently by COLLECTOR'S CHOICE. It's legacy is very powerful for such an obscure band. We only ever played five shows. We did a show in New York last January. So it's actually been six shows with a 30 year gap. It was cool. We played and there were loads of people up there, teenagers even, who knew the songs. I can't imagine how any of them knew the songs. It's pretty cool. THE SNEAKERS thing is such an odd little story.
In 1981 you formed LET'S ACTIVE with FAYE HUNTER and SARA ROMWEBER. How did the band begin?
FAYE was my girlfriend back then and she had started playing bass a couple of years before. By 1980, I was really feeling old.i was in my mid twenties and had nothing happening. A lot my musical peers ended up doing other things and all of a sudden I had to start from scratch. Every band I was in before happened because I was friends with someone. So I figured that with this new band I was going to have to do it in a more deliberate kind of way.. She was natural. She could play right away. The two of us thought that we were half band right there and SARA ROMWEBER who was this kid from Chapel Hill North Carolina. She was like nine years younger than me but three people independently told me that "there's this girl in Chapel Hill that you ought to get to know." Eventually I met her at an R.E.M. show. She was great and really likable. The same people who told me that she should be in my band were telling her that she should be in my band. Eventually it happened and I really though that it was good right away. We had R.E.M. up here recording for something. It might've been for the CHRONIC TOWN E.P. I can't remember but anyway they were up here and they were like "We've got a show at the 688 in Atlanta in couple of weeks. You guys wanna play?' At that point we had only played like once and I was like sure. We had two weeks to really hone the band to play with R.E.M. It was really fun. there was this weirdness to how it all started. It was so different for me and fact that I hardly knew SARA. To me she was just the teenager from Chapel Hill. It sort of got going and the band really took off. We made it happen. At that point we were really helped by R.E.M.
Was this around the time you started DRIVE-IN STUDIOS?
It started in 1980. i graduated from college in 1977 and floundered around a little bit and moved up to New York a year or so later. i was going to start a studio up there. I got a ways into and I suddenly got cold feet. I wasn't ready to be a real business man and I kind of want to start this studio abut I also really want to play in bands. It was great to be in New York all of those years and i met some great people but I thought that it would be better to start the studio in the south because it would be cheaper, and if it failed it wouldn't cost a million dollars. It started in 1980 and that was a good move because the new wave scene had pilfered out and by that time there were all of these new wave bands that were ready to record here which was great and it got busy right away. My good fortune to record R.E.M. early on was quite terrific. They put out this single called RADIO FREE EUROPE which was really well received and it really got a lot of attention and I also got a lot of attention for recording it. I think part of the angle was the fact that we were all from the South and the South at that time was supposed to be nothing but boogie bands or something.
What was going through your head as you were working with R.E.M. or were you too busy to notice?
You know it's funny, I really didn't know anything about them. I saw posters for them everywhere and there was something about the poster that made me think that they were going to be like ULTRAVOX or something electronic like that. They were anything but electronic. When they came into record what surprised me was how traditional they were. they were like a mid-sixties band in so many ways and I really liked them. They came up the night before the session and stayed at my house and we all hung out and played records. It was great . It was interesting because around that time I felt like I was older than some of these people . I was but I was always used to being the kid in whatever band that I was in. They were a little bit younger than me but it didn't feel that way. They felt like peers. Playing records with them was fun and they were like these really smart guys with opinions about records and I thought, "this studio thing is going to work out great and I'm gonna be able to meet all of these really cool people." We really had fun that night and when we went into record I was just really surprised because the music was really fresh but it referred to older songs to which kind surprised me. They had a lot of the elements that a lot of the sixties bands had that had sort of disappeared like a very charismatic lead singer who wasn't bombastic but very charismatic. The lead singer type of person at that point had become this sort of mega-type-dude in the seventies like the later- ROGER Dal trey and ROBERT PLANT. MICHAEL STIPE was th opposite of that but at the same time was every bit as charismatic as those guys. I thought that was really kind of interesting. when it was over I didn't think too much about except thinking "that was fun!" But what I thought was really cool about them was that after they did their session, they had a show opening up for XTC. At that point, R.E.M. didn't have any records out but the audience there knew all of the songs and were going crazy for them. I was so used to that bar band vibe where the people are just there for a drink and not really paying attention but these guys had fans. I hadn't seen fans in a long time. That gave me the first inkling that these guys are special in the way that people liked them. People just really took to them.
You've grown to be synonymous with R.E.M.'s first two albums how frustrating is that knowing that you've got you own sound?
It's eclipsed anything that I'm gonna do but I accept that. It's like, I do what I do and it's fine. I totally understand having a band with a guy like MICHAEL STIPE in it is something else. I would just expect them to get bigger than me. They are just more of the kind of thing that people like. I think there is no getting around the fact that if you've got a really great singer you have a lot more potential. It's not frustrating at all and they have been so helpful to me as an association and they're good guys who I still really like . I feel totally positive about that experience. If I was trying to go for it as a record producer it would be kind of bad that that was the most well known thing that I ha d recorded. I was never really all that ambitious about producing. I still do it all of the time but I don't try to control it. I only produce bands that I like working with. I don't think about it in a real career-ist kind of way.
Now you're working out of FIDELITORIUM STUDIOS. How long have you had that running?
We have dedicated proper recording studio building now. It's been around for about eight years now. I've been doing this for longer than that but this is the first time that I've had a proper, standard, kind of big studio.
Who are you producing at the moment?
The last thing that I recorded was for this band called THE BIRDS OF AVALON and they're an unusual kind of groovy rock band. They like things like THIN LIZZY and they've got this free-form jazzy thing going on at the same time.
From the CD DYNAMICO, are there any tracks that stand out for you as favorites?
One of the songs that's speaking to me right now is this song called DUSK LAIR . it's about halfway through the record. It's so simple, and I like what it's about. It's a fun song to play live.
I was reading that you've set up a hotline for the upcoming shows to support DYNAMICO.
It's an e-mail request line. If we have time work up something that someone has asked for, we'll do it. Mostly that's for people who are requesting LET'S ACTIVE songs. People do want me to do that stuff and I used to think "why? That stuff is old!"
What do you want someone to walk away with after hearing DYNAMICO?
I would like them to think that that's an interesting record that I would like to hear again. That's about it.