An interview with Clint Conley from Mission of Burma

Mission of Burma is one of only a handful of musicians or bands that you can find on my weekly playlist.  Although the band had its original run from 1979-1983, their music never sounds dated.The band originally consisted of Roger Miller (guitar), Clint Conley (bass), Peter Prescott (drums) and Martin Swope (tape manipulator/sound engineer). Miller, Prescott and Conley share singing and songwriting duties.The band has always been unique in its approach to style, content and technique. They’re that rare band that never sound like anyone but themselves.

From 1979-1983, Mission Of Burma released an EP,  Signals, Calls and Marches , and the iconic full length album, Vs.

The band disbanded in 1983, citing Miller’s worsening tinnitus as a primary factor. During their farewell tour, they recorded the live compilation, The Horrible Truth About Burma.

While Mission of Burma was never really recognized by the mainstream, many bands have cited them as a huge influence and musical inspiration. Among them are Dave Grohl and The Foo Fighters (who the band opened for at Fenway park in Boston in 2015), Yo La Tengo, Sonic Youth, Sugar, Guided By Voices and Pixies.

The band has toured and released four more studio albums since 2004.Their sound, which varies greatly in style and content, ranges from technical and structural masterpieces to songs filled with hooks and grooves that make them almost anthemic.

Clint Conley has written some of the most widely covered of the bands songs. “That’s When I Reach For My Revolver” and “Academy Fight Song” are probably the most well known songs written and performed by the band.

I was fortunate enough to be able to interview Clint recently.

J. Mission Of Burma formed in Boston in 1979 when punk was very big. Although the band is often categorized as post punk, to me, Mission Of Burma defies classification. In what genre do you consider the band, or is defining a particular style something the band was never really interested in?

C.C. We were certainly called punk or post punk because of the time frame we were playing in. In reality, we weren’t really very punk at all. Particularly Roger’s stuff, which was sophisticated and very technically challenging at a time when a lot of the music being played was very basic. Much of the music of that time was being performed by people that weren’t really musicians, as such, and didn’t consider themselves to be. Roger was a very much a masterful musician and not afraid to show it. I’ve never thought we really fit comfortably into any particular category.

J. The band has a unique and timeless sound. It’s rare to hear music that never seems to get dated. Did you put thought into sounding timeless as a band, or was it just something that happened?

C.C. Oh, God, no. Not at all. There was no thought given to posterity. We were focused on trying to get a gig at the local clubs and trying to crawl up the grubby little ladder we were on. No. We weren’t self conscious about it in that way. I think I took my cues from Roger, who was such an incredible and masterful musician. He was so intent on breaking new ground and not doing things the same old way. He has a very critical approach to music that I really admire.I felt that, as the songwriting went, I was like his little brother. I was just starting out and he’d been writing for years. I think that when you’re writing music, you want it to sound authentic to yourself. I think you can always tell when someone is making music and they are trying to be something that they’re not, or trying to imitate people or play something that’s more popular. We resisted those urges. The bottom line is that we are extremely, extremely fortunate that we were able to find our voice. There are a lot of musicians out there, better musicians than us, who were never able to find the right vehicle for their voice.

J. How old were you when you started to play music? And what inspired you to do it professionally?

C.C. I was about 10 when I got my first guitar. I began by playing the Beatles and the Animals, things like “House Of The Rising Sun”. You know, when you stand in front of the mirror and pretend you’re a rock star.

When I went off to college, I was going into New York to see the new music. Glitter rock was big at the time and I was seeing  bands like the New York Dolls. It was such a circus. So much fun and so crazy. But when the bands Television and The Ramones came out, it was life altering for me. I had to be part of it, somehow. I hooked up with a guy named Eric Lindgren, who was starting a band. I was so grateful to be in a band, and sort of dip my toe in the water. Roger Miller ended up joining that band, Moving Parts, and he and I just vibed right off the bat. We just both looked at each other and said “We need to start our own band”. So that’s how it happened.

J. Who were your biggest influences in life, musically and otherwise?

C.C. The Beatles, The Stones, The Kinks and The Animals had a profound effect on me. I was in elementary school, so I guess you could say I was a kind of precocious kid. Music just seized me in a way it didn’t do with my classmates. Later, it was Hendrix and Cream, but some other bands that were much more obscure. When I was in 5th grade in New Jersey, I was accidentally at the Velvet Undergrounds first gig at Summit High School. I don’t remember anything about that gig. It was only many years later that I realized “Oh, that was the band I saw there?” But I think they must have planted some dark seed in me, given the path I took. In high school, glitter and glam rock were huge. I started going into the city to see The Dolls and Wayne County. Then that morphed into the puck scene. I feel incredibly lucky. I was there for some of the biggest revolutions in rock. There has been plenty of great music since then, but that time really upended everything.

J. How about your family? Were your parents supportive of you being a musician?

C.C. My parents probably just thought music was a passing thing, and in some regard, it was. My Father was a huge and passionate jazz fan. Music meant a great deal to him. He used to take me into New York to share it. I’ve always considered that an amazing gift for him to have given me. 

Both my parents were very cool about the band.

J. Mission of Burma has been a band that never became overly popular in the mainstream, but has inspired countless other musicians. Are you satisfied with the bands cultural status? Would you have liked to have become more mainstream, or was it more important to you that the band be relevant and respected by its peers?

C.C. I think we wanted to be popular. It became pretty clear early on that we were going to be more of a niche band. We were pretty surprised and gratified to get a following around Boston that first time around. We weren’t so noble that we would have rejected a major record deal. I think that’s kind of the way history has portrayed us. REM, X, some of the other bands we considered our peers, they got deals at the time. We were still pretty small potatoes is the larger scheme of things. But looking back, I have no regrets at all. I feel rather proud.

As far as mainstream, I was always kind of a music snob growing up, listening to a lot of obscure bands. Those that were overlooked and undersung. The fact that I wound up in one of those types of bands is not just coincidence. It’s an amazing thing to make music and have people listen to it.

J. What are the bands plans for the future?  Any plans to release new music or tour?

C.C. No plans at the moment. Songwriting has slowed down considerably. I’d say we are in the middle of a holding pattern right now. We just came off a great trip to Europe in May. Everybody is on great terms. For all I know we could have played our last gig. I guess we just need to see what the future brings us.