Mission of Burma Feature / Roger Miller Q&A (Boston Phoenix, 1.18.12)

Posted on February 7, 2012

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It already seems like ages ago when Mission of Burma announced their reunion. The scrappy Boston band that flew under the radar during their original run between 1979 and 1983 were suddenly selling out shows in places like Irving Plaza. We were in the midst of a post-punk revival — Michael Azerrad’s Our Band Could Be Your Life was making the rounds and new bands were catching fire using old Gang of Four and Wire tricks for kindling. Everything was so angular. It was 2002.

A whole lot of great bands — local and otherwise — have come and gone in the years since. But the reunited Burma, who’d originally burned fast and bright through a few recordings (and just one full-length, Vs.) have caught a sustained second wind and rewritten the book on how a cult band can age gracefully, whipping up three fresh albums in the years since. And they’ve just finished another that will be coming to us this year.

It’s the same three guys — guitarist Roger Miller, bassist Clint Conley, and drummer Peter Prescott, with dedicated soundman/tape loops specialist Bob Weston (from fellow indie-geezers Shellac). They’re playing Friday and Saturday night at Brighton Music Hall.

Mission of Burma are a true oddity in the indie-rock world — a band who blasted through the initial spotlight and overblown welcome-back reviews for comeback album On Off On to humbly chip away at a whole new career, effectively leaving well-worn classics like “That’s When I Reach for My Revolver” and “Academy Fight Song” behind. They’re not that different from most bands kicking around in town — rocking out on practice nights in Allston and playing a few shows here and there when they feel like it.

“There could be a tier of bands that Bob likes to call ‘hobby rock,’ ” says Miller, relaxing on the couch at his home in Somerville recently. “It’s not a hobby for me, really, but the thing is that there’s not this quantum difference.” It’s a clean, sparsely decorated home with miniature ceramic horses arranged on the coffee table and a swath of grass out front, rare in Somerville, that reminds Miller of growing up in Ann Arbor.
“We never had anyone like that to look up to as kids,” Miller says. DIY had barely taken root before they had broken up, and by then fledgling bands like Sonic Youth were already looking up to them. “It wasn’t that you put out a hit and you kept putting hits out so you’re huge, as it was,” he continues. “The model now was that if you could keep playing and you could make a living, that’s good. I think that’s the main part of it.”Miller’s first band was a psych-rock outfit in high school with his brothers called Sproton Layer (their 1969 record was just reissued by the German label World in Sound). He’d go on to be a composition major whose other projects include the Stravinsky-quoting group Birdsongs of the Mesozoic and the renowned film-soundtrack ensemble Alloy Orchestra. But you never get the feeling Burma are thinking in academic terms. Maybe that’s what’s enables them to churn it out. There were no artistic pretensions and no role models — either for upstart punk bands in the ’70s or the extended workhorse careers that followed.

“We never had anyone like that to look up to as kids,” Miller says. DIY had barely taken root before they had broken up, and by then fledgling bands like Sonic Youth were already looking up to them. “It wasn’t that you put out a hit and you kept putting hits out so you’re huge, as it was,” he continues. “The model now was that if you could keep playing and you could make a living, that’s good. I think that’s the main part of it.”

Burma recorded the new, unnamed album at home in their practice space, aiming for a leaner approach than 2009’s The Sound the Speed the Light. Things were starting to feel rote, so songs were thrown out in favor of new experiments. “We came back with a vengeance trying to punch ourselves in the face to snap out of it,” Miller says.

At this point, Burma barely play a lot of their older catalog. After a special outdoor MIT show a few years ago that celebrated the newly decreed “Mission of Burma Day” in Boston, Miller found himself wandering down a sidewalk with an open beer when he spotted a cop approaching him.

“At first I tried to tilt the cup a certain way, so it wasn’t clear what it was,” he says. “But he kept coming closer and I just thought, ‘Okay, I’m fucked.’ When he finally got to me, he looked at me for a bit and said, ‘Why didn’t you play ‘Revolver’?”

Original article in the Boston Phoenix here.

Full Q&A with Roger Miller here.

 

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