If back in 2001 you’d told me or just about any other right-minded music fan that the legendary Mission of Burma would have two new studio albums to their name within five years, the polite response would have been, “Yeah, right.” But Burma are back with their second reunion album, The Obliterati (Matador). Sure, it was a long time coming. But they’re once again a functioning band.
KEEPING IT REAL: “Our notoriety far exceeds our popular. acceptance,” jokes Roger Miller.
“Isn’t that the truth?” says bassist Clint Conley over the phone, speaking in a half-serious world-weary voice. “Here we go again. I’m sick of myself. I’m bored with my own story. We’re sick of our own damn selves.”
“There is that thought,” says guitarist Roger Miller in a separate conversation, “of people vaguely disgruntled by the bustle of Burma activity in the 21st century. But if we waited another 20 years, we’d all be in our 70s.” On a more serious note, Miller admits “it was weird when we re-formed. Now, you kind of get used to it, and that’s a plus and a minus. It gives you incredible credibility and clout, but it suggests you’re not the ‘now’ thing. But we’ve stuck to our guns, our credibility, and our integrity. Our notoriety far exceeds our popular acceptance.”
“It tends to sound so trumped up,” says drummer Peter Prescott of the hype. “I wouldn’t blame some young kids going, ‘Oh, they’re some old band people are jerking off about.’ ” He laughs. “We will go away. It’s inevitable. Everything does. Being back together is based on some kind of weird midlife craziness that happens to be really synchronistic.”
And what band from 1979 would you rather have rattling your ears and stimulating your brain in much the same way they used to? Burma were one of the key outfits on the art-punk wing of a diverse Boston scene. With Martin Swope as their tape manipulator, they recorded some classic tracks for Rick Harte’s Ace of Hearts label. Then, just as they seemed to be hitting their peak, they called it quits, in large part because of Miller’s tinnitus. Their final Boston show, a sold-out affair at the long-gone Bradford Ballroom (now the Roxy), was their biggest headlining gig ever. They seemed destined to be one of rock’s great tragic losses. Conley left music altogether to become a Chronicle producer. Miller pursued quieter keyboard projects and later joined the silent-film-scoring unit the Alloy Orchestra. Prescott led various noise parades and psychedelic barrages — Volcano Suns, Kustomized, the Peer Group. And as covers of their better known songs proliferated, the legend of Burma grew.
So when a tentative reunion turned into the real thing in 2001, it was big news. They were inspired enough to pull together a full album of new songs, 2004’s ONoffON (Matador). And the touring began: festival dates, batches of gigs here and there.
With The Obliterati, Burma continue to do what they’ve always done best. It’s an oddly melodic sort of racket, where muted vocals and lyrical non sequiturs do battle with inventive guitar leads, plunging bass lines, and thunderous drums. They plant sonic land mines in surprising places. Calm and repetition mutate into cacophonous skronk. Often there seems to be no lead instrumentalist. Songwriting credits are divvied per usual: Miller has six, Conley five, Prescott three.
Like everything Burma, The Obliterati wasn’t planned. “It’s the imperative of the music,” Conley explains. “That’s what’s driving it. We still had songs coming out that were top quality by our questionable standards. That’s the mule dragging us around. There’s still very little ambition I can detect around this band, though it’s more apparent than maybe a few years ago. We’re still a limited taste for people.”
Indeed, Conley has begun to wonder whether some of the buzz surrounding their improbable return isn’t wearing off. “There was so much excitement around our return. But there are some people who may have lost it now — not anyone in the band.”
Prescott concurs. “Every now and then I step back and think I’m one lucky sonofabitch to be involved in this. Most people our age have died, freaked out, don’t want to be involved in music, or just aren’t that good. When we play or record, it’s not some pale shadow — we’re still running on all pistons. Bob is our baby.”
That would be Bob Weston, a producer/engineer who also plays bass (formerly in Volcano Suns, currently in Shellac) and has taken on the role of the fourth Burma in place of the departed Swope. Along with manipulating tape and feedback loops during concerts, he produced The Obliterati.
The sound of The Obliterati is as diverse as ever, with moods ranging from somber and terse to manic and explosive. There are even a few dreamy refrains. But there’s a new coherence to the songwriting; you’re less likely to think, “Oh, that’s Roger’s song” or “a Clint song” or “a Pete song.” The band welcome this development. Prescott attributes it to all three songwriters’ having different “lunatic” sides.