Mission of Burma were one of the hardest post-punk bands to come out of the early 80s Boston scene, incorporating tape manipulation into their raw, wiry sound. They recorded one EP and one classic album in the four years they were together before they broke up due to singer/guitarist Roger Miller's worsening tinnitus, which was caused by the volume of the band's live performances. The band seemed lost to the annals of time until 2002, when they reunited, and bucked the nostalgia trend by staying together and recording new material regularly. Since then, they've released three critically acclaimed albums and consistently toured, and it doesn't seem like they have any interest in stopping anytime soon. Before they play the Beekman Beer Garden this Sunday, we spoke with the band's drummer/singer, Peter Prescott, about the surprise joy of the reunion, mid-life craziness, and the fatalistic allure of live shows.
I saw you guys open up for the Pixies in the Boston area, back in 2004. Was that a big hometown show? It must have been at Lowell, the Tsongas Arena. It's kind of bizarre because it isn't too often that we have played opening for somebody in that capacity. It was sort of a pleasant, different situation because we weren't playing to people who knew us so much, as we usual are, so it was nice to know that we could convince some people that weren't already convinced.
Consider that when you got back together, you were going out and playing for a lot of people who had been salivating for years to hear you, that must have been a different sort of set for you. Which I think is fine. Anything that keeps us a little off-kilter is probably the reason why we're still around.
So you're playing this Sunday at the Beekman Beer Garden. I know you've played some different kinds of shows in NY before. You played once by the FDR, right? Yeah, outside with Fucked Up. That was really fun! Outside, in the sun, in the summer. It's funny, we're not really the kind of "summer fun" band but it's still a blast. Again, anything that keeps us a little bit different is kind of pleasant.
So when the band stopped playing in the 80s, did you ever imagine it was going to come back like this? When we stopped playing we were sure it wouldn't. We were pretty much positive it wouldn't. Not because we didn't enjoy each other's company, but it seemed like, along with the situation with [singer/guitarist] Roger [Miller's] tinnitus at the time, everybody was kind of ready to move on, I guess. We felt like we had done this thing and we were fine with it. We said, this is a decent thing to leave behind, and went on and did our things. It really was an accident that everything aligned in a way, not only to make it happen, but to make it continue to happen. Things fell into place, that's all I can say. I think it is kind of odd and mysterious that it happened to do that the way it did. But it did. It was not planned.
So what spurred the reunion? Every now and then people had asked us to play and we always missed it because, again, we had moved on. I had been in other bands, and Clint [Conley] really wasn't doing music at all. Roger was doing stuff on his own. It just didn't seem something to return to until somebody asked us to play a show in New York. I can't remember exactly where it was. For some reason, instead of saying no, we all considered it.
Around the same time, Michael Azerrad had written the book Our Band Could Be Your Life and it was nice to see that at least he grouped us in with some really classy company! We always felt a kinship with all the bands that we were with in there. It seemed like, 'Okay, this might be fun.' It didn't seem like it would be any big deal, but we thought it might be fun to do it before we're too old to do it. We didn't do that show that we were asked to do, but we put a couple together on our own. When we did that, it worked out so well we did a few more and a few more and then it ended up being 11 years later.
At what point did you guys realize that you wanted it to be an active collaboration, that you were going to continue creating new music? I think the first time we played. I think that had something to do with the continuance of it, because none of us every wanted to just play old songs. As I remember, we all wrote a new song for the first couple of shows we did. There was still some pretty relaxed chemistry in the way we wrote songs, so we wrote a few more and a few more and the same thing, like a snowball going down a hill. It just felt right to continue with it. I think we've always been kind of looking...if the mood is right, if the feeling is right, go with it. I think individually and together, we always kind of looked at music that way, and when this was working we just kept doing it.
In the band's first incarnation, you didn't sing or write that much; but during this second run you've done a lot more. What changed? Well, I was in three bands in the meantime! [laughs] Actually, as I remember, when the band began Roger was supposedly going to be the main writer. And then Clint threw in a few and then suddenly there was a dynamic between them, which I think was a really healthy thing. They encouraged me to throw in a few early on, but that was literally the birth of my songwriting. I didn't really get a groove or figure out how I wanted to write songs until the next band I was in, the Volcano Suns. I was the one who wrote most of the songs there. Everybody changed, but then we got back together and it didn't feel like we took two steps. It felt natural to hang out again. So all the stuff that happened in between happened, and I think all of us liked all the stuff that happened in between, but it didn't get in the way of coming together later on.
Weirdly enough, the musical and personality dynamics were already set in place. I had seen those guys along the way, they had seen my bands and I had seen theirs, and I think it was a mutual respect society anyhow. As a drummer, you don't get an opportunity to play off people who are so flexible very often. Also with, my love of noise and sort of odd arrangements and stuff like that, I think we always just shared a lot of the same approaches to music so it was a pretty smooth thing to do. Again, if you told me even a few years ago that we'd still be playing I would have say no way, that's just ridiculous. I'm sure that time will come! But it isn't quite yet.
Does the ease with which you guys create new material sort of propel the band forward in a more natural way? There's no doubt. That is the engine. I'm just about positive...let me put it this way; last summer we finished touring behind the last record that we made and there was this lull after that and we're always circling each other like tigers or something. Okay, are we still doing this? Roger always throws in songs first so we had new songs right away but there's always a little period where we don't know: 'does this make sense in our lives anymore?' Then, without talking about it too much, we find out if it does by just going: 'Are we writing songs? Are we still playing? Are we still enjoying it?' We kind of look up and go, 'Yeah, I guess we are!'
What do you think about some of your contemporaries, like the Pixies, who have reunited but don't create new music anymore? It's a tough one. Most people, I don't think, exactly want a second career, you know what I mean? It's an unusual thing that it works for us, and I wouldn't put down anybody who doesn't do it. I saw the Buzzcocks about a year ago and they had a different rhythm section but they played their first two records and it was the most glorious thing. I didn't care that they didn't play new songs in the least. I'm a finicky listener, I don't like to see people just resting on their laurels, but, man, sometimes it really works when the laurels are that good!
But on the other side of it, I saw Wild Flag, which has a couple members of Sleater-Kinney, a couple months ago and they were astonishing, and I didn't know any of their stuff yet because I don't think they'd put anything out at that point. There's a lot of ways to enjoy music and that's one. Again, I don't put down on anybody that doesn't. I just know we wouldn't exist if we didn't.
Do you still have the same passion for live performances as you did back in the 80s? I would say more so now, because you're sort of older and more grounded and you realize every time you play might be your last. It's this very fatalistic thing where you're like, 'This counts.'
You appreciate it in a new way. I would say so, yeah. When you're young, you're just going at it without any sort of thought process and I think a little bit more...not awareness of the whole thing, but appreciation. Each time we play counts and I don't ever want to get to the point where one of them doesn't.
How have the crowds been compared to the band's first go around? Have they been bigger?Bigger than in the 80s? Yeah. Oh Yeah. I think that's another thing that keeps us going. We all have reasonable egos and you're pretty flattered that people are actually really paying attention when you're an old fart, where they didn't when you were young and had this stronger attack. At one point a lot of hardcore bands, in the last year or two that we were playing...we had to keep up with that and all of our songs got really fast. When we started listening to some of the older stuff we did, we had sped them up to the point where they were too hyper, so they're probably not as fast as they were then. But the attack is still there, I think that's pretty important.
At this point you guys must have approximately two times as much material now as you did in the 80s—do you feel as tied to the old material? Do you feel required to play "Academy Fight Song" or "That's When I Reach For My Revolver?" We don't feel required to play anything, but we do play those things because that's still Mission of Burma, you know what I mean? It's not like we turned into somebody else so it really is, to me and I think those guys too, it's just a big bag of songs and we want to make a good set out of that bag of songs. We always do that just before we play. We all have some interior sense of how to make a set build up. We don't shy away from those and we don't hang on them either. We recorded 11 or 12 songs a few months ago so those are in current rotation now, but that doesn't mean that we eliminate anything.
So you must practice a lot of songs before the tours! I think before we play, we narrow it down to a couple dozen to chose from, and that's the way we keep sane. We just couldn't...I don't think we'd play anything very well if we didn't sort of narrow it down before we did a show.
Are you on the road for much of the year? Not so much. We set up short tours that go after a record comes out, but other than that it's if somebody wants us to do a festival or wants us to play somewhere we figure out if we can swing it and if we can, we do! We just played in Austin and Dallas and we had to joke, 'Yeah, only we would chose to do Texas in the middle of the summer.' Those were a total blast. We had not played Dallas since the early 80s so that was really fun. Austin is always a really good place for us, so those were both a total blast.
I know that you guys formed around the post-punk/hardcore Boston scene in the early 80s, but what is your relationship with Boston now? As you would figure, my ear isn't as close to the street as it used to be. I don't know. It's not just in Boston, but Indie Rock isn't really rocking very hard these days. A lot of it is really introspective stuff, and we came out of a tradition that was very particular to the time. So we're kind of this free-floating satellite. I think there's a lot of stuff that we hear by young bands that we like, but I think if we had a general complaint, it's that a lot of it is a little more laid back or mellow than we often like to listen to. But again, that's not just Boston, that's sort of an overall vibe I get.
Besides Boston, you seem to have a pretty strong following in New York as well. Are there certain places you love to play here? I know we played the Williamsburg Music Hall a few times, we played the Bowery Ballroom a bunch. Irving Plaza. All of those places are a blast. A lot of the reason we'll play there between tours is close proximity.
Certain places we've always had a fairly good response...back in the day and now, but now is better: New York, Chicago, Washington DC, Philly, Toronto. We've actually done some really fun shows in the U.K., which is somewhere we never had a chance to go until we started playing again. It's nice to know that people in faraway spots appreciate it
You were talking before about some of the newer bands and being a little disappointed, but are there any who've caught your ear? The last band that really blew my mind was Fucked Up, who are on Matador. Just a really cool kind of...it's punk rock, but really odd punk rock. They really grabbed me because they had this nice sort of fury going on. There was a band called Future of the [Left]. Unfortunately I think they might have broken up, but they put out a great record a year or two ago. I love Battles, the Warp band. But yeah, there's definitely stuff out there. I wish there was more but...part of it is generational. No one who is 21 is writing music for me...at least I hope they're not! [laughs] That's sort of a natural thing.
I read in an interview from last year that you lived for "fucked up, insane experiences." Have you had any lately? [laughs] It sounds like a little more out of control than I am! What I meant by that...especially when you're older, it's easier to become a complacent person. I think I was mainly saying, especially in terms of shows, if there's ways to make something an unusual thing rather than an ordinary thing, I would always opt for the unusual. I think that's what I meant. It's not like I run around screaming my head off on LSD or something! That's sort of a thing from being a kid that I guess I've held on to. We'd be lying if we didn't say that there's some sort of mid-life craziness going on by playing in a rock band like this. I think that's fairly obvious. You can't pass it up if you can do it.
It's kind of a new phenomenon. I was talking to my co-worker the other day about this—20 years ago, if a band broke up, that was likely the end. Exactly! That's what's amusing! Six or seven years ago it almost became a cottage industry. I was like, 'Okay who reformed this week?'
I'm glad for everyone that's done it that people who are younger at least get exposed to it. I think that's a great thing! You can see it and go, 'Uhhh well the hype wasn't worth it.' Or you can say, 'Hey I'm so glad I got to see that!' At least it's out there for people to experience. Along with the Buzzcocks, I saw Killing Joke last year and they were great. There's been a couple of bands like that. It's totally like, 'Wow there are other people here with gray hair! That's weird!' But still, I'm not nostalgic exactly, but when someone really pulls it off well, I'm just glad to see they're up there doing it too.