The Continued Vitality of Mission of Burma
“It’s always been really difficult for us to title a record,” Peter
Prescott, drummer for longtime Boston punk band Mission Of Burma, says with a
laugh. “I don’t know why that is. We can easily agree on so many things!”
If anything, naming a record does seem a trivial hurdle in light of the band’s ungainly wrestling with guitarist Roger Miller’s infamous tinnitus and the group’s separation from the very scene it had a hand in creating. Prescott, Miller and bassist Clint Conley, along with tape operator and producer Martin Swope, spent their ’70s/’80s youth playing in Mission of Burma, perfecting their art punk for a growing college audience by layering an undeniably arresting mix of driving beats, sonorous guitars and anthemic vocals with a cloud of skronky experimentalism and Swope’s production wizardry. The band certainly has undergone changes, but it never lost steam, returning after a nearly two-decade hiatus with 2004’s ONoffON, no beat missed or sound irrelevant since their leave of absence, even when changing up Swope for Shellac’s Bob Weston. With a new album, Unsound, a new label, Fire Records, and renewed energy, Burma is again displaying a strong stance.
Prescott recalls hearing the latest album for the first time after recording it. “I threw it on and I thought, ‘God, this is brutal!’ he says, reflecting on how fitting the title was. “I think we sort of liked the slight joke of it almost referring to us in making music that’s wrong, that’s broken or disturbed, somehow—like we’ve crossed into some third dimension where it’s ‘unsound.’” And indeed, Unsound is ripping the lining of those layers Burma had spent years creating, unraveling and re-stitching them with a furious purpose. The influential band is still sending out waves.
That’s not to say their continued existence should be taken for granted. Though Prescott is still clearly enjoying the ride, he says the band could come to an end at any moment, should they lose their muse.
“I noticed that with us, regardless of age, if things are tougher, we tend to respond well,” he says. “When things are going well, we’re not as good. That’s a weird way to put it, but I think we did our last record [2009’s The Sound the Speed the Light], and after it had been out for a year and a half, I think that we all kind of agreed that even if we like individual songs, it was one record we’ve made since we started playing again that we were all a little let down by. I think when we make a record and we’re done, it’s not like most bands. We reassess and think, ‘Well, is there a point in continuing to play?’ It’s not a given, and we don’t want to do it just to do it. We want to do it because it needs to be done.”
This need is part of why Burma’s heartbeat still resonates, even as they’ve grown separate from the Bostonian college scene that spawned them.
“I’ve always liked living in Boston, but it kind of wore on me a bit, because it feels much more like it’s filled with people,” says Prescott, who now lives in Providence, R.I. “Every year, of course, it’s hundreds of new people and the old ones leaving, because it’s college. Back in ’79 it was, at least to my mind, a much more Bohemian atmosphere. When I first started going to see punk-rock bands [like] Suicide and the Dead Boys and the local Boston bands, I was just so blown through the wall that I knew that I wanted to do that, too. I miss that a little bit, and I think that’s part of why I felt that I needed to restore access to the band … The weird thing is, back then and especially now, Burma is just a freakish occurrence wherever we are. In the sense of the band, it’s just a place we lived. We all connect to culture, [though] maybe not so much like we did when we were 25. I guess it doesn’t matter so much where you live, though.”
Prescott marvels that the band’s roots are as strong as the newer branches. “Obviously, you change as a person, and we have changed as people, but for some reason, the process, at least for the band, stays kind of similar,” Prescott says. “It’s like breathing or doing anything else that you’re really used to.”
Mission of Burma plays Shank Hall with Wereworm on Wednesday, Sept. 26, at 8 p.m.