Mitch Easter isn't a household name unless your household contains a rabid R.E.M. fan, that is. The 52-year-old produced the Georgia group's landmark 1982 debut EP, Chronic Town, and also co-produced the quartet's first two albums along with musician Don Dixon. The sense of mystery and Southern-gothic murkiness shrouding those recordings revolutionized (if not spawned) college rock in the 1980s.
Due in no small part to R.E.M.'s success, Easter continued to have a hand in influential recordings in the ensuing years. The North Carolina native coaxed a distinctive sound from the bands he worked with, one brimming with bright harmonies, warm tones and copper-plated riffs indebted to rockers such as the Byrds, Big Star and the Hollies. In particular, Easter had a profound influence on underground power-pop: His production credits include albums by noted songwriter Marshall Crenshaw, dBs member Chris Stamey and '90s rockers the Velvet Crush, as well as four records by cult icons Game Theory.
"There was a bit of an assumption that I was the eternal twerp, that I got into [recording bands] because I was the nerdy guy with a recording studio," Easter says now, calling while in the middle of cleaning up his current recording studio, the Fidelitorium. "It's really the other way around I was playing in bands for a really long time.
"By the time 1980 came around and I started my studio [Drive-In], I was trying to figure out how to have a job, but not really have a job, and still be a band guy. I got a lot more fame value out of the studio than any of my own playing."
Which is a shame, since both of Easter's best-known bands Sneakers and Let's Active created some of the most timeless music around. The former (which Easter formed with Stamey, a childhood friend) focused more on straightforward power-pop, while the latter had a skewed take on the genre. Buoyed by co-ed vocal harmonies and unorthodox melodies (and yes, jangly guitars), Let's Active songs had a whimsical atmosphere that was childlike but melancholic, like the dichotomy found in darker Grimm's Fairy Tales.
As with many cult acts, however, both bands influenced other musicians and generated fanatical followings without ever finding a commercial toehold. (Even though Let's Active did tour with R.E.M., and shared a record label, I.R.S., with them.) Still, the impact Let's Active and Sneakers has had on current music can't be underestimated, says local musician Steve Scariano.
"[Let's Active] laid down the blueprint for a certain type of mixed-gender band that is so common and the norm now in indie rock," he says. "And their records were so wonderful and timeless.
"A lot of the charm in those [Sneakers] records were because they were basically home recordings, and the guys who made them came off as these very approachable mad scientists," he continues. "Guys that probably owned the same records you did, and would maybe hang out with you if you met them and maybe even make a record with you if you had cool songs like they had."
Scariano who plays with both the Love Experts and Finn's Motel indeed made a record with Easter in 1984, while a member of the band Turning Curious. In fact, traveling to Easter's Drive-In Studio had been a goal of Scariano's since forming a group called the B-Lovers four years earlier, a band inspired by the type of so-called "quirky-pop" Easter and his North Carolina brethren created.
"Working with Mitch was everything we had ever dreamed it would be and more," Scariano recalls. "In our little world, it was the equivalent of working with George Martin at Abbey Road."
But the artists associated with Mitch Easter gave some the wrong impression about his motivations or studio; as he puts it, "People felt that I had this '80s music mill, where we had this manifesto, and everything had this motivation behind it." The truth is far less calculated and far more populist.
"I would have been perfectly happy to have recorded Bon Jovi in the middle of doing these hipster records," Easter says. "Because I just like music. But you almost have to keep your mouth shut about that, because a lot of people don't want you to be very versatile. That's why these cartoon bands like KISS can do such incredible business the more you can simplify it, the easier it is to sell.
"A lot of people that came to see Let's Active would have left if they knew that in my record collection were also early Genesis records. You know what I mean?" He laughs. "But I like that stuff."
Easter's sense of disconnection from specific eras or time, especially from a commercial and business perspective, perhaps explains why the new Dynamico, his first album since 1989, sounds so timeless.
Driven by Easter's distinctive voice (a cartoonish yelp whose closest kin is, bizarrely enough, They Might be Giants' John Flansburgh), Dynamico is a booming, catchy record squarely in the power-pop tradition. Echoes of the Posies (particularly in grungy guitars), glam-rock and Paisley Underground-era psych-pop (the fine "Why Is It So Hard?") abound, while handclaps and interlocking harmonies receive a shiny but never too clean production gloss.
"To me it's all sort of a piece," he says of Dynamico's place in his recorded output. "It's a little more competent here and there than the Let's Active records but only marginally." He laughs. "And in other ways, it's not much different at all.
"People always think that when you're writing songs or recording songs, there's all this deliberateness about it, like, 'You wanted an '80s sound!' or 'You wanted a '90s sound!' It's just sound to me. What I do is just sort of what I do."
Critics have responded favorably to whatever it is Easter is doing even going so far as to describing Dynamico as having a harder sound than his previous work.
"For whatever reason, it's perceived as being more rock," Easter says. "And that's generally seen to be as good. That's because Let's Active had a bit of typecasting as the world's fluffiest bunch of little Smurfs. Maybe the fact that I'm old now makes this go away, and that makes some people relax."
In recent years, though, interest in Easter's work with Let's Active has increased exponentially. (Before earning a reissue in 2004, the CD version of the band's debut LP/EP, Cypress/Afoot, regularly went for $50-plus on eBay.) Other cult acts such as Athens, Georgia, post-punk dub-rockers Pylon, whose debut, Gyrate, will be released on CD in October are also earning some long-overdue attention.
Easter pragmatically says that the reissue craze for Let's Active and others is "a cheap way to put out product" but also theorizes that the enthusiasm and innocence attached to the early-'80s is fueling the nostalgia and affecting the resurgence.
"People were so desperate for that music when it came along," he says of that time. "Everybody I knew would drive 300 miles to see some not-particularly-famous band, if they represented the new sound. That was all very exciting.
"It was pretty innocent. That word can be thrown around, but it's the truth. Most of the bands invented themselves. When you look at commercial rock now, it looks very manufactured. It reminds me of the late '50s, with teen idols and stuff. It's really about looks and youth. Whereas bands like Pylon were funny-looking, and that was part of its charm."
That lack of self-consciousness remains strong in Easter's motivation for both performing and making music. At his St. Louis gig, he'll be performing songs from Dynamico and selections from Let's Active's catalog, as well as playing with opening band Shalini (touring in support of a new album, The Surface and the Shine). He's realistic about expectations both in album sales and audience size but figures that releasing Dynamico now rather than another time makes sense. After all, why not?
"I have no idea what the right time is," he says. "But I don't know anything about the music business. I never did and I really don't now. Last summer I had some time to actually make a dent on mixing a record. There were other times when I had time probably fifteen years ago, where I just thought, 'Eh, nobody wants to hear this.'
"At this point, I'm over any kind of worries about whether anyone wants to hear it or not. It's a happily admitted vanity project, and if anybody wants to hear it, great!" He laughs. "It was great to have a real career for a few minutes a long time ago, but that sort of thing we had back then doesn't exist anymore. I can't worry about that."