Man on a Mission

By Nick Cox

When Roger C. Miller first moved to Boston in the late 1970s, it was to pursue a career in piano tuning.

Miller, now best known as the lead singer of the seminal Boston post-punk band Mission of Burma, was already a lifelong musician, most notably as the bassist of Sproton Layer, a psychedelic power-trio with trumpet that he founded with his brothers as a teenager.

The time was March of 1969 and music, both rock ‘n’ roll and avant-garde, was in full bloom, especially in Miller’s hometown of Ann Arbor, MI. He recalls how he and his brothers would often go to the park in the afternoon to get stoned and see Michigan proto-punk legends MC5 then hit the concert hall in the evening to hear avant-garde composers like Karlheinz Stockhausen and John Cage.

“To us, there was no difference,” he says. “It was all just music.”

Though Miller was only 17, and though Sproton Layer was motivated mostly by a belief in “weed and acid…,” their music already contained more than a hint of the tense, angular, discordant rawness that a decade later would come to define the epoch-making music of Mission of Burma.

“In a way, I’ve hardly changed at all,” says Miller. “I still have the same ideals I had in 1969.”

Over the next year and a half, Sproton Layer played about 20 shows and recorded an album’s worth of material. But as 1969 turned into 1970 and the revolutionary music (and drugs) that inspired Sproton Layer gave way to “Quaaludes and dinosaur rock bands,” Miller and his brothers lost steam and the trio folded. After that, says Miller, “basically, I was depressed until Mission of Burma.”

The one thing that gave Miller some semblance of hope in that long and dreary decade was the outbreak of punk, which forced him to “go back and revisit things from a completely different angle.” Even after punk hit, Miller never managed to recapture the magic of Sproton Layer. “I tried to get bands together,” he says, “but… no matter what I did, I couldn’t make it work in Ann Arbor, so I said, ‘Well, just screw this, I’m just going to go to Boston and become a piano tuner.’”

As soon as he arrived, though – “like literally a week after I got here” – Miller saw a flier for a punk show featuring Boston now-legends La Peste, Human Sexual Response and the Girls. “I went and saw the Girls,” says Miller, “and I said ‘Screw this, man, I’m going to play in a rock band!’”

A year later, in 1979, Miller founded Mission of Burma. “Not many people came to see us,” he says, “and people didn’t like us very much. But nonetheless, the word was out that we were going to be important.” The band only made two records, 1981’s Signals, Calls and Marches EP and 1982’s Vs., before breaking up in 1983, but their tiny output earned high acclaim from forward-thinking critics and left an indelible mark on indie rock in the coming years. Mission of Burma reunited in 2002 to far wider recognition than they’d ever received in their original run and have since toured extensively and released four more albums.

“I find that when I give up, the best results happen,” says Miller. “But you have to give up in the right way. It turned out that coming to Boston was the best thing I could’ve done.”-Photo by Shef Reynolds

Sproton Layer plays at TT the Bear’s on Thursday, July 25.

This story appeared in the July/August issue of Scout Cambridge. Get your copy here.