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Old music surfaces as Mitch Easter forges ahead with new album

by Jordan Green

Mitch Easter’s past and future converged at the end of January.

“My record is just something that is going to be here in less than twenty-four hours,” he says in a phone interview on Jan. 30. “It’s just now back from manufacturing. We don’t really have a plan for distributing it. We’re just going to go out and play a lot and see what we can do in the rock biz.”

The record is called Dynamico, and it’s Easter’s first since his band Let’s Active deactivated 18 years ago.

Jan. 30 also happens to be the release date for the Sneakers’ album Nonsequitur of Silence, a compilation of old recordings packaged by the Collector’s Choice label.

The Sneakers are little known but seminal. Easter’s childhood friend, Chris Stamey, drafted him to join the band in 1976 when both were students at UNC-Chapel Hill. Stamey would go on to form the dB’s, a band that retains a loyal fanbase in New York City, and Easter would launch Let’s Active and produce the first couple albums for an indie-pop group from Athens, Ga. called REM.

The 52-year-old Easter, who earns his living running the Fidelitorium recording studio near Kernersville, is daily adding new material, including lyrics, archival news articles, photos and sound files to his website to celebrate both the Sneakers retrospective and his new endeavor.

“Sudden Crown Drop,” a song from the new album that streams from the website, bursts forth as an amalgam of agit-pop featuring Easter’s edgy, insect-like voice and a shimmering wall of guitars and bass - a combination that recalls both British art-rocker Robyn Hitchcock and Monster-era REM.

“It was just stupidity, being busy,” Easter says by way of explaining his hiatus as a recording artist. “When Let’s Active fell apart I said I would be back with another record soon. During that time I would record songs. In the nineties I had this completely pointless crisis of confidence. ‘I’m a fluffy eighties guy, and now this is something different.’ You should always put the stuff out there, and let people take it or leave it.”

A YouTube representation of Let’s Active’s 1983 video for “Every Word Means No”, showing a cuddly Easter mouthing lyrics accompanied by an androgynous Sara Romweber on drums and Faye Hunter swaying behind a bass, indicates just how much water has passed under the bridge. It’s also a reminder that, for some, the first term of the Reagan administration contends for the golden era of Southern rock with say, 1974, when Lynyrd Skynyrd was singing their hymn to “Sweet Home Alabama.”

Easter and Stamey, who met in a summer program in Winston-Salem between second and third grades and later graduated together from RJ Reynolds High School, played a seminal role in creating the infrastructure and style of Southern indie-rock. And both currently run respected recording studios in North Carolina, between them working with artists such as Ben Folds Five, Jack Bruce, Caitlin Cary, the Drive-By Truckers, Alejandro Escovedo, le Tigre, Tift Merritt, REM, Southern Culture On the Skids, the Squirrel Nut Zippers, Whiskeytown and Yo La Tengo.

Long before REM came to North Carolina to record “Radio Free Europe” at Easter’s Drive-In Studio in 1981, the Sneakers were upending the blues-boogie template for rock from the South with spare constructions and pithy sentiments such as the song title of “Love’s Like A Cuban Crisis.” Easter says Stamey had heard the first punk singles from acts like Patti Smith and Television during a trip to New York before the Sneakers formed in 1976. Predictably perhaps, Stamey and Easter’s band received more support there than in Chapel Hill.

“It was a memorable time because it was kind of dicey,” Easter says. “The first EP was recorded at the old Cat’s Cradle on Rosemary Street by Don Dixon. After a few hours we got thrown out because the restaurant next door was complaining. So we moved over to the guitarist’s girlfriend’s house to finish it. It was all done in one day.”

The band may have played a total of five concerts.

“There was one New York show, which was pretty exciting,” Easter says. “It was at Max’s Kansas City. That was the kind of place where the New York Dolls played a lot. It seems to me that the night we were there, there was one of those guys there – Johnny Thunders drinking at the bar or something.

“There was a show outside of Chapel Hill,” he continues, “where half the people there held their ears. It was tragic.”

To comment on this story, e-mail Jordan Green at jordan@yesweekly.com

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