Mission of Burma
Don’t Look Back
by Matt Slaybaugh

Unsound, the newest record from the 10-years reunited Mission of Burma, is a jagged, gleefully noisy mess. It’s also a whole lot of fun. It has the sound of a band with nothing left to prove, just enjoying making a sound that no one else does and following their collective instinct wherever it takes them. Call it a victory lap. After overcoming Roger Miller’s tinnitus, conquering the stigma of obligatory reunion tours, and even building on their legacy with a handful of uncompromising new albums, Unsound may turn out to be the band’s knockout punch.

I had the great pleasure of talking to drummer Peter Prescott as he was relaxing at the home he shares with his girlfriend in Providence. We talked about the new record, the process of turning song ideas into Mission of Burma songs, and the one thing that keeps the band coming back for more.

The record sounds like you guys are having fun, like you’re just doing what you want. Is it really fun being in Mission of Burma right now?

Peter Prescott: Yeah, we’ve always agreed, even back in the day, that we’re just intolerant of anything that’s no fun. If we’re not having fun, there’s just no reason to do it. We’ve always felt that way, and I’ll confess that there’s a certain “us against the world” mentality. It feels like we’re this little gang, especially when we were young and pissed-off all the time. If the world’s going to like what we do, they’re going like it, and if they don’t, they don’t. We just cringe at the idea of being an old fart reunion band that’s just walking through it. It’s such an abhorrent idea to us. We just refuse to suck.

It sure seems like things have been going well, though. All the new releases have been critically well-received, and your shows have been great. Do you feel a sense of validation?

PP: The thing is people will come at you with a certain amount of good will if you did something good 30 years ago. But then if you want to stick around, you have to not suck. You have do more than play the one song people heard in high school. And no matter what, we don’t want to shame ourselves. But we’re our own harshest judges, whether it’s something old we’re playing or something new.

That sounds like you’re really policing your own integrity.

PP: You’re in a strange position when you’re an old punk. One guy I talked to a couple of weeks ago said the record sounds “curmudgeonly in the best sense,” and I didn’t take that as an insult. It’s a weird thing about this that when you’re 20 and pissed off at the world, it sounds noble. But when you’re 54 and you’re pissed off at the world, you don’t want to be the guy who says, “Hey you kids, get out of my yard!” That’s the challenge: to tap into what makes you angry without sounding like a crab.

So what makes you angry?

PP: Well, we’re four individuals, but I’m a raging liberal. So there’s whatever’s going on in the right-wing world that I watch on MSNBC and makes my eyes pop out of my head. That’s an easy one. And there’s the general way that the world works. You feel like the human race should be in better shape. We’ve always had a general dissatisfaction and we’re all old enough to have been through so many cultural eras, so that puts you in a strange position. Sometimes you get kind of zen about it, because you’ve seen it cycle around and you hope things will continue to get better. But you’ve seen bad things cycle around too. And I think you can let that get you down or let it energize you. We prefer to let it energize us.

It’s different for each of us. Roger and Clint have families, so I’m not in that boat. Everyone has different takes, so I don’t want the band to seem like some monolithic personality. That’s what makes the band unique—it isn’t one mentality. It’s really four different people in this house.

How does that manifest in making the music? Do you come in having written about what makes you mad? Do you pick subject matter as a group?

PP: We don’t ever do that. We don’t over-think it. It’s a pretty unconscious process, really. A lot of our favorite bands, even in the old days, were very organic sounding—not overly thought-out. I wouldn’t mind it if occasionally we wrote songs in a different fashion than we always do, but at this point I think that’s never going to happen. The way we did it back in the day and the way we still do it now is someone brings in a song—not finished, but it starts with one guy—and the rest of us mangle it in to Burma shape.

I love that phrase, “mangle it into Burma-shape.” That’s exactly what the record sounds like, that even when there’s a nice melody, it’s getting pushed around by the other sounds and ideas.

PP: That’s what it’s like. My stuff tends to be less finished. Roger’s tends to be almost done when he brings it in, but it always gets beaten up, taken apart. I’m using violent imagery, but we’re not gentle with the songs or each other. We’re honest enough that no one’s going to end up playing a song they don’t like. And it’s happened that a couple of times something ended up on a record that we weren’t all totally happy with, but then we just ended up never playing it.

Having disappeared for 20 years, you had the opportunity to both be influential and then to be influenced. Any acts that influenced your thoughts or your songs in that interim?

PP: I can’t speak for everyone, but there might be a little bit with me. I don’t know about Clint or Roger, but I know my ear was glued to the alterna-world that was happening throughout the ’90s. I was always playing in bands and working in record stores, and all that stuff was constantly coming at me. I can point to a complete genius band like The Jesus Lizard, or more recently, I really love the Future of the Left and Fucked Up. It’s really encouraging to hear that I can still love rock music—new rock music—that I don’t just sit around listening to stuff from 20 years ago. It’s encouraging to hear something and go, “That band is fucking genius” and they’re actually around right now. It gives you faith. Now, I don’t think that I’m directly influenced by anyone from a long time ago or now, but I still buy records. I know that Clint and Roger listen to a lot of modern stuff. Clint really loves that Canadian band that’s really melodic...

The New Pornographers?

PP: That’s it. We’ve all got a particular sense that overrides what we like individually. I like stuff that’s really explosive. Roger’s knocked out by bizarre song structures. Clint’s bowled over by a great hook.

And those aspects are what you bring to Mission of Burma?

PP: That’s probably true. It’s those three aspects. Clint can bring in a song that by the time we’re done I love it because it’s got some kind of melodic aspect that comes out that I never expected. Roger brings in a song with enough ideas for five songs, but it’s two minutes long, and I’m like, “How the hell did you do that?”

When I play Mission of Burma albums for my friends, frequently they react by saying, “That sounds confusing.”

PP: That’s completely valid. The band is sort of built on the idea that if you can hear everything in a song the first time... It’s like watching a great movie. I can watch a really great movie 15 or 20 times, but there are lots of just good movies that I wouldn’t want to watch more than once. So as a band the kind of movie we want to make is the kind that you can dig into the more you listen to it. That implies that the first time you hear it, there’s going to be a bit of confusion. Hopefully it makes sense the more you listen to it, though. Hopefully.

About four years ago, you were saying that the band only had a few more years to play. Do you still see it that way? Is this the last go-around?

PP: The closet we came to quitting in the last 10 years was right before we started writing the songs for this record. There was a drop-off in energy after the last record (The Sound and the Speed of Light). We were old guys being pulled in different directions, and we were wondering, “Are we going to still do this?” And then someone blew it by bringing in a good song. That’s what it always depends upon. If there’s new music that’s really keeping us interested, then that brings us back in. We never walk around saying, “We’re going to quit” or “Let’s do this until we drop dead.” I think the idea is to stop before the thing has run its course. But if it seems to have forward thrust to it, we’ll ride it.