MISSION OF BURMA: WHEN THE WORLD IS INSANE
This interview by Chris Ziegler.
How do you like your Library Of Congress-ready reissues?
Peter Prescott (drums/vocals): When I first saw it, I was like, ‘Oh my God, this is just insane!’ It’s like something presidents get! And then ten minutes later it’s in a stack of vinyl I’ve got on the wall and I don’t think about it again. We still like the music—that’s why we don’t mind playing it—but as far as the package, we think that’s really cool. And then we don’t think about it.
Jim DeRogatis said that Burma’s music doesn’t age because it was never of its era—but what was it like living on the other side of that? Did you ever feel like Burma vs. the unfeeling world?
There was that feeling years ago. Occasionally we got to be this angry little team—‘Fuck you if you don’t like us!’ After a while, it becomes this unsaid mantra.
How does that affect your digestion?
It starts as negative and then it turns around—you sort of feel strength from it, I guess. You know you’re never gonna explain it to most of the world, and they’re not gonna like it, and once you’re OK with that, you feel kind of strong about it. But I don’t think that condition exists so much now. Most of the people that bother to show up are somewhat used to us. People are giving us a lot more love—let’s put it that way.
How close did you get to breaking up before you broke up?
Have you read Our Band Could Be Your Life? I think a lot of those bands had much more of a ‘60s mentality of just barreling straight on. A lot more of them went through living hell than we did.
You never ate dog food?
There was little of that. I would confess—we were not the kind of people who start fights and get wasted and beat up people. We were kind of suburban middle class. We were really into rebellion and not taking any shit, but not in a primeval I-live-on-the-street kind of way. Maybe we would be easier to relate to if we were! If you’re a cliché, at least you’re understandable. We were not understandable! It divided people right away. We more often saw them leaving than coming in! It fits even less into the world now than it did then.
The world is not yet a Burma song?
I don’t look at it that way. An awful lot of indie stuff—to me—I like what I’ve heard of Fleet Foxes, but it’s an awful lot like Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young, and that’s never been a punk rock influence for me! It’s pleasant enough but very unquestioning—an innocuous influence as far as we would go. That’s not where we come from. So even though people are more understanding of the type of music we do—since it’s been twenty-five years of noise!—it still sits in a difficult place. I would never listen to us casually.
Do you put on a special outfit or something?
Do karate kicks or something! It is that kind of thing. Either annoying or something you interact with.
What are you playing besides Signals, Call and Marches on those nights?
We play four or five songs we wrote before that. We play the single—‘Max Ernst’ and ‘Academy’—and four or five that are not on any Ace of Hearts or Matador release. A couple are unrecorded and a few are on Taang! Records. ‘Eyes Of Men,’ ‘Anti-Aircraft Warning’—
The Moving Parts song?
Yes, but we played it, too. And a couple more. And when we play VS. we do the LP with bonus tracks.
In Our Band, Roger says he knew punk would be his last chance to be part of a revolution. Is that what it felt like?
Absolutely. I gotta admit—we’re all very anti-nostalgic. It’s not an emotion we like to revisit because it feels too much like death! But—if I live another 20 years, I’ll remember how it felt then. It wasn’t about bands that were famous. It was about bands putting out a record last week that’s suddenly your favorite record of all time. To me that seems impossible! Joy Division this week, then Buzzcocks and then a Gang of Four EP and Monochrome Set—it would happen sometimes two or three a week! After a while we did start to think—‘This is a special moment. It’s not gonna happen every other week.’
Is it true Mark E. Smith said you were the only American band he could stand?
He never said it to me. I don’t know. I love the idea.
So if it’s not true, it should be?
He’s one of my top five people of all time! I even read his recent autobiography—it’s good! Less caustic and annoyed than you would think. He’s a person I’ve always been fascinated by. I’d like it if that was said!
You said once that your ‘general point of view is of a person who’s been driven insane by society, but instead of reacting in a violent way, just sort of is smiling at it all.’ Do you still feel that way?
It’s amazingly similar. Some people are kind of old when they’re young, you know? I always had this sort of Abbie Hoffman grumpy-old-man thing—it’s always been there. A survival response to what you look at as an insane world. I remember reading Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas and I was like, ‘This is perfect. This is the way you deal with an insane world.’
And yet you seem so cheerful.
When the world is insane, the proper response to it is insanity. There are different ways that can go. You can take it all in and laugh at it, or you can lose your gourd and go completely out of your mind—I’d prefer not to do that!
How do you stay so upbeat?
The whole idea is to get to the next day. Some people shut everything out so they don’t go nuts. To me that makes you numb. I prefer not to be in that state. If you’re gonna take it all in and not be emotionally numb, you have to find some way to work it out. Whether I’m 50 or not, sitting at the drums and screaming for an hour is a good way to get it out! It still works pretty well. And you know—watch movies or any other escapism is a way to laugh it off. You find the things that work to try to survive.
Is there anything that you respond to yourself that you wish wasn’t as rare as it is today?
I think people are trying. What you have to keep in mind is that they’re inundated with one thing—pointless information. People are diverted. In a weird way, the younger generation tends to be less rebellious than any I’ve seen in my lifetime, and the reason is there’s hardly anything to rebel against! If you wanna be a consumer, that’s there. If you wanna go to school, you can probably go to school. They’re inherently a little more go-along-to-get-along, and that’s sad to me sometimes. Back to Fleet Foxes—their influence apparently is what punk rock was rebelling against. CSN&Y, Journey and all that, and all those things are embraced by kids now. In the ‘80s, Journey and REO Speedwagon was on the radio. I don’t wanna dismiss all those things but they have no use for me! When that was going on, I was listening to the Minutemen! I bypassed all of that. People my age are sometimes in an odd position. What everyone said would happen is ‘your sons and daughters will become conservative, and that will freak you out!’
Did that happen?
I don’t have kids, but Clint brought his daughters to more than a few Warped Tours. He usually enjoys it as sort of the aged spectator, but he does have to laugh! The subtle way punk rock is repackaged as mall music. I like to think ultimately kids do get back in touch with that rebellion and then they’ll produce good things again.
How do you stay effectively creative in a world of oversaturation?
People do things for unconscious ways to survive. This is kind of goofy—I like the place I live in but I’m not fond of the town I work in. Cambridge, Massachusetts—over the years, it’s gotten sort of actively grating to me. A weird intersection of really baked hippies and extremely rich people and extremely poor people and all sorts of freshman students—sort of a perfect storm of braindead-ness! Then again, I work in a record store—that’s a center for that kind of thing! In a weird way, I’m always inspired by things that grate on me. When you get really comfortable, that’s the worst thing for anybody—people write from different perspectives, and maybe that’s what I fell into! The easiest way for me to write is to focus on something wrong or unpleasant. ‘It’s a beautiful day—I’ll write a song!’ That’s not me. I wonder to my girlfriend—‘Do I do these things to keep myself in a position to not be comfortable?’ Comfort is a frightening thing.
Do you sleep on a bed of nails?
Might as well!
What’s next for Burma?
We have at least eight songs written since the last record. The only reason this has lasted so long is we kept doing new stuff. The only negative aspect about doing this tour is it’s a step backward, which doesn’t feel right. When we’re on stage playing, it’s a great time—but in terms of emotional karma… It’s when we’re in our practice space working on new songs that we feel right. If we get to the point we have enough new stuff we really love, we’ll try to make a record.
What will Burma be doing when you’re all 70?
A terrifying thought! The reality is we’re not gonna be able to play that much longer anyway. We sort of talked it over—are we gonna write mellower songs that we can handle better when we’re 55? And that’s not gonna happen. The bottom line is you have to feel right about it, and the only way we feel right is when we write in the spirit of a long time ago. It doesn’t have to be the same—we don’t want it to be the same! But it’s coming from the same area. There’s nothing that people are more abhorrent of—and it’s fair to be—when bands they love ‘progress.’ Adding glockenspiels or something! It’s not where you wanna see a band go that you really love. We relate to that. If the three of us started playing different music, it wouldn’t matter that it’s the three of us—it wouldn’t be Burma. We aren’t gonna call it that unless it is that. So to play that and play it correctly—to really push it, a couple more years.
It was supposed to be three shows in 2002. We’ve outlived our obsolescence by many years already!
MISSION OF BURMA PERFORMS VS. WITH HANK IV ON THUR., SEPT. 25, AT THE ECHOPLEX, 1154 GLENDALE BLVD., ECHO PARK. 7:30 PM / $20 / 18+. ATTHEECHO.COM. THE DEFINITIVE EDITIONS OF SIGNALS, CALLS AND MARCHES, VS., AND THE HORRIBLE TRUTH ABOUT BURMA ARE AVAILABLE NOW FROM MATADOR. VISIT MISSION OF BURMA AT MISSIONOFBURMA.COM.