Ask guitarist Roger Miller of the recently reactivated Mission of Burma why the band suddenly folded in March of 1983, and you‘ll get a simple answer: volume. After four years of live shows, Miller required not only earplugs but firing-range headphones to soften the aural assault. ”That was the reason I quit. If it weren’t for tinnitus, I would have kept playing. In retrospect, there might have been other reasons we couldn‘t fathom.“ Bassist Clint Conley concurs, in a separate phone interview. ”We were always loud, and Roger’s hearing had concerned him for years, so it wasn‘t a big surprise. But the end of the band wasn’t unwelcome. It was time for a change anyway.“
Probably so. Even in their heyday, Conley recalls, ”We were often not understood, particularly by new audiences. We started unleashing all this aggression through the music, and it felt like we were wielding some sort of weapon.“ But the weapon was an omnidirectional cluster bomb, rather than the bludgeon wielded by their American hardcore contemporaries. Mission of Burma threw punk-inspired levels of velocity and noise into collision with ideas about formal complexity and harmonic stasis derived from Miller‘s composition-student background. Miller barked slogans like a Surrealist drill sergeant (”People did not like that man Max Ernst!“), while Conley honed a knack for writing darkly anthemic near-pop. If that combination wasn’t alienating enough, Peter Prescott‘s counterintuitive drumming and Martin Swope’s low-tech tape manipulation of the band‘s stage sound added to the chaos.
Burma’s path-breaking efforts were often rewarded with blank stares beyond their Boston home base and a few other strongholds. Los Angeles, to put it mildly, was not one of the latter. Conley recalls ”opening for the Dead Kennedys and Circle Jerks at some airplane hangar full of Huntington Beach skate punks. They were outraged.“ (Said debacle took place at Florentine Gardens in September 1981.) ”Another time, we were supposed to play at a Chinese restaurant — maybe Madame Wong‘s. The club couldn’t have been less interested; we walked out at sound check.“ Local musicians were more sympathetic. Burma shared bills with Black Flag on tour, and SSTNew Alliance later released albums by Prescott‘s band Volcano Suns, and several Miller solo projects.
”I never thought we were ahead of our time,“ says Miller of such reactions. ”I felt like we were completely outside of our time and would never find it.“ Even so, Burma’s slim but impeccable discography — one 7-inch, a six-song EP and the full-length Vs., plus posthumously released live and radio recordings — has come to seem increasingly pivotal. (The fact that Rykodisc has kept the band‘s catalog in print hasn’t hurt.) Beyond cover-version homages by R.E.M., Moby and Blur‘s Damon Albarn, the seethe-and-explode structure of ”That’s When I Reach for My Revolver“ informed ‘90s alt-rock from Nirvana on down, and the group’s self-reliance has been a benchmark for everyone from Sonic Youth to Yo La Tengo.
The audience at the band‘s recent El Rey show was evenly divided between first-wave punks (and many East Coast transplants) who never thought they’d see Burma again, and recent converts who never thought they‘d see Burma period. But the crowd’s enthusiasm, or even its size, wouldn‘t have meant much if Miller, Conley and Prescott hadn’t risen to the occasion. (Swope, now living in Hawaii, is the only original member now absent. ShellacVolcano Suns bassist Bob Weston is his acting stand-in, feeding fragments of guitar and vocals back into the mix between, and often during, songs.)
Opening with Miller‘s ”Playland“ (”a no-chord rocker“), Burma tore into quasi hits, obscurities and new songs with equal force over two well-structured sets. The music was precise when called for, as on the effect-pedal-driven ”Trem Two“ or the hopscotch breaks of ”This Is Not a Photograph.“ Elsewhere, the dynamic was open and improvisatory, moving well beyond re-creations of the songs’ recorded versions. The well-known ”Academy Fight Song“ and ”Revolver,“ complete with charming lyric flub, came late in the game, but the closer was Prescott‘s impenetrable ”Learn How,“ a restless grab bag of tempo shifts bracketed by the drummersinger’s repeated wailing about ”Every raw material at hand.“ (Which is precisely what they had been transforming for the last 90 minutes.)
As Falling James reported in the Weekly, Miller half-joked that Burma only reunited ”to back up Mike Watt,“ before encoring with the Stooges‘ ”1970,“ starring Watt as Iggy. It was a gracious tribute that didn’t really explain why the band has re-entered the fray 19 years on. After all, Miller‘s ears are still ringing: ”The only progress with tinnitus is, it gets worse.“ Additionally, he and Prescott have busy music lives outside Burma. Miller supplies original accompaniment to classic silent films with the Alloy Orchestra, while Prescott, after dissolving Volcano Suns, fronted Kustomized and the Peer Group.
”We can’t put a finger on one thing, but I can list some elements,“ offers Miller. ”Joey Ramone‘s death had an effect. Michael Azzerad’s book [This Band Could Be Your Life, which includes a chapter on the band] had an effect. Clint and I played a show with Peter in the Peer Group, and that had an effect. Then Mission of Burma was offered a show at Lincoln Center. I was just going to tell them no, but I thought, that‘s a little pompous of me. So I asked Clint, and he said, ’Let‘s do it.’ My jaw just dropped.“ The proposed ”punktacular“ fell through, but other offers soon materialized, resulting in January stands in New York and Boston, a trip to England in April, and most recently their West Coast jaunt, which also visited San Francisco and Seattle — 11 shows in seven months, generously spaced to accommodate Conley‘s straight gig with a Boston television newsmagazine, as well as Miller’s hearing.
Conley‘s renewed interest — not only in Burma, but in making music at all — may have been the missing element all along. The recently released debut by Consonant (Fenway Recordings), Conley’s first new project in ages, is a shockingly fresh collection of songs ”about the exchange of bodily fluids,“ co-written with poet Holly Anderson, and fleshed out by Come‘s Chris Brokaw and Bedhead’s Matt Kadane. Having a new band made him more comfortable returning to his old one. ”We‘d had offers before, but I hadn’t been playing, so it felt fraudulent. But for the previous six months, I‘d been playing guitar and writing songs again for the first time in 15 years, so when the idea came along, I thought, why dismiss this out of hand?“
None of the band is saying when it’ll resurface again; none is promising to call it quits for good. As of now, the only one still surprised at the interest Burma‘s capital has accrued is Conley. ”When I heard we were booking [New York’s] Irving Plaza and [Boston‘s] Avalon Ballroom, which hold 2,000 people, I was ready to pull the plug. I thought it would be a huge embarrassment,“ he says, still amazed. ”But it wasn’t.“ For Miller, who suspected that Mission of Burma might grow in stature after its demise (”Though I wasn‘t banking on it“), he’s pleased, vindicated and slightly amused at which facets of the band have become legendary. ”That first night in New York, I almost forgot to wear my headphone protectors. And when I reached over and put them on, the audience cheered.“