INTERVIEW BY DANNY PHILLIPS
Social Distortion compelling.
After 30 years, founder and sole remaining original member Mike Ness still tours as hard as ever, is still copied by the younger generation and is still relevant. The road Ness chose, however, has not been an easy one.
Ness started Social D. in Fullerton, California, with friend and guitarist Dennis Danell (who died unexpectedly of heart failure in 2000) as response, Ness says, to "the shit that was around in the late '70s and '80s." Social Distortion mixed a love for country, blues, roots music and rockabilly with the speed and message of punk, creating a style that would influence thousands, even as the band pushed through addictions, tragedy, triumph and devastating loss over three decades.
We caught up with Ness over the phone about the fact that his band's so damn old, and also about turning his kids on to Johnny Thunders, his appreciation for the Killers, handling the death of Danell, the beauty of a chopped '40 Mercury and, well, quite a lot, actually.
The Wayward Blog: Tell us about the new album.
Mike Ness: Well, we haven't really started recording it yet. We'll start in the studio in January, but we have been playing some of the new songs live in the set. You know, it's been five years since our last studio record so we're really excited.
How's the tour going?
Very good. We've been working all summer. We did Europe for five weeks, Canada for three, now we're hitting up the States.
How are midwestern audiences different here then, say, New York, Europe or L.A.?
I really can't decipher, you know, I've tried and I really can't. There's really more stuff in common then there are differences. More similarities than differences. You know what I mean? You would think there would be differences for different reasons. Like maybe in Spain they're a little more vocal than Germany, but really our fans are pretty consistent across the Gourd.
How does it feel to be in one band for the past 30 years?
30 years, wow. It feels great. We never really thought it would last this long, ya know. I mean, geez, the average lifespan for a band these days is something like three years.
30 years is a long time for anything.
Yeah, exactly. I question all the time how do you do something for 30 years? Ya know, I think you gotta be stubborn and really love what you're doing. It's a combination of the two.
What made you want to start a band?
Because I love music so much, and I didn't just want to listen to it -- I wanted to play it too.
There is an obvious vein of country and rockabilly running through your music. Why such a connection to roots music?
After I got tired of all the British stuff -- it was good in the late '70s, early '80s, but by the mid-'80s, there wasn't really much happening, so I felt a real need to grab ahold of my American roots. You know, I saw a connection between early Americana music -- whether it be jazz or blues or folk music, rockabilly, primitive rock and roll, bluegrass -- I saw a connection from that directly to punk. It was working-class music, talking about working-class issues, the honesty of it and just the raw simplicity of it. Talk about rebellious music. I mean, please!
You have a new drummer in the band, Atom Willard, formerly of Rocket from the Crypt. What does he bring that's different?
Well, he's a little younger, so he brings a new energy to it, and I like him because he's not so much a technical drummer as he is a hard hitter. He's less controlled, which I like. I had drummers that had the finesse, and I love that ,but I also like a good cross between the two. A little bit of finesse and a little bit of caveman. That's what drums are made for, they're made to be beat on.
What do your kids think of your music?
My boys love it. They've grown up with it, they've grown up with reggae, they've grown up with all kinds of music. You know, they like gangster rap, they like punk rock, reggae. I turned my older son on to Johnny Thunders' L.A.M.F. the other day, and now that's his new favorite record.
What bands that are out now do you think carry on the spirit of punk rock?
I think there's several, you just have to look. Sometimes you have to look hard. I always lean more to the bands that are breaking new ground other than the ones that are following suit. I love the White Stripes, the Hives. Hell, I even like the Killers. I think that there is good stuff out there, you just have to look for it, ya know?
What's your favorite album that you've worked on?
Usually the one I haven't done yet. I went up to L.A. to look at the studio that the Foo Fighters own, and I just started to get really psyched up for the new record. It's been a long time -- five years. I'm really going into this record with a new outlook. I really want this record to be unique but also hold the signature Social D. element. It's gonna be a good record. I can feel it.
How much of your past struggles have made there way into you music?
Well, my past is my most valuable asset for songwriting, of course, but I like to write fictionally and non-fictionally. Like the song "1945" is a song about wondering what it felt like to be in the shoes of the guy that dropped the bomb on Hiroshima, ya know. Obviously like in "99 to Life" I didn't really kill my girlfriend. (Chuckles.) But you know, I do write autobiographically, primarily, and about the struggles I went through as a kid, as a young adult and that I continue to go through.
I mean, I don't have it licked yet, life is still a challenge and presents itself with new challenges once you get past other ones, so there's always plenty to write about.
How did Dennis Danell's passing change the way you look at life and at how you make music?
It was definitely a tough decision to carry forth with the band. At first, my initial response was that it was time to stop. I was already doing the solo stuff. I could've just stopped. Dennis wasn't in the band because he was a great guitar player; he was in the band because he was a good guy to hang out with, ya know. (Laughs.) And he was kind of the moral support of the band. Then, when he died, a big part of the band died. It took a few days of soul searching. I was writing a song, and it just hit me that I was writing a song about him. Then I decide that I needed to keep going forward in honor of him. Him and I started this in a garage in 1979 when the rest of the world told us we couldn't do it, and there's no way in hell he'd want me to stop because he knows how much I love music.
So it kinda gave it a new purpose, taking a bad situation and turning it into inspiration.
A little lighter question. I know you're a car fan. What's your favorite car or one you wish you had?
Ooooh... well, my favorite period of cars for customs is the 1940s. Big fenders with a mild chop: lower 'em, skirt 'em, and that makes them just a real piece of elegance. I have a couple '40s cars, but they're just to nice to chop, but I have a feeling one of them will get cut and it'll be a work of art when it's done. A chopped '40 Mercury is as good as it gets.
What is the legacy of Social Distortion?
Where I've taken the most pride in our band is our live performance. But most importantly, I guess is that we've been a band that people have grown up with. How cool is it to say, "Hey, I grew up with that band"? But ya know, when we go, we go. No one ever thought the Ramones would go. They're an institution.
Who's one person living or dead that you'd like to work with if you could?
Umm... I'd have to say Johnny Thunders or Joey Ramone. One of my dream gigs was just to play rhythm guitar on tour with the Ramones. Just sit up there, make faces and blow bubblegum, ya know? Playing rhythm for the Ramones -- how fun would that be, man?
Someone that is alive that I'd love to do a collaboration with is Bruce Springsteen or maybe Lucinda Williams. There are a lot of people that I'd be interested in.
Social D. has never been a very political band. Why did you do an ad with PETA?
Well, its just a personal thing I did and for me. As I've gotten older, I've gotten a sense of awareness and without being a flag waver or a preacher -- I don't tell people what to do or believe -- but I do say, "Hey, this is what I believe in and if you are interested, this is where you can check it out, ya know." So it's really like I'm an example maybe.
Do you ever slip anything from your solo work into a Social D. live set?
No, a Social D. set is usually Social D. But for my solo shows, I put some Social D. in there; like I'll do a different version of a song somewhat, twang it out a little, but I haven't got to that point where I've brought Mike Ness into a Social D. show, because people there want to hear Social D. (Laughs.) It's tough enough to come up with a set list every night that will appease everyone. We are covering a version of Hank Williams' "Alone and Forsaken" that's just amazing, a real barnburner.
I know this is kind of impossible to answer after 30 years, but what is the best Social D. show you've ever played?
Ah man, it is, 'cause it usually happens toward the middle or the end of a tour where you and your guys have been playing every night, you're kind of on auto-pilot, you're in sync. The magic happens when it happens, and you can't just make it happen. But those nights when you look at each other and just know that you'd be doing this whether you were getting paid or not. Those are the best shows.
Social Distortion plays this Saturday, September 26, at the Beaumont Club, with Middle Class Rut and the Strangers.