Mission Of Burma’s Peter Prescott
Sahan Jayasuriya talks with Peter Prescott, drummer of legendary post punk act Mission of Burma, in anticipation of their upcoming Shank Hall show.
In the early 1980s, Boston’s Mission of Burma released Vs. and Signals, Calls and Marches, two highly influential classics of the post punk genre. After a two-decade hiatus, the band reformed in 2002, adding Shellac bassist and Electrical Audio engineer Bob Weston to the lineup, replacing former member Martin Swope. TCD’s Sahan Jayasuriya spoke with drummer Peter Prescott in anticipation of their upcoming appearance at Shank Hall, where they talked about their hiatus, punk rock and “getting old.”
Peter Prescott: I think it was 22 years that we weren’t active. It was never supposed to happen in any way, shape or form, really. When we broke up, we weren’t enemies, we weren’t drug addicts, we hadn’t burned out on each other. There were a few reasons, one of them being Roger’s tinnitus. He was having hearing problems that were really getting in the way of him playing music. Clint had kind of gotten ready to move on and it was just logical for us to break up. I don’t think we ever looked back, we just moved on and did other things.
I remember very distinctly that post punk was very much out of style in the early 90s. There was all kinds of music that was sort of surfacing at that point, most notably grunge, but there just wasn’t anything sort of in the realm that we were in. Sometime around then, these groups of relatively young kids on the East Coast were having these things called “mod parties,” and they’d be listening to a lot of britpop and post punk, stuff like the Smiths and Joy Division. So it was through those that a lot of kids were starting to listen to a lot of the late 70s and early 80s bands that has since been tagged “post punk”…punk rock growing up a little, I guess. I think a lot of those kids started forming bands, and out of that, a lot of new bands had at least a surface sheen of the kinda thing that we were doing–everyone from the Strokes to Franz Ferdinand, you get the idea.
Every couple of years people would ask us if we wanted to do a reunion show, and we always said no, because we genuinely didn’t want to do that. I was playing in a band called the Peer Group and Clint had a band called Consonant. He hadn’t played bass in about 20 years or so, so I actually dragged him out of retirement to play bass at a few shows. So a lot of things started falling into place just kind of accidentally, so we started to throw around the idea of us doing a Mission of Burma reunion ourselves. A friend of ours who used to work for the Beastie Boys label Grand Royal came back to Boston and told us that he wanted to help us put this thing together, so we played a few shows in New York and Boston, which went way better than they should have (laughs). Then we ended up playing the All Tomorrow’s Parties festival in the U.K., which our friend Bob Weston curated, and really it just started snowballing from there. Since then, we never expected to be together all that long, but as long as that feeling is there, we’ll keep following it.
SJ: I think that’s great because, especially as of late, we’ve been seeing a lot of bands getting back together for the wrong reasons. They just stand up there and phone it in, and it totally fails to live up to the expectations of the audience. At that point it would have been better to just not reunite at all.
PP: We’re sort of brutally self-lascerating, really. We hate the idea of anybody walking through anything. I don’t care if you’re 25 or 60, I don’t want to see you walk through a performance. I have no interest in that and neither do any of the other members of Burma. We pick other things apart, and we never want people to say that we walked through it, even if they don’t particularly care for the music. I don’t really want to see old punk rockers. It’s not a particular pleasant concept to me, and I’m old (laughs). There’s gotta be more of a reason than simply that someone will let us do it. I think that’s the one constant that’s always been there. Even when we put out a record, it’s the same thing, the record has to throw us against the wall or there’s no point in making it. There’s just no point at phoning it in now. You’re old, just stay home and enjoy your oldness (laughs).
SJ: I completely agree, but then on the other side of things, you’ll get a band like OFF!, for example. Keith Morris is old enough to be my dad, and he’s still able to seriously tear it up.
PP: Oh yeah, they’re killer! They’re basically a new band with an old sound, but the right feeling is there. They’re just so joyously old-school, but really, really well done. I saw them when they played here, and they were great. There were tons of really young kids there, too. There’s a fair amount of young people that show up at our shows, which is great, but sometimes I’m really amazed, because I start to wonder “How can these kids relate to music made by someone so much older than them?” I think what it comes down to is that they can tell that there’s a feverish mindset that they can relate to.
SJ: I think it transcends age, really. If you’re able to do something that’s relatable with passion, you can connect with everyone. I think that’s why kids are continuing to buy your records, because even now, 30 years after the fact, they still sound fresh.
The interesting thing to me is that your earlier releases have influenced so many bands. You can clearly point at specific bands and take note of the impact that your records have had on them. But what about when you were making them? They definitely sound very distinct, which makes me wonder: what were you all listening to in those early days?
PP: First and foremost, the Ramones, especially the first album. It’s just as groundbreaking as John Coltrane. In a way, you can get the Burma mentality by crossing John Coltrane with the Ramones. It’s the idea of experimentation combined with primal fury, I guess. There was a lot of other stuff in the mix, too. Those guys grew up pretty much in the 60s, and I was a little younger, so when I first started buying records it was your typical 70s hard rock stuff–Led Zeppelin, Black Sabbath, the basics. I think really crucial signposts along the way were the Stooges, and David Bowie and the Velvet Underground, the usual suspects. Definitely Roxy Music, too.
But at the same time, I’d be lying if I said the first wave of punk rock didn’t have a lot ot do with it, because it did. A lot of those bands I liked in the early 70s, they kind of turned into dinosaurs, and not just because they were old, but their playing was old. There was just too much self indulgence. The punk thing was so important because it was kind of like taking a piece of coal and just boiling it down to the diamond, just taking out all the extra stuff and finding out exactly what you needed for music. We loved that first wave of stuff. When I first heard Minor Threat and Black Flag, those records totally threw me against the wall. I had to sit down to take it all in because but it was so fuckin’ furious. We just loved the simplicity of it all.
SJ: I totally get it. I think every generation has that band or bands that are influential in the sense that they make others want to start bands. Nirvana were the ones who did it for me, and it was also because of them that I was able to discover new music. In fact, I think I started listening to Mission of Burma after seeing Kurt Cobain mention you guys in some interview.
PP: He was kind of awesome because he felt it was his mission to turn people onto these things that turned him on. Not a lot of people do that, so he must be given credit for it for sure.
SJ: Absolutely. So one thing I wanted to talk about–the addition of Bob Weston to your lineup. I’m a really big fan of both his engineering work as well as Shellac. How did you guys end up getting him involved with Burma?
PP: He’s a close friend that’s just got an amazing ear. He knew technically to do what Martin did. He could envision the idea of doing that while doing live sound. It was like the rest of the situation–it just fell into place. I’m really glad that I extended my band life with him. He’s one of the best people I will ever meet in my life.
SJ: When you reformed in 2002, you released a few records on Matador Records. I couldn’t help but notice that your newest release is on a different label. Is there any particular reason as to why you and Matador parted ways?
PP: For a while, there were a few people at Matador who were kids who used to come to Burma shows back in the day. We were friends with them when they were really young kids, and we’re still friends with them now. I think they had this idea that they could sell a lot of records with Burma, which was a really nice gesture, the only thing being that I think our sound was too gnarly then, and it’s too gnarly now (laughs). They don’t have a problem with that, but I think especially after the last record we did, we both kind of needed a shake-up. It was a gingerly thing, really. I think when the time came for us to make another record, I think we both agreed that it would probably be best if we made them in a different way and a different place. They still have our back catalogue, and there’s no animosity. It was really just a synchronicity that had worn out.
SJ: As I mentioned before, you just released a new album this year called Unsound, which is great. Are you happy with the way it turned out?
PP: I know we like it a lot more than the last one we did. It’s a lot more reckless and out of control. I listened to it all the way through and I just thought, “This is really unrelenting” (laughs). It just keeps on hammering, and that’s a good thing. I like the way it turned out quite a bit. Its a little more raw, the songs are a little more difficult, and I think that’s what this band is all about.
SJ: So you’ll be coming through Milwaukee on the 26th. When was the last time that you were here?
PP: I dont think we’ve been there since we reunited. My other band Volcano Suns has definitely played there, but yeah, if we played there, it would have been back in the 80s.
SJ: I’m really looking forward to it. I know that back in the 80s you were known for rather loud live shows. Since the reformation do you still play at high volumes, especially considering Roger’s tinnitus?
PP: Roger’s condition has gotten better over the years for sure. There’s been some medicines that improve it, and now instead of just wearing those earphones he used to wear, he wears these industrial ear plugs that more or less eliminate all sound. So we definitely are still able to play pretty loud. Volume for its own sake is kind of pointless, but there’s been so many people over the years who use volume as another instrument, and that can be incredible, and that’s why we still do it.
Mission of Burma will be appearing at Shank Hall Wednesday, Sept. 26 with Milwaukee’s Wereworm opening. Their show is one of TCD’s 10 Must-See Fall Concerts, the remainder of which can be viewed by clicking here. Follow Sahan Jayasuriya on Twitter @sahanicyouth.