Mitch Easter has a rich musical history. He owned the studio, Drive In Studios in Winston-Salem, North Carolina. R.E.M. recorded their debut single, ‘Radio Free Europe’ there in 1981, which Mitch produced. He also later produced their 1983 first LP, ‘Murmur’.

At the same time, he was a member of Let's Active, who were signed to REM's then label, IRS. The group, as well as Mitch on vocals and guitars, also consisted of Mitch’s then girlfriend Faye Hunter on bass and Sara Romweber on drums. They recorded three albums, ‘Cypress’ (1984), ‘Big Plans for Everybody’(1986) and ‘Every Dog Has His Day’ (1988). After Romweber quit in 1984 and Mitch and Hunter shortly afterwards split up, Easter carried on the project largely using session musicians, before it finally dissolved in 1990.

He still produces bands and also runs a new studio. In recent times he has been a member of Big Star Third, an all star group which, as well as Big Star members Jody Stephens and Ken Stringfellow, also includes Mike Mills from R.E.M. and Chris Stamley from the dB’s, and which toured Europe earlier this year with an orchestra of Big Star’s ‘Third/Sister Lovers’ album.

Pennyblackmusic spoke to Mitch Easter before a Ken Stringfellow solo gig at the Slaughtered Lamb in London.

PB The first time I saw you was back in 1984. That was when Let's Active supported Echo & The Bunnymen on their ‘Ocean Rain’ tour. I knew you before then because of R.E.M. though. How old were you when you first opened Drive In Studios?

ME: I was 25. I had graduated from high school, and even then at high school I thought be should be producing records. The fact was it was another seven years later though when I got the studio. When I was in high school, my life was going down the drain, and it wasn’t until I was 25 when I was finally able to open the studio.

PB: .And you made some great records!

ME: Oh, thanks!

PB: How did you stumble across R.E.M.?

M:E It was because of Peter Holsapple. They were staying in his apartment in New York in the early days when they had just started touring, and they wanted to make a record and they got told about my place. I didn't really know them. I had seen a poster of them, and kimd of had an idea about them, and they just showed up at the house. We just played records and stuff and then …

PB: And then he rest is history....

PB: Let's Active recorded three albums. Why did you choose to finish when you did?

ME: It was me and two girls, Faye and Sara, in that band, and when we toured with the Bunnymen Sara wanted to leave. It was really hard to keep that band together. I was such a believer in the Fab Four or the Fab Three as we were. When you change to another line up, it doesn't work, which is sad really.

I was doing studio stuff in the background. My dream was the music would take over from the studio, but it's been half and half over the years. When that band finished, it was like a failure of imagination. What I should have done is write some really good songs, but when you are in a band, and it is like a sinking ship that isn’t always possible.

We did a few last shows, and we made more money at those than we ever did before, but it felt less meaningful. You can't go on like that.

PB: After Let's Active, I know you kept the studio on. Do you still produce bands?

ME: Yeah, I built a proper studio the Fidelitorium in North Carolina in 2000 just as the music business went into decline. It was the world's worst idea, but it's actually kind of working now because home recording isn't as great, and people are becoming interested in the old ways (Laughs).

PB: You put out a solo album as well, didn’t you??

ME: Yeah, put out, ‘Dynamico’, in 2007.

PB: Have the Let's Active albums been remastered?

ME: Yeah, Collector's Choice did it (EMI- related USA label-AS). It was a quick and dirty reissue. There was nothing fancy about it. Someone wants to do a proper job on them now, which I'm surprised by. It was been good fun to go through the old tapes.

PB: Was there much unreleased material?

ME: Not loads. There are other versions and some demos. I wouldn't put them in the category of Pete Townshend demos. Some of them are good. I have been talking to a guy who is interested in them.

PB: So these days you mostly produce and run the studio?

ME: Yeah.

PB: Is that more for fun then money?

ME: Well, it's definitely not for money. The money has vanished.

PB: With the R.E.M. back catalogue coming out again and again, have you benefited from that?

ME: Yeah, sure.

PB: That must give you a good wage?

ME: I can't live off it. One year I got a lot of money out of IRS, their label at the time, but that was many years ago now. Those records we did are important. They got much bigger after that.

Those guys were a class A act. They just don't make much money for me. I make a little, which was great to get. It was good for me to work with them, because it was a great experience.

PB: When you recorded them, back then, did you think they would become what they now have become?

ME: No. It was not that I thought, but it not that I thought the opposite either. The thing that was interesting was right before I worked with them they opened for XTC at a club in Athens, I hadn't seen them before, and I went to the show, and the audience knew the words to the songs, and this stuff wasn't out or available yet. Almost from day one they had charisma, and that was an early clue of how huge they were going to become.

PB: Are you still friends today?

ME: I haven't seen Michael Stipe in a long time, but I had the privilege of playing in Athens, a year and a half ago, and Bill Berry came along and I saw him them. I have seen a fair bit of Mike Mills who has been playing in Big Star Third. I have seen a little bit of Peter Buck, as he did SWSW at the same time as me. I never just call up and say what's happening, but I see them around.

PB: What are your future plans for the studio?

ME: We have got a busy few months ahead. I am working with James Husband from Of Montreal on a prog rock thing, and we have got of pretty cool other stuff coming into the studio. I am also hoping to start work on another solo record.

PB: Thank you.

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