Late last spring, post-punk legends Mission of Burma found themselves deep in the Amazon rain forest, sharing a bill with imported indie rockers (Supergrass) and local stars (Nacao Zombi) alike at the Campari Rock Festival in Atibaia, Brazil.
“Pure Fitzcaraldo—rock music dragged into the rain forest,” is how Roger Miller describes the experience in his very entertaining blog, and if you want to get a sense for how joyfully this band of 40- and 50-somethings is approaching second-round success, check out the photos. There are, for instance, some good shots of Clint Conley and Miller careening 50 feet above the ground from rickety platform to rickety platform in harnesses suspended by wires above the forest canopy. Other shots show band members on horseback, playing tennis, and eating local delicacies.
And, of course, there is footage of the show itself, where, true to form, Conley, Miller and drummer Peter Prescott can hardly contain their grins or restrain their joy at playing those songs, as loud as possible, to a crowd of 5,500 Brazilians. “It’s a very intense thing. I think that for people who have never seen us, you know, the music’s pretty austere and demanding, and they probably imagine us going to some priory and being serious… beds of nails and stuff, eating biscuits,” says Conley, with his characteristic sly humor. “But no, I like to think it’s exhilarating. It’s very joyful experience for us. After having been out for 20 years, to come back, I’m just really enjoying this, just really having a sense of how lucky we are.”
The Lazarus hook
For four years in the late 1970s and early 1980s, Mission of Burma reinvented punk music, balancing the complexities of Roger Miller’s classical training with hardcore intensity and pop tunefulness. The band was one of the first to employ tape manipulation into its sound, with former member Martin Swope capturing live performance on the fly, distorting and looping and reversing it, then feeding sounds back into the mix. The band’s first single, “Academy Fight Song” was released in 1980, followed by the EP Signals, Calls & Marches, one of the most ferociously melodic records of the post-punk era and including the band’s best-known song “That’s When I Reach for My Revolver.” Vs., widely considered the band’s masterpiece, followed in late 1982.
In its prime, Burma was one of the loudest, most intense live acts around, and that volume took its toll on band member Roger Miller. His tinnitus, plus other members’ frustration with the band’s lack of mass recognition and a feeling that it was time to move on, contributed to Mission of Burma’s demise in 1983. For the next 20 years, the band’s members’ paths diverged. Conley left music altogether, finishing school, getting married, having kids and taking a job producing segments for Boston Channel 5’s Chronicles. (I actually ran into him the week after this interview in the local café/hangout of Walpole, NH; he was shooting a segment on neighboring Bellows Falls, VT for Chronicles and wearing professional non-rock-star clothes, so I almost didn’t recognize him.) Prescott became the linchpin of other bands—the incendiary Volcano Sons, Kustomized, and the Peer Group. Miller pursued solo work and joined with Martin Swope in Birdsongs of the Mesazoic. Swope moved to Hawaii. Even the band’s namesake disappeared, as Burma became Myanmar. The Mission of Burma story seemed to have come to a definitive conclusion.
Except it hadn’t. The reunion started when Prescott’s Peer Group got a chance to open for Wire in New York—and Conley and Miller agreed to play with him. In the interim, Conley had rediscovered music; the dam had burst, and after 20 years, he was writing the songs that led to the first Consonant album. Michael Azzerad’s Our Band Could Be Your Life, published in 2001, put Burma on a pedestal with other cult favorites, including Black Flag, the Replacements, Hüsker Dü and the Minutemen. And the tidal wave of reunions had just started—Wire had re-emerged with what Mission of Burma’s members thought was intelligence and dignity and the Stooges were playing Coachella. Suddenly a second shot at the Burma project seemed plausible, even desirable. The band began playing shows again and liking it. Bob Weston of Shellac (and Volcano Sons) stepped into Swope’s place behind the decks. All three members began writing music. By the time that 2004’s OnOffOn appeared, it was clear that Burma’s second phase was not a postscript or marketing ploy, but a great band re-emerging with raw energy and new ideas.
Now, two years later, Burma’s third full-length album The Obliterati is here, powerful proof that this unlikely tale of death and resurrection is no fluke. In the same way that Vs. amped up the aggressive complications of Signals, Calls & Marches, The Obliterati takes OnOffOn‘s dangerous melodies a step further. It’s a louder, rougher piece of work, powered by punk energy, but structured carefully, complexly, with interlocking riffs and counterpoints.
Conviction? yes. Self-importance? no.
That The Obliterati comes without the intrinsic press hook of OnOffOn is a marketing issue, but not something that Conley and his cohorts spend a lot of time thinking about. “We’re aware of that situation but it doesn’t really have a material affect on how we make music, or when I’m sitting out in the garage, writing a song or working on a song, following ideas that are appealing to me,” he says. “That’s Matador’s problem… actually we are Matador’s problem,” Conley adds mischieviously. “I won’t deny that the other one came with trumpets and fanfares and rolling out carpets. It was a big deal to some people, and this one doesn’t come with that kind of built in story.”
The Obliterati does, however, come with a sense of humor that you won’t find on Vs.. There’s a playfulness and lack of self-importance that reveals itself in titles like “Nancy Reagan’s Head”, “Good, Not Great”, and “Man in Decline”. Absurdities and sheer joy mingle with abrasive textures and off-beat time signatures in an album that sounds like one very serious band having a hell of a good time.
That’s a shift, says Conley, one of many changes brought on by 20 years of perspective. “There was a time in Mission of Burma where we were so fired with conviction and righteousness and earnestness… I didn’t see any place for humor at all in Mission of Burma,” says Conley. “I remember bristling one time in the olden days because Peter and Roger wanted to put out some goofy shirts or hats or something. It just didn’t feel right to me. We were on a mission for god’s sake.”
What was the mission? Conley chuckles, “Oh, who the hell knows? But it involved high purpose and moral astringency… it was very neo-puritan in some ways. But, I don’t know, we’ve always been goofballs. I don’t think that was ever revealed in the old days. Maybe we more relaxed about tipping our hands a little bit, at least I am.”
Disco, history, glam, and punk
Who, for instance, would have pegged Roger Miller as a Donna Summer fan? But there he is in “Donna Sumeria”—supported by an entire band’s worth of falsetto “I Feel Love” choruses—paying tribute to one of the 1970s disco idols. “That’s one of Roger’s twisted deep history things, and it’s got several layers, though obviously he’s playing off Donna Summer, too,” Conley gamely tries to explain. “On the last record, Roger had stuff about Visigoths and these arcane historical moments, and in this one, he’s chosen this Tigris and Euphrates stuff. I don’t know what it is. I don’t know what’s going on.”
Asked if there were any mirror balls in the band’s past, though, Conley admits to an early glam phase as a teenager growing up in the suburbs around New York City. “I was actually obsessed with music long before punk came along,” recalls Conley. “I used to haunt the glitter scene, the Dolls and Wayne County and… come into social studies class the next morning with my mascara all smeared. I was a little out there.” He adds, “I was there… not to sound like an old-timer, but I was there right at the beginning and saw the Ramones when there were 20 people in the room.”
Conley says he even tried out a punk “look” or two in those early days, with mixed success. “It was kind of a lame thing, because [my hair] was long and straight. I looked more like Cochise. Like Kemosabe.” Still the excitement of a small, tight-knit, decidedly noncommercial scene may have sparked the fire that you can hear blasting through “2wice” on the current album.
Intensity, complexity, revelation
The song, which opens the new album, begins in a hailstorm of drum beats, picking up Burma’s signature thrash of dissonant guitars a little after and incorporating a hook-filled chorus of “You’ve got me dead to rights / I’m alive”, that is difficult and accessible—and instantly recognizable as classic Burma. The title echoes the songs’ structure, rather than any reference to the band’s bisected career. “The song repeats the same thing twice with a middle bridge,” says Conley. “The beginning and end are virtually identical on either side of the middle of the song. So it’s sort of a little formalistic trick, but other than that, I wouldn’t attach it to real life in any way.”
“2wice” is followed by “Spiders Web”, a Miller song, in a one-two punch of an album opening that even gets jaded band members excited. “That one, the sound of it, like at the end of the second time through, I don’t know, it raises the hair on the back of my neck. It just sounds so fucking ferocious,” says Conley. “It’s twisted. It turns inside out. It’s vintage Miller. It’s sort of an Escher kind of puzzle, and the ground shifts under you when the bass changes its pattern. All the sudden Roger’s riff takes on a completely different dynamic, even though he’s playing the same thing. It’s just vintage Miller. It’s a great, great song.”
The new album includes an instrumental-only, also by Miller, called “The Mute Speaks Out”, a grand distorted dirge, that might remind you a little of “All World Cowboy Romance”. It sounds like a jam, and Conley explains that the cut took shape as they were recording in the studio. “Roger had a riff and then we just decided in rehearsals, you know, ‘Let’s not play it. Let’s just do it in the studio, kind of fresh,’” he said. Heavy with feedback, ponderous and triumphant, the cut is embellished with string samples for a beautifully ragged finish. The other unusual track is “13”, this album’s “Prepared,” a melancholy ballad made massive by the ritual pound of ancestral drums and ruptured by blistering guitar notes.
This is the part where we say ‘How you all feeling tonight?’
Burma has been playing its newest songs for some time—a set list from January 2005 in Northampton confirms “Spiders Web” and “2wice”—but the band will start breaking out new material more consistently in a series of shows this summer. The band revisits Camber Sands, site of its third-ever reunion show, this May, and will be making weekend runs at major US cities throughout June and July.
Miller’s ears, work, and family obligations all preclude the kind of 40-day, 39-show schedules that breaking bands toil through, but Conley says that Burma will do its best to bring the music to its fans. “We’re going to try to go out on weekends and long weekends and fulfill our obligations, try to act like a real rock band, support the record,” he says. “And say, ‘How are we feelin’ tonight!’”
And that limited touring scale is just fine with Conley and his band mates. “There’s really no ambition. We can go out and play a weekend when we want to—and what a great position to be in,” he says. Conley adds that, in some ways, late-career success is more enjoyable than the first time around. “I think that when you’re in that career grind and you’re playing every weekend, you want to get bigger crowds every time. You’re always asking, are we getting the respect we deserve from this, that, and the other. There’s a constant anxiety about succeeding and where are we in the pecking order,” he said. “There’s very little of that for us, because we’ve got far more than we ever expected. We find ourselves in this position where, you know, there’s respect for what we’ve done.”
Songs from Mission of Burma’s new album, as well as a fan-written wikipedia history of the band can be found at www.obliterati.net. A documentary on the band’s reunion, entitled Not a Photograph: The Mission of Burma Story, recently debuted in Boston and is now being pitched to festivals. Conley, who is as modest and self-deprecating as a rock star can be, went to the opening with his wife and daughter (both of whom appear in it), expecting to suffer paroxysms of embarrassment and ending up liking the film. “I don’t know how much appeal it will have to people outside the band. But it’s pretty funny, and it made me feel affection for my bandmates and proud of the Burma project,” he said. “So, you know, what a nice thing to have. It’s really pretty cool.”
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