Mission of Burma
Not Impossible
by Michael P. O’Shaughnessy

Mission of Burma broke up in 1983, having only released an EP, Signals, Calls, and Marches, and one album, Vs. While in the intervening years the band has been praised as innovators and as predecessors to many strains of indie rock, in their first incarnation, their audience was miniscule, even in their hometown of Boston. Still, the band’s stature grew with time, and a chapter devoted to the band in Michael Azerrad’s Our Band Could Be Your Life helped spark new interest. In 2002, Mission of Burma—guitarist Roger Miller, bassist Clint Conley and drummer Peter Prescott—reunited, replacing original mechanist Martin Swope with Shellac’s Bob Weston and subsequently releasing three albums, while new label home, Matador, reissued Signals, Vs. and their live record, The Horrible Truth About Burma, in expanded form. Their new album, The Sound the Speed the Light, recalls the seminal art-rock energy of Vs. and illustrates why Mission of Burma has been cited by legions of bands as a defining influence to new American music, while at the same time proving why their sound is still fresh and relevant today. The release of The Sound was celebrated with a free show at M.I.T. in Boston on October 4, 2009; the date was dubbed Mission of Burma Day in Boston. I spoke with founding member and bassist Clint Conley in between his production responsibilities at a television station just outside of Boston.

Tell me about this Mission of Burma Day in Boston.

Clint Conley: We first heard our manager mumbling about it. We were doing this free show at M.I.T. and we wanted to do something surprising and unconventional for the release of The Sound the Speed the Light. Friday before the Sunday gig, our manager, who we rarely listen to, sent us this proclamation from the Boston City Council saying, “Whereas Boston is home to many internationally known acts and whereas Mission of Burma is cited as an influence” and blah, blah, blah, and this, that and the other thing “it is resolved that Sunday, October Fourth is officially Mission of Burma Day” signed by somebody important. It blew our minds; we just thought it was certainly humorous.

So you didn’t sit around and decide “we should have a day dedicated to us.”

CC: No, that’s not our style at all. We were sort of embarrassed, sort of entertained, but, I have to admit, also sort of proud, like “Wow, this is too improbable. This is weird!”

What happens on Mission of Burma Day?

CC: Nothing. I mean, we played our show. Before it I wandered around looking for coffee and ended up in this used clothing store which, it being Halloween season, was filled with costumes. I found these goofy crowns and robes, so I figured it was an act of God. We wore them for about five seconds while they read the proclamation before the show. It was fun.

It’s official that Boston recognizes you guys as an influential band, and I feel like plenty of other art-rock, post-punk and DIY bands and hardcore bands cite you guys as sort of the predecessors to the sound of weird music today. When you hear that does it seem true from your point of view?

CC: I guess it’s flattering, but I don’t know how true it is. The simple answer is that it’s a nice thing. Not sure we buy it, as it wasn’t like many people were paying too much attention to us. I think, in a lot of ways, we’ve benefited from the direction underground music has taken from when we first started. I’m reluctant to say we influenced people. It’s probably more likely that subsequent developments happened along channels that we were working, you know, exploring non-traditional ways of making guitar rock. I think of us as being fairly conventional—we’re normal to us, that’s for sure. But I can understand how, when we were making this music in ’79, ’80 and ’81, most of the world had no use for it because it was stranger sounding then than it is now. But, again, only because of the course our music scene has followed, when you’re talking about causality or influence, it’s an easy narrative to construct in retrospect. Do I buy it? In my heart, I think we’re just lucky bastards. I’m totally convinced that the music we make has value—I’m totally proud of it—but when it comes to talking about our place or our role, it’s more complicated than saying we’re a massive influence. To have been part of the conversation in a small way, and over the years to still be relevant, I feel very grateful for that.

At the time in the late ’70s and early ’80s, was there even a network you could jump onto? Obviously, now with the internet you can talk to people all over the world and it’s easier to find like-minded people—was there even any support like that then?

CC: Yeah, there was certainly a network. It was smaller by many scales. It was kind of like the “olden days,” sending messages by stagecoach or something—you know, fanzines, writing letters, people putting out mailing lists of their record wants. There’s always been a deep underground network of fanatical listeners and obscurity hunters, but by today’s standards it was kind of quaint the way things used to operate. There was definitely a burgeoning scene, and in terms of performance, we had a guy helping us, Jim Kauffman, our “manager,” if the four of us could have been called manageable. He would help book us around the country. He was tight with the Bush Tetras manager and he was tight with people who helped Pylon and some of the club owners in New York. There was this rudimentary network, but there was a little more adventure involved. You’d end up in places in the hinterlands where people would want to try this new wave thing on Tuesday nights. The discos would turn into new wave night, and we’d show up and we wouldn’t have stripes on or mascara or cute hair. They wouldn’t understand us because we looked like we worked at the post office or something, and we’d play this caterwauling stuff. People weren’t used to us, and there wasn’t a tried and true “you know what you’re going to get” type of situation. There was a lot of hostility. One of the things that struck me coming back, when we started playing again, is how nice everybody was to us at the clubs. It was a total shock to us, in part because suddenly these were events, and I mean “events” in the loosest sense, really. After a bit, things got more normalized and we started playing normal club shows, people were just so nice. I guess it makes sense because in the early ’80s you’d find yourself in clubs where people were reluctantly trying this new thing and the bouncers and bartenders would be kind of hostile to you, and the owners weren’t sure of it and usually there’d be some punky kid booking it that was kind of excited. But in general it was a hostile environment. I’m digressing here. There was a network; it was rudimentary and very small. It was fun, though, and we had the time of our lives.

Did you feel like you were in opposition to the crowds at the time?

CC: Oh yeah, more often than not. Every once in a while we’d get some love back from the people, like Washington D.C. and San Francisco. Chicago was always kind of lukewarm, and Philadelphia was always dreadful. It’s a real honor to be able to do this. In my case, having been away from music and performing for 20 years, to come back and play at the level that Burma is and the kind of clubs we play in, and all these people really happy to see us, it continually impresses itself upon me. I mean, what a privilege to be able to do this. We would never, ever, ever guess that we’d be playing music in our fifties and not feeling totally ridiculous about it.

When you got back together in 2002, was the songwriting dynamic different or did it fall back into place just like it used to be?

CC: Everything was really the same. We all write our songs separately. Peter invites a little more collaboration than the rest of us. Roger invites collaboration, but I’m definitely less flexible. I don’t say that proudly, but I just bring more of a finished idea. Everything’s pretty much the same between the players. Roger, Peter and myself have a very easy, unforced chemistry that we’re very fortunate to have, particularly because we’re all songwriters. It’s a leaderless band, and somehow the cogs all fit into place. There’s really a remarkable lack of tension and conflict. I keep coming back to how lucky we are. It’s a very rare thing, coming from being in bands since I was a teenager. It’s a very difficult sort of organism to sort of get in balance.

How does the mechanist work? Bob Weston does it now and Martin Swope did it before—does Weston come to practice and rehearse with the band or is it just all on the fly at shows?

CC: He doesn’t rehearse with us, though he did when we were first gearing up for the shows. Basically he does things on the spot, keeps a little card file that tells him what he’s supposed to do on each song. He gets his cards ready before a set so he remembers what to do during the set. He’s kind of an “after-the-facter.” We do hear his loops—we get it fed back through the monitors and there’s certain spots where he’s got to do a certain thing—but most of the time he’s free to scrawl graffiti all over the songs.

Does he use an Echoplex and a weird, old tape machine like Swope or is it all digital now?

CC: When we first got back together, he tried a whole bunch of things, and we figured that 20 years later there’s got to be some digital gadget that can do all the things that Martin did with an old reel-to-reel machine—do it better and have more flexibility, portability and fidelity. Weston’s a real recording-gear geek, but he couldn’t find anything but this old reel-to-reel player. Finally, like two years ago, he discovered some digital box that has all the different utilities that he needs. In the studio, he uses the tape machines still, so he hasn’t totally gone over to the dark side.

So there is a dark side and its name is digital?

CC: Yeah, we still record on tape. We’re still largely an analog band. But to my ear, I can’t tell the difference, really.

Honestly, I think the newest record sounds most like Vs, the production and the energy especially, but not in a rehashing kind of way.

CC: You know, I haven’t listened to Vs. much since 2001 to refresh my memory. I think it holds up. I think it’s something we can be proud of, at least the songs themselves. They sound fresh and contemporary.

You have West Coast dates coming up in November. What can people expect from the setlists?

CC: Well, we make the setlists right before we go out on stage. We mix it up every night. It’s not like, “Oh, this is the part where the drummer does a comedy bit.” It’s not like that.