Man With a Mission | Music Review | Chicago Reader

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Man With a Mission

How Bob Weston helped resuscitate a postpunk legend.

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This week Mission of Burma released one of the most anticipated records in recent memory--ONoffON (Matador) is the seminal Boston postpunk outfit's first new studio album in 22 years. Plenty of rock reunions embarrass everyone involved, but MoB's return to the stage and studio has been a success with fans and critics alike--and for Chicago producer and musician Bob Weston, who's been working with the band since early 2002, it's been a dream come true. "I hate to say they're my favorite band, because that always changes," he says. "But they are in my top three rotating favorite bands of all time, probably fighting it out with Fugazi and the Beatles."

Weston is better known around these parts as the bassist in Steve Albini's power trio, Shellac, but he's been in Mission of Burma's orbit much longer. A native of Waltham, Massachusetts, he helped MoB drummer Peter Prescott resuscitate his post-Burma trio, the Volcano Suns, back in 1987; he's also shared stages with guitarist Roger Miller's group No Man, and in 2001 he recorded bassist Clint Conley's new band, Consonant. "While we were getting ready to do that is when the Burma stuff started bubbling up," recalls Weston.

Mission of Burma had called it quits in 1983 after just one full-length, 1982's Vs., in part because their stage volume was aggravating Miller's tinnitus--but in the years that followed they'd become almost legendary. After Michael Azerrad highlighted the group in his 2001 indie-rock history, Our Band Could Be Your Life, public interest crested and Mission of Burma decided to re-form for a string of east-coast gigs.

When original fourth member Martin Swope, who'd handled live sound and tape loops for the band, declined to come back aboard (he was living in Hawaii), Weston seemed the obvious choice to replace him in the booth. "Weston saved our bacon," says Conley. "Burma was flummoxed about the tape-loop situation when Martin couldn't join in. We floundered for a bit before the heavens parted and a ray of light shot through, carrying a cuddly, freckled angel with an old reel-to-reel. He was perfect--an old friend, a lover of savage sound, and a master of technical geekiness."

After the success of the first Burma reunion concerts, jokingly christened the "Inexplicable 2002" tour, the group continued gigging, doing only short jaunts as a concession to Miller's condition--he now plays wearing shooter's earmuffs, separated from Prescott's drum kit by a Plexiglas baffle. After a year and a half they'd written an album's worth of new material, and as Weston recalls, "Roger's like, 'Well, we've got a bunch of new songs we're playing live; we should either record them or there's no use doing this anymore.'"

Enlisted to record the album--with longtime MoB associate Rick Harte acting as an adviser--Weston set up camp with the band at Q Division studios in Somerville, Massachusetts, for a pair of sessions last fall. It soon hit him what a daunting task he'd been charged with: the postpunk equivalent of making a second Sex Pistols record two decades after Never Mind the Bollocks.

"I was really nervous," admits Weston. "But I'm always nervous when I make a record. I tried not to have any preconceived notion about the sound or the production, 'cause those guys have their sound down. I guess that's how I've always tried to record stuff--I try not to get in the way."

Weston had apprenticed at Albini's home studio for a few years in the early 90s, working and fixing gear in the attic of the engineer's Irving Park bungalow, and even now the two share a basic production style--using vintage mikes, analog tape, and a minimum of overdubbing. ("He was like grad school or something," jokes Weston--who, unlike Albini, has a degree in electrical engineering.) This approach made Mission of Burma's transition back to the studio an easy one: "The way I use the studio is pretty much the same as the way they did 20 years ago," Weston says, laughing. "I'm a pretty old-school style engineer."

"It made all the difference for us not to have to bridge a gulf of communication with an engineer from some other planet," says Conley. "I didn't really sense much pressure going into the studio. Some of that was probably due to knowing we were with Weston, and that his ears and touch would help us get where we wanted to go."

Weston's time with Mission of Burma on the road and in the studio has been a unique opportunity for him to combine his two lifelong pursuits: "Music and behind-the-scenes tech stuff--I've been drawn to those two things since I was a little kid," he says. "I vividly remember in elementary school always wanting to run the filmstrip projector. I was always the AV geek."

Weston has been recording since he was a freshman at the University of Lowell, where he captured fledgling Boston bands like the Pixies and the Blake Babies live in the studio at the campus radio station. He traces his love of music back to his father, an accomplished trombonist. "I played trumpet from the fifth grade through high school," he says. "But when I got to college I thought, 'I can't play trumpet in a rock band.' So I borrowed a bass from a friend and learned how to play from U2 and Police records."

Weston helped Prescott re-form the Volcano Suns while still at Lowell, and after the band broke up for good in 1991 he briefly played bass with former Blake Baby Juliana Hatfield. He also began doing recording work for Sebadoh and a handful of other acts on the Sub Pop label, but a full-time career in music still seemed like a pipe dream. "The whole idea was I needed to get a job that I could make money at so I could play in bands and do hobby recording on the weekends and evenings."

Even during his years in Albini's attic, Weston was becoming an in-demand engineer in his own right: beginning in the early 90s, he produced acclaimed albums from Rodan, Chavez, the Get Up Kids, June of 44, and Archers of Loaf, among others. And early in '93 he started rehearsing with Shellac. "[Albini] and [drummer] Todd Trainer had been playing as a two-piece in the basement for a few years," says Weston. "At our first practice together it was obviously a perfect fit. The Shellac thing just sort of happened...and that turned into a huge part of my life."

Shellac is currently piecing together tracks for its fourth studio album, its first since 2000's 1000 Hurts; Weston is finishing up a record for the Shipping News and has plans to track with local jazzer Ken Vandermark and with German reedist Peter Brotzmann.

Of course, now that ONoffON is out, Weston will spend at least a couple months focusing on his beloved Burma. "People have to keep reminding me, 'You know, you're in Mission of Burma.' I still can't believe it," he says. "I feel like I'm the Forrest Gump of underground music. I just keep falling into these really great situations."

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photos/A. Jackson, Diane Bergamasco.

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