GONE IN SIXTY SECONDS Mission of Burma

Clint Conley on his band’s longevity –
despite its “air of temporariness” – and the dynamics that power MoB.

 

BY MIKE
SHANLEY

 

At this
point the rejuvenated Mission of Burma has outlasted the original incarnation
by three years. Now considered one of the most significant underground bands of
the 1980s (as chronicled in Michael Azerrad’s book Our Band Could Be Your Life), most of their fanbase discovered the
Boston group after they disbanded. Then
a handful of reunion shows in 2002 set the ball rolling, leading to the release
of three new albums and performances in venues and countries the original band
never dreamed of seeing.

 

Despite
that milestone, and the onslaught of adulation that eluded them during their
1979-1983 existence, bassist Clint Conley has been able to keep things in
perspective. When he assesses the group’s work, he’s not averse to saying
“gosh” when saltier words would be just as effective. He still has his day job
in Boston, as a
field producer for WCVB-TV’s news magazine show Chronicle. Mission of Burma –
Conley, guitarist Roger Miller, drummer Peter Prescott and tape looper Bob
Weston (replacing original tape man Martin Swope) – continues to exist through
short term plans. “A lot of times, we feel like we’re not a real band. Roger doesn’t
own any guitars. He borrows his guitars,” Conley confesses. “I don’t have a
bass amp. I do have a bass though. Roger doesn’t have an amplifier. In a lot of
ways we’re barely here.”

 

But the
band is hardly a set of weekend warriors trying to recapture the sonic attack
of their youth. Their latest album The
Sound The Speed The Light
roars as loud as anything in their back catalog,
starting with the aggressive/catchy charge of “1 2 3 Partyy!” and concluding
with the heavy “Slow Faucet” which like many tracks features a more developed
vocal interplay between Miller and Conley. In between, Prescott’s drums trade their low thud of
previous albums for a sharp crack, and he demonstrates his wry wit in tunes
like the rhythmically jerky “Good Cheer.” Conley’s moody “SSL 83” approximates
“the Partridge Family – with cheerful unison singing – but the Partridge Family
if they had joined a cult. There’s this glazed glassy eyed cheerfulness about
it,” according to the author.

 

Conley
took a break from editing at the office to talk to BLURT about the band’s
legacy and their new album.

 

***

 

On their continued existence:

“There’s
sort of an air of temporariness about what we’re doing right now. It still
feels like a temporary thing that could vanish at any moment. Whereas before,
it was more directed and it was all-encompassing. It was done in the way that
usually a rock band should be done: all out, just total immersion, and
dedication.

 

“I
would say that’s not quite the case now. It certainly doesn’t mean that it’s
any less intense. Gosh. It’s amazing when we plug in and start turning on. It
can be months since we played. And yes, there’s always a little rust that you
blow out of the pipes but it gets intense really quickly.

In some
ways it’s kind of liberating when it comes to making the music because it frees
the active music making from a careerist mentality. That kind of competitive
drive to succeed, which even in a dirtbag loser band like Mission of Burma the
first time around, was sort of there. I mean we were realists. We knew we
weren’t going to be the Knack. But wanted to exist, wanted to make the next
record, wanted to play to more people.”

 

What’s different about this album?

“Really
nothing. Matador doesn’t want us to say that, I bet. There’s no overarching
guidance for anything we do. Roger writes, I write, Peter writes. There’s no
leader. So when it comes to [the idea that], ‘Well this album is going to be an
exploration of this, that or the other thing,’ it’s never going to happen in
Mission of Burma.

 

“[The
band is] sort of an amoebic blob that might shoulder ahead on this side a
little bit, then that side, just kind of oozing and leaving a thick viscous
trail behind of tired ears and baffled minds. [Laughs] So what’s different? I don’t know.  The songs are different. It’s obviously a
legitimate question. If we were a half-legitimate band, we’d have an answer for
you.”

 

It’s all about the tunes.

“There’s
a lot of dynamics in our band. The music was pretty variable in a lot of ways.
It sounds so old fashioned but we’re songwriters. Not exactly Tin Pan Alley.
But when I hear a lot of stuff today I say yeah, that’s a cool texture or a
cool beat. This is a cool atmosphere. But I think, didn’t anyone think about
writing a song that I want to come back to? Something that raises the hair on
the back of my neck when it hits a certain point?

 

“In
that way, we’re sort of traditionalists because Roger is an incredible composer
and sometimes it can take me a year to understand one of his songs. They’re put
together like complex machines. I think that is challenging sometimes for
people, but that’s our secret weapon: We’re old fashioned songwriters. Beneath
all the sound and fury and experimental whatever, Roger’s chops and all that, we
write songs. That’s our dirty little secret.”

 

Sure, he wrote “Academy Fight Song” and
“That’s When I Reach for My Revolver,” but…

“On my
headstone, it’s going to say “Once was on a label with Carl Newman.” If you put
that on my headstone I’d be perfectly fine with that. That guy is a flat out
genius. I find [the New Pornographers’] nutritive value is so dense and so
packed with interesting stuff. They’re really amazing. I’m in total awe of that
gentleman.”

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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