BY JIM DeROGATIS POP MUSIC CRITIC
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,
* 7 tonight
* Metro, 3730 N. Clark
* (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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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.