Catching Up With Mission of Burma's Peter Prescott
"Most reunion bands, let's be honest about it, don’t make very good music."
Drummer Peter Prescott wants you to know that Mission of Burma is not a reunion band. After all, most reunion bands hope to reawaken something from the past, to live glory days that are long gone. Mission of Burma just picked up right where they left off.
Since returning in the early aughts, Mission of Burma recorded four solid albums. With the overwhelming support from fans upon their return, Prescott doesn’t seem to worried. Despite their musically sound footing, Mission of Burma found itself without a label after leaving Matador in January 2012. Driven with uncertainty and void of outside pressures, Burma created Unsound, a collection of songs that echoes discontent and violence and show that the kings post-punk have no intention of relinquishing their throne.
Paste: So you are in New England right now?
Peter Prescott: Yeah, I live in Providence, Rhode Island. I moved out here last year, and my girlfriend and I got a house in Providence.
Paste: Just relaxing a bit after finishing up your latest album?
Prescott: I suppose that could be said, yeah. Basically when I got down here, one thing I did was I recorded a solo record, oddly enough. I’m going to sell that at Burma shows and online probably around mid-August. Other than that, I’m just selling records and trying to make a living in a way I can stand.
Paste: Is this your first solo project?
Prescott: It is. It mostly came about because I got an 8-track hard-drive recorder. It was the first time in my musical life where I had this thing that was just pure easy access. If I thought of something I could throw it down. If anyone listens to it they would probably never know it’s me because there’s very little singing on it. It’s sort of abstract instrumental stuff is the best way I can describe it.
Paste: Was this something you had always planned to do?
Prescott: Neither Burma nor I have really been good at planning something. It tends to be some kind of weird explosive aberration that just comes about, and that’s what it was. Over the course of four or five months, I had 12 or 13 of these weird, little musically shaped things. Then I started sculpting them down. I’m really into vinyl, into records. I just thought it would be fun to put it out as a small press vinyl-only thing, and that’s what its going to be.
Paste: Switching to your latest Burma record, Unsound, I know that you share a lot of writing duties on records with Clint Conley and Roger Miller. Listening to the album, especially “Dust Devil” and “Second Television,” and there are some clear differences. Can it be difficult to find the right balance when recording a Burma record?
Prescott: I think the one reason that we’re able to be in our 50s and hopefully not suck is because we have the same methodology we had 30 years ago. A guy brings in a song, and If the other guys like enough, we beat it up somewhat, tear it apart, and put it back together. Then after a couple weeks we figure out if this is going forward or if it’s a dud. Once that is decided it becomes a song, and we like it. If we thought about it, which we don’t much, I think you can notice which song is coming from which guy. There’s a style and themes that come from each writer. If you ask them, I think they would say the same thing. There are some songs we discard, but I have to admit, once we get going on something, I think the forward thrust is there. We all like it enough to finish it.
Paste: How would you describe the creative process and writing style of Roger, Clint and yourself?
Prescott: Well, Roger brings in things more constructed. I tend to bring in pieces that I want them to color in, and Clint is somewhere in between the two polar opposites there. If you wanted to generalize [our writing], you’d have to look at our solo stuff. Clint is dictated a bit more by an overt, melodic structure. His songs tend to be pulled along by the melody. I’m more into combustion, something from the interior that pushes the song. I guess that comes with being a drummer, I don’t know. I think Roger is a structure guy. He like the way pieces fit together like a puzzle. Once you get beyond those individual ways that we write, I think we all have things that we unconsciously associate with a Burma song.
The end result always gets manhandled. It always gets beat up and reassembled somehow. And not just through the engineering and tape loops he throws in, but (Bob) Weston has become a very important part of it. He’s back at the board. He’s behind the stage, but he’s there. He’s kind of floating around the outside of the whole thing. Even though he’s not there when we put the songs together. He’s been the engineer behind all the records we’ve made in the past 10 years, and he’s put tape loops and mixing suggestions in. His personality is there on the recordings. At least I can hear it, I don’t know if anyone else can. He’s definitely a big factor.
Paste: So what are some tracks that you wrote for the new album? Can you talk about them a little bit?
Prescott: My songs were “Sectionals in Mourning,” “What They Tell Me” and “Part the Sea.” When you look at the credits on the song, it will say one name. We were comfortable with that because the songs are brought in by one person, and there’s a thematic thing that one person does. It’s hard to describe your songs because there’s never any game plan, which means there’s a good chance that you’re going to fuck everything up. But we have enough faith in each other that that’s not going to happen. I think each of us go out of our way to not write the same song all the time. If there’s a game plan, that’s it. People have been really flattering to us, considerate and open to what we’ve done in the past 10 years, which is unusual.
Most reunion bands, lets be honest about it, don’t make very good music. You’re getting back together on the basis on something you did a long time ago, and so your input is completely different. I think “Part the Sea” had to deal with expectations, and subverting those things. You know, I went to see the Buzzcocks last year. They played their first two records, track for track. I think they’ve made some good music in the past 10-15 years, but I wasn’t going there to hear that. I was going there to hear them play these amazing old songs. So that was the expectation, and when I walked out of there I was as high as a kite. Now for us, if we went and played 30-year-od songs throughout our whole set, the people who still like us would be let down, and I wouldn’t blame them. “Part the Sea” was talking about how no one’s God, no one’s perfect. You can’t worry what people expect, you just have to do what you do. I know “Sectionals in Mourning” is about technology. Like most humans on the planet, I use a lot of digital technology. I actually don’t have a cellphone, which makes me a real freak, but I do use a computer for a large portion of the day. I can’t help but notice that people are getting more disconnected the more they’re connected. That song’s just about trying to stay human.
Paste: Very few bands have a history quite like Mission of Burma, having a successful record and going on this 20-year hiatus and still retaining that success upon your return. Do you think reason why you guys were so successful upon your return because there’s some timeless quality in your music?
Prescott: I remember someone asking us a similar question before, and I remember Clint saying that even when we were in our early 20s, we didn’t write age-specific songs. It wasn’t cars, girls and teenage love and such. We came out of an era where there was no shame in putting a big issue in a rock song. We always worked to make sure it wasn’t a pretentious but was living, throbbing and organic. But still, you put a big issue in songs, maybe they live a little bit longer for that reason. They’re not so specific to our ages at the time. We have this hatred and fear of embarrassing ourselves. We’re not afraid to rag on music and movies and culture when we don’t like it, so we take it for granted, that if someone comes and sees us now, whether they’re 15 or 50, if they think it sucks, it sucks. When we are evaluating ourselves, we want to say it doesn’t suck. If we put this fucking record on, would we tear it apart? So when we’re writing songs we never think about that stuff, but when we’re making the record, I think we do. It needs to be a certain quality, beyond there’s not much else we can do. The song has to deserve to be on a record, and the records has to deserve to come out because there’s enough crap out there lately.
Paste: So who originally suggested the idea of a possible reunion?
Prescott: None of us had any interested in doing that. I mean none. I just think a couple things fell into place. I don’t think Clinton had picked up a guitar in 10 years. He had been a musician in a casual way. We had been asked a few times to do a one-off. None of us had any interest in doing that, but someone asked us to do a show in New York, and we declined. But we thought, “maybe we should put together our own thing.” A friend of ours came back to town who worked with Grand Royal and Geffin back when Nirvana and Sonic Youth got signed. He loved the old band and said, “lets put together a few shows.” Then we didn’t stop.
Paste: And it’s brought you all the way to 2012 with Unsound. You mentioned earlier the critical eye that you give every album you produce. What were your initial thoughts on this new album, and how would you define it in relation to your other albums?
Prescott: After it was all done and mastered, and I listened to it, it sounded violent. It sounded more pissed off and violent than I thought it would be. My favorite Matador record is Obliterati. That’s an album we all have a real affection for. When we started the record, we didn’t have a label. We didn’t know what was going to happen. I think that was actually a really good thing. All our external reasons for doing it were removed. All there was were those songs. That’s it. When that happened it was a good influence on how we wrote the songs and also how we made the record. We stand behind the records we made with Matador, but we just had to write those out of our head. We had to clean the slate.