Monday, August 18, 2008

Mitch Easter chit-chats on early R.E.M.

I was slightly shy to ask Mitch Easter about R.E.M. when he had me up to his new studio, The Fidelitorium. It's all such old news. Most people resent being defined by something they did in the past, and Mitch's own band, Let's Active, probably deserved comparatively more attention than his most famous production project received. But Mitch was good to go with it. So this is Mitch on R.E.M., as told to me.


I never knew them in the kind of way I’d call them up on the phone for a chat. But [co-producer Don] Dixon and I played with them in Raleigh on the last tour, that was nice. We were already thinking about driving over there together for the show when their manager called and said the band wanted us to get up and do some songs. In the early days, R.E.M. and Let’s Active did a lot of shows together, and there were always guest spots – one on our set, and one on theirs.

When R.E.M. happened, all of the sudden it was time for them to make their “LP.” We had done Chronic Town before they got their IRS deal. After they signed, IRS got more involved. They had to have a 24-track studio for the LP; I only had 16 tracks in the garage. So we went to Reflections in Charlotte. I didn’t know what to do, so I invited Dixon in. I probably would have been intimidated going in there by myself.

Everything then was very Southern California-centric. The label thought we were hicks or something. They wanted R.E.M. to hook up with "real people." But the band, to their credit, liked us and stuck with us.

The great thing about R.E.M. was, from day one, they were very assertive: “This is what we have to do.” A lot of bands talk like that, but not that many pull it off. They could pull it off. I think it’s because they always had fans. They were popular from day one. They had that fabulous leverage.

We did an audition track, and IRS did not like it. We did “Pilgrimage.” They ended up using on the album [Murmur] the same version we did on audition day. We did it all in one day, including the mix, which is perfect – that’s the way it aught to be.

[On royalties from producing the early R.E.M. recordings]

It’s humble. Dixon and I signed a blues deal with R.E.M. They drove a hard bargain. But they are a very classy operation. They have always looked out for us and made sure we were taken care of, even in the audits of their record label. And they put us into their royalty structure when they really didn’t have to. We have no formal royalty agreement for the Chronic Town sessions, but they cut us in on the songs that went onto Eponymous and Dead Letter Office, which they really didn’t have to do. It was very generous.

We get our two checks a year, which is nice, it helps. Then one time they audited their label and we got a shocking BIG one. That could happen again.


Picture is of Mitch holding a mic used to record Michael Stipe's vocals on the early R.E.M. recordings. Previously he had shown me a mic used on Peter Buck's guitar amp. I hadn't taken a picture of the guitar mic, though I had intended to come back to it. I think Mitch assumed I had rejected the mic that merely captured the guitar. "They always want the singer," he said.
More Mitch interviews on here:

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