Cover Story: LiteBrite festival shines focus on Indie music and film

Mission: Improbable - Mission of Burma defies the odds (again) with their best album in 27 years

Jul 26, 2006 at 2:06 pm
Diane Bergamasco

Post Punk legends Mission of Burma highlight both sides of the music & film fest.

If a screenwriter fashioned a script detailing the amazing history of Mission of Burma over the past quarter century, he'd be laughed out of every office that read it. It's so unbelievable, it almost seems too fictional to be true.

How could a band exist for three years, produce a handful of singles, an EP and a lone full-length album, break up, become one of the most influential bands in modern music and then reform 20 years later to even greater acclaim?

"Our recommendation to anybody who wants to really make it in the music business: Just stop playing for 20 years," says Burma guitarist Roger Miller from his Boston home. "If it works, it's really great."

In an impossibly small nutshell, that's Mission of Burma's backstory. Ann Arbor, Mich., native Miller took his Stooges/MC5 influences and relocated to Boston in 1978, when he formed Burma with bassist Clint Conley, drummer Peter Prescott and tape effect wizard Martin Swope. By 1982, the band had made a huge impact on the Boston scene and was gaining national attention with a sparse Post Punk catalog that included the songs "Academy Fight Song" and "That's When I Reach for My Revolver" and their only full-length album, Vs.

Unfortunately, the shattering sound level of Burma shows took its toll on Miller's hearing and he developed tinnitus, a constant ringing in the ears, forcing him to dismantle the band in 1983 and pursue a quieter, piano-based solo career and a series of avant garde projects. In the meantime, indie labels Taang! and Rykodisc kept the Burma legend alive with reissues, rarities and live releases.

Technology finally advanced to where Miller could protect his hearing sufficiently to consider a Burma reunion, which began with a string of off-the-cuff shows in 2002. These dates proved so successful that the band reconvened in the studio for 2004's stellar ONoffON, an album that earned the band even greater accolades than they'd received two decades before during their heyday. Miller insists that no plan was in place for any of this.

"We don't know what we're doing, ever," says Miller with a laugh. "The first time we realized we didn't know what we were doing was when we thought we were going to do two shows in 2002, one in Boston and one in New York, that turned into four Boston shows, two New York shows and a show in London. So right away, our bubble of what we thought we were going to do was popped. We just stumbled along."

During this initial process, the band continued to write new material, per an understanding all three agreed to at the beginning of the reunion.

"We agreed that we were all going to bring a new song into the band, because the only way something lives is if it's constantly regenerating itself," Miller says. "We kept doing shows after England, a few shows every few months, and for each one of those I would bring in a new song, and sometimes Peter would and sometimes Clint would. I could see that, if this kept up, we'd make a record. So we made ONoffON, and honestly we had no concept of anything happening after that."

After 22 years of myth building, the reality of a new Mission of Burma album was explosive. ONoffON was met with a barrage of overwhelmingly positive reviews, to the extent that the band was incredulous at the amount of praise being heaped on their sophomore full-length, over two decades in the making.

"The degree of the response was almost mind-numbing," Miller says. "It was so amazing at first, and then you were just like, 'I'm not sure this is real.' It was too many shiny things spinning around in front of my face at the same time."

With no intention of going further, Burma began playing shows to support ONoffON, and the process that had resulted in the band's first album in 22 years started to repeat itself. As Miller, Conley and Prescott brought in new material for the ONoffON shows, a new record began to take shape, resulting in The Obliterati, Mission of Burma's latest triumph.

"The response to The Obliterati has been extremely good, and the response to our shows since it's been out has been tremendous," Miller says. "People were just blown away, and so were we, by their response and by how much fun it was. At this point, despite our inability to decide anything, we all are thinking, 'Let's bring some more songs in August.' That's always a really bad sign. So we aren't planning to stop. Of course, we didn't plan to stop. And we didn't plan to continue. We just don't plan."

Although Miller doesn't necessarily interpret his band's incredible impact on the subsequent music scene over the years ("We hear people say it all the time, and if enough people say it and you respect these people, it must be true, but we don't hear the influence..."), he understands the underlying current of Burma's recent success while tempering it with the band's own psychology.

"With The Obliterati, we made a more difficult record and, if no one likes it, who cares?" Miller says. "It doesn't matter that much to us, because we believe in it, which has always been perhaps one of our strengths ... that we do what we believe in and if other people like it, cool. But the response to Obliterati has been as good and in some respects better than ONoffON.

"Because ONoffON was our first reunion album, people were primed to love it. They really wanted to love it, really badly. We've gotten that part of it out of the way. It's no longer the 'amazing reunion album,' it's another album by the same stupid band. So there are any number of options to not be excited about it, and people seemed to be just as excited about this one as ONoffON. And the fact they are just as excited, to me, means they are more excited because it doesn't have the cachet of being our first album coming back."

Perhaps the most amazing aspect of Mission of Burma's return is the seamless fashion with which the trio (along with new tape manipulator/sound engineer Bob Weston of Shellac) has picked up the thread of their legend without a hitch.

"It feels pretty similar, it's just a continuation," Miller says. "It really doesn't seem any different at all. When we were starting to play again in late 2001/early 2002, we had a number of rehearsals so we could remember the songs. At a certain point, on 'Fame and Fortune,' as an example, we'd go, 'Oh, right, this is how it was,' and it was just like it was in April 1983, and we were locked back in. But I think the band has developed, so even if we had kept going in 1983, by the time we would have gotten to 1986, which let's say is the equivalent of The Obliterati, we would have been a different band from the 1982 band that recorded Vs. It's that kind of difference, no other quantum difference. It's just like a growth difference."

Much of that difference shows in Burma's live performances, clearly Miller's favorite part of the whole musical landscape.

"Making the records are fun, but I don't really listen to them," he says. "A good live performance, to me, is why the band exists. We have so much diversity now, there's an ebb and flow, there's the hard rockers, there's the experimental improv pieces and this and that, combined with that peculiar, primordial surge that is Burma, and you put all these other types of music on top of it. God, I just love it. There's nothing in my life like that."

MISSION OF BURMA headlines Saturday night at Lite Brite.