A few decades ago, it seemed unlikely that a sleepy college town whose musical history reached an apex in the years after the Civil War, when nationally known minstrel acts appeared on local stages, would emerge as the hottest scene in the South, vying with cities like Memphis, Nashville and Muscle Shoals for the title of most nicknamed musical town.
But by the mid-1980s, Athens, Ga. — incubator to indie wunderkinds Pylon, Love Tractor, The B-52s and R.E.M. — had earned the superlative sobriquets “Liverpool of the South,” “Birthplace of New Wave,” and “Mother of Modern Music.” The town built its reputation from the underground up, relying on musicians like Mitch Easter to hone its unique sound.
Mitch Easter, a native of Winston-Salem, is probably best known for producing R.E.M.’s first three releases, including Murmur, named album of the year by Rolling Stone in 1983. Game Theory, Pavement, Helium, Velvet Crush and Pylon also made use of Easter’s producing talents.
Easter was as influential elsewhere in the studio, fronting Let’s Active, a band known for its inventive pop song structures and introspective lyrics. Its bright, chiming Byrds-esque sound, heavy on guitars, was labeled “jangle pop.”
Easter recalls the ’80s as a unique time for underground musicians, especially those in the Southeast, to play live: “I was completely aware of what a great time that was for me, because I’d been playing — for ages by then — to mostly bored-looking people with their arms crossed. Then, out of the blue, people were dancing and driving 300 miles to see punk bands play in Atlanta.”
After Let’s Active split, Easter found himself unintentionally embarking on an 18-year hiatus from solo work. His focus shifted to working with other musicians in the studio. As a songwriter, Easter found himself wary of a music scene “moving into that tough, pre-grunge time.” He kept writing songs, but remembers feeling that “no matter what I did, it would be viewed as out-of-it fluffiness.”
Easter also kept recording, if only for himself. But he put those tracks to use while assembling his new album, Dynamico. Easter says his backlog of recorded material proved “hugely liberating and helpful, because it probably would’ve taken me a couple of uninterrupted months to do this from scratch, and ‘uninterrupted’ never happens.”
“There were sounds on some of [the old] tracks which were achieved in a way I don’t remember and which surely add something to the texture of the whole affair,” Easter adds. “Sometimes we’d do a new version of something, but I’d use the old one, because it would have a mysterious X-factor that we couldn’t recapture.”
Easter is now touring the eastern U.S. in support of his album. He’s joined by two longtime music collaborators: his wife, Shalini Chatterjee, on bass, and former Let’s Active bandmate Eric Marshall on drums.
“We are taking [Let’s Active] requests from [our] Web site, which I think has been good, clean fun,” Easter says. “We’ll do a few of them in the set because I realize it’s generally more fun to hear a song you know.”
While Easter is dedicated to a fun pop vibe, he recognizes that even pop music should be inventive. He laments the recent dearth of rich, rewarding pop songs: “With computer technology, and a plodding, checklist mentality, everything is supposed to be perfect now, and never has there been more perfect, meaningless music,” he insists.
Easter is doing what he can to provide an alternative. He still has a studio near Winston-Salem — Fidelitorium Recordings — and he’s running his own label, Electric Devil. Rather than simply eke out an existence churning out indie music that he feels has “suffered from being dogmatic, just with a different set of rules,” he’s sticking to his underground roots. His outlook remains unwaveringly optimistic: “Those breath-of-fresh air cultural movements always pop up, sooner or later.”
[Cara Ciliberto is a freelance writer based in Asheville.]
Mitch Easter and his band perform at The Grey Eagle on Thursday, Dec. 21. 9 p.m. Local band My Fifty-Five opens. $8. 232-5800.