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MISSION OF BURMA
(Un)limited Engagement
By Jeremiah Griffey January 12, 2010

From the Archives: this web-exclusive first appeared on the old Skyscraper Magazine site back in April 2010. It is being republished here for your reading pleasure.

When Mission of Burma reunited in 2002 after a 19-year hiatus, nobody really knew what the reunion would mean to the indie rock world, least of all the band’s members. Seven years and three albums later, Mission of Burma are still pushing themselves artistically and continuing to contribute to the overall evolution of rock music. It’s as though they didn’t notice that rock music – outside of a few exceptions – perished years ago under a deluge of whiny androgyny.

The length of the band’s hiatus – which occurred when vocalist/guitarist Roger Miller’s tinnitus became too unbearable to continue – perhaps left them in a time warp. Their latest album, The Sound The Speed The Light (Matador, 2009), isn’t their best album – that would be the iconic Signals, Calls, and Marches EP (Rykodisc, 1981) – however, the album rivals the equally iconic Vs. (Rykodisc, 1982), and further cements their legacy as the band people can point to as the junction between hardcore, classic rock, and the avant-garde. A few of the album’s tracks recall the band’s snottier “Academy Fight Song” days; others point toward a mature, complex future of rock.

The best part? That Miller, bassist Clint Conley, drummer Peter Prescott and Bob Weston (who replaced original tape looper/sound man Martin Swope when the band reunited) barely even consider themselves a band due to their other commitments. It’s hard to imagine what the band really has the capability of accomplishing, even as they approach their sixties.

Roger Miller spoke with Skyscraper around the October 2009 release of Mission of Burma’s latest album.

Skyscraper: You’ve referred to Mission of Burma as “barely a band,” due to the little time you actually spend on that project compared with your other life pursuits. Is that still the case?
Roger Miller: Well, it’s still just something we do, not the center like it was in the first incarnation of the band. For example, The Sound The Speed The Light didn’t even know it was going to be an album. We had to really look at the band and think, “Do we really want to do this?” But, when push comes to shove, we usually rise to the occasion. That’s kind of funny, really. But we’ve known each other so long (and get along quite well, thank you) that even though we spend less actual time on it, we seem to get things done. Weird.

Skyscraper: You also expressed concern over whether or not you guys would make fools of yourselves coming out of “retirement” and trying to make new music. Yet, Mission of Burma, Wire, Dinosaur Jr., and a few other 1970s/80s underground acts have all had extraordinarily triumphant returns. Can you discuss what separates you from “pop” bands that try to expand on past glory but tend to flounder?
RM: That fear only pops up now and then – things have clearly gone well enough that we aren’t so concerned about that. Though, we often wonder what we’re doing every time we start a new album. Basically, when we first started up again in 2002, we each had one new song in the band. That’s the key: you have to have a new thread to follow, some new veins in the rock. Wire certainly has done that, and though I don’t follow Dino as much, I do believe they have an album of new material out, yes? [Ed. note: Yes. It’s called Farm and it’s great.] That’s the thing: as long as the band is really alive, it will most likely be vastly superior to bands that are just cover-bands of themselves.

Skyscraper: It sounds like you had a blast writing and recording The Sound The Speed The Light. True?
RM: Well, it just kind of fell together. Getting the right basic performance of each song can be kind of stressful, especially because we don’t play that much. But once we get the main tracks down – I always love the overdubs time – you can mess around and come up with new ideas, whereas the basic songs are more or less the basic songs. Of course, songs with improv in them, which are quite a few on this disc, vary considerably performance to performance. Ultimately, for us, it’s as much about the energy input into the song as it is about the song. And we’re pretty comfortable with ourselves, so usually the songs are pretty cranked up by the time they hit tape!

Skyscraper: Can you describe the essential differences between how you write songs together now, as opposed to the first round of Mission of Burma?
RM: Almost no difference at all. In our band, each composer comes up with the song on their own. When we bring it in, it gets compressed and crushed a bit by everyone else – sometimes this majorly affects it, sometimes barely at all. That’s the way we worked back then, and it’s the way we work now. Generally, Clint and I have our songs worked out more completely, and Pete discovers his songs more in rehearsal. But that’s not always the case. My favorite part of our songs is the improv sections; even when we have “guitar solos,” usually the band is jamming behind that, i.e., more jazz, less Led Zeppelin. So when someone says, “Listen to this live recording I made of you guys,” I’ll go right to the songs with improv in them (or a brand new song, if we have one), if I bother to listen at all.

Skyscraper: You worked with Bob Weston again on this album. Will he be touring with you as well? If so, can you explain his role?
RM: Well, he worked both as engineer and producing-type person on all the discs made after the reformation. As far as being a band member, he does exactly what Martin did: live sound and live loops. Of course, he does loops on the album as well. We encourage Bob to go a bit over the top with the loops live – it’s always fun to hear one of us screaming in slow motion while people are demanding encores. He is a band member; he is not an adjunct rock professor.

Skyscraper: Has Martin Swope expressed any interest in rejoining the group over the past few years?
RM: No, Martin passed on becoming a member. He gave us his blessings, though!

Skyscraper: What contemporary art and musical trends do you follow?
RM: I try and keep my ears open, but I don’t follow anything in particular. I liked Missy Elliott, MIA, Outkast, and other techno/hip-hop artists a while ago, but not much new seems to be going on there these days. I don’t see any major innovative trend in any of the arts, actually. So I just constantly scan for the isolated things that interest me; there are always good bands, good artists, but I see no real cohesive movement. It’s conceivable that I am jaded, but I don’t think that’s it: in the mid-’70s, I considered rock music to be mostly shit; there were no ideas at all compared to the ’60s. But I knew immediately when I heard the rumbling of punk rock that there was hope again, and I attended to these rumblings with enthusiasm.

Skyscraper: I’m a school teacher by day, and actually teach journalism. I had the students write a blog entry the other day on the “album that changed their life,” and they asked if they could write about the playlist that changed their life because they don’t listen to albums anymore. That was a hell of a blow. How does that make you feel, as musicians who have had the opportunity to see nearly every major rock trend since The Beatles?
RM: I don’t know. What can you do? It doesn’t upset me much, actually. I do know that our fans are a bit fanatical, in general, and perhaps do listen to an entire Mission of Burma album. Maybe not, who knows? I love albums, but I grew up with them. But before there were LPs, there were no albums: there were just a few songs on a disc (78rpms, et cetera). So “the feature album,” with 45 minutes of music or so on it… it’s not etched in stone. It’s just been a mainstay for a while is all. Who knows? It’s a weird time for a lot of things in civilization, and CDs/MP3s/downloads are certainly part of that unsettled shift.

Photo: Kelly Davidson

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