Clip: Mission of Burma Un-Breakup
By MICHAEL AZERRAD
Published: May 2, 2004
THREE middle-aged men crowded around a computer screen, watching themselves
playing in a rock band 25 years ago. When the camera homed in on one of the
men, the singer and guitarist Roger Miller, then a gawky, baby-faced young
man, the other two -- the singer and bassist Clint Conley, 48, and the
singer and drummer Peter Prescott, 46 -- broke up in laughter. Mr. Miller,
now 52, rolled his eyes and pleaded, "Oh God, kill me now."
The threesome, members of the legendary post-punk band Mission of Burma,
had gathered at their rehearsal space in a bleak corner of the Boston
neighborhood called Allston. They were preparing for a March show at the
South by Southwest conference in Austin, Tex., often a showcase for new
bands. The trio hoped that their performance there would stoke the buzz
about their first album in 22 years, the fiery "ONoffON," which comes out
on Tuesday on the indie-rock powerhouse Matador Records.
So often, rock band reunions are little more than nostalgia trips,
motivated more by money and ego than by music. But with its cult following
-- having sold fewer than 50,000 albums in its first incarnation -- Mission
of Burma isn't likely to cash in this time around. Call it a curtain call
for a seminal band whose time has finally come.
When Mission of Burma started in 1979, its fellow Bostonians the Cars were
domesticating post-punk into a commercially viable variant called new wave.
Mission of Burma instead tested punk's limits with sophisticated
dissonances, jarring time changes and lyrics about Max Ernst and Albert
Einstein, all delivered with anthemic fervor. In another experimental move
that set the band even further from the punk pack, a fourth member, Martin
Swope, sat at the soundboard, warping the band's sonic barrage with effects
boxes and tape loops.
Though the trio has lost a little hair and added some pounds and crags over
the years, they remain committed to both their music and each other, two
factors that help explain why the band is not only more popular than it was
two decades ago but also making some of its best music.
It doesn't hurt that its original following was not only extremely
dedicated but also extremely influential. Many of the critics who raved
about them in fanzines years ago now write for national magazines and major
newspapers. (In fact, the band members have said that a chapter in my book
about the 80's American indie scene contributed to their decision to
reunite.) Mark Kates, who helped manage the band the first time around,
became a major label executive in the 90's; Gerard Cosloy, the precocious
teenager whom the band used to sneak into shows because they admired his
fanzine Conflict, is now a president and an owner of Matador. ("Now he
sneaks us in the back door -- of the music industry," said Mr. Prescott.)
Mission of Burma's reunion also comes at an opportune moment: many of
today's hippest new bands -- the Rapture, Interpol, the Liars, to name a
few -- are aping the angular, noisy, early 80's post-punk that Burma helped
pioneer. (In many instances, , the revivalist bands sound languid and
unimaginative by comparison.)
The band's total output consisted of two singles, one EP and one album,
which yielded two post-punk classics: "Academy Fight Song" and "That's When
I Reach for My Revolver." The band's popularity didn't extend much beyond
the Northeast, partly because the touring, promotional and retail networks
indie rockers now take for granted weren't yet in place and partly because
most people simply weren't ready for the band's music.
Ultimately, however, the band's intense volume damaged Mr. Miller's
hearing. He says he developed tinnitus, and by 1983 it was more than he
could bear. So just as the band was poised to break through to a national
audience, it split up (amicably, the members say).
Mr. Miller continued making music -- much quieter this time -- most notably
with the avant-classical ensemble Birdsongs of the Mesozoic and the silent
film accompanists Alloy Orchestra, with whom he still performs; he also
composes music for television, film and commercials. Mr. Prescott led
several bands, including the highly regarded post-hardcore outfit Volcano
But Mr. Conley virtually quit music. He started working in television
journalism -- he's been a producer for a Boston-area TV newsmagazine for 14
years -- and married and started a family.
Meanwhile, a funny thing happened: the band's legacy blossomed. R.E.M.
regularly featured "Academy Fight Song" in concerts in the late 80's, an
eponymous 1988 compilation CD brought the band to a new generation of
listeners, and in 1996 the techno-rocker Moby scored a hit with a cover of
"That's When I Reach for My Revolver." And bands like Husker Du, the
Replacements and the Pixies have incorporated Burma's incendiary mix of
noise and melody, brains and brawn, in their music.
In January 2001, Mr. Prescott asked Mr. Conley to sit in with Mr.
Prescott's band, the Peer Group, at the Knitting Factory in New York. When
Mr. Conley came home that evening, he found that his aversion to music had
disappeared, and he began writing a torrent of new songs and soon founded
the band Consonant. Later that year Mission of Burma was invited to reunite
for a Lincoln Center show. Mr. Conley had always rejected such offers, but
this time he seemed open to the possibility of a reunion. "If we're ever
going to do it, we'd better do it quick before the wheels come off," he
Mr. Prescott signed on, but Mr. Swope declined. Instead, the band recruited
Bob Weston to take over Mr. Swope's duties; at 38, Mr. Weston had grown up
worshiping Mission of Burma.
In January 2002, the band headlined two shows: one at the 1,000-seat Irving
Plaza in Manhattan and the other at the 2,000-seat Avalon in Boston.
Tickets sold briskly, and soon two shows became five.
"I was just really afraid that something bad was going to happen, and we
were going to squander whatever good will we had sort of accumulated over
the years," said Mr. Conley, venting concerns that amused his bandmates.
His apprehensions proved unfounded. "The fact is, we always felt tight with
each other and proud of the music we made," he said, "and so when we came
back the cogs just slipped back together again."
Mr. Miller took several steps to protect his hearing, including using both
earplugs and the earmuffs worn at a firing range. "And still my ears ring
more after the shows, but what more can you do?" he asked. "How many more
chances do you get to do this stuff?"
The New York and Boston shows were hits with more than the nostalgia crowd.
The audience ranged from sing-along teenagers to weeping 50-somethings.
Mr. Miller said the original idea was that "we'd do a couple of shows, we'd
each make a thousand or something and O.K., that will help pay my mortgage."
"But something else happened," he added.
Promoters from other cities began to offer the band gigs, and it has played
one weekend every three months ever since, which has allowed Mr. Miller and
Mr. Conley to keep up their better-paying jobs and support their families.
Although Mr. Kates, who returned to manage the group, and Matador hope to
accelerate the schedule, the band is reluctant.
"I love my work, I love my family," Mr. Conley said. "Once you start making
it into real tours and stuff, I think a lot of the fun can go out of it."
Mr. Cosloy seems satisfied with the current arrangement. "I'll take the
visceral impact of 15 well-promoted and planned Burma gigs over a hundred
of anyone else's."
And there was the new material that the band members had written as a way
of demonstrating the group's continued vitality. "After we crossed song No.
6 or 8 or something," Mr. Conley recalled, "we kind of looked at each other
and said, `Is this heading where it looks like it's heading?' " It was
heading, and rather swiftly, toward a new album.
"ONoffON" is tense, febrile and messy, but tuneful and cohesive at the same
time. The band's wall of noise, more robust than ever, veers between the
impressionistic and the assertive. Each member takes his turn in the
spotlight: Mr. Miller wrings prodigious leads and virtuosic free-form noise
from his guitar; Mr. Conley counters with a rueful ballad with doleful
cello ("Prepared") and a countryish two-step ("Nicotine Bomb") and Mr.
Prescott offers sardonic shout-alongs that are among the catchiest things
on the record.
The band has found several new styles, and yet some things haven't changed:
Mr. Miller has a new song about Max Ernst. And on "The Set-Up," he asks,
"Why do I act this way?" -- apparently questions about identity persist
long after adolescence. "If you stop asking that question, you've just
frozen yourself unnaturally," Mr. Miller declares.
But like other middle-aged groups -- Neil Young and Fugazi, to name two, --
Mission of Burma disproves the notion that noise and rage are the province
of the young. "Do you not get angry when you get older?" Mr. Prescott
asked. "Of course you do! You just tap into a different place."
Mr. Miller added: "Give us the instruments and let us play. There's just as
much angst and torment as there ever was."
Even fitting Mission of Burma back into their lives hasn't been easy; the
band members are still working out the transition from family men to
weekend rockers. But Mr. Conley says Mission of Burma demonstrates what he
calls "the universal law of benevolent expansion." "You make room for
something good," he said. "You can always find time in life for good
- not much posting time today but just wanted to say loud and clear:
the new mission of burma album flatout kicks ass. best postpunk reunion ever? yep, maybe.
- If it's better than Wire's recent output, consider me salivating to grab a
copy. And I will when I next come into Paul's CDs in about 2 1/2 weeks.
--On Monday, May 3, 2004 2:06 PM -0400 "Wilson, Carl"
> not much posting time today but just wanted to say loud and clear:
> the new mission of burma album flatout kicks ass. best postpunk reunion
> ever? yep, maybe.
> carl w.
> Yahoo! Groups Links
> If it's better than Wire's recent output, consider mewell, to be honest, Wire is the only rival. And Wire might still hold the crown; it'll take more listening to decide. I almost said so in the first place but didn't want to dilute the enthusiasm for the MoB album. and it's possible the MoB *is* better - more emotional depth maybe - but premature to say.
> salivating to grab a copy.
<<well, to be honest, Wire is the only rival. And Wire might still hold
the crown; it'll take more listening to decide. I almost said so in the
first place but didn't want to dilute the enthusiasm for the MoB album.
and it's possible the MoB *is* better - more emotional depth maybe - but
premature to say. >>
Tell us more! Is it more hooky (a la "Revolver") or noisy? Both?
> Tell us more! Is it more hooky (a la "Revolver") or noisy? Both?Both! Both!
That's why i like it so much.
possibly now in the overhyping zone, but what the hell?
- --On Monday, May 3, 2004 4:05 PM -0400 "Wilson, Carl"
>A fair split of Clint songs vs. Roger songs?
>> Tell us more! Is it more hooky (a la "Revolver") or noisy? Both?
> Both! Both!
> That's why i like it so much.
> carl w.Heh, now we have a couple suspected members of the Matador street team on
> possibly now in the overhyping zone, but what the hell?
this list! (The other is the list moderator.)
>From: Carl Zimring <cz28@...>15 tracks total.
>A fair split of Clint songs vs. Roger songs?
Does anyone know the reason that there is no track #9 on the disc?
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