Q&A: Mission of Burma's Clint Conley on Why His Band is Unlike The Pixies
Boston's Mission of Burma is one of those legendary post-punk outfits that seemingly pop into just about every up-and-coming band's list of influences.
The bands two main songwriters, guitarist Roger Miller and bassist Clint Conley, originally got together in the early '80s and developed a very unique sound that has definitely reverberated across the alternative rock landscape for nearly three decades. Unfortunately, the original band fell apart when Miller developed severe ear problems. Incredibly, after an absence of almost twenty years, Mission of Burma got back together again in 2002. Even more surprising was the fact that the band's post reunion albums are arguably as good as anything they did back in the day. Speaking from his home in Boston and in anticipation for Sunday's night show at the Granada Theater, Conley spoke to DC-9 about how to stage a successful second life.
Hit the jump to read the interview.
It's been a decade since Mission of Burma reformed. Why did you decide to get back together and did you ever think the reunion would be as successful as it's been?
Ten years on, I'm still not sure there is a clean and concise answer to why we reformed. It really was just the moon and the stars aligning in various configurations that made sense to all of us to try it again. Looking back, I started writing music again after fifteen years plus of not playing. We just thought what if we did get together and play again. It was not intended to be a permanent thing. If you would have told me that we would last ten years down the road, I'm not sure I would have believed you. We got together for a couple of gigs and those turned into a couple more. It's been incredible and unexpected.
Originally, the reason why the band broke up in 1983 was due to Roger Miller's ear problems. Is his condition still an issue?
It was the major reason we stopped playing. Roger had ongoing issues with his hearing and he was in his early 40's and he wanted to be able to still hear when he was 50. Then he made it to 50 and he could hear fine. He kind of had to make a deal with the devil because he realized that he would have much less time to play music. As time went on, the downside of playing became less and less. At first, he figured he could do it for a few gigs. As it turned out, with the precautions and measures we take on stage to protect his ears, it hasn't been to debilitating for him. He puts his amp at the front of the stage and plays behind it. The drums are surrounding by plexiglass. And he doesn't use monitors on his side of the stage. These steps have mitigated the punishment he takes.
Why did tape manipulator Martin Swope decide not to take part in the reunion?
At the time, it was just two gigs. Martin lives in Hawaii and he just declined to participate. I can understand that. He has a life going on down there and it would have been too disruptive. As the gigs became more steady, it probably made less sense for him to be traveling back and forth. We hooked up with Bob Weston and it was perfect the way Bob filled in. He was an old friend and it worked out perfectly.
Not many bands have reunited successfully. What is the key to doing this?
I don't have any idea. I am a big fan of The Pixies, but I did see them live when they got back together and I didn't find it too inspiring. Maybe that is because they've been very candid about it being a money grab. They were just running through the old material. Once we got together, we made a pact that we would introduce new material into the sets. It's perfectly understandable that people want to hear the old stuff. But we always keep it fresh with new songs. We want it to be a living, breathing entity and not some automation. We are not a live jukebox.
Were you surprised by the positive critical reaction that all three post reunion albums have received?
No. I am certainly pleased with the reaction. I expected with the first record [2004's ONoffON] that we would be a certain amount of respect. I figured we were going to cut some slack, but I take it all with a grain of salt. I think it's wonderful that people like what we do. We write our songs and we don't do them with any designs. People seem to like it, even though we still seem like such an odd fit, as odd as we've ever been. We are as baffled as we ever were at what's popular. We are just kind of out there making our music.
When you first got together in the early '80s, did you realize that you had stumbled onto a new sound?
I think there was that feeling. It was a very exciting thing to get together and start writing songs. I'm sure a lot of new bands feel that way. We were never quite sure whether anyone else would like it. I had never written music before, so I kept wondering if I had stolen this particular chorus or lyric. It was all so new to us. We were pretty sure there was value in what we were doing. That's why we kept doing it.
Mission of Burma has become somewhat of a hip influence for other bands to mention in interviews. Do you sometimes listen to these bands and wonder exactly how you influenced them?
We certainly don't make any claims to have influenced anyone. I think some people imagine some of this stuff.
REM covered "Academy Fight Song" and exposed a huge audience to your music. Why do you think that song and also "That's When I Reach for my Revolver" keep popping up in indie culture?
I am very pleased that people feel the need to cover those songs. Roger and I are songwriters. There are a lot of bands that just pay attention to the surface, things like what they are wearing. There was not much attention paid to the songs, nothing there to really attach itself to you. I think, if nothing else, we were successful in writing songs, making a lot of noise and making a lot of racket. I think those two are fundamentally strong songs.
With the original line-up, some of the live shows were described as hit or miss. Do you think the band is better on stage these days?
I would say we are much, much, much, much better. Part of that is that we were very excitable when we were younger. It was exciting, but it was also a mess. We were messed up a lot of the time. There is less of that now. It just feels much more in control.