When you call the Easter residence in Winston-Salem, N.C., it's no surprise that it takes Mom Easter a while to roust her son out of the garage. That garage, known as Mitch's Drive-In Studio, has become an inspiration for struggling rock bands on the East Coast, and its proprietor, Mitch Easter, has become something of a hero as the engineer-producer who really understands the needs of America's up-and-coming musicians.
Over the last few years Easter has become so well known -- engineering and producing records by R.E.M., the Individuals, Pylon and members of the Bongos and dB's -- that he might have built a lucrative career as a producer. He might have taken his low-budget, down-home and totally comfortable garage studio and transformed it into a high-budget, uptown and totally imposing modern one.
"No, no," Easter insists. "I never considered it for five seconds. The studio is there for people who play, and that's what I'd rather do too."
It seems that while most rock stars dream of being producers someday, Easter the producer has always dreamed the opposite. In fact, he now devotes most of his time and energy to leading one of America's hottest up-and-comers, Let's Active.
"In my mind," he admits in a lazy drawl, "I've always tried to be in a rock band. I've been in bands since I was 12, but they have a way of coming and going. When I started the studio, I had just gotten out of school and needed a job. The studio was my version of washing dishes while I worked on my great novel. When the right people became available, that's when I formed Let's Active."
Before it was Mitch's Drive-In Studio, the garage served as a rehearsal space for the uncounted bands Easter has played in since he was a teen-ager. One of those bands suffered the ignominy of backing up teen heartthrob Bobby Sherman on a tour. A few others, such as the H-Bombs and Sneakers, achieved minor reputations in the late '70s.
When Easter got out of school, he headed for New York City with hopes of starting a studio in the center of the music industry. But the financial and legal hassles proved overwhelming, and he retreated to the simpler environs of Winston-Salem and the garage.
One of Easter's first customers was an unknown band from Athens, Ga. Since its first visit to Mitch's Drive-In Studio, R.E.M. has grown into one of the most critically acclaimed and commercially successful independent rock bands in the world, and Easter has remained its engineer and coproducer of choice. Since R.E.M., the bands have never stopped calling.
"The thing that's different about my studio," Easter explains, "is that I approach things from the point of view of someone in a rock band. It's a real advantage that I play the music. Most engineers don't play, and have a hard time communicating with musicians and serving their needs. I catered to bands that didn't have a lot of money. I made the studio as cheap and as available as possible so that I could help the small, independent band scene. Technically, I never cared much about the studio status quo. I got the equipment I needed and much of it was old."
In 1981 Easter formed Let's Active with drummer Sara Romweber and bassist Faye Hunter. When R.E.M. asked the band to open some of its shows, the then-nameless trio wrote down a few potential names and asked R.E.M. to pick one. The group picked Let's Active, a spoof on the Japanese grasp of American grammar. Despite being cheerfully despised by the group, the name has stuck.
Led by Easter's hook-laden songs and textured guitar work, Let's Active has developed into one of the more fascinating of a host of American bands revising the sound of late '60s pop and folk-rock. The bare-bones economy of its fetching 1983 debut EP, "Afoot," was a little misleading regarding the richly layered and evocative pop soundscapes Easter was conceiving. It is really "Cypress," the band's debut LP, that brings to life and integrates his skills as guitarist, composer and producer.
Already topping progressive-college radio play lists and the annual rock critics' polls, "Cypress" imaginatively extends the guitar-based melodic rock sound of bands like the Beatles and songs like "Strawberry Fields Forever." Easter's compositions are fancifully ornate puzzles constructed of multitracked guitars, all chiming, ringing and glowing with resplendent tones. Easter, who brings Let's Active (now a quartet) to the 9:30 club tonight and tomorrow, admits that simplicity is not his goal.
"When I write songs," he says, "I need twists to keep me interested. I don't want to be boring, so I use a range of sounds and textures for atmosphere. Most pop songs just hit you over the head like a brick. I'd like my records to be subtler, so every time you listen you hear something new."