Mission back on for influential '80s band

November 22, 2002


If you're searching for the missing links between punk and alternative rock, one of the first names on that list is Mission of Burma.

The Boston quartet released only a handful of records during its relatively short career in the early '80s (including the incendiary single "Academy Fight Song," an E.P., "Signals, Calls and Marches," and an album, "Vs."). But its influence has loomed large in literally hundreds of bands that followed, from the Pixies to Nirvana. Techno maven Moby even scored a hit with one of the group's songs, "That's When I Reach for My Revolver," though he changed the controversial words to accommodate MTV.

Now Mission of Burma is back, performing a limited number of reunion shows with original members Roger Miller on vocals and guitar, Clint Conley on bass and vocals, and Peter Prescott on drums and vocals, plus Chicagoan Robert Weston filling in for Martin Swope on sound effects and tape loops.

Mission of Burma, Milemarker, Regeneration

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* Metro, 3730 N. Clark

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* (773) 549-0203 or (312) 559-1212

I spoke with Conley from his job in Boston about the band's storied past and the possibilities of its future.

Q. I had the privilege of seeing Mission of Burma once, toward the end of its career, and I have to say, it was one of the best shows I ever saw, as well as one of the loudest.

A. No, I think that's been exaggerated!

Q. No, it hasn't: You guys were right up there with My Bloody Valentine, which was so loud your bones physically hurt after the show.

A. A lot of people have come up [after these reunion shows] with a slightly disappointed tone and said, "You guys aren't nearly as loud as you were." I'm like, "I'm sorry!" But it's just the old story of the guitars trying to survive the drum basher. We just wanted to get out heads above the water, his level was so high. So it wasn't any master plan; it was just survival.

Q. What happened with Roger's ears? He famously quit the band because of his tinnitus--he was literally losing his hearing due to the volume. But now it seems as if that's no longer an issue, similar to Pete Townsend's situation.

A. It's definitely still an issue. We played a few gigs last spring over in England, and I think his ears were feeling a little fried there because there were several gigs right in a row. It's a trade-off that he's willing to make temporarily, but it wouldn't surprise me if he announced at our next rehearsal, "This is my last gig." He's laid off the really loud stuff for many years now. I believe these shows are less punishing than playing on a small stage at CBGB [in New York] or the Rat [in Boston]. He actually puts his amp out in front of him, he has no monitors on his side of the stage and he wears his big headgear [ear-protectors]. So it's much easier on him than it was in the old days.

Q. The perception I've always had is that you were the "pop guy" in the band. You wrote the most memorable tunes: "That's When I Reach for My Revolver," "Academy Fight Song."

A. I was more of the sappy, decadent, weakness-for-melody guy, I guess. Roger was definitely more austere. Basically, I was more attracted to tunefulness.

Q. When you brought something like "Revolver" to the band, did those guys recognize instantly, "This one is a classic"?

A. I honestly can't remember bringing songs in and knowing that they were keepers. I certainly never thought of them as being anything anybody would really remember. We certainly never went, "This is the one!" Those sort of thoughts were kind of remote from us. Certainly when we started playing "Revolver," people would go, "Hey, I love that song about 'That's when I reach for marijuana.' " [Laughs]

Q. The song took its title and chorus from a saying that is alternately attributed to Herman Goering, Joseph Goebbels, or Heinrich Himmler: "When I hear the word culture, I reach for my revolver."

A. I cribbed it from Henry Miller, who wrote an essay with that title. It was only later that I realized its suspect origin. I think Goebbels or Himmler or whomever lifted it from an earlier source, and some early 19th century German poet had used the phrase. At one time I knew and now I can't remember.

Q. In any event, that's a heady thing to write a pop song about.

A. Well, it's not really a song about that. It was sort of just blind reaching; it just seemed like something to be chanted or repeated in a chorus. It just had internal power and it seemed to express the frustration we were feeling of trying to break through or transcend. What is the song about? Who the hell knows? I'm so mortified by my lyrics back then. It's all just sort of post-collegiate.

Q. I always heard it in the Brian Eno tradition of stringing evocative words together to help paint an aural picture, without necessarily being concerned about the literal meaning.

A. When you combine words with music and they seem to be working in some sort of synergy that pushes it up into another realm, it's just compelling. I think we've gotten a pass on the lyrics, but I am just so proud of the music. To this day, I feel like it still really feels fresh and exciting. That was my whole fear going into this thing. I was apprehensive, but it's really felt vital. As soon as we started rehearsing, it really put to rest my fears about its relevance. The music just felt real and current.

Q. That's the nice thing about being ahead of your time: The music doesn't age because it was never of its era.

A. That, and it's not necessarily anchored to any sort of youth vision, like, "I hate old people and I don't want a job when I grow up." It was never sort of the bratty end of the punk-rock thing. I think it's fair to say we were all aspiring to something greater, although what the hell it was, I don't know.

Q. To what extent did you see Burma following bands like Wire and Pere Ubu, which were playing punk rock but merging it with the old art-rock tradition?

A. Really in that era of punk reductivism, we were closet progressives. In a lot of ways, we were prog-rock, an extension of early Pink Floyd, Soft Machine and all that strain of art rock before it got sort of convoluted. Nobody would want to admit it back then, when it was so reactionary: "Get rid of the old farts, let's make something new!" But we were always sort of explorers, and trying to not just work with received ideas or forms, but create something new. Certainly Roger was the leader of that in our band. He just had such a restless, unconforming sort of wiring in his head.

Q. So Roger was the art guy and Peter was the punk and you were the pop guy.

A. Yeah, I was sort of the Brill Building! [Laughs] But yes, we saw ourselves sort of in that art-rock tradition. I had grown up around New York, so I'd been down on the CBGB scene in '75 and '76, and I'd seen Television and the Talking Heads, and I was drawn to the art-rock end of things.

Q. What did Martin Swope do for you guys? It was always sort of hard to tell live.

A. He was literally taking a live [audio] feed and feeding it back into the mix with mutations--backwardness or whatever. I think it was definitely an outgrowth of a Roxy Music/Brian Eno kind of thing, along with experimental tape-loop stuff. Roger drew him into one song, and then more and more. But it was always very subtle. I would have liked to have been clobbered over the head with it a little more, but Martin wanted it just on that margin of acceptability--he wanted it right on the cusp.

Q. He wasn't interested in doing the reunion?

A. He wasn't. He's out in Hawaii, and he's been there for years. He's out in the jungle; he's pulled a Gauguin kind of thing. He's certainly not your typical character.

Q. So now you have Chicagoan Robert Weston in that role. He's a driving force at Electrical Audio Studio, a member of Shellac and an engineer at WBEZ-FM.

A. It just couldn't have worked out more perfectly. He solved so many problems for us. We didn't know what we should be doing about the Martin factor: Should we even do this thing without him? And Bob just fit the bill so perfectly. He's got a great musical sense and he's a great technician. So he's doing the sound as well as the tape end of things, and he's done a tremendous job.

Q. So you're back with Mission of Burma, as well as a new band of your own, Consonant. But before that, we hadn't heard a thing from you since Burma ended. You were just missing in action.

A. Yeah, completely. My guitars were all put away. I don't know what happened. The year after Burma, I was writing quite a bit, and working on a bunch of music. But I was in my late 20s and I was thinking, "Do I want to get in another band?" You get tired of playing Pac-Man for hours while waiting for the set to come. I just was not eager to make the leap back into it. So it sort of atrophied, and I was working a day job and ended up going back to graduate school. I've been a TV producer for 12 years or something now; I'm with the ABC affiliate here in Boston. I got married and had two kids, and life just flooded up with good stuff. I always was sort of curious: "Where did the music go? Will it ever come back?" But it wasn't in a longing, melancholic way, like I was remembering some golden age. I was just curious.

My head and my life was so saturated with music for many years there, but then I never even picked up the guitar and strummed casually or anything. Then a couple of years ago, Peter Prescott asked me to play bass in his band Peer Group for a gig, with Shellac, ironically. And I did that, and for whatever reason, I came back from that gig and it jogged some nut loose in my head. I just started writing and writing, and it was just coming out in a torrent.

Q. So is there a future for Mission of Burma and for Consonant?

A. Burma is just kind of stumbling along. "Does this one feel good? Should we do another gig?" We are writing new stuff, but I don't know what we're going to do. Consonant is going to continue and we're probably going in the studio again in January.