Modern music is too safe for Suicidal Tendencies’ Mike Muir
[Photos by Lightbox Revelation]
Formed in Venice, California, in 1980, Suicidal Tendencies instantly became a presence in the American punk scene by simply being themselves. More metallic than the average punk band, more punk than most metal bands and always beholden to their roots and culture, Suicidal created their own playbook within the genre before eventually cross-pollinating into metal, thrash and the mainstream. Part of their initial shock-and-awe was that they looked more like a Latino gang than a band—something that would later become the hallmark look of many hip-hop acts in the mid/late-’80s.
For Suicidal, it’s been a journey led by their admittedly headstrong singer Mike Muir, younger brother of infamous original Z-Boy Jim Muir. Throughout their trip on indies, majors, big-box tours and notorious divey clubs, and members who’ve gone on to play with anyone from Metallica to Prince, they have always grounded their identity as being the outsiders of the outsiders while maintaining a connection to their Dogtown origins.
With the release of their new LP World Gone Mad, they’ve not only added to their canon, but tapped longtime friend Dave Lombardo (Slayer, Fantomas, Misfits) to join the ST army on drums. We spoke to Muir in between dates on their current tour to discuss Suicidal’s legacy, getting Lombardo in the fold and the state of independent music through the eyes of an artist that’s been entrenched in it for over 30 years.
Suicidal was one of the first bands to blend skating, punk, graffiti and real Venice street culture. What was it like being somewhat of an outlier band?
Whenever you do something first, people are not going to like you. All the punk fanzines said our first record was terrible—it sucked, we were weren’t punk rock. All the metal magazines said the same thing. Then years later it became a punk rock classic. When you do things differently, people don't immediately appreciate it—it makes them uncomfortable. We didn’t dress the way other people did. It's funny that with punk rock, they talk about non-conformity, but they want you to conform. I remember someone that was in one of the “big bands” back in the day saying, “Mike, you're actually pretty good, but you’ll never do anything looking like that.”
I'm looking at him with eyeliner and his leather jacket, thinking, “Dude, you look like you're dressed up for Halloween! This is the way that we are.” I said, “Dress the way we do, think the way we do and then you’re an individual? I lost that somewhere.”
My brother was an original Z-Boy in Dogtown. That generation came in and basically changed skateboarding. They dressed differently and did things differently, so I learned from them. Most people didn’t even have cameras then, so it wasn't something you did and then you look at it and then try it from another angle. You did it because you felt it inside, not to see how someone reacts to a picture. I was brought up knowing if you don't like yourself, then you're in trouble. We just mixed all that together and said, “Hey, do you want to be like everybody else or do your own thing?”
Skateboarders were the first people that got into the band, that didn't sit there and go, “What kind of music is this?” They just connected to it and thought it was great to skate to. We were inducted into the Skateboard Hall Of Fame this year, which is a really amazing thing for us.
Suicidal was recently described as the “sound of Dogtown.” Before you guys started, what was the Dogtown sound to you?
If you look at the old skateboard magazines, [the fashion] was a very short-shorts kind of thing—neon clothes—and Suicidal came and it kind of changed it. And you know, I was the first person that was on the cover of Thrasher that wasn’t a pro skater. My brother and his friends listened to Black Sabbath—a lot of the heavier music at the time—then punk rock into Black Flag and more aggressive music. They were never into the pop-punk kind of thing—it was the heaviest kind of music that was around.
When our first record came out, I remember hearing people play it at a contest and at first it wasn’t well received. It was like, “Oh, these are the derelicts! These are the worst!”
The old skateboard contests, they tried to run them very smoothly and very professionally. It was like, “Oh my god, what's going on? This is going to kill the sport!” A lot of people thought the influence of punk on skating back then was really bad. I thought that it gave skateboarding a breath of life, because it had a certain aggressiveness—it's a perfect soundtrack.
"At our early shows you’d see a lot of skaters, you’d see punk rockers, you’d see metal kids—it was a mixture. It was people that weren't worried about fitting in."
Suicidal was a hardcore punk band that crossed into the metal scene without trying to change. Did you feel more accepted by the metal scene than the punk scene?
Metal was going through the same change, with speed metal and thrash—a lot of people didn't like that. They thought it wasn't the purest. At our early shows you’d see a lot of skaters, you’d see punk rockers, you’d see metal kids—it was a mixture. It was people that weren't worried about fitting in.
We all came from different things too, so we weren't worried about trying to fit in. With Suicidal, no matter what we do, it's seamless. You don't think, “That's punk rock, that's metal”—we go side to side. We always said let’s not do a record for the time, let's just do a record that we think is timeless—that's not going to fit in.
One thing that stands out about the band is that you have this serious, powerful name, yet there was always some satire behind it—it cuts that seriousness.
They’ve been doing a lot of studies on it: when you have people that think the same way that are together, they get more extreme in their thinking. A lot of people don't want to be exposed to different thoughts, but I always liked having a contrarian view—the devil's advocate, so to speak. By hearing different things, that's how you learn. People don't realize there's a lot of ways of saying things and sometimes you've got to dig a little bit deeper. You have to have a little irony and hyperbole.
You go to Universal Studios and go on the tour. Then you’re in Paris and then you're in New York City—all these different places. But if you go behind the buildings there are two-by-fours holding it up. I think a lot of times, people are more concerned with the facade than what this structure is. As long as it looks good, you know? As my dad said, it's painting the house that has termites. It looks better, but it’s crumbling. I think people are more concerned with their uniform—the outside rather than the inside. Suicidal’s lyrics a lot of times have been the things that are a little deeper and make people a little more uncomfortable.
Along with the name and the lyrics, Suicidal really built an image with their album art, especially with the first record. Do you remember shooting that cover with Glen E. Friedman—were there other ideas that you scrapped?
There was something I read recently that said nowadays we use Photoshop and change things because we don’t like what they are, but when something is powerful, what is it? It wasn’t the photographer, it’s what it was. That’s one of the things people don’t get, because they don’t have a time machine. With where we were from, with Ric Clayton drawing on those shirts by hand, it was just a powerful thing. Even on the first record, people forget about it or they never notice that some of the shirts are misspelled. Some of the artwork isn’t great. People would be like, “Why would you put that on there?”
It doesn't matter how you spell it or if you can draw. It’s about doing something—when you get that feeling and you want to express yourself. That's what's really important. Coming from that generation where there was vinyl, and I guess now, but you used to go to the record store twice a week on the way home from school or something and maybe you bought a record once a month. You saved your money. You wanted to buy a record and feel like you are part of something.
"Now that music literally doesn't sell it, I think it's a great opportunity to do what you want. You don't have to worry about what people want, because they're not going to buy it anyhow."
Having been through so many changes in how we consume music, what’s the biggest difference you see today?
Well I think one of the big, obviously huge, differences is that when people started bands back in the day—“normal bands”—they had that dream to be big rock stars. Before we did our first record, one of my good friends came over and where I come from, you’re honest and don’t just tell people what they want to hear. He said, “Mike, man, you guys got a chance. You can make a record. Listen to the radio—you can do that! What you guys are doing is not music. You don’t think people are going to like it, do you?”
I said, “Well, I don't care if people like it—I like it.” I don't go to a restaurant and see someone liking a food and I eat it because they like it. If I don’t like it, I won’t keep eating.
Now that music literally doesn't sell it, I think it's a great opportunity to do what you want. You don't have to worry about what people want, because they're not going to buy it anyhow. People are still trying to do music for other people that don't exist. That's kind of sad. You would think that in this day and age, there would actually be some crazy new kind of music coming out, but it seems like music's even safer.
We’re lucky that we came through a generation where records didn't sell. When we started off, people bragged about selling a couple thousand records.
Do you remember the first time you saw Slayer?
Oh yeah, it was actually before the record was out in Orange County. Everybody where we are from didn’t define themselves, so we heard about a band and wanted to check it out for ourselves. We did a show called The Day In The Dirt in ’84 with Slayer up in Berkeley, California. It was the first time that Suicidal, Slayer, Exodus—a real mixture of bands at the time—played together. The first big tour we did was the Clash Of The Titans tour in Europe in 1990 with them.
Every night I would watch Dave play drums I just go, “This dude just kills it!” He’s not big or anything, but he just pounds. He's left-handed but he plays right-handed, so that’s part of the reason why he hits the snare so hard. I've always thought he was an amazing drummer.
I was doing an interview and someone was mentioning all these different people we’ve played with and the bands they’ve gone onto—obviously Robert [Trujillo, bass] and Metallica, Josh Freese and so many others. They asked who else would you want to play with and I said definitely Dave Lombardo. I was talking with my friends and it felt kind of like the guy that sat next to this girl that you like forever and you're kind of like, “Hey, you wanna get coffee? It’s not a date or anything, but if you want it to be, you know…”
When I asked him, I told him I really respected him and didn't want to put him on the spot, but would you ever consider playing drums for Suicidal?” I was ready to get, “It’s not you, it’s me,” but instead he said, “Fuck yeah!”
He’s got a super powerful rhythmic intensity that translates into whatever style he wants to do. Every night [we play] he is very serious; he goes, “Hey, I want to be the best show I ever did!” He’s got a great attitude and he doesn't want to live in the past, so I think that's one of the things that people definitely see when we do our show. You know we're not going through the motions. You know what they say: Sweat doesn't lie.
What are you most proud of on this record?
I think 10, 20 years from now, and long after we're doing any shows, there will be a new generation of people that will hear [this record] that I think they will get to be able to get a lot of the music.
For me, this was a very important record. We always try to have everything be a little bit different. Some people always try to do their formula or whatever. They do the same thing. I think records should be like chapters of a book. If you read the same chapter over and over 10 times, that doesn't really make a book, it just makes regurgitation. Well, for me I think this is the perfect record to end where we are or [give] us the option to continue on and maybe do another record. But we have to be realistic: There's a good chance this may be the last one. And if so, I think it can work as a bookend to a legendary career or another step to build off. alt