By Hillel Aron
By Joseph Tsidulko
By Patrick Range McDonald
By David Futch
By Hillel Aron
By Dennis Romero
By Jill Stewart
By Dennis Romero
“We were voted ‘Worst Band/Biggest Assholes’ in Flipside back in ’82, when we first started,” recalls Mike Muir, the elusive mastermind behind veteran thrashers Suicidal Tendencies. “But the thing with punk rock is, you break rules.”
From the start, Suicidal was all about breaking the rules, so the resistance they encountered throughout their career only fueled their ferocity. Their relentless resolve to prove themselves by doing things their way and their way only has resulted in a career that’s spanned almost two decades, and provides a perfect example of how to maintain musical integrity in the face of ever-evolving trends and record-company bureaucracies.
With more and more musicians choosing to forgo the compromises and restrictions that come with signing to a major, or even indie, label, Muir’s tenacious approach to his art — one that now includes his own label, Suicidal Records — is something anyone can learn from. His experiences with record companies, from small independent (Frontier), to distribution-business-turned-label (Caroline), to big, corporate entity (CBS, which merged with Epic, Columbia and, later, Sony), have always been filled with struggle, even if each release did respectable sales numbers.
“The contradiction in music is that most musicians are trying to give people what they think they’re gonna like,” says Muir, taking a break from recording on a recent spring evening. “We started in the ’hood in Venice, when, like, Boy George and all that stuff was going on, and we weren’t trying to be a ‘band.’ I never gave anybody a demo. We were just having fun.”
Still, more and more people wanted to join in the band’s fun, so when the parties Suicidal threw to pay rent started to get out of control, they moved on to playing halls, and eventually got on bills with equally chaotic groups such as Minor Threat and the pre–Henry Rollins Black Flag.
Soon Frontier Records, whose roster at the time included the Circle Jerks, approached the band about putting out a record. Muir won’t say why Suicidal didn’t stay with the label after the smashing success of their pounding, eponymous ’83 debut — which sold more than 100,000 copies — except that “In general, people look at you as a commodity. My whole thing is, I don’t care about making money for other people.”
After frequent play on KROQ, sparked by Rodney Bingenheimer giving it a spin on his show, Suicidal’s single “Institutionalized” became a bona-fide hit. Despite their scruffy skater look — including gang-style fashion statements such as bandanas and baggy pants — the band became video darlings, and the verse “All I wanted was a Pepsi” was burned into the brains of disenfranchised kids everywhere. No endorsement offers for soft drinks followed, but the majors did come a-callin’.
“They were trying to get us to change our name, and then telling us to change our look, and then to make our music more accessible,” says Muir about the whole “wine and dine” period. “Plus, they were giving us ridiculous offers. But we knew what we were worth.”
So did Caroline, which at the time was looking to expand its role as a distributor and create a label. S.T. signed a lucrative deal with the company, releasing the one-off Join the Army in 1987, which broke the Billboard Top 100.
Once again, the biggies came knocking. “We knew this cool guy at Epic,” says Muir. “We felt that it was the label we should be on, and when I went down there, I actually thought, ‘You know, this isn’t as corporate as I thought it would be.’ There was a meeting, and the head of the label said, ‘People may not understand this at first, but this is the future. We’ve got a bunch of old stagnant rock, and things are gonna change, and yours is the band to do it.’ We were like, ‘Wow, that’s crazy,’ especially back then in ’87.”
The band felt good about Epic, and then, as happens in the game of musical chairs that is the record industry, the label guy who had seemed to appreciate what they were all about unexpectedly left. “All of a sudden, all the bands that got signed were put on hold, and this new guy comes in who doesn’t have a clue,” says Muir. Yet Suicidal had “complete artistic freedom” written into their contract (a condition that Muir claims they were the first to get in writing), so when it came time to finally record their major-label debut album, How Will I Laugh Tomorrow When I Can’t Even Smile Today, they had the creative control to make the music they wanted.
The band went on to release more records with CBS/Epic, including the EP Controlled by Hatred . . . Feel Like Shit . . . De Ja Vu and the full-lengths Lights Camera Revolution, The Art of Rebellion, Still Cyco After All These Years and Suicidal for Life. Muir also made two albums with his groundbreaking, funked-out side project Infectious Grooves, The Plague That Makes Your Booty Move . . . It’s the Infectious Groovesand Sarsippius’ Ark.
Muir’s relationship with Epic may have been a long-standing one, but it wasn’t without conflict. The band still had to fight for their more explicit song and album titles (not an easy thing, considering many of their releases came out during the Parents Music Resource Center uproar), not to mention the funds needed for promotional items such as videos. The glam-metal craze made things even more difficult. “They actually said, ‘Every dollar we spend on Suicidal is money we can’t spend on Danger Danger,’” recalls Muir incredulously.