With the present so heavy upon us, it's a challenge to imagine or remember the world as it existed prior to the invention of anything we currently take for granted. Take, for example, a music-marketing demographic called College. Take, for example, a self-descriptive guitar-driven pop sub-genre called Jangle. On the gestational relics of both of these once edgy, now generic musics, you'll find the incriminating fingerprints of a young songwriter, guitarist, and producer named Mitch Easter. Easter produced the first recordings of R.E.M. And for years he led—and personified—a band called Let's Active, fondly remembered for songs about romance or nothing in particular that were delightfully easy to dance to. Actually, they weren't merely easy to dance to—they were difficult to not dance to.
If you were there or know Easter's music, you can identify it from a block away. (And if you mistake Let's Active for the dB's, you still get credit. They're friends and they all hail from the Winston-Salem area.) Surprisingly, some 30 years on, Easter seems surprised by the notion that his music has distinctive traits.
"You have to be kind of deliberate about this stuff just to learn to do all the things you want to do," he says. "I feel like if you ever do achieve a ‘sound' or something, it's just from what's in your head and a lifetime of listening and developing whatever your taste is. I'm just not good enough to have total control over any of it. It can be a double-edged sword, because people want to be able to identify you and they want to be able to have something they can say about it easily. But then there's a real danger of a typecasting kind of thing that can be terrible."
With the 1990s, alas, came grunge.
"All of a sudden music was supposed to be ‘tough,'" Easter says. "I'm certainly not a tough guy. And that kept me from quite knowing what to do and I didn't put out a record for what seemed like a billion years."
Let's Active disbanded in 1990, but Easter continued to write songs and record them. A few years back he became determined to put out a new record, and contemplated recording one live in a week with a band. Instead, he made the sound choice of mixing the 14 songs, already recorded, that make up Dynamico, released in 2007.
"I figured, what the hell," he says. "Nobody's heard this stuff. And they all sound like me."
Dynamico is thoroughly modern, with stylistic roots in Easter's jangly past. Instead of a week in the studio, Dynamico represents Easter's creative sound-making from 1990 to 2007.
"I think the earliest song on the record could be that one called ‘Love Slave to Paradise Lost,'" he says. "I came across this reel that I'd completely forgotten about and I was delighted to find it."
Easter continues to record and produce himself and other artists. (The legendary Drive-In Studio—the converted garage that produced R.E.M.'s debut single "Radio Free Europe"—has given way to a purpose-built modern facility called Fidelitorium.) Again, he cut his production chops at a time when the end product was vinyl, a flattering format that neither compact discs nor MP3s can match for dynamic range or richness. Is it a drag to fret over reverb or some other fetish that earbuds can't even reproduce?
"You just have to try your best," Easter says. "People were always aware of the fact that the listeners were often listening on crappy systems. Whether it was an old car radio or kitchen radio, it was the way most people heard music. We still got all excited about it because the intellectual content—and I use that term loosely—was the thing that drove it. But you know, MP3s sound better than they used to. I think there are parallels to the way kids first heard the Beatles. Still, you do hope somebody out there is listening to it in some way that sounds really good."
Grateful for the studio as a financial fallback, Easter says the non-cash incentives for playing out remain the same as day one.
"I managed to keep doing this in a halfway viable kind of way," he says. "And the point is I've not gotten sick of it. The feeling is exactly the same as it always was, and I figure that is as good a feeling as I'm likely to have. When you play a good show, it's just incredibly satisfying. And I can probably do that the rest of my days if people will just come out to it.
"I realize there's no dignity in doing this at my age. But there never was any dignity in doing it, so why does it matter?"