Epic fail: seconds after replacing the receiver after a conversation with Roger Miller, guitarist with seminal post-punk group Mission Of Burma, I play the tape (okay, digital recording) back to reveal… silence. Peppered by telephone static, but otherwise: silence.
Immediate action: an e-mail missive is dispatched and, surprisingly, responses return quick sharp – “These questions seem familiar. Did you interview me before?" The reason: the reissuing, in deluxe form, of three Mission Of Burma releases. Their Signals, Calls And Marches EP, originally released in 1981, is now expanded to ten tracks, incorporating debut single ‘Academy Fight Song’ / ‘Max Ernst’ and a pair of previously unreleased studio takes of ‘Devotion’ and ‘Execution’; Vs., the band’s hugely influential debut album of ’82; and The Horrible Truth About Burma, a live LP initially issued in ’85. Each also comes with a bonus DVD of live footage.
For latecomers: Mission Of Burma, based in Boston, Massachusetts, formed in 1979 and split only four years later, but their inventiveness within the post-punk field has seen them celebrated as being an incredibly important act within contemporary circles of a similar genre bent. The band – originally Miller (guitar, vocals), Clint Conley (bass, vocals), Peter Prescott (drums) and Martin Swope (tape manipulator/sound engineer) – returned in 2002 with Shellac’s Bob Weston replacing Swope, and have since released a pair of LPs via Matador – ONoffON (2004) and The Obliterati (2006) – both of which have been warmly received critically to say the least.
Speaking of critical receptions, the deluxe editions of the aforementioned reissues each received fantastic scores from online music magazine of note Pitchfork, Signals… branded with an almost unprecedented 9.8 on the site. It’s enough to make a person wonder what the heck the fuss is all about. Which is probably why you’re here.
Video: ‘That’s When I Reach For My Revolver’ (live, post-reformation)
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Firstly, why now for these deluxe editions?
Well, the Rykodisc contract ran out, and they made zero attempt to work with us when we reformed. So, it was a good time to move on. Besides, we know the cats at Matador; we’ve a peaceful coexistence. After a few years of us doing new shit, why not re-release the old? Is it better, is it worse? (How would we know?) I like the fact that there are now two new songs associated with the ‘Academy Fight Song’ / ‘Max Ernst’ 45, thus making it our first EP. The video portion of the program is at least fun and funny.
Do you feel that there’s a whole new audience out there for you, and these reissues? Fans that have come to the band since the reformation in 2002, and the subsequent new albums?
When we ‘reformed’ in 2002, the audience was made up of, in a large part, people ‘our age’ who saw us ‘back in the day’, or else just missed us. Due to the general increase of girth with age, this caused some clubs to be very ‘packed’. However, in a couple years, ‘those folks’ had seen us enough (and probably had kids at home to take care of...), and they dropped out. Our audience shrank, and it looked like it had been a fun ride, but it was winding down. Then we released The Obliterati, which I expected no one to give a flying fuck about, and things inexplicably changed… Our audience began increasing again, and now the age of those in the front rows was 20s and 30s. You know, that's quite an honor. We are amazed to this day.
Do you get a kick out of playing these songs from the early ‘80s to new faces, given that many of them weren’t even born at the time of their original release? Is there any feeling within the band that now you can give the Vs. songs a different lease of life?
Well, the first thing we did when we reformed in 2002 was have each guy write a new song. That way we wouldn't be some ancient band just trodding out the old shit. If you aren't living NOW, why bother? (I'll skip my analogy of tortoises and trees.) Last fall, 2007, we even deliberately dropped out a lot of the old material - even not playing our ‘big hits’, like ‘That’s When I Reach For My Revolver’, ‘Academy Fight Song’, ‘Trem Two’ – and audiences STILL liked it.
As for the ‘old stuff’, we play those songs very similarly to how we did back in the day, but some things change, some sections get modified. Others don't. It's as if we are just playing songs we love. We don't think about changing them... we just do what feels right. We are incredibly self-centered.
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The liner notes on these deluxe editions are pretty comprehensive – was it an enjoyable experience, a wander down memory lane? Did you uncover elements of the recording or writing process you’d forgotten, recall any anecdotes lost to the mists of time?
Yeah, it was really fun doing those interviews. We are all still really good friends, with Rick Harte, the producer of all the early stuff and head of Ace of Hearts Records, which all the early stuff came out on, included. Mists of time? I'm more concerned about the mists of the future than the mists of the past.
How does the band manage the amazing critical reception it’s received not only for the reissues – a 9.5 and a 9.8 on the other site of note is amazing – but the two post-reformation releases? Is it tough to have perspective given your involvement? Do you just laugh along and enjoy the ride?
Basically, we are amazed. We 100 per cent believed in what we did at the time, to the extent that we didn't really care that much what anyone else thought. We'd go on tour, and looking back at it now, it's quite amazing we didn't quit then and there! The response was not exactly ground breaking. But we seemed to enjoy each other's company, and each other's ideas, and, I guess, as far as we could tell, we were in the best band we could possibly be in. What's to whine about? I mean, we were able to pay the monthly van loan bills, eat food, pay rent and get free beer.
As for the present, we still pay for the van, eat better than we did before, and generally drink higher quality beer than we used to. The whole thing's a bit of a trip, but we still enjoy each other's company in the van, and our amusement factor has not diminished.
Your successful reformation can be seen as a catalyst for a few other acts now able to command much bigger audiences than they did ‘back in the day’ – acts like Slint, Dinosaur Jr, even Pixies. Would you say that’s a fair observation?
Beats me. I guess we were ‘ahead of the curve’ on that one. We all saw Wire in 2001 in Boston - Pete's band, The Peer Group, opened up for them, which included Clint on bass... I joined on organ and trumpet for that show so I could get in for free - and they totally DID NOT SUCK playing Pink Flag and that stuff. I can't say that that was the catalyst for our reunion, but it didn't hurt to have that in our subconscious.
Video: ‘This Is Not A Photograph’ (live, 1980)
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Those first few steps back into the live arena in 2002 – more nervous than those very first ones taken in ’79? Was there trepidation? Did you worry that people might not give a shit? If people hadn’t received the band so well again, do you think you’d have released the two ‘00s records?
In 1979 we had two things going for us: total belief and the naivety of youth. And if that adds up with other shit, it's an unstoppable combination (in your own mind). In 2002 we were definitely a bit more nervous. BUT… once rehearsals got under way, we felt good about it all. As far as I was concerned, if audiences don't like it, it's their fault, not ours - very much like ‘79-‘83. I mean, what can we do other than give it our all? If no one liked it, we'd just stop after a few shows. What the fuck? We never intended to be rock stars, or to adapt our ideas to ‘mass marketing’.
But that's not how it turned out. To this day, if I stand back and look at it, it's almost too much, you know... I never expected this many people to actually give a fuck about what we did, or what we are doing.
How does playing sizeable theatre spaces compare to the smaller shows of your youth? Is it a comparable experience? Can you imagine playing in a sweaty club nowadays, or is the band simply at a position where such shows aren’t appealing or possible?
It is very gratifying to be playing larger venues with more people – i.e., more than 20 – who seem to really appreciate us. It's certainly different from '79-'83. But we don't take anything for granted. We played Vancouver in 2006, I think, and there were only 50 people in the crowd. But they were there for the music, so we gave it. I mean, 50, 500, 5,000,000,000 - you just gotta give 'em the rock, however many are there.
On the other hand, regarding the sizes of the stage: I sat in with my friends The Unnatural Axe last year in Boston, and the stage was so shallow that when I stepped back, I tripped over the drum riser and fell against the cymbal stands. Due to my own stupidity, I did this two or three times. I had an odd bruise on my back the next day... but it was worth it.
One of our favorite UK shows was in 2002 at the Garage - if that wasn't a sweaty, direct in your face show, I don't know what is.
Is your touring schedule, and recording schedule for that matter, pretty much under your control? When you tour with Shellac later this year, is that going to be a drain on Bob? Will the setlists fairly represent your entire catalogue, or focus on post-reformation material over the ‘80s songs?
We are no longer in our 20s - hmm, that's odd - so we have other responsibilities that keep us from 100 per cent ‘Devoting our lives to Rock’. Honestly, that's fine with us as well. Matador puts no pressure on us at all; our manager Mark Kates is perpetually baffled by our complete lack of ‘Career Initiative’, but still works with us because he's obviously insane. I mean, who cares? We do care, but what exactly do we care about? Still not sure...
As for material performed in Europe, who knows... It’ll probably a mix of the old stuff, The Obliterati, and new unrecorded stuff. We don't sit around on our arses all day, for the record.
As for Mr Weston, we already feel sorry for Bob having to do sound/tapeloops in Burma and then step onstage with Shellac in Europe. We're starting a fund, and you can send large denomination Euros directly to my checking account, number to be provided later.
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One of your forthcoming dates is at Primavera Sound in Barcelona – does the band make the effort to check out up-and-coming acts at festivals, perhaps those openly influenced by Mission of Burma?
We always try to check out the bands we play with, and try to keep up with the current scene. (Though we are very much looking forward to visiting the Gaudi Garden Park in Barcelona.)
What’s it feel like to hear a band, a contemporary band, wearing their Mission of Burma influences so clearly on their sleeves? There’s no way you could have thought at the time that Vs. would leave such an impression on musicians up to this day, right?
Well, we never seem to be able to see ‘the Burma Influence’ that people talk about. That's fine. Maybe we're too close to the source? Either way, it's a total honour and beyond what we ever expected that people reference us and seem to honestly like us without playing the pity card.
Finally, has the band’s songwriting changed since the reformation? Are you absorbing influences from contemporary artists, be they post-punk or whatever, or writing from within a bubble, impervious to external pressures?
I think, generally, our songwriting has gotten slightly easier to assimilate. Maturity? I hate to think so. Clint noted that, since 2002, we play our songs about 2 per cent slower than we used to, such that we hammer the changes and chords into a more obvious shape, rather than blurring at high speed between the sections of a song. I heard a recording of us in 1982, and some of the songs that I wrote, hell, even I could barely follow! In that sense, a touch of maturity never hurt anyone. However, if we ever get labeled as playing ‘Mature Rock’, please contact me and tell me to get a real job.
Mission Of Burma tour Europe as follows:
31 Barcelona Primavera Sound
2 Madrid Moby Dick with Shellac
3 Gijon Theatre with Shellac
4 Bilbao Kafe Antzoki with Shellac
5 Bordeaux BT 59
6 Nantes Olympic with Shellac
7 Paris Villette Sonique with Shellac
US dates available, along with music, images etc, at MySpace.
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DiS has a set of the band’s new deluxe reissues on Matador - Signals, Calls And Marches, Vs. and The Horrible Truth About Burma - to give away to one reader. Simply post your answer to the following question in the comments section below and we’ll drop the winner a DiS note asking for their full name and address on May 26.
Mission Of Burma’s Clint Conley produced the debut album by which New Jersey-based indie band in 1986?
A) Yo La Tengo?
B) Black Flag?
Simply post your answer below – not too tough really, is it? – and we’ll contact the winner on May 26. Good luck!
Wide photographs: Kelly Davidson