Mission of Burma's perfect 'Unsound' forever
Clint Conley on the Boston post-punk legend's ongoing reunion
Mission of Burma's career in underground rock is one of the most unusual tales to come from Boston's music scene. It is the story of three experimental musicians who were determined to express themselves through an agitated, rebellious tone. And after breaking up more than three decades ago, guitarist Roger Miller, bassist Clint Conley, and drummer Peter Prescott continue to rage against the commonplace. Formed in the Boston suburb of Brighton circa 1979, Mission of Burma's terse, post-punk style blended a palette of '60s and '70s underground rock with '80s punk and new wave while subtly embracing Dada and surrealism's reactionary place in the fine-arts world.
Beginning with the group's debut EP, Signals, Calls, and Marches (1981), and followed by its first proper full-length, Vs. (1982), Burma's legacy began with a short blast of lo-fi and high-spirited sounds that canonized the group as an East Coast legend of the post-punk era. In the process, the group left an indelible mark on American indie rock, influencing scores of artists, including everyone from R.E.M., Hüsker Dü, and Sonic Youth to Moby and Yo La Tengo. But after Vs. arrived, Burma called it quits and its members went on to pursue various other musical endeavors with varying degrees of success — Kustomized, Volcano Suns, Birdsongs of the Mesozoic, and so on.
After the band was featured in music journalist Michael Azerrad's history of '80s U.S. indie rock, Our Band Could Be Your Life: Scenes From the American Indie Underground 1981-1991, renewed interest in Mission of Burma began to percolate throughout the music press, lighting a fire under Miller, Conley, and Prescott. In 2002, they reconvened to pick up the pieces right where they left off, and have continued exploring the same noisy corners of post-punk and art-rock all over again.
"The whole thing is preposterous," Conley says of the group's history. "It defies all logic and the way we typically expect the world to operate. It has unfolded naturally because, in some ways, we're not trying to do anything at all. We're free from ambition," he adds. "We know who we are and what we'll never be, and we don't have this striving or professional ambition where you have this seething under the surface — like 98 percent of the bands out there. We're comfortable with who we are and what our sound is."
Burma's initial breakup wasn't the result of inner-band turmoil or tough times on the road; it was mostly due to Miller's worsening struggle with tinnitus. To this day, he endures a constant ringing in his ears. He's learned to minimize the pain and prevent anymore damage to his ears by slipping on a pair of gun-range headphones and placing a sound-muffling divider around Prescott's drums during live performances — the show goes on.
Unsound, the group's first effort with British-based indie label Fire Records, arrived last summer, sporting 11 songs that rekindle the raw riffage and unrestrained noise of Burma's explosive classic records. Stylistically, the album takes bold steps beyond the group's comfort zone, while flowing with a natural progression that's aligned with its previous three post-reformation albums, OnOffOn (2004), The Obliterati (2006), and The Sound the Speed the Light (2009) — all released via Matador.
As it has been from the beginning, the person who wrote the song sings it. Miller's jagged rhythm guitar and sneering verses in "Dust Devil" and "Feel-->H2O" invoke such early influences as Wire and Gang of Four, and his signature tremolo adds a nervous feel to Conley's hectic rocker "7's." By contrast, the dynamic bass chords and guitar lines of Conley's chiming in "Semi-Pseudo-Sort-Of Plan" and "Second Television" balance dissonance and harmony in a way that's typical of Burma's defining moments throughout its career.
Prescott's yelling-singing style leads the charge through "What They Tell Me," replete with the most caveman-like stomp he can conjure. Caustic and frenzied at times, Unsound finds beauty within a chaotic tangle of sound. "We're kind of wired up in our DNA," Conley says. "We're not striving terribly hard to be something we're not, and there's plenty more to explore in this little patch of ground that we seem to have staked for ourselves 30 years ago. There are endless ways to roam around this little patch of territory — this aggressive guitar thing that Roger, Peter, and I have been doing for a while now."
The dense textures between Miller and Conley's guitar-and bass-interplay are well-intact. Prescott's drumming style — a hyper-thumping wall of heavy-handed snare drum rhythms, thundering tom rolls, and erratic cymbal accents — shoves a healthy sense of chaos and spontaneity underneath the rhythms and dynamics of each song.
Bob Weston (Shellac, Volcano Suns) stepped in to replace Burma's original audio engineer Martin Swope when the band reformed, and has been a fixture ever since. At the mixing board, Weston's loops and sampling enhance, distort, and accentuate songs, redistributing random vocal and instrumental tracks with sponteneity. "Accident is king in Mission of Burma," Conley adds. "There's little intentionality. There can't be, unless we're sitting down for a strategy meeting. When you have three writers, you don't get a unified vision of what the next record should be, and we've certainly never sat down in some boardroom to decide what our next record should be or what kind of approach we'd use. If things take on a different cast or coloration or something, it's more or less by accident."
Conley and his bandmates handle Burma with the same sense of independence and self-control as the group always has. They go out on the road when they like, giving performances that are as personally gratifying as they were when the group started playing together more than 30 years ago in a basement in Brighton.
"We truly enjoy playing together, so we make music when we feel like making music," Conley says. "We take time off, then go out and play live when we feel like going out and playing live. It's an enviable position to be in as a band. It's not like we exist on some extravagant level. We exist on a very modest level that's just a step up from where it used to be back in the '80s. It's a remarkable thing to be able to do when you're in your 50s."