interview w/ Roger Miller (Mission of Burma, Alloy Orchestra)
Roger Miller (Mission of Burma) @ Maxwell’s (more)
“Of all the punk-inspired bands that came out of Boston in the early 80s, none were better than Mission of Burma. Arty without being too pretentious, capable of writing gripping songs and playing with ferocious intensity, guitarist Roger Miller, bassist Clint Conley, drummer Peter Prescott, and tape head Martin Swope galvanized the city’s alternative rock scene, and despite a too-short existence, set a standard for excellence that has rarely been equalled — a standard the band upheld when they unexpectedly reunited in 2002.” [AllMusic]
Mission of Burma has two announced shows coming up in the near future. On January 28 you can catch them at Maxwell’s in Hoboken with Grandfather (tickets). On January 29 they hit the Bell House with Buke and Gass (tickets). A few days later Roger will be back for three more NYC shows with his less-punk trio Alloy Orchestra.
BV photographer and writer Chris Gersbeck caught up with Roger on the phone on Monday. Here’s what they talked about…
Chris: How are you doing?
Roger: Pretty good, I’m in Vermont, I’m kind of in a mountainous area which is why my cell phone doesn’t work.
We’re excited to talk to you, thanks for doing this. Last time I saw you guys you were opening for Yo La Tengo for one of their Hanukah shows.
[laughs] That was pretty out of control.
How did that come about, I know the connection with Clint producing their debut, but do you all still keep in touch?
Yeah, we’re friendly with them, we’ve played festivals with them and shows. There’s a few bands around that I consider to be kind of like us in the sense that they started a long time ago and they still exist. You know, they aren’t a new band, but they’re still a band, they’re a band of veterans that people respect and to some degree Burma is like that. Sonic Youth, Shellac, these are kind of people that are similar to us in my mind. Wire.
Do you try to play shows with bands like that or is that just kind of the way it works out?
It just unfolds like that, or it doesn’t [laughs].
It ended with you guys all on stage together, did you get to rehearse it as a band?
One of them we got to rehearse and then another one it was like, “Roger, you’re up there on organ you gotta play on this one,” and it’s like, “I don’t know the song,” “it’s E and A!” They were all really simple songs that we were all on. The highlight of it for me was when Pete sang his Volcano Suns song, “Cover”. That was a total rip.
It was pretty amazing. Your set in general, as far as I know, was a lot of new material or covers.
Yeah it was half covers, half brand new material except for Nu Disco which is pretty obscure. [laughs]
Are you guys working on something right now? Are you doing an album?
We just work on songs and at some point there either becomes enough of them, or they become the weight where we say “we’re heading for a record.” We haven’t reached that point yet, it’s kind of at the tipping point. We have five or six new songs so it’s enough to think, “what exactly are we doing?” Because we’re not a very plan-oriented group.
Things just kind of come as they go?
Yeah, it’s like you know, the horizon two months down the road is about as far as we can see. Half the time we’re like, “are we really still a band? Do we still exist?” and it’s like we’ve got some shows, then it’s, those went great, look we even have new songs! [laughs]
What’s the writing process like for you guys? With the three of you writing do you do stuff on your own and bring it to the band or do you guys write together?
It’s almost always that we write on our own and sometimes Clint and I will just make demos. The song “This is Hi-Fi”, I made the demo and I sent it to Clint and Pete and even before we played it, Pete said, “It seems like it needs another section here”, and I go, “oh – you mean like this?” And then at rehearsal that day, it’s like okay, let’s use it! So we always bring our own ideas but everybody bashes away on them. One of my new songs that we played at Maxwell’s, Clint thought there was one verse too many so it’s like, okay, get rid of a verse. His new song I thought the ending thing should be repeated one more time and he goes, “are you sure?” and we do it and it feels good and it’s great. So there’s a lot of give and take. A lot of bashing out as an ensemble.
Has that changed at all since the original incarnation of the group? Or is it more or less the same?
It’s pretty similar. In the original days we didn’t do demos, and even now, most of the time I don’t do demos. But Clint does like to listen to them in the car when he’s driving to work and reflect about them.
You have the pair of shows coming up next week, is there anything else coming up? Is there going to be any kind of tour?
No tour, in March we have a couple of shows in Boston, we’ll probably do something else in New England around the same time. We’ve been working pretty hard on the new material, refining it and making sure we all got this part and that and sometimes it makes them tighter and clearer, but some sections become looser because of that. That’s most of what we’ve been doing lately. Also – we have so much [other] material now we don’t even know what to do. We don’t like to say, “for these three months we’re only going to play these songs,” we just don’t think like that. We’d rather have more songs that we can play in our repertoire and play something kind of sloppily, than have it totally be the same set every night worked out tight. That’s the way we work.
You’re one of the few bands that can play a set of mostly newer or obscure material, and I don’t think anyone is upset if they don’t hear the big hits or whatever.
About five years into the reformation, I remember one time we stopped playing “Revolver” or “Academy”. One time we played in Boston and we didn’t play either, and it was kind of like, “wow, we can not do these songs.” Because everyone’s heard them, they’ve seen us play them, and we have so much material that we don’t feel as obligated to always do that.
mission of burma – academy
I think one of the most oddball shows I saw Burma play at was at the side of the FDR.
Oh yeah. We were playing east of the FDR. Which is almost an impossible thing to do. That was a weird one.
There were maybe 50 people there and they were all just hardcore Burma fans, which was great. What cities do you think you guys get the biggest following outside of Boston?
Well, New York, D.C. and Philadelphia. The east coast has always been good to us. Chicago we do really pretty good. It varies from time to time in some places. But east coast is our stronghold, and it really always has been, since 1979. Though it wasn’t really until 82 or 83 before people started to like us anywhere. [laughs]
How about overseas now, do you have a built in fan base there?
Not really, we’re much more well-known in the US. But we get invited to play festivals and every time we do it’s great. But that’s because you’ve got people from all over these big cities coming to this one festival so you’ve got kind of a condensation of people who really know what the hell’s going on. Whenever we tour in Europe, and we’ve toured a couple times with Shellac, in Portugal and in Spain–that’s a blast because Shellac’s fans are pretty open minded and it’s just a blast for us to play with them.
It’s probably easy having Bob [Weston] in both bands.
[laughs] He has to work hard, some of those shows he gets a little fritzy after a while because he’s just done doing the tape loops and then he’s suddenly gotta become a rocker. I’ve done that before, when I toured with Volcano Suns once solo years ago, I would play a set then I would do their sound, and do both soundchecks and your brain starts to ramp up. [laughs] It’s not good…
What’s going on outside of Mission of Burma?
Well the group Sproton Layer, which was my band in 1969 and 1970, who was very kind of psychedelic, that album is getting reissued on a German psychedelic label called World of Sound and that’s kind of exciting. I think they’re going to do two CD’s, and there’s going to be a 20 or 30 page booklet with all these psychedelic drawings from when I was in high school. And I had a piece I composed and was performed at the New England Conservatory, with viola, piano, percussion and pre-recorded sounds and that seemed to go over really well at NEC. One of the main people there who does the modern music department, wants to perform it again with a better ensemble so it looks like there might be a new venue for my other behaviors [laughs].
Is there anything going on with M3? I read there was going to be a new album.
It’s an M2 album this time, it should be coming out on Table of the Elements, I’m not sure exactly when. I think we’re playing at the Table of the Elements festival in early May. That release, I’m playing all prepared piano, and my brother Benjamin is playing like a table-top guitar kind of thing, where there’s three pickups on it in different places, it’s prepared and in stereo. Between the two of us it’s ambient in a way, but there’s a lot of activity, it’s not just background music. It doesn’t have rhythm or melody in the traditional sense. It definitely qualifies as experimental. I’m pretty excited about it, it’s recorded stunningly well.
Are you still doing guitar lessons in the Boston area?
Yeah, it’s backed off a little bit. The economy makes it so people don’t have as much money to spend on that kind of stuff. And also I was on tour so much with Alloy Orchestra in the fall that I just don’t have time and I just finished this soundtrack that’s going to Sundance. I don’t need it as much now since I have plenty of other forms of income between Burma and Alloy and soundtrack work.
What is the soundtrack going to Sundance? Is that a part of Alloy Orchestra?
No, it’s a documentary film called “Granito” which is about the genocide in Guatamala in the early 80’s. But no, it’s not Alloy, it’s just me, I hired a really good French horn player, cello player and violin player, and I played piano and guitar. But Alloy Orchestra actually is playing the World Financial Center February 2, 3 and 4 and it’s free. Which is the week after Mission of Burma plays in New York. It’s 7pm each night and it will be slapstick & comedy one night, and then the next night “Speedy” which is about Coney Island and Manhattan and Brooklyn.
Pete Prescott said in an interview that you were probably only going to be doing Mission of Burma for a few more years. Do you still stand by that?
Whatever makes sense, it’s kind of take it as it comes. We’re still doing it. Every year there’s a point where we’re like, “are we still doing this?” and then we figure if we’re writing material that we like and it’s exciting, and it’s not just a rehash then there’s no reason not to continue. There’s not a good enough reason to stop unless someone really has a good reason. And I don’t have a really good reason, and nobody seems to at the moment, so we’re continuing.
Is there any formula to the post-reunion success? It seems like a lot of bands do the reunion tour and then they don’t really have anything to tour behind, they just keep playing the same songs over and over. So is that the secret, to just keep writing new material?
Well, that’s what we do. The very first time we played in 2002, we all had one new song in the band. That was one of the things we agreed upon. We’re not just gonna 100% drag out the old war horses and play them to death like America or something [laughs]. So, you know we had three new songs right away and so we just kind of kept writing more and finally we said, “wow, look at this, we have an album’s worth, we made an album!” Which we had no intention of doing, initially. But that’s what keeps us alive. Writing new material, tweaking the old stuff. A lot of the pieces have areas that are really open to interpretation and are different every time and that’s kind of charming.
Are you keeping up on music? Do you still actively pickup new releases?
Clint and Peter are much more interested in rock music than I am at present, but I still am interested in it, I just don’t pursue it as much. Like the bands we’re playing with at Maxwell’s and the Bell House, it’s really Bob who’s the most involved with the modern scene. You know, he’s younger than us, and Shellac is more active than us, and–well, I don’t know if Shellac is really any more active than us [laughs] but he also does production and has a lot of friends in the music business that are musicians. So whenever we go, “we’re gonna play somewhere, who should open up for us?” Bob just gives us a list of like three bands or so and then we run through it, and most of us are like, “oh yeah, that’s great.” We kind of rely on Bob to keep us up to date. But you know there’s times when everybody else has an opinion too and even I who claim to not be that interested in rock music I sometimes suggest things that everybody likes.
Is there anything else coming up for you?
Well in March Mission of Burma is playing a Friday night in Boston and then the next night Alloy Orchestra is playing in the Boston area. Just back-to-back Burma and Alloy shows again. It’s kind of funny in a way. But I mean, I love playing these Burma shows, it’s just really great. It’s a whole other thing. It’s like when I come off a Burma show there’s nothing left in me. It’s like it’s all been used up [laughs]. You just hurl yourself, you’re screaming, you’re yelling, you’re throwing your body around and you’re getting this feedback from the audience and when it’s done, I’m just like, “everything’s been cleaned, there’s nothing left, bye!”
The energy is always there. I’ve seen you maybe ten times and it’s always ended with me thinking, “I can’t believe you guys just did that.”
[laughs] It is a little bit insane, when you sit back and think about it. It’s truly bizarre.