All images courtesy of Mitch Easter
What makes a great producer? More importantly, what makes a great engineer? As you will learn, there’s a very real distinction. Mitch Easter has been in the game a long time. For my money, he is one of those most authentic and important producers/engineers of the last 40 or so odd years.
His unmistakable production quality and pioneering techniques in regard to the Jangle Pop/Indie Rock genres have been nothing short of remarkable. He has worked with the likes of R.E.M., Ben Folds, Pavement, Suzanne Vega, and many more.
Regardless of if he is making music as a solo artist, or engineering an album for acts big and small, you can be absolutely certain that what you get from Mitch Easter with being authentic, analog, and worth hearing. If you would like to learn more about Mitch Easter, you can head to his site here. After that, check out this interview. It’s a good one. Cheers.
Mitch, thank you for taking the time to speak with us here. It’s been some year, hasn’t it? What have you been doing to keep your mind off the ever-raging dumpster fire?
I’ve had several projects to work on, mixing and overdubbing, so I’ve been working in the studio as much as ever, but only by myself since the pandemic hit. It has been impossible to not be bothered by the rise of deep political idiocy here and, really, around the world. This has the potential to ruin everything, but one tries to be hopeful…surely the tide will turn(?)
I’m usually mixing or thinking about guitars and recording equipment. I have a wonderful wife, Tammy, and things to do! That’s pretty good.
Tell us a bit about your backstory. How did you get into music?
I always loved music, but I didn’t imagine I could actually play it when I was a little kid. But by the time I was a bigger kid, I really thought about trying to play. After my parents took me and my friend Doug Muir to see A Hard Day’s Night (which only played one night at a drive-in theater), Doug and I tried recording onto the family tape recorder- just singing, I guess. The results were so tragic we didn’t pursue music for the next couple of years! But by the late 1960s, “everybody” was playing guitar. One evening, I was with another friend whose older brother was playing an electric guitar, along with two other guys, through an actual amp in the basement. That was the loudest, most glorious thing I had ever heard. Not too long after that, I seriously started trying to learn how to play. I was determined to not fail at this, so I played all the time. I was fortunate to almost immediately start playing with other people, and within a couple of months of forming the band, we debuted at Floretta Baylin’s Academy of Dance Arts in Winston-Salem, NC. I don’t know how we sounded, but we did have matching outfits!
As an artist and producer, who are some of your earliest influences? As you’ve evolved musically, how have those influences changed?
My parents always had the radio on, and they listened to what was Top-40 back then, which was quite varied. The local stations were pretty on top of what was happening! I always liked electric guitars, even before I knew what they were exactly. I remember being fascinated with the solo in “Raunchy” by Bill Justus…I liked the 60s hits, especially ones with interesting chord changes, like the songs Burt Bacharach and Jimmy Webb wrote. And of course the UK Rock bands. The Monkees’ songs were some of the first things I learned to play, and those records were produced in a fairly “literal” way so that I could vaguely understand how they were put together. But these sort of baroque late-60s productions were what I liked the best. Like, I always enjoyed the Stax hits but I didn’t really think about how they sounded (although I came to realize that they sound perfect)- the things that really captured my imagination early on were things with a certain mystery. I remember being intrigued and slightly creeped out by “Suspicion” by Terry Stafford, and “I Remember You” by Frank Ifield — the sound of them kind of drew me into a mysterious, spooky world! I loved The Beatles’ productions, from start to finish. They were always changing, and you couldn’t always tell what was going on. I wanted to know!
These influences haven’t changed. I like a lot of things. I’m very much not a purist. I think “Psychotic Reaction” by Count Five, “Talk Talk” by The Music Machine, and “Hurdy Gurdy Man” by Donovan, are all perfect productions. So is “Classical Gas,” and so is “Poker Face.” I could go on…
You were the frontman of Let’s Active. Tell us more about that band. How did it form? Why did it end? You guys got back together for a one-off show in 2014. Any chance we see further reunions?
Let’s Active was the first time I had a band that was “my” band in the sense that I really was the leader. In the past, I’d always been in bands with friends I had known since I was a teen, and by the time Let’s Active formed in 1981, all those guys were in other bands. But I wasn’t finished with playing in bands and I was starting to be able to write songs, sort of. My girlfriend Faye had started playing bass and was instantly good; she was a natural talent. By this time, we were thinking “lean and mean,” so all we needed was a drummer. Two people almost simultaneously told me about, “This girl you have to get in your band,” who was Sara Romweber. Faye and I were in our mid-20s and Sara was 17, but, sure enough, we did have to get her in our band! We eventually talked her into it.
The “reunion” show was a one-off for a charity event, and it was great, I hadn’t even seen Sara in decades! But we were unable to get anything else going. Faye was already gone by then, and Sara died a couple of years ago.
The band lasted 9 years, with a certain amount of personnel turnover. By 1990 I thought we were out of steam, so we just stopped.
In 1980, you founded Drive-In Studio. The studio was originally in your parents’ garage, right? Tell us the story of what led you to open the studio and how it evolved from there.
Before I got out of college I knew I’d need to get a job, but I thought maybe I could create my job by opening a studio that was suited especially to bands like the kind I was in. By 1980, college radio and “Indie singles” were in the air, and there was a lot of recording activity, but new bands didn’t have any money, and “pro” studios often had a kind of ‘70s vibe that the new bands didn’t like. My place was cheap ‘n’ cheerful, but with as much “pro” gear as I could assemble. I did this by buying old, but high-quality gear, and for a while there this made us different from the other low-cost studios that were using the “semi-pro” gear that existed then. I got lucky with some of the first sessions I did, the bands got some attention, and I got popular alongside the success of these bands as a recording person for the new sounds of the 1980s!
Naturally, I kept buying equipment and eventually, the studio became almost like a mainstream commercial studio; we even built a dedicated studio building in 1998-2000.
Above all, I just loved recorded music and what you could do in the studio. So, I say I needed a job upon leaving college, but it felt more like, “Here’s a way to never get a job!”
Throughout the 80s, you became pretty heavily associated with the Jangle Pop style of guitar music. What drew you to that style? Looking back, how do you feel about your overall influence on the genre?
I just recorded the people I crossed paths with, and we produced the records to sound the way we wanted them to! There was no thought of genre, it was all just instinct, the product of what we all had heard, and liked, and what we could do. Operating here in NC, there was nobody really looking over our shoulders and telling us what to do. I can assure you that nobody was deliberately trying to be jangly or anything, it was just what people were doing, for some reason. Of course, I got associated with records that had things in common, so it all becomes self-reinforcing. It just happened. I dread categories, as you can probably tell!
Some of your earliest recording sessions involved R.E.M. What was it like working with them in those early years? They were such an influential band, and it seems you had a large hard in helping them shape what they did.
They were one of the first sessions I did, maybe the first with people I didn’t know beforehand. And it was great, everything was comfortable and familiar, which was kind of a relief because I had worried that I might have to do all kinds of sessions with people I didn’t really feel much musical or personal affinity for. But I really liked R.E.M.’s songs, and I really liked them personally! It was fun, and I was able to bring in some of my ideas about putting things together, which usually went over well with their sensibilities.
They were a completely normal, very good Rock band, with cool songs that fit the era. By “normal,” I mean- young guys with a van, ready to go, correctly wild but musically together in the right balance to make audiences love them. A very distinctive thing about them was their belief in what they were doing and their respect for each other. This really saved them from buying into questionable trends/sounds/business situations, and therefore they were able to really maintain their identity and creativity. This made for great sessions that felt like they were going in the right direction.
You’ve also worked with the likes of Ben Folds Five, Pavement, Suzanne Vega, and more. Of all the incredible artists you’ve had the chance to work with, what are some of your favorite projects? Ones that mean the most to you.
I have to mention the projects with Scott Miller- first with Game Theory, and later, The Loud Family. These were super-creative sessions with lots of room for “sonic stuff,” and there was very little fear or musical conservatism to bring things down. I think I did 6 of these records, and they’re all pretty different and all interesting.
But I am the worst at answering any kind of “list” question, so- I’m afraid I’m definitely leaving out lots of great sessions.
I’ve learned that some “producers” actually prefer to be called engineers. Which do you prefer? How would you describe your production style? What does your process look like?
I do usually engineer the sessions I do, and at first, I never gave any thought to “producing” the bands. I wasn’t coming at this in terms of making mainstream commercial records, so I was thinking in terms of pleasing the bands and helping them achieve what they wanted to do. I was never trying to direct their whole thing into something else, for the purpose of what I thought they should do to “make it.” There’s nothing heroic about that view; some bands do benefit from a heavy-handed authority, I guess, but I just came from being in bands myself and I always liked a lot of music that was not exactly “commercial.” Lots of these records I loved were made by “auteur” artists who really knew what they were doing in the studio and really made use of that. Their records may have been odd compared to what was on the radio, but they were the records I liked. I really respect record producers- their presence is often absolutely crucial to the best records! Exactly what they do can vary widely and still be effective, it comes down to the total chemistry of a session, how the personalities interact, and what bands might need or not need. Usually, I feel like a temporary member of the band with some kind of special position. I just try to help us all get good results, whatever that requires. The idea of the svengali self-promoting producer is just not interesting to me.
Let’s touch on some of your other work now. You last released a solo record in 2007, with Dynamico, and in 2015 you played guitar on Depressing Beauty with Orange Humble. Any chance we see some new music from you soon?
Dynamico was a record that was done mostly during a time when the studio wasn’t busy. I would put out more records if I didn’t have other things that need doing!
Depressing Beauty is Darryl Mather’s project, The Orange Humble Band. That’s not “my” record, although I played guitar on it. I play on a lot of the things I record, to a greater or lesser extent. I’ve worked in a playing and engineering capacity on a few Orange Humble Band records.
Once I finish my current sessions, I’m really not going to book anything else until I make another record! You read it here.
Let’s switch gears a bit now. Tell me your thoughts on the current state of the music scene these days? What’s it like out there for an indie artist?
Music is always great somewhere! I hear lots of great new music without even trying very hard, and the weird thing in recent years is that bands that would have been playing in coliseums when I was young are now playing in bars. That’s awesome for me when I go see them, but it’s a worry that they can’t make any money! The main challenges these days are money and what people think music is for. I’m afraid it’s just not the cultural force it used to be, but that isn’t really a reflection of the quality of the music, it’s just a fact of life and culture. Playing, for lack of a better term, Rock music, was always a weird thing to do, and difficult to succeed at, and it seems even harder now. It’s easy to get your music to the public on the Internet, but not easy to make that count for something.
There are a lot of artists out there who are fantastic but get stuck in the underground, while others go on to great success. What is it about our culture that causes this to happen? Do think the general public is truly listening?
I think all this is random, connected to timing, what’s going on in the culture, who you know, where you play, how often you play, etc., etc. You increase your chances by playing all the time, you increase your chances by being really great, you increase your chances by being savvy and charming, and so on, but you can still succeed or fail against all evidence. You’ve got to click with an audience, but the way you do this is always somewhat mysterious and ever-changing. The thing I love about recorded music is that a listener can discover it at any time. A kid can discover a life-changing batch of songs that were recorded before they were born. I mean, this has always been true with music, but there is something very specific about a recording, and artifacts from the recording technology, mixing/sonic fashions, etc., are a big part of the experience we have with popular music. It goes beyond the melody and the words and into the abstract, indefinable aspects of the sound itself. That is, dare I say, kind of magic! And for me, that’s a significant part of the emotional experience.
In the world we live in today, we are more or less dominated by late-stage capitalism and the never-ending barrage of social media. How has this affected music as an art form? Is an artist’s ability to get their music out there hindered by all this, or helped?
Music has lost its economic power in so many ways, with just a few mega artists actually selling vast quantities of their recordings, or making very much money. I can’t see how this is good, in a practical sense, as much as we may dread thinking of this as a business. People often seize upon highly visible and obviously successful artists and develop a kind of bitter attitude about overpaid stars luxuriating in their wealth, which is unfortunate. For one thing, most artists who are really big also work really hard! But mainly, it’s the “middle class” of artists we’re losing, and for me, they’re often exactly the people making the music I like best. You kind of can’t really be the kind of music star we all love and have another full-time job; I mean you can write good songs and make good recordings, but there’s something about music “lifers” that’s real. Yes, I know that Charles Ives kept his insurance business going while writing symphonies, etc., but now I’m talking about what many of us enjoyed with our “Rock Bands,” who went on tour, put out records every year or so, etc. So, I don’t know, capitalism has got a lot of bad things about it but I suspect that it is also why we have high-fidelity recorded music, which is my favorite thing! The old music business was highly corrupt, and so is the new music business; it’s just a different corruption. Music as an artform will live on, but the Rock scene of yore will slowly morph into something else.
One of the disturbing things I’ve come to learn over time is that streaming services like Spotify simply don’t pay well. What are your thoughts on that? How do we as fans help?
I don’t know. It took 75 years for the old music business to evolve into something vaguely workable, and all this digital transmission is new-ish and evolving. Right now, if you want the artists to make money, you have to buy their physical records, especially if they put them out themselves. Streaming royalty rates are pathetic.
Are you into vinyl? Taps? CDs? Or are you all digital now? Where do you like to shop for music?
I like all the formats! The best all-around physical format was CDs: they sound the closest to the master tape and are not delicate and inconsistent like LPs. Vinyl records are great in theory but vary widely in quality. By the late 80s, many LPs sounded like a circular saw was running in the background, just dire. You have got to have serious quality control and expertise to make excellent pressings, and now it’s a bit of a lost art. I do still hear excellent new vinyl records, but some are pretty disappointing. I guess we are coming out of the Dark Ages with respect to vinyl records; the artistry of making them is being re-discovered and re-established. And we’ve lost the economies of scale, so now they are a luxury product and cost too much. It bothers me what the current fashions are in physical formats because all bands want to make vinyl records and fans demand it, but the cost makes them kind of the equivalent of what rock videos were in the early 80s- this budget-gobbling beast! Meanwhile, a lowly, unfashionable CD is likely to actually sound better and will cost drastically less. Again, a perfect LP sounds lovely, but quality is all over the place. I think what should be the dominant format for true Indie bands is the cassette! Cassettes sound a lot better than people give them credit for, but of course, your cassette machine has to actually be in working condition. I have grocery bags full of mixtapes that people gave me in the 1980s, which sat in my attic for many years before I brought them down, and have been revisiting them now and then. They all still play just fine and sound surprisingly good. You can get cassettes made for next to nothing! I do occasionally buy “digital” (non-physical) music but I don’t listen to it as much. I might get a fancy streaming player one of these days. I like the idea of things like MQA, and even basic MP3s usually sound a lot better now than they used to. But you know, I enjoy the whole experience of physical formats, I like the equipment…you may have seen that cartoon to the effect of, “What I love about vinyl is the cost and the inconvenience”…I’m a little bit like that.
Lately, I’ve been looking for what was called “pre-recorded tapes”– reel-to-reel commercial records on 1/4” tape. These often sound great, and since that product was pretty much gone by the mid-70s, buying them now is an exercise in looking for decidedly old stuff. The packaging is often impressively clunky- the labels never quite figured out how to translate LP cover art to a box. They’re also fun because LPs don’t have as much separation between the left and right channels as tape, so the often curious 1960s panning is especially bold on these pre-recorded tapes.
I buy records (meaning recordings in any format) at record stores, thrift shops, off eBay, and from band websites. I guess a few things from Apple.
What are a few albums that mean the most to you and why?
This requires at least a short book! So, randomly:
The entire Ventures catalog: Guitars, cool sounds, fun vibe. They weren’t a “surf” band! They did their own thing.
Jimi Hendrix, especially Axis: Bold as Love and Electric Ladyland, but really, anything by him. Amazing songwriter, player, and singer. I’m intrigued by how much “Memphis” there is in his playing, but it still seems to come from another galaxy.
Magical Mystery Tour US LP: Obviously, just a phantasmagoria of sounds and ideas.
Shazam by The Move: The way forward, at least as I hoped it would be in 1970- Pop songs, heavy sounds. A great-sounding record, unlike anything at the time.
In the Court of the Crimson King, King Crimson: Seemed to come completely out of the blue, semi-incomprehensible at the time, but beautiful records with mellotrons, the Moody Blues, and the aforementioned King Crimson disk.
Stand Up and Benefit by Jethro Tull: A completely odd kind of Rock music, lots of cool sounds. Martin Barre’s guitar playing and sound are perfect.
Diamond Dogs, David Bowie: What a sprawling, disturbing, and fun in equal measure record! Mysterious sounds, very “studio.” Bowie is the electric guitar player, with great punky style in his playing. A few years later, Low was one of my favorite records, and still is. When it came out it really inspired me about what you could do in the studio. And there’s a freedom about it, some songs are instrumental because, according to interviews, he didn’t have much to say at the time…
Radio City by Big Star: A mega sound, yet very 3-piece-like, which they were at the time. Super songs, super playing, and fantastic sounds.
Rockabilly: I had a big phase of this in college. Cool and mysterious, kinda good-natured, usually…I was especially interested in the acts you didn’t hear about all the time.
Karftwerk: The entire catalog, one of the best live shows I ever saw.
UK Punk and New Wave bands pre-1984. There was this, “I don’t know how to play” thing that I loved; the guitar playing often had zero Blues in it. Nothing against the Blues, but it was time to bust out of some of the usual guitar conventions.
Right now, I am really digging the German Pop music for the grownups made by people like Bert Kaempfert. And for a humorous glimpse into an alternate universe, I just bought a pile of James Last “Nonstop Party” records of which there seem to be about 100. European 1970s goofiness with excellent playing and the sound of brand-new, high-spec recording equipment. Whee!
Oh yeah, loads of what is generally known as Krautrock- mid-70s German Rock bands. Wild, creative, and soothing all at once.
I like some of this current “Bedroom Pop.”
I’ll just stop here. As I say, I can’t do lists!
All musical possibilities aside, what else are you passionate about? How do those passions inform your music, if at all?
I love animals and the earth, and fairness and optimism and art and humor…and of the arts, of course especially music, which deserves a special category: it’s a semi-abstract thing that makes people happy, or a version of it, at least pretty often. Happiness is surely a good thing.
Last question. In a world that’s been so confined by the constraints of big business and the alienation caused due to the internet age, how do artists find their footing these days? What advice would you have for younger artists?
Keep going; maybe the distribution methods will catch up in a way that allows you to be a full-time musician, although I suppose the full-time thing may not be something we will see much of in the future. Fortunately, music is something you can get good at quite young when you are indestructible and energetic! This stuff has a way of getting figured out over and over. One hopes it doesn’t return to a patronage model. But you know, my perspective is necessarily warped by the time I’ve lived in, when popular music somehow got to the kids, via a pretty corrupt and labyrinthine process which we were generally unaware of! So, when I was a kid, I just liked the music. Despite the existence of some “good guy” indie labels, it still feels like a cruel world out there. You have to just not care about that as much as…all the rest of it, which is great!
Interested in diving deeper into the work of Mitch Easter and Let’s Active? Check out the link below:
Dig this interview? Check out the full archives of Vinyl Writer Interviews, by Andrew Daly, here: www.vinylwritermusic.com/interview
13 thoughts on “An Interview with Mitch Easter”
Such a well assembled session with one of my absolute favorite Omni people. I love Mitch and his approach to everything. I’ve read/heard many interviews, but in this one, Andrew brought out some info that I’d never heard before, NOT the least of which is that we shall see a new album by Mitch in the not to distant future. Thank you.
Thank you so much for this feedback. Mitch is an amazing asset to the music industry, and I’m glad that my questions helped highlight the talents of Mitch and to entertain and educate his following. Stay safe and thanks again for stopping by!
It’s always a pleasure and positive experience working with Mitch, recording, performing or just hanging out. Great interview.
Thanks so much for the feedback. Mitch is clearly beloved, and he deserves all of this positive attention. Thanks again for popping by, and stay safe!
Wow! As I was reading this and got to the “Court of the Crimson King” part I literally heard that line sung by Greg Lake at the exact same moment because Hubby is playing in it in the living room. The “lattice” of co-incidence, as Miller says in “Repo Man.” Always great to see an interview with Mitch. He’s amongst the coolest of the cool music people in music history. Still waiting for that follow-up to “Dynamico,” a brilliant record.
I love when little coincidences happen like that; you’ll never forget that moment now. Mitch is an awesome guy, and I wish more people reached out to him to interview him, because he clearly has awesome things to say! Waiting for that album follow-up myself. Thanks for stopping by and stay safe!
I’ve known Mitch a long time. This was a delightful interview, succinct as well as detailed. Swell tone!
There’s a reason why everyone loves Mitch: he’s awesome! So glad you enjoyed the interview. Thanks for popping by. Stay safe!
Love all the photos of Let’s Active.
Thanks so much! Glad you enjoyed the interview. Thanks for popping by, and stay safe! 🙂
One of my favorite artists. I’m so glad I got to see Let’s Active play in a small club in Atlanta in the mid-80s. Thank you for this terrific interview!
Thanks so much for reading. Mitch is a great guy!
Such an eerie interview with one of my favorite musicians. Why eerie? Because even though I’m not a musician, many of his answers seem like they were ripped right out of my skull. The thinks along very similar lines to me. I was especially touched by his eloquent defense of the CD format as well as his dismay at how the once-common LP has become an elite artifact [that also sounds poor!]. That’s one of my big, big problems with record collecting right now is that “the bubble” has priced the once humble hobby of collecting music out of the reach of many middle class people, to say nothing of those struggling financially. The bifurcation of collecting music into a streaming hole where you pay money and have nothing to show for it at the end of the day on the low end, and high-end artifacts costing a week’s worth of groceries [or more] for the monied elite disgusts me. And how can our musical culture persist without artifacts to withstand the ravages of time to be rediscovered again by later generations?