Nov. 29, 1989
By Parke Puterbaugh
From the road it's an inauspicious looking house, a sprawling ranch-style dwelling not too dissimilar from the other homesteads on rural Old Belews Road, east of Winston-Salem. But enter the garage, and you're in another world: a rock & roll recording studio known as Mitch's Drive-In.
The proprietor of this musical hotspot is Mitch Easter, producer of renown in pop-music circles. His work with countless musicians from local bands to Australian and British acts who trek thousands of miles to work here has helped put the North Carolina scene on the map in the '80s.
The 34-year-old Easter has been making records out of the garage of his parents' home since 1980. The first record he produced at the
Drive-In was by a band called the Crackers. His latest project is a demo tape which he hopes will be released as a finished album by some farsighted record company for Mark Bandola, late of a cultishly popular group called The Lucy Show.
Producing records for others, in fact, has eclipsed Easter's own career as a bandleader and recording artist. His group, Let's Active, has temporarily gone inactive while he pursues a busy schedule of commitments at the Drive-In and tries to remedy a not entirely happy situation with I.R.S. Records, the label to which Let's Active has been signed since 1983.
"They don't work stuff," Easter complains. "Our last album, Every Dog Has His Day, had like anti-promotion. I never saw an ad for it anywhere. What's a shame about that is we get letters from people who are actually trying to find the record. We're always hearing stuff like that. There was no promotion, you know? We went on tour, but that's just not the whole picture. It's pretty unsatisfactory."
The rest of the band includes Angie Carlson, on keyboards and guitars; bass player John Heames; and drummer Eric Marshall. While Easter labors in the studio, the others are working regular jobs or taking classes. The group is not entirely dormant; they sometimes venture out on weekends to perform concerts, recently running down south for back-to-back shows in Alabama and Georgia.
"For the last six months, we've been playing here and there when everybody felt like it, just to remember how to do it and keep the calluses on our fingers," says Easter.
Despite the relative quiet on the Let's Active front, Easter is itching to get the group back in the studio to break ground on a new record. "I want to start recording as soon as I finish with Mark (Bandola)," he says, "because we've got some songs. I want to write more, but I don't see any reason why we couldn't start working on the record right away."
"Who knows when it will come out or anything," he says with a shrug.
Easter is one of a crew of Winston-Salem musicians
who were putting bands together and releasing records on small, independent labels as far back as the early 70's. A song dating from March 1970 by Sacred Irony, an early group of Easter's, appears on a retrospective of North Carolina psychedelia entitled Tobacco A Go-go, Volume 2.
Throughout the '70s, Easter worked with such fellow Winstonians as Chris Stamey and Peter Holsapple in groups like the H-Bombs and Sneakers. In between all the short-lived bands and shoestring recording sessions, the groundwork was being laid for a pop-flavored, guitar-oriented sound that was as challenging and quirky as it was accessible and hooky. All the while Easter was learning how to make records from both sides of the board—as producer and artist.
He moved to New York City in the late 70's with the hope of setting up a studio, but eventually returned to Winston-Salem and established Mitch's Drive-In in the more amenable and affordable confines of his parents' garage. With the low-budget, do-it-yourself spirit of the new wave movement, the timing was perfect for a place like Mitch's Drive-In, and soon business was booming. R.E.M. made their first record, Chronic Town, in Easter's garage. He co-produced and engineered the Georgia group's subsequent albums, Murmur and Reckoning, at a larger studio in Charlotte. Many, many albums followed in the wake of his work with R.E.M.
The Trouser Press Guide
to New Wave Records, an authoritative encyclopedia on the subject, acknowledges in its latest edition that Easter is "perceived as the engineer of the now-sound-of-today in American pop."
Mitch's Drive-In is a low-key kind of place, a subdivided garage strewn with guitars, mikes, couches, a 24-track board, tape machines, a digital sampler, effects boxes and esoteric instruments such as a vintage Hammond organ and an ancient keyboard contraption called a chamberlain.
A Fifties red-sparkle drum kit is set up in a corner. Offbeat rock & roll bric-a-brac adorns the floors and walls. Situated prominently above the recording console are particularly tacky album covers by hammy Welsh singer/heartthrob Tom Jones and a long-defunct Dutch rockfusion group known as Focus.
"I'm striving for something between the sexuality of Tom Jones and the intellect of Focus," jokes Easter.
It's just the sort of environment that eases the
recording jitters for those who generally find studios antiseptic and intimidating. "There's no way this studio can compete on a super technical level, so I might as well make it comfortable," says Easter. "Actually, sound-wise I think it works fine."
Easter encourages the musicians to play together when they're recording—an approach that's atypical in the one-track-at-a-time world of big studios. The bands themselves respond favorably to Easter's more humanized, less technology obsessed approach to record making.
"There's been a trend away from it, but I still like to have people play together," says Easter. "They think it's great. They think they're
really jamming, like a Stax session or something."
The only problem is space. After nearly ten years, the garage is closing in on him. ' 'I just get frustrated with how little it is," he says. "The guitars are creeping in from the walls."
Nevertheless, he has no imminent plans to move. A garage, after all, is still a pretty cool place to make music when you get down to it.
Marginally leery of technological overkill in pop music, Easter admits, "I'm still doing all these guitar-type things, which makes it pretty much like recording in 1972, for the most part."
His attitude is shared by a lot of musicians from these
parts, who have given North Carolina a reputation as something of a bastion of guitar-powered pop made by bands, not machines. "I don't really think it's 100% because of being behind the times," he reflects. "I think it's partly taste. I don't know if North Carolina's ever going to be a hip-hop capital or anything."
Easter is relatively content with the niche he's carved for himself. He lives with Angie Carlson, who he married earlier this year, in downtown Winston-Salem. They're currently in the process of moving out in the country to an old house that they'll be renovating in their free time.
Meanwhile, his reputation ensures a steady flow of work. "I've never ever had to look for anything," he says. "I've just been really lucky, I guess. You always hear about people struggling to survive in the biz and all that."
This year alone, Easter has worked on five albums and if he has his way, he'll soon begin work on a sixth: the long-overdue record by Let's Active. Over the course of a lengthy conversation, I got the impression that while he enjoys working on other people's records, he's really yearning to get creative on his own behalf again.
"I could probably be doing snazzier, meaning bigger bucks, kinds of things," he admits. "But I still have this idea in my mind that I'm more of a guitar player than a producer and I want to make records instead of work on records.
"I'm always thinking, 'Well, good, next month I'm off, so I'm going to write a bunch of songs,' but then somebody will call and I'll end up working on their record. It's been like that for years now. It's good, 'cause it keeps me from worrying about whether I'm doing the latest or grooviest project. Officially, in my mind, I'm really hoping to have time off to write songs."
Under their contract with I.R.S., Let's Active owes the label one more record. Dissatisfaction between artists and record companies is an old story, but in Easter's case it's particularly disturbing because the quality of the records is so exceptional that there's no excuse for them not reaching a larger audience.
"I'm hoping we can do some kind of negotiation to make sure this next one's handled right, but who knows?" says Easter. "Anyway, I still like making records, and we're going to keep doing that."
On that note, there's a rap on the garage door and Easter's current client wanders in. It's high noon—time to start the tape machines rolling at Mitch's
Drive-In once again.
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