REM’s first record remembered by its production team

by Jordan Green

Talent and drive are critical for a great band to develop a strong body of work, but a third element often overlooked and just as important is having the right people around at the right time to offer support. Such is the case arguably with REM, whose first full-length album, Murmur, is considered one of the great rock records of all time. It was produced by Mitch Easter and Don Dixon, who have left an indelible mark on the North Carolina music scene over the last 40 years through their work with bands such as Easter’s Let’s Active and Dixon’s Arrogance.

REM had recorded its first single, “Radio Free Europe,” and its Chronic Town EP with Easter at his Drive-In Studios in Winston-Salem, which was actually his parents’ garage. When IRS Records signed REM, the label insisted that the band’s first full-length be recorded on a 24-track machine, which Easter’s home studio did not have. So the band and the two producers — Dixon now in tow — decamped for Charlotte’s Reflection Sound Studios, a professional facility used to record NASCAR promos and by televangelist Jim Baaker’s Praise the Lord Ministries. They wrapped the session in three weeks on a budget of $15,000, as Easter recalls. “Good producing is trying to find a way to insinuate yourself between the label and the band, so you can take off some of the pressure,” Dixon says. “It’s really easy for people to turn a band against themselves. And it’s people who have good intentions, who think that they’ve got some advice that will be helpful.” Easter, who operates Fidelitorium Recordings in Kernersville, and Dixon, who now lives with wife Marti Jones in Canton, Ohio, reunited at the Garage in Winton-Salem to reminisce about the making of Murmur on May 22. The event was part of the Revolve Film and Music Festival, founded by Shalini Chatterjee, Easter’s wife and frequent musical collaborator. Initially, IRS had hired Stephen Hague, a producer who later realized commercial success with Orchestral Maneuvers in the Dark, the Pet Shop Boys and New Order, to work with REM on their first album, but the band revolted against his perfectionism and his suggestion that they add synthesizer tracks. “They had been totally messed with by that horrible experience they had with the ‘real’ producer,” Easter says. “We had to build their confidence back up.” Dixon adds: “Bill had been told he couldn’t keep time.” IRS was not thrilled about the participation of Easter and Dixon, who were required to record “Pilgrimage” as an audition track for the label. “We were told they didn’t like it very much,” Dixon says. “Maybe the band prevailed on them, because we got to keep working.” Moderating the discussion was Parke Puterbaugh, who also shares some history with REM, having written the first national-level feature-length story about the band for Rolling Stone in 1983. “That was a period where the record industry was very suspicious of anything new, but they kind of needed it because the old formulas were failing,” Puterbaugh says, “so REM played into that controversy.” Easter acknowledges that IRS was disappointed with the sales of Murmur, but professes not to understand the uproar at the time over Michael Stipe’s obscure vocals — which both drew attention and seemed to repel mainstream success. “That whole issue was kind of bizarre to me,” Easter says, “because there’s a grand tradition of indecipherable lyrics in rock and roll. Like ‘Louie Louie. What’s the f***ing big deal? People would ask us, ‘What’s the piece of equipment that made the lyrics indecipherable?’ like we were the CIA.” In personality and style, Easter and Dixon are not exactly cut from the same cloth. Before the panel, Easter greets friends dressed in a pin-stripe jacket, a Murmur T-shirt, form-fitting jeans and Beatle-style boots, his thinning reddish hair giving him the look of an aristocratic Southern gent. The hairless Dixon wears glasses, cargo pants and a T-shirt. His casual demeanor makes his occasional flashes of wicked humor all the more cutting. After the panel, the two producers and musicians play their own sets. Dixon comes out first with an acoustic guitar. The soulful growl of his vocals and the lyrical density of his songs have a way of forcing listeners into uncomfortable self-reflection. He plays the acoustic guitar like a bass, his primary instrument, muting the high strings and creating a percussive drive.

MitchEaster, left, takes questions at the Garage in Winston-Salem during adiscussion about the band REM’s first album. Easter and Don Dixon(center) produced the historic album. Far right, Rolling Stonemagazine’s Parke Puterbaugh was the event moderator. (photo by QuentinL. Richardson)

Easter’s band, with Chatterjee on rhythm guitar along with a bass player and drummer, plays crisp rock and roll with fabulous dynamics. The songs explode out of the gate with an economyand energy that suggests the British mod-rock tradition of the Who andthe Jam. As a guitarist, Easter utilizes unique melodic phrasing, buthis solos never grandstand or stray far from his songs’ tightstructures. He plays a song from his latest album, Dynamico, anda classic from the first Let’s Active record called “Every Word MeansNo.” As fateful as ’s North Carolina recording experience was, Dixonand Easter’s collaboration seems improbable by equal measure. Theyworked with REM one more time, on Reckoning, which was alsorecorded at Reflections Sound Studios. And that was it. The third REMrecord was recorded in London. Dixon quips that REM was “under somepressure to get away from these guys with the straw hanging out oftheir mouths,” but he adds that the band was also young and eager toexplore the world. Neither Dixon nor Easter considered it a breakup. Anddespite the fact that the first two REM records set a template for adecade of college-rock records, neither producer held any interest incapitalizing on their reputation by marketing themselves as a team.They disclose that they have only collaborated on one other recordsince REM’s Reckoning — a project 10 years later with a bandfrom Minneapolis called the Hang Ups. “Lightning strikes and somethinghappens,” Dixon says. “You can’t control the lightning.”