I never imagined that I’d be sitting on a flimsy stool in the back stockroom at work performing a phone interview with one of post-punk’s most talented guitarists, Roger Miller of Mission of Burma. Trying to steady myself and to muffle the sound of my loudspeaker on my cell, I struggle to hear as Miller tells me about his current exploits with his group, his dabbling in symphony composition and his efforts to publish some of his written work and poetry.
Burma’s successes throughout the mid-eighties (1978-83) provided the antithesis to the popular punk scene that came to a head in 1978. With that came artier bands with more experimental sounds, bands like Joy Division and Hüsker Dü, who plotted the post-punk grid with their more ambient/electronic, but still gritty sound. With five studio albums, their most recent being, Unsound, released by Fire Records back in 2012, Burma has been in many ways responsible for influencing bands like Sonic Youth and Fugazi because of their laissez-faire sound.
Each of Burma’s songs sounds meticulously planned out to be vociferous and rebellious, but whatever singer Clint Conley (bass/vocals), Peter Prescott (drums), and Roger (vocals/guitar) seem to do just seems effortless and without calculation. Countless magazines, online forums, and hip blogs have praised Burma for their structured but chaotic sound, but Miller humbly reminds me that the band never set out for “fame,” nor did they expect the response that they now receive at their shows 20 years down the road as fans sing along to every single song, he says. “We are amused by our praise. We get praised really highly sometimes, we are amused by that really because many people claim that we influenced this and we influenced that, and we go, ‘Really?’ We don’t hear it. We’re glad people like us and we just laugh about that, too. We don’t take too much seriously in that way, even though we’re a band that seems like we take things very seriously.
“We believed in our sound back in ’83 — we knew it was great, we always thought that we were doing something that was very important. We believed in it. When we perform now, the minute we hit the stage, there is no question that we 100 per cent believe in what we are doing. We can laugh and joke and not take things seriously, but when we’re on the line, we give it our all.”
As Miller’s phone goes in and out of reception, I begin to ask him about his inspiration for lyrics, much of which, as Miller describes, relies heavily on dreams and dream imagery. As a lyricist, alongside both Prescott and Conley, Miller says he’s largely influenced by whatever his subconscious comes up with — this is especially evident in much of Burma’s early work, as Miller says, “in the song ‘Einstein’s Dream,’ the second verse is based on a dream. When the band was first starting, Peter wasn’t even in the band yet, it was just Clint and I, anyways, and it was really intense. When I am not using dreams, I am using dream-like imagery because when I remember my dreams, I write them down. That’s where a lot of consciousness happens are dreams — it’s a world where things aren’t completely literal or completely linear, that’s where most of the thinking goes on. And so, I am happy to make my lyrics sometimes confusing, but they make sense to me.”
What is most characteristic of Burma, though, is not just their sound, but also, their humility. As Miller enthusiastically describes his band’s artistic process, he doesn’t fail to remind me that the band is always exuberant and grateful when their fans sing along or appreciate their music. There was a time, Miller says, that when they were playing a show in D.C, the fans singing along to “This is Not a Photograph” were so loud, he couldn’t hear himself through his PA.
As we are wrapping to a close, I ask Miller about future albums. “We don’t really have plans for a new album right now,” he says, “but, I have two new songs that we’re currently playing in the band and Peter is working on one. In Burma, we are always very casual and we never really know what is going to happen…” Because Miller is working on two orchestrations, one for a symphony in New Hampshire and one for his own film, it is no surprise that the band will be also actively working on new material. At our conclusion, I thank Miller from my dusty stockroom, and he tells me that his band is ready to rock our Sled Island festival, and agrees with me when I remark, “I hope it doesn’t rain.”
Mission of Burma will be playing Thursday, June 19 at the #1 Legion.
By Therese Schultz