Clip: Mission of Burma interview
Mission of Burma release their first album in more than 20 years
BY TED DROZDOWSKI
Clint Conley gets wrapped up in his job as a field producer for Channel 5's
TV newsmagazine Chronicle . "I love doing the interviews and the research.
I get totally absorbed. And then some days, I'll be at work, and suddenly
I'll think something like, 'Oh my God! I'm going out to California this
weekend, where I'll be singing in front of 3000 people. That's ludicrous!'
Only to Conley, who has managed to compartmentalize the roles of his life:
news-show producer, husband and father, and bass player for Mission of
Burma. It's this last, of course, that took him out to the All Tomorrow's
Parties Festival in LA last year, to the English version of that event this
spring, and on a recent press junket, along with Burma drummer Peter
Prescott, to Brussels, Hamburg, and Paris. "I figured we'd talk to a few
fanzines and then have the rest of the day to wander around each city. But
they worked us. The label put us in hotel rooms and marched a different
journalist in every half-hour. And they asked questions like [affecting a
French accent], 'Were you aware zat ze legend was growing?' And I'd go . .
. [he laughs], 'Uh, not really.' "
"It was easy not to see that," Prescott chimes in with a laugh as he,
Conley, and I talk in a Cambridge coffeeshop.
What's easy to see today is that Mission of Burma are a band with the kind
of underdog's story that rock fans and journalists both love. They were
wildly inventive but largely ignored, even in their home town of Boston,
during their original run from 1979 to 1983. When they disbanded because of
guitarist Roger Miller's tinnitus, they left behind an album, an EP, and
two singles on the independent label Ace of Hearts. And a ripple that grew.
They were a band who inspired other bands and aspiring musicians including
R.E.M., the Pixies, Soul Asylum, R.E.M., Sugar, Catherine Wheel, the
Spinanes, Moby, and scores of lesser-known members of the alternative-rock
fraternity and sorority have covered their songs.
Nonetheless, when they reunited in early 2002, it seemed more a lark and a
celebration of their former manager Mark Kates's return to Boston after
years in the music-biz trenches of Los Angeles. "I think we were
tremendously ambitious the first time around," Conley offers. "We were
idealistic. We were burning with conviction that our music was right, that
there was so much crap around, and that we were going to try to remake it
our own way. At the same time, we were conditioned early on that this
wasn't going to be commercially successful. It wasn't in the cards for us
to be popular."
"Maybe there's some defensiveness built into that," Prescott adds. "I felt
like 'I'm not going to make a million dollars off this, but neither are
eight billion other people who play their music. But we're making music
that's built to stand, and I'm gonna grab onto it and hold it to my heart.'
"When we were getting ready to play our first shows after that long break,
if you would have told me we'd be putting out a record, that would have
felt like too much for me," says Conley. "When we got together to rehearse,
and Roger said he didn't want to do the shows unless we played some new
songs, the lazy part of me felt like it was going to take all my energy
just to be up to snuff on the old stuff. But now we're getting ready to put
out that record, and it couldn't feel more right."
Or be more eagerly awaited. When Mission of Burma made their first
full-length album, Vs. , in 1982, a clutch of ardent fans in the Northeast
awaited. Twenty-two years later, thousands ? likely tens of thousands ? of
fans throughout the US and Europe are waiting for the new ONoffON (Matador;
due May 4), which is only Burma's second proper full-length studio album.
The good news is that there's no bad news. ONoffON is a ripper ? raw,
bubbling with jittery energy, and busting out with 16 songs that sound as
good as, and at times better than, their earlier music. As Roger Miller, on
tour in Detroit with the Alloy Orchestra, puts it when we talk by phone:
"It's a Burma album. It still has that quality that's always made us
Mission of Burma: that sense of things appearing to fall apart and then
slamming tightly back together, that chaos coupled with gigantic, focused
There's more. This is a Burma album with strings, at least on a few
numbers. Yet those tunes sound nothing like Metallica with strings. The
band use the instruments in a way that suggests they're rethinking the way
they make music. Built around viola, cello, and Prescott's rich-toned kick
drum, "Prepared" is closer to Sinatra, or, for indie diehards, the early
Silos with strings. That's rarefied territory. And though Prescott was
always the Burma character who'd work a laugh into the mix, this time
Conley has penned what sounds like a country parody in "Nicotine Bomb."
Another difference is in the loops and sonic manipulations. In the old
days, Martin Swope was the member off stage in the wings, mixing the live
sound and using reel-to-reel tapes to sample and distort whatever came out
of the amps and microphones that caught his fancy. But when Swope, who now
lives in Hawaii, declined to rejoin, Prescott, Miller, and Conley decided
to draft their friend Bob Weston into service. He didn't have to be asked
twice. "I love Burma," he says over the phone from his home base in
Chicago. "They're my favorite band of all time, and I'm in it now. I'm like
the Forrest Gump of indie rock!"
An engineer and producer who plays bass in Shellac and has his own history
in Boston rock (including Prescott's former band Volcano Suns), Weston has
a more daring hand than Swope. The new "Absent Mind," in particular, is a
sonic playground of looped vocal and guitar manipulations ? a wild ride
into Burma's craziest sonic regions.
ONoffON , which was produced by the group in league with Ace of Hearts boss
Rick Harte and engineered by Weston, begins with a blast that'll rivet old
or new fans of Burma's kaleidoscopic take on arty punk rock ? an approach
that's as fresh-sounding and proudly idiosyncratic as it was two decades
ago. "The Set Up" comes roaring on, surrounding its hooky pop lyrics about
heartache with a spiky metallic sheath of guitar. It's distinctly a Miller
tune, built on the angular guitar style of "Max Ernst," the number that
along with Conley's "Academy Fight Song" made up the group's debut single
in 1980. Then there's "Hunt Again," a Conley number rippling with his
trademark melodicism and bouncing, propulsive chords. And as fans who've
heard him at the comeback shows or with his own group Consonant ? which
started at roughly the same time Mission of Burma returned to service ?
know, he's singing more flexibly and with better tone than 20 years ago.
The third song, "The Enthusiast," with its soft cymbal hits giving way to
growling guitar and howling singing, is a typically dark and madcap
Prescott number. It's also a gem, with its "I'm high as a kite on a
windless night" refrain and a subtle swipe at Metallica's "Enter Sandman"
in its vocal melody.
So ONoffON goes, with the members trading songs throughout. They ricochet
from the Beatles-like "What We Really Were," with genuine three-part
harmonies, to the poetic "Max Ernst's Blood," the gritty "Dirt," and
"Playland." That last track opens with a six-string squall from Miller
that's a reminder of one of Burma's principal joys: the small bursts of
improvisation that are built into their most adventurous tunes. Sure,
Mission of Burma's three-man core have all passed 45, but they can still
play their asses off.
"As songwriters," says Conley, analyzing Burma's compositional make-up,
"Roger is very musicianly. He brings in things that can be very challenging
to learn. Sometimes it's almost impossible to find bass notes for the
chords he's using."
"Or rhythms," Prescott chimes in.
"His songs need to evolve in your head until you can understand them,"
Conley continues. "I consider him the master songwriter. Peter is more the
brutalist. He comes in and borrows my bass to shows us a song and plays all
these intense 16th notes."
"I've been told that even in the bands where I was playing guitar,"
Prescott says, referring to his post-Burma outfits Kustomized and the Peer
Group, "I was playing drums." He laughs.
"Your songs tend to be more fully evolved," Prescott says. "Then when we
all come together, we all bring our own thing to it and the songs grown in
The same kind of collective creativity transpires live, where the band
members try to develop new variations on the parts they play in songs,
hoping to take one another to untested ground. And of course, the new songs
keep coming too. When Mission of Burma play Avalon on May 22, they'll be
unveiling numbers more recent than the 16 on ONoffON . All of which aren't
so new. It's worth noting that ONoffON 's sound bomb "Playland" was on the
demos and outtake collection Forget (Taang!), a relatively obscure release
by what until recently has been a relatively obscure band. Although Burma's
hardcore fans might disagree.
"I think for me, the most amazing experience was when we played Irving
Plaza in New York for the first time, in 2002," says Miller. "We did
'Playland.' I'd heard a tape of a live show we'd played at MIT in '82, and
when the song was over, there was no applause at all. This time, I could
see like 30 people out in the audience singing along. That night, when I
got back to my hotel room, all this stuff welled up in me that I hadn't
known was buried. I felt a wave of relief and a lot of tension was gone. It
was very emotional, really amazing. I think it also made us want to play
Now, having enjoyed some long-delayed affirmation of their work, Mission of
Burma are heading into ONoffON 's release and tour with a modest goal. "It
would be awful to be perceived as middle-aged rockers out to achieve some
kind of glory," says Conley. "And I don't think anybody can write us off as
shadows of our former selves, because we're writing good songs and playing
"Yeah," says Prescott. "What we're going to do is tour in short bursts. We
want to do right by Matador, which is a great label for us to be on, so
we'll play dates. But Clint has Consonant and his job and family. Roger has
the Binary System and Alloy Orchestra and needs to be careful about
prolonged exposure to loud music. And I've already been bitchin' about
"What I hope happens is that people will experience the vitality and sheer
joy we're feeling when they come to hear Mission of Burma," says Conley.
"That's why we're doing this: for the sheer joy of playing this music
Mission of Burma play Avalon, 15 Lansdowne Street in Boston, on Saturday
May 22; call (617) 228-6000.