Interview With Mike Ness of Social Distortion: Skeletons On Parade

Punk rock anti-authoritarian rule No. 63: Music is ageless.

As proof, ask Mike Ness, guitarist and vocalist for cow-punk band Social Distortion. After 32 years in existence, the group’s fusion of punk and country music is still as relevant today as it was when Social D first started in 1978. The chaotic compositions can be heard blaring from the sound systems of fans ranging in age from 15 to 51—and beyond.

“You see it in the crowds,” Ness explained to The Aquarian Weekly. “Three generations of old timers and youngsters and in between. It’s fulfilling to look out there and see. I would hate to be playing for a bunch of 45 year olds. That might be kind of weird. But there’s [people of all ages], and I like that. There’s something for everybody.”

The 48-year-old punk pioneer’s voice reeked of a humble exhaustion, perhaps due to Social Distortion’s seemingly nonstop schedule. But aging out is not an option, as the band has displayed no signs of quitting any time soon. With a US tour underway and a seventh studio album, Hard Times and Nursery Rhymes, set to drop in January 2011, the foursome, incorporating Ness, guitarist Jonny Wickersham, bassist Brent Harding and drummer David Hidalgo Jr., remains hard at work in a job that’s made them a squat house name the world over.

“It’s fun. I love what I do,” Ness said as he reflected upon a career that has spanned six albums to date, a punk rockumentary called Another State of Mind that chronicles the band’s experiences on tour, and many hours of airtime on radio stations and even MTV—all with a countless number of shows in between. But to understand the dedication, perseverance, and veracity of Social Distortion and its members, one must know what it took to get to the place they are today. It is a road since the band’s inception that has been littered with obstacles and tragedy, yet always leads to a place of triumph. Simply put: Social Distortion has paid its dues in full.

The story begins in Fullerton, Calif., back in 1978. With guitar in hand, a young Ness set forth on an idea to form a band that would draw inspiration from British punk rock. The three musicians Ness was able to rally—guitarists Rikk and Frank Agnew and drummer Casey Royer—pulled out of the band when Ness introduced a new member, Dennis Danell, into the fold. The idea was to have Danell come on board as the band’s bass player, despite the fact that he never played that instrument—or any instrument for that matter—in his life. The pairing would prove to be successful, however, with Danell and Ness becoming close friends as well as band mates.

With the help of Posh Boy, the label dedicated to recording singles and albums for underground punk rock bands all over Ocean County, Calif., Social Distortion released its first single, “Mainliner/Playpen,” in 1981. Two years later, Social Distortion spawned the creation known as Mommy’s Little Monster, its hardcore punk rock first album, via the band’s label, 13th Floor Records. The debut reached a national audience and would make Social Distortion’s music a punk scene staple across the country.

Despite the band’s mounting success, a dark shadow began to engulf Social Distortion and threatened its future success. Throughout this time, Ness battled a severe addiction that would cause his life to spiral out of control. The drug? Heroin. Ness’s addiction caused the band to reach its breaking point in 1985 when it was announced that Social Distortion would be taking a hiatus, a time out that ended when Ness finally entered and completed a drug rehabilitation program.

Social Distortion’s next effort, Prison Bound, was produced five years after Mommy’s Little Monster. The record not only gained the attention of execs at Epic Records, it also introduced to the masses the band’s signature sound; the musical style known as cow-punk. The band would record several more records from 1990 to 2000, a discography that includes the self-titled release, Somewhere Between Heaven and Hell and White Light, White Heat, White Trash.

In the midst of celebrating commercial success, no one in Social Distortion could have predicted the devastating event that would turn joy into unspeakable heartache. Danell, one of the last remaining original members of the group, suffered an untimely death in 2000 after succumbing to a brain aneurysm. Mourning the loss of his childhood friend, a devastated Ness, who is the main songwriter for the band, penned many of the lyrics to the band’s last album, Sex, Love and Rock ‘n’ Roll, in memory of his departed comrade.

Mortal tragedy is not the only ill that has plagued Social Distortion throughout its history. Since its inception, a game of musical chairs has been played within the line up of the band, with 16 members coming and going through the years. As an example, two members, drummer Adam Willard and his replacement, Scott Reader departed ways with the band in 2010 alone. Some bands would see that as a set back, but not Ness, the only current member who has stuck with Social D from the very beginning. He has high hopes for Social Distortion’s current roster.

“The line up right now is pretty solid,” he said.

Despite the obstacles, Social Distortion has pushed forward. A highly anticipated new effort, Hard Times and Nursery Rhymes, will showcase the band’s efforts since joining Epitaph Records five months ago, and has been hyped by Ness as a homecoming to Social D’s punk rock roots.

“We’ve been working on it all summer,” Ness said. “We recorded very old school with analog and older gear. Record making as of the 1970s was superior to what it is now, and we tried to go back to that. I’m always writing. I’ve put some songs on this record that were 10 to 15 years old. Then I put some brand new ones. I put some songs on there that we’ve been playing live for a couple of years.”

The result is a record influenced by the New York punk scene of the ‘70s and ‘80s.

“Some of it is autobiographical, some of its heavy, and some of it is light. I specifically set out on this record to try and achieve that so I’m not stuck in writing in one way. I usually write the music first. I listen to the music and try and think what it reminds me of and what it evokes in me.”

Originally due out in November, it was announced that the record will not be available at that time, as the date has been pushed back for release sometime in January 2011.

“There were some mixing issues that I wasn’t 100 percent happy with,” Ness confessed. “I recorded the record, went on tour, and then had to come home and mix it. My ears were tired, I was tired, and I wasn’t happy with the mix. So I decided to make some changes.”

And after a six year long wait to create, Ness is more than confident that Social D’s newest LP will satisfy fans, young and old alike. So expect something pretty special.

“People can expect a great record,” Ness said. “It’s very signature. But as always, when it comes time to evolve, we’re not afraid. We’ve got a few tricks up our sleeve with this record.”

Social Distortion’s current tour, which will bring them to smaller venues in cities such as Detroit, Cleveland and Philadelphia, was originally slated to coincide with the release of the new album. But tickets were sold, and venues booked. So the show must go on. However, fretting can be kept to a minimum as show attendees will have their eardrums sweetly violated with some of the album’s new tunes.

“We will be playing new songs,” Ness assured. “But not the entire album yet. We want to wait until it comes out before we do that. You can expect the same energy we always have.”

As a bonus, totally brand new material will also be showcased on the tour. It’s a musical tradition Social Distortion has become known for—performing songs live years before heading into the studio to track them.

“If I write a new song, I want to play it, even if it’s not finished. Much for myself, because I want to hear it,” Ness confessed. It’s a technique that has benefited the band, providing a glimpse of which songs work, and which songs don’t.

Tours, new albums and new adventures, one can only imagine what’s next for Social D. For a band that’s been rockin’ out since the ‘70s, is it possible that the music industry will bear witness to another 30 years of Social Distortion; walkers, canes, gray hair and all?

“There’s no end in sight,” said Ness.

Social Distortion will be performing at Roseland Ballroom on Nov. 4 and The Stone Pony in Asbury Park on Nov. 5.