Reunions aren't supposed to happen this way.
Rarely does a trailblazing indie rock band get back together decades later simply for the joy of making music, then write new songs equal to or better than their early ‘80s heyday output. But most bands aren't Boston's Mission of Burma.
An influence on major altertative rock bands from R.E.M. and Sonic Youth to Fugazi and Nirvana, the group had a brief moment during the waning days of disco when it melded angular guitar riffs and punk ethos with live tape loops for a sound ahead of its time. After a few lean touring years, they disbanded (mostly due to guitarist Roger Miller's hearing damage) but got back together in 2002 and have since released three acclaimed albums with youthful vigor to spare.
During the hiatus, bassist and cofounder Clint Conley settled into a television production job and raised a family, quitting music for 20 years.
“Unquestionably it's more fun now. This go-around has really just impressed upon me what lucky bastards we are,” says Conley. “It's not a scenario we could've ever imagined that later anyone would care—let alone we would pick up, write new music and not embarrass ourselves.”
Conley was initially worried the band was going to tarnish its legacy. “But now it's been eight years. That's twice as long as the first go around. The worry is still there when we go into the studio, but so far I think we've avoided it,” he says.
Many critics would agree, having regularly voted the newer albums into the annual Village Voice Pazz & Jop poll. The band also now features the talents of ex-Shellac (and Kepone producer) Bob Weston on mixing board and offstage tape manipulation. “I think we're really happy to be where we are,” Conley continues. “We don't have tremendous ambitions at this point. It's not about building a career. In a lot of ways we've proven who we are … and we're just as out of step now as we were then.”
Back then, the group relied on college radio while playing before tiny club audiences and disgruntled hardcore fans. “Even though we liked dumb punk rock music, we didn't necessarily want to be dumb,” Conley recalls. “It was about noise. Whether it's giant amps and E chords for six minutes, which has a monumental beauty all its own, or Albert Ayler taking things all the way out, working to a dervish frenzy.”
Conley crosschecks a list of gigs from back when they played “amps made of stone and wood” and it seems Burma has never played Virginia before.
“Early on, we were envisioning a music we weren't hearing … it was important for us to find something new. Nine of out ten bands that have that as a mandate, it feels forced, or oppressing—I've been in those bands. It's a tricky line to walk.”
Conley wrote and sang Burma's most popular number, the oft-covered anthem “That's When I Reach For My Revolver” (attributed to a comment about culture from Nazi Hermann GAring). He also found early inspiration from Kinks frontman Ray Davies and Cleveland art punkers Pere Ubu.
“Ray was the first one to bring personality to rock songwriting. Everyone else was behind this pop veneer. You really got a sense of who he was, and that was an important step for rock,” Conley explains. “As for Pere Ubu, when I heard those first singles, they were earth shaking. They staked the territory ahead … but we never tried to copy their sound. We were always intent on rocking the shit out of what we do.”
The hungry years gave Conley an appreciation of how far the band has come now that it is widely respected. “Back then, every little gain was so incremental we could barely notice it. I look at younger bands on festival bills with us, and they don't seem to be enjoying themselves. You almost feel like shaking them by the neck and saying ‘dude, you gotta enjoy it. This is not a God-given right,'” he says.
The band has no future plans but to keep enjoying the ride, however long it lasts. “We're proceeding as we ever did without plan or foresight or much sense of what we're doing or how we got there.”
And what about Miller's ears: How are they holding up?
“When he was 30 he was losing his hearing so he quit. He didn't want to be deaf when he was 60. Now that he's around 60, he's like, ‘what the f—k, might as well go for it.' The upside has overtaken the downside at this point.”
Mission of Burma performs on Friday, Feb. 19 at Tyler Haynes Commons at The University of Richmond. Doors open at 9:15 p.m. Tickets are available at Plan 9 Music in Richmond.