This weekend brings a two-night stand at the Brighton Music Hall for post-punk godfathers MISSION OF BURMA, who have somehow morphed into a band that’s equal parts internationally renowned throwbacks and prolific Boston underdogs. For this week's Cellars By Starlight column in the Phoenix, I recently sat down with guitarist Roger Miller at his home in Somerville to talk about the evolution of the band in both worlds, and the unorthodox path his career has taken since he first landed a record deal in 1969. Here's the full transcript.
You guys are deeper into this revival than most bands ever get with a whole career -- what’s the Modus operandi of the band at this point?
We make a record, we play for awhile, then we wonder if it’ll grind to a halt or we’ll make another record. If enough of us write songs, then the scales kind of tip. If we have enough that we should make a record –- that’s a matter of us all agreeing to do it. It’s a very vague process, but it always gets done, apparently. This will be our fourth since the “Reformation,” as it were, and I think we’re all kind of pepped on this one.
Was everybody down on the last one?
No, no, it just varies. With the The Sound The Speed The Light -- it’s a pretty record and has some good songs on it. But it doesn’t have the grip ‘em by the throat energy of The Obliterati, so we were thinking, “How can we ramp it up a bit?” It felt like there was a bit of a coasting, I suppose. And [drummer] Pete [Prescott] especially was like, “We get comfortable and just write Burma songs, then we’re not really doing the right job.” When someone tells me to do that, I just take it and do it. So I wrote a few songs on acoustic guitar rather than electric guitar and some on bass guitar. They’re like bass riffs, so that got me out my typical just sitting down thinking, “Oh yeah, Roger’s got a cool guitar style.” It makes me differently so I’m fucking with myself. Pete was trying to work more melodic stuff and Clint [Conley, bassist] too -– each of his songs has something different from he normally does. So that what would make a good record if, indeed, it turns out to be any good.
Isn’t Peter the one who’s been quoted as saying the band can’t possibly do more than a few more shows?
Yeah, well, words are cheap [laughs]. But when he said that, we really were deciding whether we’d make another record or not, so they weren’t really cheap words. They sunk in deeply.
The last one, we recorded at a really nice studio [Squid Hell in JP]. This time, the economy’s really funky and there are all these questions like, “What is a record? What’s a label? How do you sell records?” Everybody sells less records, which means you’re going to get paid less for your work and your time. If you work a month on a record and you don’t make any money, then you’ve got to make that money from somewhere else, you know. So we didn’t use a big studio -– we used Analog Divide, where we rehearse, which is Black Helicopter’s space. We brought in Bob [Weston], as we always to -– the “loop guy” in the band who’s engineered all the record. So since it’s where we rehearse anyway, it was completely natural. We were just ripping it out. When I hear the rough mixes for the next record, the energy level is much closer to The Obliterati, which I consider to be a good thing.
You had a fairly long journey just getting to Burma in the first place, right?
Yeah, the first band I was in was Sproton Layer, which was in ’69 and ’70. It just got reissued by a German label (which is astounding in itself). I knew then that me and my two brothers had written a pretty mature body of work. Being in 12th grade, I though, “Well now I’ve done that and now I have a career.” The thing is, at that point, the psychedelic expansion was contracting and everything was like boogie and heavy metal. We were a more expansive thing, so it didn’t add up. It was a complete flop and it depressed me until Burma formed. That was my vindication. But all the years in between, there was no way. No matter what I did, it couldn’t penetrate the world. The time wasn’t right.
You had studied for awhile at Cal Arts in Los Angeles -- no footholds anywhere for you there?
Well, I was a little too schizoid. I’d go to music school then I’d play free jazz. I was dabbling, but I was acquiring all kind of types of knowledge. Despite the fact that all I’d really wanted to do was play in rock bands and put out records. It would have been interesting to see what would have happened if I stayed at Cal Arts, gotten my degree in composition and maybe gone on to follow Steve Reich and Philip Glass and become notorious in that world. It’s conceivable. But I needed to make rock records. It was everything I’d wanted to do since I was in sixth grade and the Beatles hit. So whatever convoluted path I took, I ended up in the right place and made Vs. finally with Burma. I don’t know if it’s a masterpiece, but it’s pretty damn good. It’s something that I’d be very proud of if it was the only rock record I ever made in my life.
Are you still working on your own modern composition work?
Yeah, I finished one piece in May -– a piece for three percussionists, two string trios, and an electric organ. It hasn’t been performed yet but I’ve sent a copy to Steve Drury at the New England Conservatory. And I have a piece that I’m just finishing now and I’m meeting with an incredible clarinetist Thursday.
You’re doing a lot through NEC now?
There’s a lot of cross-referencing -– it’s not just classical here, rock here. There’s a lot of crossover. There was a Callithumpian Consort concert there in December and, even though I’d been to a lot of them, I started to realize then that in a way, these kind of performances are the equivalent of like, for me, Cantone’s or maybe O’Briens. It’s roots-level. It was an interesting way of looking at it. It’s not too serious.
That was kind of the attraction from the start for a lot of people to Burma, right? You guys were playing with these pretty far-out art-school ideas that people could understand with a little work, but it was never too high-minded.
The main thing I think of when we play a show is the visceral physicality of it -– just the raw sounds. After you’re hit by that, then you might think, “Well that structure was really interesting there -- no wonder I couldn’t follow it.” It’s more complicated than your average rock song. But the first thing you get is just a physical band. And I agree with you in that sense -– it keeps us from being too pompous. I mean we could be pompous if we wanted to be, but none of us seemed to really have it in us.
Do you feel like you have more of a place in the rock scene nowadays?
The bands that we still feel the most affinity to are the ones that are like us -– we’re friends with Yo La Tengo, Shellac, Sonic Youth. “Old guard” bands. Those guys are all slightly newer guard than we are, but we’re just like them except that we had stopped playing for 19 years. We’re from back then and still active and still putting out records that definitely don’t suck, whatever they are.
There are lots of new bands we like, but it’s slightly different because we’ve been around so long. There’s this respect that becomes almost comic. It’s like, “Who are we? We don’t really play that much. We’re barely a band.” But these people respect it, so we kind of make fun of it and try to have a good time.
How much of a role did Boston’s culture play in the formation and success of Burma?
Huge. I mean I couldn’t get anything going back in Michigan, and this was the home of the Stooges and MC5 and the Amboy Dukes -– all sorts of interesting shit. But by the ‘70s, it had all dried up. Within three weeks of coming here, I’d joined the Moving Parts and met Erick Lindgren [of Birdsongs of the Mesozoic] and started Mission of Burma. There couldn’t have been a better place for me to have moved to.
Here’s an example. My older brother is quite a known geologist and does a lot of work in the outback in Australia. He was in the middle of Australia like a thousand miles from any city. He’s sitting around the fire with these seven other geologists and talking about what they do. One guy is from Harvard and my brother mentions, “Oh yeah, my brother’s in Mission of Burma.” And the guy is like, “Your brother is in Mission of Burma?” It was one of his favorite bands. It’s seven people in the outback, all really smart scientists, talking about a Mission of Burma. To me, that’s a very Boston phenomenon.
And there’s just so much youth and turnover. Any town rises and falls as to its importance, but overall Boston is not a bad place for me to have ended up. I mean I’m in two bands that are, on a small scale, world-class bands. Neither are really famous, but they get me around and I get paid and I don’t have to have a day job, so that must mean something is good.
Fans in their 20s and 30s have the sort of luxury of never really parting with their favorite bands -– it seems like they never really go away anymore. Did you have that with any idols growing up?
We didn’t have anyone like that to look up to as kids. Most of the groups I loved either broke up, like the Beatles, or died, like Jimi Hendrix. Pink Floyd kept putting out stuff, but I was one of those guys that no longer had any interest in the band by the time Dark Side of the Moon came out. The Who kept making music, but again I had lost interest by the mid-'70s in their stuff. They weren’t anything for me. Captain Beefheart kept doing stuff for awhile. He walked away a couple times and also made some really bad music in between.
A lot of those bands had no choice but to keep it at a showbiz level or else the whole tent would come down. The early punk and indie musicians from the ‘80s seemed to have avoided that.
Right. The model shifted because punk was a very DIY thing. It wasn’t that you put out a hit and you kept putting hits out so you’re huge. The model was that if you could keep playing and you could make a living, that’s good. I think that’s the main part of it. I can’t explain it any more than that. Perhaps because of that, bands like Yo La Tengo or Shellac or Sonic Youth, because you never got to this bloated stage where you needed to keep bloating it further and you were always in this proletarian environment, you kept your edge a bit better than the bands that became pure showbiz.
You were held a bit more accountable for your actions, it seemed like.
Right. And psychedelia was like that also, but the punk thing had to do with not caring what people thought of them -– “We’re going to stick by our guns.” A lot of bands didn’t, but whatever. That kind of model and that kind of thing did sink in to a certain degree. There could be a tier -– like there are certain bands that Bob called “hobby rock.” I mean, Mission of Burma is not a hobby for me, but you can call it whatever it you want.
But it’s at least at the level where people a few notches below can still identify –- you’re still working it out at your Allston practice space just like them.
Right, it’s not this quantum difference. “You’re way up there and unless I can make the leap from here to here, I’m nobody.” Which I think is a really healthy thing. It’s better than you have to be a superstar or be nobody, and after two years you must die.
Did On Off On come out, did it just seem like the token reunion album?
We toured for a couple years on it, and it wasn’t bad. It didn’t knock me out. The reviews were really positive but, yeah, the audiences got smaller. When The Obliterati came out -– when we were mixing it, that’s when I started writing this piece for the Conservatory because I thought Burma wouldn’t be existing anymore. Then Burma took off again. It was a shock again.
The reviews for On Off On were so raving because they had to be. It was almost an obligation that you had to rave about the damn record. If you looked at it, the reviews weren’t as good for The Obliterati, but the people that really knew it all said, “This is the record we’d really hoped Burma would make. It blows On Off On away.” You just didn’t have those goggles on that made the other look so much shinier than it was.
You’re lucky to have even more material from different genres to await revival –- your first band, Sproton Layer, is just catching the psychedelic wave now with a new reissue in Germany. Are there any other hidden bands waiting for new resurgences?
Ha, not for me! Maybe there’s some stuff in between that’s kind of interesting. It’s hard for me or Mission of Burma to bite the hand that feeds us, but the very fact that there’s so much interest in these older bands makes you think. I mean when punk rock was happening, you dismissed everything as much as possible and just focused on this little area. Now, bands like Mission of Burma can keep playing and Sproton Layer is being reissued. So it must mean that there’s a void because it wouldn’t be filling something if there wasn’t. And it’s not Mission of Burma’s problem –- I think we’re actually rising pretty well to the occasion.
MISSION OF BURMA + VIVA VIVA [Friday] + SHEPHERDESS [Saturday] | Brighton Music Hall, 158 Brighton Ave, Allston | January 20 + 21 @ 8 pm | 18+ | $18 | 617.779.0140 or brightonmusichall.com