It wasn't a reunion. And it's not a comeback. So how do you explain the new
Mission of Burma just had to do something with all its new songs
By Joan Anderman, Globe Staff | May 2, 2004
When the celebrated Boston art-punk band Mission of Burma got together for
four concerts in 2002, it was a complete surprise. It had been 19 years
since the band broke up, and none of them was interested in reuniting. All
of the members had moved on to other projects, different careers, new
lives. But the stars aligned, the money was good, and the shows went on --
two in New York, two in Boston, to great acclaim. And that was the end of
that. Or so everyone thought. "
Once the Burma beast was let out of the crypt, we couldn't get it back in,"
is how bassist Clint Conley describes the aftermath of those four club
dates. Mission of Burma played a few more shows. And a few more. In
retrospect, drummer Peter Prescott refers to those infrequent gigs as "baby
steps." Playing live felt good. The group, with Bob Weston replacing Martin
Swope on tape loops, said yes to England, the West Coast, the Midwest.
Crowds were big and getting bigger. The guys wrote some new songs. Mission
of Burma -- which had banned the words "reunion" and "comeback" from its
vocabulary -- was having a blast. And it had nothing to do with the past.
"It was inevitable," says guitarist Roger Miller, "that we'd get to a point
where we said, `OK. We have a heap of new tunes. What do we do with them?' "
And that's the abbreviated version of the nonreunion that led to the
noncomeback that produced "ONOffON," the first Mission of Burma album in 22
years. Recorded during two weeks last fall, the disc will be released by
Matador Records on Tuesday, and the band will celebrate with a show at
Avalon on May 22. But one hesitates to even call it a celebration, despite
the pleasure Mission of Burma's reincarnation brings to band and fans
alike. That would lend an air of formality to the proceedings that no one
involved, even now, feels quite comfortable embracing.
"We're taking it day by day, week by week," says Gerard Cosloy, co-owner of
Matador. "There's no other way I can look at it."
"The minute it isn't relatively stress-free, they're not going to want to
do it anymore," says Mission of Burma's manager, Mark Kates. "I just have
to remind myself how insane it is that they're playing and making a record.
It was never going to happen."
That both Cosloy and Kates began their musical lives as teenage Burma
fanatics adds to the surrealism of this project, which already rates as
near-mythic for a certain swath of the indie nation and not a few music
lovers who were in diapers during Mission of Burma's original heyday. The
band put out all of two 45s, one EP, and one full-length studio album
during its original tenure, from 1979 to 1983. Its ferocious, cerebral
sound relegated the group to the cultural fringes, and Miller's severe
tinnitus led to the band's early demise. But Mission of Burma's influence
on a generation of alternative rockers -- among them R.E.M., Blur, and Moby
-- has been considerable, as has the legend that's blossomed during the
band's absence. It would be an understatement to say that Mission of
Burma's reputation precedes them.
"Yes, we come with a story," says Prescott. "It's great history, and it
does provide an interesting backdrop to whatever we do now."
"But we never experienced the glory," Conley points out. "So there's not
that desperation to relive it."
Adds Miller: "We're pretty self-centered. We don't care that much what
other people think."
Prescott, Conley, and Miller have gathered in their Allston rehearsal space
to discuss the new album. Their personal chemistry is much like their
musical chemistry: three utterly different styles that collide with
striking synchronicity. They laugh when presented with a recent newspaper
article that details the band's division of labor with Oz-like simplicity:
Miller brings the brains, Conley the heart, and Prescott the muscle. It's
true, but not really. Things have changed. Go to www.boston.com/ae/music to
hear clips from "ONOffON.""Pete [whose post-Burma projects include Volcano
Suns, Kustomized, and Peer Group] has more songs now," notes Miller, a
member of the experimental modern-classical ensemble Alloy Orchestra. "He
was just starting to write the first time around. And my songs are somewhat
more melodic. Our idea of three-part vocals was three guys yelling. Now we
"We're not in a blind-rush fury," says Conley, frontman for the rock band
Consonant and a producer at WCVB-TV's "Chronicle." "The playing is much,
So is their outlook, which has evolved, all concur, from cranky to joyful.
A few rules governing phase two of Mission of Burma are: Nostalgia is a
four-letter word. Democracy rules. Every show could be the last show. And
don't believe your own hype.
"An amazing, magical thing is happening, and it fuels the skeptic in me,"
says Conley. "We were so conditioned to have nobody like us and that our
music isn't really for a broad audience, and we accepted that, and it's
sort of ingrained in our DNA. And now there are big rooms and they're going
crazy, and I'm thinking, `This is too easy. Who are you people?' Because
this album represents a very logical continuity between then and now."
Indeed, "ONOffON" sounds like nothing so much as the second Mission of
Burma album: a somewhat more refined marriage of chaos and choruses,
ornamented with an occasional flourish of cello and viola and a choir of
female voices. The virtually constant tension between noise and melody that
defined the band a quarter-century ago remains vital, if not quite
revolutionary. But as Conley points out, it was never Mission of Burma's
intent to change the world, and -- as the members push toward their 50s --
it certainly isn't now.
The band has committed to a limited touring schedule, and Matador, the
victor among several labels vying to release the new Burma album, is well
aware of the fact that the members have no intention of putting in the time
or energy generally expected from a band promoting a new album.
"We knew going in that they wouldn't play as much as we wanted them to, but
we'd rather have 15 or 20 well-placed shows from these guys than 200 shows
from a band that wasn't as unique," says Cosloy. "This is something people
have been waiting for. I believe they're commercially relevant, but the
impetus to do this wasn't purely commercial. This is an incredibly
Oedipus -- program director at the Boston rock radio station WBCN-FM
(104.1), which is spinning new Burma tracks on the "Nocturnal Emissions"
and "Boston Emissions" evening shows -- is more circumspect.
"There was an immediacy to Mission of Burma the first time around that
won't be there," he says. "The sound isn't cutting-edge anymore." The flip
side of that, Oedipus says, is that "the mainstream rock audience will be
more comfortable with it now."
Mission of Burma circa 2004 won't sound nearly as alien to the general
indie-rock listener as it did in 1982. Of course, that familiarity cuts
both ways. Miller has played the album for a handful of people, several of
whom told him it sounds like a post-punk record -- which translates, Miller
says, to archaic. Another friend thinks it sounds downright symphonic, a
perception Miller shares.
The impression one gets is that it hardly matters. Their current mission is
as ephemeral as it gets, fueled by a sense of gratitude rather than
entitlement. Conley calls it a blind fumbling forward. If they can keep
their balance, it will be a happy experience. For a while, he adds. One
thing's for sure: This will end again.
"We'll become disinterested or move on, or people will, or the world will,"
says Prescott. "And then," he points out, simply stating the obvious, "it
won't be there."