This article originally appeared in the January 18, 1983 issue of the Boston Phoenix.
Roger Miller, the lanky 30-year old guitarist in Mission of Burma who has been playing “in incredibly loud bands since I’ve been 12,” announced this week that he will be leaving the band after February. The reason: irreparable damage to his hearing. Before he moved to Boston from Ann Arbor in 1977, tests indicated his right ear had weakened. He tried to prevent further loss with earplugs, to no avail. Last summer he added rifle-range earmuffs, but those too failed – as a doctor told him, even skullbones transmit sound. Miller has three distinct hearing afflictions: decreased reception in both ears, distortion in the right, and tinnitus (or ringing) in both. “In September a middle-octave E appeared in my left ear,” he says, “and in December a C-sharp below that E formed. In my right ear, a slightly sharp E began in October. They’re forming fairly interesting chords that never leave. When it’s quiet at night, these notes are screaming.” In addition to suffering this discomfort, which gets much worse after a gig, Miller worries that he’s going to ruin his ability to tune pianos (one of the ways he’s earned a living). He says there was only one solution.
Specifically, Miller won’t perform live with the group, a quartet with three members on stage and tape manipulator Martin Swope at the soundboard. The band wants to record again, but vinyl itself can’t pay the bills. For the past two of the band’s four years, each member has been subsisting off shows: a monthly income of roughly $500 each. Waiters and cab drivers make more, but this is still no small feat for a local band on an indy record label. Like many of their peers on the indy-label/van-tour circuit (the Bongos, Bush Tetras, Pylon, Human Switchboard, Flipper, the Dead Kennedys, and Black Flag), Burma have nurtured a small but potent network of clubs, college stations, and fanzines across the country. Drummer Peter Prescott says Burma try to play their twist-and-maul barrage smart, but gut impulse comes first. “We never write music just for people to dance to or get on the radio.” This uncompromising stance makes mass acceptance difficult, and to win fans, the band crisscrossed the country for two years. In bigger cities (Washington, Atlanta, New Orleans, LA, Seattle, Detroit, and so on) they played for crowds of 200 to 400. In smaller cities (Lawrence, Kansas; Athens, Georgia; Montgomery, Alabama) anywhere from five to 50 showed. But even these turnouts apparently increased sales of Burma’s records. According to Richard Harte, owner of the band’s label, Ace of Hearts, Burma’s first single, “Academy Fight Song”/“Max Ernst” (1980), sold 7500 copies; the EP, Signals, Calls, and Marches (1981), 11,000; and last year’s album, VS., 5000. Burma’s endurance scoffs at the platinum-or-pack-it-in logic of the record industry. By thriving on an economics of scarcity, Burma blazed a trail that interconnects all the underground scenes in America and Canada.