In all likelihood, Roger Miller will always be best known for the music he helped create with the band Mission of Burma between 1979 and 1983, but Miller had already created an interested body of work before joining the band, and has had a fascinating career since, creating music that bridges the gaps between rock, jazz, avant-garde, and classical.
Roger Miller was born in Ann Arbor, MI, and developed a passionate interest in music in his early teens, catching shows by such legendary Michigan bands as the MC5 and the Stooges and acquiring a taste for psychedelic music. Miller began playing in a local rock band at the age of 14, and by 1969 was gigging and recording with his brothers Benjamin Miller and Laurence Miller in an ambitious psychedelic/hard rock band called Sproton Layer. (While Sproton Layer released no material in their lifetime, an album's worth of vintage material was released in the early '90s.) In the early '70s, Miller, already proficient as a guitarist and keyboard player, began exploring free jazz and experimental music with a number of Ann Arbor musicians, and attended music school, studying composition. In 1978, Miller moved to Boston and earned a living tuning pianos as he composed John Cage-influenced pieces which employed tape loops and "prepared piano." But Miller still had an interest in rock music, and soon answered an ad for a group looking for a guitarist who could read music. The band was called Moving Parts, and while his tenure in the band was short-lived, Miller formed a valuable musical partnership with bassist Clint Conley. In 1979, Miller and Conley left Moving Parts and, with former Molls drummer Peter Prescott, formed a band called Mission of Burma. An old friend of Miller's from his Ann Arbor days, Martin Swope, was doing sound for the band one night, and began manipulating their sound with the use of tape loops, and one of the most exciting and innovative bands of the 1980s was born, combining the rage of punk, the melodic sophistication of psychedelia, and the intelligence of avant-garde in one bruisingly powerful package.
While Mission of Burma were musically uncompromising, they developed a passionate following in their hometown of Boston, and the band's reputation began to spread nationwide -- no small accomplishment in the days when the indie touring network was still establishing itself and college radio was hardly a unified force. But Miller began showing symptoms of tinnitus -- a hearing disorder that results in a constant ringing in the ears -- during his teen years, and the overpowering volume of Mission of Burma's live shows had seriously aggravated the problem, forcing him to choose between continuing with the band or possibly going deaf. (A man with a keen ear, Miller told a reporter he could identify the notes he was hearing -- middle E, C sharp below E, and E sharp, forming a chord.) In March of 1983, Mission of Burma called it a day after a pair of riotously-received shows in Boston and a short farewell tour. It didn't take long for Miller to re-establish himself in music; he and Martin Swope had been playing with a prog-influenced experimental band called Birdsongs of the Mesozoic as a side project since 1983, and after Burma's breakup, they began working with the group full-time. (Another member of Birdsongs of the Mesozoic was Erik Lindgren, who'd also been a member of Moving Parts.) Miller primarily played keyboard with Birdsongs, and in 1983 he renewed his interest in the prepared piano with a series of solo "Maximum Electric Piano" projects, using a modified electric piano and a digital delay box to create a remarkable variety of soundscapes. Miller recorded and toured extensively with the "Maximum Electric Piano" music before retiring the concept in 1988; he'd parted company with Birdsongs of the Mesozoic a year earlier (the band opted to continue on without him).
In 1988, Miller formed a new group, No Man, in which he picked up the guitar again for the first time since Mission of Burma, as well as incorporating electronically sampled percussion; the group's music explored a middle ground between rock and experimental music. While the group proved to be quite prolific, cranking out six albums, Miller was reportedly unsatisfied with the band's direction, and disbanded No Man in 1991. Throughout the 1990s, Miller released a series of solo guitar and piano recordings, and began creating original scores for original film and television projects. By the year 2000, Miller was dividing his time between three different groups -- M3, a once-a-decade avant-rock collaboration with his brothers Benjamin and Laurence; the Binary System, a collaboration with percussionist Larry Dersch; and the Alloy Orchestra, an experimental/modern classical ensemble who have received worldwide acclaim for their unique scores for classic silent films. Most surprisingly, in 2001 Miller announced he would reunite with Clint Conley and Peter Prescott for a pair of Mission of Burma reunion shows (Martin Swope, however, declined to participate); while the three do not plan any further work, they have left the door open for further collaborations. ~ Mark Deming, Rovi