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Man with a mission
Burma’s Clint Conley returns to Consonant

Clint Conley is putting in his last day at work before he heads up to Maine for a summer vacation with his wife and kids. But the Mission of Burma bassist responsible for writing that band’s best-known tunes — "That’s When I Reach for My Revolver" and "Academy Fight Song" — is also in the process of gearing up for the release of Love and Affliction (Fenway Recordings), his second CD fronting his other band, Consonant. So before we settle in to talk about the new CD, he offers a quick tour of WCVB-TV/Channel 5, the Needham-based ABC affiliate where he’s worked as a Chronicle producer for nearly 20 years. In a production office, an associate searches the archives for footage of the "upcountry coots, codgers, and colorful people" that Conley wants for a "Main Streets and Back Roads" story. "This is a fun one," he says. "I really enjoy the work."

Conley’s competence and his popularity around the office are easy to detect. He confers breezily with colleagues en route to a small editing suite where we can talk without interruption. He doesn’t exactly come across as a corporate type, but if you didn’t know him for the key role he’s played as a groundbreaking post-punk rock icon in Mission of Burma, you might not guess it from his demeanor.

Conley didn’t begin his television career until Mission of Burma broke up in the early ’80s and he stopped writing and playing music altogether. And he never imagined that two decades later he’d be back on stage, playing bass in a reunited Mission of Burma and breaking out on his own as the singer/guitarist in Consonant. "After Burma, I worked for a house painter/roofer for four, maybe five years. I was just kind of sitting on the fence. I remember a hot summer day stripping a roof in Belmont. I was covered in soot, it was boiling hot, I had a pitchfork in my hand. I could have been in Hell. I had to ask myself, ‘What am I doing here?’ "

That very evening he went to the Boston Public Library to look through college catalogues for a course of graduate study that would take him somewhere else. "I saw the BU television production program and thought that was something I could possibly live with."

Conley hasn’t just lived with a career in television production, he’s thrived in it. So much so that he disappeared from the music scene after Mission of Burma called it quits. But that’s made his re-emergence only the more gratifying for Burma fans, and for Conley himself. "The return of the music has been a pretty profound experience. Because when I wasn’t playing in those intervening years, I literally wasn’t playing. I wasn’t picking up the guitar and noodling around — I had no desire to do that. Maybe it’s just all or nothing for me, because my desire to play music had just sort of dried up, and it was always a matter of curiosity to me more than regret. It wasn’t, ‘Oh, where did the music go?’ I wasn’t bemoaning the fact that I wasn’t playing music anymore . . . because my life had blossomed in a lot of ways, and a lot of good stuff had filled in when the music left.

"But it was curious to me where it went, you know. I mean, my head was always filled with music before, and now, it wasn’t. So when it came back, I was very pleased, but also just kind of perplexed."

It does make sense, though, that Conley would be unable to do music at all without committing to it — that it couldn’t be just a casual thing, a hobby. Because there’s always been an urgency and an immediacy in the way he approaches music. He’s the first to admit that it’s been a challenge trying to balance what he refers to as "music and real life." But so far, he’s been able to pull it off.

Burma, you’ll recall, broke up in part because guitarist Roger Miller was suffering from tinnitus. His ears are "still a factor" in how active Burma will be — the reunited trio have plans to record a new album, but a limited live-performance schedule suits them all. Drummer Peter Prescott has a whatever-happens attitude about the whole deal, Conley says, adding, "We’re a pretty mellow group of guys when you get down to it." And all four members of Consonant have other commitments: guitarist Chris Brokaw (ex-Come) and bassist Winston Bramen (Fuzzy) both play in several other projects, and drummer Matt Kadane (Bedhead) has an academic career. The band’s fall tour opening for Evan Dando in support of Love and Affliction will eat up only 10 days in all.

"We’re just not a group of 20-year-olds who are gonna go out on the road and fuck ourselves up," Conley points out. "We have to pick our spots." At the same time, he says he enjoys playing live "more than I ever did the first time around with Mission of Burma. I recall coming off stage after every set, just dissatisfied. I don’t know what it was. I was always so self-conscious. I always felt like, ‘Oh, man, that sucked!’ ‘I really made an ass of myself’ ‘I couldn’t hear myself.’ That’s not completely gone, but I really enjoy the live shows a lot more then I used to."

Conley’s new-found confidence in what he does on stage seems to be reflected in how everything came together off stage in the recording of Love and Affliction. He affirms that his goal with the new CD was "to have it hit harder than the first one because live the band hits harder than the first album sounded. I’m obviously a melody junkie. I definitely have a soft spot for that end of things. But I’m also really attracted to visceral rock. So we worked harder on guitar sounds this time, and I think everyone was playing more confidently than on the first record, really bearing down on the music, biting into it. Plus I didn’t goop it up with quite as many vocal harmonies."

The result comes closer to matching the intensity of Burma than Consonant’s debut did, but without compromising Conley’s melodic muse. The flow of the songs, from the tuneful buzz and chime of the guitars to the often unpredictable shifts in rhythm and phrasing, develops with no wasted notes or unnecessary ornamentation. Brokaw’s expressive, angular guitar style often seems to echo Conley’s singing voice. And Brokaw, Bramen, and Kadane all share an approach to music that was heavily influenced by Burma to begin with. So the various pieces of the Consonant puzzle have fallen into place quite naturally.

"I do hope it feels organic," Conley says. "People have always said that Burma’s songs have complicated arrangements and difficult time signatures, and that’s always made me wince. I want the songs to feel natural, not like they’ve been subject to some kind of imposed cleverness."

Although the challenging side of Burma is what made their music so groundbreaking, Conley’s pop sensibility was every bit as crucial to the band. Without that, it’s hard to imagine that R.E.M. would have covered "Academy Fight Song" or that Moby would have been inspired to record an almost note-for-note version of "That’s When I Reach for My Revolver." And Conley alludes to the tension between the two elements when the subject of the tunes he’s written for Burma’s next album comes up. "I had this one really delicate song — I could use a really politically incorrect word for it, but let’s just say it was very pretty. I brought it to Miller and Prescott, and they were very open-minded about it." A touch of sarcasm enters his voice before he continues, with a good-natured laugh, "Then they started bashing on it, beating it into a Burma tune. My delicate little production was brutalized."

Consonant are much less apt to undercut the "pretty" parts of Conley’s songs. Love and Affliction opens aggressively, with the gnashing guitars and hard-hitting backbeat of "Little Murders," a tune that’s centered on the equally hard-hitting lyric hook "Living proof that what we killed was love." From there, though, it moves on to the stark and stunning "Dumb Joy," which has elegant, poetic lyrics by Holly Anderson. Both her lyrics and Conley’s are marked by an abstract eloquence and an intellectual maturity. "To grossly oversimplify," Conley says, "Anderson’s lyrics are generally rhapsodic remembrances of love, and mine are dyspeptic, sour ruminations on things gone bad."

However you characterize them, the words of Love and Affliction make it clear that Consonant are every bit a serious a project to Conley as are Burma. "My energies in writing music and starting Consonant actually preceded the decision to play with a re-formed Burma," he explains. "The fact that I was already engaged in a musical endeavor is what made the initial Burma reunion a possibility. Prior to that, I just didn’t feel connected to making music. So it was Consonant that got the juices going and that energized the idea of doing the Burma thing."

But at the same time, "Doing those shows with Burma is what gave me a lot of confidence to continue with Consonant and to go back and do the second album. Because, you know, I’d been out of it so long. I was never a real natural kind of, ‘Howyadointonight, Boston!’ big stage-hog kind of guy. Those Burma shows were really exhilarating, and those strong performances definitely went back into Consonant. Each has benefitted the other."

Consonant will wind up the NEMO Fenway Records showcase on Friday September 5 at T.T. the Bear’s, 10 Brookline Street in Central Square; call (617) 492-BEAR.

Issue Date: August 22 - 28, 2003
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