In the early 1980s, when the American music underground consisted mainly of first-wave punk leftovers and hardcore bands in infancy, Boston quartet Mission Of Burma was scaring unsuspecting showgoers with wild stage antics and an unseen tape manipulator lurking in the shadows. Not only was the band a forefather of American art-punk, it also preceded many of its peers in reforming before it became de facto for long broken-up bands to cash in on nostalgia. To really drive their point home, the members of Mission Of Burma not only reunited, but also are still together, having released twice as much studio material now than during the band's original conception. Prior to Mission Of Burma's two shows at Bowery Ballroom Jan. 29-30, The A.V. Club spoke with drummer Peter Prescott about playing with Shellac bassist Bob Weston, singing 25-year-old lyrics, and why you’ll never hear a Burma song at a Red Sox game.
The A.V. Club: You have now been a band twice as long as you were during your initial run. Do you feel more like a “real” band now than you did back in the early 1980s?
Peter Prescott: That’s a tough one. We were so young and so clueless and so single-minded at the time back then. I think that, like a lot of bands, we felt like it was us against the world because we didn’t fit in anywhere. I guess loosely, at the time, bands that were post-punk were so much more violent than [other bands]. [Laughs.]
AVC: Like hardcore bands?
PP: We were too abstract to be anything like a hardcore band, which came toward the end of our existence. That was a real solidifying influence, when nobody liked us. For some reason, we would get gigs in the suburbs of Boston. When we when played in cities, people would come and accept [us]. In the suburbs, people were horrified! [Laughs.] That was a particular factor in making us really tight together back then.
AVC: Do you still feel tightly connected even though it’s all these years later?
PP: Twenty-five years on, it’s really [about] all the experiences you have gone through. We have jobs, those guys have kids, Bob [Weston] lives in Chicago—it fits into our lives in a different way, which isn’t to say it isn’t as important [now]. I think, in a way, we have a little less general angst; we recognize we have some acceptance. There was a lot of cool stuff about then, there is a lot of cool stuff about now. There is more of an emotional resonance when you’re older, and I understand these three other people I do this with are important to my life. There would be no reason to do a reunion that dragged on for eight years if that wasn’t so. I’ll never run into people that I’ll have this kind of musical chemistry with. That includes Bob—I played with him in Volcano Suns for six years—he’s really as close a friend, and maybe closer in some ways than Clint and Roger.
AVC: What is it like playing arty punk now that it is widely accepted, as opposed to in 1981 when hardcore was the rage?
PP: Certainly there have been other things in the landscape over the last 25 years that make us more ordinary. We’re just a rock band in a sense, and that has pros and cons, too. I guess you can't control what goes on outside, you just do what you do in any given time period and hopefully it gains some traction. Certainly back then we were just freakish to most people. There have always been more freakish things than Mission Of Burma. [Laughs.] Take Roky Erickson or The Velvet Underground or Cabaret Voltaire. It was just the kind of approach we chose that made us that way then, and less so now.
AVC: Your live set had been notoriously regarded as hit-or-miss during the early days. Is this still true?
PP: This is probably more important to me than anything. I live for fucked-up, insane experiences—and, as you get older, it’s harder to run into those. It’s because you’re not as loose and go-for-broke as you were at 25. For me, the challenge is to retain some of that hit-or-miss quality. We don’t want to miss and we don’t go out of the way to be bad. There’s never been a group that’s fun when it's plain old “They were competent tonight.” That and Mission Of Burma don’t go together. If we were competent, I’d hardly see why anyone would want to come see us.
AVC: Like bands that play the same set list every night on a tour.
PP: Sure, that’s a different kind of pleasure, when you can say, “Yeah they delivered, they gave me what I wanted—consistency.” That’s never going to be a real reason to see us.
AVC: You said in an L.A. Record interview a few years ago that the physical exertion that comes with performing these songs meant the band would only be together a few years at most. How do you feel about this now?
PP: Yeah, it is still true. How many years that means depends on how we feel and how excited we are to play together. I was the one who said that, and I definitely mean that. I don’t want to see a 65-year-old punk-rock band, and I expect other people wouldn't want to either. It’s always been day-by-day and month-by-month. We always do a reality check.
AVC: You’ve stayed pretty self-aware as a group?
PP: You have to, especially now that reunions from bands of our era are not rare.
AVC: Was the band in it for the long haul from the beginning of the reunion?
PP: It was the opposite; it was just, “Let’s play a show.” That’s it. I think, perversely, that’s why it’s gone on so long— we never put any weight on to it. We were shocked that 1) we felt chemistry together, and, 2) that people gave a shit.
AVC: Is playing with Bob Weston much different than playing with Martin Swope?
PP: His approach is a little different, and he’s finally found a modern sampler that he can work with, in the way Martin worked with tape loops. There’s something different because Bob is working with what Martin did; Martin was not working off anybody. There is a slightly different quality. He’s become more relaxed over the years. The first year or two he felt it was his job to imitate Martin, then he realized, “Hey, I guess I’m part of this band now.” He put own stamp on it a bit more.
AVC: Was there ever the notion to continue on without a tape manipulator when Martin Swope refused to rejoin the band?
PP: I guess that’s another factor that made us continue—we had someone that stepped in that fourth area. We love the guy, he did it right and he’s a great sound person on top of that. I don’t think we would have [continued] if that hadn’t have worked out.
AVC: How, if at all, has the band’s approach to songwriting changed?
PP: I was hardly a writer back then. I was just getting going really and now I’ve had 20-whatever years to develop in that respect. I think Clint’s lyrics are sometimes hysterically funny to me now, and it wasn’t the prime approach back then. [Laughs.] I used to listen to Burma and think it sounded so serious. Not serious exactly, but I couldn’t imagine we had a sense of humor. But we’re all goofballs, and you hear elements of deadpan humor now [in the lyrics]. We’re three guys that write for a rock band now—there are three different songwriters and three different lyrical approaches.
AVC: Were there times that anyone cringed at lyrics they wrote when they were in their early 20s?
PP: There was one or two that Clint or Roger felt a little less comfortable doing because of that. Not that many, though. It’s been said that we didn’t exactly write songs about cars and girls. [Laughs.] It wasn’t based on age-relevant concepts; Roger writes from his dreams. Aged well in that respect. Weren’t too many that anyone looked at and said, “I can’t sing this.”
AVC: The city of Boston declared October 4 to be Mission Of Burma day. How did this come about and what does that mean to you as residents of the city?
PP: [Laughs.] I don’t know how to answer that and I don’t know what it means. I think our manager knew a councilman that liked us relatively much and liked the idea of it, so he made the proclamation when we played a free show at MIT in the fall. It was half-true, half-mock silliness. [Laughs.] We would never be a band that represents Boston in the truest sense, like Aerosmith or Dropkick Murphys.
AVC: So we won’t be hearing “That’s When I Reach For My Revolver” at the 7th-inning stretch at a Red Sox game?
PP: That’s unlikely. People would bring guns to the game. There’s a level of absurdity to [Red Sox fans] and that’s why it’s enjoyable.
AVC: Do you get a lot of rowdy, too-cool-for-school fans that only want to hear classic Burma at shows?
PP: Yeah, I’m sure there are some people that feel that way. Thank God in the past few years, when leaning into the newer stuff, people stayed with us. That’s a really nice thing. But you can’t blame anyone for liking Burma songs from another era. In general, the people that stuck with us understand that we can’t feel like a relevant band in 2010 if we’re just going around playing oldies. Some people are going to put their fist in the air and go, [adopting a loud, frat-guy voice] “'Revolver,' dude!” I’m not blaming them, but I am going to say, “Sorry, you’re gonna have to take some current medicine too.”
AVC: Do you get tired of playing the older songs?
PP: I think when we played on the West Coast in November, some of the shows were a little sub-standard. When we got back, I said we needed to revisit older things and drop some songs, and surprisingly, they were like, “Let's do it.” As long as we still realize we can't play certain songs even if people want us to, they don’t get tired. That’s what I’ve noticed so far—if it gets rote, we don’t play it for a little while.
AVC: Do you ever turn to Bob Weston backstage at a show and try to entice him to reform Volcano Suns with you?
PP: It would be it weird. Merge recently put out reissues of the first two records, and I’ve been in touch with those guys because of the reissues. It’s kind of hard to picture that happening, because the reason that anything happens—at least in my world—is all the dominoes fall into place. That’s how Burma is still playing—they keep falling into place, and when they don’t we won’t [continue to play]. That was fun, but it doesn’t feel like something that would pop up now. But hey, no one ever says never anymore.