(written for indie ‘zine, Sparkle (now-defunct) in 2006 as part of the Sparklefest 2006 program)
In most circles, it is a name ubiquitous with the Southern Indie Pop scene of the early 1980’s led by the likes of REM and Easter’s own Let’s Active. Let’s Active released three full-length records and one EP from 1983 to 1988. Touring with such notable acts as REM, The Church, Echo & the Bunnymen and others, the band had numerous personel changes in its existence but at the core of it was Mitch’s catchy but often unorthodox songs and his incendiary guitar playing. Guitar playing that was always joyful and celebratory instead of inward looking. Since 1990, Mitch Easter has been spoken of more as a renowned producer and engineer, and rightfully so, having worked with such notables as the aforementioned REM, Marshall Crenshaw, Velvet Crush and Drive By Truckers, to name but a very few. However, his prowess on the fret board and as a songwriter should never be neglected, and was the focus of my recent conversation with him.
Sparkle: Let’s talk a little about your musical influences, you know, your firsts…First guitar, first record, first band, etc…
Mitch:My first guitar was a Brand X Woolworth’s guitar, but a few months after I got that, I got an old Gibson ES-330, which is what I learned to play on..
Sparkle: Still got those guitars?
Mitch: Yes, both of them, although the “Woolworth” is missing its electronics and has the beginnings of a failed “psychedelic” paint scheme, oops…
Sparkle: What was the first record you remember buying for yourself?
Mitch: The 1st one I bought myself was Walk, Don’t Run ’64, by the Ventures.
Sparkle: Fitting, for a great guitar player, such as you.
Mitch: You are too kind!
Sparkle: I saw you and Shalini play a set of Ventures material as part of the Tsunami benefit. Would you say that they were one of the biggest influences on your playing?
Mitch: Absolutely- Nokie Edwards is amazing! He has a very distinctive tone, which he seemed to mostly achieve just with his fingers and amp volume, although there is some occasional perfect “fuzz box” sound now and then. I really like their own songs, like the originals on the “Batman Theme” LP, “Guitar Genius of the Ventures”, etc. Watch their live show from around ’65 on the Japanese film “Beloved Invaders” and have your mind blown!
Early on, however, I figured I’d pattern myself on Don Wilson, the rhythm player. A lost art, rhythm guitar!
Sparkle: Being a lead guitar player, patterned after perhaps one of the greatest rhythm players- do you think that helps explain your very distinctive style?
Mitch: The Executive Decision to Officially Play Rhythm was, I think, a function of being 12 and deciding that “Lead” Guitar had to be nearly impossible! Having failed to distinguish myself in Jr. High Band class, I set my sights on something I might actually be able to do, I thought. The great thing was, I was totally happy trying to do a good job on the chords for a long time, which had to be useful training. When I was 13 or so, our little combo was playing at the famed Knollwood (church) Coffeehouse and an impressive older hipster kind of guy approached me and the drummer about jamming. This person was the legendary Sam Moss, who was maybe 15 and therefore vastly more worldly and knowledgeable about…everything. This was probably the essential turning point for me, the moment which set me on the Road to Ruin.
Because this jam was astounding- we learned brand-new songs such as Purple Haze, Sunshine of Your Love, Revolution, etc. and in one afternoon my guitar playing was stretched so far I actually got a cramp in my hand. I also felt instantly a lot less concerned with the cares and machinations of the other 7th Graders! What a relief. This outfit became the Impeturbial Teutonic Griffin, a name which we must credit Chris Stamey, although we managed to misspell it ourselves.
After awhile, Sam Moss went on to bigger and better things, and that’s when it seemed to fall to me to become the Lead Player. Oops. I remember trying to get something like the guitar effect of the Doors’ Hello, I Love You, using my Lafayette fuzz box, and although it wasn’t exactly “lead” guitar, it was moving in that direction. I just floundered around and eventually it sort of came into focus. If I have a distinctive style, it’s probably because I used to hate to try to figure out solos off records. Too lazy!
Sparkle: Did I read that Tim Lee played with you (Let’s Active) for a while?
Mitch: Time Lee did a tour with Let’s Active as the guitar-keyboard person.
After Sara Romweber quit the band we never exactly had a stable line-up, and had more of the “…and their Heavy Friends” approach to getting it together for tours. Even when we were officially a 3-piece, we often had a 4th person onstage.
Sparkle:One of your early bands, Sacred Irony played a show with an up and coming band called the Allman Brothers, did you not?
Mitch: Not exactly. We were supposed to play at the Love Valley Festival, where the Allman Bros. did indeed play, but our slot never occurred.
We were standing by with all our gear loaded into our Band Hearse, but we never got to play. There aren’t any released recordings but we did record at an actual studio on 3 occasions.
Sparkle: Any other brushes with greatness?
Mitch: Well! Sacred Irony got to be Bobby Sherman’s backing band one night.
Sparkle: The “Sacred Irony” demos you mentioned- any plans to release these or any other past unreleased recordings? Perhaps a collectors edition Box Set, somewhere down the line?
Mitch:Nah, I mean this is the territory where Mysterious Forces may bring stuff like that to light, but not me. I am amazed and impressed that people find old obscure things and do something with them but I’d so much rather work on new songs and put them out.
Sparkle: As someone who was a part of that fertile period of the 70’s and 80’s, with bands such as Let’s Active, the Db’s, Arrogance, and later the Graphic and others making a name on a regional and National level, and as a vital part of today’s music scene, how do you look at the “Musical World” today versus your time with IRS and Let’s Active?
Biggest differences- positive and negative?
Mitch:This will just sound like the typical old fart answer, but basically you used to have to be able to play and deliver onstage and now you don’t, exactly. Let me add that people who aren’t hotshots often make interesting records but they often don’t, too, and generally the 1st thing a person does isn’t going to be very good. Therefore it’s a bit of a problem when everybody’s every idea is out there to wade through.
The accessibility of things now is great- I love You Tube and that’s a great service! But the old mechanism, including promotion, art departments, etc. was a “professional” scene which actually worked very well! If standards don’t stay high, people aren’t going to bother trying to find something good in a sea of half-baked records. I’m sure this will all sort itself out over time.
Sparkle:Any bands out right now that in your opinion should be heard?
Mitch: Stratocruiser, of course! (note: Mitch mixed the new stratocruiser record, and this writer sings on it, but this was an unsolicited response…)
Sparkle:How do you describe what you are doing now musically? (Shalini, Mitch Easter Combo, the Fiendish Minstrels)
Mitch:I have the “Mitch Easter” combo, and then there’s the “Shalini” one that I play guitar in, and both bands are still at it with records coming out before too long. I abandoned the Fiendish Minstrels name because nobody could spell “Fiendish”, plus the bill would invariably add “Featuring Mitch Easter” and I didn’t like the “featuring” bit! So I figure I’m saving everybody some trouble by using my name, boring as that is.
Sparkle:Tell me about your new record. Who are the players on it and how would you describe the sound?
Mitch:I found it liberating to consider anything I had for this imaginary new record, including tracks that were already recorded, in some cases ages ago. Nobody has heard this stuff, so it really doesn’t matter when it was done, you know? So, some of these are my initial versions with me playing everything and others are the current band. One of the songs was written on Sept. 18th, 2006 and there may be one from ’87.
Nevertheless, I think it will add up just fine. I never worry about being “current” or anything in particular; I just do my thing and if it pleases me it’s in! And I think as musicians we always sound like ourselves, for better or worse.
Sparkle:What’s in your cd player right now?
Mitch: New Order!