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Mitch Easter Interview

Mitch Easter Interview with Pat Thomas -

When Omnivore started this reissue series, Real Nighttime was the one I wanted to most sink my teeth into as a reissue producer…if Lolita Nation is Game Theory’s “White Album” (and frankly, it’s not!) – then Real Nighttime is certainly the band’s “Revolver” (i.e. a perfect album). Real Nighttime - in so many ways is Game Theory’s first real album. The first one recorded in a proper studio, the first one with an experienced producer at the helm and the first one released by an established record company.  It’s also the best collection of Scott Miller’s songwriting in one place (along with a dynamic Big Star cover song, recorded before the whole world seemingly did one). I’ve always considered this album Game Theory’s recorded peak, perhaps with the subsequent record Big Shot Chronicles in the #2 spot.  I’ll save the Lolita Nation bashing for later – but for now, sit back and enjoy my candid conversation with producer Mitch Easter about the making of this particular masterpiece. 

Pat Thomas: One of the things I love about Real Nighttime is that it’s reverential to classic rock on one hand, there’s that little snippet of Led Zeppelin's “Over the Hills and Far Away” - obviously Scott, like all of us, grew up on the classics. And then there’s a distinctive “New Wave” sound, especially with the keyboards. There’s a certain kind of art rock damage going on a la Roxy Music. Then, of course most importantly, there’s Scott’s own genius. 

Mitch Easter: Yeah, I agree with all that. I mean, one of things that best describes - and I love their songs and what they’re about - but I love referencing the way he did it. There’s a way that a lot of bands refer to things and it’s sort of like, “Oh, aren’t I cute?” but I think Scott was a little different. One of the things that kind of - I mean, for me personally, my whole career as a musician and as a recording person really took off in that era because it just kind of suit me and what I did kind of seemed to suit other people for the first time. I loved all that but one of the things I did not like about it that came out of punk was this kind of “purity.” You had to hate everything before punk, you had to hate all the old bands and I just didn’t, you know? I love the old bands and I love the new bands and I think that Scott was more like that. The thing that is kind of great is that you could put in a snippet of “Over the Hills and Far Away” and maybe seventy-five percent of the people would think, “Yeah, that’s right, they suck! You’re making fun of them!” but there’s another angle where Scott probably wasn’t making fun of them. I mean, he probably was, but not totally. He’s also maybe, kind of addressing the whole culture clash going on there and you can just think whatever you want to about it. But I always thought he was much cooler than those “rock purists” at the time.

Pat: The other thing is that, at the time, I never thought of the band as neither good nor bad musicians. I wasn’t judging them in that way, but the thing that really blew me away recently was the keyboards, particularly. There’s a lot of sort of wacky keyboard fills - especially at the ends of songs. Again, the best kind of word I can use is “art rock,” but the keyboard playing is particularly impressive to me. 

ME: Yeah, I never really thought about it too much at the time in terms of the playing per se but I liked the parts and I liked the fact that they had a lot of keyboards. Again, for me, it was nice because the dogma on here on the East Coast was definitely, “guitar is good, keyboards are bad,” especially if they were like synthesizers. I thought that was really stilt-ifying and boring but I have to say that I was actually shocked at how much full-on, fully polyphonic synthesizer they had because, honestly, if you were doing that in, say, Athens, Georgia at that time you’d probably get arrested. They didn’t care, they did what they liked and it was cool. Of course, a lot of bands at the time were using keyboards but not so much American bands. It seemed like it was more of an English thing you know, England was perfectly at home with them. America was having trouble with them.

Pat: Yeah, the other thing I like about the record - again, sort of putting this 2014 filter on it right now - is that in some bizarre way, it’s utterly timeless. In other words, when I hear it, I’m not going “Oh, this was the 80s.” I mean, I don’t know, it still sounds fresh to me despite that those keyboards are very 1984.

ME: They are, and I feel like the mixes we did were pretty 1984, too, but they’re exciting, you know? I hadn’t heard that record in a good while and at some point maybe ten years ago I played it and I kind of almost had to laugh out loud at how much 1984 sonic action we were totally, shamelessly laying in there. But, you know, like I say, that’s OK with me. I don’t see pop music as something that does well when you try to rein it in. It’s just like… I’m still in the studio business and a lot of the sounds now are sounds that people are coming here and asking for and I can just remember how, ten years ago, if I had tried to put that on somebody’s mix they’d have been like, “You’re kidding, aren’t you? Fuck that shit!” which is just kind of hilarious. I get that tension is part of what fuels any kind of energy around pop music; “We love this, we hate that,” whatever. Scott and the band as a whole, their freedom with that was really refreshing. I really appreciated it.

Pat: Now I’m going to see if maybe we can get into Scott’s mindset since he’s not with us unfortunately, but that album, to me, is arguably Scott’s first “real album” in the sense that he’s finally in a real studio, with a real producer. 

ME: Yeah, well, he was ready to do it, that’s for sure.

Pat: Was there a lot of pre-production? Did he send you demos of all those songs in advance or what led up to going in as you remember?

ME: I don’t remember exactly. I mean, I do remember getting some demos of some of his stuff on certain records. As far as on Real Nighttime is concerned, I don’t remember. The whole notion of pre-production got really big in the 80s and immediately got on my nerves as this thing that people had to say. I can see the value of it but there was a thing that came out of it that I just fucking hated. You’d read all these interviews and they’d go, “Oh yeah, we did two weeks of pre-production. We took it down to every kick drum beat and every….,” and I’m just like, “Ugh! Kill me!” To me, that is just not “rock and roll”. And know that I’m even joking when I say that because “rock and roll” is whatever, and there are records that are like that that are great but it wasn’t really my cup of tea. To me, the records that I’m still excited about the most probably are the ones where you get the sense that the take on the record is the moment at which the band just kinda nailed it. That’s actually, sort of better when they’ve not been playing it on stage for a year and doing pre-production, you know what I mean? That’s how the Beatles stuff was after the first stuff is. It happened in the studio and they just worked until they got the take but they still had that newness, that slight on-the-edge, we’re-gonna-fuck-up, whatever it is. There’s something about those kind of takes that are my favorites so I was never going to talk about pre-production anyway but, beyond that, I don’t think anybody had the way to do that because I think…you know, they lived on the West Coast and I lived on the East Coast, I was playing in my own band Let’s Active and I don’t think that we had the time, or the resources, or whatever to allocate two weeks to just rehearse all the time. I don’t remember rehearsing that stuff with them. I mean, I know we did but I don’t remember it. I just don’t remember it and I didn’t care. I mean, most of the sessions I did back then were really quick and I wasn’t planning on going too quick but I didn’t like to belabor it, you know? Anyway, they were very together. I don’t recall that we had to get in there to fix or correct stuff that was just not happening.

Pat: Yeah, as I mentioned in the first part of the conversation about how much I love this album - I think for me, the other thing that I really love about it is it feels very much like an album rather than a collection of random songs. It’s not thematic, it’s not a concept album, and yet I can’t think of that album being any different than what it is, song-wise. It just really holds together for me.

ME: Well, I think Scott kind of conceptualized them as a whole because later sessions he actually had the sequence completely down before he recorded a single song, which is the first time I had encountered anybody that had that. Usually there’s a little bit of scrambling of songs around to figure out the sequence and he would’ve already determined that this is the sequence I want and that’s cool, so that makes me think he always kind of thought of them as a unit.

Pat: Arguably, you’d have put in a lot more time in a studio than he had at that point but I was curious if there was anything that you felt you may have learned or anything that Scott might have brought to the table where you’re like, “Wow, this guy has some interesting ideas.”

ME: Well, I mean, yeah - besides just the musical aspects of the songs that were great, I feel like their approach to what their band was going to sound like was different from what I’d been working with and mainly because of what I was saying before. All these East Coast bands were super guitar-heavy and on Real Nighttime a lot of the drums are fucking electronic pads. Again, you couldn’t play those here without getting thrown in jail! It’d be like, “You can’t play that shit! Get that outta here!” And they were just happily playing those Simmons Drums, whatever they were, and it sounded great, right?

Pat: Yeah, whether it’s a compliment to you and/or the drummer but it’s one of the rare cases of Simmons Drums sounding organic to me.

ME: Most of the time they don’t give themselves away too much but some of those breakdowns… What is that song - I can’t remember… I don’t know, there’s one of them that’s got kind of this crazy, almost kind of Devo breakdown and you can really hear the Simmons sound there but they knew what they were doing. They wanted it and most of the time, yeah; they were just fairly “real” type sounds. But again, just the sensibility of being very free with the sounds was an eye-opener for me that anybody was doing that. And I liked it, I mean, you get bored of the same thing and Game Theory really had a different sound. It was a little bit more “teen-age” or something in a way that I really liked and part of it was those keyboards.

Pat: The other thing I realized is this was probably, at that point, a rare occurrence for you to go to another town or, in other words, most people were coming around your Drive-In Studio at that time so was it interesting for you go, “Oh, I’m going to go to the West Coast to make a record.”

ME: Oh, yeah, absolutely. Yeah.

Pat: You really hadn’t done that before I don’t think.

ME: I hadn’t. I hadn’t gone to California to record before and the studio was funny. I think the band somehow - or maybe their manager Scott Vanderbilt - had some kind of falling out with that studio because I think they don’t list the name of it on the credits but I kind of enjoyed it. It wasn’t like going to the Record Plant in Sausalito, it was just a little studio in a little town but in those days all studios were of a certain caliber, if they were a professional, commercial studio. So, the place was good and everything but it wasn’t like a bunch of hipsters in there or anything. It was very functional and I thoroughly enjoyed that place. I wish they did list where it was because I can’t remember the name of it now. We were gonna do the whole album there but I actually, right away, wanted them to come to my studio in North Carolina and mix it because I had a reverb plate and they didn’t at the California studio; they only had digital reverbs, and back then digital reverbs were really kind of grainy sounding. They were cool, but I wanted the option of having a nice, pretty kind of reverb, too. Scott was down with that and that’s how we ended up mixing it here, which I thought was a good combination. I’m so glad that we had the plate reverb. I think with the Simmons Drums and the fizzy keyboards and all that - if we’d only had digital reverb, that record might be just a little too ‘84, you know? [laughs]

Pat: That actually leads to my next question, which is how much Scott participated in the mix versus you running the board.

ME: I feel like we mixed that together. It wasn’t the kind of thing where I would work on it for four hours, finish it, and then have him come in and say, “What do ya think?” I mean, I believe he was in the control room the entire time. I’m sure that I worked on a lot of stuff just getting it going that he didn’t have anything to do with but once it came to really putting the mix together and making the decisions about stuff, he was totally involved. I remember on that first song “24” he had a great idea that we used and I remember all this stuff was completely manual and he was pushing buttons and stuff, too. It was both of us for sure.

Pat: Obviously, this album is the beginning of you doing many albums with Scott. Can you remember back to the time and maybe knowing that was going to occur or …I’m not sure what my question is exactly but that’s the beginning of a long collaboration. Did you guys feel that at the time or who knew?

ME: I think we got along instantly and I think that I just thought, “I like this guy. He’s smart and really funny and we have a great time.” I mean, he may have thought something along those lines, too, and that was why it happened. I don’t think anything is very deliberate about it. I was really aware back then that there were all these kind of leftover things about recording that I just hated, like producers trying to get an option on the next record and all this kind of stuff, first right of refusal, all that kind of stuff just made me think, “Gross!” I have a lot more of a punk rock, let-the-chips-fall-where-they-may kind of attitude about it. Everybody used to think that I must have been really mad or really sad when R.E.M. did that record with Joe Boyd and I was like, “Why?” If I were them, I’d want to check out some other situations. I mean, why wouldn’t you? I felt like that, too. I don’t recall saying to Scott, “I really want to be involved in the next project,” or anything. I really want to be wanted on any project. They did keep asking me and I was always delighted to do it. There was never a moment’s hesitation because they were some of the best sessions I ever did. I just enjoyed them so much.

Pat:  Scott was both incredibly clever and smart enough to pull off the cleverness, which many people can’t do.

ME: That’s right.

Pat: I don’t know if there’s any sort of a blanket statement you want to make about Game Theory in general or Real Nighttime specifically or anything you might want to leave us with?

ME: Oh, gosh, I don’t know. Obviously, I’ve expounded upon them at length to a lot of people over the years so it’s hard to know where to begin - or where to end. I mean, hopefully, over the course of these reissues I’ll speak to somebody about other ones because…

Pat: Yeah, I know that it won’t be me because I’m not a super fan of Lolita Nation but I know that other people will probably want to grill you like a hot dog about that one, so you’ll definitely be called upon again.

ME: Yeah, I’ve got things to say about that one, but I really do love Real Nighttime.

Pat: Lolita Nation, for many people, is really the pinnacle. I think someone is even trying to do a book specifically about that record.

ME: I know. It’s like… Lolita Nation is great although I have to always wonder if that kind of assessment automatically follows, in some people’s minds, the difficult record. So, you know, “The third Big Star record is the best one” Which, it’s not really, you know? But there’s a kind of person that loves that. They love what a glorious mess it is. I’m not saying Lolita Nation is that chaotic, but… Anyway, I won’t talk about Lolita Nation, but I will say that at the time, I remember thinking, “Oh, it’s OK, it’s not my favorite one,” but I had a weird Scott Miller time where I was playing all that stuff again and I liked Lolita Nation a lot more than a used to so that was great. That was when I heard Real Nighttime again for the first time and I was really struck on Real Nighttime how - The thing I love about Real Nighttime when I hear it now is how kinda “in-your-face” it is. It’s really kind of slam bang, you know? It’s got that splashy 80’s sound, which I think really serves those songs well. So, my opinion of that one has actually gone up in recent years, too, for what it’s worth.

Pat: I think my second favorite is Big Shot Chronicles. I kind of look at them like Revolver & Rubber Soul or something.

ME: Right, and my official favorite was always Big Shot Chronicles, so I’m kind of with you there. I know what you’re saying.

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