“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 Grooves and 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.
After years of constantly clashing with record execs and long, draining tours with the likes of Ozzy Ozbourne and Metallica, Muir started to become disillusioned with the whole rock-star thing, and Suicidal broke up in ’94.
“I felt like a prostitute,” says Muir. “I found myself going, ‘I’m in front of 20,000 people every night, but I would turn my head if I saw any of ’em on the street.’”
Two long years later, the band regrouped and began touring again. Their contract with Epic was kaput, capped by the label’s final S.T. release, a retrospective called Prime Cuts. The next logical step for Suicidal was to release their new material, and despite past experiences with record companies, they did meet with a few. In the end, though, they decided to start from scratch and release their music through Suicidal Records. Not that this was a new endeavor — back before it was common for bands to self-release records, Suicidal did just that with ’85’s Welcome to Venice, a collection of tunes from neighborhood friends’ bands.
“You have to decide why you’re doing it,” says Muir about starting one’s own label. “Then you have to have some money.”
The rest, it seems, is all a learning process. “We talked to people about how and where to do it. We looked in the phone book. We talked to manufacturers and distributors, and got the basic costs of things.”
Today, Suicidal Records has seven releases to its credit, including two compilations — ’99’s Friends and Family and this year’s Friends and Family 2 (featuring Suicidal; Infectious; Muir’s solo project Cyco Miko; longtime Suicidal guitarist Mike Clark’s other band, Creeper; and new bands such as Missile Girl Scout and Zen Vodou) — as well as the latest Suicidal Tendencies full-length, Free Your Soul . . . And Save My Mind.
The band has gone through several personnel changes over the years, but with Muir providing the emotional core, their mix of manic metal riffs, passionate rants and slammin’ good grooves lives on, no doubt a huge influence on many of the current crop of neo-punk/metal/rap rockers. But as always, Cyco Miko doesn’t care about being ahead of his time or sounding like so and so, or even about making the kind of bank that those he’s inspired are hauling in. With Suicidal Records he finally has the freedom to express what’s in his often stubborn mind, and after the journey this punk pioneer has taken, that’s all that matters.