Behind the making of 'Unsound'...

Classic band reunions aren’t supposed to work out this way. The natural order of things decrees that bands should break up acrimoniously, trawling through a series of increasingly-dull solo records and spin-off projects, before eventually succumbing to their accountants’ calls and getting the old gang back together. Minus the one who thought it would be an embarrassment, of course. Several worn out platitudes (deployed in a vain attempt to cover up evidently-lingering mistrust and hostility) and a moderately successful tour later, there’s one last stab at recapturing the glory years with a woefully-disappointing album, followed by another split and years of the same cycle, rolling on with ever-diminishing returns. Yes, fame and fortune is a stupid game.

So what makes Mission Of Burma so different? How have they managed to avoid the standard reformation pitfalls to do this with dignity?

Bassist, songwriter and affable gent extraordinaire Clint Conley laughs.

“I love that word. I went to see Wire when they reformed, and that’s exactly what I said – they’re doing it with dignity! So it’s great to hear someone use that word about us.”

Is there a secret to it?

“I don’t know about a secret. We’re just doing things the same way we always have.”

Hmm, a lot of reunited bands seem to think they’re operating under the same system, and it rarely works out. That doesn’t explain what’s so unique about Burma.

Let’s start over.

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At the peak of their powers, Mission Of Burma originally split up in 1983. But rather than the age-old ‘musical differences’ excuse, the most prominent reason was the fact that guitarist Roger Miller’s hearing was rapidly deteriorating. Wracked by tinnitus (an unfortunate result of their violently loud live shows), he eventually decided to call time on the band, leaving a legacy of several indie rock classics and a barnstorming debut album in the shape of 1981’s phenomenal Versus. Not that the wider world had noticed.

“It felt like we’d been having a four year argument with the world,” sighs Clint, “and we were losing.”

Indeed, their genre-busting combination of pop hooks, post-punk tricks and avant-garde noise failed to ignite beyond the nascent indie rock scene of the band’s early years. Burma collectively began to lose heart, and as Miller’s hearing began to go missing, there seemed little point in carrying on.

Clint: “Roger made an agreement with himself that he should stop playing before he was thirty, so that he could still hear when he turned sixty.”

So what’s changed since then?

“Well, we’ve made changes – Roger wears ear defenders, and Peter [Prescott, drummer] plays behind plexiglass. I don’t know how old Roger is exactly, but now he’s approaching sixty, so I guess there’s less to lose…!”

Onto more topical matter. At the time of writing, Mission Of Burma’s fifth full album 'Unsound' is about to be unleashed, and it’s arguably their best since that fiery debut caused such a stir amongst the early 80s underground cognoscenti. That title seems to sum up the contrarian approach that’s fuelled their oeuvre, perhaps suggesting oblique, dissonant chaos rather than easy-listening melodic pop. But Clint refutes any such lofty notions, almost sheepishly insisting: “basically it was just something that we could all agree on.”

“It’s quite hard to make decisions in a band with no leader,” he continues, “So if we all agree, we have to go for it.”

Democracy in action, huh? Whatever; the hooks seem hookier, the ‘out’ bits seem more ‘out there’… just check out the exhilarating nonsense comprising a guitar riff on opener ‘Dust Devil’. Or the pummelling powerpop of ‘7’s’. Or the harmony-drenched muscle of ‘Semi-Pseudo-Sort-Of-Plan’. Or… ok, you get the idea. The remarkable thing is not so much that Burma came back in the first place – the most prescient point is that they’ve managed to evolve and better themselves along the way.

As ever, Clint is modest about it: “Well, you’d hope so. I like hearing other people say that about the record. We’re always trying out new ideas – I credit Roger with a lot of that.

Franklin Bruno referred to you as the “hook machine” of Burma’s songwriting team.

“Heh! Well, I certainly write the poppier numbers… but that’s the way I write. Roger writes riffs and then writes around them – I tend to come up with a chord sequence, and then try out as many melodies as possible around that.”

Certainly more of your own songs have been covered over the years, particularly ‘That’s When I Reach For My Revolver’.

“Yeah, Moby did this ten minute dance version with female vocals, that was pretty different.”

He also did a pop-grunge version…

“The dance version was more interesting. There was also this really melancholy version by Syd Straw which was recorded for an independent movie called ‘My New Gun’ – that used a cello and was really… unexpected, I guess.”

Graham Coxon also covered it for his 2000 solo album ‘The Golden D’.

“…And that’s really cool. He’s a great guy, and he’s been very good to us. I love that he did 'Fame And Fortune'! I like it when people cover the songs that you wouldn’t expect.”

Peter Prescott’s songwriting talent seems somewhat overlooked since the band got back together.

“Peter’s a really great writer, and yeah, the stuff he did with Volcano Suns was fantastic. When we started it was just me and Roger writing the songs, and he gradually came forward… now he writes pretty much the same number of songs as me per record, which may not be many, but they’re great.”

Michael Azzerad used the ‘hook machine’ quote in his indie history compendium ‘Our Band Could Be Your Life’. Were you happy with the way you were portrayed in that book?

“I guess it’s probably time for me to read it again. I read it years ago, and I was fascinated by the other bands’ stories, but I just sorta rushed through our chapter in case it brought up anything embarrassing. Luckily I think it was ok.”

And what of the band now? Have the relationships changed over the years?

“Our band is as it ever was, really. We blend together well on stage and off. It's true we don't share every living moment the way we did during the first run, and we all have richer, more complex lives outside the band. But what helps it hang together is a genuine sense of mutual respect and trust.”

Ah, now we’re getting somewhere.

You see, this is what’s so special about Burma: that sense of equality and unity above all. They’re a very literal interpretation of what it means to be a ‘re-united’ band – not just in terms of personel, but mentally, aesthetically, spiritually so. 'Unsound' is not the work of last-gasp musos, driven by money or unwarranted, rampant egos. It’s four incredible musicians playing together because they damn well want to.

That’s the game they play.

Photo Credit: Scott Munroe
Words by Will Fitzpatrick

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'Unsound' is out now.
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