Mitch Easter: Perfect Sound Forever

mitch-easter355The architect of R.E.M.’s early sound and a member of Let’s Active, Mitch Easter is a jangle-pop legend. But with his first solo album, he’s looking for a new scene. By Fred Mills

“The Dr. Dre of Jangle.”

Mitch Easter utters these words as he hands me a mug of freshly brewed Earl Grey tea and waits for my response. We’ve just completed the nickel tour of his recording studio, the Fidelitorium, and for the first time since I arrived here this morning, as he stands there smiling, I’m speechless. He used the j-word.

I’ve known Easter for about 30 years, since we were both students at the University Of North Carolina in Chapel Hill, and I’ve learned to avoid the term “jangle” unless I want to put him on the defensive as he tries to explain for the umpteenth time what he doesn’t do, public perception be damned. Easter knows that I know this, too, so maybe he’s just messing with me. He explains that the quote appeared in a recent profile on him in a guitar magazine, and he seems pleased about it. I wonder aloud how Easter would feel about having that legend inscribed on his gravestone.

“It’s worth considering now,” he says. “It’s so catchy.”

He’s definitely messing with me. The smirk proves it. A man’s home is his castle; he can do what he wants. And for Easter, the Fidelitorium, located off a rural road outside Kernersville, N.C., is definitely his kingdom. Wandering around the various rooms, I notice several key Easter artifacts: a Let’s Active LP sleeve, gold records for his production work on R.E.M.’s Murmur and Reckoning and Suzanne Vega’s Solitude Standing, plus enough guitar cases to make Eddie Van Halen blush. You have to wonder which of those cases holds his 12-string Rickenbacker, the source of the jangle. Like power pop—another tag Easter shuns—jangle has its roots in the classic sound of the Byrds and the Beatles, but over the years, the term has been appropriated by fey, saccharine popsters who favor sonics over substance.

As Easter leans back in one of the control-room chairs, surrounded by his life’s work, he appears utterly at home. His wife, Shalini Chatterjee, pops in to let him know she’s headed to work in nearby Winston-Salem. We settle down for a lengthy interview, during which Easter reflects upon his early years as a teenage guitar prodigy, his ’80s heyday as a producer and singer/guitarist with Let’s Active and his recent work, which includes Dynamico (Electric Devil), his first solo album.

“When I was in my 20s, I always thought that my gravestone should read, ‘Motorist,’” says Easter, now 52. “Because I always felt like I was driving somewhere. And that might still be true.”

Ken and Lib Easter’s only child has been on the move since well before getting his driver’s license. Growing up in Winston-Salem in the ’60s, Easter had the usual childhood watershed experiences: watching the Beatles on The Ed Sullivan Show, nights spent lying in bed with his ears glued to AM radio. He also found himself part of a musically enlightened peer group.

“I had a friend whose older brother had this little band, and we went over to his house one time and they were playing in his basement,” recalls Easter. “Now that was the transforming thing for me. That was like the clouds parting and this funny light coming down.”

Easter played euphonium in the school band, but after receiving his first guitar at age 12, he never looked back. Within a few years, Easter had several notches on his belt: bands with colorful names like the Loyal Opposition, the Imperturbable Teutonic Gryphon and Sacred Irony.

“Mitch and Sacred Irony became wildly popular in Winston,” says Faye Hunter, who’d later form Let’s Active with Easter. “They seemed so hip and played really loud. Mitch had long, Beatle-cut hair and wore Hendrix-style tapestry pants.”

“Mitch’s guitar playing was already legendary,” says Peter Holsapple of the dB’s. “Sacred Irony were doing all the cool songs and writing their own stuff and recording it. [They opened] for and backed up (teen pop idol) Bobby Sherman. They made the distance between me and the Beatles seem more manageable.”

Easter would pass through the lineups of other local acts (one of them, Rittenhouse Square, even released an LP), but in 1972, his studio instincts were piqued after he and friend Chris Stamey obtained a four-track TEAC reel-to-reel. The two repaired to the Easter family basement for a year and a half with the recorder, trying to emulate their favorite records.

“Mitch and I were partners in crime all through our childhood, starting with model rockets and CB radios and espionage and motorcycles and train sets and oscilloscope lie detectors and, yes, tape recorders,” says Stamey. “When [we got the TEAC], we tried our hardest to learn how records were made and how songs were written.” By Stamey’s estimation, they recorded three or four meticulously overdubbed “albums” before shipping off to UNC in 1974.

The college experience initially left Easter nonplussed (“Chapel Hill was like a bunch of old hippies to me,” he says) until early ’76, when Stamey drafted him for his garage-rock outfit Sneakers. The group mustered a pair of highly regarded EPs but rarely played live, although one memorable booking took the band to Max’s Kansas City in New York City. “That was huge for me,” says Easter, smiling. “Max’s was the place; I think at the bar were some of those guys in the Heartbreakers. The pictures of the show are hilarious. Chris totally got it going with the short hair and skinny tie, while I looked like Frampton Comes Alive!, my hair really long.”

After Sneakers, Stamey headed to New York and started the dB’s, while Easter and Holsapple teamed up to form the H-Bombs back in Chapel Hill. Debuting at a street fair in the fall of 1977, their timing was perfect: Punk was in the air, and the H-Bombs’ marriage of pop and garage proved hugely influential locally.

“The H-Bombs was a short-lived group, but it served a great purpose,” says Holsapple. “New wave was just hitting the area, and we seemed to fit right in the niche.”

“I was a little too old to totally buy into the punk scene,” says Easter. “I was still listening to what Roy Wood and Jeff Lynne were doing. But I was pleased that we got something going on.”

In the summer of 1980, Easter returned to Winston-Salem, converted his parents’ garage into a recording facility and hung out his shingle at the space he called, appropriately enough, Drive-In Studio. Throughout the ’80s, Easter would play host to a who’s-who of college-rock mainstays, among them Pylon, Love Tractor, Fetchin’ Bones, the Windbreakers, Game Theory, Marshall Crenshaw and the Connells. Many were, by dint of proximity, Southern-based, and fittingly, it would be an Athens, Ga., band that put Easter on the map.

In April 1981, R.E.M. made the drive up to Winston-Salem. Holsapple had gotten a call from his friend, R.E.M. manager Jefferson Holt, querying where he should take the band to record. “They spent the night at my house before the session,” says Easter. “I was pleased to discover that I could hang out with these people I’d never seen before and play records.”

R.E.M.’s “Radio Free Europe” single appeared that July, electrifying the Amerindie underground with its high-energy, decidedly un-punk blend of pop anthemism and deliciously obtuse lyrics. By October, R.E.M. was back at the Drive-In, recording what would become 1982’s Chronic Town EP. “I was a bit more comfortable with them,” says Easter. “So I threw in suggestions involving tape loops and backward sounds, and they loved it all.”

Easter and R.E.M. returned to the well twice more, for 1983’s Murmur and 1984’s Reckoning. Don Dixon, who co-produced those records, notes that he and Easter were “true fans of what the band was trying to do, and we also liked them as human beings. They trusted that Mitch would be on their side and drag the sessions to a cooler place.”

Music-industry doors began to open for Easter in the wake of R.E.M.’s popularity, and his reputation as the architect of a fresh and, yes, jangly Southern-pop sound would also serve him well when it came time to resume his own musical endeavors.

Even as the Drive-In was rumbling to life, a 1981 trip to England as the dB’s soundman made Easter realize how much he missed playing in a band. “I never, ever wanted to just play guitar in my bedroom,” he says. “I wanted to play guitar for people. To me, it’s part of the social thing. The huge part of the equation is ‘the people.’”

That November, Easter, his bass-playing girlfriend Hunter and a precocious 17-year-old drummer from Chapel Hill named Sara Romweber made their debut as Let’s Active, opening for R.E.M. in Atlanta after barely two weeks of rehearsal. “It was a fun night,” says Easter. “We did everything at the speed of light, and Peter Buck got up on one song. We were ‘launched’ after that.”

During a nine-year run, Let’s Active issued three albums and an EP, all of which were critically acclaimed. 1984’s Cypress became a college-radio hit, bursting at the seams with buoyant rhythms, classic guy/gal harmonies and deceptively complex arrangements. The band toured the U.S. with R.E.M. and the U.K. with Echo & The Bunnymen, even winning over Robert Plant, who aired Let’s Active videos as a guest VJ on MTV and once told me that he “would mow Mitch Easter’s lawn” anytime. Easter reckons the two-girl/one-guy dynamic and cute image—not to mention Romweber’s exploding-pineapple hairdo—made Let’s Active a reasonable commercial proposition. The band signed to I.R.S., R.E.M.’s label at the time.

“Initially, it was like magic,” says Hunter. “The energy was palpable, and we shared bills with friends of ours: the Bongos, the dB’s, R.E.M., the Replacements, the Fleshtones. As is the case in many bands, over time there were problems and other things in life that broke that initial bond, but at first, we were all pretty thrilled.”

Thrill turned to dismay when Romweber announced she was quitting after the Bunnymen tour. “I was crushed by the fact that the original band couldn’t last a little longer,” says Easter, still able to summon up regret in his voice. “It was kind of like, ‘I’ve been working on this my whole life and our band immediately falls apart?’” Easter bore down and recorded most of 1986’s Big Plans For Everybody himself, and a lengthy period of disarray ensued, which was only intensified when Easter and Hunter split as a couple and Easter’s new girlfriend, Angie Carlson, joined the band on keyboard and guitar.

Things had settled somewhat by the time of 1988’s Every Dog Has His Day, recorded in Wales with producer John Leckie. Easter and Carlson had married, and with drummer Eric Marshall and bassist John Heames in the band, Let’s Active seemed relatively stable again. Yet Every Dog, whose heavier sound confused longtime fans, didn’t sell, and relations between Let’s Active and I.R.S. (an artist-friendly label that became obsessed with the bottom line) were strained. The imminent arrival of grunge also meant the writing was on the wall for a pop-inclined outfit such as Let’s Active. As Easter dryly puts it, “Anybody who came out with their Rickenbackers by about ’89 was asking to get their asses kicked.”

Carlson remembers the band’s Spinal Tap moment: “We were billed under Baby Shamu at Sea World.”

Easter pulled the plug on Let’s Active in 1990 and became increasingly depressed by the knowledge that he didn’t fit in with the current musical climate. So he began working for other people.

Easter joined Marshall Crenshaw’s band for a short tour in 1991 and briefly served as touring guitarist for Grover, Carlson’s post-Let’s Active band. (Easter and Carlson divorced in the mid-’90s.) He also went on the road with Velvet Crush when the Rhode Island popsters needed someone to reproduce live the guitar parts he’d recorded for their 1994 breakthrough, Teenage Symphonies To God. By his own estimation, Easter sat out most of the decade as a performer, but there was no shortage of production, engineering and mixing jobs. A partial list of records he worked on includes Dinosaur Jr’s Whatever’s Cool With Me (1991), the Loud Family’s The Tape Of Only Linda (1994), Helium’s The Magic City (1997), Pavement’s Brighten The Corners (1997) and Wilco’s Summerteeth (1999).

Easter singles out the Brighten The Corners sessions as among the most interesting he’s ever done. In 1994, he shut down the Drive-In and moved his gear from Winston-Salem to Kernersville, where he bought a huge, two-story turreted brick house he dubbed Brick Henge. It was supposed to double as his residence and recording facility, but he eventually realized that for his own sanity, he’d have to build a separate studio structure: the Fidelitorium. In the meantime, Pavement was due at Brick Henge.

“It was done up there,” says Easter, gesturing in the direction of the house, located about 50 feet from the studio. “And it was great. They were at the far reaches of what I can really grasp, because they almost jammed, and I’ve never been a jammer at all. But they worked together very much as an organic blob.”

Despite keeping busy with studio work, Easter continued to write and stockpile his own material. The catalyst for him to step out once again from behind the console arrived in the form of Shalini Chatterjee, whom he got to know while working on the Loud Family’s The Tape Of Only Linda. After the break-up of Chatterjee’s marriage to Loud Family frontman Scott Miller, she and Easter started dating. (Easter also produced her band, Vinyl Devotion, as well as her two solo albums.) When Chatterjee booked a 1999 gig in New York and needed backing musicians, she pressed Easter and erstwhile Let’s Active drummer Marshall into service.

“Shalini really got me playing again,” says Easter. “I think I’d just assumed I’d had my moment and should probably forget about getting a band going, since as a Baby Boomer, I had the usual dread of being a pointless old fart wasting stage space.”

Soon enough, Chatterjee and Marshall were also working on Easter’s own material, playing gigs as the Crackpots, the Fiendish Minstrels and, most recently, simply Mitch Easter. Chatterjee’s band, now called Shalini, still includes Easter. (The quartet’s Easter-produced The Surface And The Shine is due this fall.) Even as the musical partnership has endured, so too has the personal one: Chatterjee and Easter wed in May 2003.

During a lull between Fidelitorium clients last summer, Easter got serious about compiling, mixing and recording tracks for what would become Dynamico. “It just became clear to me that since I’m still alive, I might as well do what I like to do,” he says. “The starting point has to be to create something and put it out into the cosmos.”

Reviews for Dynamico—which, with its even-handed mix of thudding riff-rockers and lush, psychedelic pop, is the true successor to Big Plans For Everybody—have been encouragingly positive. Easter is happy about that, and he’s even OK when writers trot out that word again.

“I need to shut up about ‘jangle,’” he says. “The reason I’m always complaining about that is because I could put out a record that sounded like Dio and they’d call it ‘jangle.’ I don’t think some people listen to the music; they have some idea about what it is and they just repeat it. Having said that, I have done some things that qualify as that. Since we did make a little mark back [in the ’80s] and since that period is now remembered very fondly by a lot of people, I think it’s perfectly OK to sort of sound like that.”

The Fidelitorium remains busy; the studio recently hosted sessions for the debut album by Raleigh’s Birds Of Avalon, and Charlotte buzz band the Sammies are due soon. Yet Easter is quick to point out the days of major labels hitting him up for some of his magic R.E.M. dust are long gone. While ProTools-fueled sonic perfection is the prevailing studio aesthetic, Easter’s spontaneous approach is at odds with the mainstream music business.

Easter’s predicament echoes that of another studio legend I interviewed recently, Joe Boyd, who produced classic sides by Fairport Convention, Nick Drake and R.E.M. When I mention that Boyd said he wasn’t sure there was even a place for him in the recording industry anymore, Easter nods knowingly.

“The stuff you’ll enjoy for a long time sounds like humans doing their things,” he says. “And the great thing about rock music is that it’s supposed to be quasi-amateur. You can kill all that by fixing it in the computer.”

That doesn’t sound much like a Dr. Dre attitude. Maybe a better tag for Easter would be, “The Joe Boyd of Jangle.”

Easter thinks about it for a moment. “Yeah,” he says, and this time the smile on his face is genuine. “That sounds a little better.”