Between 1979 - 1983, the band released the “Signals, Calls and Marches” EP and the album “Vs.” Both were filled with a discomforting and primal, yet sophisticated, rage and anxiety that sounded totally new and refreshing. The group split in 1983, however, due to guitarist-vocalist Roger Miller's tinnitus.
Then, out of nowhere, Mission Of Burma returned in 2002. On the three albums that followed -- “OnoffON” (2004), “The Obliterati” (2008) and “The Sound the Speed the Light” (2009), all released by Matador -- it was as if Mission of Burma had never gone away. Their music was still panic-stricken, infuriated and original, and the songwriting just as militant and fuming.
The same goes for their new album, “Unsound,” which was released last month by Fire Records. Recently, I spoke with bassist-vocalist Clint Conley on the phone about the past, present and future of Mission of Burma.
A few days ago, the American philosopher Cornell West tweeted the following: “The challenge artists face today is whether to be an underground, unheard genius or to dilute their art for the marketplace.” What do you think of that?
Well, I'd expect more nuanced thinking from Professor West. But I guess that, in a very crude form, that's always been the sort of model I've worked from. As far back as I can remember -- from my teenage years on -- I've always been an ardent champion of obscure, undersung rock bands. The murky underground is my world.
Since the forming of Mission of Burma over 30 years ago, have you noticed that this rigid binary has started to dissolve? Is it easier now to get the music out there without diluting it?
Every city had its punk clubs back then, but it was much more of a new frontier scenario. It wasn't a very hospitable way to bring your music to new places. It's a whole lot easier now, and as much as we like to romanticize the good old days, it's much easier and pleasurable now to go around and make music. We're treated better, and clubs are run by enthusiasts rather than people interested in making money off the latest thing. The promoters were much more hostile back then.
I think we operate in some sort of parallel universe of our own making. Every once in a while it might intersect with something in the mainstream, or with the zeitgeist, but I don't think of us as really belonging anywhere.
From the beginning, Mission of Burma has been uncompromising. It seemed like you almost prided yourselves on challenging listeners by disrupting their expectations about what a rock band is supposed to sound like.
That was never a primary principle for the band, but it just happened to be the result of the music we made. Our intentions were never to irritate or annoy or flummox -- we write the music we write because that's what comes out of us, and that's the music we enjoy. This is the music that keeps us stimulated and exhilarated. Everything else is just a secondary effect.
We're not trying to write music to appeal to people or make money or be famous -- those things were never very important for us -- we're just selfish, self-centered musicians. There are people who craft their music for wide audiences, but that just isn't us.
You've stated in the past that you don't really like being a performer. Has that changed since the band came back together?
I enjoy performing now much more than I did the first time around. There are probably a zillion reasons for it, but one was that, in the old days, I was very messed up a lot of the time. I was just very wrapped up in myself, and was very uncomfortable on stage and off. I'm a lot freer from that stuff now.
Also, with this second go around, I've enjoyed it a lot more because, having been away from music for about 15 years, I realized how much I value it. It's such an amazing opportunity to be able to do this. You know, we're not gonna be able to do this forever, so I've just allowed myself to enjoy it more.
On the song “This Is Hi-Fi,” you're commenting on contemporary technology and how it has changed the way we experience music. The lyrics go, “Tiny ears, tiny screens, tiny speakers, tiny thoughts, tinny thoughts.” It doesn't sound like you guys are too happy about this change.
Not at all. It astonishes me. My daughter, who really loves music, is always listening to it on her little laptop speakers. It's such a wretched sound! I can't bear it! It's awful! I just don't understand.
All the bass sort of vanishes, which is probably particularly upsetting for you as a bassist. But this is the way a lot of people listen to music now, so perhaps it will eventually become the norm.
Oh, it's just the worst! I grew up on AM radio listening to the Kinks, the Animals and the Beach Boys, so I guess, when I was young, I also wasn't very picky about sound quality. But the laptop speakers are ridiculous. It's a nightmare.
In the chapter on Mission of Burma in Michael Azerrad's book “Our Band Could Be Your Life,” you're quoted as follows: “I suppose it's an honor, in a way, to be ahead of your time. But on the other hand, it would be nice to be right with your time.” Do you think Mission of Burma is still ahead of its time?
I think we operate in some sort of parallel universe of our own making. Every once in a while it might intersect with something in the mainstream, or with the zeitgeist, but I don't think of us as really belonging anywhere. We're as much psychedelic as we are punk, as much hard rock as we are minimalist and prog. What are we? I don't know.
I think we're a lot closer to King Crimson than to other punk bands. We happened to emerge in the punk or post-punk years -- there's no question that was a highly energizing time period for us -- and I think we did benefit from that. But I don't think we've ever really fit in with what's going on.
Follow Elliott Sharp on Twitter @ElliottSharp for more news and updates.
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