Suicidal Tendencies' Mike Muir on being on Miami Vice and tangling with the Secret Service
Over the weekend, Suicidal Tendencies played to a packed house at the Summit Music Hall. Before that, we had a chance to chat with the band's founding frontman, Mike Muir, the sole continuous member of the group, about how he first got into punk, how his group has successfully straddled the divide between metal and hardcore, how Suicidal ended up on an episode of Miami Vice, and he also shared some of the wit and wisdom he gained from his father.
Inspired by the music he learned of through his older brother Jim, one of the stars of the emerging SoCal skate culture, Muir formed Suicidal Tendencies in 1981 with some friends. The outfit, which went on to become one of the most commercially successful hardcore and punk bands of the era, first earned notoriety when its iconic song "Institutionalized" was included in the soundtrack for the cult classic film Repo Man. ST was never just a punk band; it straddled the divide between punk, metal and funk in a way like pretty much no other band had then or since.
The group's big breakthrough to a mainstream came, paradoxically, with the release of what is considered its most experimental album, 1992's The Art of Rebellion, which featured the songs like "Nobody Hears" and "I'll Hate You Better." Suicidal Tendencies took a hiatus in the mid-'90s but re-emerged later in that decade and been going strong ever since, including its latest release, 13, the thirteenth album of the band's career.
Westword: Your brother Jim was part of the Dogtown skateboarding team. How did the culture of skating impact the kind of music you made early on?
Mike Muir: [It affected that] in so many ways. My brother is five years older than me, but when we grew up, we didn't have Playstations and X-Boxes and all of that. We didn't have cable TV. We had three or four channels. Cell phones? No. No one had camera. If you had a camera, you were rich. The thing that you don't realize, that kind of gets across, is that now people see so much of what they do as for how it's going to look on Instagram, or a for a post on Facebook, or this or that. They're doing it for the reactions from other people.
With my brother [and his friends], if they did something, and it didn't work, they did it again because they wanted to accomplish it. You see people now, and they're filming and looking at it later, and, "Oh, oh, let's do it from this angle again." You know what I mean? It's different.
Not to be critical or to say that technology is bad because that's not the point. But there's [something to be said for] when you do something because it's a feeling, a drive, a passion you have within yourself rather than waiting for the reaction. It doesn't matter if it's 50,000 people in Yankee Stadium or you're just there by yourself kind of thing.
I think that's one of the things with them: They weren't following the path because the path hadn't been made yet. They were the first people that said, "Hey let's empty out the pool and try to skate it. That's crazy, but because of that, you'll see commercials where people are skating. It's interesting when people do things just as a challenge to themselves to accomplish it for no other financial reward, just for the satisfaction [of having done it]. That carries over into your life. That came across really well.
It also had a lot to do with my dad. My dad, like a lot of people, they kind of push their kids in a direction that they wish they could have done or been better at or want them to do. They want to live their life again vicariously through their kids. My dad never pushed us in any direction. If there was an opportunity or something, it was like, "Do you wanna do it? Fine. It's your choice."
My brother ended up being a pro skateboarder. I backed into doing music because I didn't really have an interest in it. My dad always says, when people ask him about it, "I didn't want them to be anything; I just wanted them to be happy." I think that's the thing: just to let people find where they have a passion.
When people find a passion for something, to get back to the point, for the right reason, great things happen. When they do things for other people's attention, that affects the way they think. And I think that greatly limits it because it gets back to the point that most people won't understand, and they won't support it. If I was brought up [thinking I had to document and post my activities], I would probably think that way and not even know it. So I try to make that point every now and then.
What was your introduction to the punk world in terms of going to see shows and being involved in it?
Again, it was through my brother. There was the Marina Del Rey Skate Park that my brother helped to design. They started doing punk shows and stuff. I remember going to my brother's house, and on there, "Punk is Bunk," to all of a sudden seeing him with crazy, short, dyed black hair when he had reddish blond hair. Six foot three looking insane and a huge trench coat. I was like, "Whoa, what happened to 'Punk is Bunk?'"
It was funny because when we were young, everybody had long hair, so when someone came back from summer vacation and their hair was short, we used to say, "P.O.P." There's Pacific Ocean Park, and we used that expression, too. But P.O.P., in this case, was "Parent Or Punk." Why did you cut your hair? Did you get in trouble. A lot of parents, that was the thing if you didn't good grades or whatever it was. It became more and more the latter, the punk, rather than the trouble.
My one friend was so cool; he said, "Man, I've been working at this a long time getting in trouble, trying to do the big one." We'd be like, "We're shaving your head!" So they did it, and he grabbed a safety pin and put it through his lip: "Thank you, you've made my dream come true." It was hilarious.
It seems as though the number 13 has been associated with you as a performer, and the name of your latest album is 13. What is the significance of that number to you?
Right now it's 2013, and it's our first album in thirteen years, it's our thirteenth record, thirteen new songs. Sometimes we navigate toward it and sometimes it just finds its way. In Japan, my room was 1313. I didn't ask for it but it's what I got. We were talking thirteen with Japanese friends, and, "Oh, in America in a lot of hotels you don't have a thirteenth floor?"
They said, "Oh, really? In Japan it's the fourth floor. Because four is the number of death." Then we were sitting there going, "I wonder how many countries have different numbers for that sort of thing." If you wanted an international elevator with all the numbers, there wouldn't be any floors, I think, because everything's taboo.
I didn't really understand that when I was young, when people were like, "Oh, thirteen, Friday the thirteenth, watch out!" And then say, "See what happened?" If that happened any other day, you'd wipe your pants off, get up and not think twice about it. To me, it kind of signifies giving power to things that they shouldn't.
In sports I always try to pick thirteen. Not to say it's an empowering, but I think it is when you say, "You know what? I'm going to be in control. No taboos or numbers or anything like that. If you have an issue with it? That's your issue, but don't bring your issues on me." I think it's a small thing that I hope carries over into a bigger message.
A lot of people were probably surprised by what they might consider a big shift in the band's sound with Join the Army. But you'd been into metal and hard rock from a young age. Why do you feel punk and metal go together?
When we came out, it didn't, and I didn't necessarily understand. When you said I was into metal -- I wasn't really into metal. My brother, being five years older than me, at Christmas time, he'd buy me a record, UFO and Black Sabbath, not because he thought I liked it. It was so he would have the records. Paranoid? What's this?
I bypassed a lot of pop music that other people I guess had, and to me, when I heard Hendrix and those sorts of things, it was such a different feel than when someone is going "Baby, Baby, Baby" on the radio. It was a different kind of heaviness. I think that that's the one thing that I got into that I appreciated -- the heaviness of things, not just the tempo. There are some slow songs that are, to me, very heavy. Even in the old days, not what they call slow and heavy now. It got on you and weighed there on you.
With Join the Army people talked about how it sucked and the first one was the classic. But those were the same punk fanzines and the metal fanzines when our first record came out -- they all said it sucked. The punk 'zine said, "It sucks; it's metal." And the metal one said, "It sucks; it's punk."
Four years later, it became a punk rock classic, and we went metal when they said we were metal in the first place. When we did How Will I Laugh Tomorrow When I Can't Even Smile Today, it was like, "Oh, they did a punk rock class with Join the Army and now they do this heavy metal crap."
Every album we did was different and the record they put down at the time, and when we did the next record, somehow the record they said sucked is great." I think what it is is, you know, people listen for what they want, what they expect. "Is the new record metal? Is it punk?"
I've already had people who told me they couldn't listen to How Will I Laugh, and years later, come back and say, "I love that record." I think they listened to what they thought it was going to be, and it wasn't, so they didn't hear what it was. I've already had people do something similar with this record. When you get away from styles and people listen to it for what it is, they think there's cool stuff on there.
We know that in 2013, it doesn't matter what people say now. We want to do a record that doesn't fit into 2013 as a timepiece, where people, ten or twenty years from now, and they do the old Flock of Seagulls scene. We don't want our record to represent 2013, when people are laughing.
But twenty years from now and people that aren't even born when they hear it for the first time, [we hope] will go, "Wow, that's a great record." Because they'll be listening to it for what it is, not, "Is it punk, is it metal, is it thrash." They're not going to worry about titles. They're going to judge it for when they hear. Just as now, when kids now hear our first record, they listen and go, "Whoa, that's killer." Not, "Oh, punk rock!"
You were already into funk when you were a teenager with Parliament. How did Robert Trujillo turn you on to funk even more?
He didn't really. When he got into the band I asked to hear his old bands, he said, "Oh we didn't do anything." He wouldn't let me hear those bands. But eventually did, and it was very of the time. It sounded like what Scritti Politti was doing. I said, "You know what? It already sounds dated, but the bass is really cool. Why don't we eliminate that other stuff that fits into that style where you're going for a particular audience and let's work some songs around some crazy ass bass lines and write music around that?
We got together, and he got some of his friends, and that's how I met Dean [Pleasants], and I got some of my friends and some people that could understand it. We wanted to make something centered around the bass and powerful and musically good. With rock, especially old rock, you can name a handful of bass players if that. Bass was just kind of there if you heard it and it wasn't a virtuoso kind of thing.
You guys were on an episode of Miami Vice. How did that come about?
That's kind of funny because I got a phone call, and [someone said] Miami Vice called and they want you to call. I was like, "Pht, yeah. All right." Our friends were joking all the time, and at that time Miami Vice was the most popular show, and I used to trip out because afterwards people would talk about it. I think it was on at eight o'clock on Fridays. "What the hell are you doing at home at nine o'clock on a Friday watching Miami Vice?"
I get these calls, and I'm there, and I think someone thinks they're funny and have nothing to do. So this person says, "Hey Mike, I'm the production manager of Miami Vice, and we would really love to get you on an episode." And I say, "Oh, yeah, we would love to be on that, too. That sounds fabulous. How's Donnie doing?" They say, "Will you be available. We can get the tickets to you and have a messenger bring them over. You'll fly out Thursday morning."
A little while later, someone comes with a delivery. What the fuck? I look and go, "Either someone's got fucking deep pockets to do an elaborate trick and they're really trying to get us. Or wait, this might be legit. The tickets were in there. You couldn't really go on the Internet and check things out back then. So I went, "Hey you know what? I think this is real!"
The funniest thing was they had this wardrobe, and they had certain colors they only wore. They talked about all these people when they're on the show, and they said, "We really want you to feel comfortable and you can pick out whatever outfits you want. We'll see you on the other side when you're done."
We went in there and came out wearing the exact same stuff. They went, "Maybe you didn't understand the concept." Oh, your clothes, did you leave them in there?" We said, "No, we're wearing them right now. We're happy the way we look." That was the only time that anyone went and didn't take advantage of their vast wardrobe.
Over the years, so many people have said, "Dude, three in the morning, had cable on, and all of a sudden, I was like, 'Wait, that's Mike! What the fuck?'" And I go, "What the fuck are you doing watching Miami Vice at three in the morning for?" I think for us a lot of people at the time talked shit. But like my dad said, "You know what, if you don't do anything, someone else is going to do it. Nothing ever gets done."
It's like the five foot guy that sits around and says, "Dunking is stupid." I know where that's coming from. But the five foot three that slam dunks and then says, "But what is that really to me?" I give that person respect.
You've been very vocal in your criticism of the PMRC and that whole phenomenon in general. How has that affected what you've done, if it has? There's that rumor about how you changed the title of "I Shot Reagan" to "I Shot the Devil".
That's not true. The Secret Service actually came to my house because of that song, and I had to do this handwriting analysis thing, and I signed releases, so they could get my mental health history, which I didn't have any, and I was supposed to notify them if I went to Washington D.C. before going there and all this kind of stuff. Yeah, nah, nothing like that happened.
But with the PMRC and things like that, there are certain people that stepped up to try and get a platform. They went after me, and I basically just shut it down. I went to a TV show with Tipper Gore, who said [I was telling people this and that]. I said, "Hold on one second. You show me where I said that. We have lyric sheets in all our albums. Show me where I say that, or don't say I said that." At the end of the show, she said, "Well, there's other bands that are saying things like that."
We did a record called Feel Like Shit...Déja Vu; it was an EP. At the time, it was CBS before Sony bought it out. The head of sales at Sony got all panicked up and called our manager, and they talked to me and said, "Aw, the PMRC called up." I guess gave them a list of all the records coming out. "We've gotta change the name."
I said, "Okay, let's take step back for a second. Half the stores don't carry our records because of the name Suicidal Tendencies. A lot more are not going to carry it because it says, 'Feel Like Shit.' It's not going to be in stores. What will happen is that they get up there and holding up the record like 2 Live Crew and say, 'Don't but this. Don't let your kids buy this.'
We then become cigarettes at the liquor store. Everyone will want to have it? Why? To piss off their parents. That's not what we want our music to be. We want people to like our music because when they hear it, they get that feeling that we got before we were in a band and heard something and said, 'Yeah, that's badass!'
The other thing is, with the name Suicidal Tendencies, all the talk shows, everybody is going to want to be flying me all over to do these TV shows. Dude, I'm not Luther Campbell. I will go up there, and I will, as my dad said, when you want to communicate speak the language of the people you want to get across to, speak to Midwest America.
I don't think they want that. If they want to have a war, they better understand what they're getting into. I don't want that war. I don't like them. I don't respect them. I'm not here to sell records, I'm here to do music that I love." They backtracked from it. I think that's the thing when people talk about wars.
Some people like to pick battles so it looks good. It's really a shame that there were so many bands that put out album covers they knew would not be able to get into stores. Then they would complain, and this and that, but wow, funny this when artwork takes all this time to do, and it used to take a lot longer.
On Hair they had the alternative artwork to go into all the stores. It was a marketing thing and it's a shame that a lot of labels and a lot of bands use it as a marketing thing to sell. That's what a sellout is. The truth isn't always the best story, you know?
A lot of people have covered your music over the years, and last year, Amanda Palmer covered "Institutionalized." How have you felt about people covering your music?
I think there are a couple of approaches. Obviously you don't know why someone does something. But if someone's doing it for the right reasons, and the right reasons for them, and they're doing their own take on it, that's cool. Who am I to say? I really don't think about that too much.
A number of your songs over the years have dealt with depression and alienation. Presumably that comes from a personal place. What are some of the most enduringly and reliably effective ways you have for dealing with those kinds of feelings?
I had back surgery, and they say, "What's your pain between one and ten?" Someone else might say, "Eleven! Eleven!" I said, "Maybe four or five." The next day, when the neurosurgeon came in, he said, "Wow, they didn't give you any of the pain stuff." I said, "What pain stuff? They never said anything." He said, "You push this button here." And I thought, "That's what that dude was doing!" I thought about it and it's all perspective.
Our first show was in San Francisco, and I have a friend who is from Poland: He won the lottery, came to America and left his family and everything. He had no money, he ended up meeting a girl, having a baby and finding out when she was pregnant that she had a heart problem and they thought they might have to abort the baby because the mom would die. The mom did not want to kill the baby. She felt she would rather die than that.
Then they told her if she died, the baby would die. Against incredible odds the baby was born. She was from Brazil, and she had to wait to get the procedure done because she couldn't get it here. So he can't see his daughter; his mom is in Poland dying of cancer. He goes through that, does fine, comes back four months later, and he can't leave because he's here and he has to stay here with the green card. With all of that stuff, he's got a smile on his face. He says, "Everything is good. I've got the right people, and I'm doing everything I can, and that's all you can do."
Like my dad says: If you look outside, you're going to find a lot of sad. That doesn't take any skill. It doesn't take talent. But to find the good? That's where there's the skill; that's where there's the talent. People think it's so little compared to the bad. Not to sound all foofy or whatever, but it's like a seed. You put it in the ground, and you water it until it becomes this tree, and you get all this fruit.
When you're eating the fruit, you don't appreciate it, but there was a lot of time and effort that went into everything. I think we train ourselves to see the bad and to dwell on the bad because the bad gives us the excuse of why we're not doing better at life. And "better" goes down to definitions. My dad said: "Don't ever confuse your definitions with someone else's. Don't let their definition of success and happiness and be the barometer. It's what you feel inside.
When you have so many people who sit there and are like, "Aw, man, things are tough, and this and that." I go, "Hold on. Is there something you really want to do? So what have you done about it?" "No." "So what you're saying is you don't want to do it?" "No, that's what I really want to do." "Tell me one thing you've done to get there." "Oh, it's really hard." "So you don't really want to do."
And you sit there and you say, "What the fuck is wrong with you?" Not in a judgmental sense, but we train ourselves to sit there. I don't believe in depression. I don't believe it in the sense of what other people's definitions are. There was a time I didn't want to leave my room for a long time. But it wasn't because of a situation -- I was recharging. I don't like this. I'm going to feel this because I don't I like it.
When I got out of the hospital, I didn't get a prescription. My dad always said: "Pain is a good thing. It's telling you you're doing something you shouldn't be doing." When you take a drug or you self-medicate and you mask it and when you can't walk and all of a sudden, "Wow, I'm walking" -- you're doing damage because your body is giving you that pain to tell you you're not ready to walk.
When you go to physical therapy and they tell you to do ten, I say, "Tell me when to stop. Tell me when I'm doing too much. I'm not going to do six because I don't want to live life this way. I don't want the pain. I can deal with it but I don't want to. I want to be happy and I don't want to be Mr. Facade that puts on a smile because I don't want people to know what's going on inside.
The white picket fence people. There's no difference with the tattoos and the facade. The punk rock version of the white picket fence. It's covering up on the outside what's on the inside. My dad says he doesn't deny the truth but he does not give power to the truth that should not be.
The thirtieth anniversary of the release of your debut album is in July. What keeps you excited to keep doing music today?
We never got so many emails for this tour from kids saying, "Oh, it's my first show. I'm going with my uncle or my mom or dad," to people saying, "You know what? Twenty years ago, you were the first show I went to. Or I went to bunch of shows and I saw Suicidal, and I want my kids' first show to be Suicidal." I think that's great.
At one show, this girl said, "Could you please sign this?" I said, "Of course." "It's for my mom, she loves you." I laughed and went, "Your mom loves me?" "Oh, I love you, too, but she's loved you longer." It's gone from people sneaking out of the house and getting into trouble to seeing the show with your mom and stuff. I think that's really cool.
In San Francisco, there's this family that every where we'd go there was a tradition of getting a family picture and over the years the little ones have risen above me. In Arizona we played a show, and there were 27 people that were all related from the Indian reservation. I said, "Wait, where I come from, we have what we call 'play cousins' where you're not related but you say you're related.'" They said, "Nah, we're all related." I think things like that are cool because family is something very important to me.
My dad said: "In life you have three families. I'm always going to be your dad, and your mom is going to be your mom, and your brothers and sisters -- you can switch them and trade them like baseball cards. You're going to have to deal with things and make things work and put up with some stuff you don't like and compromise.
The next one is the family you choose, like your friends. The last one is when you get married and you have kids and you re-do that. Then you learn from your mistakes and not repeat them. I feel very blessed with the family I was born with and through to my own [immediate] family.
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