Mitch Easter :: The Aquarium Drunkard Interview

The relationship that R.E.M. had with the producers they chose to work with is vital to understanding the major stages in the band’s development. Scott Litt guided their evolution from college rock heroes to pop stars in the late ’80s and early ’90s. Pat McCarthy helped them absorb the blow of founding drummer Bill Berry’s departure and survive a creative rough patch in the early ’00s. And Jacknife Lee kept R.E.M.’s final two albums from crumbling apart amid the group’s slow fadeout.

In R.E.M.’s earliest days, it fell to Mitch Easter to harness the raw power and jangly energy of the Athens, Georgia quartet. Easter was behind the boards for the first four releases by the group: their 1981 debut single “Radio Free Europe,” breakthrough EP Chronic Town, and their bracing albums Murmur and Reckoning. The excitement of these five men, all of whom were at the start of their careers, bleeds into even the most contemplative tracks they recorded together. 

The first 7”, released on tiny Hib-Tone Records and recorded in Easter’s North Carolina garage, bristled with reverb-heavy possibility. And as they continued to work together, their ambitions grew accordingly as they began playing with tape loops, a wider array of instrumentation, and bolder songwriting ideas. That Easter was doing this while also developing the material and sound of his own band Let’s Active only further speaks to his talent and ability to harness the sparks of youthful inspiration. 

On the occasion of a 40th anniversary re-release of R.E.M.’s debut single, Easter spent some time on the phone with AD to discuss working with the band early on and the role he played in their rapid ascent from humble college town sensation to international acclaim. | r ham

Aquarium Drunkard: I wanted to start with your first studio, Drive-In Studio, where the “Radio Free Europe” single was recorded. This was built into your parents’ garage, correct? 

Mitch Easter: Yeah. They had bought this house right about the time I was finishing up college. It was one of these 1949 ranch houses. Really long and the garage was far away from the other end of the house. It was built incredibly, massively. But mainly I just wanted to try this out with low overhead and see if I could get the studio thing to actually work. The fact that they just moved in and I was trying to figure out what to do, we all thought, “This is easy. Let’s try this out.” I was gonna do it in New York City and I kind of chickened out on doing that.

The garage was not big. It was a two-car garage that at some point had been turned into a one-car garage. The other half had become a children’s bedroom and a utility room. When we first started working in the days of the R.E.M. single, it was pretty hilarious. When I look back on it and think I was actually trying to sell it as, “Yes, this is a recording studio. We can make records in here,” I feel like, “Oh God…” I mean, it did work. We did tons of records in there, but it certainly wasn’t much to look at. 

AD: You were a working musician through this whole period, but did you always have a yen for being on the other side of the glass and being a studio guy? 

Mitch Easter: I just always liked recording music a whole lot. I love records. They’re like magic. Live shows are a different kind of magic and they’re exciting, but records are always a little bit more interesting to me. I always wanted to do it and I wanted to know how they did it. I had all these great goofy ideas about what must be going on when I was eight years old and listening to records. One of my favorite ones was that I really thought that, on some of these Beatles records where it’s acoustic guitars and all of a sudden, George is playing a solo on electric, I thought they had to have a person standing there that would like hurl a guitar into George’s hands and he’d start playing electric. Then he’d throw it back to the guy and pick up the acoustic. I had no idea records were assembled. 

Also, about the time I was thinking of making music was when the late ’60s sonic and compositional explosion was going on. It was very “studio,” you know what I mean? And that just attracted me. I thought that’d be a really interesting thing to do. So by the time I was in college and really having to think about getting a job, I was like, “Oh, no.” Since I’d failed to become successful as a rock musician, I thought, “This is similar. I can do this.” What turned out for a long time to be really perfect for me was that I could tour about half the year and work in the studio about half the year. I really loved that sort of existence. I didn’t really have these ambitions about being a force in the music business or a name producer or anything. I just like the nuts and bolts of music and the process of recording. I wasn’t thinking about it career-wise at all. I was just into the sound. 

AD: It seems as though you were never a really hands-on producer in terms of developing the material with an artist or putting your stamp on it. Would that be fair to say? Were you someone to just let the musicians call the shots? 

Mitch Easter: Well, yes and no. I’m sort of a product of the “band taking over” era, which I now see as kind of a mixed bag. People still have these really weird ideas about this stuff. There’s one version where you’re not producing the band if you’re not hitting them over the head with a hammer about everything. And there’s the other version where the best thing to do is stand back and then help as needed. Which is more what suited me. I actually have a lot to do with everything I’ve worked on but I’m not some kind of person where I start the session by saying, “Okay now we’ve gotta understand that I’m in charge here!” I think these are all cooperative efforts. I always feel like these super heavy-handed people have a personality problem. I came at it from being a musician, and I can certainly say, “What if you tried this chord instead?” but I don’t make a big deal out of it. 

Every session is different. Some people really have got it figured out what they want to do, and I hear that and I say, “Yeah, that sounds great. Let’s do that.” I don’t have a compulsion to change it or say that, “Well, actually, it was my idea.” I’m kind of in the middle about all that. I know I would have done a lot more for myself as a producer if I had acted more grandiose, but that’s not my cup of tea. I like to be flexible and work on all kinds of things. I don’t particularly care about being identified with one sound or one way to work. I just think, “Gotta make something cool, so however we get there…” 

AD: Let’s jump into talking about working on that first R.E.M. single. How did you get connected with those guys? 

Mitch Easter: It was Peter Holsapple, who’s an old friend of mine. R.E.M. were starting to play New York and somehow they had been put in touch with Peter and they stayed at his apartment. I think they told him they were going to record something, and they weren’t sure where they wanted to go. I think Peter recommended me because I had just started my place. And there was this thing in the air back then of “Us vs. Them,” which is always useful for music scenes. Even if it can be kind of silly, it’s also useful. So a lot of the studios back then represented the old corporate world of corporate rock. They didn’t want anything to do with that. And I don’t mean R.E.M. There were tons of bands with this attitude where it’s like, “We’re rejecting all this nonsense. We’re gonna do it our way. It’s not gonna be bloated and expensive.” That was actually working for me with my little humble garage back then because it clearly was not The Power Station. At the same time, I think we got pretty good results. The results got better the more I did it, with the same space and the same equipment. R.E.M. was pretty early on for me. But I knew how to do it. I just got better sounds later. But I think that single sounds cool. It fit the times. That’s the story. It was just friends talking to friends. You know, Atlanta had plenty of studios back then, but they didn’t want to go to any of those mainstream places. I don’t know what was in Athens at the time. 

AD: Were you familiar with the band at that point? 

Mitch Easter: No, I had never heard of them until they came over to my house.  I had seen a poster for a club in Raleigh, but I hadn’t seen them and didn’t know what they did at all. It was great because they came in the night before and we just played records. It was really good because it was like, “Hanging out with these guys is comfortable. Playing these records was fun. What we’re saying is fun. This is going to be good.” To have a session feel like that was exactly what I was hoping to be doing. It was really encouraging to me even before we played any music that we just got along. 

AD: Do you remember what records you were listening to? 

Mitch Easter: I don’t know! People have asked me that, and I just don’t remember. This was like 1981 or something like that. It was a million years ago. Probably some ’70s rock and some punk rock. A lot of what we listened to would probably be seen as horribly unhip. That’s what was great about them. They had wide-ranging tastes. I always felt a little bit too old for the punk scene even though I think I’m two years older than Peter Buck. But I felt older because I’d played in bands since I was 12. So this pure attitude that you’re supposed to have about punk, I couldn’t really do that. I just liked too much stuff. I didn’t know if this new band coming in would find my taste too ridiculous or not. But those guys weren’t purists. It was fun. We just played whatever we played. I don’t know what it was. I wish I did! 

AD: I think that’s such a good point about them not being purists. You think about all the covers they did early on. There was the Velvet Underground and Television, sure, but they’re also playing “Moon River” and “King of the Road.” They had very open minds. 

Mitch Easter: Exactly. I appreciated the fact that they just wanted to have fun with this stuff. They certainly had their standards like, “We’re going to do this and we’re not going to do that.” As anybody who’s playing music should. But some of the strictures of any kind of scene can be, ultimately, a little boring, and they weren’t like that at all. 

AD: Did they have pretty clear ideas of how they wanted things to sound or how they wanted the session to go? Or was that something that you figured out together? 

Mitch Easter: I don’t think there was any sort of manifesto or sonic roadmap or anything. I think everybody was just like, “We’re gonna play this song, and we’re gonna make it sound good,” whatever that means. Because it’s not like a really crazy record or anything. It’s still guitar, bass, and drums, and a singer. You’re doing the same sort of thing that they would have done on an Andy Williams session, except that it’s a different kind of music. I don’t really remember talking about goals. I think you hear the song and you know what to do. Plus it was such a quickie session. That single session was super fast. When we did the Chronic Town record a little later, we spent a lot more time on it. Which still means no time at all, but more than two days. 

AD: But they know which two songs they wanted on this single? That was well established? 

Mitch Easter: I think so. I think they knew what songs they wanted to do, which they had already recorded. They had recorded at a place in Smyrna, Georgia called Bombay, and they did the same three songs that they did when they came up here. They must have felt like “These are our good ones” or “Our easy to digest ones” or something. So they did “Sitting Still” and “Radio Free Europe” and also “White Tornado,” that instrumental. I don’t think they even played me any other songs to choose from or anything. I mean, so many bands all of a sudden got this idea that “We’re going to put out a 7” with a picture sleeve,” and that’s what this session was supposed to be. 

AD: Obviously, you guys got along well and the session was successful as they kept coming back for more. You made Chronic Town in the same space, so did things change considerably for you about how you approached the studio and working with R.E.M. by the time they returned to Drive-In? 

The main thing is that, because we knew each other a little more and we were going to spend more time—and it was a bigger record—we did stretch out a bit artistically. Which was great fun for me. I have better memories of Chronic Town than the single because the single was just a whirlwind. But on Chronic Town we got to actually talk about stuff. The record I’d been listening to right before I got the studio going that was what I imagined I wanted to be doing at the time was Low by David Bowie. Which was kind of a crazy record and very sonic. You can’t always get rock bands to want to do that. And not that I could just do that, but that was in my head. So on Chronic Town, I suggested a lot more weirdo stuff. Tape loops and doing stuff backwards. And they were totally into it. That was great fun. 

That’s where it gets back to what I love about records because you can’t really do all that on stage. But since you can do it in the studio, it’s like, why not?  That’s really fun to listen to. We felt like we were doing more on Chronic Town. As far as what was in the building and everything, it was pretty much the same. We just had the time to mess around. I didn’t want to lay that stuff on them the minute they walked in to do the single. Those songs were different songs anyway. The single was very immediate. “Sitting Still” has a little bit of dreamy action going on but it’s more straightforward than Chronic

AD: How did it go for working on Murmur and Reckoning? You moved into a bigger studio and probably had more time to go for bigger and different sounds, I imagine. 

Mitch Easter: We went to Reflection in Charlotte to do those records because we were ordered to go to a better studio. The studio had 24 tracks, and 24 tracks was a big deal. That’s what the “real” studios had, and I had 16, so it’s not gonna quite do it, is it? [laughs] So we went down to Reflection. They were asking me about where to do this, and Reflection was a lot snazzier than my place so I knew it would be worth it to go there. And that’s when Don Dixon got involved because I’d never worked there on my own. He used to work there all the time, and I’ve known him forever. So we worked on that stuff together. 

And that was a really good situation. It’s a big room and they’ve got some really great instruments that I didn’t have. They had vibes and a Hammond organ. It was a really good move because a lot of the stuff I was doing on Chronic Town then went out the window after they had their famous unfortunate experience with this other producer. They had a bad time and it made them really anti-studio in a way. They came into the Murmur session with the attitude of “It’s just going to be like what we do on stage.” And I just don’t think that’s quite interesting enough. So we had to rev up their sound. They really got on board with the piano and the vibes and all the stuff that was kind of real. They were terrified of being seen as “of the mainstream.” They didn’t want these synthesizers and electronic stuff and that’s what all the other producers were going to tell them to do in 1983. It was kind of cool that we came up with a formula that worked for them and that would also satisfy us as recording people and get them interested in stretching the sound out a little bit. 

AD: There’s an anecdote I read from another interview where you talked about seeing R.E.M. opening for XTC before their first single came out and it was clear that people were connecting with this band. They were singing along with songs that hadn’t even been released. I don’t imagine then it was much of a surprise for you to see how quickly they were embraced by critics and audiences. 

Mitch Easter: No, it was. It was a surprise. Like I said, I’ve been playing in bands since I was 12, and for a while there, you just do it on your own internal energy. You don’t even care if the audience is looking at you. But after a while you start thinking, “Actually, nobody cares about us.” That’s kind of typical. I don’t know if the South is extra bad about that, but I have many images of everyone standing at the back of the hall with their arms folded. The Athens thing was so not like that. I think the scene with Athens was better for everybody. It was such a fucking relief to see the audience realizig that they have a part to play. And they were having fun and contributing to the energy of the whole night. It was fantastic. Not only that, they clearly knew how the songs went. I don’t think R.E.M. had played a million times by that point. I think they’d been around for about a year. The point is, I had not seen anything like that, and I thought, “This is what it’s supposed to be.” But the fact that they got paid attention to by people elsewhere is crucial. They definitely got noticed in New York City right away, and that was just wonderful. I think that pathway had already been blazed by the B-52’s. But R.E.M. did really well immediately. Everybody that wrote about them thought they were really special. 

But even when we finished Murmur, I didn’t know what people would think of it. We were doing the record and we had a visit from a couple of the IRS Records people. They seemed decidedly unimpressed. At the same time, it’s like, “Well, we’re just gonna forget ahead.” It was so great that the public spoke. That was a big record. I think it was Rolling Stone’s record of the year, which was a big thing. I was going to New York with the tapes to get it mastered, and I was riding up there with some people that were on tour and I had a cassette of it. I played it in the van and everybody was like, “Oh my God, this is fantastic.” I mean, I thought it was good, but you never know what anybody else was gonna think. It just sort of went from there. I don’t think they really ever had any setbacks to speak of. They could pretty much do what they wanted to after that. 

AD: Was it disappointing at all that the band decided to work with other producers after you did Reckoning with them? Or were you feeling like that was the necessary next step for R.E.M.? 

Mitch Easter: It truly didn’t bother me at all. I’m sure nobody believes that but I just thought, “If I were in your position, that’s what I would do.” I would go record in Berlin or something. You only live once. I would felt like it was really unfair to them to try to hang on. They were very nice about everything. Our band played with them a fair bit during that time when they were getting seriously noticed. There would be these guys hovering around who would be record producers that want to talk to them. I just sort of laughed at all this. You like, “Wow, great to see all these suitors hanging around.” Before the third record was about to be made, there was a kindly proposal from their management to put me and Don Dixon plus these two other guys. I remember thinking, “I don’t think we need a producer for each member of the band.” I said, “Don’t worry about it. Just let them do what they want to do.” Then they ended up doing that record with Joe Boyd, which I thought was a really cool choice and somewhat unexpected. I’m sure people would love a scandalous thing or somebody was crushed or upset or something, but I really wasn’t. I was busy anyway. 

AD: It has to feel so gratifying to have these records that you made some 35-40 years ago still getting talked about. 

Mitch Easter: It’s really amazing, and I don’t take it for granted at all. There’s so much chance with all this stuff. The fact that it happened at all. The fact that we got along and we made things that people actually enjoyed. There’s so many ways it can all go horribly wrong. You really cannot exactly plan on this stuff or force it to happen. The fact that it was so casual makes it even better. There was none of this having to follow up a big hit or any additional pressure. The expectations were all reasonable. “Let’s just hope we do something good.” It was an ideal time for them and me.  

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