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The Sound

Still feeling Suicidal


Suicidal Tendencies plays Wooly’s on Sunday, May 18.

Suicidal Tendencies plays Wooly’s on Sunday, May 18.

Suicidal Tendencies has never really tried to be a touchstone for anything. Formed as a punk act in 1981, the band has seen its sound evolve over 30 years through hardcore, thrash and funk iterations. During that period of evolution — sandwiched between three hiatus periods — the band released 19 albums in various forms, gone through a truly epic number of members (frontman Mike Muir is the only original member) and toured with some of the most iconic metal acts in the world. Suicidal Tendencies has been accused of selling out, dumbing down and trying too hard. But though it all, Muir and his rotating cast of cohorts have always felt like they’ve remained true to who they were and done things on their terms.

“When the first record came out (1983’s seminal self-titled album), we had two major labels that came back to us based on our sales and offered us deals,” Muir recalled during a phone interview. “They said, ‘The only problem is that you’ll have to change your name. The majority of stores won’t carry your record because of the name.’ We said no. We went out and did our second record (and it was) one of the top 100 Billboard independent records. Then, all of the sudden, we had eight majors interested.

“We basically said, ‘Look, you’re calling us up because we’ve done everything our way and haven’t done what other people said we should,” he continued. “If that’s what you like about us, then that’s what should be in the contract.’ At the time, we were the first band on CBS to have complete artistic freedom.”

That freedom is something that Muir has prized above all else. Whether it’s the freedom to create songs like the band’s iconic “Institutionalized,” or the freedom to dictate its schedule and tour dates, Muir is adamant about the band never becoming a job.

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“We have the approach that every show might be our last one,” he explained. “It’s not about self-combustion, but I’ve had a few back surgeries, and there are so many bands who get back together because they just don’t like their lives or their families, and I come from the complete opposite way. So, you do what you can to work around things. If it’s a holiday or someone’s birthday, we’re not playing. If it’s a Saturday night and someone has a wedding to go to, we’ll say, ‘Go,’ and we won’t play the gig. Some people will complain, ‘That’s not rock ‘n’ roll!’ and I say, ‘Yeah, I know it’s not, it’s Suicidal, so fuck you!’ ”

For all the reasons stated above and more, Muir genuinely never knows when Suicidal Tendencies will run its course. In a 1988 episode of MTV’s “Headbanger’s Ball,” Muir told host Riki Rachtman that he didn’t know how long he’d be in the band. It’s a sentiment that Muir echoes to this day. While some people would balk at the (at least stated) level of uncertainty, for Muir, it’s that unclear future that actually helps to keep him going.

Talking to him, you get the genuine impression that the moment Muir felt locked into Suicidal Tendencies — by contract, monetary need or any one of a hundred other factors — that would be the moment the band ceased to be.

But that’s never been the case. Muir has always felt free to do and say as he’s pleased, and every packed show serves as a form of validation.

“We live in a world of instant gratification — triple icing on the cupcake; sugarcoat everything,” Muir said. “That’s not the way that our music is, but we’re fortunate that there are a lot of others who aren’t concerned about fitting in.” CV

Chad Taylor is an award-winning news journalist and music writer from Des Moines.

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