Interview with Mission Of Burma: Still Affected By The Sound

The Boston-based quartet (though most of the time you’ll only see three men on stage) known as Mission Of Burma reunited in 2002 for a few one-off shows. Now eight years and three full-lengths later, the post-punk legends have surpassed their previous output not only in bulk but arguably in quality—though that argument will rage for a long time. 2006’s The Obliterati is frequently referenced as on a par to their 1982 landmark Vs. and last year’s The Sound The Speed The Light, despite some slower tempos, still contains the raw energy of a band half their age.

At this point, maybe even a third their age.

But unlike touring acts who qualify for social security, guitarist Roger Miller, bassist Clint Conley and drummer Peter Prescott (along with soundman and producer extraordinaire Bob Weston who replaced original tape effects man Martin Swope when Burma reunited) are well-aware of their age and only see a few years left in their best-known musical outfit. It may be that nebulous deadline that’s sparking their recent output, but it could just be as simple as the desire to create (a “selfish” desire, according to Prescott).

Prescott weighed in on the way he still connects with music, the reactionary nature of Burma and what makes a good band.

It looks like your winter and spring has a couple of busy weekends rather than a full-blown tour. With families and the like, is this how touring works best for you now?

It always revolves around those things. It’s a real important thing to us otherwise we wouldn’t do it, but there’s always been sort of an unsaid rule where it has to be part of our lives, it can’t step on our lives. Whether because of age or family or whatever, it has to fit in that way to be something fun for us to do. That’s the way it worked that the spring was a more advantageous time to do most of the touring.

So the idea is Mission Of Burma is still not a day job?

Yeah, I guess that would be accurate. It’s not. It varies with each of us I think.

You still work at a record store, correct?

No, I don’t. I lost my job for a couple of months and finally just got a shipping and receiving thing.

I was going to ask, how was business.

Not that good (laughs). I’m actually amazed at how many record stores around here are still open, but when I think of it over the past five years a lot of them did drop. The crazy thing is how many are still open. A lot of it is used records and CDs. Thank god there’s still some interest in these things.

The funny thing is, we were talking the other night, and there’s no doubt that music has a different interaction with most people’s lives than it did for us four. I still hear records that I really enjoy and every couple of months that just blows me away that I play over and over like I’m 15-years-old or something.

The new Fucked Up record is one. When I first heard it I was just blown back through the wall and it just made me feel happy that I can still be affected by music like that. And I wonder that someone who is 18- or 20-years-old does still have life-changing experiences in music. Because I kind of sense it has just become wallpaper for some people.

But people do feel that they need it.

They do. I wouldn’t say that it’s useless to people. I think they still need it. But are there lives changed by it? I can’t tell that anymore. But I guess I’m not supposed to know about those things (laughs). Really you can only worry about how it works with you, the individual. I know that when we get together and practice, there’s always like, ‘Have you heard anything cool?’ And usually we’ll play it to each other. I know that being 50-plus and two of those guys being dads, I know that it still matters a lot to us.

Is it still a surprise for you then that people not only remember Mission Of Burma but also resonate so strongly with the band? You’re eight years into a reunion, obviously you’re sort of used to the idea, but is it still a little shocking to you?

The shock of the new isn’t there for them or for us anymore. It’s sort of long past the point where it’s this brand new reunion. But I think it’s more, at least for me and I think the guys in the band, when we play live, when we record, there’s still this insanely good feeling. It’s almost more akin to the rush I’ve always gotten from playing music. When I was younger, 20, 25, 30 or whatever.

It’s not such an individual experience to a Mission Of Burma reunion. And I get the impression that maybe it’s become a bit more universal like that to the people who come to see us. Hopefully, we’re a really good rock band (laughs). They come and see it and relate to it that way.

I don’t know, because I’m not an audience member, but I would say for it still have a reason to exist it has to move on from that feeling of, ‘Wow, this is a fun bit of nostalgia.’ Because that’ll last for a couple years, then you move on. I think what it’s been replaced with is the feeling that you get when music gets into your spine and gets you excited. I hope that’s the way it works for people, but I know that’s the way for us.

Would you say that your relative prolificacy has a lot to do with it? Do you still prefer writing material to going out and playing it?

I would say that if we didn’t do that, we wouldn’t exist. It’s pretty straightforward. If we didn’t write new material, we would stop. It’s the blood in the beast. I think there’s no way at this point we would just go out and play shows and do old material. It would just be painful. It still doesn’t mean that we don’t like those songs, and we understand that people are going to have an attraction to those on a certain level that they may not to our newer material, but that wouldn’t make us a very good band.

It would make us a really cruddy band. I’ve seen some people that can pull off a pure nostalgia act—some of them were punk rock bands—and make that work. But we are so connected emotionally to some sort of selfish satisfaction from it, that we wouldn’t be one of those.

So you’re never gonna take a tour and say, ‘We’re gonna play Vs. all the way through.’

No. I couldn’t see that.

Even if it’s 2012, and it’s the 30th anniversary.

See, that’s disturbing (laughs). On a certain level, anyone that has skepticism towards seeing us and listening to us, I am on their side. I can understand why they would. I think the ice has been broken. I think Dinosaur Jr. has put out a couple of really great records and some other bands have done it too.

I think the only way to make it work as a current thing is to treat it as a current thing. I don’t even want to think of us being around in 2012. Maybe the Mayans will be correct and the end of the world will happen first so we won’t have to deal with that (laughs).

Would you say that Mission Of Burma’s artistic approach is primarily reactionary?

How do you mean that?

Lyrics, and maybe the reason to exist.

If I’m taking it like I think you mean it, yeah. We do thrive off of something abrasive coming at us that we can react to. It was always a punk rock staple that you wrote about things that upset you (laughs). Things that really rubbed you the wrong way. I think that we relate to music—now that we’re older people—I think that we relate to music in other ways too.

But I must admit that through Burma it is sort of a machine that runs on still being upset about something. Whether it’s personal or political or musical. I think we are better when we’re sort of connecting to that anger.

And so you’re still finding an awful lot to react to.

Absolutely. As long as I live I’ll be able to do that. There’s no shortage of things to be upset at. (laughs) There never will be, I get the impression.

It’s good that you still have a discontent that drives you.

I think there’s also, on the other hand, you recognize that you don’t want to be this cranky old fart either. I think you want to take those things and turn them around and find joy in the solution. It’s not enough to complain, let’s put it that way.

I would say it’s even true with the opening track, ‘1, 2, 3, Partyy’ with the serious party guy. We all know that dude.

Yeah. Here’s the funny thing about that song, and it’s sort of instructive of the way our band works. My understanding of those lyrics is that they were wise-ass phrases that Clint’s dad used to make up in reference to social gatherings.

So the approach for us using those in a song, it’s sort of once-removed. It’s a genuine emotion that he’s expressing but it’s not that he’s stating something that was in his head. He’s using phrases that he really likes in sort of a context that is interesting in a song. I think the idea that everything you express is the truth, the direct truth, at least in our case, it’s a fallacy.

But it’s funny, most of the reviews think that Clint is saying something that he thinks.

I guess you couldn’t fault them for it.

No, you couldn’t. I understand why people think that. But then again, everyone from Dylan to Lady GaGa. Most people don’t take every word that either of those people say literally. You take them as words in a song. That’s where we come from too. As far as words, we like the sound of them, and we like the way maybe a word will go with a musical passage as much as using them in a completely literal way.

The Sound The Speed The Light is out now through Matador Records. Mission Of Burma performs at the Bowery Ballroom on Jan. 29 and Jan. 30.