The Cream Puff Records Interview with Mitch Easter
By Dan Reeves
At what age did it occur to you that music would be such an integral part of your life?
I always really loved music and was completely fascinated by records and the sounds on them. But I didn't think of myself as somebody who could actually play music. I guess this changed as time went on because "music" just got to be bigger and bigger in the culture- this was clearly the path to things like meeting girls. Well, sports, too, but I was even farther away from being a sportsman.
One time I was hanging out with a friend and we went over to his house, where his older brother and two other guys were in the basement playing electric guitars, all out of the same amp. It was the loudest, most magnificent thing I'd ever heard. Maybe seeing it up close made it seem like something regular humans could do, I don't know. It wasn't too much later that another friend showed me the riff to “Secret Agent Man,” and I could actually do it. After that, it was all downhill. I got a guitar, took some lessons from this great cool-looking college kid who showed me how to play the chords to Monkees songs, I got in a band, and realized this is it, there is nothing better you can do. This all probably occurred within like, three months or something, in 1967. I was twelve.
What were your influences? I am sure the Beatles, The Kinks, etc were a big part of your development, but beyond that, what got you into music? Parents, radio, other chance encounters?
The radio. My parents always had the radio on, to Top 40 stations, which back then were pretty good and played a fairly wide variety of stuff, but it was definitely rock-pop-soul, mostly. I especially liked the psychedelic sounds as they came in, wild-sounding things like “I Can See for Miles,” but also that real 1960s sophisto-pop, like Burt Bacharach and Jimmy Webb. In Winston-Salem we had WTOB and WAIR, and the DJs were local celebrities. They really cultivated this fun 'n' cool thing, which ruled.
To what instrument (s) were you originally drawn?
Guitar, of course!
I know you and Chris Stamey were friends growing up, and that by age twelve both you and he were ahead of the curve musically. What brought the two of you and Peter Holsapple together to form the third incarnation of Rittenhouse Square?
I had known Chris since right after the second grade, but I only met Peter in maybe junior high. By then we were all musicians, sort of. Peter was really good then, he probably always was. I was introduced to him in terms of him being a sort of prodigy/star, which he was. The local bands would fall apart with various people forming the next band immediately, and to tell you the truth, I don't exactly know how the later-era Rittenhouse Square got organized. I think Chris and I maybe had played some with Bobby Locke, who we didn't know but we knew he was really good, so we wanted to check him out. And I think Peter was asked in because he could sing and Chris and I had never sung in a band at that point.
You went to college at UNC. When you were there, who did you find yourself drawn to musically? Specifically, can you talk about Don Dixon and the influence he, Arrogance and other Triangle bands had on you?
I was in college in the mid-70s and I was getting pretty freaked out by the yacht rock sounds I was hearing, and the tiresome lyrics of the day, which seemed to be too often about "me and my lady" or "sailing", and something about wine or cocaine or whatever. I had always liked heavy rock sounds with pop songs, as pioneered by The Move on their Shazam LP. So I was super psyched when I heard “Fox on the Run“ by The Sweet on the radio. What a great, fun song. It had guitars and stuff, and was catchy. But, I knew I wasn't really supposed to like things like that. I was aware that its bubblegum qualities were questionable for somebody my age at that time - so in a way, the first Ramones record saved the day. It was actually bubblegum and pop and it was definitely not like anything else. I loved the fact that you could really offend people with that record. But I had been really worried. I think in 1975 I only liked “Love Is the Drug” by Roxy Music and “I'm On Fire“ by Dwight Twilley of almost everything I heard on the radio. Because, you know, back then, the radio was still where you heard music.
How would you define the North Carolina music scene from, say, 1974 to 1978?
Most North Carolina bands, then and now, are guitar bands. We’ve never had a really solid keyboard/electronic scene for some reason. By 1980, most bands had gotten the message about punk and post-punk, and about writing your own songs and the "indie" outlets for what you did. So, it got better. Before that time, nobody knew what to do, nobody really got out of town. 1974 was about the time things seemed to slow down around here, the kid bands and the non-bar places you could play fizzled out and you only had a standard bar band scene, I think. I actually don't know about this in much detail, I spent those years not playing out very much because there didn't seem to be a scene I could be a part of. I was just thinking about recorded music, and not paying much attention to anything local.
You spent a summer in New York during a major era in the development of music in America. You saw bands like Talking Heads and Television. Can you describe the feeling of living there at that time? Was there an awareness of what was happening around you?
My dad worked in New York on and off throughout his career, so sometimes I would visit there to see bands or buy records, etc., in the 1970s and 1980s. I did live there from something like late in 1979 through 1980, more or less. By the end of the 1970s there was the “official” New York punk scene, which was great. Although it was really just a few people.
Still, New York was such a media and cultural center, so there were great magazines like Trouser Press and New York Rocker, and they covered the new sounds and made it all seem really happening. I didn't ever see Television back then, but I saw Talking Heads fairly early on. Suicide. The Feelies first appearance at CBCB. Things like that. I dug it. These were cool bands, and the cool kids were there to see them. This was the way it was supposed to be.
What was your attitude toward Disco and the kitsch of the 1970's?
We didn't pay a lot of attention to it. I mean there had always been something dominating the radio that we didn't care about too much. As "rock" people, I don't think we imagined having anything to do with disco. But, there are some great disco songs, which I liked back then. The sort of nightlife/glitz thing didn't exactly speak to me, but I was amused by it. I was never a "disco sucks" type. It was sort of weird how "new wave" kind of turned into disco... proving that disco is kind of like metal, it never dies...
What, to you, is "punk rock?"
Punk Rock is just brash and young and protest-y... it can be just a wild party band with slightly twisted lyrics like The Sonics. Or something stranger like The Monks, or the odd two-dimensional pop of The Ramones. Or the manufactured, mannered protest rock of The Sex Pistols (I would call them that, because they really were a manufactured, "fake" band, but they made some good, expensive and pro records). It just has to have some wildness and some I-don't-care and beyond that it can be all over the place sonically. So, for example, I wouldn't say that too many of the famous late 1970s New York bands were exactly punk, but they required the punk scene to have a context and they had punky elements. I guess there's "hard core punk", which is just all about aggression. But mainly, there just has to be some degree of I Don't Care What You Think, that's the main thing. This is woven throughout all good music.
You were in another band called The Sneakers. What venues were you guys playing in the area and beyond?
Sneakers has so far only played ten times, I think, since 1976 [laughs].
So there was nothing like a tour, and the shows were usually very far apart, time-wise. The shows were just wherever we/they (I wasn't always in that band) could get one. Sometimes it was a regular rock club (on some dead night like Tuesday) or a street festival. There was a show at Max's Kansas City in New York, which of course felt like the big time. In recent years, it's been a very friendly, ”legacy band” kind of thing. I guess there have been four shows in recent years, like a couple of unexpected quite recent ones. I don't remember who would play before or after on those shows.
Drive in Studios and R.E.M. Clearly this was a major step in your life as an artist. What brought you together with R.E.M.?
After I moved back to North Carolina, which I did so I could set up my studio in a low-overhead environment, I got busy right away due to the fortunate circumstances around indie rock, college radio, DIY records, etc. There was a need for a studio like mine, which was aligned with the new scene. R.E.M. used the studio shortly after I started, mainly on the recommendation of Peter Holsapple, whose apartment they had stayed at when they were in New York. This was great. I loved them and we had fun. There was no particular connection between North Carolina and Athens aside from the fact that in touring terms, those two states are in the same neighborhood. Their manager back then, Jefferson Holt, is from North Carolina and he may have gotten them into playing around here since he knew the clubs. But the connection to me was via Peter Holsapple.
How would you define your place in the evolution of R.E.M.'s sound?
I think we made sense to each other. We had an irreverent view of all this, and we were just kind of delighted to get some recorded sounds that seemed cool. During the Chronic Town sessions, we got a little more into "studio" stuff, and they were really into it. It was my first time getting to try out some of the recording techniques I'd been thinking about. By the time of the IRS records, the band was getting really popular and that was exciting, too. But in the studio we just continued to work together to do, basically, what we liked. It was all very interactive and not structured by authority, everybody pitched in and all ideas were considered. And it was fast, which was great.
Let’s Active. Where did you come up with that name?
Let's Active was a T-shirt slogan that had been noticed by James Fallows in an article about Japan in The Atlantic Monthly. He listed a bunch of amusing signs and logos in English that were popular there and which didn't exactly make sense.
What NC bands were sharing the stage with and at which North Carolina Venues did Let's Active play usually?
I'm bad about listing anything. We just played with other bands of the time, and we didn't play in North Carolina all that much, really. I had completely given up on playing around here, so we never played in Winston-Salem until we opened for R.E.M. We did play in Chapel Hill some, and Charlotte and Raleigh, but we played just as much in DC and Atlanta, if not more. Then we started playing all over the place. But you know, "other 1981 bands" is about the best answer I can give about who else was on the bill. Some people we played with early on would include R.E.M., Love Tractor, Pylon, The X-Teens, The Bongos. Oh gosh, I'm no good at this [laughs].
Fidelitorieum. How did you come up with that name? Who are you working with right now and what can we expect from you in the near future?
The studio is now called Fidelitorium Recordings, and Fidelitorium is a fake Latin word for “studio.” It’s a combination of “accurate” and “room.” I had been thinking about those old, sort of redundant recording studio names with Latin roots, like Audiosonics or whatever. And the no-nonsense names like General Sound Services, so I thought I'd call this place simply Studio Recordings, except partly in (fake) Latin.
Right now I'm mixing the new Suicide Commandos record. They are Minneapolis' first punk band, I guess, and they have made a new record. I have several upcoming sessions, one soon with Franklin Bruno. The Gin Blossoms are coming in here with Don Dixon in February, and there's a session with a Durham band called Hardworker in March. There’s a Paul Sigismondi record that is mostly finished, and awhile back I did a record with Mark Crozer. More recently The Eyebrows made an LP here, and there's a new Temperance League record underway. Sometime next year there will be a new Celestogramme record too.
What North Carolina musical artists do you have your eye on these days?
There are a lot of great NC people but I am not going to mention any because I will (accidentally) leave somebody out.