Older, wiser, slower
A reunited Mission of Burma answers to its legacy
The passage of time may be a tremendous obstacle for many bands to overcome. But for Mission of Burma, time has rolled out the red carpet.
When the group called it quits in March 1983, commercial success seemed no further away than another record down the line. Having released only one single, an EP (Signals, Calls and Marches) and one full-length (Vs.), the group laid the groundwork for a musical legacy that slipped through the cracks of time. Critics and fans alike embraced Burma's intelligent primal art-punk, which gave an American face to the post-punk sound of British groups like Wire, Gang of Four and Public Image Ltd.
But the mission was terminated when the group's short-lived career (1979-'83) succumbed to guitarist/vocalist Roger Miller's tinnitus (a constant ringing in the ears brought on by exposure to intense sound). Miller, bassist Clint Conley, drummer Peter Prescott and tape manipulator Martin Swope went their separate ways; some moved on to more mundane life pursuits, while others continued playing music. A few posthumous releases followed, and acts as varied as Moby, R.E.M. and Yo La Tengo offered up renditions of Burma songs, adding to a legendary status that has enveloped the band since its demise.
Over the last 20 years, Mission of Burma's limited output culminated in a mystique that garnered the group more attention than it ever received during its lifetime. And though each member has followed drastically different paths, their separate endeavors have brought them full-circle.
"It's been validated in the media that we were ahead of our time, but bands like Wire and Gang of Four were doing similar work long before us," says Miller. "We may have been ahead of our time, but we were also a little behind our time."
Mission of Burma's 2002 reunion was fairly impromptu. As the story goes, Prescott's band, Peer Group, was opening for Wire at Boston's Bradford Hotel, the same venue that hosted Mission of Burma's final performance. Conley played bass for the gig, and Miller appeared on stage playing keyboards — the first time the three of them had performed together since 1983. The experience had a profound effect on everyone involved.
Later, Conley played another gig with Peer Group, opening for Shellac in New York. Peer Group broke up that night, and Conley, charged by the reunion experience, began writing material at a furious rate, cranking out an album's worth of songs, which he recorded with his new group, Consonant. Soon after, Mission of Burma received an offer to play a show that was too good to pass up.
"When the idea of us playing together again came up, I dismissed it at first," Conley says. "Something wasn't right about it. I hadn't been playing music again for so long, and it didn't feel congruent with my life. But something happened at that Shellac gig in New York. It flipped a switch in my brain."
Ironically, it's Miller — the guy with ear problems — who's found the most post-Burma success in music, making enough to support his wife and daughter. He's done commercial and film soundtrack work for clients such as Nintendo and ESPN. And he's pursued much quieter avenues with Birdsongs of the Mesozoic, Maximum Electric Piano, No Man, Binary System, Alloy Orchestra and under his own name.
For Miller, transitioning back into Burma meant easing the assault on his ears. During the band's thunderous live sets, a Plexiglas wall surrounds the drums to soften the sound on stage, and Miller wears protective headphones.
Prescott also moved forward with his own bands: Volcano Suns, Kustomized and Peer Group. But while these projects did garner some success, he has always worked a day job — mostly at record stores around Boston.
When Conley walked away from Mission of Burma, he largely walked away from music. He started a family, with his wife and two daughters, and earned a master's degree in broadcast journalism from Boston University. For the last several years, he's produced the news show "Chronicle" for a Boston-based ABC affiliate. Occasionally, Conley has lapsed back into music, but only for isolated projects. He produced Yo La Tengo's 1986 debut, Ride the Tiger, and 10 years later collaborated on a single with Miller under the name Wrong Pipe.
Swope, who now lives in Hawaii with his wife and two daughters, declined to get involved with the reformed Mission of Burma, which left the group in a bind. Though Swope was never an onstage member of the band, his off-stage tape manipulations were an integral part of the group's sound.
In finding Swope's replacement, the group looked no further than longtime cohort, Shellac bassist Bob Weston. Weston has worked with Burma members in various capacities: He played bass in Volcano Suns, trumpet on Miller's Xylyl and a Woman in Half, and he produced Consonant's debut. What's more, his reputation as an analog recording icon, via his work with Steve Albini, made him a logical fit for the job.
But music technology has changed quite a bit over the last 20 years. "We told Bob he could use digital technology if he wanted to, but he said, 'Nope, I'm going to use tapes just like Martin did.' And sure enough, he learned the parts and started improvising on his own quite a bit," says Miller.
Mission of Burma's creative processes began to gel once again in rehearsals, resulting in a slew of new material. "There are at least eight new songs we could play in Atlanta," says Prescott. "But we don't want to overdo it."
Miller says he wouldn't be surprised if the band put out a new album, but adds, "But there are no decisions yet." Thus far, the only new material to be released are live versions of older songs: "Trem Two" on All Tomorrow's Parties 2.0, and "Fun World," part of the Fenway Recordings compilation Our Lifetime Vol. 3.
A documentary film on the band is also in the works. Titled Inexplicable, it will chronicle the group's first few steps together again.
"We folded in March of 1983 and people are telling us it sounds like April of 1983," says Miller. "The first time we played New York, we didn't know what to think. We went out there, and people were so into it that we were flabbergasted. Clint pointed out that we're playing our songs about 2 percent slower, just barely noticeably slower. I went back and listened to the live recording we did at MIT in 1982, and we were playing things so blaringly fast that we were blurring all of the complex, unorthodox changes. Now all of the changes get hit, making the same damn songs more acceptable now. Maybe it's maturity. Maybe we were ahead of our time."