The Suicide Machines – ‘At this point, why not just be honest about things?’

Words: Miljan Milekić

It’s been fifteen years since the last record by the Detroit ska punk heroes The Suicide Machines. The wait is finally over, and it was well worth it. The band is back with an amazing new album ‘Revolution Spring,’ showing that their best days may not be behind, but in front of them. We caught up with singer Jason Navarro to talk about the new record, long pause, live during and after the COVID-19 pandemic, and skateboarding. Check it below.

The Suicide Machines / Photo: Mark Marfa Capodanno

So how are you? How are you spending these weird times?
Jay: I just lost my job, and my wife lost her job. (laughs) It’s pretty bad in Detroit. But, but honestly, I’m healthy, my kids are all healthy, so that’s all that really matters. So besides that, I’m slightly more positive about this whole situation than some. I think it’s a chance for everyone to look at what the real problems are, in our country, and the world in general. It’s almost like everything got put on pause, so it exposes the good in people, but it also exposes the problems we have. It really opens it up.

I would get to that a bit later, but first, I have to say it’s so good to have you back and to finally listen to some new music. How was it to be in the studio again, and work on a new The Suicide Machines album?
Jay: Well, I think at this point we’ve become veterans at making music. We’ve done it so much, everyone in this band has done it so much over the years now, that we work really well in the studio. We love doing it, every single one of us. That’s probably one of our favorite parts, actually creating the record. It’s definitely enjoyable for me to be in the studio. I feel like it can be comparable to maybe someone doing art, or painting a picture, or anything like that. That’s what you are, that’s what you are doing. So, it’s definitely one of my favorite parts of being in a band.

On ‘Revolution Spring’ you teamed up with Roger Lima. How was he in the studio, and how important was it for you to have a producer that’s also a musician, and someone who lives ska and punk rock music?
Jay: Well, the reason that I picked Roger is that we’ve known each other since we were kids. I saw the very first Less Than Jake show in Detroit. I think I actually played it now that I think about it. I think it was in 1993 maybe, it was their very first tour or their first time in Detroit. So we just, kind of, remained friends this whole time. I think he knows and understands what we do best, and that’s why it was super important to have him in there to push us a bit and wrangle us in almost, to get it done. I mean, I sang almost all that with no vocal correction, because he pushed me super hard in the studio. He pushed our drummer Ryan to do all the harmonies. So, it was essential that he was there. He understands the band, he knows us as people, and he also knows what that The Suicide Machines do best.

This is your first time working with Fat Wreck. How did it happen, and how is it going so far with them?
Jay: You know, I just emailed [Fat] Mike and Erin [Burkett], about two and a half, three years ago. I said – “Hey, I think we’re going to do a new record.” And they said: “Cool, we’ll put it out.” (laughs) And I think they were pretty happy that we handed in like 28 demos, and they were like – “Wow, these songs are actually good. We thought you were going to give us a record that sucked.” They were pretty happy with it. I mean, it’s still a DIY label, it’s just the best one there is. I think all of us are completely satisfied with it.

So, I just turned 16 when ‘War Profiteering Is Killing Us All’ came out, and now I’m approaching my 31st Birthday. How come that you made such a long pause between albums?
Jay: Well for one, the guitar player left the band. Then, we got a new guitar player – I play in a hardcore band called Hellmouth, and the drummer is actually the guitar player for The Suicide Machines now. He kinda came up in the same ska punk and punk scene, almost in the same era. He was in bands like that, so he knew how to play guitar really well in that style. And he was already in a band with me, so it was, kind of, the obvious choice. Then an activist friend of mine got arrested by the Feds. He’s an anarchist, I guess, more than an activist. An actual anarchist. And, to make sure he didn’t go to jail, we raised a bunch of money for him, got a good, pro bono lawyer, but that lawyer traveled from the East Coast and stayed in Michigan to keep them out of jail. So that’s kinda how the band got back together. And then, we didn’t really try to do anything. Things just kept coming our way after people heard that we had done that. And we just kept saying “yes” to what we could say “yes” to, ’cause we all have jobs. I don’t know, we just, kind of, waited for the inspiration to hit, to write a record. We weren’t going to try to force it.

And it paid off because it’s really good. So, on the record, you once again offered social commentary, I’d even say more serious and more articulated than some previous works, but also, you offered a bit more of a personal side. Was it hard to balance those two and put it all together into a cohesive record?
Jay: Well, I think at 46 years old, that’s just how I right now. Oh, sorry, I forgot I’m 47. (laughs) So, I think that at this time in my life that’s how I write. Also, on those other records, you had Dan [Lukacinsky] writing songs too, and his songs weren’t very personal. So when you hear the personal songs on the older records, those are more me than they were him, because that’s how I write about things. But at 47, I would say I definitely thought these lyrics out a lot more. I took a long time in really picking apart line by line. So, I think it’s just a matter of age. At this point, why wouldn’t I just be honest about things?

‘Revolution Spring’ also carries a certain dose of positive vibes and optimism. I know it was written well before this COVID-19 thing, but the release date seems to go perfectly with it, and offer people something to hold on to. Would you agree?
Jay: Listen, man, the only thing I can ever hope for, in any music I write, is for people to take their minds away from the chaos of this world, at least for a few minutes. And I think that, if this new record can take you away from what is happening at the moment for half an hour, and just get your mind off of it, you know what I mean? I do have serious optimism about the way I look at things these days. I’m definitely hopeful, and I think that if that’s all it brings us, 30 minutes of, at least peace to people, by listening to this, that’s really all I can ask for. That’s all I would want for any of my music, especially right now. I know it was written before what happened, but I’m very happy that people can say what you just said.

And how hard is it to be releasing an album right now when the touring is off, live shows and pretty much all the activities that you would be doing as a band are canceled?
Jay: I’m sure it’ll hurt sales or something, but that is something I really don’t care about. In The Suicide Machines, we all have jobs. We work, and we don’t do the band as a living or an income. So to us, it’s not that big of a deal. It’s terrible for bands and venues, and everyone that counts on their music as income and living. I feel awful for them. I, whatever, I’m not worried about it, but for bands who aren’t that big yet. Like, if you want to talk the Fat Wreck Chords route, Bad Cop/Bad Cop or Pears. NOFX could probably sustain themselves for a while. Or anyone bigger on Fat or Epitaph. But smaller bands that really count on that as their income, man, I feel terrible for them.

A lot of people are talking about “going back to normal” after this situation is over. But is that “normal” we know even possible? And I’m not talking only about the thousands of people who died. Do you feel like our “normal” actually played a big part in what’s going on in the world right now, if not the virus itself, but the way the world responded to it?
Jay: Yeah. I think this really exposed a lot of things. I mean, I can only talk about America because this is where I live. I think it exposed a lot of things, both good and bad, about our country. Let’s start with the bad, so we can end with the good. It exposed how not ready our medical system was, how unimportant our medical system has become even though it shouldn’t be. That it’s the citizens that really are the backbone of making things work in situations like food or medical. Yet we get paid the least sometimes, not so much in the medical field, but in the department of making sure people can eat. It’s exposed how terrible is what we’ve done as far as pollution in the United States. It exposed the fact that in these cities, we’re just living on top of each other. Like New York City. It’s disgusting. And I also think it’s the positive side of this that it’s showing those negatives. Like, how do we reset and rethink and redo this? Hopefully, people will take it like that. I think the negatives are going to be how bad advertising is going to shove “Oh, things are back to normal!” down your throat. All these companies that need to make money are going to shove so much advertising down your throat to get you back out into the public, to stimulate the economy, which is going to be awful.

But, let’s look at the positives now. I think it’s great that people are staying home, maybe they’re not on the internet as much, or in front of the TV as much. Maybe they’re actually hanging out. I think there are positives too because you see the side of America that is very caring. You’ve got people actually caring for each other, even though they don’t know each other. You know, dropping food off to an elderly neighbor, making sure it’s all wiped down and cleaned for them, so there’s no virus on it. You’ve got people taking care of each other, and actually caring about each other, race aside, religion aside, politics aside. You have seen this side of America trying to care for its health workers, give them the things they need that monetarily, these hospitals, or the healthcare systems, or the government can’t provide. You’ve seen a really positive side of America, too. And it’s definitely going to be different. There’s no way it could go back to being the same as it was. And if people don’t adapt, it’s going to be really, really bad. This is a time for people to take the opportunity to see where the holes are and what’s happening.

So, when all of this does end, can we expect to see you on the road, and maybe in Europe?
Jay: We’re going to try to come over there in the Fall. Hopefully, nothing gets canceled, but we do have some stuff booked for Fall. I think it’s October.

A couple of days ago, you released a video for ‘To Play Caesar (Is to Be Stabbed to Death),’ recorded in Detroit on the benefit show for Food Not Class. Can you tell me more about the video, the organization, and your involvement in it?
Jay: Sure. Food Not Class, we source all kinds of food, either premade or not premade, and then we have a bunch of cooks and chefs that will make it for us. It’s all nonprofit, we don’t have a tax ID, nothing. We get whatever we can get. It doesn’t matter if it’s meat or vegetarian, whatever we can get our hands on to cook for the homeless because it’s not our choice what their diet is. Which is crazy, because I’ve been a vegetarian for over 25 years now. I don’t even know how many at this point, to be honest with you. But the whole point is to try to make sure people are taken care of in the city of Detroit because our system is failing here on getting people food, hygiene supplies, and stuff like that.

So we’ve been doing it for a long time, and it’s not like a bunch of anarchists and punks. It’s all walks of people that are doing this. We come together and do it. You’ve got people who are Sufi Indian, black, white, punk, not punk, old, young, everybody. So we did a benefit show at a DIY collective space here in Detroit, that’s been going on since like 1991 or 1990. It’s like an old pole barn in the back of a huge, it’s not a squat, or it could be considered a squat, but it’s a really, really nice one. People have always kept it up since I was a kid. So yeah, we shot the video there, I guess the phrase is, killed two birds with one stone. We knew we needed to give FAT a video, and we already booked a show to raise money, because we needed money for the year to get through.

I remember reading Travis Barker’s autobiography a couple of years ago, and I remember him saying that he was actually trying out for The Suicide Machines before joining Blink-182, but got back to California as he found Detroit too cold. And that’s actually one thing I’m curious about – how come that you ended up playing music that’s so closely associated with places like California or Florida?
Jay: Obviously, Operation Ivy was a huge influence on me, but you know, there’s a lot of other bands that I got big into. Like, Bad Brains are playing reggae and punk, and then you had The Specials. I mean, they’re much more punk than people give them credit for. That two-tone movement, that’s exactly what it was. So it wasn’t necessarily a California thing at all to me, except for Operation Ivy. Everything else that I listened to, now that I think about it, was very much from England, Jamaica, and the East Coast of America. Oh, you know what? I skipped the situation. So I started liking bands like that, and there was a phenomenal band in Detroit, at the end of the eighties, called Gangster Fun. They were the only people playing ska in Detroit, and they were definitely a huge being pushed into that world even more. Their first two albums are phenomenal. They’re more ska than ska punk, but, after listening to all that ska and ska punk stuff, to find a band in Detroit, in my hometown, playing ska – it was really cool. They definitely had a punk attitude. They’re a bunch of punks that played ska, but it was more traditional ska.

You guys have a cult following in the skateboard community, and I know that you skate. How much did the support of that scene and community, for you personally, but as a band as well?
Jay: Well, personally it was awesome ’cause people that come to my show would come down early, and take me to all good spots to skate. (laughs) I mean look at Tony Hawk’s Pro Skater, Tony was really cool and put one of our songs on, because we were deeply embedded into that community. Skateboarding is what opened a lot of punk rock to me, for sure. I found punk rock at the same time as skateboarding, around 1985 or ’86. I’m a skater and I always will be, never stopped, you know what I mean? With all the injuries I’ve had, and I’m 47 now. For the past 20 years, I’m like – “Alright, I’m going to keep skating, I got to keep riding. I got to try to hit 50 and still be able to ride.” And I seem to be skating pretty hard at 47.

I actually love that you mentioned the game, because for me, and I know I’m not the only one, it was a way to discover both skateboarding and punk rock music. And I never saw them as separate things.
Jay: I’ll tell you what made me find a lot of bands at the end of the eighties. I would order Thrasher‘s ‘Skate Rock’ cassettes. I still have the first eight. And to be honest with you, like I think it was ‘Skate Rock 5’ that introduced me to S.N.F.U. from Canada. I had never heard of S.N.F.U. until I think it was 1988 when I got that tape. You know what I mean? Thrasher is like the Bible to skaters, it always will be. When they did the ‘Skate Rock,’ I couldn’t resist ordering some cassettes. It definitely introduced me to so much amazing, cool music. So yeah, skateboarding and punk rock, it’s hand in hand. Which is why I think hip hop almost goes hand in hand with skateboarding too. It was very underground and against the grain when it started.

So, to end things on a more positive note, what’s your go-to music for skateboarding nowadays?
Jay: I’d say Sizzla Kalonji, it’s dancehall reggae. I listen to a couple of first High On Fire records. Bad Brains and Operation Ivy are always the go-to no matter what, always can put me in a mood and fire me up to skate. I love some of the more fast stuff, too, like The Accüsed or Septic Death. Throw on some super-fast, old hardcore like that. Something super gnarly. (laughs) I like some grindcore too, like Dropdead.

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