In their first incarnation, Mission of Burma existed a mere four years, from 1979 to 1983. They were barely known outside of their hometown, Boston. They never sold more than a few thousand records.
For indie-rock fans of the early ’80s, however, the sort who ferreted out obscure fanzines and listened obsessively to college radio, Mission of Burma always loomed large. Their abrasive sound was a tonic after the synthesized, air-brushed new wave that was then popular. The complex structures lurking beneath the noise welded the cathartic simplicity of punk with the more experimental innovations of free jazz and modern classical music.
When the group reunited for a tour in 2000, rabid fans crisscrossed the Atlantic to witness the gigs in the States and Britain. Their new record, “ONoffON,” only their second full-length album to date, has had critics in raptures. Like the Velvet Underground or Faust, Mission of Burma, it seems, were simply before their time.
Even for the band members, after years struggling on the margins of music and now in the their late 40s or early 50s, MoB’s burgeoning notoriety is a mystery — especially considering that the foursome’s music is, even now, far from easy on the ear.
“Some people hear our music as total torture,” admits Roger Miller — the group’s guitarist — during a phone interview from his home in Boston. “But at the same time there is this ecstatic quality. It has something to do with Greek tragicomedy. You’ve got this stuff that should make you feel just horrible, but you feel some kind of relief.”
“ONoffON” bears all the MoB signatures, but without merely recycling their past efforts. The album opens in typical MoB fashion with the hum of feedback before slicing into Miller’s punkish “The Set Up.” Miller’s guitar catapults from power chords to pure noise while drummer Peter Prescott drives the song forward with explosive beats. Another of Miller’s tunes, “Max Ernst’s Dream,” reveals the more experimental side of the MoB equation with its dreamy lyricism and washes of sound. “Touching,” he sings enigmatically, “becomes the new seeing.”
Bassist Clint Conley has always written the group’s most anthemic, hooky songs. If anything, his songs have become more poignant over the years. The chorus of “What We Really Were” — noting that “nothing that perfect or simple ever lasts forever” — is simply heartbreaking.
To the novice listener, MoB’s fusion of noise and melody, chaos and structure is far from novel. After all, Sonic Youth has been exploring this dichotomy for nearly two decades. But in the late ’70s, Mission of Burma’s fusion of arty technique and punk ferocity was utterly new.
“[Prescott's] contribution to the band was more the raw energy, the punk energy. Mine was about complex structures and avant-garde technique,” says Miller. “Clint’s stuff is more pop structured and melodic.”
Sound man and fourth member Martin Swopes, replaced in MoB’s second incarnation by Shellac’s Todd Weston, looped and manipulated their live sound, making it ping-pong around the venue. Listeners often wondered how the three people on stage could produce such an aural onslaught.
And that sound was delivered at a ruthless volume, a fact that led ostensibly to the group’s breakup. Miller suffers from severe tinnitus, a condition that causes constant ringing in the ears.
“My hearing problem was probably the main reason,” says Miller, “but no one really knows. We never wanted to play again.”
Miller continued making music, honing his training in composition in what might be loosely described as “new music” ensembles like Birdsongs of the Mesozoic and the Alloy Orchestra. Prescott formed the postpunk group the Volcano Suns while Conley has pursued other interests while also playing with the more pop-influenced Consonant.
“The whole time it never occurred to me that I missed Mission of Burma,” says Miller of the group’s long pause. “I didn’t even listen to any Mission of Burma records for years. And then when we finally did get together after having never thought about it was like a switch was turned, like ‘ONoffON.’ And we turned it on again, and we were making rock music the way Mission of Burma makes rock music.”
Why exactly the group got back together is another mystery. The group’s inclusion in Michael Azerrad’s influential 2001 book about 1980s U.S. independent rock, “Our Band Could Be Your Life,” was certainly one reason.
“We played with Black Flag and Sonic Youth. All those bands like Big Black, the Butthole Surfers and Fugazi are important to us, but they became much more famous because they hung on. Had we kept going, these bands would have been our peers. We were just amazed to be included in this group and that anybody cared.”
But there had always been inklings of the group’s influence. REM covered “Academy Fight Song” on their album “Green” in 1988. Moby later covered one of their more notorious songs “(That’s When I Reach for My) Revolver” in 1996.
“People tell us that such and such band has a lot of Mission of Burma influence.” says Miller. ” ‘Really?’ we say. ‘I guess if you say so.’ “
“Someone told me that Steve Albini saw Mission of Burma and he liked a certain chaotic element in us and he incorporated that somewhat in Big Black, but Big Black doesn’t sound anything like Mission of Burma. People have told me that the fast chord changes in “Max Ernst” [a song from MoB's first album] may have influenced Bob Mould. But I don’t know. I listen to Husker Du and it doesn’t sound anything like Mission of Burma.”
Mission of Burma weren’t important just because of their sound, however, but also because of their attitude. Much like Moby and REM, their two most famous admirers, they were fierce iconoclasts, and, though never political per se, their music bristles with punk fury.
“Every one of us has this . . . irritation and rage at people accepting things that they just shouldn’t accept,” says Miller.
“Resignation has become a part of a lot of music now . . . but Mission of Burma is never about that.”
Nevertheless, their politics have become somewhat more upfront this time around. The band plays in front of a banner that reads “No New McCarthy Era,” and they regularly encourage their audiences in the United States to vote. On “Wounded World,” a song that can be interpreted as a reaction to the war in Iraq, Miller sarcastically sings, “Thanks for all your help and perfection . . . the machines we have built for the end.”
Ironically, the song was originally written in 1991 for one of Miller’s other bands.
“It is the exact same song with the exact same meaning as 12 years ago,” says Miller. “The economy is bad, we are attacking Iraq and George Bush is president. It’s the exact same situation. Even the names are the same.”
And that perhaps is why MoB still matters. Just like their first time around a quarter of a century back, the American public is mired in complacency, whether it be about the plastic pop played on the radio or the actions of the president.
“I don’t know why, it should feel really really different . . . [but] I feel the same way,” says Miller, referring to the group’s reformation. “Peter is just ranting away on this crazed vocal and I’m doing guitar stuff, then I join him on vocals and it is just like it was in 1982.”
Miller’s ears are also, unfortunately, just the same. Though when he plays he wears shooting-range headphones and is separated by Prescott’s drum kit by a large plexiglass baffle, MoB’s live schedule must be regulated to give Miller a break from their high volume.
“It is an occupational hazard,” says Miller. “If things weren’t going so well, maybe I would say why am I doing this, but the payoff is so great . . . I can’t stop this now.”