Mike Ness likes to stay busy, though that may not be apparent from a survey of Social Distortion’s supply of new music in the past decade and a half. Hard Times And Nursery Rhymes, out January 18 from Epitaph Records, is only the band’s third studio album since 1996. Singer-guitarist Ness has just had too many irons in the fire to make time to visit the studio. Though Social Distortion is nearly constantly on tour, Ness continues to nurture his alt-country solo career.
It’s probably fitting that Ness spends more time keeping in touch with his interests and his fans than making music. That’s how it’s always been for his band. Formed in Los Angeles in 1978, Social Distortion bounced around the nascent So-Cal punk scene (scoring a major part in the cult-classic documentary Another State Of Mind about its tour with Youth Brigade) before releasing its debut, Mommy’s Little Monster, in 1984. As California’s punk scene closed ranks and solidified into cloistered conformity, however, Social Distortion moved in the other direction, incorporating a larger amount of ’50s rock ’n’ roll and American roots elements into its music. The diversity paid off, landing the band a contract with Epic Records spawned a string of minor radio hits—“Ball And Chain,” “Ring Of Fire,” and “Born To Lose” were staples of ’90s alternative playlists—and established Social Distortion as a somewhat reluctant bridge between the underground and the mainstream. With a rare new album on the horizon, Ness spoke with The A.V. Club about fatherhood, staying busy, and finding something other than hard times and hard living to write about.
The A.V. Club: It’s been more than six years since your last album. Some bands go on hiatus, reunite, and record a comeback album in that amount of time.
Mike Ness: I wish I could tell you we were vacationing for the last six years, but we weren’t. We’ve been working this whole time, touring. The record only took about five months to make, but you can’t make a record until you stop touring. That’s why it takes so long.
AVC: So you’ve been touring nonstop for six years?
MN: We toured Sex, Love And Rock ’N’ Roll for three years. I did the Mike Ness band for a little while. I toured with that. I have a family, wife and children that I like to visit every once in a while. The next thing you know, six years have gone by. As I’ve said, I haven’t really stopped working for much of that time. There’s probably a six-month break, a seven-month break where there was just no work, but that was the first time in years I did that.
AVC: Being able to wait six or eight years between albums seems like a luxury many bands can’t afford. How does it feel not to be forced to release a new album every 18 months to support yourself like some acts?
MN: I don’t know if that would be possible for us, not that we couldn’t be prolific if we had to. I don’t know, I don’t think that that would be good. I think six, seven years is still too long, I’m the first to admit. I went from eight to six, now I’m trying to get it down to two or three. It might require a little more discipline, but at the same time, for us, it just seems to kind of work. We get to play these songs and hear them out on the road. We know that other people like them already before we put it out. It’s kind of cool. It’s kind of the way we’ve always done it. I was playing “Sick Boys” for two years before I recorded it. A lot of songs worked out that way.
AVC: So are you constantly writing new material over those interim years?
MN: Yeah, in between tours, I’ll write songs. When it came time to make the album, it’s great, because we had the majority of it already written. I like that, rather than sometimes I have to write lyrics for 10 songs. It’s hard. I was lucky on this one.
AVC: Did you trash a lot of songs over the years?
MN: There were only two that didn’t make it. One had lyrics. I just felt that when I was writing the lyrics and trying to figure out the cohesiveness and the feeling of the record, I just felt like it was kind of convoluting it a little bit.
AVC: Is it harder to write now that you have more perspective on life and music than when you were a teenager?
MN: If I’m writing, I have a trash can full of crumpled-up paper. It’s like you’ve got to write shit first, then the good stuff starts to come. This record was a little more challenging because it was like, enough about me and my hard times of drugs and alcohol and fighting and jail and all of this. I wanted to write fictionally. I wanted to write non-fictionally. I wanted to write heavy. I wanted to write light. I wanted versatility in this record. That was my main goal so I didn’t get pigeonholed into another record about “Mike Ness got in a fight and now he’s in jail again,” or “He broke his girlfriend’s heart.” I’ve done all that, and I will do it again in song, I’m sure. This was a chance to show people that I can write in other styles.
AVC: Was it difficult to break away from the usual topics?
MN: It’s a risk, but you’ve got to do it. You’ve just got to go for it. If I believe it when I get done writing it, then I’m pretty sure my fans will, but I’ve got to believe it first. I purposefully dabbled. White Light, White Heat, White Trash is a really dark record. I don’t know, maybe that’s where I was at in my life, but a lot has changed since then, and I’ve learned to get inspiration from positive things in life, too. I think you never want to limit yourself to one style of anything. Why put those limitations on yourself?
AVC: Even when your songwriting is its darkest, you seem to be more concerned with overcoming your problems than indulging them.
MN: Exactly. I think it’s important to give a little bit of a solution, or at least try to overcome it instead of just complaining about it.
AVC: When you’re not onstage singing songs about raising hell, you’re raising a family. Has it been tough balancing those two worlds?
MN: It’s been really hard. It’s been one of the main topics of discussion between me and management. How do I do this where I’m gone nine months of the year and then spend the rest of the other three just trying to catch up with myself and with everything else? It’s out of balance. It’s definitely something we’re addressing.
AVC: Is it any easier now that your kids are teenagers?
MN: There’s not as many, thank goodness, school plays or anything like that. The youngest one might be playing lacrosse, so I’d like to be here for his games and stuff. There’s still things happening that I want to be here for, be it birthdays or holidays or whatever, or all the extracurricular things they’re doing.
AVC: Hard Times And Nursery Rhymes was the first Social Distortion album you produced. What was it like managing those roles in the studio?
MN: It was difficult on the guys in the band, I’m sure. [Laughs.] They’re like, “Oh geez, now not only is he the leader of the band, he’s the goddamned producer.” At the end of the day, they were stoked. They completely got it. It wasn’t hard on me until it was time to do the vocals. I had to get from the control room to behind the control room. It was like, “Uh, this is weird now.” Luckily, I had a great engineer and a great assistant, and I told them what the expectations were out of me. They helped me get it.
AVC: What do you mean, by whipping you into shape?
MN: At times. In the past, producers have always kind of got me to sing really angry and powerful. I was listening to some of my earlier records, and I go, “I’m just singing! I sound so much better.” On this record, I wanted to go back to that. There’s plenty of attitude. The attitude is in my personality. It’s going to come out in the songs no matter what. If you’re pushing the vocal constantly at 10, there’s no room for any dynamics. There’s no room for any variation in tone. There’s no room for anything. On this record, I wanted people to notice I’m singing on this record. I would hear those recordings and I was like Aggro-Man, and I just didn’t like it. I could have gotten the same point across, and it would have been a little nicer.
AVC: Beyond the vocal performances, when you look back on old albums, are there any songs you wished would never have been released?
MN: Of course! [Laughs.] That’s the problem. In the past, when you had 10 songs, you just went into the studio and recorded them. You didn’t really give it much thought. We were young. There are like 10 songs that I can say with 100 percent assurance that I know we’ll never play. “I hate that song. I won’t play it. I don’t care how much money you give me. I won’t play it.”
AVC: Since founding guitarist Dennis Danell died in 2000, a lot of people just see Social Distortion as “Mike Ness and some musicians backing him” rather than a functioning band. Is that an accurate view of the way the band works these days?
MN: Not really. When Dennis died, believe me, I spent plenty of time thinking “Should I maybe stop this now?” It’s not going to feel the same. This is the guy I started it with so many years ago. Even though he and I were the only two original members left—we were always changing rhythm sections. Probably before we even had the funeral service, I realized I would keep it going kind of in his honor. It’s like he and I started this, and we said we were going to take it as far as we could take it. If it was the other way around and I died, I wouldn’t want him to stop doing what he loved doing. I’d want him to keep it going as far as it could go. Kind of for me, it gave a new purpose to the band. I was able to take a negative situation and get strength from it. It gave me a new power, a charge of, “Fuck it, man. I’m going to do this for him.” I just think that was the right thing to do, and I would say he probably agrees.
AVC: Did your role and dynamics in the band change, though?
MN: Of course. I taught Dennis how to play the guitar. Dennis didn’t even play an instrument when I met him. Dennis wasn’t in the band because he was this fucking amazing guitar player. Dennis was in the band because he was a great friend. He was the moral support of the band. He was the guy when I was blacked-out drunk, I could spend the night at his house. He’d cook me breakfast in the morning. I loved him for that. He was a friend first and a bandmate second. But obviously, yeah, it changed when he was gone. I had to find someone who I felt was going to replace him, who was going to be someone who fit in the band, like Dennis fit in. That wasn’t easy. I had one guy who came to mind, and that was Jonny 2 Bags [Wickersham]. That’s who I picked, just because I felt like that was the right guy.
AVC: Although Social Distortion has always been associated with the punk underground, you’ve managed to steer clear of the fads of the past 30 years. Is that because you draw on roots and classic rock ’n’ roll instead of the punk blueprint?
MN: When I see everyone doing the same thing, I want to do the opposite. [Laughs.] I just got so sick of tattooed Dickies-wearing guys in bands trying to sing pop-punk songs that sound the same. I don’t know. It just made me grateful that we have our own direction and our own sound. That started in the mid-’80s. All these hardcore bands sounded all the same. God, why do you want to do the same thing everyone else is doing? Now it’s rat-rod car building. Everyone’s doing these rat rods. Why do you want to build the same car everyone else is doing? There’s no sense of individuality. That’s what kills me.
AVC: There’s a wide range of ages in the audience at a Social Distortion show. Why do you think so many of your fans continue to listen to you rather than growing out of you, as with many other punk bands?
MN: I’m trying to write about emotions, and those continue. You feel something when you’re a senior in high school, and then “Goddamn, I’m going through the same shit when I’m 30. Break out the Social Distortion.” It’s just this thing where maybe they think the same way we do. There’s probably hundreds of thousands of Social Distortion fans out there who don’t know they’re fans yet.