Mitch Easter
A Rock Master Adds 12-String Bass to the Palette

An Interview with Philip Snyder

Mitch Easter is one of the rock world's great guitarists and producers. His band Let's Active (I.R.S.) gained regional and international recognition from 1981 through 1990. They released an EP and three full-length albums during this time. Mitch worked as a session guitarist on recordings by such artists as Marti Jones and Suzanne Vega. Mitch is also a well-known producer and engineer (R.E.M., Let's Active, Pavement) and a strong songwriter.

Recently he purchased a Chandler Royale 12-string bass for use in his new band Fiendish Minstrels. This is what he had to say about joining the ranks of the 12-string bassists.


Let's get some background first.  How old were you when you started playing and what were your earliest influences?  
I started playing in 1967 when I was 12. It seemed like everybody started playing that year! A galvanizing moment was seeing a friend's big brother playing electric guitar with two other guys, all plugged into a Heathkit amp! It was the most amazing thing I'd ever heard. I grew up with AM Top 10 radio, which was pretty great in the 60's- you heard all kinds of sounds. Stations weren't as tightly formatted as they are now. I think hearing all kinds of artists and all kinds of production styles was a great education. Naturally I gravitated to heavy rock when it appeared, and in the late 60's I probably favored UK bands a little more, or Americans recording in England like Jimi Hendrix. The sound of those records really conveyed the power of a real live rock band! You can't beat it.

Tell me a little about Let's Active and what doors that band opened for you.
Let's Active was started in '81 and we were deliberately trying to have the sound of that era. I'd been playing for ages by then, which almost felt like a disadvantage. Lots of the significant early 80's bands were made up of inspired beginners, and standard-issue "rock" was to be avoided! Which was fine with me, I always liked the slightly odder bands anyway. As much as I was a product, guitar-wise, of the late 60's-early 70's I enjoyed the challenge of at least halfway re-inventing myself as a player. So I was using dinky amps and thin sounds and it led to new things. That was fine for awhile but we quickly started slipping more "rock" back into the picture. Anyway, we were able to get signed to I.R.S. Records and for a couple of years it was great to be able to tour, have our records in the shops, and really feel the record biz working. I was so completely used to being ignored, and now we were getting fan mail! Wow. It was a generally good time for music, lots of my friends got things going then. In my case, I was also recording people in the studio and I got some notice for that. That's what led to the band getting a chance, I think. I was getting some attention, then we had Faye Hunter on bass and Sara Romweber on drums which was a plus. They played well and people were happy to see a band that wasn't the usual bunch of dudes, especially around that time.

How would you categorize yourself these days? Are your interests still mainly around playing or are they split evenly with producing?
It's been great to be able to work in the studio for my Real Job, but I would immediately go on the World Tour if there was any justification for it!

You are currently in two bands with your wife Shalini... Fiendish Minstrels and Shalini. In Shalini you are the guitarist and Shalini is on bass, but in Fiendish Minstrels you are making the jump to bass and it's a 12-string at that! What made you decide to play bass in that band and why did you decide on making that bass a 12?
Yeah, we have these two bands. Shalini came first and that's our mostly straight-ahead rock band. Shalini is the bass player and usually plays a Precision, but I got the Royale while we were finishing up the latest disk, so it turned up on a couple of tracks. We started the Fiendish Minstrels mainly to be able to book more shows! It's the exact same lineup, but the FMs is "my" band in that it's my songs and I sing more. Shalini is still the bass player, and the plan is to use the Royale all the time in the Fiendish Minstrels. In the studio, we all just play whatever, so I play bass too, and Shalini does some guitar. We start off doing things like we'd do it onstage but things just evolve in the studio as we develop the tracks.

 

Shalini relaxes with her new friend!

How would you describe the band's sound?
Rock, you know! Definitely pop songs, but I have a wide definition of pop; I certainly don't mean any kind of strict 60's-style songwriting, but I figure anything I write will vaguely refer to anything I've ever heard... it's all fair game. Right now I plan on trying to make the new record sort of noisy and simple, but what you have in your head sometimes turns into something else by the time you get something that works in a recording. I think using the 12-string bass is going to have a big impact on the sound; it seems like this instrument makes you think in terms of big, bold sounds, and not little details. Anyway, there's my dreadful singing, so right away that keeps it from being like proper stadium rock or anything, although we probably do play at "stadium" levels. We are definitely a big-amps band, and our drummer Eric Marshall is a truly magnificent rock drummer.

How much of the Fiendish Minstrels material are you planning on using the 12 on? Do you find that it helps to separate the sounds of the two bands you are in with your wife?
100% is the plan! The bands sound different, anyway. In Shalini we consider "Highway to Hell" to be the greatest possible song so we've stolen as many elements of that approach as possible, while recognizing that nobody can hope to attain the mastery of AC/DC. (Although I just heard a live recording of Cheap Trick doing "Highway to Hell" live and holy shit!!  Surely Bon would approve.) The Fiendish Minstrels is a bit more open-ended noisy rock at the moment, lutes tomorrow, maybe. Although I doubt it.

Your 12-string has a pretty unique history! Can you tell us about it?
You may know more than I do. I found this one last fall. Adrian Chandler told me it had just come back from an Aerosmith session, and it was going to be the "shop bass" although they'd sell it to me. It took me about 5 seconds to decide "all right!" especially since they weren't going to make any more of them until sometime this year.

I'm not aware of any further Celebrity mojo...

Yeah... Tom Hamilton had that bass for a while, but Aerosmith had to leave to go on tour with KISS and Tom wasn't going to have much time to experiment with it so he sent it back to Chandler. I'm hopeful that Tom will order one in the near future.
Ah well, he should've bought this one, but I'm glad he didn't! Adrian told me it was used on the sessions though. I'm sure the fans will demand that he play more 12 once they hear it!

Had you played any other brands of 12-string basses prior to buying the Chandler? How did they compare to the Royale in your opinion?  What led you to the Royale?
A friend of ours, Jodie Forrest, gave Shalini the American Basses book last year, and I was paging through it and noticed the (way too small) picture of the Royale. It looked amazing to me. I thought "what's that??" I loved how grand and serious it looked. "Royale" is such a perfect name for it! I had to write Chandler and find out about it. I knew it would be good, all the other Chandler gear I'd seen was first-rate and always very cool, too. Anyway, Adrian Chandler wrote back and she remembered me from when I met her in the 90's during a Marshall Crenshaw tour. And she mentioned this particular instrument.

I buy guitars all the time without trying them out. I get a feeling about one and just go for it, and I'm hardly ever disappointed! I think maybe this is my one psychic area... but beyond that, anytime you get a new instrument, you have to get used to it and figure out what to do with it. So I never worry if feels strange at first- in fact, I think that's fun. Of course, the Royale arrived perfectly set-up, and perfectly in tune, for that matter! It had the tuning that Paul Chandler mentioned where one of the octave G strings is tuned to D for a sort of instant power chord up there- and I'm keeping it that way, I dig it. And if you play a E-shape chord with this tuning, you get a major 7th. Cool!

Around this time, I was recording a really great band from Wilmington, NC called Hungry Mind Review. Their bassist, Holt Evans, arrived with several notable basses including a big Gretsch hollow body and a Chapman Stick- obviously a bass hep cat!  I mentioned my 12-string interest to him, and it turned out he owned a Hamer 12-string which he offered to loan us to mess around with until the Chandler arrived. So that's the first one I ever played. It's the Korean one, and it worked great. I wrote some songs to try it on, and I started getting the idea that the 12 is really a different beast; it made me want to think in terms of big, sustained notes more and busy passages less. But that's just a starting point, and I think both the Royale and the Hamer are easy to play, so you really can do anything you want to on them. But sonically, it seems like you want to give the notes more room on a 12-string.

Six months ago I actually thought that maybe the only 12-string basses in existence were the ones Hamer made for Tom Petersson! I had no idea there were several manufacturers and such a scene for them until I found this web site. Where had I been all these years?? Anyway, to conclude, I probably would've tried to get a Royale back when they first came out if I'd known about them. It is just about the most magnificent-looking thing I've ever seen! Not only is the finish lovely, I love the pearloid material on the head, the deco look of the pickups, and the scale of the whole affair. It's huge, but the proportions are so right. The output wiring is clever (this one is the two-outputs version) and the humbucking / single-coil selection on two of the pickups allows for lots of sounds. 

What do the other members of your band think of the 12?
Everybody who has seen it is sort of stunned. Nobody much has ever seen or even heard of a 12-string bass, and the very concept freaks them out. Which is a perfect reason to use one!

You have quite a collection of gear that you've acquired over the years. What components are you building a bass rig out of? Have you tried anything unusual that you thought really hit the spot?
I've always loved the plonky, muted sounds of the electric bass on old Bert Kaempfert records, or on, say, "Happenings Ten Years Time Ago" by the Yardbirds. Carol Kaye was a wonderful practitioner of that hand-muting / pick sound, and I read that she used a Super Reverb for all those famous LA sessions. So when Let's Active recorded its "Cypress" record, we used a silver-face Fender Twin Reverb for the bass- that was the closest thing I had to a Super Reverb, and we got a pretty interesting sound with that. Unless you were playing pretty quietly, you'd normally blow up an open-back amp like that with bass, but this Twin I've got has these massive EV speakers, and they can take bass, no problem. I've gone back to recording with this amp every now and then, and it's always good.

Another great amp is, of course, the Portaflex Ampegs. But small amps like this make no sense to most bass players who are used to 800 watt solid state things! Those big amps are great onstage but in the studio they often have very little character. The whole thing about hearing bass in a dense rock track is to have some distortion which generates useful upper harmonics. I loved Ronnie Lane's tone in the Small Faces, Ron Wood's tone in the Jeff Beck Group, and of, course, Andy Fraser's playing in Free. These days people often use modern hi-fi bass amps to accentuate the mechanical noises of the bass, you know, that clanky sound which cuts through, and like anything can be cool, but is sometimes fatiguing. The approach of actually letting your amp distort some is a lost art to some degree, I think. SVT's are great for their power and ability to handle anything, but even they sometimes sound like a direct box on tape because they are so powerful and clean. So if I'm looking for an interesting tone I usually gravitate to a smaller amp, or what people usually think of as a "guitar amp" like a Marshall or Matamp with a 4 x 12 cabinet.

Personally, I reject the idea that an amp, microphone, etc. is "for" a certain sound- they're for whatever you use them for! Another great bass amp is anything from Kustom's golden age. I have a 2 x 12 Kustom 150 that's a stellar bass amp. For these new sessions I'll probably use Shalini's blue 120 watt Matamp, with a 4 x 12 Matamp cabinet, along with either the Twin or a very old Matamp 2000, a 30 watt class-A amp, and another 4 x 12. Maybe with a direct box, maybe not. I'm thinking one of the bigger Kustoms with the high-frequency horn would be pretty spectacular along with the blue Matamp for the 12. That may become the stage rig.

Coming from a '60s / '70s rock background with influences like yours I would expect that you have an affinity for vintage gear. Even though the Royale isn't a vintage instrument it does have that vibe. Do you lean towards vintage amps with the Royale?
My influences are all over the place. I'm just as interested in how they make jazz records as rock records and I'm happy to steal anybody's good idea! Of course, I know more about rock music than anything else. It's true that the 60's and 70's are more "romantic" for me than any other period. For me, nothing beats imagining how they did, say, "Axis: Bold as Love", you know? Because it was an amazing time, and recording and playing techniques were wide open. And the performances were real. That is always the most exciting thing- It Really Happened is always more exciting than a carefully-crafted studio effect. I love what the studio can do but I mostly want to hear people, not machines, unless I'm specifically listening to electronic music. Despite much activity and lots of smart people, things are simply more buttoned-down now, and to me present-day commercial rock music usually comes across more like "work" and less like "inspiration". So, if for no other reason, those old days are appealing.

 

Fiendish Minstrels

You also own your own studio, right?  When you record with the 12 are you running direct, micing a cabinet, or a little of both?  Are there any effects or certain pieces of gear that you particularly like for the Royale?
I have a studio called Fidelitorium Recordings, and it's a sort of state-of-the-art 1989 kind of place. We generally record on analog tape, we have a big analog console, etc. and this is because the studio has been going for 23 years, so that's the sort of gear we've accumulated, but also it is still the best sounding for rock music, period. Nowadays this is seen as a "retro" (ugh, really sick of that word) approach, but that's not our attitude. We have old stuff around here because it works!

I have a funny view of gear- I love it, but I don't expect it to necessarily matter that much. I mean, if I can't get a good sound, I figure it's my fault! So I'm still playing through a Marshall cabinet I've had since I was 15. And I'm pretty happy to have let certain equipment fashions pass me by while I kept using the same old junk. This has been useful for the studio. All the bands who record here are welcome to use the amps and guitars, and the old gear I've got is usually what they want to use. It's funny how that equipment seems to always come through. And the new amps I've got are definitely in the quasi-"vintage" realm- things like the Carr Slant 6V and Mercury, both all-tube amps which are Built They Way They Used To Build 'Em, except better, actually. But I'm no vintage purist, I just like what works. Still, I will probably always think that a Naugahyde-era Kustom is just gorgeous- lots of that old stuff just looks good to me and I like to have it around. It's probably from growing up in the Rat Fink years. Bass equipment, in particular, has gotten stuck in a utilitarian mode for years, and if you ask me, it's high time for some fruitcake fashions on stage: I figure if we get this Royale-Matamp-Kustom situation going, that will qualify! It will amuse me, anyway. Let me mention my deep appreciation for Tom Petersson's multi-Transonic setup - now that's style!

As far as effects on this bass, it's too soon to know. As of this writing, the Royale has been on three tracks, but I'm about to get lots more experience. I can imagine using some distortion off the amps or the Sans Amp Bass Driver, but probably not much else. Maybe a bit of room sound in the recording. Every now and then a bass part comes to life with a tiny bit of chorus or flange, but I rarely do that. I do love tremolo bass, and I am sure a tremolo'd 12 would be a thing of beauty.

Now that you own a 12 would you be more inspired to produce a band that uses one? Has owning a 12 changed the way you look at bass and it's sonic placement in a band?
I would be shocked if somebody came into the studio with a 12-string bass, but of course, I'd love it! It's not likely I could talk many people into using one. I find musicians to be surprisingly stodgy sometimes, and the 12 is definitely a big leap. You really do have to re-think the sort of part you play. For a lot of people it would be great discipline, forcing them to really clean up their parts. Recently Don Dixon (who plays Fender, as they used to say, and upright acoustic and electric bass) was producing an artist named Bob Bradley here in the studio, and Don is the kind of musician who can immediately imagine the sonic possibilities for something like a 12-string bass. On that session, I'd had just gotten the Royale, and we put it on one of the more raucous tracks. We recorded it direct through a Drawmer 1960 preamp / compressor, and it was perfect. It put a sort of "dirty" feel in the song, just what it needed. Any bass player looking for new sounds ought to investigate these things! The 12 is a whole new universe!

Do you have a favorite recording that features the 12-string bass?
I think the bass sounds great on Cheap Trick's 1997 disk - the 1st one with the Royale!

Mitch, it has been a great pleasure talking with you! I'm very excited about the new band and your decision to use a 12-string bass in it. You will have to keep us posted about the band's progress and debut album! Thanks for your interest in what we're doing here at 12stringbass.net!
Thank you very much! You're welcome!
Mitch

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Published February 2, 2004