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Mission: Improbable - An interview with Mission of Burma

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Clint Conley of Mission of Burma talks with Dusted about the band's reunion, ONoffON, and Tony Williams' Lifetime.

Mission: Improbable - An interview with Mission of Burma

Clint Conley can’t really say why Mission of Burma, the post-punk band he formed in Boston in 1979 along with Peter Prescott, Roger Miller, and Martin Swope, has enjoyed such a renaissance in the last few years. “We put out one record, we really didn’t have much of a following…I haven’t really figured out why it’s happened. It’s been a blast, though.”

The band’s catalog, which consists of an EP (Signals, Calls and Marches), an LP (Vs.), and a live album (The Horrible Truth About Burma), has been available in reissued form from Rykodisc since 1997, after years of inconsistent availability. In 2001, writer Michael Azerrad cemented their reputation as an influential, critically revered band by including them in his history of ’80s college rock, Our Band Could Be Your Life, and bringing word of the band to a generation of music fans who could discover Mission of Burma’s profile tucked between chapters on the Minutemen and Minor Threat. In 2002, the reformed Mission of Burma (minus original tape manipulator Martin Swope) embarked on the Inexplicable tour, a nation-wide series of shows that grew out of two successful reunion shows in Boston; Inexplicable was followed by appearances at separate All Tomorrow’s Parties festivals in 2002 and 2003. And earlier this month, Matador Records released their second full-length album, ONoffON, almost 21 years after the group first split.

It’s not difficult to find glowing testimonials to Mission of Burma that were written in the last few years – a band that “set a standard for excellence that has rarely been equaled,” (the All Music Guide), and whose “ongoing renewal…is nothing less than an attempt to remake history,” (Salon) are representative opinions – and indeed the band generates enough enthusiasm from its listeners that it seems impossible to praise its work too much. It’s surprising, all the same, with such a small catalog, especially when, as Conley notes, much of the recorded output consisted of a young band learning the process. Mission of Burma thought that its first single, “Academy Fight Song/Max Ernst,” on Boston’s Ace of Hearts records, sounded overproduced. “At the time our shows were pretty ragged and raw; we listened to [the single] and thought, ‘Can this be us? You know, it doesn’t sound shitty enough to be us.’” They decided to take a more stripped-down approach in the studio for Signals, Calls and Marches. “What we didn’t know,” Conley adds, “is that if you go into the studio with a stripped-down sound it ends up sounding flat. That really came out flatter than we wanted.” Mission of Burma tried a variety of new techniques for Vs., their ambitious 53-minute full length, using room micing, live vocal takes, and moving on and off the mic during recording. “By the time Vs. rolled around we felt like we knew how to make a record.”

Signals, Calls and Marches and Vs., both a part of the burgeoning post-punk style of the early 1980s and an unexpected musical sophistication for the genre, were the result of two principal songwriters, Miller and Conley. Conley grew up in Connecticut, “besotted with the new punk energies,” while at the same time listening to a lot of free jazz. (He recounted an evening split between a performance by Tony Williams’ Lifetime and a sparsely attended Ramones concert: “I said to my friends, ‘there’s this band, and they only play three chords.’ They all wanted to go.”) He first performed with Miller in Moving Parts, “which was primarily another guy’s band,” before breaking off to form Mission of Burma in 1978. Prescott joined in 1979, after auditioning several times. Together the band played a particularly loud and ferocious variant of punk whose performance was all about “sweat and fury,” in Conley’s words, but was also intricate enough to earn the art-rock label.

It wasn’t especially popular at the time. When I mentioned to Conley that a 2002 Mission of Burma performance in Chicago seemed to be split between college kids and “original fans,” he replied that in Chicago, in the early ‘80s, there were rarely more than a handful of people at their shows. “If there were older people there, they were probably latecomers, too.” Azerrad suggested that the band’s problem was preceding the network of underground clubs, record stores, and radio stations that could have given them a national following, and Ace of Hearts founder Rick Harte told him that when the band dissolved on account of Roger Miller’s tinnitus in 1983, “it just seemed like it wasn’t working.”

The band’s current popularity testifies to the power that the underground wields, where a band without a marketing plan or a new release can, on the strength of its influence, enjoy a resurgence two decades after calling it quits. “I think it was inevitable that we’d play again,” Conley said. “We were all good friends, we all lived in Boston, and we were all really proud of our music.”

The idea of reuniting was well timed for many reasons, not the least that Conley, after shelving his music in the mid-80s, began writing again with Consonant. “It first came up when I was in the full throes of my musical relapse…and the musical juices were flowing again. And also, really, the inclusion in Azerrad’s book, to be mentioned alongside those bands, got me jazzed up about Burma again.” He cautions that Miller and Prescott both had their own reasons for reuniting. “You’d have to ask the other guys for their reasons. That’s what got me back into it, and I’d probably give you a bunch of different reasons tomorrow.”

What initially began as a pair of reunion shows in Boston grew into several mini-tours and a new album. “This is not the result of any plan – we’re just inching forward, trying to make the right next move…At first we just got together to do two shows, and then thought, ‘I guess we should tour.’ At the same time, we were writing new material for our concerts, and four songs became six, and six became eight, and then, ‘I guess we should make a record.’”

That record, ONoffON, is one of the best to be released so far this year: Mission of Burma’s voice is unmistakable, but as before, there’s no fear to push the boundaries of what they do. The album boasts an expanded palette, not the least because Prescott began contributing songs as well. “Now with Peter writing, there are really three distinct styles on the record, and hopefully it all blurs together in the listener’s mind.” Two of Conley’s contributions to ONoffON – “Hunt Again” and “Dirt” – were written before the 1983 break-up, a testament to how the new material fits with we know of Mission of Burma. At the same time, Conley admits that two of his songs “push outside the margins – ’Prepared,’ which is a light baroque song, with strings, and ‘Nicotine Bomb,’ which is sort of a cracked jig…There are a few more colors and shades to the Burma onslaught.”

I asked Conley how this material fits with the existing Mission of Burma catalog, (which led him to joke about “that vast Mission of Burma catalog you were referring to”). “I like the way it carries the Burma DNA – it’s like a logical mix CD, without screaming ‘comeback’ or ‘reunion.’ It sounds like it could have come out the year after Vs.

Conley, Miller, and Prescott never sounded beholden to any given time period in their music. Vs. sounds like a visionary album to this day, and ONoffON is a worthy successor. Though they’re too humble to say it themselves, that’s why Mission of Burma is enjoying this renaissance – it’s just taken everyone this long to catch up with them.

By Tom Zimpleman

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