After the recent opening of Let's Active's tour, the band was paid what leader Mitch Easter considers the ultimate compliment.
"This guy came up to us and said, 'You sounded good . You really. . . .' Then his voice trailed off and he just started doing this air guitar thing," Easter related.
Inspiring air guitar displays is something usually done by arena rockers, not hip underground American pop bands.
"We must have moved into Foghat territory, which is good," Easter continued, speaking by phone from his home in Winston-Salem, N.C. "We really are like a big, noisy rock band. I think we sound surprisingly big these days."
That's evident on Let's Active's latest album, "Big Plans for Everybody," which is reminiscent of the Beatles, T. Rex and Led Zeppelin, but still original-sounding. The big sound hits L.A. when Let's Active headlines the Palace on Friday.
Easter is pleased with Let's Active's transformation because the band has been plagued by a wimpy image ever since its 1983 debut EP "Afoot" drew less-than-flattering comparisons to the Monkees. References to the band's cuteness have mystified and irritated Easter.
"I think anybody who saw us up close wouldn't say that," the 31-year-old musician-producer said. "After playing for 19 years, I must be slightly beyond cute now."
Earning comparisons to Foghat seems an odd way for someone with Easter's impressive track record to gain credibility. Easter is generally recognized as a leader of the '80s pop revival that has taken place in the Southeast. The Drive-In studio, which he built in his parents' Winston-Salem garage, is viewed as the movement's spiritual center. In those unassuming quarters, Easter oversaw the first recordings of R.E.M. and produced other seminal, though lesser-known bands.
"If they ever write those coffee table books about the new American rock scene, there'll have to be a page about the studio," he said.
But now Easter is finding that making history is not enough to stop you from becoming history, in the sense of old news.
"There's a band in North Carolina I heard that kind of wanted to record in my studio," he said. "But they didn't want to be known as a 'Mitch Easter band.' "
Actually, this is fine by Easter, who claims to have "walked backward" into his role as a producer and scene catalyst in the first place. For one thing, he's happy that the pressures--often self-inflicted--of that status have eased.
" 'I didn't make a discovery this week' is an awful thing to labor under," he noted.
"I still plan to keep doing both (producing and performing)," he said. "They both beat working, as they say."
Lately, though, Easter has been selective about production work, particularly high-visibility projects that might reinforce the notion that he is a producer first and a performer second.
"I don't want the group to be seen as a whim," he insisted.
One of Easter's biggest concerns now is to get people to see Let's Active as a functioning group, rather than a name for Easter solo projects.
Though "Afoot" and the 1984 album "Cypress" featured a set trio of Easter on guitar, his longtime girlfriend Faye Hunter on bass and Sara Romweber on drums, the lineup was in flux for much of the past year.
That the "Big Plans" album is virtually a one-man show and Easter is the only person pictured on the cover (he and Hunter broke up early in the album's recording) does little to dispel the solo image. Nor does the television commercial I.R.S. Records produced for the album, proclaiming "Mitch Easter is Let's Active."
"That's something I wish they weren't doing," said Easter. He views the current touring lineup--Easter on guitar, guitarist/keyboardist Angie Carlson, drummer Eric Marshall and bassist Dennis Ambrose--as permanent.
Big sound and big plans have not added up to big sales so far, though "Big Plans" reached the top of the college radio charts. Easter is pleased with that limited success and the critical praise the band has earned, though he views it almost as a backhanded compliment.
"It's better than being roundly hated in all quarters," he said. "But we would like to get rid of the 'That's-why-they-only-sell-10-records' part."