Mike Muir of Suicidal Tendencies: The Hellbound interview

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By Justin M. Norton, Photos by Pep Williams Photography

Suicidal Tendencies
frontman Mike Muir has spent his entire adult life singing about depression, despair and alienation. Strangely enough, his music has reached a worldwide audience. The band’s trademark song “Institutionalized,” has appeared in more television shows and movies than we can count. Even the most popular cheerleader from your high school could bust out a few verses from “I Saw Your Mommy.” Their self-titled first album is a classic, the rare record that pushes past extreme music circles and reaches a much larger and more diverse audience. Suicidal shows are also legendary for their intense pits and moshing. Muir’s perpetual stay-positive sermons, delivered during nearly every performance, are strangely uplifting. Muir almost seems to tell the crowd that it’s o.k. to think the world is completely screwed — that the challenge is to continue to believe in your individual gifts. His message is delivered without any therapy-style language or Dr. Phil bullshit. It’s just Cyco Miko speaking to some old friends.

Despite flirting with the mainstream in the early 1990s, the sole remaining member of Suicidal Tendencies has remained true to his hardscrabble Venice Beach, Ca., roots and the music he has performed for more than a half century. But Muir was convinced several years ago that it might be time to hang up the trademark bandana due to excruciating back pain. After successful back surgery he’s mobile and performing again and talking about Suicidal’s first-ever DVD release, Live At The Olympic Auditorium, which was shot in 2005.

Muir spoke to Hellbound recently about the band’s new DVD release; how he considers Suicidal Tendencies a “family” band and what it’s like to perform old material a decade into the new century. The band will be releasing re-recorded No Mercy songs and tracks from the Join The Army this year. Muir says he hopes the latest lineup of Suicidal Tendencies will have new material written for an album by year’s end.

Hellbound: Considering the band’s long history, why did it take so long to finally put out a DVD?

Mike Muir: There’s two parts. One, you never do something just to do it. The timing had to be right. I also had back surgery so it set us back quite a bit.

I got a call (a few years ago) about putting on a show at the Olympic Auditorium in Los Angeles. It featured punk rock shows and even roller derbies; it was just this big brick building. They hadn’t had shows in a while and a Korean church was set to buy it and turn it over. We had one last chance to do a show there or it would never happen. We said we’d do it and film it because in a few years it won’t exist.

We had done a show a week before in Colombia in front of 10,000 people. Two days before the show at the Olympic I woke up and couldn’t walk. I started telling everyone “this ain’t good.” But because of the circumstances it wasn’t something we could reschedule. People kept asking if it was bad and I was like “yeah, I can’t stand up!”

Hellbound: How did you get through the show?

Muir: Adrenaline and a whole lot of pain. There was no option. We couldn’t reschedule. The morning after the show they dragged me down for an MRI and said you need to have surgery. A lot of people now say they couldn’t tell (I was in pain) when they watch the performance. But I thought it was the last show I would be able to do so I was glad we filmed it.

We were never in a rush to put this out. We kept getting calls for shows after that. But your body needs to be into it, your heart needs to be into it and your family needs to be into it. I got a call (a few years later) about a festival in Australia. My surgeon said go ahead and do it.

I was prepared for there to be no more Suicidal shows. So we started rehearing two years ago. When we did the first few shows we sort of took it easy to see how it went. Then we got some more opportunities for festivals and started doing those. We started getting out there and letting people see Suicidal again. The last two years we’ve been playing a lot of places and building back up and we’re excited about the future. We’re excited about putting out some releases.

Hellbound: You mentioned on the new DVD that you will try to put together another DVD package that properly chronicle’s the bands history. Where do things stand on that?

Muir: The music industry is messed up. In 1991, they did a VHS of a few videos we had, but we had a lot more. We’ve talked to the people at Sony. You get to the point where you think someone is going to do it and they get fired. Because the majority of the stuff was done when we were on Sony we can’t just put it out. Hopefully in another year or so they will let us do it.

Hellbound: The band’s history is so long and runs alongside the history of hardcore so there is a lengthy story to tell…

Muir: People who also see stuff now might not realize watching our videos what was going on at the time and what was up with music. A lot of people perform music based on what people are buying and want to hear.

Our first record came out, and after that we’d get flack on every album. Our first record is considered a punk rock classic now but a lot of people back then were saying that Suicidal was the worst thing to ever happen to punk rock. Punk rockers said we weren’t punk and we didn’t give a fuck. Suicidal has always stuck out. We weren’t trying to fit in. We weren’t trying to fit in with punk or metal. A lot of bands keep doing the same thing over and over and I never liked that.

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Hellbound: The crowd on the DVD looks to be a real cross-generational mix – is that what you see when Suicidal plays now, people who’ve been with you from the beginning and those that just picked up on the band?

Muir: We did a show in San Jose (California ) last year and there was six generations of a family. That was the coolest thing. It was funny because the great grandfather finally came and they said he was the lone holdout. There were 27 people from the same family. There were kids and uncles and we did a family photo. It’s cool that we’re still able to offer people a chance to see us and remind them why they like us. It often feels like a family reunion where everyone gets together. It’s really cool and it couldn’t happen to a brand new band.

Is it ever difficult to perform songs written decades ago or does the material move you enough that it comes naturally?

If you went to a show now you wouldn’t say “that song is 28 years old” or “that song is 13 years old.” When the first record came out everyone talked shit. When Join The Army came out all the punk fanzines said we weren’t punk.

Change is a word that is used and misused a lot. But change for the sake of change doesn’t make sense. I’d rather do something from back in the day that people are still listening to today. Suicidal has made changes, but we’ve never tried to fit into musical trends or the way people dress. We’ve always dressed the way we did when we grew up. It wasn’t a fashion show. We got the lesson that life wasn’t a fashion show. We never wanted to be followers and we never wanted to be leaders. We wanted to make sure people had the ability to lead themselves.

Is the Mike Muir people see on stage a direct reflection of who you are in your private life when you aren’t playing music?

The only difference is that there are a lot of people and I’m holding a microphone. When some bands go on stage they put on makeup and a persona but that’s not Suicidal. If you see pictures of me when I’m a kid that’s the way we are today. We didn’t feel we needed to change or have people like us or the way we look. Why would I wear makeup? That doesn’t make any sense where I come from. Suicidal can even be at a skate park and go play a set .

Is it ever tough to hear from people who revere the band’s first album but don’t check out the newer material? How many fans do you think have stuck around for the entire journey?

The majority of the people got into the band with How Can I Laugh Tomorrow When I can’t Even Smile Today? If they were 16 when that came out it’s their favorite record. A lot of it is based on time.

Sean is the founder/publisher of Hellbound.ca; he has also written about metal for Exclaim!, Metal Maniacs, Roadburn, Unrestrained! and Vice.