monday, november 10, 2008
An Interview with Mitch EasterBack in the halcyon days of the mid-1980s I sat down behind the console at the University of Alabama's radio station WVUA and stumbled into a musical movement that would go on to shape my preferences from there on out. And no single song reached out and slapped me upside the head harder than Let's Active's "Fell" from the stellar Big Plans for Everybody album.
The brainchild of one Mitch Easter of Winston-Salem, North Carolina, Let's Active boasted a spot-on pop sensibility and their songs bubbled over with sharp songwriting and restrained studio experimentation. But Easter's influence extended a lot further than as the front man of a college-scene trio.
In the late '70s he built a recording studio in his mom's garage and dubbed it the Drive-In. That local became a nexus for the strange southern alt-rock uprising of the era (R.E.M.'s, Chronic Town was famously recorded there). While the scene in Athens, GA has become synonymous to this movement, but there was a formidable NC presence on the music and Easter had a lot to do with that.
I got a chance to visit Easter's new studio - Fidelitorium - in Kernersville, NC recently and chat a bit about the past, the future and where Let's Active fits into the strange mid-1980s indie zeitgeist .
Q: When did the Drive-In become Fidelitorium?
A: It's been here for nine years. I was in the garage for 13 years and then we had the studio in the house for awhile. But co-existing with the sessions was a nightmare. We had two or three of these sessions where you realized the bands that were going through the medicine cabinets taking any pill that was a pill. It was almost like there was a cosmic message to me to not do this.
Q: How did the house play into that?
A: Everyone loves this idea of "crazy rock-n-roll bands!" but really most of them are not. They just want to make their record and they work hard and tend to be really sensible people. And even if they are not, they are sensible about that. After some of those sessions I began to think that maybe a house is too much of a house and maybe a slightly institutional feel is something of a good thing. There is something with an environment like that that makes you fell you need to cut the crap and get things done.
A: We really cranked out a lot of stuff in that old garage. I was going to do that studio two years earlier but I chickened out because there wasn't anything going on here at that time. So I chickened out and went to New York but, fortunately, by the time I came back down here things had kinda come together somewhat. I think if I had done it in '78 it would have really flopped and I would have been doing really tragic sessions. The way it happened it became totally associated with this music that I liked and that was very fortunate.
Q: You are perhaps best known for co-producing R.E.M.'s landmark debut album Murmur in 1983. Did recording the first album with you and Don Dixon make a difference?
A: I think so in the sense I don't think anybody else would have been sympathetic to what they were trying to do and that record wouldn't have gotten made. IRS was trying to get them to. . . not work with these hillbillies they had never heard of. They sent them to work with this guy in Boston and these other "real" producers and those guys just were trying to make them sound like 1983 which was kind of not where [R.E.M.] were at all. They kind of repudiated a lot of what was considered fashionable at that time.
Q: And how were you and Don Dixon different?
A: We respected what [R.E.M.] wanted to do but our input wasn't to make it something it wasn't. We gave them our weird little Southern input or whatever it was and that record got made and it's kind of a weird little record. I don't think IRS was particularly impressed with what we did. And then it went to be one of the greatest records of that period. It doesn't sound like all the stuff that was around it at the time and that's kinda what is so cool about it. What's still cool about it.
[Easter is currently finishing up work on a completely remastered two-CD 25th Anniversary Deluxe Edition of Murmur to be released on Nov. 25.]
Q: Where does you own band, Let's Active, sit in this strange independent music scene of that era?
A: I kind of think we were kind of our own little evolutionary branch. I don't think there was another band like Let's Active. By the time that band got going I was like 26 or something and I really thought it was something I had to do or miss it entirely. I was really thrilled about that original band and getting it going. We kind of had to hammer that thing together and when we finally did it and got it working it was kind of cool and I was kinda proud of it.
Q: So you had a pretty clear idea of what you wanted?
A: We were in the middle of nowhere and it was my parent's garage but I'd done a hell of a lot of thinking about it. I was playing in bands since I was twelve and I was a grizzled veteran by the time that band started out. It wasn't naivete that drove that band, it might have been stupidity but its not that we didn't know what we were doing.
Q: But you have a limited body of work as Let's Active, why is that?
A: Things changed on us. Lets Active started in '81 and in '84 was really good for us and then we went out on tour in '85 and I could just feel the chill in the air . And that was just about the time of the toughie guys. Big kinda scary northeastern city thing. Kinda of like The Pixies and bands like that which were really good but totally different from the kind of stuff we wanted to do. That was the next thing coming along.
Q: How do you feel about the output of the band looking back?
A: I think those records are fine but they are so small in terms of the amount they sold. We did well considering that our records were sloppy and weren't really intended to be anything more than they were.
Q: What was it like being part of that scene in the mid-1980s?
A: One thing that was great about that time that there was this overall positive energy to it. There is this weird memory of that period that people seem to still hold on to. But it's nice.
Q: Was there a sense of community to the entire scene?
A: There was a funny motivation with the audiences in that they were part of the dynamic as well. Like when there was a good band in Atlanta we didn't moan that it was too far to go we would do it. When you go to a show where people want to be there and have an interaction with the band, that band is going to play better. I don't know what flips the switch to make the change but it was very good in those years because it was a two way street. It wasn't just a community of bands it was a community of audiences as well.
Q: How did the relative isolation of the whole Southern indie rock scene at that time make a difference?
A: It is weird how some of this music comes out of these crappier places off the beaten path. Like there were all those bands in the 80s that came from northeastern Ohio. They were really great but not anywhere anyone would be expecting to see it.
Q: So what makes it happen?
A: I remember once I was in Ireland and talking to people and their music scene reminded me kinda like things here. There was a lot of propaganda given to me right away about how they were not like English bands. That English bands were lazy and all they cared about was their image and all that kind of stuff. And in Ireland you gotta be able to play and you gotta be able to play on stage. And I thought "This sounds like 1973 in Winston-Salem." It really is kind of cool how in some of these "secondary" locations you really have got to rock.
Q: So what happened?
A: I used to have a theory that bands like Let's Active were the last ones to get under this mysterious wire. Everybody else had a much harder time after that. We weren't big but we made money. We could go out on tours and come back and be alright but that was all soon to end.
Q: A lot of the musicians from that scene cite relatively obscure bands as influences. Growing up in a pretty remote part of the country, how did you have access to this music?
A: I think about some of the things I bought then which are now considered crazy or weird and that's just what was out then. But it's definitely true of a lot of those New Wave records that they weren't everywhere. You'd have to go pretty extreme lengths to get them. There was this community that had to do with the scarcity that was kind of fun. Literally people would tell me that Bleecker Bob's on Eighth had "Anarchy in the UK" and I would drive to New York to buy this damned single.
Q: How did that affect your perception of the music?
A: Part of the hassle of getting them kind of really magnified the importance of these records. I would do this thing which I do to this day where I would unwrap it and play it like 75 times. And I think that's a fun way to listen but you don't have that as much anymore.
Q: What compelled you do go to such lengths?
A: It was pretty bad before that. I was in despair in 1975 because here I was on the threshold of adulthood and what have I got . . . Pablo Cruz. Kill me. I was really depressed by the whole situation. If I had had records like Roxy Music to tide me over in those transitional years before punk rock happened it would have been a good thing.
A: There are influences, of course, but its not X band plus Y band equals something. I really believe George Harrison's plagiarism testimony that he really didn't believe he was ripping off [the Chiffons] "He's So Fine." But it is really the same melody that is in there. I do think it was unconscious and I think that's how all this influence stuff works. But what happens is that people think it's deliberate and then they hammer you for it. "You are referring to some band I don't think is cool so then your band is lame." And I just think that's a really crummy way to look at it.
Q: Why do you object to the idea of direct influences so much?
A: I think the cause and effect are such that it's very hard to make out in any kind of straight line. Take a band like Big Star everybody talks about. There a lot of people that wish they could be that band but will never do it. They can play guitar till the ends of their days but whatever they do will be something else. Now they might have had that idea in their head and maybe they wanted to do that. The influence thing is that whatever comes out really is only at the molecular level. And there are some people like that but everybody else we are all sort of limited. So we sort of do what we can.
Q: That leads to innovation doesn't it?
A: Well, one hopes.
Q: How has the rapid advancement of technology and digital formats changed things?
A: That's what's so weird about the free music stuff you can get through the internet. I love the fact I can hear about somebody and hear them. Even if I don't get to hear the hi-fi version or whatever. That's OK. That is totally totally good. But on the other side of that is the creeping idea that intellectual property is all free. A lot of people don't make music to make money but they need the money to make music. Otherwise they have to go back to their UPS driver job and then they can't make music.
Q: What other problems are there?
A: The other thing I really don't like is that it's not that good sounding because its all about quantity and that's such a shame. All the download stuff you get is all compressed and nowhere near as good as what is possible given today's technology. We have all this fantastic digital technology but because we are so excited about this low-cost distribution that it's overwhelmed everything else. It's cool but I don't think it should be the only way. If more consumers knew about these higher resolution formats they might want them. But it's kind of expensive to gear up and market something.
Q: So why is this a problem?
A: There has always been more stuff than you knew about but now you know. You don't know what you are missing but you know you are missing something. It's the quantity is vast and it can be terrifying. You get the sense now that there is so much content that everybody is just dazzled by it and you can't get involved the same way you could in the past. Or they are so successful on the computer that you never ever see them. And that's a shame because seeing people out there is so fun.
Q: You seem somewhat pessimistic about the future of the industry.
A: Studios like this have been around a long time but they may not be around that much longer. Because people listen to music in a totally different way and that is kind of changing the kind of music that is being made. It's all in flux but its really in flux now and that's sort of scary to people.
Q: Is there light at the end of the tunnel?
A: I think its going to be a long time before it is anything that feels right again. The system that we have today . . . it took the entire twentieth century to hammer that out. And now it's got to be rewritten.
|comment posted by: bro on march 7, 2009 @ 8:13 am|
Good interview. Kinda of pissed you never told me about, but bygons will be bygons if you can get me their album
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