Could some of rock's greatest albums possibly be produced in somebody's home studio, a by-product of the Garage Band generation? Underground-rock producer/nerd Mitch Easter doesn't think so. "There's no Led Zeppelin records coming out of these living rooms, I'm sorry," he laments, perhaps in response to losing pro-audio business at his Winston-Salem-area Fidelitorium recording studio. "It's not happening."
UNDERGROUND SOUND "The records I really loved were not number ones, usually. They were these other records."
But Easter's own beginnings might suggest otherwise. Back in 1981, he recorded R.E.M.'s debut EP, Chronic Town, at Drive-In Studios — a 16-track two-inch set-up in his parents' garage. Like R.E.M manager Jefferson Holt or legal counsel Bertis Downs, Mitch Easter and his pastel name became part of the mythology linked with the credits of R.E.M. records, which were scoured by fans for any clues about their favorite enigma from Athens, Georgia.
Easter soon went into proper studios to co-produce two of the best domestic records of the '80s: R.E.M.'s debut full-length, Murmur (1983), and its follow-up, Reckoning (1984). As amateurish as he was brazen, he contributed to making those records sound the way they looked, one an overgrown thicket of kudzu, the other a hodge-podge quilted flag of Americana independence.
"The records I really loved were not number ones, usually. They were these other records. You can imagine what kind of record R.E.M. could have made with more-big-time producers who were trying to get them a hit but would have probably ended their career within a year by just so stamping them with '1982!' " Given that Easter was the perfect producer for a playfully experimental and charmed band like R.E.M., his own successes were bound to trail behind. In 2007, he released Dynamico, his first solo recording in 18 years. He brings his legacy to Johnny D's this Sunday.
But for better and worse, the R.E.M. connection has overshadowed Easter's own work, both with the Sneakers in the late '70s (with the dBs' Chris Stamey and Will Rigby) and with Let's Active, the band he formed with Sara Romweber and girlfriend Faye Hunter in the early '80s. When you listen to Let's Active's debut LP, Cypress (1984), the unfavorable comparisons are not surprising. Never really sure how to write pop songs or play the rock star, Easter also had a nasal voice, and his odd pop guitar constructions were perhaps too suited to the fleeting asymmetry of the decade. But his indifference toward audiences served him, and those he worked with, well. He remembers some punk and rock audiences judging Let's Active on their look before even hearing the music: "They're going to see me — and I'm little — and then they're going to see these girls and think that we're a floofy band, and that's how they always saw us. And that's fine. If they like us, killer."
And yet, R.E.M. shared Easter's infectious indifference toward outsiders, and that may have saved them from getting lost in the crack between driving rock and abstract gentleness. "They didn't give a shit, which was awesome. They had a real sense of who they were that was like, 'Well — either accept us or fuck off.' "