Escaping An Uncertain Fate: Mission Of Burma Interviewed
, December 4th, 2012 07:46
The reunited post-punk luminaries are currently touring Europe, fresh off the back of a set at Shellac's ATP and a new best of, Learn How. James Ubaghs spoke to singer/guitarist Roger Miller about their enduring power, the internet's capacity to stifle emergent music scenes and how to avoid the perils of tinnitus
Mission Of Burma are a quintessential cult band. They formed in 1979 in the Boston area and consisted of Roger Miller on guitar, Clint Connelly on bass, Peter Prescott on drums and Martin Swope as sound engineer and live tape manipulator. Their abrasive yet often anthemic sound steadily grew them a small but devoted following in the nascent North American underground, but they were forced to cut their promising career short as Miller's ever-worsening tinnitus prompted the band to break up just as things were finally picking up. They left a limited but first rate discography in their wake.
During the years of their hiatus their reputation ballooned to a near legendary status with the likes of Nirvana, Pearl Jam, Sonic Youth and Graham Coxon, among others, publicly proclaiming their greatness and influence. Even Moby got in the act when he recorded a cover of Burma's classic 'That's When I Reach For My Revolver' in 1996. Their career had been disappointingly short but the prospect of new Mission Of Burma material seemed a distant and absurd fancy. Yet the band reformed in 2002 (with Bob Weston of Shellac replacing Martin Swope) and, even more surprisingly, they were as great as they'd ever been. Instead of simply rolling out a cynical greatest hits package, they recorded new albums with new material that was more than worthy of standing up alongside Vs.. It just goes to show that F. Scott Fitzgerald was a right prick for saying there were "no second acts in American lives".
They've just released Unsound, their fourth album since the reunion and arguably one of their finest yet. The band are on as fine a form as ever and there's no sign of things letting up any time soon, and indeed their consistent excellence is perplexing when you consider how awful and rote your average band reunion is. We chatted to Burma guitarist Roger Miller to find out more, and found him as mystified by Mission Of Burma's endurance as we are.
How did the recoding of Unsound go, compared to your other albums? How do you feel about it now?
Roger Miller: Well I like it quite a bit, I think everyone's pretty excited about it, it's really energetic. You know The Sound, The Speed, The Light, was a little bit calm, and this is us kicking ass a little harder. I personally like it a lot; I think it's our best of the records we've made since Vs., though we all really like the Obliteratti a lot. What I really like about Unsound is that there's a real diversity from song to song, there's a lot of variation, and to me that keeps it interesting, but at the same time all the songs have the same kind of energy and band-feel to them, even though the material is quite different.
I thought the album was very good, it felt rawer, and more chaotic then the last one, but in a good way.
RM: Yeah I think it's a little more us letting go, and a little more out of control, but at the same time there's more complexity in a lot of the compositions. So it's an interesting mix, and that's something we always do; you can't tell if we're falling apart, or if we really know what we're doing. And I'm not sure if we know the answer to that either.
It seems to be established wisdom, or common sense, that making loud intense rock music is an angry young man's game, but time hasn't toned down Mission Of Burma's sound at all; why do you think that is?
RM: We're weird people? I mean I have no idea, but that was a question. The only thing I can think is that when we broke up the first time, in '83, or the only time we broke up, the band hadn't really gone its course, and there was no inter-personal acrimony or anything, so when we picked up again it was just like picking up where we left off. But you know I look around at the world at the moment and there's a lot to be pissed off about, you know things are really pretty fucked up! There are a lot of extremes all over the world, and it kind of surprises me that more bands these days aren't pissed off. It's a pretty natural reaction you know? On the other hand I'd like to point out that all the members of Mission Of Burma, including Bob Weston in Chicago, are all pretty happy and content people. So it's not like our sound is driven by our own psychosis or anything. It's us interacting with the world.
So can we not expect a Mission Of Burma folk roots album any time soon?
RM: [laughs] Not that I know of.
Do you find playing live more physically draining than when you were younger?
RM: Well maybe, but I actually think we put more into it now than we did in in the first round of the band. When a Mission Of Burma show is done, I'm vacant; it's not like I'm an idiot, but it's like I can walk into the crowd and people want to talk to me and I just kind of smile and nod, because there's really not much left, but it's in the best way. It's like you've just put it all into it, it's intellectual really, because some of the songs are complicated, but it's real physical. I don't know but that doesn't explain why we do it. But I don't feel any more tired. We don't really have any interest in going on the road and sleeping on peoples' floors anymore like we used to, but the rest of it, you see us play live, we pretty much put it out.
While you were in hiatus, were you surprised by the legacy and respect that Mission Of Burma had gained over the years?
RM: Yeah, it was stunning. In Rolling Stone, when it was still big and pretty important, they listed four new reissues that were important and they were: Jimi Hendrix, Miles Davis, Van Morrison and Mission Of Burma, and how could we possibly be up there with those guys? It was just mind-blowing. So we always thought that we should have gotten more credit than we did [laughs] but of course most people do. But we didn't expect it to come around quite so strongly. So when it came around it was pretty shocking, and emotional: "wow, people are finally starting to appreciate it 10 years after the fact!"
So was all the critical reappraisal what prompted you to get back together in 2002?
RM: Yeah, it was 2002 and we started thinking about it in the fall of 2001. I mean we don't really know why we did it, to be perfectly honest. A lot of things happened, like Joey Ramone died and that meant a lot to us. We saw a Wire reunion, Peter Prescott's band The Peer Group played with Clint, and I sat in on organ and trumpet, so we basically opened up for Wire. And then there was all the praise and the book Our Band Could Be Your Life came out. Then someone offered us a reunion at the Lincoln Centre, and I go "we're not gonna do that", but then I thought "it's not up to me to say no to this, it's not fair". So I'll tell Clint this, and then he'll say no also, and I won't have to worry about it. But Clint for some godforsaken reason said he wanted to play the show. And I said "well what the fuck?!" I had no plans to play the show, and I said "well let's ask Pete". And then Pete goes "yeah I'll play!" And then I'm going well I'm obligated to play if those guys want to play.
Then we were just going to play two shows, one in New York, and then one in Boston, and pretty soon then there we were. It's like everything with Burma, super haphazard, and no one knows why we do it. We don't have a plan of action, we just stumble around. But we seem to have some inner logic to us that guides us into safe pathways.
So to go back to your early days how did you first get into music?
RM: Well my dad played piano, and he played classical stuff, you know Beethoven and Mozart, and he would always play records when we were going to sleep, anything from Stravinsky to Brahms. So there was a musical subtext to the family, and a lot of the kids in my family started taking piano lessons at age six. I was really excited about taking piano lessons. When I was in fifth grade, which was quite a while ago, I was twelve, and the Beatles played on Ed Sullivan for the first time doing 'I Want to Hold Your Hand' and 'I Saw Her Standing There'. Those three minutes, from before seeing them me and my brothers were excited, but when that song was over all my DNA had been changed. Look, I'm sixty now and I'm playing in a goddamn rock band! [laughs] You know it's fucking insane!
But I also kept up my interest in classical music, and I started playing piano again, and I started improvising, and I've gone to music school. I've had compositions of mine performed at the New England Conservatory that are completely composed in a modern orchestral music style. And I love improvising, and I love playing in rock bands like Mission Of Burma.
When did you realize you wanted to make punk rock? When did that hit?
RM: Well okay, let me backtrack just a tiny bit here then. One other major thing to happen to me was that I saw Jimi Hendrix in a club with only a hundred people, and it was his first US tour. I had tickets to see The Yardbirds, and the Yardbirds cancelled, but Jimi Hendrix was still on. I didn't know who Jimi Hendrix was, as his album hadn't come out yet and I couldn't sell the tickets. So I thought "what the hell, I'll go see this guy Jimi Hendrix, it'll probably be good". And I must have been 15 or something, maybe 16. And that was another epic moment. It was this tiny club and he came out of the dressing room, smoking a cigarette in one hand, and doing this raga feedback solo in the other. And every single person in that room was fucked, the gig was over, and this guy had just cleared the whole field and we could all start over again. It was very much like a punk rock kind of thing. So that was a major part of my personal musical evolution.
Anyway, to get from there, rock music got really conservative in the 70s, and I gave up on it. And then all of a sudden punk hit and I was like "wow", you know? All of a sudden you could be creative and play rock music again. You'd listen to Marquee Moon, you'd listen to the first Ramones album, which is just a freak show of an album. Then I moved to Boston and a year later I was in Mission Of Burma with Clint and Pete and then blamo.
So punk broadened the possibilities of what you could do with a rock band and you rose to the challenge?
RM: Right, like when you think back to the first Ramones album, that record cannot be overvalued. They made songs that were under two minutes long, and this was in an age of epic rock with endless guitar solos. They made songs that were under two minutes long and there wasn't a single guitar solo on the entire goddamn album. It was just mind-blowing. It was just another example of where they just cleared the room, there was nothing there anymore. They just obliterated the entire last ten years of rock music. Not for everybody, but for those who were willing to listen. And so you could start over and put it back together without it being bad. So I could play a guitar solo on 'Einstein's Day' and make it epic but without jerking off. You could redefine how you wanted to make a solo. You saw bands like PIL and Wire, Stiff Little Fingers, and the Dead Kennedys were pretty awesome too.
Do you think something like punk could occur again in the current musical climate?
RM: I have my theories about this, and I don't believe it will happen because of the internet. It's not the fault of the internet per se, but with the internet anyone can get everything anytime they want. What made punk rock happen in Boston and San Francisco and Chicago and DC was that everyone felt isolated, and felt forced to fight for their existence. Because you didn't have much contact with the others you could evolve your own species of music. There was an environment here that was different from there. It's just my sense that with the internet new ideas get heard so quickly and absorbed that it doesn't have a chance to develop in isolation.
So I find it hard to envision another rock revolution, but I'm not trying to be a jaded old fart, I'm just giving you my opinion on the situation. That doesn't mean there isn't good rock music, or good musicians. I'm just saying that to make that kind of revolution, you need to be repressed, or in some way you need to be fighting. The way things are now everything is so available that I don't see that happening. But why aren't more people pissed off?! Why aren't more bands making pissed off music - what the fuck!? [laughs]
I'm pissed off! But yeah I agree with you, especially with rock music, though there are always notable exceptions. But there isn't too much guitar music around right now that feels radical or innovative.
RM: Right, I mean I'm not saying that there aren't good bands by any means, or people doing interesting stuff, I'm not saying that. I'm talking about sea change revolutions like punk rock or psychedelia, or the British Invasion. That was opposed to the repressed sexuality of the fifties. I kind of have a feeling that that's not going to happen again with rock music. But you know it's not really my problem [laughs]. If it does happen I'll be thrilled, and I'll be listening too.
It seems that post-punk bands have aged much more gracefully then a lot of the bands from the 60s.
RM: It's probably because bands such as us never really got famous. We never had a big hit really. I mean a big hit' 'That's When I Reach For My Revolver' was a very minor small scale hit. People know it, but it wasn't like 'Heart of Glass', or something by the Doobie Brothers. But I think that's partly why. Punk was in a large part about "killing your idols" so why should someone be held so high up, and a lot of the bands like us, we never put ourselves that high up or even aspired for that. So as a result we were able to keep functioning. That's my belief.
How did you fit into the Boston music scene when you started out?
RM: Clint and I had been in the band Moving Parts beforehand and Pete had played in a band called the Malls a little bit earlier on, and then Moving Parts broke up and Burma formed in '79 and people knew that we were good musicians and that we were different. But we were never popular, we were more like a critics' band, a band for the intelligentsia. You know "oh you'll win the battle of the bands because you guys are so good", and no, we didn't even make the first cut! People couldn't figure out what we were doing, or maybe we couldn't figure out what we were doing.
The Boston scene was pretty great though. Like a lot of scenes were like that, in the post-punk era and the punk era. It was a hardcore small group of people that you see at every show. There were a lot of support bands that support each other even if no one made any money. Finally when we put out Vs. it took a long time for it to get reviewed. It got rather confusing reviews in general. But yeah we loved being part of the Boston scene it was really fun. And we kind of crossed the boundary between hardcore punk, art rock, and a lot of our fans were just into straight up rock and roll. They kind of thought we were like The Who or something. Whatever you want to think, it's not my problem, I just make the music.
How's your hearing these days?
RM: You know I can hear okay - I mean we're here on this dinky little cell phone speaker, and you're drenched in reverb and I can still hear almost everything you're saying. I helped Bob do a lot of mixing for the record, we're all there for our own songs, but I'm there with Bob a lot. So when I make a comment about sound he pays attention to me; even though I have tinnitus and there's a lot of sounds in my ear that shouldn't be there. But you just tune them out; you just don't notice them after a while. If I was primarily concerned about my ears, I wouldn't be playing in Mission Of Burma, but I'm more concerned about music. And I can still hear fine; maybe it's reached a new threshold and it's not going to change for a while. But it doesn't bug me.
Any advice for people concerned about tinnitus?
RM: I totally think that when you rehearse, you should wear ear plugs. Rehearsal spaces are the worst possible environment. You're playing at stage volume and it's all just in this tiny space. When I rehearse now I'm bizarrely in this little glass room, and I'm in the glass room with the door half open. And I still wear my earplugs, so I'm in a different room then the other guys when we rehearse. I don't know if Pete wears earplugs but Clint certainly does. But if you play in a rock band you will get tinnitus, your ears will get damaged. You're doing things that the human ear was not designed to hear at that volume. So I recommend that if at all possible during rehearsals, while working stuff out, to wear earplugs. And if you want, while playing live, take them out if you wish, but I wouldn't recommend it.
Mission Of Burma play the Brudenell Social Club in Leeds tonight, Mono in Glasgow tomorrow and Birthdays in London on December 6. Learn How: The Essential Mission Of Burma is out now via Fire