In the 1980’s, Mitch Easter produced or played on just about every record you’ve ever loved. Sitting pretty at the center of the rise of jangle pop, when the Let’s Active frontman wasn’t earnestly chiming out some of the most cavity inducing pop songs ever made, he was producing some of the most exciting records of the genre by artists like REM, Chris Stamey, Game Theory, The Connells, and Velvet Crush. His public persona took a hit though, in 1989 with the demise of his band, forcing a retreat into working behind the scenes. Many fans assumed he simply had elected to never be heard from musically again.
Fast forward nearly 20 years to find me talking to Easter about Dynamico, the record it took him 19 years to release. He’s on his first northeast tour in over a decade, and as we sit across from each other in a Cambridge hotel I can’t help recalling when I last interviewed Easter, during Let’s Active’s “Every Dog Has His Day” tour about 20 years ago. I was young and nervous and my cassette recorder malfunctioned right off the bat, sending me into a hopefully not to obvious complete panic. Mitch calmly took the recorder from me, whacked it hard on the back and revived it. Handing it back to me with a calm smile he said, ‘That’s what we always do in the studio and it seems to work!’
Today I have a digital audio recorder and a cameraman with me. Things are so much more high tech than they were back then. Yet, tonight when I see Easter and his band charge through a pitch perfect set of tunes at Somerville’s Johnny D’s nightclub, at one point a misbehaving amp emits a discordant shriek and I see Mitch’s keyboardist, a sweet looking young girl with a flower in her hair, haul off give it a sound whallop to make it stop. Ah, Mitch has taught all of us well.
Rocker: When I was getting ready to interview you I found myself watching the video for Every Word Means No. That was probably most people’s introduction to you as a musician…
Mitch: We weren’t actually signed to IRS when we did that video, we were just guests on that IRS The Cutting Edge show. They would do things like that. It was sort of this “econo-video”, where you would give them a very minor concept and they would try to make it happen. So our concept was that we would have dogs running through the set, which would make it chaos. But they couldn’t get dogs, so instead they got these puppies, which changed the vibe considerably – and changed the worldview of our band for all eternity, because these puppies were just so adorable. But it wasn’t really a “rock video” it was really just for that show.
On the same trip we were in Pasadena at some fabulous party, and some lady came up to us – and this was kind of unbelievable to think about it now – and was like (extends hand) “Hi I’m from MTV Music Television and were looking for bands!” and I was like, “Oh you are?” And it’s so funny, because of course a year later bands were spending more than their record cost to record to make a video because it was this “make or break thing.” But it was so new in ‘83 that they were actually soliciting videos! So IRS just chopped that segment out of the show and said “here you go,” and they ran it. We were out there because I knew REM, and they had asked us to play with them on their tour.
Rocker: Was the REM’s Radio Free Europe single the first thing you ever produced?
Mitch: I don’t know. In 1980 I started the Drive-In Studio, and the session for Radio Free Europe is one of earlier sessions. I never really thought of any of these things as producing though. I was just recording them, and then the bands would say “produced by Mitch Easter” on their record, and I would be like “Oh, thanks!” It was really informal and cool.
Rocker: Did you ever think in those early days, hanging out with REM “I bet this band is going to be giant”?
Mitch: I never expected anything to really happen with anybody. By the time stuff like that was happening I been playing in bands for a long time, and I had already met a lot of bands who were great, so I knew how hopeless it was. But then you also have to imagine it won’t be. I was still sort of young enough to have this weird faith that somehow things would be good, but at the same time knew they wouldn’t be.
One thing that was notable, around the time of my first-ever session with REM I went down and saw them in Athens playing with XTC – I loved XTC back then – and people were just crazy about REM. They didn’t have anything out, and yet the audience knew all the words, and I’d just never seen that before. The sort of charisma they had, and the sort of thing they had with the audience was totally happening, and they had only been together for about a year. So that was really different than any other band I had ever been around. I mean it’s great to be great, but it’s more meaningful when someone else knows you’re great too, besides your friends.
When we did [the recordings for REM’s debut album] Murmur it was the same thing… I remember finishing it and sending out to some people and them being like “Oh my God!” and I was like “Really? You like that?” You just don’t know. I thought it was good, but.. ? But anyway, no, that “mega huge” thing, I would’ve never thought of that for a second.
Rocker: Did your have any jealousy towards REM back then. You were both on IRS at that time. Did you ever think, “Why is that not my band”?
Mitch: Oh no, not for a second. I mean Michael was such a star in a way that I am just not. I mean, I get to play guitar in front of people sometimes and I’m totally happy with that, but I never felt like “IRS should be promoting us harder! That’s the only reason were not number one!” I knew it wasn’t just that.
Rocker: I found a clipping from Trouser Press magazine and in a review of Let’s Active’s debut EP, they said: “Afoot brings new meaning to such overused pop adjectives crisp, bright, and ringing.” And I thought that was so absolutely true. So I am interested in the things you’re saying about the hopelessness of rock. Since obviously there was your career with Let’s Active and then there was this big period of time between that and your most recent record, Dynamico. What was that gap about? Were you trying to get away from being a performer?
Mitch: No, it’s just me being really stupid. That is really is it! When the band ended, it was definitely a different climate than when we started we started. Back then, we had this sort of this floofy children look, and that worked for a couple years. But then through the late ‘80s [music] was being subsumed under this increasing “macho rock” thing [and] we were never going to cut in that world. Any record company will give you a chance, but after a while – meaning not very long at all – they don’t like you anymore unless you are making a lot of money for them. We were beginning to feel the difference in the audience too, [they were] dissipating a bit… and I thought, “well okay, time to end this before we become tragic.” By the time the band ended I just thought, “I don’t think the world wants to see me right now.”
I thought I would put another record out within six months [of Let’s Active’s demise] and it just wasn’t happening. And I have a recording studio too. So I’d be in the studio for a long time with other people, and it has a way of getting in the way of doing music of your own. You get “music-ed out”.
I had another thing that really freaked me out. I had a couple of record biz guys who really liked me, but they always had ideas that were really depressing like, “Do this song, and we can use this picture!” And both things were like “No, I don’t want to do that song, and this picture of me that’s 10 years old is a no because I’m not that age…” I met Robert Plant and he was talking about how he had just gone around and around with his record company because they wanted him to make a record more like Steve Winwood, and that just offended the hell out of him. And I don’t blame him! Steve Winwood’s great, but [music industry types] always do that kind of thing, and it really freaks people out. It was really depressing. So I would just retreat into working on somebody else’s record because that’s my job.
By the time did start playing again, like 10 years ago, it was like, “Well, why the hell not?” It’s kind of weird because [music] is kind of a young person thing, except it’s not anymore. Rock music is becoming like Delta Blues – a “traditional genre”. But if we have people coming out to see us, there must be a reason to do this. I spent the previous time trying to fit into some “music business concept”, and now I think the music business [as it was] had to just stop existing, and then for me it all made sense.
Rocker: Dynamico really is your first DIY release, right? It’s on your own imprint Laughing Devil / 125 Records. How was that different than when you were in Let’s Active?
Mitch: It’s way more of a DIY kind of world now. When Let’s Active were around, if you put out a record on your own there was not a chance anyone was going to hear it. But now the idea that you would do it any other way seems almost weird.
Rocker: Did you think about releasing Dynamico on vinyl?
Mitch: It’s funny, I didn’t. It was just long enough ago (2007) that I think if I had done it a year later I would have. It seemed like it was totally sentimental as opposed to now when it is totally viable.
When I go to a record store Chapel Hill, the vinyl side of the store – that’s where the kids are. And that whole thing of putting the download thing with the songs [when you buy a record] makes all the sense in the world. So yeah, now the thing that is so cool is the bands who are coming into the studio are doing vinyl and downloads and nobody’s doing CDs. Who would’ve thought just a few years ago that CDs would be the endangered format? It’s really on the way out.
Rocker: That’s really interesting about the young bands and the vinyl thing
Mitch: They love it! And I’ve had a lot of kids tell me earnestly how good it sounds, that it’s so much better. It’s really kind of cool. I mean people must think I’m laying this “retro audio mojo” on [the kids] all the time, but I’m really not! I’m just amazed when they really say this stuff with no prompting. They hear something they really like about it, and that’s so cool.
Rocker: Do you think vinyl sounds better?
Mitch: Yeah! The problem with vinyl of course is it can vary a lot, like if you’ve got a really good needle on your record player it sounds good. But if everything is happening really right, there is a really plush sound about analog audio that I think is really nice.
Rocker: The recording studio you own now, The Fidelitorium, it’s a bit retro too, isn’t it?
Mitch: It is in the sense that it’s a real recording studio. Like, now most of these rock records are made in people’s houses. So in that way we hark back to the old music business days.
We were just talking at lunch about how all the really famous iconic punk records were expensive fancy records. Like [the Sex Pistols’] “Never Mind the Bollocks”; they worked on it for like a year! It was a really posh session that cost a lot of money and Chris Thomas recorded it – the guy who worked on the Beatles’ records – it wasn’t their “friend”… And it’s funny because there are truly low-budget punk rock records from those years that are mostly forgotten. It will be interesting to know how it works [out historically], with everything being really cheap now because there are very few really nice rock records anymore. When I say rock I mean whatever this indie stuff is. The home recording thing is now the main way everything gets done, and the quality is really all over the place sonically. But it is funny how punk, which was supposed to be such a rejection of things, was really very traditional in most of the ways most of those records were made. They were expensive; they came from labels; and really are the same as a record by Herb Alpert in terms of the machinery around them.
Rocker: Do you think there’s a lot that’s really lost when you record at home?
Mitch: Sometimes. There is a charm about it, but the charm has to be enough. Some things just don’t sound very good. I can’t imagine the records that I really loved growing up if they sounded that weird, hollow, vague, distant way. I just wouldn’t love them as much. I can’t imagine Led Zeppelin 2 being done on a cassette machine. There’s lots of times I hear records and I think, “this kind of sucks”. There is true, non-subjective quality thing that I want to hear.
I just think people should make [their records sound] as good as they can. I mean, people want to make a record for like $100 and then sell it to the world. Like “This is fantastic!” Well no, it’s $100 record and it sounds cheap. So I think they should think about the art a little more. You could buy $100 car, but it’s probably going to break down
Rocker: I am sure people are just trying to keep costs down due to the decreased amount of money you can make in the record industry now.
Mitch: Oh, and I don’t blame them! They’re not going to make any money. It used to be an unlikely thing and now it’s even more unlikely.
Rocker: Do you think you’ll be putting out records more regularly now?
Mitch: I hope so. Now I’m feeling embarrassed that I haven’t put anything out sooner. I have songs that are waiting to be unleashed on the world so I’d like to do it. Right now I have a whole bunch of songs that are mostly finished, which is just like having no songs at all. You have to finish them to really know if they’re any good. Of course you can still put out the record and then six months later think “I really shouldn’t have put that on there.” It’s really hard to like your own stuff.
Rocker: Really? Even for you?
Mitch: Hell Yeah! I don’t get hung up on finishing stuff or making things perfect I know I’m incapable of perfect. I don’t worry about whether I can finish the stuff, it’s whether in the end, I think it’s any good.
Rocker: What still drives you to make music?
Mitch: It’s that “can’t quite get a hold of it” part. That “I’m just going try and write one more and achieve this thing…”. People keep doing it and keep amazing us with what they can do in 3 minutes. It’s just really cool.
I don’t think I’m this like, incredible songwriter, but when I have a song that does that magic thing you get this energy off it and it’s great. It’s very satisfying.