my lost interview with Mitch Easter, from 2006

(written for indie ‘zine, Sparkle (now-defunct) in 2006 as part of the Sparklefest 2006 program)

Mitch Easter.

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!

Gary Cherone- “just a singer in a rock and roll band”

Gary Cherone is one of rock’s best vocalists, with an impressive catalog of songs with his band Extreme and as a solo artist. Gary and Extreme had a number one song, a top five hit and several platinum selling records… When Extreme disbanded in 1996 he was hand-picked by a certain guitarist in Southern California to front one of the world’s most successful bands. …

Back with Extreme since 2008’s excellent, Saudades de Rock, Gary Cherone took a few minutes to discuss the band’s latest release-the DVD entitles Take Us Alive, their first official live release, his new side project Hurtsmile and some of his influences…

CH: Hi Gary- I’d like to talk about Extreme’s new live CD/DVD- Take Us Alive…. First of all- what took so long? Extreme has always been known as a great live band…What made the final decision to release an official Live cd?

GC: That seems to be the question- What took so long. Well, we took a 13 year hiatus. We actually did document some footage on the Pornograffitti  tour, we recorded two Hammersmith shows in London. We still have that footage and we are trying to get all the pieces together and maybe release it in the future. But that footage kind of fell by the wayside- we went on to do III sides, and were like a bunch of ADD kids who couldn’t keep ourselves on one project ( laughing).

We are very excited about Take Us Alive. The band got back together and thought it is important for us to make new music, rather than be thought of as a nostalgia band and just play the hits. So – new tour, new record, and we wanted to document that. And we hope to , if we can, document every tour from this point.

CH: You mention your new record, Saudades de Rock. To me, it stands right up next to your classic records of the early 90’s. The feel was much like 1994’s Waiting for the Punchline– a very live sounding recording, with minimal overdubbing, and some great songwriting.

GC: Well- Thank You. You are right on the mark. Nuno produced it, it has a really love feel. In the studio, you know, you are going to do some overdubs, some guitars, a vocal or two… but for the majority of Saudades- those were the performances. To listen to that record- I would put that up as one of the best performances in the band’s career. Listening back to some of the old records, there are some good performances … but on this one- the band was on. I am very proud of it.

CH: Saudades continues the band’s tradition of not being stuck in one genre or style. An example- the song “Ghost” is one of your stronger moments as a writer, and while not like it sonically, it continues the path of just writing songs that you started with the inclusion of “When I first Kissed You ” on Pornografiitti, or the entire 3rd side of III sides…

GC:  Saudades is a combination of… when we got together, Nuno and I did not have a plan. We just got together and wrote, the band went into pre-production and rehearsal and we just let it flow. Listening to this record is almost like a combination of all those 4 records. “King of the Ladies” is like early Extreme, fun Extreme…”Comfortably Dumb” sounds like something that could have come off “Punchline.”

CH: “Star” is like that , too…

GC: Sure, that is what I really like about Extreme, there really are no boundaries. You mentioned “When I first kissed You.” That is something that we wrote at the end of that record, and the record company really wanted it as a B-side. I remember , we were so adamant about… “No, No, No- we really want to show this side..

CH: I was a college DJ at the time Pornograffiti came out, and I would play that song quite a bit..

GC: What was the reaction?

CH: It was always good, followed by “Who was that?” I would follow with ” Get the Funk Out, and people would not believe it was the same band,… Your vocals would also change from style to style…
You have often been compared to Freddie Mercury live, but who are some of your writing influences?

GC: I think from the writing side, and I am in no way comparing, but more aspiring to-I am a big Dylan lyrical fan. The way he can tell a story, I still feel like I am in the infancy of trying to tell some of those story-telling songs…

But also, Townsend, Roger Waters, especially with the solo stuff I have done and some of the deeper cuts with Extreme…Those are some of the writers I go back to and they just blow me away. I can listen to a Floyd lyric and think “where did this guy come from”…Anything from the Who, Bernie Taupin is one of my favorites lyrically with Elton John-that writing team. Believe it or not I am reliving my childhood again and getting into the early AC/DC again, you know, straight down the middle rock that pulls something primal out of you when you listen.

I could go on forever, Queen, Alice Cooper- lyrically, I think Alice Cooper is very underrated, I think he is an incredible storyteller.

CH: And you quoted him on Pornograffiti…

GC: Absolutely- a nod to the Master.

CH:  Changing gears- you have another project in the works..

GC: Yeah, I am probably two tracks away from finishing the Hurtsmile CD that I put together with my brother, We plan on releasing it in the Fall. Not to take anything away from Extreme, as Nuno and I are writing together for the next Extreme record, as well.

CH: The Hurtsmile record is, you mentioned primal before, it is much more hard-rock than what people might expect.

GC: Yeah, it is different. The Tribe of Judah stuff I did was kind of a reaction to coming out of Van Halen- the last thing I wanted to be in was a three piece rock band. But at the end of the day, I am what I am, and that is a singer in a rock and roll band, and the Hurtsmile record is pretty much just rock and roll.

CH:  Want to touch briefly on the “Take Us Alive ” dvd and the videos that are included on it. “King of the Ladies,” looks like it was a lot of fun to make…

GC: Yeah , that was the most fun. I t basically was a backyard barbecue. “Run” is one of my favorites, as it kind of documents the Japanese leg of the tour, and shows the band in and around the city, with some live footage that we took on the road.

CH: Gary- you guys have toured with a huge number of bands over the years- are there any that you would like to play with?

GC: I have been throwing this out  for years, Cheap Trick would be my first thought. We are huge Cheap Trick fans, and have got to meet them and know them over the years- maybe somewhere down the road- that would be great. I would like to have a string of dates with KISS as well, just to say “we toured with KISS.” At this point we will tour with anybody, anywhere- we just want ot get out there and play.

CH: And we look forward to seeing more of that as well. It is a pleasure to talk to you, and look forward to the next record an tour.

GC: Thanks Clay- good interview- great to talk to someone who knows the history.