MISSION OF BURMA
Interview by Billy Hell
When legendary Boston band Mission of Burma reformed to play at the first Shellac curated All Tomorrow's Parties (2002) they re-invigorated their legacy with an enthusiastic energy which so far has led to four fine post-reformation albums. Things came full circle when they returned to play the second Shellac three day festival at Camber Sands (2012), and along with the Ex, upstaged the headliners. Afterwards I followed them to gigs in Bristol, Leeds and London as there really are few better ways to go deaf. Guitarist Roger Miller knows this all too well as they disbanded in the early eighties due to his tinnitus. Anyone who has got up close when Peter Prescott assaults he drum kit will know why Roger hands out free earplugs at the start of their show. I interviewed both of them, plus bassist Clint Conley and tape looper/soundman Bob Weston before they obliterated Leeds Brudenell Social Club with sound and Unsound. Bob now has the dubious honour of being the only musician who I've interviewed four times; serves him right for being in two of the best bands in the world (the other being Shellac).
This interview was done in December 2012. (ED NOTE: Roger Miller drops out near the middle as he got hijacked into doing another interview elswhere).
PSF: You played "Spider's Web" from The Obliterati at the Shellac curated All Tomorrow's Parties this weekend and it's one of my favourite Mission of Burma songs. It has an intriguing lyric, "The world flips when an animal gets its soul."
RM: It's basically a love song.
PSF: So it isn't about reincarnation?
RM: It is not, but in a way there's a revitalization of certain things in that line. Some of the lyrics are from a friend's dream.
PSF: I think that was the song that really got me going in that set. Do you write a lot of lyrics from dreams?
RM: Yeah, I use other people's dreams too which is really fucked. My friend Richie Parsons who's in Unnatural Axe told me a dream he had about me where I was in this hip bachelor pad and I was playing all these hi-fis and as soon as he told me that, I thought I've got to make a song and that's what "This is Hi-Fi" was inspired by. It's about me! It was easier than taking LSD, to write your dreams down.
PSF: It's probably completely unintentional but I detected a reoccurring theme of obsolete technology throughout Unsound and that's one song referencing it.
PP: That's interesting because we noticed three or four songs sort of ended up being about water.
PSF: Yeah I noticed that too.
PP: We didn't notice the technology thing. Where else did we mention technology?
PSF: One is pretty tenuous as it's "ADD in Unison" which is presumably Attention Deficit Disorder but could be read as analog/digital/analog like the recording transfer symbol that used to appear on CD’s.
PP: That's one we didn't notice.
PSF: Another one is "Second TV."
PP: I don't think that's about technology either.
PSF: And "Sevens" could be 7" singles.
CC: That's true.
PP: Maybe it could be what we're talking about, we don't know.
PSF: On the water theme, I was wondering about the lyrics of "ADD in Unison." What's that song all about?
RM: "ADD in Unison" is from a dream. The three of us were in an Olympic style swimming pool and the waves just kept getting bigger and it was like the only way we were going is if we swim against the waves. It's a statement about the entire band, going against the grain; you've just got to keep working at it. Whereas "Fell into the Water" ("Fell-->H2O") is really a love song.
PSF: Is "Dust Devil" about a vacuum cleaner?
PP: He wanted a commercial placement!
RM: There was a line in "ADD in Unison" which sounded like 'roadrunner, roadrunner' so I thought it better not to use it, so then I had this word I wasn't using so it was basically a lot of hot air and sand. A dust devil is a desert tornado. It's generally harmless.
PP: Before it was an appliance.
RM: Dirt Devil is the appliance, technically.
PSF: Are you aware of the Butthole Surfers song "Dust Devil?"
RM: Not per se.
PP: Which album was that on?
PSF: It's my favourite track on Independent Worm Saloon.
PP: I love that album actually. That's a later one.
PSF: You'd remember that track, you just don't recall the title.
PP: I don't think I do. That's the record that's almost kind of metal, but it's really great.
RM: I met a guy from Albuquerque who said he was in a band called the Dust Devils.
PSF: There was a band from Leeds called the Dust Devils who relocated to New York. Gerard Cosloy of Matador Records who released some of your albums played in that band for a while. The singer Jacqui was originally Unsound from Australia and later formed another band back in Leeds called Cha Cha Cohen. Something that has bugged me for a long time is that there was single album called Forget and a double called Let There Be Burma with a lot of great songs not on Signals, Calls and Marches or Vs that seem to have been almost written out of Burma history. Were those demo recordings?
CC: They're not demos. They were recordings for copyright purposes, when you used to have to send that shit back for PRS.
PP: Then when everything had been yanked out of the vault a few years after we had broken up, Curtis from Taang! (record label) came up and said, "You got anything?" And we said we had these...
CC: ...working tapes, and I don't think there were any overdubs on them were there?
PP: No they were just raced through.
CC: They were just live four tracks. They were sort of accidentally released. It didn't take much to tempt us...
PP: ...to pry them loose.
PSF: You weren't against them being released then?
CC: No, we came to an agreement with him.
PSF: I ask because the Let There Be Burma and Forget which was the same tracks as the first disc of that double seem to have been written out of you history, to the extent that someone wrote a review in The Wire claiming you'd only recorded a certain number of songs which obviously hadn't taken into account any of those songs. Some of them are your best songs! It's currently unavailable isn't it?
PP: I have no idea.
CC: We never really understood that record anyway.
PP: I think it was a European version of the stuff on Taang!
BW: Because Taang! had Forget and then they had Peking Spring so I think they put those together.
PSF: It was those two records plus a few extra songs, including versions of "This is not a Photograph" and "Einstein's Day."
RM: He probably just took that off Vs.
PSF: That might be true as I've never been able to tell any difference.
RM: He should not have released that. He did not get clearance from us to release those other songs.
PSF: So would you be against reissuing it?
CC: Yeah, I'm not sure we're eager to have that reissued. There are some interesting songs on there but I haven't listened to them in thirty years.
PSF: It's a very good record.
CC: There are some good songs. There is some good music on there.
PSF: The first Mission of Burma album I heard was the live album The Horrible Truth About Burma and that was second, and for a couple of years I thought it was a compilation of everything you'd recorded except for "Academy Fight Song" and I only knew that from the R.E.M. cover. At the time (‘89/’90) I think Signals and Vs. were out of print. I've never thought the recording quality was poor.
CC: Anything would sound good compared to The Horrible Truth About Burma. You heard that first and continued?!
PSF: Yeah, I was really surprised when I found that double clear vinyl album that combined Signals and Vs.
BW: That was on Rykodisc.
CC: We have repackaged, repurposed...
BW: You guys are like worse than all those major label bands!
CC: KC and the Sunshine Band, oversaturated.
PSF: You rerecorded some of those songs: "Dirt," "Playland" and "Hunt Again" for OnOFFOn.
PP: Those songs came to mind because we decided to do a legitimate studio recording. That's why we did those again.
BW: When "Devotion" came out on the Matador reissue a couple of years ago, there was a new vocal.
CC: With new lyrics and a guitar solo.
BW: It was "Devotion" and "Execution" that Rick and I mixed and they got stuck on the Signals CD.
PSF: You covered the Wipers "Youth of America" last night in Bristol which was a pleasant surprise. They were contemporary with your first incarnation, weren't they?
CC: A bit after us, but we considered them kinfolk in a certain sense. They were kind of plowing the same territory as we were.
PSF: A lot of people rate that as their best song.
CC: Oh yeah, I think it is.
PP: Although they have a couple of solid records. They do have some good ones.
RM: "When It's Over" is really great, with that ascending chord progression, from the same record.
PP: Yeah that's great.
CC: We ran out of good songs so we had to play that.
PSF: Well that's a lie because you played some at All Tomorrow's Parties that you didn't play in Bristol! You changed the set completely.
CC: Yeah pretty much. We repeated a few things.
PSF: Is that what you do every gig?
CC: At this point, we have so many songs and they try to crowd their way into the set but we only get so many in.
PP: That's one thing connected to the past that, yeah, we make a new set before we play every night. We never play the same set. There are usually a few of the same songs.
PSF: Not that many bands do that. The only ones I can think of right now are Fugazi, Shellac and PJ Harvey on the Uh Huh Her tour.
CC: (to Bob) Do you guys (Shellac) even make a setlist?
CC: I didn't think so.
PP: We actually make a setlist.
BW: We talk about the first three songs and the last song. Fugazi don't do anything. They just go out there and when it's time to start someone will start the next song and everyone else has to figure out what that one guy is playing.
PP: I do that. I'm not supposed to, but...
PSF: So tonight will be a different set again.
CC: We can't gurantee that. The randomness could fall on itself.
PSF: Isn't it more difficult to do with the tape loops? Well, you're not actually using tape loops as such now are you?
BW: Digital tape loops. Those are made in real time during each song.
PP: Cut to order.
BW: The tape loop is manufactured from something that gets sung or played in the song (that) the loop happens in so it's different every day.
PP: So really it's no different to the rest of us playing a different set every night.
PSF: So I could get in requests right now for "Spider's Web" and "Nu Disco" again, both of which you played at All Tomorrow's Parties?
PP: It's possible.
BW: There was some guy last night who was heartbroken we didn't play "Spider's Web."
PP: There seemed to be a general awareness of Obliterati stuff last night (Bristol). I don't know why.
PSF: Are there any songs from Unsound or the other albums that you can't or won't play?
PP: There are plenty that aren't in practice.
CC: Yeah, we have to practice the songs because we forget them so easily. We try to limit how many we rehearse before we go out on a batch of gigs.
BW: Theoretically, you could play any of them.
CC: Oh yeah, but some of them are harder to sing, you know?
PP: And some are harder to remember.
RM: We bring new one into rotation for each trip and others drop out.
CC: It's sort of a dynamic.
PSF: I was curious why the vocals on "Nu Disco" work the way they do. Why does part of the lyric come in and cut short then repeat with more words appearing in each repetition?
RM: That song was one of the first songs I brought in to Burma. I brought in this super-convoluted tune with that riff and just a tiny little break. Peter looked at me and said, "Everything's got to go but that one part!" I said, "OK."
BW: There was a lot of other stuff?
RM: It was huge, over-emotional and really bad.
CC: I don't remember that at all.
RM: So I turned those two parts into an entire song which perhaps wasn't exactly what they meant.
CC: I think perhaps he was having a little infantile tantrum: "I'll show those guys!"
RM: Just those two chords became the whole song, and I had that one line. I'd been working with Martin (Swope, original tape looper) doing some guitar and piano tapes. I thought I could just sing that line and Martin could move it with the song and that brought loops into the band. So I would sing one line, Martin would catch it and I'd start over and he'd capture the next line until the end when every one of those lines was simultaneously on top.
PSF: I was wondering if that song had some connection to the loops.
RM: Not intentionally. It was originally written as lyrics, but he adapted it to the loop concept.
BW: Unfortunately at All Tomorrow's Parties, I had a malfunction on my looper and we had no loops which bummed me out because that's one of the best looping songs.
CC: You were downstairs watching fuckin' Gay Witch Abortion! Bastard!
BW: I thought I had the loops but hit playback and oops, I didn't get any down.
PSF: What are "Sectionals in Mourning?"
PP: The title came about because we were talking about practicing and Clint couldn't make it but we wanted to get one in so Roger said, "You and I could just play but I can't do it tomorrow night, could you do it in the morning?" So I said, "Yeah, I could do it in the morning." And he said alright and instead of all of us together he called it a sectional. The phrase stuck in my mind. I think the song was more about disconnection and people who couldn't connect to each other. It came from that mundane thing, just talking about practicing, that we were sectionals in the morning but I change it to 'mourning' like sadness so that's what they are.
PSF: A bit of wordplay, kind of like Wire...
PP: Yeah. I'm not sure what you would say but I noticed when you were asking Roger about his songs everyone was, "Well I had a dream about..." or someone else had a dream.
PSF: What about the little green men and mass hallucination in "What They Tell Me?"
PP: There was just an election in America and I was getting really conscious that the right wing was getting loonier and loonier and they kept getting further out; really obnoxious stuff about women's bodies, like out of the 1950’s. I just thought it was so caveman like. It was remarkable that in the year 2012 we were discussing these idiotic things instead of important stuff and no one seemed to be saying anything about it. The media is passive, they just accept what comes at them and go, "OK." I was getting completely fed up with that notion that, doesn't anyone question anything anymore? Are they going to tell me the sky is pink when it's blue? Well no, it's blue. I don't care what you tell me it is, it's blue. It was just disgust with people refusing to accept reality, or what I consider to be reality. That was what most of that song was about.
PSF: I had an idea that the reversed voices, I'm not sure if they are you or Roger, that babble when the trumpet screams in could be alien (ET) communication.
PP: We don't tend to talk about distinct things too much. Something happens and we go, "That's good!" or we go, "No!" Bob was thinking of a loop and with me he tends towards vocals and it sort of fit in as nonsense babble which is what that song is about. I think that's why he did that.
PSF: The other song you sing is "Part the Sea." What's that about?
PP: I think that was referring to when you like a writer or a band and you romanticize how wonderful they are...
CC: ...and you meet them in person and they're complete jerks.
PSF: Do you have any examples?
CC: Loads of people!
PP: Yeah, you want to make some enemies now? It's either that they're jerks or they're just ordinary. Most humans are just humans and I think in your mind you think that guy's god-like, or that woman's incredible, and then you meet them and they’re just humans, you know? I think that's mostly what it was about. It's not the worst thing to find someone is just ordinary. It's an anti-romanticization thing.
PSF: So very punk rock, something which ironically has been romanticized ad nauseum these past couple of decades, especially since the death of Joe Strummer. Why is "7's" called "7's?"
CC: Because almost all the chords are sevenths.
PSF: I have trouble making out most of the lyrics on that song.
CC: That's fine.
PSF: Because "It's totally ridiculous?" to quote a line I can decipher.
CC: Yeah! Your life is better for that.
PSF: Why were you singing about god's gift to all creation on "Semi-Pseudo-Sort-Of Plan?"
CC: I don't know. I'm not much for talking about lyrics.
PSF: Your third post-reformation album The Sound, The Speed, The Light has been slated as a drop in quality in certain quarters, notably by whoever wrote the piece on you in the Shellac All Tomorrow's Parties 2012 booklet, but to me it sounded like another fine Mission of Burma album.
CC: That's kind of how I feel about it.
PSF: Do you have any preferences for any of your albums compared to others?
CC: I honestly haven't listened to them so... I guess we tend to play songs from The Obliterati more, they've kept in rotation in a way that ones from ONoffON and The Sound, The Speed, The Light haven't. One of these days I'll sit down and listen to all the records or I'll put them on when I'm on a long car trip and see what they sound like.
PSF: You might have a surprise reaction and decide that Let There Be Burma is the best one!
CC: I don't think that's going to happen, but you never know.
PSF: Volcano Suns albums are out of print now aren't they?
PP: The first two are on CD, with a lot of bonus tracks on each CD, on Merge. Those are in print but everything else (four albums) is not.
PSF: My favourites are the two on SST Thing of Beauty and Farced. Do you have any problems with Greg Ginn?
PP: The last time I talked to him I did (big laugh). You know, I don't think he's a bad guy, but that label grew so fast. They went from putting out their own singles to all of a sudden they're doing Husker Du, Meat Puppets, Sonic Youth, it was exploding. By the time we got there it was on the other side of the curve. I think he was well intended, but communication just broke down.
PSF: I was talking to Grant Hart after he played Band on the Wall in Manchester at the end of 2011 and he said Husker Du are owed a lot of money.
PP: I don't think we sold that many records. They did, so that's a different story.
PSF: I think he said they sold more than anything else on SST.
PP: It could have been, although Black Flag and Sonic Youth sold a lot too, and Dinosaur Jr. definitely sold a lot.
PSF: Husker Du had all the European sales of albums on SST though, whereas Sonic Youth and Dinosaur Jr were on Blast First in Europe, and Husker Du made more albums on SST.
PP: It's not because of Greg or anything, but those two are my least favourite Volcano Suns records. I just felt we hit a weird spot.
PSF: Thing of Beauty is really your psychedelic album.
CC: Who was in the band at that time?
PP: David (Kleiler) and Bob. You know that Bob who is with us now was also in Volcano Suns. David was awesome. My favourite record in a way was the last one Career in Rock. I like the first two and that one. Bumper Crop (third album on Homestead) is fine, I don't mind that one, but the two on SST not so much.
CC: That's quite a body of work. I can't believe you guys put out that much stuff.
PP: It's ridiculous. So many bands did that though. There were a lot of bands on SST or Homestead who did that.
PSF: What prompted you to start Consonant after such a long break from playing music?
CC: I had a huge gap then it rose up to the surface like bubbling crude and I tapped it and the geyser went off. I started writing music like crazy after total dormancy and started Consonant with Chris Brokaw to capture some of it. We enlisted Matt Kadane. Those were incredible records.
PSF: How did you meet Chris?
CC: I've known Chris for a long time. When he was in Come around the music scene we had a lot of mutual friends.
PSF: I think Don't Ask Don't Tell is my favourite album of the nineties.
CC: Aside from a few Volcano Suns records!
PSF: Shellac At Action Park is great as well, of course.
CC: I felt very honoured to play with Chris and Matt and Winston.
PSF: Chris played guitar in Consonant, right?
CC: Yeah. All those guys play all sorts of things. Chris plays in other bands. It's very confusing keeping up.
PSF: Chris drummed in Codeine and the New Year.
PP: Chris is a great drummer.
CC: He is a good drummer. The first EP we did in 2002 there was such an interweaving mesh of members between Bramah, Consonant, New Year and I think Chris was in some other outfit.
PSF: Is there going to be more Consonant?
CC: I would think probably not. The guys are all spread so far. I'm extremely proud of that music, it's not a matter of that, it's just logistically I don't see how it could be.
PSF: Do you think it would be fair to say that both Consonant and Volcano Suns sound closer to Mission of Burma than most of Roger's music outside the band?
PP: Only because we were more like rock bands.
CC: Well maybe because Roger plays piano and strange stuff outside of the band.
PP: Roger is more of a career musician compared to us. Everything he's done has always been based on playing music as a lifestyle and as an income.
CC: He's really serious about music in a way that...
PP: It doesn't mean we're not!
CC: Yeah. That's his vocation, his calling.
PP: Hey listen, if you want those Consonants out on vinyl, Presco recordings will put em out for you. Put them out as a double.
CC: I like the idea of that.
PSF: Is it just your Minibeast album that's been released on Presco?
PP: Yeah that was only formed to put that out. But I'm still serious about that. (laughs)
PSF: You could always reissue The Horrible Truth About Burma.
PP: Curtis would love that! Wouldn't that be good, I'll put it out without him knowing.
CC: Don't look back.
PSF: Grant Hart told me Husker Du were going to reissue all their SST albums with extra tracks whether Greg Ginn likes it or not.
CC: They're doing it on the same label that reissued Codeine, Numero Uno.
PP: Well they should, those records should be out there.
PSF: What was the first album you bought?
CC: December’s Children (Rolling Stones album).
PP: I hate to say this, it was 'Tommy' by the Who which I don't even like any more.
PSF: 'The Who Sell Out' is good though.
PP: Everything the Who did up until Tommy I still listen to a lot, everything after that I cannot. I think it was either Tommy or Muswell Hillbillies by the Kinks.
PSF: What was your favourite album of 2012?
CC: I'm listening a lot to the new AC Newman solo record, Shut Down the Streets, an amazing record.
PP: I hate to be obvious but it was the Future of the Left album (Future of the Left supported Mission of Burma the previous night in Bristol). In fact that's why I started talking to Andy online. I liked the one they made before, I liked McClusky and in indie music I miss punk rock. There's just not too much punk rock. Well, there's metal and there's old style punk rock, but I mean a new version of punk rock that's not a cliche. It's kind of funny, he's got a great sense of humour.
PSF: How about you Bob?
CC: He listens to a lot of shit!
BW: I couldn't tell you but I have my favourite record of next year (2013). It's Buke and Gase.
PSF: I enjoyed them second most of all the bands who played All Tomorrow's Parties who I hadn't heard before.
BW: Second most?
PSF: I enjoyed Alix the most, out of the bands that were new to me.
CC: Where are they from?
CC: There were a lot of Italian bands represented.
PSF: Three in fact. They reminded me of Major Stars a little.
PP: I like Major Stars.
PSF: What's the biggest risk you've ever taken?
CC: One of them was reforming Mission of Burma. We had this reputation and I wasn't even sure if it was justified. We could have gone out and embarrassed ourselves horribly, you know?
PP: We could have died a wonderful death.
CC: History had been our friend and why were we tempting it to hit us up in the face, but it's worked out fine. For the most part I don't have much use for reformed bands. Gang of Four, I was excited to hear those songs. They were pretty electrifying.
PSF: Gang of Four were great when they reformed the original line up.
CC: Buzzcocks too... OK maybe I mis-spoke, maybe I do like bands that I love to reform.
PP: I don't think any of us like the idea of it.
PSF: Some bands don't so much reform as take a bit of a break, things are left open ended. There's not much point in doing it unless you can be great and move on, like Wire.
PP: That's getting more common actually. Maybe some bands are thinking they'll make more money if they wait ten years then get back together.
PSF: You really stopped because of Roger's tinnitus didn't you?
CC: When we reformed there weren't that many examples of bands like us having done something like that before. Afterwards, there was a slew.
PP: The floodgates opened.
PSF: The only others I can think of that split for such a long time and then reformed are the Velvet Underground and Faust, and Faust reformed were kind of a different band in a way, and now there are two versions of Faust.
PP: We played with Faust a couple of years ago.
PSF: They played the most anarchic gig I've been to in a regular venue, at the Garage in London. At the end, they filled the entire place with green gas and two fire engines were called. Some people were quite badly affected by it but a lot found it funny. I was one of the last people out. I just held my breath and headed for where I thought the exit was and luckily got it right.
CC: And they did this on purpose?!
PP: Well they outdid us in terms of any kind of event.
PSF: Which version of Faust did you play that gig with?
PP: I know it was the original drummer.
CC: It was about three or four years ago.
PSF: Was it with Jean Herve-Peron the bass player?
CC: Yes that's right.
PSF: Would that be true for you as well? Was reforming Mission of Burma your biggest risk? How about any life threatening risks?
PP: In terms of just music... you're never going to see me jump out of a plane with a parachute, I'm far too chicken for that. In terms of music I consider my biggest risk was when I played guitar in a band (Kustomized) because I knew deeply inside that I had absolutely no affinities for it. I really just couldn't do it very well. I did it so badly but I just did it anyway.
PSF: It worked out fine though didn't it?
PP: It was total fun.
PSF: What do you fear?
PP: In all honesty with me, when the economy tanked... I want to be able to support myself and my girlfriend and my kitty. When it comes to a biggest fear that might be it: not being able to support myself. I want to make enough money to make everything work.
CC: Making a fool of myself, failing publically; getting up in front of people and doing something I have no business doing.
PSF: Have there been any Mission of Burma shows where there's been a disaster?
CC: Not in the second incarnation. We've been remarkably consistent I think.
PP: You sometimes had a bad time in the old days.
CC: In the old days I was just more self-conscious about performing I think. I'd just kind of look at my feet and feel like a complete asshole. There's an element of that, but I enjoy perfroming much more than I used to.
PSF: Are there any new songs written since Unsound?
CC: Yeah we have one ready to go.
PSF: You're not playing it at gigs are you?
CC: Well we have been playing it. There are some creaky parts to it.
PSF: Probably only you will notice that.
CC: That's probably true. It's one of Roger's songs so to a lot of ears, it'll sound like a series of mistakes.
PP: Let me tell you about the lyrics: he had a dream...
Also see our Mission of Burma article from 2004
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