At Mission Of Burma's First Reunion Show, They Sold Out a Venue They Were Originally Banned From
Welcome to My First Show, where we give bands a chance to talk about the first shows they ever attended -- no matter how uncool and embarrassing those tales may be.
Roger Miller sings and plays guitar for a band that might have been forgotten about years ago. Luckily, Mission of Burma's first album, EP Signals, Calls, And Marches, and 7-inch were all considered essentials long after they had broken up in 1983.
At the turn of the last decade, no one expected a reunion of the group. And probably nobody expected the reunion to produce three more albums that were as good as their early material. Along with Clint Conley on bass, Peter Prescott on drums and Bob Weston creating effects through the mixing board, the band is making a rare appearance in Texas this week.
Miller has spent most of his life playing music and he's seen all kinds of bands play. The good thing for this column, he remembers plenty. And as an added bonus, our conversation drifted into how the band's appeal has lasted all these years later, connecting with an audience that was born around when the band broke up.
Read more after the jump.
Well, it depends on how you want to look at it. Possibly the first rock show I saw was in ninth grade. A band from junior high school had played kind of a hop and I was just starting to play guitar and play in bands, so I was just riveted. I'd watch the guitar players and [think], "That's how you do that." And I remember every song they did: The Animals, Yardbirds, The Who. I remembered them and I watched how they'd move their hands and shit. I was picking this stuff up right away and kind of taking it apart. [laughs]
Then the first real show that I saw must have been the summer between ninth grade and tenth grade in which people refer to as the Summer of Love. The free concert/love-in in Ann Arbor was the Grateful Dead on their first tour, who didn't suck at that point, The Charles Lloyd Quartet, which was a black jazz group also from San Francisco, and a local group which had Bill Kirchen called The Seventh Seal. I remember Kirchen used the mic stand as a guitar slide, so he'd rub his guitar his guitar against the mic stand. And for a ninth grader going into tenth grade, that was top notch.
The first devastating concert I saw: I had tickets to see The Yardbirds. They canceled and they broke up at that time and there was another artist you could get in to see for five bucks and his name was Jimi Hendrix. Nobody heard the album yet. I heard "Purple Haze" once on the radio. I tried to get rid of the tickets because I wanted to see The Yardbirds and I didn't know who this Jimi Hendrix fellow was.
So I went to see this Jimi Hendrix fellow and my brain has never been the same.
Since these shows were around the Ann Arbor/Detroit area, was the MC5 in the mix around this time?
Yeah. That was an early concert I saw too, come to think of it. When they were still in Detroit and they played in Ann Arbor, they played at the Canterbury House. The rap was, "You gotta see these guys." So I went to see them and they were pretty bad. They did mostly the first Jimi Hendrix album and Rob Tyner, with his whiney white voice, didn't have the soul of Jimi. But when I saw them again about a half-year later, they had dropped all the Hendrix stuff and had been working on their own and they had found their voice. I was a huge MC5 fan.
When was your first punk show?
The Ramones in Ann Arbor right after when their first album came out. I saw the Ramones twice before their second album came out. Each time, I was just floored. It was so awesome.
Before the Ramones, I knew a lot of people who would go out and do free-form improv. We were out at a party and I was playing the first Ramones album and I was sitting next to a friend of mine. He was into Jethro Tull and the Grateful Dead and I said, "Listen to this stuff." The songs were over in a minute and a half and I nudged him and said, "Notice anything?" He was kind of petrified that I like this stuff. And I go, "No guitar solos." [laughs]
It was so great. It was kind of the opposite of Jimi Hendrix in a way, but for me, it was the same kind of effect. I was going, "Right, here's where I should be going. I've been here before from a different side of the same coin."
What can you remember about the first Mission of Burma show?
We played with the Lou Miami Transfusion. It was all new bands. Those days in Boston in early '79, there were like ten new bands a month. A lot of these, you'd be excited about. It was really a cool time. That particular night, there weren't that many great bands, but we definitely were the one people were watching because we had been in the Moving Parts before. People knew that that band was interesting.
We played a lot of my Moving Parts stuff, but then some new stuff that Clint had written and new stuff that I had written. We were going over so we were going to have to cut our last song. Clint said, "No, we're not going to cut that one, let's cut the one before it." I said, "OK." And the last song was "All World Cowboy Romance." Clint got his guitar out and I got my guitar out. A couple friends that were in the audience who were Moving Parts fans were going, "What are you doing? You're playing really good and now you're trading your bass for guitar. What the hell are you doing?" But about a minute into the song, everybody got it.
What about the first Mission of Burma reunion shows?
Oh God, that was really disturbing. Before we played, we did two shows at Irving Plaza and sold them both out. And then we played the Paradise in Boston which is like a 500-600 seat place. The Irving Plaza is more like 1,000-1,100. The irony is, the last time we played the Paradise in either late '82 or early '83, so few people showed up that the Paradise said we could never play there again. And then, nineteen years later, we sell it out three times in two days. [laughs]
But to get to the first show, we did a pre-show just to get ourselves on our footing at a small club. It was creepy. It was all the same people that would have been in the clubs except for many more of them. We weren't that really popular back in the day, didn't really think people would show up to our show, but here the place was packed. 400-500 people. They were all people that I knew but we're all twenty years older.
I walk out on stage and I'm like, "We're supposed to be playing all this stuff." Rehearsals had gone really well. We were all excited. For the first five songs, I was kind of creeped out. But then we kinda locked in and I broke a guitar string, which is what I used to do all the time in the old days. It brought me back. Jimmy [Conley, tour manager] had a guitar for me, I picked it up and said, "Alright, I broke a string. Now we're gonna be fine." From then on, it was OK.
With all the shows you've seen, any one of them stick as one of the worst ones that you've seen?
Oh, there's a lot of bad shows. In the mid-70s, before punk rock, I'd go to Detroit to see shows. I really liked the band Hawkwind. I really didn't like their records too much, but they were a superb live band. I saw them a couple of times between '72 and '75, and this band called Rush opened for them. They were so bad, I said, "Well clearly, this band is going nowhere." And then a few years later, I realized they were this mega-star group. They were so fucking bad. They were the worst kind of Led Zeppelin cop you could ever, ever imagine.
This upcoming show at the Granada is billed as the first Mission of Burma show in Dallas . . .
That's not true. We played in Dallas, I think in 1981. I can't remember where we played. (Note: according to MissionofBurma.com, the show was in 1982 and at the Hot [Klub]) I remember I was playing at Trees and I was hanging out with the promoter and I was saying, "Yeah, I remember playing here once before and it was just a bunch of frat boys there." And the promoter looks at me and says, "I was one of those frat boys." [laughs] I go, "That's great." You know, they didn't look punk at all - just straight out of a football team high school concert, whatever. They did enjoy it. It was better than a lot of places we played, where people didn't get it at all.
Roughly, what can we expect in terms of a set list at the Granada? More new stuff, more older stuff?
Every single show we play, we make the set up a half-hour before the show. It's never the same. We once played a set list twice in 1979 and it was so bad that we never did it again. It suits us best to make up a new set every single show. There will probably be some new stuff because we recorded some main tracks for a potential new album and we've playing that quite a lot. Otherwise, just a wide selection. Whatever we feel like playing or whatever we can remember playing.
With this "tour schedule," would you say this is, I hate to use this phrase, but a "weekend warrior" sort of situation?
That is what it is. I play in another group that tours a lot called The Alloy Orchestra. We accompany silent films. Roger Ebert says we're the best in the world accompanying silent films. I'm on the road all the time, so there's no weekend warrior for me. Mission of Burma is not a group that goes out for weeks at a time. We have done week-and-a-half tours in this incarnation, but Clint still has at least one daughter at home, my son's graduated from college, so I'm not a problem. [laughs] Everybody has lives, but when we go out and play, we give it our all. It's like, if we're not going to give it all, we don't do it all.
From what I remember of This Is Not a Photograph, the documentary about the band's reunion, Clint was busy with TV production, you were busy with your various projects, and Peter was working at a record store and always broke. Is that still the case with Peter?
He doesn't work at the record store anymore, but he's pretty much still broke. [laughs] He's the one with the most loose time on his hands. I'm really active with Alloy Orchestra. We play a lot. In the past four years, I've had a documentary film at Sundance. I do a lot of stuff. But Burma is surely crazy fun.
How would you describe playing to a large amount of people who never saw you when you were first around? In my defense, I was only three when y'all broke up.
When we first started the reunion stuff was people our age who either just missed us or they wanted to catch the vibe again. And then after we did this one round of the circuit, we did another circuit and a lot of people in the audience left. Because they were grown up and said, "Hey I saw them" and left. When we released ONoffON, our audience was actually dwindling. It wasn't tiny, but it was dwindling. And then when we recorded The Obliterati, I just thought, "Well, that's it. No one's gonna like it and that's going to be the end of it." When The Obliterati came out, it was the opposite. The older crowd was still tapering off, but a whole new younger crowd was appearing. Now our audience is mostly people that are considerably younger than we are.
This is going to show my age, but Moby covering "That's When I Reach for My Revolver" was my first exposure to a Burma song.
It's not surprising. I mean, how would you know otherwise?
Growing up in the suburbs of Houston, I was not close to the "cool" stuff and the closest thing I had to a "cool thing" was 120 Minutes Live. Despite whatever people may feel about him tinkering with the lyrics in the chorus so MTV could play it, it got something started in me. When I started to not like what I was hearing on mainstream rock stations, I started reading a lot. Reading stuff like, "Hey if you like Gang of Four, then you should check out Mission of Burma or the Buzzcocks." Do you hear from people who have had a similar journey?
Yeah, different people got to us for different reasons. It's people who are willing to look in the weird crevices of rock music. They keep hearing the name Mission of Burma and eventually they check it, much like you. I think they end up liking it.
The Moby/"Revolver" thing, I didn't like it. Most people I knew didn't like it. I heard Moby's version on WHFS and they stopped playing it halfway through and the announcer goes, "That's when I reach for my Mission of Burma records."
But on the other hand, when we first played these New York shows, we had guests join us on "All World Cowboy Romance," like Thurston and Lee from Sonic Youth. One night, Moby was there and he joined us on the song. He knows Clint. At the end of the song, he started doing these really nice guitar licks, kind of like Tom Verlaine as the song was trailing off, kind of like "Marquee Moon." And all the blogs were like, "What the fuck is Moby doing up there?" I defended him and said, "You know, this guy did some really interesting guitar parts that never would have occurred to me. And that to me as good as anything else." So I was defending him even though I am not a Moby fan.
What I have to remember when I see a young band like Paramore covering an At the Drive-In song, there's going to be someone out there who will be touched and check out the original. Now all these years later, when I hear the Moby version, I prefer the Burma verson.
Any time anyone covers one of your songs, no matter how bad or inaccurate it is, you still have to say, "God, someone really took the time and said that my composition is worth them playing." In a way, that's fabulous.
Didn't R.E.M. cover "Academy Fight Song"?
Yeah, they did on their Christmas record. That's a funny story. After Burma folded, I was in Birds of the Mesozoic and we were touring. Michael Stipe took us out because he was a big Burma fan and he put us up. The next time we came in town, Peter Buck put us up. I'm sleeping late and he walks in and says, "How do you play 'Academy Fight Song'? I just can't figure it out." I say, "Oh, you have to turn the top two strings down to a D and B-flat, so it's a G minor up on top." Once I showed him that, he was able to play the song.
Is the next Burma record going to come out on Matador Records?
It doesn't seem likely it's going to come out on Matador. But we don't know what's going to happen. We did record the tracks and they sound really lively. They sound a little more out of control than The Sound, The Speed, The Light, which was a little more mellow for us. This one is pretty lively. There's shit going on all the time. You can hear things happening as they're being recorded.
Mission of Burma plays with Ume and Tre Orsi at the Granada Theater on Sunday, July 24.
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