Nirvana, Pearl Jam, R.E.M., Foo Fighters, Sonic Youth and Pixies. All of these great bands and many more were inspired by the iconic post-punk band with an incredible name and a wonderful sound, Mission of Burma. Roger Miller has been frontman of the band since their beginnings in Boston in 1979 to 1983 and then their official reunion in 2002. I sat down with Roger before a recent show at The Spaceland Ballroom in Hamden, CT to get to know him better and talk about all things punk.
Alex Obert: What do your Mission of Burma Boston roots mean to you?
Roger Miller: I believe Boston is the only place Mission of Burma could have formed in. It’s a college town. I was drawn there because I studied to be a piano technician. Clint had gone to Rochester and Pete lived in the area. The college scene, it helped generate more of an arty, rocky underground. And we straddled the line between just straight up punk rock and very art bands. There are other artier bands than us in Boston. The Girls of America, incredible band. La Peste was kind of arty punk. Human Sexual Response, The Maps, there was a nice left-leaning art side. We were happy to have been there.
Alex Obert: How were you discovering new bands back then?
Roger Miller: We’d just hear about them. I moved to Boston from Ann Arbor in early ’78. In Ann Arbor, I’d been a member of Destroy All Monsters. The whole punk scene was just breaking, you listen to college radio, that’s where you got all the information. When something came up, we would talk about it. People would get all revved and talk about it and then you’d go buy the 45’s if you could find ’em. In those days, there were so many new bands happening all the time. The first wave of punk had just ended and just blown the whole thing open. Every week in Boston, there were new bands. And you’d check them out, most of them were not that good, just like anywhere. This is something I think about with Boston, there were so many bands and a lot of them weren’t very good, some of them were really bad, some were quite good. But it took all those bands that maybe weren’t so good to layer this groundwork so that bands such as us could actually happen. There were so many bands and people credit us. All those bands that weren’t so great, but they had maybe one or two songs, they helped us to exist.
Alex Obert: You’ve said that The Ramones are an influence of yours, how did you discover them?
Roger Miller: I was still in Ann Arbor. I can’t remember who showed me the first Ramones album first, but I heard it and I remember playing both sides three times in a row. I can’t remember whether I heard it from college radio or from friends. I always had friends that were rockers. I’d just come out of music school, so I was working my way back to rock. But yeah, that first Ramones album was just mind blowing. I saw them in Ann Arbor twice between the first Ramones album and the second Ramones album. Every time, it was just berserkly glorious.
Alex Obert: You’ve had quite the concert experiences, seeing The Ramones live and also many bands in Boston, but what was it like getting to play with Mission of Burma at the iconic CBGB in New York City?
Roger Miller: It was possibly the biggest dive I’ve ever played at in my entire life. (laughs) It’s a long way to get in. From the stage, you can’t even get a beer. It was crowded when we played there. The bathrooms downstairs didn’t have doors on ’em, but there were guys in line. It was just a total hellhole. Yet, at the same time, it was a place where things happened. I’ve played there in a bunch of different varieties, Mission of Burma, Birdsongs of the Mesozoic, Maximum Electric Piano, they all played there. And any time those gigs came up, I would take it because despite the hellishness of it, it had a peculiar charm. (laughs)
Alex Obert: Before we get further into Mission of Burma, what else are you up to these days?
Roger Miller: Well I’m still in Mission of Burma, but we haven’t played since September, so we don’t do too much. I’m also in the group, Alloy Orchestra, we accompany silent movies. I tour much more with them than Mission of Burma. When Roger Ebert was alive, he said we were the best in the world at accompanying silent films. Last year, we were in Ukraine and Norway, as well as the Telluride Film Festival. All across the US, one day we’re in north of San Francisco and the next day, we’re in Silver Spring, Maryland. We tour a lot and we’re really well known for it. Those are the two main performing things. But I also teach a little bit out of my home, guitar lessons. And this year I’ve started guiding people through surrealist games, I’m doing it at Mass MoCA on February 22nd and Real Art Ways in Hartford on March 1st. It’s like a cafe type environment and I’m your surrealist host, like a surrealist Johnny Carson. I explain how to do these drawings and word games that these surrealists did. I get paid to do that and it’s something that I love to do. And over the last four or five years, I’ve been been composing what you’d call serious music composition. I’ve had two pieces performed at the New England Conservatory so far, a third one’s coming up this Fall. Another premiere is happening at Southern Illinois University. So those are the main things I do, the surrealist games, serious composition, Mission of Burma, and Alloy Orchestra. They’re things that keep me alive.
Alex Obert: How do you view the punk culture in today’s generation?
Roger Miller: Well, it’s hard for me to judge because I was there at the beginning phase of it. It seems neo punk to me, which isn’t bad. That’s fine. It doesn’t mean the same thing it meant then, just in the sense that at that point, what you’re revolting against was so much bigger. I’m not saying that punk kids today don’t have a good reason to revolt, they totally do. But as far as a cultural movement, it can’t possible have the same effect it had in ’76-early ’78. That overturned a whole older hierarchy. The punk movement now is just another one of the many styles you see, it’s no longer a threat to the world, it’s just something you can fit into and that’s totally cool. If you like it and it helps you, that’s great.
Alex Obert: Which bands do you feel were punk before it was referred to as a genre?
Roger Miller: Well certainly The Stooges, MC5 in many respects, both from my hometown of Ann Arbor, Michigan. And The Velvets. Those are the ones you really scream that they did it. Iggy’s simplistic chords and negative lyrics instead of the peace and love thing. MC5 were a little more overtly political, but their chord progression was real simple, it was anarchistic as hell. And the same thing about The Velvets.
Alex Obert: I’d like to get your thoughts on a few songs from other bands from the generation of the original Mission of Burma run.
Roger Miller: Okay.
Alex Obert: What Do I Get? by Buzzcocks.
Roger Miller: Great. And The Buzzcocks are so charming. It wasn’t radical. What was radical about it was that they didn’t know very much, but they were able to produce these incredibly charming songs. The guitar solo in Boredom, it’s two notes and I believe they’re repeated fifty seven or sixty one times. That’s the most minimal guitar solo you could have because one note isn’t a solo. You have to have at least two.
Alex Obert: Love Will Tear Us Apart by Joy Divison.
Roger Miller: I wasn’t keen on all their songs. At first I was real excited, and then I thought some of them were a little bit overrated. However, that song is a really, really great song. Almost anybody can relate to it. It’s still got that simplistic bass line groove. But for some reason, it tugs the heart strings, as well as the aesthetics.
Alex Obert: Anthrax by Gang of Four.
Roger Miller: Andy Gill is one of the few great punk era guitarists that really extended the repertoire. And he was a fan of Hendrix, as I was also. He’s more of a minimalist than Hendrix, he didn’t go through the histrionics, he would just let the guitar drone away. That was his solo, he’d turn the amp on! (laughs) The song is great. Killer bass line.
Alex Obert: Don’t Want To Know If You Are Lonely by Husker Du.
Roger Miller: That was a little bit later, considerably after us. It’s good. It’s got that power pop punk thing, kind of like The Buzzcocks, except for it’s darker than The Buzzcocks. It didn’t do as much for me as the other bands we’ve discussed so far.
Alex Obert: Boys Don’t Cry by The Cure.
Roger Miller: That’s not my favorite song from the album. That’s their poppier side. I prefer Killing An Arab, stuff like that from the same album, the American release. That’s a little more darker from The Cure. I have a funny story about The Cure. Mission of Burma opened up for them at Hurrah’s Club in New York at their very first show in the United States. That was when Robert Smith had really, really short hair. During soundcheck, we’d often play sarcastic songs. We were doing Mississippi Queen during soundcheck and when our set was done, Robert Smith came up to me and said, “During your soundcheck, we thought this was going to be hell. But then you guys didn’t play Mississippi Queen and we were real happy.” The song on our set he liked the most was Einstein’s Day, which in a way makes sense, it’s a little bit like The Cure though. Of course it was written before I’d ever heard The Cure. But it has those broad, slow-moving chords.
Alex Obert: Could I get your thoughts on Peter Prescott as a drummer?
Roger Miller: Sometimes I don’t think he plays drums. It’s silly to say he’s playing volcanoes instead, but it’s almost that. I’ve played with other drummers and they can snazz around. Pete’s not a snazzy drummer, but what he’s doing with the drums, it’s just somethin’ else. It’s a force of nature that sometimes isn’t really drumming, as far as I’m concerned. It really balances out me and Clint. To me, the band balances itself pretty well. I’m more avant-garde leanings, Cliff’s more pop leanings, and Pete’s more primal leanings. Of course we all write pop songs and we all scream and yell and we all do avant-garde shit. (laughs)
Alex Obert: Getting into Mission of Burma’s 1982 debut album, Vs., can you take me through the inspiration and influence for the opening track, Secrets?
Roger Miller: Secrets was the first or second song I wrote after the band started. Clint was working at a bar and I would go there because I would get free drinks. (laughs) But I was looking like a punk in a fratty kind of bar. Clint could pull this shit off, but he was a punk rocker too. But I would just sit there at the bar and you’d look at each other, people next to you, and you don’t really say anything. Kind of furtive glances, that’s what all the lyrics were about. The inability to communicate and wonder what’s going on. The music itself, I was really interested in Steve Reich at the time, I was gonna make it Gamelon-like, but it’s a one chord rock song. There’s only one chord in it. I was pleased with that.
Alex Obert: I must ask, why do you do what you do?
Roger Miller: Can’t help it. I’m still doing it. I’m sixty two and I’m playing in Mission of Burma. I’m also doing all this other stuff. For whatever reason, making things makes me feel more normal. If I don’t write a song or do some music or create something like that in a few days, I go, “How come I don’t feel good? Oh! That’s why!” I just can’t help it really. It’s neither here nor there, it’s just the way I am.
Alex Obert: What are your passions outside of music?
Roger Miller: My girlfriend, who’s really, really great. I’m interested in art also, I do a lot of drawings. All those kind of things. I’m interested in trying to pull the plug as much as possible on the fascistic qualities of the United States. (laughs) And the world, it’s not just the US, it’s everywhere. Trying to counter world stupidity.
Alex Obert: Favorite band name?
Roger Miller: Mission of Burma.
Alex Obert: Favorite bass line?
Roger Miller: Peking Spring by Mission of Burma.
Alex Obert: Band that should have been bigger?
Roger Miller: The Girls from Boston.
Alex Obert: Mission of Burma show you wish you could relive?
Roger Miller: Just analytically right now, we played in Pittsburgh in September. I was playing the most perfectly I had ever played. It wasn’t necessarily the best show or the most ecstatic, but it was so perfect, I’d like to do it again. Analytically, “How am I doing this? Why is this perfect?”
Alex Obert: Favorite Ramones song?
Roger Miller: Basement.
Alex Obert: Favorite record store?
Roger Miller: Discount Records in Ann Arbor. It was there from ’64 to ’70. That’s where I got all my imports and all the cool shit.
Alex Obert: Which deceased musician would you want to bring back to life?
Roger Miller: I suppose Syd Barrett.
Alex Obert: Do you have any sites to plug at the moment?
Roger Miller: My website is RogerClarkMiller.com. It covers all my shit from drawings to writings. I actually was a Wall Street Journal book reviewer last February. (laughs) The site has all my shit, all my bands, there’s a lot of ’em. Including my band, Sproton Layer, the band from 1969 and ’70 that played some shows last Summer. MissionOfBurma.com and AlloyOrchestra.com