Born from the remnants of Punk, Mission of Burma formed on the Boston scene back in 1979. Yet four years later the unconventional and raw providers of Post-Punk split due to Roger Miller’s worsening Tinnitus (these guys played fucking loud). Come 2002 and the band reunited for a handful of shows… needless to say it led to more, which in turn led to a new record – 2004′s ONoffON.
And here we are now, the band have just released the brilliant and raw Unsound; a record as unflinching and urgent as anything the three piece have ever thrown at us. We caught up with Roger to talk the past, the present and the future.
Bowlegs: Traditionally Roger, Clint and Peter share compositional responsibilities on Mission of Burma records. How did this process adapt itself to the work on Unsound?
Roger: In the sense that we each contribute songs we write, it was pretty similar to other albums. We each bring in a song, then it gets commented on by the others and sometimes modified due to that. We all certainly bring in something to the songs that the others write.
The one difference on UNSOUND is that Pete and I each brought in a song early on that was continuing the Sound Speed Light angle – not especially innovative for us. Pete stated that if we were going to do a new album, we had to push ourselves more – he was rather adamant! So he and I both threw out our first songs we’d just brought in! I’m not saying that what we ended up with is wildly different from any other Burma album, but Pete’s statement, our actions, and the songs brought in AFTER that (my first one after that was “This is Hi-Fi”) definitely steered things in a better direction.
Bowlegs: On Unsound there are adventures in visceral experimentation which take on an almost concerto mood (ADD in Unison being a standout). Is the influence from your classical training and work with Alloy Orchestra an important factor on Mission of Burma?
Roger: Alloy Orchestra, while being a really great band for me to be in, has had no influence at all on my Burma writing. I have incorporated my “extended” take on compositions ever since Sproton Layer (1969-1970). Early Burma songs like Red or Fame and Fortune also have much richer structures than a normal rock song. So I’d say my knowledge of structure and harmonic content from the “serious music world” definitely comes in to play in anything I do. Sometimes I apply it to songs by Pete or Clint, when appropriate.
Glad you like ADD in Unison – the name is a humorous take on a very early review we got (1979) where the reviewer stated that “Mission of Burma would be a pretty good band if they could all play the same song at the same time.” Heh. I like that. On the other hand, we do that sort of thing intentionally!
Both Pete and Clint stretch the boundaries of rock song structure as well. Again – it’s all of us together, messing with each others’ attitudes, that makes Burma what it is.
Bowlegs: A notable track on the record, This is Hi-Fi, seems to pull in your energetic elements together, and got me thinking of the way bands like Pere Ubu did the same. You’ve also covered Pere Ubu live before. Does their free jazz approach appeal to you strongly?
Roger: My interest in free jazz was developed long before I ever heard of Pere Ubu, though I certainly love their early work. Freeing sound from specific chords appeals to me big time, but it is also overlaid with the the “classical training” thing in your earlier. Both those elements are unusual in rock music, at least combined with the physicality of our music. The thing that really ties This is Hi-Fi together is that rhythmic pulse, usually on just one note. It’s the taut wire that the rest of the mess hangs from. The song is about Hi-Fidelity, and the crazed mid-section is such a wall of noise that the fidelity is intentionally blurred and lost.
Both Pete and Clint also have interest in aspects of jazz. If I recall correctly, I went to a Cecil Taylor concert with Clint in 1979, and Pete and I have bonded on Miles more than once.
Bowlegs: Mission of Burma (and prior to this, Moving Parts) originated in an abstract punk movement which allowed you to fuse your experiences and influences from free jazz, psychedelia and British pop. Were you to start as a band afresh tomorrow, do you think it would work out the same way without the aesthetics of that post-punk scene?
Roger: This is an interesting question. For example, through-out the 1970′s, i.e, before I moved to Boston in 1978, I had all the same interests I put into Moving Parts and Mission of Burma (except the punk energy which hadn’t happened yet….). But I was in Ann Arbor, Michigan, and in those days one couldn’t get a gig playing original rock music. So…. my first real band Sproton Layer folded in 1970 and it wasn’t for another 9 years that I got solidly on my feet again, when Burma started. It was the Boston scene that allowed this. Before then, even though I was a good musician with a lot of the same ideas, I couldn’t get a damn thing going in Ann Arbor.
So the Scene is very very important. What was interesting about post-punk was that there was something to fight against. Rock had been squashed of its creativity and ideas in the heavy metal/prog/boogie ’70′s, and it was a joyous rebellion when punk hit.
My problem with the scene now is that “anything goes”/”everything is available”. Revolutions only happen when things are held down and the tension builds up until an explosion happens. I’m not saying that there isn’t room for creative action – hell, there is so much more room to create rock ideas now than there was in the ’70′s. So…. I don’t know what would happen. It certainly helped that there was a small group of people that banded together for safety in the post-punk era. It made everything much more immediate and felt important.
Bowlegs: Roger once said in an interview that the internet negates a subversive culture as there is too much information and not enough focus to rally against the enemy. Does he therefore feel that it is up to bands such as Mission of Burma to help reign in this focus?
Roger: I don’t think it’s up to us to do anything, actually. We just happen to be doing something.
I’ll say this, though: reviewers often say we sound angry and pissed off. Well…….. wtf? Are you looking around you or not? It kind of stuns me that a lot of new bands DON’T sound pissed off. Things are pretty fucked on many levels. I’m not saying I’m an inherent pessimist, in fact I’m actually quite happy these days! (oddly, I think all of us in Burma are pretty happy these days…) But in reaction to the world, if you aren’t pissed off at least SOME of the time, well, wtf are you thinking about? Do you have blinders on? The past creative musical revolutions were often against something. There’s plenty to be against now, but I don’t see any revolution happening as a reaction. I’m not sure why, really. I certainly won’t blame it on the internet, but I do think that’s part of it. Everything is so immediate now that there is no time for tension to build. No time to develop a local scene in isolation and make a unique species.
Bowlegs: This is the forth album since you got together again in 2002, and listening to the records in a row you seem to be forever moving forward and throwing originality about. Are there parts of the 1979-1983 Mission of Burma you’d take or leave, or is that period for the band a closed chapter?
Roger: Burma Phase One is fine w/me. We still play a bunch of those songs, but now that we have tons more songs, we play mostly the newer material. As we should. I think Burma didn’t get really good as a performing band until Vs. Signals sounds to me like we haven’t quite got the Burma idea down yet. Not the song-writing, but the performances by the band. I don’t think of it as a closed chapter, though – just an early chapter in the same damn book! (you didn’t actually listen to them in a row, did you?)
Bowlegs: In the Mission of Burma documentary Not A Photograph, Peter mentioned the “inequity” of a Mission of Burma on tour and a Mission of Burma not on stage together. Does it always feel right for the band to be out touring its material and, if so, why?
Roger: Pete should answer this one… However, I always feel I’m doing the right thing when we are recording or touring. It always feels like “Yep, this is what I should be doing.” When we aren’t working on new material or touring, I start to wonder if I’m really in a band!
Bowlegs: Which other bands were the most fun to be on tour with during Mission of Burma’s travels throughout the years?
Roger: Well it’s always great to tour with Shellac. In many ways Burma and Shellac are polar opposites – we are constantly teetering on the edge of chaos, and their sound is more minimal and taut. But we make a good night of musical entertainment, I think. We enjoyed playing a few shows with Kinski some years back, Erase Errata, 50 Foot Wave. Any time you have musical affinity w/a band and you play with them more than one night in a row, it makes things more fun and interesting, a different groove develops. We played a few shows with Gang of Four in the early ’80′s, and those guys were pretty fun, too.
Bowlegs: Lastly, and most importantly, is the band producing continual material for the sixth Mission of Burma LP?
Roger: I brought one new song in the band this summer, and have another one ready. But to say we are producing material for a 6th LP is not accurate. We just bring songs in when we feel it, and if enough build up, we are forced to admit that we are probably going to have to make another album. One song is certainly not enough for that, so as far as we are concerned, there are no plans for another album. But of course it could happen – we only discover that fact when it’s too late to turn back…..
-Interview by Michael Cornin-