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The Cutting Edge with Mitch Easter

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From his work as a member of the dB’s, Windbreakers, and the seminal Let’s Active to his producing artists like R.E.M., Moose, Dinosaur Jr., and Game Theory, Easter has helped forge modern sound recording.

 

Mitch Easter is responsible for some of the best-sounding music of the last two decades. He has written and crafted some of the best power pop around and has produced mercurial music from a great variety of bands. Before there was Nigel Godrich or Steve Albini, there was Mitch Easter shaping the “alternative” music landscape in and out of the studio.

From his work as a member of the dB’s, Windbreakers, and the seminal Let’s Active to his producing artists like R.E.M., Moose, Dinosaur Jr., and Game Theory, Easter has helped forge modern sound recording. In fact, one could argue that Easter’s meticulous production on Chronic Town and Murmur made R.E.M. college radio darlings.

Playback St. Louis interviewed Mitch Easter from his North Carolina home. We discussed his career, the state of the music world, and his new band, the Fiendish Minstrels.

You are one of those people who is always busy and working. What have you been up to these days?
I’ve been busy in the studio lately; the most recent sessions have been finishing the Bellglide record—they’re a Charlotte, North Carolina band, really good—a quick session with the Mockers for a single for Spain, I think, mixing the Dom Mariani solo record, mixing the Genius Test debut disc. There’s a band called Hungry Mind Review coming this weekend. Therefore, there has been no time for me or our band to record anything. We started some tracks months ago, and it looks like some time will open up his fall so we can get back to it.

Are you surprised about the lasting power of Let’s Active? Did you have anything to do with the reissues?
I am astonished the Let’s Active stuff is remembered at all. And the fact that there was enough interest to produce things like the tribute disk and the Collector’s Choice re-issues was a flattering surprise. I had nothing at all to do with the Collector’s Choice reissues, except once I heard the project was underway, I came up with a few songs for them to use as “bonus” tracks. Please point out to your readers that these are not remasters. They’re just direct copies of the old CDs; the exceptions are the bonus tracks, where there had never been a prior release. I mention this because people tend to assume reissues are remasters, and it’s not necessarily the case. The fancy remastered version is yet to come...

You produced Game Theory, one of the most underrated bands of their time. How was that for you?
I always thoroughly enjoyed the Game Theory (and Loud Family) sessions. Scott is a great songwriter and it was always fun to hear those songs come together. Of course, they were all low-budget records, but they’re still good to listen to.

When not writing or producing, what occupies your time?
Nothing! That’s all I do. Well, I’ve been cleaning out the house, throwing stuff in a Dumpster, which I heartily recommend, and I like to get out on my motorbike, but I’m usually in the studio.

The Fidelitorium is your own studio; does that make working in the studio easier for you?
Over the years, I’ve accumulated a batch of useful and sometimes unusual equipment that I like to use, especially our instruments and amps. Most studios don’t have anything exciting in that department, so when I work away from here, I miss that. But there are a million ways to do things, and if a studio is at a certain level of technical and acoustical quality, you can make good records. For some kinds of music, you hardly need anything.

You have been fortunate enough to work worth a diverse group of successful and interesting musical artists over the years. I’d like to mention a few of them, and then have you talk about your experiences working them.

Ride.
That was just some mixing. They weren’t here, although I did run into one of those guys later, in England. Cool stuff, although unfortunately I had to work off some not-very-good-sounding safety masters.

Dinosaur Jr.
A pleasant, quick session in New York City where we did maybe three songs. J. Mascis played everything, and he was really quick—he knew what he was after. He obviously had a liberated view on how to work, which was enjoyable. For example, he did everything through one little Fender Super Champ amp, bass included—very smart.

Helium.
We did an EP and an LP, pretty different from each other. The LP was an example of the usefulness of having all these instruments available. After the more straight-ahead EP, the band was ready to expand the instrumental palette, always fun. At the overdub stage, Mary and Ash were highly creative and the sound really went in new directions.

Kimberly Rew.
I met him in ’81 while in England with the dB’s. I sort of squeezed my way onto his session for the “My Baby Does Her Hairdo Long” single when he asked the dB’s to back him up in the studio. Because Gene Holder wanted to engineer, I played bass. A nice guy; I don’t think I’ve seen him since. It was a treat getting to work at Advision in London, home of some my favorite records like The Move’s Shazam!

Pavement.
They recorded a lot of Brighten the Corners here. I enjoyed their working method, which was basically to sort of learn the song with the tape rolling. When they got an okay take, that was it; none of this “try it out on tour for six months” nonsense. I should point out that this was Bryce Goggins’ session, although I did do a week of it when Bryce had to leave. Most pleasant guys, and lots of fun. I always enjoy it when smart people have a loose attitude in the studio—they’re not wasting time at all, but they don’t have a strict view of what they’re going to do. They allow for lots of evolution while recording.

Marshall Crenshaw.
We recorded some stuff in ’84 which, as far as I know, never turned up anywhere, then in the ’90s I mixed part of a live album with him. He is so capable; you know it’s going to be nice to listen to. As always with people who know what they’re doing, it’s a pleasure to listen to it come together.

What is your creative process? How do you make songs?
I get a guitar usually, and just sort of vaguely play and sing, and sometimes something just happens which seems worthy of further attention. Sometimes I pick up a guitar at practice or whatever and everything sounds like “a song,” and if I don’t have time to explore that, it’s frustrating because later on I may “try” to write something and…nothing. Lots of times I have an evening free to do a demo, and just knowing that I can crank out something right then, I’ll do a full-blown demo with drums, etc., and then I can really decide if it’s any good. Of course, sometimes it all just flops, and I usually know that pretty quickly. It’s a sort of automatic process, aside from writing words and getting the arrangement figured out. But it doesn’t take too long. It’s easier for me to write songs now than it used to be.

What are your thoughts about the Internet and how online music is changing the industry?
I don’t really have a good sense of all that. It’s obviously pretty useful, but it might take decades to figure out the economics and royalty schemes. It’s taken the whole 20th century to devise the old record company model and those guys won’t give up without a fight. The old system has made money for some people, and it used to mostly work, but now the traditional record biz seems like a horrid shadow of its former self, pandering only to lowest common denominator kid garbage. There are hip labels out there, of course. But nobody is going to mourn the passing of certain aspects of the recording industry. My worries about online music are crummy sound and eventual takeover by the same old creeps. Also, how do you filter out the good from a trillion wannabes? And, personally, I like the physical product. I have no time for or interest in designing my own package, or sequencing “My Tunes.” [Groans.]

Tell us about your new band, The Fiendish Minstrels.
It’s me, Shalini Chatterjee, and Eric Marshall. We mostly do my songs, plus the odd cover here and there. It’s just, you know, rock music. We do wear capes, though.

Do you think bands are basically good these days, or does studio technology make mediocre ones sound really good?
Everything’s a bell curve, wouldn’t you say? That is, there are always a lot more mediocre bands than good ones. Studio technology helps some people sound like they can play better, but I think bad is bad, and vice versa, whether or not it’s all polished and tidied up. We are drowning in a sea of perfect, boring records lately. I don’t care how “good” something sounds; I care about the content. Like, is this interesting or novel music? Are the words good? Usually not, but of course there is always the occasional great thing you find.

You mentioned albums that you listened to before. Are there any artists there now you would like to get into a studio?
I never think about that. I am pleased to have been able to record some North Carolina bands who have been in the studio recently, like Bellglide from Charlotte and Hungry Mind Review from Wilmington.

What do you think of current commercial radio programming and concert ticketing pricing? Do the antics of a few corporate monopolies hurt you as a producer and artist?
Well, radio has probably never been as unsatisfactory as it is now: thousands of stations playing the same, mostly dreadful stuff. It’s always been a bottleneck, though, ever since the ’70s and “scientific” formats. What a waste! Ticket prices are disgusting. Hooray for Pearl Jam for taking a stance on all that.

Is the Let’s Active box set coming out in the States?
I think the Let’s Active box set is probably destined to be a rumor only.

Are you going to be on the road anytime soon, either solo or with The Fiendish Minstrels?
No idea! I would like to get out of the studio and play, actually, but that doesn’t pay the bills. In fact, it doesn’t pay at all nowadays.

You are around music constantly, so I think it would be curious to find out what are you listening to these days.
Come on! That could go on for ages. I’m sorry; I am absolutely terrible at list questions. Among the thousands would be Scott Walker I-IV, AC/DC’s Highway to Hell, Kraftwerk’s Trans-Europe Express, Miles Davis’s Kind of Blue, Harmonia’s Deluxe, Bowie’s Low, The Rolling Stones, The Move, the Beatles...I love the New Pornographers’ Electric Version, that recent The Soundtrack of Our Lives disc, the new one by the White Stripes. I always dig garage psychedelia, anything that rocks, really.

What did you think of the Let’s Active tribute CD?
It was a great honor! Not strange, really, just interesting.

Would you like to do film scoring or film composing?
Not really. I enjoy soundtrack music, like Mancini’s Touch of Evil, but I don’t have the skills for that. I will be pleased to write a decent three-minute song forever.

There is a mindset with some artists that electronic music is hurting rock music. What do you think of electronic music?
How can one music hurt another? Now, I’m not talking about business forces, which certainly affect what people get to hear on the radio. I suppose I believe in “free trade” for music. You can’t tell people to like something by protecting it from the existence of other ideas. I wouldn’t separate rock music from electronic music, anyway. I do hope good music will triumph over crappy music. However, there are no guarantees—just look at how Americans have gravitated to stupid, depressing politics in recent years. Anyway, I like a lot of electronic music. I really believe in the song, not the production techniques—although there are plenty of annoying production techniques currently in vogue. These have hurt rock music, for sure. But I’m not talking about synthesizers.
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