Clip: Remaking the Band (Pixies, Mission of Burma, Urge Overkill)
Remaking the Band
Will the Pixies 2.0 thrive like Mission of Burma, or stumble like Urge
BY ERIC DAVIDSON
The bulging floodgates of the '80s indie-rock reunion racket have finally
burst open, with the biggest wave yet poised to hit shore: the Pixies. But
even diehard fans seem uncertain whether the experience will leave them
invigorated, or just soaked.
While seemingly no more important in their mid-'80s heyday than, say,
Dinosaur Jr., the Pixies, in one of those subtle switcheroos, have since
attained top-tier influence through their continually rewarding records and
numerous Cobain, Cuomo, and Coldplay interview name-drops. And unlike many
of their "college rock" contemporaries, the Pixies actually sold a fair
amount of records (especially in taste-fabricating England), aiding their
rise to "Beatles of Alt-Rock" status.
Still, news of their reunion tour -- climaxing with an instantly sold-out
UC Davis gig at the end of April, and second-headliner status (behind
Radiohead) at Indio's Coachella fest a few days later -- comes with a large
amount of apprehension. Dispiriting visions of fat graybeards forgetting
chords arise quicker than hopes; many Pixies devotees worry this is all
about the dough.
But though it usually is, it doesn't necessarily have to be. So while we
await the outcome of the Great 2004 Pixies Experiment, the comeback
conveyor belt has already pumped out a few K-car-era models to consider.
How to re-form successfully
Mission of Burma started doing occasional reunion gigs two years ago, and
this Tuesday will officially release a fine new album, appropriately titled
ONoffON (Matador). This Boston band predates the Pixies, toiling in the
burgeoning DIY scene of the early '80s, long before college rock made
anyone a dime. "We came from a musical mentality where sales were
absolutely irrelevant," explains drummer Peter Prescott. "I mean, no one
formed a punk band to make money. You did it purely out of self-interest, I
While releasing only one proper album, a few EPs, and a live record (all on
small labels), MoB never enjoyed the Pixies' profile. But the band is
arguably just as influential. The "Academy Fight Song"/"Max Ernst"
seven-inch -- minted back in 1981 with its perfect blend of Brit post-punk
chops and Yankee garage oomph -- laid down the template for all smart rock
since. Mission of Burma was the Velvet Underground of the '80s -- few
people bought the records, but everyone who did went on to make their own.
So now MoB offers another template: how to resurrect a long-gone band.
First off, keep the initial breakup fairly civil. "There was no bad blood,"
Prescott says. "It was just time for people to move on and try something
else. And Roger [Miller, guitarist] had tinnitus, which was the biggest
Second, keep working. Prescott has stayed active with three different
bands, the best-known being Volcano Suns. His band the Peer Group initially
brought MoB's three members (bassist Clint Conley rounds out the group)
back together, opening for Wire in late 2001. "So the three of us were
onstage for the first time since '83," he says. "And I think when Clint saw
that Wire had re-formed and hadn't embarrassed themselves, his reticence to
do anything Burmese was broken down."
Furthermore, don't rest on your laurels. "Another big factor was Roger was
completely uninterested in playing again unless we wrote new songs and were
active like a band," Prescott says. "Otherwise it's kind of stale."
But nothing else matters if you can't deliver both the old and new material
live. Thankfully, a recent NYC Mission of Burma gig was fiery as hell,
despite Prescott playing behind a clear fiberglass wall and Miller wearing
huge airport-noise-blocking headphones to ward off increased hearing
damage. No, they don't try to slash around the stage like 24-year-olds, but
their instrumental chops chopped off each other in classic Burma fashion,
while the new, slightly more melodic songs fit in fine. So though one might
expect a stoic bunch waiting for someone's eardrums to bust, instead the
band members all smiled and wailed away freely.
There's no grand plan for MoB, but the three are smart enough not to
approach it as a mere nostalgia trip time-killer. "We still don't plan much
beyond a few months ahead of time," Prescott says. "But we had twenty years
off. You sort of refresh your brain about it. When you're constantly in a
band, the point of why you're doing it can be lost. So for us, all that
crud was removed, and all that was left was enjoying one another."
How to re-form unsuccessfully
Refreshed brains don't come to mind when conversing with guitarist Ed
Roeser of the recently re-formed Urge Overkill. This reunion paints a much
fuzzier picture: The band's Boston-meets-Botany 500 blueprint hasn't proved
particularly influential, and while it enjoyed a '90s alt-rock moment of
Rat Pack revivalism -- and, to its credit, didn't settle for lame surf-rock
covers and cheesy tiki imagery -- Urge's ironic stadium rock reinvention
(best captured on 1993's much-loved Saturation) didn't cut many new edges
Like the Pixies, UO garnered modest sales and maybe stuck around for one
record too many (namely, Exit the Dragon) before breaking up in 1997. In
fact, the reunion might've arrived a little too soon. No matter the
question posed, Roeser quickly drifts back to the initial breakup,
seemingly still a little stunned. "Part of it is just the amount of time
that goes by, where one is able to cool off," he says. "I physically
couldn't be in the same room with those guys. Exit the Dragon was like the
soundtrack of us falling apart, sliding into depression. I decided what
people love about the band is not really there anymore. It was a horror
show. So ten years go by, and you sort of forget about those physical and
mental reactions that are so strong."
Roeser's less-than-convincing reasoning arises partly from UO's simple MO:
These guys always just wanted to rock the party. And Saturation's success
(along with a Pulp Fiction soundtrack cover of "Girl, You'll Be a Woman
Soon") brought too much hype and touring expectations down on the band's
lampshade-covered heads. The Pixies developed in a pre-"Teen Spirit" era,
when fifty thousand copies sold was dreamsville for labels like the Pixies'
4AD. By Saturation's day, Urge was expected to eventually pack arenas. And
truth is, the band just wasn't that great, unable to consistently coalesce
underground art and radio hooks.
Thankfully, this reunion comes with down-low anti-fanfare. "Yeah, I was
tentative, and aware of our legacy or whatever," Roeser says. "That's why
we didn't make this huge announcement. It's like word of mouth in terms of
people even knowing we're back together. There are people coming to the
shows saying, 'I just found out yesterday that you were back together,' and
they, like, drove five hours from some other state to the show. So the
reaction's been good. It's our opportunity now to just show people out
there that we're rocking, and that's generally the consensus."
So all this sounds unassuming enough: Just pals giving it another go. Good
for them, but maybe not for the fans who pay $20 to see it. A recent
Columbus, Ohio gig was a bit of a mess, including weak vocals and a
still-shaky rhythm section -- the blood is still bad with original drummer
Blackie Onassis, so the new drummer and bassist are still settling in. The
body is creaky, and it's hard to assess Urge's long-term mindset, since
this reunion sprang up only within the last six months. The goals are
blurry, to say the least. But cats like Roeser and frontman Nash Kato are
lifers who, even though their post-Urge side projects fizzled, retain their
unwavering intentions to rawk.
"I guess the reason why one would want to get back together in a situation
like this, besides the fact that it's an entity that has some commercial
potential, is that the chemistry, I feel, is still there," Roeser says. "It
has more of a magic to it that I had with any other musicians. After every
show, I'm talking to people, and you can tell we really made their day.
They loved it. And that makes me feel like this is extremely worthwhile.
For the faithful who are there -- and there may be only thirty of them at
every show -- this is their kind of music. And I don't think a lot of bands
are capable of doing that."
How to re-form successfully with huge expectations
So what might these alt-rock revamps mean for the Pixies? It's
understandable that their fans might expect the worst, just because critics
and tastemakers have pumped the band up so intensely. Artistically, Burma
has gained an almost academic influence, a sound debated in record
collector circles that fuels mainly fringe bands. The Pixies are now
considered the band that forged everything from the million-selling
loud/quiet grunge formula to the esoteric lyrics and yowls of every little
art-school indie rocker to this day: a far heavier mantle to heave. But
that mantle is also durable. The mystery of how these four Midwestern dorks
pulled together for pop's largest leap forward in the last twenty years has
inflated to the point where it would take a mighty sharp needle to pop it.
The fame that ultimately burns them out may still exist -- witness Frank
Black's recent resigned "blues" records and the last, uninspired Breeders
So yes, this could all be a mess -- soiling the image and so forth. But so
what? What was so ingenious about the punk paradigm shift is that it
allowed bands like the Pixies to be an admitted mess in the first place.
Urge Overkill went the radio route with snarky jackets, big blown advances,
and pro production, and the chance for the reunion to tarnish the band's
old indie-boys-get-big legacy looms large. But the Pixies catalogue is
different -- for one thing, it's still great. The Rolling Stones have
sucked for twenty years, and Exile on Main Street ain't tainted.
Actually, a disastrous Pixies reunion tour might do everyone some good.
Digging on cool music isn't about bowing down to it ten years later. It's
about moving on, making your own, and finding the next geniuses to stack
the canon. Even if you have to plow through the old geniuses first.
- On 21 Apr 2004 at 7:43, Carl Zimring wrote:
> http://www.eastbayexpress.com/issues/2004-04-21/music.html/1/index.htmlI seem to have bought into this whole thing without entirely realising
> Remaking the Band
> Will the Pixies 2.0 thrive like Mission of Burma, or stumble like Urge
> BY ERIC DAVIDSON
> The bulging floodgates of the '80s indie-rock reunion racket have finally
> burst open, with the biggest wave yet poised to hit shore: the Pixies. But
> even diehard fans seem uncertain whether the experience will leave them
> invigorated, or just soaked.
it. So, AMC in May, just got tickets for Television in June, and
working on Pixies tickets at the moment.
Still there are good current live shows around as well. Calexico on
Monday were quite wonderful. Loads of new material, covers of
_Alone again or_ and a Minutemen track I'm ashamed to say I didn't
recognise, plus the usual faves as well. A band at the height of their
powers I think. BTW support came from 'buzz' band Blanche, who I
really didn't like at all. Far too contrived.
- WBNY 91.3 FM at Buffalo State College held its annual alumni weekend
two weeks ago, and I got to do another fun 2-hour shift.
I wasn't able to do much planning and so on, but I called it no-format
radio and here it is:
Modern Lovers - Roadrunner
Tom Waits - Alice
Warren Zevon - Poor Poor Pitiful Me
Warren Zevon - Keep Me in Your Heart
The Damned - New Rose
Los Lobos - Don't Worry Baby
The Byrds - I'll Feel a Whole Lot better
Congo Norvell - Golden Gates
Rank and File - Rank and File
The Fleshtones - Do You Swing?
The Jumpers - South of the City
Neil Young - Bite the Bullet
Joe Ely - Boxcars (live)
Teenage Head - Disgusteen
The Cramps - Can Your Pussy Do the Dog? (live)
Husker Du - Pink Turns to Blue
The Clash - Career Opportunities
Bob Dylan - Highway 51
Jim Whitford - Crash All Night
Rex Hobart and the Misery Boys - You've Got Some Cheating to Do
Steve Wynn - Here Come the Miracles
Gary Numan - Are Friends Electric? (live)
Patti Smith - Till Victory
Peter Case - Walk in the Woods
The Blasters - Marie Marie
Steve Earle - Copperhead Road
The Ramones - Rockaway Beach
Blondie - One Way or Another
Graham Parker - Mercury Poisoning
Richard and Linda Thompson - Wall of Death