One of the most celebrated post-punk bands of all time, Mission Of Burma’s songs have always maintained a consistent balance between unorthodox experimentation and stripped-down punk rock immediacy. This is due in part to the division of the majority of songwriting duties between two of the band’s four members. Clint Conley is responsible for most of Mission Of Burma’s most accessible and well-known moments (“That’s When I Reach For My Revolver” and “Academy Fight Song,” for example), whereas Roger Miller’s pre-punk involvement in psychedelia and free jazz have resulted in some of the band’s more abrasive, adventurous songs and textures. Drummer Peter Prescott has also contributed a number of songs throughout Mission Of Burma’s discography.
Mission Of Burma formed in 1979 and split in 1983 with Miller’s tinnitus being labeled the prime factor in the decision to disband. Almost a decade into their second life after a reformation in 2002, Mission of Burma have been reunited for twice as long as their initial existence, and some of their new albums—particularly 2006’s The Obliterati—have been nearly as well received as early classics like Vs. and Signals, Calls, and Marches. The Aquarian Weekly reached out to Roger Miller to ask him about Mission of Burma’s current activities, his tinnitus, and his opinion of current music.
Mission of Burma has two shows coming up at Maxwell’s and The Bell House. Beyond those two, what is the band involved in at the moment? Do you have plans for another release?
We’re just working on music. Until the amount of songs reaches a critical mass and things fall over and we look down and say, “Oops, time to make a new record,” we’re just working on new songs. But we’re all pretty excited. We’re trying to break the mold a little bit. The Obliterati seemed to be the record that affected people the most out of our new records. It had the most radical sound, and The Sound The Speed The Light was a little bit calmer than that. We’re looking back, saying we don’t really want to keep going in the Sound Speed direction, though we like it, and we don’t to mimic The Obliterati, so we have to figure out how to do things a little bit differently. I’ve written a couple songs on bass guitar rather than guitar, which is a different way for me to write.
Can you tell me what the new songs are sounding like?
It’s a little hard to talk about. I had a band in 1969 and 1970 called Sproton Layer, and there’s a psychedelic label in Germany that’s reissuing our recording that we made in 1970. That kind of prompted me to go back to my roots in psychedelia. Some of the new songs maybe are a little more tripped-out. Not that I’ve been taking acid lately. (Laughs.) But they’re kind of tripped-out and a little whacked.
Mission of Burma initially broke up due to your tinnitus. Do you still struggle with that condition?
Yeah, I still have it. Human beings are very adaptable, and I don’t really notice it. Okay, I just thought about it now, and there’s a high whine and it’s pretty loud, but it’s the first time I’ve thought about it today because you brought it up. Mentally, I’ve adapted. When I play live, I still wear heavy-duty earplugs, my amp is to the side, we have Plexiglas around the drums, and I don’t use any monitors, so I do everything I can do to keep it sonically safe.
In 2011, do you consider any other bands to be Mission Of Burma’s peers, and if so, are they bands that you came up with in the ‘80s, or are there newer bands that you’ve influenced that you now consider peers?
We’ve played with Shellac a lot. They formed after us to some degree, but they kept going so they’ve been around if you include Steve [Albini’s] metamorphosis from Big Black to Shellac, although Shellac is not just Steve, it’s also Bob Weston who happens to now be in Mission Of Burma [as producer and tape-loop operator]. We feel like equals with them. We feel like that about Sonic Youth, though we haven’t played with them since maybe ‘81. I feel like they’re similar to us in the sense that they’ve figured out a way to continue to exist, though they’re considered more successful than we are. We like the band Wire. We feel similar to them for the same reason. They kind of folded and reformed and kept going. Those are groups we have affinity with.
Are there any current bands or bands that formed between Mission Of Burma’s breakup and reformation that have been influential to you?
There’s a certain period in your life when you’re finding out what you need to do. I had two periods like that. My psychedelic band, Sproton Layer, in ‘69 and ‘70, when I was heavily influenced by Syd Barrett, Silver Apples, Jimi Hendrix, early Soft Machine, Captain Beefheart—really psychedelic shit. And then when Mission Of Burma formed it was a whole new creative flow. For us it was Wire, The Fall, Gang of Four, Stiff Little Fingers, all these groups were swirling around our heads. And we all still liked King Crimson, we all liked Syd Barrett and Jimi Hendrix. Those are my roots; that’s what’s embedded in my DNA, and that’s what comes out. I’m won’t end up sounding like Pavement—they didn’t influence me.
Are you aware of current bands and things that are happening in music?
My interest in rock music ebbs and flows. From the British Invasion through psychedelia into the early ‘70s, rock music was all I lived for. Then in the mid-‘70s when rock music was shit, I got into free improvisation and jazz and went to music school. Then when punk rock hit I was like, “Fuck all that, what else is there but rock music?” By the end of the ‘80s, I kind of lost interest in rock music. To me, not much has happened in rock music since the post-punk era. The other guys are more involved in rock on a day to day basis, listening to it, and they also ask me, “Have you heard so-and-so?” And I have no idea what the fuck they’re talking about. And they play it for me and I don’t really care, because I don’t feel like there’s a revolution happening and I’m so interested in many types of music. Not that it’s bad or anything. People should like rock music. But I just wrote something that was performed at the New England Conservatory, so I can put my creative energy there and think about, “How was that accordion concerto versus Stockhausen’s later work?” That stuff interests me as much as Gang of Four, and more than the Yeah Yeah Yeahs, although I do like the Yeah Yeah Yeahs. I just constantly change.
I was unaware that you had written anything for the New England Conservatory. Could you tell me more about that?
After we recorded The Obliterati, I was certain no one was going to like it and I was looking for something to do to use up my creative energy. I hadn’t done any of this “music school writing” where I write out a 20-minute piece with movements. This one’s for viola, piano, percussion and pre-recorded sounds. I was asked to perform on a Stockhausen piece at the New England Conservatory as an improviser. I talked to Steven Drury, the leader of the contemporary music department, and I told him about my piece. It was performed in November. It was a trip. Some of it sounds kind of like rock—the last movement is a viola performing in unison with a backing track of guitar feedback with piano and percussion kind of rumbling around underneath it.
What advice would you give to an aspiring musician?
If everybody is trying to do one thing, you should be doing something else. That was the thing about both psychedelia and punk rock, which were two of the greatest movements in rock: in both those times, you could go to shows that had three completely different kinds of bands—one that was improvisatory, one that was tight, one that was chaotic, or one that had good musicians and one that was completely naïve, and you would appreciate all those because of the energy behind it. That’s where I think things are interesting. When everyone’s trying to sound a certain way, and you’ve got all these guitar bands and a certain type of singing—stay away.
Mission Of Burma will be performing at Maxwell’s in Hoboken Jan. 28 and the Bell House in Brooklyn on Jan. 29. More information at missionofburma.com.