All Boston’s Mission of Burma did in their original early-’80s incarnation was put out two albums, Signals, Calls, and Marches and the seminal Vs., and essentially give birth to the post-punk movement. The quartet—Roger Miller (vocals and guitar), Clint Conley (bass), Peter Prescott (drums) and Martin Swope (tape manipulations and sound engineer)— quickly became known for solid songwriting, a unique punk-tinged sound and extremely loud live shows. But after Miller developed tinnitus, Mission of Burma (above, playing “1, 2, 3, Party!!” for KEXP FM) broke up in 1983. However the band’s legacy carried on, influencing the likes of Fugazi, Sonic Youth, Nirvana and Pearl Jam (who even named their second LP Vs.). And that’s where this story would end, but, seemingly out of nowhere, Mission of Burma reunited in 2002—with Bob Weston replacing Swope—and went on to release four more critically acclaimed albums, including last year’s Unsound. Now they’re back in town to play The Bowery Ballroom on Friday, and last week Roger Miller answered Five Questions for The House List.
What’s the last band you paid to see live?
Do DJs count? DJ Jonathan Toubin was spinning amazing unknown soul and R&B in Boston for a dance-party vibe a few days ago. Went dancing there with my gal. As far as non-DJs, Boston’s Callithumpian Consort performing a John Cage piece (and pieces by some of his cohorts) just before New Year’s Eve.
Where do you like to hang out in NYC? And do you ever feel like you could live here?
I hang near the clubs (The Bowery Ballroom; Lincoln Center) I play, or else at friends’ places I stay, in Tribeca, the East Village and Williamsburg. When I first went to NYC with Burma in 1979, I thought I’d live there eventually. Gradually this wore off as I get to visit NYC all the time (mostly playing shows) and hence have no need for the intense compression of NYC life.
Do you have any crutches when writing a song—are there certain words or styles you feel you lean on too much?
I’ve been told I write about water too much, and that I use the word forget too often. I believe this critique is accurate. If I’m having no inspiration for lyrics, I go to my dream journal. While this is definitely a form of a crutch, it’s not negative in my opinion. It’s always surprising and refreshing.
Do you have to be depressed to write a sad song? Do you have to be in love to write a love song? Is a song better when it really happened to you?
All my songs are, to some degree, first person—even the ones that don’t make sense (or especially those).
After all these years on the road, what have you learned to make touring easier?
In the last five years I started using my laptop (with headphones) for composing scores, and the scoring program plays the scores (rather crassly) to the score I’m writing. This takes me away from my immediate environment, putting me in more of a “head” space than a “van” space. Books are good, too. —R. Zizmor