Roger Miller, Mission of Burma guitarist: “We’re not really grim people. We are in fact rather cheerful and we’re all in really good moods these days – although it doesn’t stop our music from being a little too intense.”
Mission of Burma – which plays Regent Theatre Sunday Feb. 9 – is comprised of Miller, bassist-singer Clint Conley and drummer-singer Peter Prescott, songwriters all. They’re one of the most improbable semi-success stories in rock ‘n’ roll. Launched in Boston in 1979, on the noisy end of the art-punk scene, Burma was forced to disband in 1983, when their loud volume worsened Miller’s already damaged ears. He has tinnitus. Band members went their separate ways – Miller to less attacking keyboard-based music, most notably in the silent film scoring band Alloy Orchestra, Prescott into the even more aggressive rock band Volcano Suns and psych-rock bands Kustomized and the Peer Group, Conley, primarily, to TV production with WCVB’s “Chronicle” and later the band Consonant.
But Burma was still somewhat in the alt-rock world’s consciousness, in part owing to Moby’s hit cover of Conley’s “(That’s When I Reach for My) Revolver” in 1996 and inclusion in Michael Azerrad’s 2001 book, “Our Band Could Be Your Life.” That book surveyed key ‘80s indie bands like Minutemen, Sonic Youth and Fugazi. Burma was surprised and pleased to be included in that hierarchy.
They re-formed in early 2002. (Their friend, producer and Shellac bassist Bob Weston took over the role of Burma’s live tape delay manipulator, a position filled by Martin Swope during the early years.) Miller decided that new, technologically advanced ear protection – plus Prescott drumming with Plexiglas partitions around his kit – could work for him. Since, they’ve played numerous gigs and recorded four albums. The latest, “Unsound,” came out last month. It, like most of their music, has a harsh, assaultive quality. There are bits of pop and psychedelia – some relief from the onslaught – but with its jarring twists and affection for dissonance, Burma has never been easy on the ears.
“One reason Burma has held up,” offers Conley, “is our music is composed. It’s more than the flavor of the month. These songs are very sturdy constructs that have an interior logic. You may not be able to discern it on the first time through – or the fifth – but they stand up over time. They move you and direct you to a certain place. Not that it’s terribly sophisticated, but give us ten or 20 chances and you too can enjoy our music.”
Says Prescott: “It’s funny because it’s definitely a mind/body thing. Jimi Hendrix and Pink Floyd were formative things for us. Burma songs have to be pummeling to exist; they’ve got to have a battering quality to them. Really primal. But there’s an awful lot of mind meld mixed with that. I don’t think any band that reforms sets out to make a poor forgettable record. I’m not sure why ours works, but I know we don’t want to do anything that’s a waste of time for us or anyone else.”
Which is to say, Burma never plans on making a next record. Miller writes most of the music, the other tracks are split roughly between Conley and Prescott. When they have enough material, then, maybe, they think about recording.
“I don’t feel we are obligated to do a goddamn thing and I don’t think any of us do,” says Miller. “But if we’re going to do it, it’s ‘let’s really do it and not coast.’ Our last album, ‘The Sound The Speed The Light’ is a pretty good record, but we were coasting a bit. I don’t think it has the edge. ‘Unsound’ is more edgy. I like to use the lyrics from ‘ADD in Unison’ – ‘It’s not for everyone/Should it bother me when it’s really gone beyond what anyone expected?’ That’s in the quiet area of the song and on either side of it is just mayhem.”
Miller looks at the range on the album this way: “’7’s’ is Clint doing his power pop thing. It’s the catchiest and most traditional song. And it’s one of the parameters of the band. I think it totally fits on the record. Pete’s songs generally are not very melodic, but ‘Sectionals in Mourning,’ the end chord progression is really interesting and there are really nice melodies – the kind of thing I could play on piano and you’d say, ‘That’s a nice composition. Who wrote it?’ I’d say, ‘Peter Prescott’ and your brain would start contorting. To me, that end section is a standout melody – and Pete doesn’t usually do that. And me? You expect me to make melodies that are obtuse and hard to follow, but are still anchored in full-on rock and structures that are sometimes very complex and very physical.”
“Unsound” has met with great reviews from most quarters – Burma has been a perennial rock critic favorite – but did get a mixed-to-negative review recently from The Onion’s A/V Club. Jason Heller compared the new album to “The Sound The Speed The Light,” writing, “’Unsound’ continues that cranky streak with little variation, but where the previous comeback albums have roared, ‘Unsound’ feels dull, uneven and a little bored.”
“They have a right to say that,” Miller says. “That was the review that said the final lyrics of ‘Opener’ are ‘”Forget what you know” and Mission of Burma forgot what they knew.’ And then there was another article that said, ‘”Forget what you know” was the slogan for the band and they’ve found new territory.’ It’s a mix. It’s just part of the game. I certainly don’t blame anyone for being sick of us. We’re just praised to high heaven often. And to most people we’re just a ball of chaos.”
“We’re a very question-of-degree band,” says Prescott. “Things always seem to be vibrating or moving or changing, but from an outsider’s perspective it sounds like a big ball of noise.”
“We’re definitely one of the weirdest rock bands in the history of rock music,” muses Miller. “We broke up just before we possibly could have screwed up or even got famous and then we picked up where we left off and we still seem to being doing it. I mean I love being in Mission of Burma, it’s a total blast. We’re in a pretty good place really. We don’t have to do it all the time. If one of us is frustrated in our own way – it may not be perfect for each individual – but as to the band itself, who could ask for more?”
Starts at 7:30 with Bugs and Rats and Prescott’s newish side project, the mostly instrumental Minibeast. Tix: $27 and $22. It’s a benefit for Somerville Local First.
7 Medford St., Arlington, 781-646-4849 www.regenttheatre.com