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.