I Talked to Roger Miller About Dreams, Cartoons, and Mitt Romney
If you only know Roger Miller from his work in Mission of Burma, you’re blowing it. Roger’s output with Sproton Layer, Alloy Orchestra, No Man, Binary System, and his solo recordings all reflect the unique perspective of an outsider. They’re all...
If you only know Roger Miller from his work in Mission of Burma, you’re blowing it. Roger’s output with Sproton Layer, Alloy Orchestra, No Man, Binary System, and his solo recordings all reflect the unique perspective of an outsider. They’re all awesome, and you need to check them all out now. Additionally, he just released a new single on Good Road Records. Mission of Burma has a new album and who the fuck knows what Roger’s brain has hatched in the time it took you to read this intro alone.
VICE: Both you and Mitt Romney are originally from Michigan and moved to Boston. Why’s Mitt following you around the United States?
Roger Miller: I wish he wasn’t. I wish him the worst—maybe not the worst, per se—but let’s keep him out of the presidency. It’s funny, my parents voted for Romney the elder back in the 60s for governor of Michigan. It was a different time then; the difference between Republicans and Democrats wasn’t as extreme. As we all know, Mitt’s dad released 12 years of tax returns, and Mitt only released one and a half or something. A better man was his dad.
Speaking of states Romneys have governed, there’s a perception of Massachusetts being a liberal state, but it doesn’t seem to be reflected in everyday life there. What’s it like living as an artist there?
I know a lot of people who say there’s a certain type of elitism in Boston, which tends to be conservative because the Brahmins don’t want to change. In my life, I’ve never found that at all. I live in Somerville now. It’s completely loose… it’s everything that I’m interested in. When I do avant-garde shows or do surrealist nights where I show my favorite cartoons from the 30s and 40s, I’m able to sell out a small venue and get press. I’ve also been in Boston since 1978 and been involved in music a long time, so my name has a stamp to it. Sure, I’d love it if 10,000 people came to my cartoon show, but that’s not going to happen.
When you started playing shows in Boston with Moving Parts, and later Mission of Burma in the early 1980s, what was the landscape like for postpunk and avant-garde music?
When Moving Parts and Mission of Burma started there were three main clubs you could play. There was the Rat, Cantone's, and the Club. There was also the Space downtown that was a lesbian-run club… a fucking great club. There were loft scenes just like there were in New York, just less of them because Boston was smaller.
Of course the mainstream didn’t care any more than they did in New York City. We felt like fucking outsiders, a small group of people against the entire world, which is great. I produced a band called Vitamin that was a total New York sounding band. The kid—Jason Shapiro—was 16 years old. He’s now in Redd Kross! The Girls’ first record and only single were produced by David Thomas of Pere Ubu, it came out on Hearthan. Shit was happening! La Peste—they were here before I came to Boston—had one of the first punk singles in the US, I believe. “Better Off Dead” was really early on.
Is there a connection between the whimsical aspects of old cartoons and the influence of dreams in your work?
I haven’t really thought about it. I always liked cartoons because they weren’t as restricted to reality, or what people refer to as reality. There was a period when I thought I shouldn’t like them, because they’re kind of escapist, versus movies, but you know… most movies are bullshit too. They’re no more real than cartoons, just a different type of reality. Cartoons are more fun and childlike. I had this cartoon show in Somerville, there would be 50 people there watching, and Popeye has some really epic pieces versus Sinbad the Sailor. When he popped off the spinach can, literally the entire crowd cheered. I like that because, I helped facilitate everyone leaving their regular-day life, and put themselves back in touch with childhood stuff… which make come back the next day for a few moments, or maybe it was a little relief, but that really made my day.
With the crossover between indie musicians, cartoons, and children’s shows is animation a medium you’d be interested in?
I’ve done soundtrack work as one of my ways of survival. Usually, I do left-wing political documentaries, but I used to work for an animation house in Boston. I was sort of their house soundtracker. We did this series in 1993 for 7-Eleven’s Brain Freeze. They were 15-second spots, and I went as wild as I could get. There were these birds whose heads were bulbs, and they’d suck up the 7-Eleven Slurpee and their heads would explode, then my voice would whisper “Brain Freeze.” There were explosions created by sampling my van’s sound and dropping it three octaves, pieces of metal were dropped and the sound was turned backwards.
That’s what I like about animation, there’s nothing real. You can make any sound be anything, because it’s not reality. Generally when you do sound design for a more traditional film, stuff that has actual three-dimensional human characters, you have to make sounds that are more realistic… it’s a little more limiting.
With all the artistic work you doing with drawing, sound tracking, composition, and photography, it’s almost like Mission of Burma is your escapist rock band even though people view Burma as an art rock band.
Ha, in a way it’s comparably conservative, but that’s to be taken with a grain of salt. When we play something like “ADD in Unison” that’s a pretty convoluted structure. Burma can do anything. We can play a song like “That’s How I Escaped My Certain Fate,” which is one of Clint’s most straightforward songs, and by the time the three of us are all putting our energy into it, it’s almost more the act of us playing a song together that’s avant-garde, not the song structures. It’s like somehow when we hook up together, this energy comes out. Something happens where it no longer has anything to do with music anymore, it’s this crazy thing called Mission of Burma. That’s why I believe we can play songs, and fuck them up live—all sorts of things—people still enjoy it. It’s not the details, it’s this energy thing.
Mission of Burma is going to be playing out in support of your new album Unsound. Alloy Orchestra is touring. What else are you up to?
There’s a video for “Big Steam.” I’ve never gotten into doing videos ever. I did one for a No Man song, a typical thing where a guy appears to be rocking in a burned out building, but his guitar’s not plugged in. That doesn’t appeal to me much. For this one, I shot some footage with my cheapo camera when I was on the train in Baltimore that fits in with the song. We did do some band shots with Larry Dersch, the drummer. He’s playing this 1920s drum kit and I’m playing the Longhorn bass—like I really do—and you can see it’s not plugged in. Sometimes I’m playing twice as fast as I should be, sometimes Larry loses the beat and looks at me, and so we’re not really being serious about it.
I did some footage, based on this Japanese horror movie where these women ghosts have their faces painted white and their teeth black. I used some of that for when you actually see me mouthing to the words. It wasn’t going to be acting cool—like I’m a rock star—it’s more like “that guy’s dead or from another dimension.” I’ve never gotten involved in video before, but because it was being made I was forced to be involved in it and it opened up a whole other door in my skull. It was like “Now I’m getting ideas about doing this… bummer!” Once you get the ideas, you gotta activate them.