An interview with Roger Miller by Mark Dagley
MoB rules! And they could have had it all, being true monarchs of the kingdom of alt-rock. But they abdicated the thrown to their siblings Sonic Youth and took up in a haunted mansion on a hill of beans.
Boston, Massachusetts, a.k.a. Beantown, home to these Burmese (guitarist Roger Miller, drummer Peter Prescott, bassist Clint Conley, and sound manipulator Martin Swope), was better known in the late ‘70s for the pomp and swagger of groups like its namesake Boston, Aerosmith, and the J.Giles Band, than it was for any protopunk squalling. But, like most major cities across the U.S., Boston had a thriving underground music scene. It existed in a parallel universe of performance venues (38 Thayer Street ), art spaces (Punk/Data Gallery), and the remains of a previous generation’s dirty watering holes (The Rathskeller, The Club and The Bird Cage). The original Modern Lovers were still fresh in the memories of many, and anyone with an ESP-Disk was considered an enlightened being. It was in this environment that Mission of Burma flourished, creating intricate melodies that maintained complex structure beneath pulsing tug-o-war rhythms. In 1980 they produced a regional hit single, “Academy Fight Song/ Max Ernst” and became the city’s predominate artband.
And then, after three more years, and just as many releases (the others being a single, “When I Reach for My Revolver,” an EP, Signals, Calls and Marches, and an album, Vs.), guitarist Roger Miller’s tinnitus, which he’d developed as a young punk in Michigan, worsened, forcing the high volume MoB to disband. Miller embarked on a quieter solo career, also recording with Maximum Electric Piano, Alloy Orchestra, The Binary System, Birdsongs of the Mesozoic with Swope, and Wrong Pipe with Conley, who produced and played on Yo La Tengo’s debut album and then formed his own group, Consonant. Prescott went on to lead Volcano Suns, Kustomized, and Peer Group. All of these bands achieved a more than modest success.
Several Mission of Burma compilations and a posthumous live album were released in the late ‘80s, and though their music continued to receive kudos throughout that decade and the next, it wasn’t until 2001 that the band chose to reunite, but without the pleasure of Martin Swope’s company. ONoffON, released in 2004, is the fruit of their extended space odyssey, a trip taken with Bob Weston of Shellac. Here’s Roger Miller with a sprinkling of the moondust that’s been hidden under the rug. (P.S. Roger’s hair is for real)
MD: I read somewhere that the Burma reunion is the most well-planned since Fleetwood Mac’s.
RM: As for best-planned, I can only say that we had no plan and still really don’t know what we’re doing.
MD: My first impression of ONoffON was late ‘60s/early ‘70s Quicksilver Messenger Service, or Ten Years After and other headshop rock. And I mean this in a good way! I forgot how damn melodic you guys can be! Did you guys poo-poo all that stuff in the Ann Arbor daze? What where you listening to back then?
RM: Actually, never cared for Quicksilver or Ten Years After. I didn’t dislike those two bands; they just didn’t hit me much (lesser versions of Airplane/Country Joe/Dead). My personal influences were more UK: Pink Floyd ala Syd; first Soft Machine disc. Per USA, Beefheart’s Strictly Personal and the MC5, who I saw 20 or more times in AA.
MD: I think my brother brought some of those records back from the P.X. in ‘Nam.
RM: I was given Ten Years After’s Shhhh for Christmas. Kept it for about half a year, then sold it. It wasn’t horrible, just not good enough. Had no influence on me. However, this is my favorite Ten Years After story: Burma was playing the Peppermint Lounge or Danceteria (they blurred together) in the early ’80s. When we got there, some person affiliated with the club was rehearsing for his solo performance at some disco: it was a solo guitar/vox version of “I’d Love to Change the World, but I Don’t Know Who I Am” from the aforementioned disc. Truly terrifying! We were all wondering what planet he actually was from.
What I consider my “band influence” lineage: Beatles/Kinks/Yardbirds; Love/Elevators; Pink Floyd (early band only)/Beefheart/Silver Apples/Soft Machine (1st only). After that, I started Sproton Layer, found my voice, so influences after that point became more minimal. Eno encouraged me a lot. The Ramones straightened my overindulgent ass right out. Wire made things clearer for Burma.
MD: Have you seen the MC5 documentary yet?
RM: Yes. The first half was such a trip down memory lane – pretty whacked, but a lot of it captured exactly what I felt at that time. I was really glad I saw this part. Very A-OK. Of course, the second half is totally depressing (the band no longer interested me at that time period, but still it’s horrible to see things spiral down into hell). I left before the film was over because I didn’t want to get any more depressed than I was.
MD: Did you ever see Blue Cheer perform?
RM: The only time I saw Blue Cheer was on television – some afternoon pop/rock show in the Ann Arbor/Detroit area. Their hit “Summertime Blues” had just come out. Two things struck me – their hair was so long and thick that you could not see either the bass player or guitarist’s face: the microphones just went into this thick mop. That was pretty cool in my book (10th grade?). On the other hand, they struck me as a Jimi Hendrix knock-off: the feedback wasn’t as good, the leads were actually comprehensible, etc. However, I still dug them. I owned, or was near, the first two LPs. Enjoyed them, but they weren’t top of my list. In Latin class, we spent some time trying to make sense out of Vincebus Eruptum, but the fact is, it doesn’t make sense in Latin.
Never took any Blue Cheer – did take some Orange Wedge.
MD: I’ve heard that you tuned Glenn Gould’s piano? Did you ever meet him?
RM: A nice concept, but, no. I never had any direct dealings with Gould. Never met him, never tuned. Saw the G. G. documentary. Didn’t realize until later that it was made after his death, and that the guy was an actor. Still, a pretty good flick.
MD: You grew up, as I did, during the last gasp of 1950s cool. Were you interested in science fiction, monster movies and hot rods?
RM: The ’50s didn’t do much for me (born 1952). In the world of cars, I did take quite an interest in a certain direction. My older brother (by 6 years) Gifford and I were totally into car design between 1958 and 1962. Because of this, every one of those four years we’d hit all the new car shops when the new cars came out in the fall: Giff would engage the salesmen, claiming that his parents were interested. I would gather up two copies of every folder I could get. (I still have a very complete collection of 1961s and 1962s, with a smattering of other years). Note that at this time I was between 6 and 10, and he was the appropriate 6 years older. We were primarily interested in the body designs – those were the greatest years for Amercian car innovation. I began to lose my interest when I got into rock music via the Beatles on Ed Sullivan. Anyways, US car design began to lose its edge, and look where the fuck it is now. Our best adventure was the following: Giff had scoped out where the new Chevys were stored before they were placed in the showrooms (’60 or ’61). So of course we snuck into the lot, and Giff took some pictures. As we left, we were followed by a plainclothesman for a few blocks. Pretty exciting for a 10-year-old. Every corner we were at, waiting for the light, he was at the opposite corner!
Didn’t care for monster movies or hot rods (as in Big Daddy Roth) all that much. Appreciated the monster/auto mix (Digger, the Wayout Dragster), but it wasn’t really my bag. I got into Science Fiction in junior high. Preferred, actually, psychedelia when that hit.
MD: Did you enjoy pop culture growing up? I mean the real garbage stuff, like Hogan’s Heroes, for example, or was it of no interest to you?
RM: It didn’t interest me much until the early/mid ’60s. I was a big fan of The Man from UNCLE, The Munsters, Gilligan’s Island, etc.. Star Trek (round #1) interested me for a while. But when I started smoking pot, around 1968, I lost interest in television. Also, I think the quality of American TV went down around then. I don’t watch television at all now, and I have huge gaping holes in my awareness of American culture since around 1970.
1969 was when I finally “found my voice” in Sproton Layer with my brothers Laurence and Benjamin. I was in 11th/12th grade, they were in 9th/10th. So from then on, I generated my own culture and only touched base with the outside world when something grabbed my attention.
MD: What about the idea of volume as a Rock & Roll signifier?
RM: I think that the high volume is a direct reaction to the high volume of the modern environment. Things have ramped up like crazy outside (sirens, car alarms, traffic, density of humans and dogs, etc.), so the natural reaction is to ramp it up to compete. There is an interesting, somewhat over the top rap by Roger McGuinn on the back of the first Byrds LP, where he defines the “new sound of rock” as sounding like “ROOOOOAAAAAAARRRRRRRR!,” which he says is imitating the new predominance of jet planes. There’s something to that.
MD: Did you ever consider doing anything outside of music?
RM: Basically, once I saw the Beatles on Ed Sullivan, rock music became the most important thing in my life. As far as doing anything else outside of music, when I was in junior high I thought I’d study lizards – my dad was a professor of ichthyology (fish specialist). Even my Mom knew that wasn’t going to happen! I was a pretty good writer of poetry/stories in high school. My creative writing teacher thought I’d be a really good kids’ writer, if I’d just drop the weed references. I was kind of working the Barrett-esque psychedelic fairytale thing, which crosses from fairy tales into dreams and nightmares of a more personal nature. I have always written (lyrics, odd very short stories, poesy), and I have always drawn. Recently, my drawing took a turn for the much more interesting, such that I have been in some local shows, a gallery, and have sold a couple of my drawings. I use the Max Ernst “Frottage” technique, and basically collage the surfaces of whatever environment I’m in. This is great for downtime on the road. I can keep all my drawing supplies and paper (always 9×12) in the shoulder bag I carry, so whenever I get the urge, out come the graphites. Tree bark, wooden stairs, salt, etc. For more info on the frottage thing, go to www.funworldmusic.com and click on the frottage page halfway down.
MD: Thanks, Roger.
RM: OK. I hope this is useful and/or amusing.