Suicidal Tendencies Are Still Punk as Fuck (Whatever That Means)
We talked to Mike Muir about four decades of hardcore, 'Still Cyco Punk After All These Years,' and how they became one of the most influential bands in extreme music.
Mike Muir has been doing this a long time. I can hear it in his voice, heavy with the sighs one might reasonably expect from a 55-year-old musician now in the umpteenth album press cycle of his nearly 40-year career fronting Suicidal Tendencies.
“It’s always something, man,” the singer says over the phone in that casual Venice, California cadence, drawing inspiration from his old lyrics. “But you just gotta keep going.”
Suicidal Tendencies is of the most influential bands in heavy metal and punk rock history. For generations of listeners, it served as a gateway to hardcore and more extreme musical styles, thanks in no small part to the relatively high profile their roughly decade-long major-label run at Epic Records afforded them. MTV played their music videos, including the one for their best-known song, “Institutionalized,” which made it onto the Beavis And Butthead program’s adolescent radar. (They approved.) Seminal records like 1987’s Join The Army and its 1998 follow-up, How Will I Laugh Tomorrow When I Can't Even Smile Today, put them at the fore of the crossover thrash metal movement, endearing them to denim-vested devotees of Metallica and Slayer and followers of Agnostic Front and Cro-Mags alike. On the day of our interview, though, he seems blissfully unperturbed by any divisions or allegiances still lingering in the minds of fans.
“To me, everything that Suicidal did is punk rock,” Muir says. He likens his ethos to that of John Lydon, insisting that the art-rock terrorism he performed at the helm of Public Image Limited was just as punk as the Sex Pistols and drawing parallels between the Johnny Rotten pseudonym and Muir’s own, Cyco Miko. Both monikers reflect aspects of the performers’ respective personalities, albeit outsized and at times cartoonish, with a shared disdain for authority and a flair for subversion. “I can’t use the word ‘punk,’ because other people’s definition of the word is different from mine,” he clarifies.
Over time, “punk” has grown into a nebulous term, co-opted for better or worse by people who may not have been welcome during Muir’s youth in the scene. An elder statesman in a subculture as prone to killing its idols as praising them, he’s experienced the changes firsthand. “I remember when I thought 30 was old,” he says. “I know how I would have perceived myself [now] when I was 16—'Who the fuck is this old fuck?!'” Still, as the thrash revival rages on, with groups like Power Trip, Red Death, and the two-headed beast of Municipal Waste and Iron Reagan at the helm, Muir’s continued stewardship of Suicidal Tendencies provides a living, breathing connection to the past. In a scene prone to nostalgic fetishization, his sheer presence offers an opportunity for dialogue between generations.
Naturally, old punk habits die hard. Muir is wary of agendas, political or otherwise, a longstanding character trait rooted in his scene origins. He recalls with exasperation another interviewer from earlier in this day of press junkets for the band’s new album, Still Cyco Punk After All These Years, saying they tried to bait him into a gaffe involving the Confederate flag. “Sometimes they don’t realize how [obvious] it’s coming across,” he says with a weary laugh. “Sometimes you just gotta walk away slowly and don’t turn your back.”
The idea of goading Muir into accidentally supporting white nationalism seems especially bizarre when taking into account the band’s history. Despite a good deal of turnover over the years, Suicidal Tendencies has unassumingly boasted the most consistently diverse lineup in heavy music, bar none. Black and Latinx players like guitarist Rocky George, drummer R.J. Herrera, and bassist Louiche Mayorga played vital roles during their respective tenures in the band’s 1980s heyday. Two of the Suicidal Tendencies’ former bassists are now practically household names, with Mexican-American Robert Trujillo playing bass in Metallica and African-American Stephen "Thundercat" Bruner doing big things in the jazz and funk scenes as part of Kamasi Washington’s all-star band and on on his own critically acclaimed albums. The current roster—featuring guitarist Dean Pleasants, bass player Ra Díaz, and former Slayer drummer Dave Lombardo—is no exception.
At a time when heavy bands and their publicists are practically resorting to Ancestry.com to uncover any iota of diversity in their ranks, Muir doesn’t have much he cares to say about that aspect of Suicidal Tendencies’ DNA. When prompted on the subject, he descends into a light ramble on our hyper-partisan climate.
Muir’s experiences in the metal and punk scenes worldwide have put him in rooms with right-wingers and left-wingers alike—experiences that have taught him firsthand how difficult dialogue and compromise can be when you’re talking to someone on the other end of the spectrum. “I’ve had conversations with people over the years, and it’s like you’re having two different conversations,” he says.
Reading between the squiggly lines, jamming and being friends with people with different backgrounds and life experiences, particularly those of color, just seems natural to Muir. He says he attempts to impart that part of himself to his children, even in small and subtle ways. “With my kids, their friends’ parents are always like, ‘How did you get your kids to eat that? ’ Well, we grew up in two different countries with a lot of different backgrounds culturally.” His children were born in Australia, though now they’re back on U.S. soil.
Spanning some two dozen full-lengths released across his various projects, including a 1996 solo album under the Cyco Miko moniker entitled Lost My Brain! (Once Again), Muir’s expansive discography can be daunting at first glance. But his prolificacy is even more confounding when you dive into the records themselves; Suicidal Tendencies are oddly prone to re-recording earlier material with new lineups—not to mention diverging stylistically between releases, and even between songs on the same release.
These days, Muir clearly favors the more punk side of his band’s history, as evidenced by the uptempo sound of Still Cyco Punk After All These Years. While the title suggests a reconceptualization of Suicidal Tendencies’ similarly named 1993 outing, Still Cyco After All These Years—itself a thrashy track-by-track do-over of their eponymous 1983 hardcore debut—the album is actually a re-recording of most of Lost My Brain! (Once Again), with the band’s current membership. When prompted to explain this latest in a long line of comparable redux moves, Muir insists these songs resonate more with him now than they did back then.
“When I listen back to the lyrics, it covers in a simple punk rock way who I am,” Muir says, explaining that he was prompted to tackle these tracks again by friends who related to the material as well. For fans who remember the record, Lost My Brain! will feel more like a novelty or collectors’ curio, featuring Dave Kushner and Adam Siegel from Muir’s funk metal side-project Infectious Grooves, as well as Sex Pistols guitarist Steve Jones. Muir declares the original album hopelessly dated during our chat, and indicates that he had higher hopes for Still Cyco Punk After All These Years. He expresses a fan’s ebullient awe at having Lombardo, who joined Suicidal Tendencies in 2016, playing drums. “We wanted it to sound more 2020 than 1980.”
Musically, the album crackles with classic energy and contemporary production values, its slashing guitars and clear percussive flair offering a stark contrast to the muddy original. Tracks like “Ain’t Gonna Get Me” and “F.U.B.A.R.” are full of observations and life lessons that will resonate regardless of one’s age. “Pure hypocrites all full of shit / Can't let'em get me / Ain't gonna quit so deal with it / Won't let them get me,” he sings on the former.
Muir isn’t still making records because he’s looking for a reason to tour, which at this stage in his career hardly requires him to create anything new. Instead, he says he’s doing it for his kids. During our conversation, he frequently cites his teenage son who, bucking the norm of rejecting his parents’ taste in music, expresses genuine admiration and excitement over what his dad happens to be working on, asking questions about the lyrics and playing Suicidal Tendencies songs for his friends. “That’s the way I was when I was 14,” Muir exclaims with fatherly pride.
His son’s interest tracks, of course. After all, hardcore has always been a scene by and for the youth, even as veterans linger or return. And the same goes for heavy metal. There’s community lurking underneath the shouts and riffs, and after all these years, they still make Muir feel hopeful.
“To me, it was about not being a victim,” he says. “It was about finding a way to be victorious.”
Gary Suarez is Twitter's biggest punk. Follow him.