Music » Interview

Mission Impossible

Music is an illuminated manuscript for Text of Light.


Something happens to an audience -- Roger Miller describes it as a "chemical dance in the back of their skulls" -- when seasoned, creative musicians come together and throw away all the rules except the one that dictates play good.

Combined with some wicked abstract film, the results should be stunning.

Miller is the guitarist for the influential, kickass Boston art-punk band Mission of Burma, which toured like hell and made a handful of groundbreaking recordings on the small, iconoclastic Ace of Hearts label between 1979 and '83. Like most truly progressive artists, Mission of Burma went unrecognized in its day. Now, with a chapter devoted to it in Michael Azerrad's Our Band Could Be Your Life and a second go-around (beginning with 2004's raucous OnOffOn), Burma's finally getting its props.

But it's a different mission that brings Miller to Kansas City.

"I'm certainly not interested in rock music right now," Miller tells the Pitch from his home in Boston. "When punk rock kicked in, that was the perfect thing for my interest in rock and was basically an avant garde form, in a funny way, but that's long, long, long past. I just like to do stuff that I find interesting."

His eagerness to pursue more abstract avenues has been a blessing to Kansas City filmmaker Ben Meade, who has employed Miller's other project, the Alloy Orchestra, to contribute music to his films (most recently Bazaar Bizarre, Meade's whacked-out biopic of serial killer Bob Berdella). Meade and Miller speak highly of each other now, but when they first met, at the Telluride Film Festival in 1999, Miller had reservations.

That was when Meade implored the Alloy Orchestra to perform at Meade's Halfway to Hollywood Film Festival (now called the Kansas International Film Festival). "He was so earnest and serious about it ... we thought, 'Well, this guy's just a kook,'" Miller says. "Little did we know that he's a kook with incredible power behind him. We didn't know what to expect, and then gradually we realized this guy's a veritable ball of energy from another dimension."

From what we've heard, the same could be said of the project that Meade has persuaded Miller to bring to Kansas City this time around.

A little background: The Alloy Orchestra performs live soundtracks to classic silent films, using an eclectic mix of music and bizarre percussive effects. Its first project was Fritz Lang's Metropolis (though we can't imagine how one could improve upon the 1984 Giorgio Moroder soundtrack, which featured Freddie Mercury), and the group is working with Meade to restore a print of the ancient Lon Chaney Phantom of the Opera.

The ensemble that's coming this time, however, is Text of Light, which improvises alongside screenings of films by experimental pioneer Stan Brakhage, under whom Meade studied for a bragging-rights-earning summer in 1994.

Text of Light is led by Sonic Youth guitarist Lee Renaldo and sometimes includes New York underground stars Alan Licht on guitar and William Hooker on drums; frequently joining the mayhem are drummer Tim Barnes and turntablist DJ Olive. The show at the Fahrenheit on Friday brings Renaldo, Miller, Hooker and Licht.

"He [Licht] and Lee put together this rotating cast of characters not so much to provide soundtracks to Brakhage films -- because Brakhage wanted his films without soundtracks -- but to simultaneously improvise along with the film," Miller says. "So it's kind of in the John Cage sense of two events going on at the same time rather than trying to fit together."

Brakhage, who died in 2003, was a radical legend whose work is undeniably brilliant. Naturally, it's unrecognized outside a small circle. Dating back to the 1950s, Brakhage's films are too varied, abstract and complex to discuss here; suffice to say that Brakhage was no Frank Capra -- hell, he was too weird to warrant even a David Lynch comparison. His films are mostly silent and nonlinear -- sometimes as formless as light in motion, sometimes as direct as up-close views of childbirth or an autopsy (both of which we'll see this Saturday). And his films are the perfect forum for a few insatiably creative musicians, who, in this case, happen to be the heroes of anyone who grew up listening to the then-called alternative rock of the '80s and '90s.

Kindred spirits Miller and Renaldo have known each other for a long time, but the two didn't converge as co-improvisers until a couple of years ago, when Miller was with a group called Binary System that played the Knitting Factory in New York the same night Renaldo and Hooker had a show. Preliminary discussions of getting together ensued, but nothing was finalized.

"And then 9/11 happened, and a week later I got a call from William Hooker saying, 'Roger, we gotta get a gig! We could all die tomorrow!'" Miller laughs. "And I go, 'OK! You're right!'"

The trio of Miller, Renaldo and Hooker played several concerts, and those shows found the already adventurous rockers creating something completely new. The results were recorded and released on bizarro jazz label Atavistic as Monsoon.

So when Text of Light comes to Kansas City, no one should plan on rocking out to the Burma stomper "That's When I Reach for My Revolver." But people should expect to have a remarkable experience, unlike anything on the local scene.

Because the truth is that the East Coast's crackpot musicians are better than ours -- at least the ones here who use guitars. (Local sax slayer Mark Southerland's various freak-jazz projects are the exceptions.) Compared with the fun but too silly one-off showcases at the Kemper and the kiddie fests in the West Bottoms, Renaldo and his crew just know what they're doing.

"You know, free improvisation can be just scattered noises, but when you've got people who are intuitively connected, you create areas of sound that could never have come together any other way," Miller says. "It's the closest thing to creative anarchy that there is. There's nobody telling anybody what to do other than just by their natural behavior, and when it works, it's one of the greatest forms of order in the world."

Anyone with even a fleeting appreciation for free or progressive jazz -- whether the frenetic squall of Sun Ra's band or the slightly more digestible collaborations of John Coltrane and Pharoah Sanders or the deliciously off-kilter work of Ornette Coleman -- knows that what Miller's talking about isn't bullshit.

"It's kind of disorienting, but it's disorienting in a way that can pull up a couple of the pegs in your listening mind, your artistic mind," Miller says. "Some of the structures that you use to appreciate music and film might get jarred and maybe even knocked over, and then you see and hear in a slightly different way."

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