THEN YOU NEVER WERE: THE SUICIDAL TENDENCIES INTERVIEW
In all the discussion of thrash metal’s first big bands, too little airtime is given to the great Suicidal Tendencies. Launched by a teenaged Mike Muir in Los Angeles, Suicidal took root in punk and hardcore, landed an early MTV hit in the manic, careening “Institutionalized,” and attracted the ire of authorities via rumored gang ties and concert violence. And that was before ST solidified a line-up, one anchored by Muir’s bandmate in No Mercy, riff-god guitarist Mike Clark. The two Mikes rebooted Suicidal with the defiantly thrashy How Will I Laugh Tomorrow When I Can’t Even Smile Today, a major label-powered crossover hit which drew an even bigger target on the band for censorship crusaders and unwittingly helped to fertilize the coming crop of nu-metal self-pity peddlers.
But in the hands of Muir, personal woes weren’t excuses but motivation, and confrontation more often than wallowing; see 1989’s mini-album Controlled By Hatred/Feel Like Shit … Deja Vu, on which Muir continues to document disassociation for a society slow to acknowledge mental health realties. Suicidal’s peak came in 1990 with Lights … Camera … Revolution, an album-length indictment of society’s complicity in its own demise, all cowed by power-mongers, con men, and the self-righteous. This was a different era for metal; no commercial band had yet approached the blunt rage, contrarianism, and pervasive guitar solos of Suicidal Tendencies.
On the phone to MetalSucks last week from California, a typically expansive Muir downplayed his regard for the history of Suicidal, but even he looks back to past days on The Mad Mad Muir Musical Tour (Part 1), his forthcoming collection of new and vault tracks by re-punk era ST, his solo Cyco Miko project, and Infectious Grooves, the funk-metal clan Muir formed with ST bassist Robert Trujillo (now of Metallica). So I had all the license needed to drag Muir down memory lane to tour the land of Suicidal. Join us!
Anso DF: Let’s talk about Suicidal Tendencies’ recent East Coast shows.
Mike Muir: We got a call that Vans was doing a store opening in New York. They asked if we’d play the grand opening party. And we set up a couple other shows [for] while we were out there; so we played in Brooklyn, Long Island, and New Jersey. We flew up for the three shows. The Vans show was simulcasted all around, so it was pretty cool.
What’s it like doing just a few shows like that? Is it hard to groove?
We were just in Europe for all of August. We got back, had two weeks off, then did those East Coast shows. I think it’s always fun to do some shows like that, and get back at it. Obviously, if you’re flying in Europe or off doing a big tour, you fly out there, you’ve got a long flight, you’re a long ways from home, you get on a tour bus, and you’re just there. You get into kind of a routine, so to speak. That’s a little different. It’s always cool to do something that’s a little different, a little exciting.
It seems like some of America’s best bands are bigger in Europe than here. Is Suicidal Tendencies one of those bands?
Well, I learned a long time ago, the first time we did a festival … It wasn’t until ’93 that we did our first festival and there was a lot of bands that aren’t very big that play at festivals and they get to play in front of a lot of people. So they get to act, like, big. They get to live out their big, rock star fantasies and stuff. So it’s either good or bad, how you look at it. But it’s the culture there to have a lot of festivals every summer, so it gives people a chance to play there. It depends.
For us, they have a lot of festivals … where there’s a mixture of bands; but we were just there, and over the course of a month we headlined pop festivals, metal festivals, and in both France and Holland, we were the only band not from that country. We did a festival where we were the only band that actually had amplified music; we played a skate park in Norway. We did a lot of different things that other people don’t. We’re going to do 20 shows in France next year, where most people play Paris at best. But that’s based on having a connection and whatever the audience is and for [other reasons]. I know a lot of times people sit there and go, ‘Wow, my favorite band, I didn’t think they were big. But then I saw them playing for 20,000 people!’ And I say, ‘No, there were 20,000 people at the festival. They weren’t there to see the band.’ [laughs]
It’s a different thing. It’s what festival you play, and that type of thing and opportunity and stuff. We were fortunate though; we do well at a lot of places we go to. When I say ‘well,’ it’s my definition and my definition is being able to do a lot of different events that other bands won’t. I think a lot of bands can only fit into a certain crowd and do a certain thing, and they’re just doing all they can. We get some unique opportunities that keep things exciting.
Sounds like you guys are having fun!
We’ll have people on the crew who’ve worked with other [acts], and they sit there saying, ‘Wow, I’ve never done anything like this.’ Being in a band, you have to be able to appreciate that, other people’s perspectives of it. That’s a really important thing. That’s something we started 30 years ago: We didn’t want to fit in or, y’know, be stuck in one little tight thing. It’s kinda like I always say about food: I might be part-Italian, but I’m not eating Italian food every day. It gets boring [laughs]. We always try to do things differently, and always will.
Your new Cyko Miko record has new and old material on it. What are these old jams and why is now the time to release them?
It goes back to what I was saying about always doing things differently. Over the years, we’ve recorded lots and lots of music with lots of different projects. And we were doing records when we had extra time. And in the process of converting well over 200 old two-inch tapes to ProTools so we can listen to ’em, there was a lot of stuff that we did [about which] we were like ‘Wow! This is crazy!’ It was really cool and we enjoyed it. For Suicidal, it’s been ten or 11 years since we did a new record — same for Infectious. So we said, ‘Why don’t we put out something new with Suicidal, some new Infectious, and some old Infectious that was never released, and different follow-up records that we never put out. This will be cool for people to hear.’ I think on a lot of those songs, there’s what I would call a beauty in the fact that when you listen to it, you can tell it wasn’t done to cater to anybody in particular. It’s just something that we thought was really cool.
It’s really disjointed, I would say, because some of the projects and music are completely different; but that’s what I think it should be. I think sometimes people do records and it’s like their fans want to hear something and within four seconds say, [comically] ‘Yeah, this rocks!’ [laughs] If I hear something and in four seconds I say it rocks, then it’s gotta suck. That’s the point. The best music I ever heard, I didn’t hear four seconds and go, ‘Yeahhh.’ When that happens, you know it’s the same old same old. I like things that are a challenge; sometimes you listen to them and afterwards, you’re like, whoa! [laughs] Even if you feel like you don’t wanna hear it again, know what I mean — not in two weeks, or in two years. So we have an opportunity to put some stuff out that, y’know, a lot of people won’t like because it’s not what they want to hear right there, right there. That’s the problem with some music over the years. At the time it’s done by the people who do it, they’re doing it for some people to like it. We’ve always done music that we like, without concern for whether other people like it or not.
That contrarianism was a big part of the Suicidal Tendencies’ identity from the start. Whatever you guys opposed — censorship, politicians, the music industry, everything — it was out in the open. So it blows my mind that Suicidal was wanted by a major label and became an awesome commercial metal band.
When the first record came out, we had two major labels that came back to us based on our sales and offered us deals. They said, ‘The only problem is that you’ll have to change your name. The majority of stores won’t carry your record because of the name.’ We said no. We went out and did our second record — one of the top-100 Billboard independent records. Then all of the sudden we had eight majors [interested]. There used to be way more majors back in the day [laughs]. We were in a position of strength; at the time, we were the first band on CBS to have complete artistic freedom in our contract. It was stated specifically that we did not have to submit our music or any artwork [for approval]. We would complete it ourselves and when it was done, we’d turn it in. If they didn’t put it out, we’d get all rights back and be free of the label. So consequently, we were able to do a record called Feel Like Shit … Deja Vu without worrying about the label.
They didn’t have any DNA, any fingerprints all over it, telling us what we to do. We did it all without any label people there; none of ’em were welcome there [laughs] except for our friends. That’s the way it was. We basically said, ‘Look, you’re calling us up because we’ve done everything our way and haven’t done what other people said we should. If that’s what you like about us, then that’s what should be in the contract.’ We never had to deal with [labels]. I think we have more problems being on independents than on majors. Before we were on CBS here, we were on Virgin over in Europe — which is a major anyhow. So when people say we changed with that record on a major, I say that our record before it was on a major, so there goes your theory.
It honestly doesn’t matter. It’s just distribution and who puts the record out. Now it doesn’t matter because there nearly isn’t any labels.
Do you look back fondly at that time?
[When] my friends are talking about the good old days, I stop them and go, ‘Dude you were miserable then. You’re just more miserable now. You don’t remember how miserable you were then, and assume that it couldn’t have been worse.’ So I’m not a reminiscent person —
— I got a long ways to go at life and too many things to look forward to that aren’t based on music. I never set out and said I wanted to be a singer and a musician. We never did all those things that other people do when they are ‘trying to start a band’. We never cared about other people’s definition of success. And the irony is because of that I’m still able to be here on my own terms and stuff. To this day, we still have people coming saying, ‘You should do this, it’d be a great opportunity to do that, blah blah blah.’ You say no and, like, they get upset. It’s like, why should you be upset? It’s such a great thing for me? It sounds like it’s a great thing for you. [That’s why] you’re upset.
We’re not worried about it at the end of the day. It’s like my dad said. He said, ‘You know what? Music is something that a lot of people use to escape from life. If you can make music something that motivates people to live life, then I’m all happy with it.’ That’s the approach that we have; we don’t try to escape from a life that we don’t like, we’re trying to live a life that we do like. And music’s a small part of it.
Yeah, dude! The expectation is that once you’ve pulled that string in a listener’s heart or whatever, then you must keep doing it the rest of their life.
Well, there’s a lot of ways you can look at it. There are people who I would call very genre-specific that’ll say, ‘On your last record, you didn’t do this. I can’t like it unless you do this.’ I’m like, ‘What are you talking about? I don’t care if you like it or not. I never asked you before. I never asked your opinion, and I’m not gonna start now.’ If you sat around with everybody saying ‘I don’t like this. I only like that,’ we never wouldn’t done the music that people who like it said they liked!
My dad always said that the surefire way to end up in hell is to try to make everybody happy. That’s guaranteed to make yourself miserable. The irony is, even if you do everything that ‘at the time’ that everybody says they want, later on they’ll give you attitude because [sniveling] they didn’t really mean it! [laughs] I’m not trying to win; that’s not the game. We’re not playing that game and a lot of people don’t realize that.
It goes back to when we first started; the first articles and reviews, I have framed on my wall. This big ol’ four foot by four foot thing with all these clippings. When people came over to the spot and see [it], they get this confused look on their faces. Like, ‘Dude, it’s all talking shit! It all says you suck! Why would you put that up?’ And I’m like, ‘Yeah. It doesn’t matter. If I put things up that said I was great, does that make me any better?’ No, it doesn’t. [laughs] It just goes to show I can live my life and I can do what I want, and I don’t care what somebody writes, y’know? Why would what somebody writes bother you? It would bother some people. [Those people say] ‘Oh, I guess you got a point, but I don’t know. It’s weird.’ I don’t think it’s weird. But later so many people go, ‘Man, you’re so effin’ right.’
That’s the hardest thing you have to learn. Hey, there’s always someone talking. Especially nowadays on the internet. Have one finger, can spout crap. That’s why they’re on the internet doing it with one finger — so they can pop pimples with the others. [laughs]
Hey, I’m a writer on the internet! Some of us are responsible I swear.
Believe it or not —
It’s a stereotype but it’s fair, too. I was talking to someone from a band that put out a record last year. Somebody wrote about how it sucked and blah blah blah. The person [whom I spoke to] asked ‘How much did you pay? I’ll send you your money back.’ The guy replied, ‘I didn’t buy it! I downloaded it!’ [laughs] This fuckin’ idiot is talking all this shit and he didn’t even buy the record. I just chuckled. I laugh that someone actually thinks that matters. They have nothing else to do but [talk shit on the internet]. I’m sure when we put out a record, we’ll start getting that crap too [laughs].
Suicidal Tendencies always courted confrontation. You actually responded to opponents by name in songs. In any way, did you validate their arguments by giving them space in your music?
Not really. I think the whole point I was making was bigger than it was. Some people say, ‘Oh, “Send Me Your Money” there you go. You’re talkin’ crap about religious people and they talk about music.’ And I say, ‘Wait a second, what you’re getting is not getting the point. You’re sitting there saying, “See, they’re all bad,” but that’s what they’re saying about you. You’re saying they’re wrong [because] they don’t know you and they shouldn’t generalize, but you’re generalizing.’
I’m making a point that I think the responsibility is that when somebody does something wrong, they need to be called out. When you don’t call out the individuals, then everything else gets clouded with that crap. You walk into an outhouse, you’re going to smell like shit. You go to a club where everybody’s smoking, you’re going to smell like smoke whether you smoked or not. That’s kinda the thing. You have to be consistent all the way around. ‘How dare they call me bad?’ Well, how can you call anyone bad? That’s the point. You can’t make a statement about everything, cuz that’d be oversimplified — but those type of people should exist because then it makes it easier for people to have stereotypes without all kinds of different … race or nationality or whatever it is and stuff. So I think it’s a responsibility for most people to call their own people out. Know what I mean?
I think the Suicidal Tendencies message informed a lot of young people’s thinking. My attitude today is based in large part on what I’ve learned from Suicidal. Does that freak you out?
No, the best way I’d put that is this: My dad said to me a long time ago, ‘I can tell you everything you need to know, everything you should and shouldn’t do. But when a situation happens, you’re going to be there and you are going to make the call. What you do will not be based upon what I think you should do, it’s going to be your reaction, your strength or weakness or whatever. So, if you do good, I’m not taking credit for it. You deserve it. Just as if you do bad, it’s not my fault. I worked hard and told you all the things you need.’ And I think we’re all trying to make excuses.
Over the years, a lot of my friends have said, ‘You know what, if I had a dad like yours, I wouldn’t have had the troubles I had. I wouldn’t have been in jail, or had drug problems.’ Well, we don’t know if they would’ve. But they have that excuse, and that’s the whole thing we try to do. There’s a lot of ‘badness,’ a lot of really unfortunate things. A lot of people have a lot of crap happen, way way way more than they deserve. More than anyone deserves. And the way they handle it is amazing. There’s no place that says life is fair; it’s how you react to things. Some people get knocked down, and they just stay down. Some people get back up even though they’re gonna get knocked down again. They don’t know how many times they’ll go down, but they know they’ll get back up one more time than they get knocked down. I admire that.
So when someone says, ‘Aw dude, thank you so much. If it wasn’t for you, I wouldn’t — ‘ and I say, ‘Nah nah, I’m not taking credit. You take the credit because you did it. I wasn’t there. If you would’ve messed up and made the wrong call, I wouldn’t take the blame.’ It’s great, y’know. I got a closet [of stuff] from the old days that has literally thousands of graduation and wedding cards — all kinds of stuff — where people wrote ‘Oh you really helped me.’ I really appreciate the act of them doing that, but in the same sense, if somebody ended up in jail or something, it’s not my fault.
I hate myself for asking —
Well, that makes you normal.
[laughs] Thanks! But hey, you’ve got your family, you’ve got your life — is there any Suicidal stuff that you don’t relate to that well anymore?
Well, family is something that is always there. It’s something my dad said, in life you get a couple families. You have the one you’re born into, and you got no control over that. Your dad’s your dad; your mom’s your mom. Then when you get older, there’s a family you choose. A lot of times, it’s for the wrong decision — you sit by someone or you live by somebody. Then you get older, and as you get burned [for choosing people] based on something other than what kind of the person they are, you learn from that and start it all over. And hopefully you become a better brother, father, and [so on].
[Here, Mike is interrupted by his young son. — ADF]
You’re always going to have family, it’s just not always [made up of people] with your same DNA. Suicidal was like the second family I chose. My wife and my kids — that’s the final one. But you still have your other families — my dad, my brother, and that — and the Suicidal family.
You’ll have to humor me a bit on this next question, man.
Recently, some discussion has sprouted from The Big 4 activities, some of which concerns determining the other important American thrash bands. I’m firm in my belief that Suicidal is one of the most powerful and most daring. Is it a concern that Suicidal isn’t part of the discussion more? Did you feel like Suicidal was a part of that?
Not really. You look at the old metal magazines, and turning the pages, you’d see they all kinda look the same. When you saw a Suicidal picture, you stopped. It was the same thing with punk rock: We never really fit in and we weren’t really concerned about it. As times change, people change; a lot of the bands that are around now started off in their first photos wearing make-up and spandex. To me, it’s like crazy [laughs]. I never would’ve done it [laughs]. If someone had said, ‘Hey you can sell a million records if you wear this,’ I would’ve said, ‘Ah no thank you. It’s not worth it.’ [laughs] Now I got kids, [who’d say] ‘Daddy, what were you thinking?’ I got pictures of me as a little kid and I look like my dad, the way he dresses. I got my son now, and he dresses the way he wants, but he sees that his dad still dresses the same way. And I think that’s more important, to not change for someone.
It’s one thing to go to a funeral or wedding, where you dress appropriate. Fine. In life, if your success in a business means you have to dress a certain way, and that’s what you want to do, then fine. But as far as music … When I listen to music, I don’t sit there wondering how they dress. But I’ll see a picture of someone and think, ‘Man I don’t even want to listen to this.’ If that’s your presentation, I’ll know that there’s no substance; it’s a facade. Like at Universal Studios and you drive through the backlot, it looks like you’re in Paris and then New York City. But you look in back, and there are just 2×4’s holding it up. That’s what we stay away from in music. That facade. We do what we like and if you don’t like it, so what.
Then, Suicidal music was different because it was so personal. There was almost no monsters and demons stuff.
Yeah, with metal that talks about dragons and that … When I was a little kid, I saw my first person get shot. I just have to laugh at some of these bands, like, ‘I don’t know where you grew up or what you were smokin’ —
[laughs] ‘But you know what? It has nothing to do with life.’ That’s not a world I want to be a part of. And I understand. I mean, we don’t sit around talking about a lot of the stuff we’ve seen. We talk more about that I know. At 16, when I first started the band, that’s something I did that I know my kids will get and that I’ll never be embarrassed of. I talk to people who weren’t born yet 15 years ago or whatever, and they’re like, ‘Wow. This is cool.’ Not like, ‘This is this old, or that old.’ That’s how we judge good music. At any particular time, you can go back and see what was selling on Billboard and try to mimic that. That’s not what we want to do. We want to do something that people will want to hear years later too. Something that’s not just ear candy, but it’ll sink in every time they hear it.
My connection to Suicidal Tendencies music is the same as ever. So I hear what you’re saying about Suicidal music’s timelessness.
Definitely. Like I said, everybody has different definitions of success. That’s one of our definitions of success. It wouldn’t matter if you sold three million records in your first week if it’s like Milli Vanilli [which] no one listens to anymore. And we’re a band that never set out to sell a million records; we got a few gold records. That was something we never believed was possible. So in that sense, it’s cool.
But on the other side, you ask me what’s the coolest thing if you look back, and I think the coolest thing is stuff like the Suicidal shoe. I started this band when I was school; when I was young, I got a new pair of pants and a new pair of shoes every year. I always got Vans. If someone had told me when I was 12 years old that someday I’d have a model of Vans shoes, I’d go ‘Yeah right!’ Like the first Infectious Grooves record which Ozzy sings on. If you’d say to me when I was a kid with all the little stoners playing Black Sabbath, ‘Hey Mike, by the way one day you’ll be doing a song with Ozzy and a tour with him.’ I’d say ‘Yeah right!’ If I was told that I’d get a few gold records, I’d be like, ‘You’re the devil. Stay away from me. I don’t want nothing to do with you’ [laughs].
Mike Muir’s The Mad Mad Muir Musical Tour is available October 11 on Suicidal Records. Pre-order here.