Q&A: Mission of Burma's Peter Prescott On Boston Punk, Singing Drummers, Volcano Suns And Kustomized
In a recent convo with Sound of the City, Sebadoh/Dino Jr icon and ex-Amherst punker Lou Barlow waxed nostalgic for Boston's music scene, both snickering at the hardcore simpletons brutalizing innocents in the pit and in awe of American underground rock trailblazers like Mission of Burma. Alas, punk rock Burma was not, at least to Barlow's ears. "They were like this really wayward new wave band that somehow got associated with the hardcore scene because they were fuckin' good and powerful," he recalls. "They were kinda like a new wave dance band at first; from the club tradition of Boston of these really awesome new wave-influenced guitar bands."
New wave, hardcore or punk rock labels notwithstanding, Burmain its first wave from the late '70s through its 1983 breakup and 2002's still-ongoing reunionimbued the Amerindie landscape as a nerdy khaki and oxford-fashioning quartet who, with guitars and tape looping manipulations plugged in at full throttle, unleashed a popcentric dissonant jangle maelstrom of anthemic pop and experimentalism, inspiring the likes of R.E.M. and countless others.
Perched behind guitarist Roger Miller and bassist Clint Conley (with current tapes mishmasher Bob Weston helming the soundboard) is Burma's anchor and unsung postpunk hero, drummer/singer Peter Prescott. When MoB dissolved in '83, Prescott honed his songwriting sleight, added gruff yelps to his repertoire and hatched Volcano Suns, his noise-drenched, sonic-driven pop beast of a band. Beginning with The Bright Orange Years ('85) through Career in Rock ('91), Volcano Suns flew under the radar with their grade A Hüsker Dü-ish postpunk. In 2009, the saviors over at Merge Records took note of the Suns' undying influence, reissuing their first two albums.
Sound of the City had the pleasure of speaking to Prescott from his home in Providence to talk Burma, Volcano Suns, his new solo project and a possible reunion of his excellent (and overlooked) '90s band Kustomized.
How did Burma end up on Ace of Hearts Records? Why not a punk rock label?
Because there weren't any! [Laughing] It was like prehistoric era, ya know? In the Boston area, I think Rick Hartethe guy who had Ace of Heartsmaybe had been the only one who put out any records. I don't know that for sure but I think he had put out two singles before we ran into him. They were a little on the rootsy side of punk, the slightly more traditional side of punk rock. Personally, we liked Rick a lot. He was a really nice person and he really had an aesthetic, an idea. Instead of a sorta hit and run New York or west coast kind of recording, he wanted to make it sound technically good. We were coming from this point of view where we wanted something raw and unpleasant [Laughing]. Rick saw something in us that was more than that, I guess.
Did Rick have a punk rock background?
He had more of a music lover background. Rick was really into 60's record collecting like Yardbirds and early British invasion stuff. So, he found a lot of those songs so important in way more that they happened to be on the radio. That was part of his aestheticthat he wanted to make stuff that he, at least, looked at as being sort of timeless.
And he got what you guys were doing and wanted to do? The Burma vision was pretty unique.
Like I said, there were precedents. In my mind, we were a punk rock band but we never felt like we had to be hemmed into that kind of thing. I think older music was really important to what the music we were making then, anyway. Anything from Captain Beefheart, the Stones to Eno, Roxy Music and Bowie, that kind of stuff.
Is that the music you, Roger and Clint were listening to at the time?
I think that's what we grew up on. Me, a little more sort of more early hard rock and metal and [Roger and Clint], psychedelic stuff and The Kinks and pop like that.
On The Horrible Truth About Burma, you covered The Stooges ("1970") and Pere Ubu "Heart of Darkness").
Yup. I don't think these were recorded but we covered a song by Love and "See My Friends" by the Kinks. We were never the hugest cover band anyway. But when we did stuff, it tended to be songs that meant a lot, I guess.
How about when the American indie labels started making serious waves in the underground like SST Records and Twin/Tone, labels you'd presumably fit on?
Towards the end of when we were playing the first time around, those labels were really starting to kick in hard. In fact, the last year-and-a-half or two years [we played], we opened for Black Flag and it was the first time they played on the east coast that I know of. A lot of really young kids that I know went on to form bands in the D.C. hardcore scene came down to that show in New York. It was really an interesting mixing of things because when we saw Black Flag and [later] the D.C. bands like Minor Threat and such, we were pretty blown away. They were younger than us but we felt like "This is a good thing to learn from." I felt good that we were sorta open to letting new influences in, too.
What scene did you feel Burma fit into? You guys always seemed like you were, and still are, on an island unto yourselves.
Well, I think that's true. I don't think we really felt a part of [the hardcore] scene, but we related to those bands. We were older than most of them. There was other stuff from the west coast and U.K. stuff we loved like The Gun Club, X and Gang of Four and some stuff from the rest of the U.S. that we felt a kinship with. But it could be said we were all islands; everybody was sorta into their own little area.
Was being in Boston an advantage or a disadvantage?
[Boston] was an advantage in that it made our music kind of diamond hard [Laughing]. It kind of toughened us up because it wasn't like there were dozens of bands out there we were hanging out with and that we felt like we were protected by a scene. It was good for our music but it probably wasn't good for our attitude [Laughing].
What other Boston bands were your peers in the scene there?
Let me see... there were a bunch of bands that came up just after us. There was CCCP-TV, who were kinda like the Fall, an amazing band called the Maps, who were a three-piece, a little bit like us but with a female singer, a good more straight pop band called the Neighborhoods and an amazing gonzo electronic band called the Girls. So there was stuff. There were bands we played with that we related to a lot. Rarely did someone sound like somebody else. Everyone didn't fit in elsewhere so we ended up playing shows together.
After Burma broke up that first time around, you then formed Volcano Suns.
... Then the Boston scene really blew up.
After a while, there were dozens of bands but I think it really exploded in the '90s. I worked at a record store in the '90s and I remember saying to somebody as I walked down the street as I kept seeing people in bands I'd go "They were just signed to major label and they were just signed to major label." It was very bizarre to see the whole thing going from the underground to just above the surface. [Boston] did explode, but I think it never had an identity like early Minneapolis did, or Chicago, or Seattle did in the '90s. I don't think it ever had a strong identity that way but lots of good bands have come from there, though.
Burma has released an album every couple of years since the reunion.
There's gonna come a time where either we're too fuckin' old to do it right, we just don't have the time or interest or we're not doing it very well, by our own estimation. We keep thinking that it's gonna come and then it doesn't. What it really depends on is once that cycle is over, we usually still play some shows here and there. But what really makes the food for the engine is we start writing songs that we're sorta going "Yeah, this is good." When that kicks in and we have seven or eight [songs] that really have an identity and a mood to them then we go, "Let's make a record."
In the first wave of the band, you didn't contribute your own songs or sang anything. But when you reformed you started to contribute your own material. What's the songwriting process in Burma?
I think we all come up with something we like individually, organize it to the point that it's understandable to the other two [Laughing] and then bring it in and see if it has life, has legs. Back in the day, I really wanted to write songs but I just hadn't come to that point yet. Toward the end, in the last year-and-a-half of the band, I was starting to get them going and then sorta found my legs in other bands since, when it came to songwriting. The interesting thing is, and I kinda like this, I had to pull it back in and go "I like this but does it make sense in this band?" That doesn't mean it has to be like the material we've already written but it does have to fit like it belongs here. There's been songs that we've all brought in that have been dropped or rejected. If it works, then we play it.
The last Burma record came out in 2009. How do you guys work as band? Is it when the three of you have time for it?
We go through phases where we're really active. When we put out a record, we put some time behind it and we try to do whatever we can for American touring then fit some things in like All Tomorrows Parties overseas. We don't do it all the time, but then again when I look back on it, this will be the fourth record we've put out. There's one coming up. It should be out in the spring. It's been a fair amount of activity for the past ten years.
How many songs do you have on the new record?
I think I got three, Clint's got four and Roger might have five. The plan is to tour probably starting in the spring. I'm pretty sure this thing will be out in the spring.
Do you write songs any differently for Burma that you would for Volcano Suns?
Some of my songs in Burma I think have a slight Volcano Suns tinge and if you listen to [Roger's and Clint's] solo stuff, you can say the same thing, because it's filtered through that writer, that guy. Then collectively, it does get altered when it's in a Burma setting. They're really, really amazing musicians to play with and for that matter so is [Bob] Weston. He's amazing as far as the tape loops and sound but he's also amazing in terms of bringing out good things that maybe we didn't notice.
Weston is also a hell of a bass player.
Shellac's an amazing band. They are one of the few bandsnot because we share a memberwe listen to them and there's a mindset and a concrete musical identity. And also because they're, you know, in our general age group, too [Laughing].
Weston is hilarious onstage with the banter.
[Shellac] actually manage to be pretty flat-out entertaining.
Burma was one of the first bands of its era to reunite before it became fashionable. Do you think you kickstarted the trend?
That's just sort of an accident of fate. It's a weird thing because I saw a certain side of the music industry because I worked at record stores. There was a point I remember because Burma was name checked favorablylet me put it this way, we were not en vogue in the '90s. It was a sound that instead of sounding fresh and new, it just wasn't the kind of thing the people were... Post-punk bands, in general, weren't really very appreciated in the '90s. Then for some reason and I don't know why, it was almost like post-9/11, I noticed there was a New York wave of post-punk influenced bands like the Strokes and the Rapture and stuff like that. Then there was a bunch of British bands kind of using that sound, too. Suddenly, our sound, or something about us, came to be back en vogue. I'm not sure why that was and I guess we felt when we got the offer to play a couple shows, we thought "Well, if we're gonna do it, we might as well do it now. People will be slightly receptive to it [Laughing]." When we did it, we just found "This is better than a gig or two. Let's do a couple more." Then it snowballed into ten years [Laughing]. There's no reason for any of us to play in Burmawe make a little money here and there and we have fununless it's an absolute joy. I get to do the primal screaming and play the way I want; they get to play the way they want and we all get to write the way we want. You're never that lucky when you're this old [Laughing].
When Burma broke up in '83, it was because of Roger's hearing problems. What's changed since with his hearing? I know you use the partition in front of your drum kit. Obviously, it's because...
We're doin' it. I think that Roger, at the time, got really kind of freaked out. He's always been a musician and never a part time musician so it's very ingrained into the center of his life. I think he started to think that we wasn't gonna be able to do itat all. I believe Roger said to himself: "I guess I should try to do stuff that is quieter and more controllable than this feedback-laden onslaught [Laughing]." I think he played in a Philip Glass-ish band called Birdsongs of the Mesozoic and he did solo stuff that was piano and quiet guitar. Roger's always said he reached a certain point where he realized "My hearing is not gone, I can still play. Now, what it comes down to is I just have to protect'em as much as I can then I might as well do whatever the hell I want."
Does it bother you to play behind a wall?
It doesn't. It's something I got used to a long time ago. There are times, even now, we don't use it if it's a real inconvenience or it's hard to get one. When we can, we use it. Roger's got some military-grade earplugs and we can do it.
You, along with Grant Hart of Hüsker Dü, were one of the few drummer/singers in underground rock.
It was really weird because I was the drummer/singer in the Volcano Suns and it was a default thing I did not intend. I wanted to sing, but as a singing drummer, I like when I'm part of a trianglethat everybody does it. I'm far more comfortable with that and I like that much more and it's far more entertaining than being the only one [singing]. I've always appreciated it and always glad when I see drummers singing. Grant wrote some amazing songs. It was never hard for me to [drum and sing simultaneously], because I'm more just sort of like primal screaming. It's a hard focal point for a band. It's difficult to stare at someone who's off doing that rather than is up front hanging on the mic stand.
On to some Volcano Suns talk. In 2009, Merge reissued The Bright Orange Years (1985) and All-Night Lotus Party ('86). Why didn't Merge reissue the rest of the Suns' catalog?
They were really into those two records. I think maybe Mac [McCaughan] related sort of personally to that stuff. Sometimes when you're at a certain age and you hear a certain band, it just hits you really hard. I think that was the case there. Who knows... sometime the other stuff will come out but Mac was into it. I like those records too but in a weird way my favorite record is the last one we did on Touch & Go ('91's Career in Rock). It's really very much a "Touch & Go record," almost more than it's a Volcano Suns record [Laughing]. But it's very cool; I really like the sound of it.
Volcano Suns were on Homestead, SST, T & G. You did the whole tour.
We did. The tour of all indie rock labels.
Did Volcano Suns record for Homestead because you knew Gerard Cosloy?
Yeah. He was one of the first people I sent any of the [Suns] stuff to. I was thinking about this recently that Homestead was almost like the home to the post-Burma punk rock sound. I think Gerard had an idea of the bands he wanted and obviously early Sonic Youth and Big Black stuff was on there. It was a pretty good time to be on Homestead.
When did the idea of forming Volcano Suns come to fruition?
I think I was looking around for people and with the Volcano Suns, with a slightly different lineup, probably started playing a couple of years before that. But for some reason, we really jammed out material around that time and that's why the [first] record came out in '86.
Volcano Suns were on latter-day SST Records with 1988's Farced and Thing of Beauty in '89. How was it being on SST during that period?
It was one of those weird moments in time where I think it just felt like we needed to move somewhere and the somewhere just had to be SST [Laughing]. The Sonic Youth stuff was coming out there and early Dinosaur so it seemed like a really good place to go. As it was, I can't say I'm a huge fan of the records we put out there [on SST]. I think both those records have moments but I was glad we went out with Career in Rock.
What was the thinking behind doing a double album with Thing of Beauty?
I think it was Minutemen and Hüsker Dü envy, ya know? We were on SST and we were like "We have to throw out this huge blob of stuff." We were influenced by [the double albums] Double Nickels and Zen Arcade. We were pretty impressed with those records.
There been a few sporadic Volcano Suns reunion shows over the years, right?
There have been. We did a Yo La Tengo Hanukah show. It was just two or three, I think. It would have been nice to do something with the older lineup when the Merge stuff came out but it just wasn't possible.
Do you have any plans for any more Volcano Suns shows?
I don't think so. Everything is sort of a question of conditions being perfect when you get older. Every peg has to slide into the right hole. For some reason, with Burma, it's been really easy to do that.
Separate from Burma, what about a new project or band of your own?
I hope to have a record out of my own by the middle of next year, the latest.
Under your own name?
It's me but I think it going to be called Mini-Beast. I don't want to say it's like a bedroom recording, because it's not, but it's kinda more sampled and rhythm a bass-driven stuff, mostly instrumental. It doesn't sound like anything I ever put out. It's a little more Zen, a little more ambient and something you put down low in the background [Laughing]. I'm gonna put it out myself. The plan is to just sell vinyl; not do any downloads. I'll sell records at Burma shows.
I thought your band Kustomized was one of the more underrated bands of the '90s. I was actually pretty psyched when I heard I was interviewing you because I could then ask you a shit ton of Volcano Suns and Kustomized questions.
[Laughing] I'm sure I'm the only one who'd wanna answer those.
Were Roger and Clint Volcano Suns fans?
They were. I think we all appreciate what we've all done. I like a lot of the solo things those guys have done and I think they like my stuff. It's kind of a peculiar situation that the nature of the band is that we don't have to bend to anything; we just do what each of us does and it makes sense in this band. If any of us had any issue with it, and we have had issues over the years back in the day and in the past ten years. There's been moments when one or two of us had questions but then we keep doing it because it just ain't gonna get any better. It's something that we really, really love. The amount of creative freedom is just ridiculous, especially for a drummer. We're talking about a singing drummer! I mean, like, where would I get to do this? [Laughing]
Kustomized had different lineups over the years. You had Kurt Davis of Bullet Lavolta...
Yup, and actually a dummer that lives down in Providence now, a guy named Malcolm Travis [ex- Sugar] who's really an amazingly intense drummer.
Will there ever be a Kustomized reunion?
Ya know, I would do that sometime. If something like that happened, I'd enjoy it. It's just a question of getting people all in the same room at the same time.
Mission of Burma plays Music Hall of Williamsburg tonight.
Get the Music Newsletter
Keep your thumb on the local music scene each week with music news, trends, artist interviews and concert listings. We'll also send you special ticket offers and music deals.