Almost as soon as the members of post-punk Dadaists Mission of Burma began recording a new album of tension-filled hard rockers, they trashed the songs they had originally planned for it. They wanted what vocalist-guitarist Roger Miller calls “edge.” Even though he and drummer Peter Prescott had written songs with the group in mind, the tunes sounded too much like Mission of Burma, who are rounded out by vocalist-bassist Clint Conley and tape manipulator Bob Weston and whose legacy dates back to a short-lived, yet influential run in the late ’70s and early ’80s before they re-formed in 2002.
“We said, ‘What would Burma do that would surprise even us?’” Miller recalls. “It still sounds like Mission of Burma, but stuff like the trumpet parts at the end of it ‘ADD in Unison’ is unique, and Clint’s song ’7′s’ is using the seventh chord, which we never use.”
Most of this came easily to Miller, who is used to experimentation in his other groups the Alloy Orchestra, which provides scores for silent films, and M2, his recent project with his brother Ben where Roger plays a piano “prepared” with clamps and clips on the strings. Moreover, the music he consumes on his own runs a wide gamut. “I’ll listen to Erik Satie, Béla Bartók, John Cage, Miles Davis or, whatever, Fucked Up,” he says. He then clarifies, “The band Fucked Up.” But through it all, there’s something about the music he creates with the other Burma members that makes it still sound Burma-like. “I’m definitely a rock guitarist,” he says. “But I definitely have the leanings that lots of guitarists don’t have.” Hive caught up with him at his home in Somerville, Massachusetts, where explains just what that means in regard to new album Unsound.
With all of your various projects, what is it that keeps bringing you back to Mission of Burma?
Oh, it’s incredibly fun. When Mission of Burma does a set, there’s nothing else in my life that compares to that except certain aspects of sex perhaps. When the set is over, your mind is blank. You’re just floating. That’s the closest comparison I can make. We’re just switching chemical juices in our brain and in our bodies on and off continuously. It’s a real trip.
We play really well together. When I play with other types of rock bands, even if I organize them, they don’t sound like Mission of Burma any more than Clint’s do or Pete’s do. There’s a very specific thing about the way we interact and the sounds we produce. When Burma formed in ’79, that was the pivot of my life, basically. At that point I became who I was and that’s why my history will always go back to in some fashion. The fact that we keep inventing ourselves, that’s a pretty good thing.
The song “This Is Hi-fi” is pretty trippy, with all of the tape and vocal effects. What inspired it?
My friend Richie Parsons, who was in the Boston punk band the Unnatural Axe in like ’78 or ’79, told me about a dream he had where I had this hepcat bachelor pad and I had all these hi-fis going. And I went, “This is a song.” Then I came up with the phrase, “This Is Hi-fi,” and the song just showed up after that.
It’s a critique of how people watch movies on tiny little, goddamn iPhones — that’s not hi-fi. That’s no-fi. And they’re listening to crushed MP3s through little earbuds. No, that’s not hi-fi. That’s a little-fi as you can get and still think you’re hearing something. So the song is kind of parodying that aspect of modern technology.
“When people ask me, how are you guys so successful? My answer is, ‘Make your songs so experimental and complex that when you fuck up, people think you’re doing a variation.’”
There are moments in the song that sound like radio signals are coming in.
Right. Well, Bob brought in some loops but the first verses in the first part of the song, I wanted my vocals to have really bad fidelity to amplify this problem, and I wanted to use a cell phone. We couldn’t make it go directly to the recording, so while we’re listening to this track, I was singing into my cell phone into Bob’s answering machine. Then we downloaded his answering machine onto the track and positioned it into place, and that’s why it has that completely screwed-up sound. That’s his answering machine. We’re talking less and less fidelity here. So it fits the song and gives it an odd quality.
Since we’re talking about hi-fi, what is the last record you bought?
I hardly ever buy records, but I bought The Kink Kontroversy. It’s the Kinks album that had the hit “‘Til the End of the Day.” This meant a lot to me in 9th grade. “Where Have All the Good Times Gone” is also on it. We were almost going to cover that when Burma re-formed, but then we thought it was a little bit too obvious, so we didn’t.
Van Halen beat you to it, too.
They did that one also? After “You Really Got Me”? My fucking God. Thank God I never knew that. [Laughs.]
Why did you close the album with a song called “Opener”?
It’s a real good opener but by the time the order got done, it seemed like last place was the best place for it. The lyrics in the song, “Forget what you know,” seemed like the mantra for the album concept. Like, “Let’s start over again. Pretend you don’t know anything and you’re trying to figure out what you know, what you’re supposed to do.” It really was called “Forget What You Know,” but I have a song called “Forget” and a song called “Forget Yourself,” and they said, “Roger, you cannot have another song with the word ‘forget’ in it.” I said, “Well, it seems like an opener, so let’s call it ‘Opener.’”
Speaking of closers, your concert set list seems to vary from gig to gig.
We’ve never used the same set list twice. We did it once in 1979, and it was a disaster and we’ve never done it since.
Why was that show such a disaster?
The band was just starting and it felt like it was the worst thing in the world to do the same thing twice. Whether that’s true or not, we’ve just never done it since. Sometimes the thrill of watching us is actually struggling to remember the songs. You can hear our brains crunching trying to organize stuff on the fly.
Has that ever gone horribly wrong?
Not exactly, but one time I had done a tour where I was in San Francisco playing a festival with Alloy. Then we flew to Poland and then to Boston the next day. They day after that, Burma played in Dallas. And I was pretty fucking burnt out. [Laughs.]
Gerard Cosloy from Matador Records, who is a friend of ours from way back, was there. And we played “Trem 2″ [from Mission of Burma's first full-length Vs.] and when it came to that real gentle guitar break, I had no idea what to play. I’ve played that song since 1982, and I just didn’t know what it was so I just started making up new stuff. And I could see Clint looking at me and kind of smirking and laughing like, God, I hope this sounds okay. And Gerard afterwards said he thought it was brilliant. If Gerard thought it worked, damn. He can be critical.
When people ask me, how are you guys so successful? My answer is, “Make your songs so experimental and complex that when you fuck up, people think you’re doing a variation.”
Mission of Burma’s Unsound is out now via Fire Records. Stream the single “Second Television” here: