Remaking the Band

Will the Pixies 2.0 thrive like Mission of Burma, or stumble like Urge Overkill?

The bulging floodgates of the '80s indie-rock reunion racket have finally burst open, with the biggest wave yet poised to hit shore: the Pixies. But even die-hard fans seem uncertain whether the experience will leave them invigorated, or just soaked.

While seemingly no more important in their mid-'80s heyday than, say, Dinosaur Jr., the Pixies, in one of those subtle switcheroos, have since attained top-tier influence through their continually rewarding records and numerous Cobain, Cuomo and Coldplay interview name-drops. And unlike many of their "college rock" contemporaries, the Pixies sold a fair amount of records (especially in taste-fabricating England), aiding their rise to "Beatles of alt-rock" status.

Still, news of their reunion tour -- climaxing with second-headliner status (behind Radiohead) at Coachella earlier this month -- comes with a large amount of apprehension. Dispiriting visions of fat graybeards forgetting chords arise quicker than hopes; many Pixies devotees worry this is all about the dough.

They're twice as wide now: The Pixies way back when.
They're twice as wide now: The Pixies way back when.

But though it usually is, it doesn't necessarily have to be. So while we await the outcome of the Great 2004 Pixies Experiment, the comeback conveyor belt has already pumped out a few K-Car-era models to consider.

How to Re-form Successfully

Mission of Burma started doing occasional reunion gigs two years ago, and this Tuesday the group will officially release a fine new album, appropriately titled ONoffON (Matador). This Boston band predates the Pixies, having toiled in the burgeoning DIY scene of the early '80s, long before college rock made anyone a dime. "We came from a musical mentality where sales were absolutely irrelevant," explains drummer Peter Prescott. "I mean, no one formed a punk band to make money. You did it purely out of self-interest, I guess."

While releasing only one proper album, a few EPs and a live record (all on small labels), MoB never enjoyed the Pixies' profile. But the band is arguably just as influential. The "Academy Fight Song"/"Max Ernst" seven-inch -- minted back in 1981 with its perfect blend of Brit post-punk chops and Yankee garage oomph -- laid down the template for all smart rock since. Mission of Burma was the Velvet Underground of the '80s -- few people bought the records, but everyone who did went on to make their own.

So now MoB offers another template: how to resurrect a long-gone band.

First, keep the initial breakup fairly civil. "There was no bad blood," Prescott says. "It was just time for people to move on and try something else. And Roger [Miller, guitarist] had tinnitus, which was the biggest factor."

Second, keep working. Prescott has stayed active with three different bands, the best-known being Volcano Suns. His band the Peer Group initially brought MoB's three members (bassist Clint Conley rounds out the group) back together, opening for Wire in late 2001. "So the three of us were on stage for the first time since '83," he says. "And I think when Clint saw that Wire had re-formed and hadn't embarrassed themselves, his reticence to do anything Burmese was broken down."

Third, don't rest on your laurels. "Another big factor was Roger was completely uninterested in playing again unless we wrote new songs and were active like a band," Prescott says. "Otherwise it's kind of stale."

But nothing else matters if you can't deliver both the old and new material live. Thankfully, a recent NYC Mission of Burma gig was fiery as hell, despite Prescott playing behind a clear fiberglass wall and Miller wearing huge airport-noise-blocking headphones to ward off increased hearing damage. No, they don't try to slash around the stage like 24-year-olds, but their instrumental chops chopped off each other in classic Burma fashion, while the new, slightly more melodic songs fit in fine. So, though one might have expected a stoic bunch waiting for someone's eardrums to bust, the band members all smiled and wailed away freely.

There's no grand plan for MoB, but the three are smart enough not to approach it as a mere nostalgia trip time-killer. "We still don't plan much beyond a few months ahead of time," Prescott says. "But we had 20 years off. You sort of refresh your brain about it. When you're constantly in a band, the point of why you're doing it can be lost. So for us, all that crud was removed, and all that was left was enjoying one another."

How to Re-form Unsuccessfully

Refreshed brains don't come to mind when conversing with guitarist Ed Roeser of the recently re-formed Urge Overkill. This reunion paints a much fuzzier picture: The band's Boston-meets-Botany 500 blueprint hasn't proved particularly influential, and while it enjoyed a '90s alt-rock moment of Rat Pack revivalism -- and, to its credit, didn't settle for lame surf-rock covers and cheesy tiki imagery -- Urge's ironic stadium-rock reinvention (best captured on 1993's much-loved Saturation) didn't cut many new edges itself.

Like the Pixies, UO garnered modest sales and maybe stuck around for one record too many (namely, Exit the Dragon) before breaking up in 1997. In fact, the reunion might've arrived a little too soon. No matter the question posed, Roeser quickly drifts back to the initial breakup, seemingly still a little stunned. "Part of it is just the amount of time that goes by, where one is able to cool off," he says. "I physically couldn't be in the same room with those guys. Exit the Dragon was like the soundtrack of us falling apart, sliding into depression. I decided what people love about the band is not really there anymore. It was a horror show. So ten years go by, and you sort of forget about those physical and mental reactions that are so strong."

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