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While many bands reunite, Boston’s postpunk high magistrates Mission of Burma have resumed—and that’s a big difference. From the start of their “second lap around the track,” as bassist Clint Conley likes to call it, Burma began writing new songs, and their shows in the new millennium have hardly been excuses to play “That’s When I Reach for My Revolver” or “Academy Fight Song.” And if 2004’s OnOffOn found the band successfully finishing some ideas they first explored in the early ’80s, their latest, The Obliterati, finds them comfortably evolving.
“We don’t take ourselves quite so seriously,” explains guitarist Roger Miller, seated on an overturned milk crate at the record store in Cambridge, Massachusetts, where drummer Peter Prescott still works. “The last time, it was exhilarating and dramatic, but hard,” Conley adds. “This time it’s fun. And to come back and put out one album was great. . . . To me it just solidifies us as a band.”
Considering MoB’s newfound, casual approach, Prescott’s song “Let Yourself Go” might have made a more fitting album title. Miller flirts with disco and even borrows freely from a Donna Summer song on “Donna Sumeria”; his voice soars into falsetto at several points on The Obliterati. And Conley ponders one of life’s big questions on “Nancy Reagan’s Head”: “I’m haunted by the freakish size of Nancy Reagan’s head/No way that thing came with that body!”
“I see pictures of it and it’s just so disturbing,” Conley admits now, laughing. “I think there was some weird CIA science involved, I really do.”
But The Obliterati is no joke. Leadoff track “2wice”—with Prescott’s furious, almost tribal drums and Conley’s anthemic shouts of “Don’t make the same mistake twice”—suggests the Who gone punk. The jagged and thunderous “Spider’s Web” could send any Warped Tour band running home to their mothers. And the chaotic, redlined “Man in Decline,” complete with guttural howls, is the sound of a cold-sweat nightmare. “Some reviews have commented on how heavy this album is, and they make it sound like we’re the Melvins or something,” Prescott says. “We’re just playing with intensity, and that’s what is lacking in a lot of bands that are supposedly postpunk influenced—they sound like they’re thinking about what you’re going to have for breakfast!”
“Or,” Conley chimes in, “if their skinny ties are undone at just the right angle.”
Mission of Burma are hardly a group of bitter old men, though. “I love the Fiery Furnaces, the Soundtrack of Our Lives, Turing Machine, Clinic,” Prescott says. “We played with three bands at All Tomorrow’s Parties that I really liked—Sleater-Kinney, the Boredoms, and Lightning Bolt,” Miller adds. “They’re all pretty different, and more thinking than most bands.”
It’s curious that MoB formed during the Reagan years, and that they rose again during W.’s reign, but they laugh it off as coincidence. “Yeah, we were on the hotline one night: ‘Fellas, do you see what I see? This calls for . . . ‘ ” Conley jokes, before Prescott yells, “‘Put on your Burma cape!'” But what about the “No New McCarthy Era” banner they flaunted onstage during their first few shows back? Or naming their album The Obliterati? “We did have the banner, which was nice,” Miller says. “The album title came from many pints of beer—I just looked down and I had written ‘Obliterati.’ It does connect to a lot of things that are in the psychic environment these days, but you can’t really put your thumb on it.”
While Martin Swope, the band’s original tape-loop maestro, chose not to join Burma on their “second lap,” they were able to recruit Bob Weston, one of indie rock’s most esteemed engineers-musicians, instead. “He’s completely the fourth member of the band now,” Prescott says. “We played in Brazil recently, and we had these sound guys who were just kind of giving us half-assed attention, and then all of sudden they found out that our soundman was Bob Weston, and they were like, ‘Bob Weston! Of Shellac?’ ” Conley recalls.
“Suddenly,” Miller adds, “We got some cred.”
Although somewhat modest about their legacy, Burma are nonetheless aware of it. “In the larger scheme of music, it’s a little drop in the ocean,” Prescott says. “But when I hear our music, whether or not other people recognize how cool it is, I do.”
“To be lumped in with bands like the Minutemen, Hüsker Dü, Black Flag, Fugazi—how can you not feel great about that?” Conley adds. And lest anyone get a big head about it, two of the band’s members have their kids to keep them grounded. “My son is 17, and when he saw us play in front of 1,800 people, his eyes were pinned wide open,” Miller recalls. “Now I ask him if he wants to come see us, and he’s like, ‘Nah, I’ve already seen you guys.'” As for Conley’s 10- and 15-year-old girls, “To them, 50-year-old men shouldn’t be doing this,” he admits. “It’s like seeing me in a Speedo or something.”