February 20-26, 2003
The inexplicable truth behind Mission of Burma’s belated popularity.
For fans who might be inclined to mourn not being old enough to catch Mission of Burma the first time around, don't worry. You didn't miss much.At least not in Philadelphia.
"Philadelphia did not like Mission of Burma," recalls Roger Miller, the band's guitarist and principal singer. "We never had a single good show. It was always complete blank responses, which wasn't uncommon for us. It got so that when we were going to play Philadelphia, we knew it was going to be bad, so for our last show, we did all our slowest songs at the head [of the set], everything as slow and dirge-y as possible to start things off on the right foot. And it kept up through the whole thing. No response."
If Miller sounds more amused than rueful, it's because he's had a long time to learn how to find such things funny. Though beloved in their hometown of Boston, where they packed medium-sized theaters and won the undying love of the local music press, their success spread only sporadically. San Francisco was always good, Miller recalls, Chicago OK, New York hit-or-miss. But even on their farewell tour in 1983, the band played a show to a crowd of a half-dozen. (In fact, Michael Azerrad's book Our Band Could Be Your Life locates the show in Detroit, which would mean two of the songs on the posthumous live album The Horrible Truth About Burma are drawn from that sparsely attended gig. Miller prefers not to recall the exact city.)
So Mission of Burma -- composed of Miller, bassist Clint Conley and drummer Peter Prescott -- did what any self-respecting legendary postpunk trio would do: They broke up, took 19 years off, and returned to glory. Well, OK, it's a little more complicated than that. Though chronic underappreciation did take its toll, the main reason for the band splitting when it did was Miller's tinnitus, a persistent ringing in the ears caused by repeated exposure to high volume. Miller had already sustained damage to his ears before he moved to Boston, but after three years of Burma's sonic shred -- which required that Miller stand directly in front of his guitar amp in order to get the right kind of feedback -- he'd had enough. Though he continued making music with Birdsongs of the Mesozoic, Maximum Electric Piano, No Man and most recently silent-film accompanists The Alloy Orchestra (a regular at the Prince Music Theater), Miller stuck to lower-volume stuff, and kept his gigging schedule sparse.
But after Conley decided to come out of self-imposed musical retirement, Miller seized the chance for a Burma reunion. True to form, the band came out storming, playing six shows in five days in Boston and New York at the beginning of last year. Further installments of "The Inexplicable Tour" have followed every few months, a few cities at a time. Then, Miller jokes, "we break up right after, and reform a few months later."
Nowadays, he wears earplugs as well as airport-runway style headphones, and plays behind his amplifier, leaning up against it when he needs feedback. "It's a risk," Miller admits. "If I was just thinking about my ears, I certainly wouldn't be doing this. But I'm 50 now, and I go, well, OK, people are really digging this. I'm sacrificing somewhat, but I'm getting paid really well, and the audiences -- apparently we are seriously affecting other people. When you add those things up -- the degree of satisfaction I get, the effect we're having on other people, the amount it's allowing me to survive as an artist -- I just balance those things out."
The response has, Miller says, been nothing short of overwhelming. "There was a review in the New York Times with a photograph of me playing, and there were literally tears in my eyes. It was like How can this be? How can people care so much now, when that wasn't there before? We're baffled, basically. We're really happy, but we don't fully understand it."
Listen now to Burma's abbreviated output -- one album and one EP, plus the live album and a pair of demo collections -- and you can hear whole bands' careers in a single song: the crystalline guitars and death's-head drums of Sonic Youth's EVOL in "Einstein's Day," the aggro stop-start of Fugazi in "Outlaw," the chiming shimmer of Versus (who took their name from Burma's only album) on "All World Cowboy Romance." But what was really influential was the band's individuality. "When I think of bands that are truly influenced by us, they wouldn't necessarily sound like us," Miller says. "The bands that mimic our style aren't getting it at all, because the real thing has nothing to do with style."
What prevented Burma from breaking through was the lack of an underground support network; the "get in the van" style of touring hadn't really been established, although Burma didn't make things easier on themselves by taking advantage of a discount airline gimmick to book an entire tour by plane -- the catch being that every flight had to go through Atlanta. Nowadays, a band like Sleater-Kinney or Yo La Tengo can make a decent living playing mid-sized houses across the country, but Burma, Miller says, "fell through the cracks."
"I was talking with Lee Ranaldo, and he told me that Sonic Youth was just about ready to give up, right around the same time that we gave up. I think it was Bad Moon Rising, and nobody was paying attention. Then something happened. They kept going, they got over that hump, and then they put out EVOL, and the rest is pretty much history. Things weren't there. It wasn't just the physical system -- it was people's awareness or something."
Saturday's TLA show is the last of Burma's most recent resurfacing, and as much as they're enjoying the present, Miller seems to think it's just about time to start thinking about the future. "What takes most bands a month, to hit all the major cities, we've done in a year and a half, which is perfect for the way we work. But we've got a bunch of new songs -- I've written one for each of the five times we've gone out on tour, Clint has three, Pete has one -- so we're contemplating: We could make a record. Why shouldn't we make a record?' We haven't decided to make a record, but we haven't decided not to."
The band has been recording every show for a planned documentary and possible live album, and Miller says listening to the recordings has only strengthened his resolve. He cites in particular a new version of "Fun World," recorded at Boston's Paradise last year and released on the compilation In Our Lifetime, Vol. 3. (The album can be purchased or streamed at www.fenwayrecordings.com.) "I say, play Peking Spring' from The Horrible Truth About Burma, then play Fun World' from us 20 years later, then play He Is, She Is' from The Horrible Truth About Burma. I swear, Fun World' sounds better. The production is tighter and better, and the band is better. We're certainly no worse. To me that was a major turning point, putting those together. It's easy to feel like what if we're just propped-up corpses, not really doing the job. I just said, Man, you guys, listen to this shit, and compare. We're doing the job.'"
Mission of Burma plays Sat., Feb. 22, 9 p.m., $22.50-$25, with Oxes, The TLA, 334 South St., 215-336-2000.