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Clip: Mission of Burma interview

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  • Carl Zimring
    http://www.bostonphoenix.com/boston/music/cellars/multi_1/documents/0378245 4.asp Happy returns Mission of Burma release their first album in more than 20
    Message 1 of 1 , Apr 29, 2004
      http://www.bostonphoenix.com/boston/music/cellars/multi_1/documents/0378245
      4.asp

      Happy returns
      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
      energy."

      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
      new directions."

      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
      better."

      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
      really hard."

      "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
      traveling."

      "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
      together."

      Mission of Burma play Avalon, 15 Lansdowne Street in Boston, on Saturday
      May 22; call (617) 228-6000.
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