Before it was alternative rock, it was post-punk, and before that it was garage rock. For a brief period in the early ’80s, however, the preferred nomenclature was college rock, and the undisputed kings of the scene were R.E.M.
“Sometimes terms can be such funny things,” says Mitch Easter, the North Carolina–based producer and musician who guided the sessions for R.E.M.’s first four recordings. “College rock — we never took that one seriously. We just thought, Oh, college stations are playing the music? That’s good. It wasn’t something we really bothered ourselves with.”
By 1980, Easter was already something of a happening music figure in and around his hometown of Winston-Salem. He had played guitar in a number of local bands, some of them featuring his childhood pal Chris Stamey, who would go on to achieve indie success as a member of the dB’s and as a solo performer. That same year, Easter eyed a move into production, so he converted his parents’ garage into a small recording space and dubbed it the Drive-In Studio, offering super-low rates as an enticement to young talent.
“I had 16 tracks,” Easter recalls. “It was the beginning of the indie studio scene, and a lot of small places only had eight tracks, which is perfectly legit. But I wanted to leapfrog that and go into what I considered to be big-time pro recording. We had a simple console, a handful of microphones and two compressors, and I also had a two-inch 3M tape machine from a studio in Atlanta. The Drive-In was pretty new when R.E.M. came in. I had recorded three or four bands there by then, but I was still puttering around and getting it figured out.”
Only together for a year at the time, R.E.M. — guitarist Peter Buck, singer Michael Stipe, bassist Mike Mills and drummer Bill Berry — were growing out of the blossoming music scene of Athens, Georgia, and Easter quickly recognized they were different from many of the groups of the day. “A lot of bands simply wanted to fit in, but R.E.M. always wanted to be themselves,” he says. “I guess a correct way of putting it would be ‘cocky.’ They were like, ‘We rule. Here we come, so get out of the way.’ It wasn’t so much a careerist mindset; rather, it was their insistence on pure artistry. They meant it. When I first heard them, I thought, Yes. I know what to do with this. This is going to be great.”
Easter produced R.E.M.’s first single, 1981’s “Radio Free Europe,” released on the tiny, Atlanta-based Hib-Tone label. A year later, he recorded the band’s debut for I.R.S. Records, the five-song EP Chronic Town. For the group’s first full-length album, 1983’s Murmur, and its follow-up, 1984’s Reckoning, operations shifted to Reflection Studios in nearby Charlotte, where Easter assumed co-producing and engineering duties with his old friend Don Dixon. “I.R.S. insisted on us using 24 tracks for the albums, and Reflection was a great studio,” Easter says. “Don had worked there a lot, so we were a good match. He’s a good musician and a really good recording guy, and he improved the outcome of everything we did.”
The importance of those four recordings cannot be overstated. By distilling the essential elements of garage rock, post-punk, country, and even folk into their own special concoction — one that was by turns spooky and engaging, enigmatic and fiercely direct — R.E.M. created a sound that seemed to exist in a previously unchartered world, and they provided inspiration to countless young bands to follow suit. Over the years, and while working with a succession of different producers (Joe Boyd, Don Gehman, Scott Litt, Pat McCarthy and Jacknife Lee), the band pulled off something rare and magical in the annals of music, opening up their sound enough to crack the mainstream while retaining their idiosyncratic ambitions.
“I’ve always been a bit surprised at some of the musical analysis of R.E.M.,” Easter says, “because to me, they were always in the grand tradition of rock bands. When they came out, perhaps some of the young people who heard them didn’t know garage rock. At the time, even a band like the Sex Pistols, who used to be considered so bold, now sounded like a classic band in many ways. So to hear Peter Buck, he sounded different than what everybody else was doing. I guess there’s a lot of reasons why R.E.M. shot ahead. I’m just glad that I was able to be a part of it.”
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