Mission of Burma

More Cowbell!
Mission of Burma Beats the Reaper by Keeping Things Fresh

Mission of Burma has been called a force of nature, but it proved no match for Hurricane Sandy. My first scheduled call with bassist Clint Conley fell by the wayside when the storm took down Boston phone lines. “We lost our power for about a day, which by comparison to what other people went through is pretty mild,” Conley explained when we finally connected a couple weeks later. Burma was hardly Conley’s first concern during the storm – he has a wife and two daughters, a house full of dogs, and has worked for roughly two decades as a producer at the Boston television newsmagazine program Chronicle.

Mission of Burma is not the all-consuming lifestyle of its 1980 incarnation. But that hardly matters – earlier this year the trio released Unsound, the best album of what was already a decade-long resurgence, displaying more fire and creativity than most bands half their age. Strip the classic debut single and EP tracks that are often co-mingled in memory banks with their 1982 full-length Vs. and it may be their best album, period.

Despite the band’s outsized early reputation, amazingly Burma v2.0 has now lasted nearly twice as long as the initial run, perhaps thanks to the ONoffON approach that matches the title of their 2004 “comeback” album. “It doesn’t feel that long – it always takes us by surprise when we realize how long this second phase has been. It’s hard to believe it’s been over ten years – time is a funny thing. It feels very elastic, and elusive. Compared to the first go ’round, it’s a completely different approach, for all the obvious reasons – we’re older and have other aspects of our lives that demand attention, jobs or families or kids or whatnot. Whereas the first go ’round it was just total immersion – living in a house together [which doubled as the band’s rehearsal space], the whole bit. It was like being in a cult, a totally immersive internal system where we could barely relate to the outside world. Now it’s more part-time, but when we do convene it’s the same as it ever was, like someone just turns a switch.”

Burma is the rare band with three distinct personalities who bring out the best in each other, creating an unmistakable whole. They’re also unmistakably egalitarian. “We usually start our albums with a song by each of us,” Conley explains. “We thought ‘Dust Devil’ was a real kickass way to start this one – no intro, just ‘BANG!’” At the same time, the trio isn’t falling into formula – far from it. Guitarist Roger Miller later added by email, “When we started to think of making this album, Pete said we had to push our comfort zone or it wasn’t worth doing,” referring to drummer Peter Prescott. “And I think we did that.”

To these ears it was the ideal time for a shakeup. After opening with the thrilling “1, 2, 3, Partyy!” (featuring a count-off from Conley’s brother, who sometimes also serves as roadie), Burma’s last outing, 2009’s The Sound, the Speed, the Light showed their first signs of fatigue. And with a three-year gap between albums, I began to wonder if the engine had run out of coal. As it turns out, they were simply saving their powder for the next frontal assault. Check out the wondrous blast of the new “ADD in Unison,” which Miller intentionally switched over to bass to write. “That one’s such a gnarly, complicated machine,” Conley marvels, adding that its complex pacing is difficult to replicate. “All of Roger’s songs are hard to do live – I wish the guy would lay off,” he laughs. “But it’s really fun and powerful.”

Speaking of fun, I can’t be the only one who hears echoes of “Don’t Fear the Reaper” in Conley’s insistent cowbell accents on “Second Television.” “Nice! I added cowbell on one of Roger’s songs but he buried it deep in the mix. Sometimes live I go up to the mic and bang away harder just to annoy him.” (Cue images of a shimmying, bare-bellied Will Ferrell.) “Hey man – there’s a place for cowbell in rock! The end of that song I had written really early in Burma, like ’79. It was called ‘Rest in Peace’ – Peter has no recollection of it – and I was pleased to bring it back to life.”

Another twist is unseen fourth member Bob Weston, who unexpectedly surfaces on trumpet (!) for the rousing finale of “ADD in Unison” and a few other Unsound passages. “I was surprised to read [that it was a first] in the press materials – I thought he had played it before, but it was probably on a Consonant record,” Conley says, referring to his own short-lived side project.

Still, Conley doesn’t buy into the notion that Burma shuffled the deck. “I wish there was a dramatic story – the publicists would love that. To me, making this record felt like the other ones – we just bumble forward.”

“I disagree with Mr. Conley on this!” Miller interjects. “Clint’s song ‘7’s’ uses almost entirely ‘7’ chords, which we virtually never use. And for ‘Second Television,’ he starts on guitar, then switches to bass, which he has never done before. ‘This is Hi-Fi’ is based on a friend’s dream – we’ve never done that before.

“I always listen to dreams – my own and other people’s around me. My friend Richie Parsons had a dream that I was in a hep bachelor pad playing hi-fi stereo systems all over the house, saying ‘this is hi-fi.’” For the vocal, Miller wanted to return to a trick he tried five years ago and recite the lyrics through a cell phone. “Except of course new cell phones aren’t like cell phones from five years ago, so Bob and I – mostly Bob! – spent some time trying to figure out how to [get the scratchy sound]. Ultimately, I sang into Bob’s phone going directly to the answering machine while I listened to the track.”

Weston’s role is the only change to the original lineup, as ‘80s soundboard manipulator Martin Swope remains unaccounted for after a post-Burma move to Hawaii. “It’s an unknown quantity,” Conley confirms. “There were no bad feelings. I love the guy dearly, but Martin was always an unusual fellow, and he’s just kind of slipped underground.” Meanwhile, drummer Prescott has gotten into the tape manipulation game with his “private concoction” Minibeast, the name under which he recently released the album Look Don’t Look.

 Conley’s narrowed his musical outlets to Burma, however. He declared Consonant to be “in pretty deep sleep, the guys in the band are spread around the country and there’s only so much time in life, unfortunately.” (The quartet’s self-titled debut is worth the search – trust me.) There’s also the issue of new material, which Conley isn’t writing much of these days. “I had an explosion of writing around 2000 and ’01. That was absolutely the vessel for Consonant – a volcanic eruption after 15-some years of not playing. But then it dies down, just as it was ebbing for me by 1982 after writing a lot. People’s creative processes are really weird. Mine are like locust invasions – they come out in big bursts, then go quiescent for a long while. I’m as mystified by it as anyone. It’s thrilling when it’s happening; it’s also semi-, quasi-manic in a way that can be disruptive to whatever life you’re living at the time.”

The members take different approaches to songwriting as well. “I bring things in fairly finished form. Roger does too, but he’s a lot more flexible about changing things, inviting more participation. I’d like to be more like Roger someday,” he laughs. “It’s not ego, it’s insecurity. Peter brings ideas that Roger helps flesh out and as a band we move toward a finished shape.”

Mission of Burma is gearing up for a December trip to Europe, which they’ve never had the luxury of covering to their satisfaction. These days their biggest scheduling challenge is Miller’s burgeoning career with the Alloy Orchestra, an in-demand booking on the film festival circuit providing live accompaniment to silent movies. “He’s very busy with Alloy and they book themselves really far out. We build Burma things into the cracks and crevices in Roger’s schedule – he’s always coming to us saying if we want to do something next June let me know now…”

The always thoughtful Miller shared some thoughts about the similarities and differences between his work in Mission of Burma and the Alloy Orchestra. “Both are trios with no leader – we all compose and collaborate, at any time the focus can shift from one player to another. Both are very anarchistic/democratic. And both bands spend lots of time in a van.” (At least used to, in Burma’s case.)

“But I’m the keyboardist in Alloy – keyboard for me is not as physical of an instrument, it’s more analytical/emotional. Another major difference is that Alloy accompanies a film, so the film tells us what to do. No one tells us what to do in Burma. When the next scene comes in the film, you have to be there. In Burma, if you start a song a few seconds later or stretch a middle section before the vocals re-enter, that’s just fine! In that sense, the amount of freedom in Burma is much greater.

“The biggest difference, though, is that in Alloy we’re only part of the spectacle – the film occupies a lot of people’s attention. The performance is much more objective, in the musical sense, for me. Burma is all about as much release as possible, catharsis is the number one goal. When a Burma show is done, I am usually a total blank – completely drained. When an Alloy show is over, I wonder what I’ll do for the rest of the evening!”

Conley relishes the freedom that the rules (or lack of rules) of Burma v2.0 offer, and isn’t making any promises or impossible constraints. “From the beginning of the reconvening there’s always been a sense of, ‘Well, is this the last turn around the track?’ Because it can’t go on forever, and we don’t have any particular ambitions or five-year plan. At this point it’s pretty apparent we’re not going to conquer the world – if it wasn’t apparent from the get-go. It feels right now – will it feel right in three, six months? Who knows?”

On the surging new “7’s” Conley implores, “All we ask is one more shot.” Could this be heard as Mission of Burma’s new rallying cry? For a band that’s famously reticent about discussing their lyrics, Conley offers something approaching agreement. “It could be,” he laughs. “I have no problem with that interpretation!”