Updated: Nov 15, 2021
This dates me, but I first saw Mitch Easter when his band, Let’s Active, was opening for R.E.M. in the fall of 1983 on my college campus. Winston-Salem native Easter had produced R.E.M.’s first single, “Radio Free Europe”/“Sitting Still,” and then their EP Chronic Town and debut album Murmur, which was my introduction to the band.
In that concert, R.E.M. would perform several songs from their next album, Reckoning, including the one that Michael Stipe said still had no title since they played it for David Letterman in their national TV debut the night before. (It later got the name “So. Central Rain (I’m Sorry).”) Easter would produce that album too, with Don Dixon, and those R.E.M. records not only proved to be landmarks but also got spun on my turntable more than any other albums. (Ask my college roommate.)
Something about the tight, melodic songwriting; the jangly yet muscular guitars and driving rhythms; the just-out-of-reach air of Southern mystery and words I only occasionally could make out; and that sound kept me coming back. Little did I know that Easter, the fluffy-haired singer-guitarist leading the band opening for R.E.M., had much do with that sound.
I did notice that the Let’s Active guy wrote catchy guitar-pop songs, such as “Every Word Means No”; that his band, with Faye Hunter on bass and Sara Romweber on drums, had bright energy; and that he was a gifted guitarist, as evidenced by his solo acoustic performance of Mason Williams’ “Classical Gas.”
After that show I picked up Let’s Active’s debut EP Afoot and later bought the album Cypress, which features the fantastically bendy “Waters Part,” and the brightly colored Big Plans for Everybody,” one of my favorite albums of 1986.
Even as R.E.M. worked with other producers, Easter kept producing bands that I loved, such as Game Theory and the Windbreakers, with Velvet Crush, Pavement and others to follow. He was a key figure in defining a brand of Southern rock that had nothing to do with boogie or the blues, instead presenting power pop viewed through a carnival mirror.
After Let’s Active’s 1988 swan song, Every Dog Has His Day, Easter didn’t release another album of his own songs till his belated solo debut, 2007’s Dynamico, which still sounds like him. He continues to produce bands at his North Carolina studio, Fidelitorium, though, as he notes, the industry has changed.
I first spoke with him for an article I wrote after the October 2020 Record Store Day release of the compilation Strum & Thrum: The American Jangle Underground 1983-1987, which included several bands he recorded. He told me of his dislike of the term “jangle,” which comes from the Byrds’ Rickenbacker-driven cover of Bob Dylan’s “Mr. Tambourine Man,” and walked me through what defined the sound.
When I launched Caropop, I knew I wanted to continue our conversation on the podcast, and he was gracious enough to agree. Here he discusses his childhood friendship and early collaborations with Chris Stamey and Peter Holsapple of the dB’s, his love of the Move and Big Star, his favorite guitars and, of course, his work with R.E.M.
What is that weird pulsating sound that opens “Murmur”? Where the heck did those slow-motion explosions in “We Walk” come from—and why? What was the key to Peter Buck’s guitar sound? Hint: It wasn’t the Rickenbacker.
Mitch also talks about his Let’s Active records and his work with the late Scott Miller’s bands Game Theory and the Loud Family, which added a West Coast sensibility (and synths) to the power-pop mix.
I could have spoken with Easter for hours and almost did—so this conversation has been spread out over two Caropop episodes so we don’t have to cut out any of his great stories about producing and performing some of the best music of the ‘80s and beyond. I’m a fan, as you can tell, and I expect you are or will be soon.