Mission of Burma
This is bizarre but, at the same time, perfect.
2012 has been my Burmese year. No doubt about that. I finally managed to travel to Burma and covered the first free elections the regime allowed. Since I came back I worked at the photographs from that experience.
What came out of it have been a couple of Exhibitions in UK, at Foto8 Summershow and (right now till March 2013) one at The Royal Shakespeare Company, A World Elsewhere, in Stratford Upon Avon.
I got one published on the major Italian newspaper and, what I am most proud, I self-published a book, From Fear to Euphoria, that covers in 7 chapters 7 different aspects of Burmese life in the most important year the country has seen since the second world war. Book also got a prestigious “staff pick” from Blurb’s team and if you’re interest goes beyond music, you can preview in full (and even buy) here.
When I got the offer to photograph Mission Of Burma showcasing their new album, Unsound, and their “essential” double CD, Learn How, I wouldn’t want to miss it.
Let’s be clear. Mission of Burma don’t have anything in common with Burma, the country. There’s not link in their members, in their music or everywhere else. The legend wants (read: wiki reports) that “They took their name from a “Mission of Burma” plaque Conley saw on a New York City diplomatic building; he thought the phrase had a “sort of murky and disturbing” quality.”
Clint Conley is the bassist of this trio with Roger Miller on guitar and Peter Prescott on Drums. Martin Swope was part of the line-up as tape manipulator/sound engineer, which is basically what made them one of the most interesting post-punk bands to emerge from the east coast.
Still, I like these coincidences.
Mission of Burma probably are the ultimate example of the seminal band. They existed from 1979 to 1983 then, mainly due to Roger Miller tinnitus caused by the incredible volume of their live shows, they stopped.
What’s left of those early years is an EP, Signals, Calls, and Marches, and a pivotal album, Vs.
Both records have been praised as inspirational by a list of musicians which would fill a good half of any alternative rock encyclopaedia.
The band’s silence lasted for almost 30 years. In the meanwhile rock music evolved and, as any seminal band can claim, the endless list of admirers claiming they have been inspired by them has grown. From Sonic Youth to Nirvana, from REM to Pixies, From Fugazi to Guided by Voices.
It sounds one of my exaggerations but it is probably true to claim that rock music wouldn’t be as it is if Mission of Burma didn’t exist.
At the start of this millennium, in the era that saw the first wave of historical reunions, the rumour of Mission of Burma comeback began.
In 2002 it became official and first live shows in decades were scheduled. Martin Swope’s position was offered and taken by Bob Weston of Albini‘s Shellac. He took the same tape decks and started manipulating the sound produced on stage by the band, as in the good old times. Since then, the band has been much more productive than the early years. Three 3 albums, ONoffON (2004), The Obliterati (2006) and The Sound the Speed the Light (2009) were published along the obvious remasters of the first recordings.
Despite the continuous announcements of another hiatus, Mission of Burma are still around and they released the latest fatigue, Unsound, in July 2012 after leaving Matador.
They have been recently invited by Shellac to perform at the UK leg of Nightmare Before Christmas ATP. Unfortunately I was there for just one day, not their date.
I got to this Mission of Burma show, instead. My first time. It was at the hip Dalston venue Birthdays, North-East of London.
I was at this place for Jon Spencer Blues Explosion new album, Meat + Bone, showcase
It’s a cold rainy December tonight. I don’t really want to travel from Cambridge to East London but once I miraculously managed to be on the guestlist for this ultra-sold-out event, I know I would regret forever to miss it. I also know that it would make the perfect liveon35mm post to close my, Burma driven year, 2012.
Bob Weston, is somewhere hidden from my camera, tonight. I don’t see him. The guy that sits backstage throughout the show and opens the dances distributing free earplugs to the first rows, isn’t him. I have my professional plugs but many follow on to the advice until he runs out of them.
Despite what you may think reading this blog, I am not as much as it looks into loud music. This year has been exceptional, though. With Swans, Neurosis, Sunn O))), Anthrax, Motorhead, Mogwai, Blues Explosion, Slayer and more, I have never swallowed so many decibels in such a short time.
Clint Conley, Roger Miller, Peter Prescott and that fourth man are busy in front of me preparing the instruments for the show. Some glass panels are put around the drumkit (anyone knows what are they for?) which isn’t the best looking setting to photograph. Nevermind, it won’t be the main issue.
The main difference from most of other gigs I have been to, is the position of the guitar amplifiers, at the edge of the stage, ahead of the guitarist. A conceptual statement, Roger Miller will mostly play behind its amplis. Clint Conley adopt a more usual setting. I am in admiration of the super tore down instrument he plays.
Live concerts of Mission of Burma are renowned to be hit or misses. I don’t know what to expect, I heard something online but I bought my first CD, the “essential” new release, tonight from the merchandise desk.
When the gig started I have that feeling to be in front of “instant classic” music that you get only in front of legendary bands, regardless you know them. It’s not easy to explain, I remember it happening another time at a similar gig by Gang of Four. The hooks, the sound, the songs that I probably listened only a couple of times before, sounded as they were inside me forever. But the tape manipulation or whatever you want to call the distorted noise coming from somewhere, doing something to the sound and resending it through the speakers is special.
Roger Miller is on the coarse side, Coley bass is less adulterated. A praise goes to the drumming of Peter Prescot, despite I am ignorant on percussion technique, I have the feeling isn’t the easiest of jobs to drum behind this two guys, plus Bob Weston missing somewhere messing up all the sound.
If you try to figure three middle age men, going back to punk rock after a thirty years break, it’s hard to think at something vaguely as visceral or or remotely convincing as I testified.
Trust me, Mission of Burma live show didn’t do nothing else to be visceral, convincing and utterly brilliant.
Despite they may announce another split, all we know is they keep playing and reaching as many people as possible in the world and… maybe a day… in the country that gave them the name: Burma. There’s and emerging Punk scene there waiting.
On my evergrowing phototip index of my side, there’s a Rock Venues section that has been neglected for a while.
Point is that I have already reviewed most of London’s and Cambridge venues, this is where I am geographically based, and rarely I go to a new one.
Also, once you cover a lot of gigs you know that the quality of photography is also dependent on the quality of the lights. With experience you don’t only pick the bands, but also select the venue where they are playing.
Anyone shooting gigs in London knows that venues as Scala, KCLSU or Hoxton Bar and Grill rarely have a photo pit. Heaven and Electric Ballroom have very high stages. Brixton and Apollo have a three songs rule which doesn’t allow to stay to watch the show after the photos and the Union Chapel is a church where every click resound embarrassingly .
Birthdays is one I yet haven’t reviewed. Because it’s fairly new but it is gaining an important part of the music scene thanks to special events as this in recent times.
Located in Dalston, in the street where a Turkish community is struggling to resist the invasion of East London Hipsters with their cocktails bars.
The best way to get here is by Overground from Higbury and Islington. In the end is shorter than going to Hammersmith of Brixton if you monitor the less frequent trains’ times.
Upstair is a hip bar and restaurant, moustached waiters, hipster costumes. Downstair, next to the toilet, opens a relatively long, narrow and not too big room. The venue has a 250 only capacity.
That means that, if you are shooting a lively act, bigger than the place he chose, as Jon Spencer or Mission of Burma, you better bring light clothes, get at the door when it opens and charge your mobile because you are going to wait a lotwithout moving to lose your spot.
The stage is very low. Photography wise there’s no pit and the only option is the first row. The second is already not ideal and the third is impossible.
If you manage to gain the front you’re set to very close-up photography. So close you better be careful a guitar doesn’t smash your front lens. Keep the hood on.
Lightwise is dark, dramatically dark. Both my experiences, I have been forced to a lot of slow-shutter flash photography. The other option was blur and grain.
In this occasion I also converted the shots to B&W because the only lights were annoyingly red. Ceiling is low so bring a flash and bounce it up, you may be allowed to use it.
Lenswise bring your widest angle lens you have. This place it’s not for shy photographers. Beyond 50mm you will only frame the drummer. The 70-200mm is useless (and heavy), leave it at home. Consider that to change lens, in the chaos of a moshpit, isn’t easy. A zoom is better than a prime but has to be a fast zoom. This is heaven for 14-24mm or 16-35mm f2.8 glasses.
This is it folks, thanks so much to follow this blog for such a long time, we’re entering the sixth year together, we survived social networks and economic crush.
I never thought this would have lasted so long. I am proud that, thanks to your support, I have built a gallery of 210 live bands monographies, posted here in words and images. I told you all my secrets franly, and there are almost 3000 photos that you can browse for free and get printed if you want any. Just give me a shout, or pick my favourite here.
Excited as ever to share more live music photography with you, stay with me, I’ll see you in 2013.
Happy Christmas and a wonderful New Year