Mission of Burma
It’s a little hard for me to put my relationship with Mission of Burma into words. It’s not that it’s all that complicated, it’s just that it’s slightly odd. In 1983, when the band broke up due to the worsening condition of singer guitarist Roger Miller’s tinnitus, I had barely achieved the ripe old age of seven. When I started getting into indie rock and punk about ten years ago, MoB’s massive one-disc best-of (titled simply Mission of Burma, it was one of the first CDs ever produced to have an 80-minute running time) was one of the first “classics” I picked up, along with other seminal titles from bands like Husker Du and The Replacements.
While I instantly fell in love with the Du and the ‘Mats, Burma was a much harder sell. Sure, I could get into the instantly catchy, anthemic tunes like “That’s When I Reach For My Revolver” or “Academy Fight Song”, but these songs were only a tiny piece of the Burma puzzle. Taken from their first EP, Signals Calls and Marches, they represented an embryonic form of the twisty, gnarled mass of angular guitars and bass and bashed drums that would surface on their first proper full-length, Vs. So, it’s the second half of the big best-of disc that’s taken me the better part of ten years to wrap my head around, and I’d be lying if I said that I truly “get it” even today. After years of coming back to the record, songs like “Mica” and “New Nails” stand out from the visceral, angular ball of energy that is Burma’s later work, but it still remains a difficult, extremely challenging listen to this day.
Silkworm, on the other hand, grabbed me by the ear the instant I heard them. I still remember the first time I heard the song “Couldn’t You Wait”, from their 1994 release, Libertine. It was on a CMJ Music Monthly CD that I had picked up, and immediately distinguished itself from the 20-odd other flavors of the month that the magazine presented. At the time, I worked as a dishwasher, and for some reason, I still remember slaving away over the sinks with “Couldn’t You Wait” running around and around in my head. I also remember buying Libertine, as well as their previous effort (also released in 1994), In The West, and being stunned by the sonic variety that the band presented. At the time, the band boasted three distinct songwriting voices. Andy Cohen’s terse historical narratives provided a great contrast to Tim Midgett’s poppy, almost Britpop influenced material, which was, in turn, extremely distinct from Joel Phelps’ heart-on-sleeve, ragged-but-right delivery. This inherent variety, coupled with Phelps’ and Cohen’s slash-and-burn guitars, the rhythmic whomp of Michael Dahlquist’s drumming, and Midgett’s rubbery, unconventional bass playing practically made the band seem like an unstoppable force.
Unfortunately, as I was not yet of drinking age, I missed out on several opportunities to see the band as a four-piece, which distressed me to no end. By the time I did manage to see them play, singer/guitarist Phelps had left, leaving a more sparse, but no less potent three-piece. Over the years, I’ve had the opportunity to see them play many more times, and never have I left a show disappointed. The shows have been much less frequent since Andy Cohen split Seattle for Chicago four years ago to attend law school—Midgett and Dahlquist followed suit last year, dashing any vain hope that I may have held onto that the ‘Worm would ever call themselves a “Seattle band.”
To be fair, they never really were a Seattle band—their last five records have come out on Chicago labels (Matador and Touch and Go, respectively), and they’ve exclusively been recorded by Steve Albini, a Chicago institution if there ever was one, for the past ten or so years. Add to this the fact that they’ve always had a much bigger fanbase in Chicago than Seattle, and the relocation of the band makes complete and utter sense. Nonetheless, I felt a pang of grief when I heard the news that one of my favorite bands was no longer a local band.
So, now it’s 2002, Andy Cohen is a practicing bankruptcy lawyer, Tim Midgett went back to school and is now an electrical engineer, Mike Dahlquist is, if he is to be believed (which he probably isn’t), a “male prostitute,” and they’re back in Seattle supporting perhaps the most simultaneously esoteric and influential band that the post-punk movement ever produced. An interesting turn of events, to say the least.
And they’re playing at the EMP. Now, for non-Seattleites, these three innocuous letters probably mean very little. However, for those of us who’ve had to witness the creation and subsequent media-blitz opening of this heinous, tourist-driven blob of architecture, otherwise known as the Experience Music Project, they have a far more sinister connotation. For me, it was all an abstract distaste that I harbored for this place, mainly because its ugliness completely ruined a perfectly nice view that I once had from a Capitol Hill apartment. It took me a few years to actually see the inside of the place, mainly because I had no interest in coughing up the $20 admittance fee to “experience” their version of music. I thought to myself “I can go to a rock show and experience real music for six bucks, why in the hell should I pay these monkeys $20?” At this point, I’ve been inside the EMP three times, and never once paid for it. Take that! And from what I’ve experienced when I’ve been in there, I don’t care if there’s a fucking Husker Du reunion show, I still refuse to pay to get into that place.
Let’s put it this way—to me, Mission of Burma and Silkworm is a pretty damn fantastic lineup. A venue would have to work really hard to fuck this one up for me. Leave it to the EMP, then, to actually make me want to leave this dream show early. Never before have I had such a diametrically opposed reaction to the band I was seeing and the place I was seeing them play. The place has all the ambience of a shopping mall, and caters to a version of cool that tourists from Iowa can appreciate, rather than the grubby, down-to-Earth coolness that all good rock n’ roll exudes. Part of this tourist/shopping mall chic included some of the most gaudy, inappropriate lighting that I have ever witnessed at an indie rock show.
Suddenly, during Silkworm’s third song, a great, gaudy red and green light show descended behind them, and continued through the next few songs. Although many audience members were certainly shocked at this turn of events, no one seemed more shocked than the band members themselves. As it started, the entire band looked up and behind them to see what the hell was going on, and looked visibly annoyed by the disturbance. And that wasn’t even the worst of it—when the geniuses controlling the lighting got tired of the gaudy wall of lights, they started up what amounted to a laser light show, except for the fact that the lasers were, more often than not, pointed directly into the eyes of the audience rather than at, say, a wall. This caused the extremely distressing sensation of being blinded while trying to watch the band play, and actually caused me to remark “what the fuck do they think this is, laser Pink Floyd?!?” Needless to say, these were not the most favorable of circumstances under which to see one’s favorite band.
Despite it all, Silkworm played one hell of a show. Concentrating mostly on material from their latest, Italian Platinum, the band played a thrilling, tight, loud set that drew equally on the talents of the three members and the obvious synchronicity that they have playing together. It’s obvious that being in the same city for the first time in almost five years has done wonders for their rapport—this was practically the most confident and self-assured that I’ve ever seen the band. Dahlquist has got to be one of the most underrated drummers in all of indiedom. While he’s about as meat and potatoes as they come, he’s also as rock-steady and hard-hitting as they come, and is perhaps the band’s secret weapon. More obviously on display is Andy Cohen’s virtuoso string-wrangling and Tim Midgett’s intensely emotional, stunningly inventive songwriting, but these guys have been playing for so long that they seem to know instinctively how to come together so that the whole is much more than the sum of its parts. Even when Cohen stretches out for an extended guitar solo, it doesn’t feel like flashy wanking—perhaps because his playing is so off-kilter and unconventional, perhaps because it’s assimilated so well into the context of the songs—whatever, it works, and really, really well.
And then there was Burma. Initially, the only thing that looked rock n’ roll about these guys was Clint Conley’s leather pants. Apart from that, they looked like your average 40-ish, professional, intellectual guys. Then they got onstage and started playing with the intensity and drive of hungry, rabid teenagers, and any illusion of normalcy that these guys presented was instantly destroyed. Seemingly completely oblivious to the fact that it’s been almost twenty years since their band originally broke up, they tore through their material with a vicious intensity that belied their age and the fact that they’ve only been playing together in this incarnation for a fairly short time. Each member of the band seemed to feed off the two others, and there was an amazing kinetic energy to the band’s performance. Roger Miller swung his guitar around and leaped about the stage, Peter Prescott resembled nothing so much as a drill sergeant being electrocuted, and Clint Conley was a study in wiry concentration, the veins in his arms and forehead popping out from the strain of performing.
They played the “hits” (“That’s When I Reach for My Revolver”, “Academy Fight Song”), they played the early single (“Max Ernst”), they played their dense, knotty later material from the album Vs (“Mica”, “The Ballad of Johnny Burma”) and they even played a couple of new songs, which, if anything, are even more dissonant and hard-hitting than their vintage material. The amazing thing is that it was all equally excellent. If anything, the more difficult material came across better in a live setting, where somehow, the latent melodies that are buried in each piece have an easier time coming to the fore.
Most times I’ve gone to see “reunion” shows, I come prepared to be underwhelmed. Mission of Burma, however, were simply stunning. They literally played with the intensity and passion that few bands half their age could even come close to. That they could have taken such a long period of time off from the band, and then come back to it seemingly as an afterthought, and still be so fucking good is nothing short of stunning. It was all so visceral, so current, that if you didn’t know any better, you’d think that these songs were written last week, not twenty years ago.
This was not a show that I wanted to leave early. I could have watched Miller, Conley and Prescott bash it out all night long. However, when Mission of Burma ended their first set (in deference to Roger Miller’s hearing—the entire reason that the band broke up in 1983 was because Miller was developing tinnitus—they played two short sets rather than one long one), we were out the door. Why? Well, as I mentioned before, the EMP is about the least comfortable venue you could ever hope to see a show in. In addition to the horrible light show and obnoxious, blinding lasers, there’s no place to sit. For a venue that holds 300-400 people to have only two benches, which seat about four people each, as seating, is practically criminal. God forbid that you should get tired from standing around at a show and want to sit down and relax in between bands—at the EMP, you either sit on the floor or you stand. In another classy move, in between Burma’s songs, you could clearly hear the horrible R&B DJ music that was emanating from the “Liquid Lounge”, which is the place where you go at the EMP to get your overpriced cocktails. All in all it was a really crappy environment in which to see two amazing bands. So crappy, in fact, that it actually forced us to leave. We were so mad that, had we actually paid to get in, we would have asked for our money back. While the EMP has an admirable mission statement: “to provide dynamic, multifaceted, ever-changing experiences through new and exciting explorations of American popular music, which both entertain and engage visitors in the creative process,” they ultimately fail at this lofty goal. By favoring fancy bells and whistles over substance; utterly unnecessary light shows over providing a comfortable environment for their patrons; and trying to appeal to the lowest common denominator and the music snob simultaneously, they manage to alienate practically everyone who walks through their doors. It’s a shame, but it’s inevitable. It’s what happens when an excess of money gets in the way of a modicum of good sense.