Mike Ness, leader of Social Distortion, forged a multidimensional punk-rock band. Aerosmith and Bad Company shaped Ness as much as the Sex Pistols and the Ramones. The Carter Family, Johnny Cash, Hank Williams, the Rolling Stones and Motown all play into Social Distortion.
Ness formed Social Distortion in 1979. In doing so, the angry 17-year-old from Orange County, California, joined the Los Angeles–area punk and roots music scenes that included X, Black Flag, Minutemen, Los Lobos and the Blasters.
A music lover since early childhood, Ness and his eclectic inspirations soon made Social Distortion more than punk. His affection for the Stones, for instance, showed up in the band’s album debut, 1983’s Mommy’s Little Monster. Arriving five years later, Prison Bound revealed his American roots music influences.
Ness showed his country roots again with Social Distortion’s 1990 self-titled album. The album features the popular, countryfied lament, “Ball and Chain,” and a churning punk rendition of Cash’s “Ring of Fire.” Social Distortion is the band’s best-selling album and was the first to reach the Billboard 200 albums chart. Its songs “Ball and Chain,” “Story of My Life,” “Let It Be Me” and “Ring of Fire” all reached the Top 25 in Billboard’s Top 100 singles chart.
Four more studio albums followed: Somewhere Between Heaven and Hell (1992); White Light, White Heat, White Trash (1996); Sex, Love and Rock ’n’ Roll (2004) and Hard Times and Nursery Rhymes (2011). Hard Times and Nursery Rhymes, the first Social Distortion album solely produced by Ness, became the band’s highest-charting album, debuting at Number 4 on the Billboard 100.
Ness’ discography further includes two solo albums, the mostly original, rockabilly-oriented Cheating at Solitaire and influence-filled Under the Influences, both released in 1999.
Following Social Distortion’s 2017 summer tour, the band will begin months of pre-production for their eighth studio album. Ness spoke to OffBeat in advance of the band’s return to New Orleans, August 30 at House of Blues.
What was your reaction to punk rock when you first heard it?
When I heard the [Sex] Pistols, they sounded like how I felt inside. I was from a broken home. When I was 16, 17, I was an angry kid who was searching for his voice. It was a voice I was never allowed to have before. When I started a band, the world said, ‘You can’t do that.’ I was like, ‘Watch me.’
But you loved music years before the rise of punk rock.
I started listening to music when I was about four years old. That was 1966. The AM and FM radio in the late ’60s. My uncles gave me rock ‘n’ roll records. The Rolling Stones, Creedence Clearwater Revival. Most kids weren’t into music like I was. I played albums and stared at them for hours, studying them.
Sometime in the mid ’80s, I went back to the Carter Family. I remembered how that music made me feel. I brought American roots music to punk with Prison Bound. But prior to punk, basically it was classic rock. Most people don’t know that I was into bands like Bad Company and the Eagles and all the Motown stuff. And then I got into the punk. But my foundation is blues-based rock. That’s why Social Distortion has always been a little bit more traditional, why we weren’t just a punk band. The country and blues influences, the folk music, it’s all in there, because I enjoy that just as much as an old punk record.
Social Distortion is returning to New Orleans to play House of Blues. Has the city been a good stop for you through the years?
Always has been. Close to 30 years, New Orleans has been a staple for us. It’s a musical town. It’s perfect for us.
House of Blues’ main music room is an intimate venue. Do you prefer playing for hundreds or thousands of people?
Some of my best shows have been on big stages in front of 10,000, 20,000, 30,000 people. But you don’t have as much control in those kinds of environments. You’re exposed to the elements. The sound isn’t always great on stage. There’s no preparation, no soundchecks. You just plug in and go. And I think rock and roll is a nocturnal thing, but sometimes it’s not dark.
So, you do prefer smaller venues?
In clubs and theaters, the venue is yours for that day. And we always do soundcheck. I know bands that never soundcheck. I can’t relate to that at all. It isn’t that we need to practice, it’s just a work ethic that I have. I get acclimated to the room. I start to focus early.
You care about details?
The details of everything.
Does the attention to details especially apply to the recording studio?
On the stage and in the studio—I enjoy them both equally. Yeah, I remember a drummer we had. He did something wrong in the outro of a song. I said something to him about it after the show. He said, ‘I don’t even know how you heard that.’ I said, ‘I hear everything.’ In the studio, it’s even more scrutiny. I love that focus. That’s when I’m firing on all cylinders.
You have your own studio, but isn’t it more a rehearsal space than a recording studio?
It’s a place where we can go write and rehearse. I write there. There’s a room strictly for listening to music. There’s an inspiration area decorated with all of my entertainment memorabilia (including jukeboxes, a pinball machine, vintage radios, amps and microphones and a collection of gangster movie posters).
You released Hard Times and Nursery Rhymes in 2011. How far along are you on a follow-up?
Once this tour ends, we’ll spend six to nine months in pre-production. Then we’ll record the album. I’ll do some reference recordings at our studio, but they’ll be pretty crude. For arrangements and experimenting with stuff, the recordings don’t need to be high-quality.
Journalists often ask you why many years elapse between the release of Social Distortion albums. Is it a matter of getting the songs, the production, the details, just the way you want them?
Journalists will say, ‘It’s been seven years since your last record.’ But it didn’t take seven years to write the record. It probably took seven years to wind down from five years of touring. And I have a family, I have responsibilities. Sometimes I need five years to live life, so I have stuff to write about. Sometimes I don’t pick up a guitar for six months, but when I do pick it up, the past six months pour out of me.
Is it too early to give us a preview of the next Social Distortion album?
There are things about Hard Times and Nursery Rhymes I want to keep, but the next album may have more of a garage feel to it. I want it to have a little bit more high energy. And for this new record, unfortunately, I feel like I have to write the album of my career. There’s going to be a lot of thought put into it.
So, you think you must top Hard Times and Nursery Rhymes?
Yeah, whenever I’m writing a record, I want to outdo the previous one. That’s always my objective. But Hard Times and Nursery Rhymes is my favorite record, because it’s rootsy. I think it could have followed the self-titled album or Somewhere Between Heaven and Hell. It also shows we’ve learned a lot since those earlier records. You want to show people what you’ve learned and what you’ve absorbed from your influences and expand on it.
For Hard Times and Nursey Rhymes, you were the sole producer of a Social Distortion album for the first time. Will you produce your next album as well?
We thought maybe now is a good time to bring somebody in. I love Rick Rubin’s stuff. There are a handful of producers whose stuff I like. But I want to do this next one myself. I eventually want to become a producer [for other artists]. The more I do, the more I’ll learn.
In 2015, you marked the 25th anniversary of your self-titled 1990 album by performing the album on tour. Did playing some of those songs for the first time in many years give you a different perspective on the album?
I didn’t know if I liked some of those songs anymore. I’m super critical of myself. So, they never made any set list. But it was great to go back to those songs. I wondered how I thought of that or how I did that. I wondered what I was thinking when I wrote this or that song. Not so much the lyrics as the arrangements. I remembered that something happened by accident, but it sure was cool.
The 40th anniversary of Social Distortion is just a few years away.
Hard to believe. Most bands that have been together 30, 35 years, they were popular 35 years ago. Now they’re trying to recapture that. It’s the opposite for us. 35 years ago, we were playing in front of 75 people. But each year we slowly gained momentum. It’s been very organic. We don’t really know what we did. We just know that the music seems timeless and three generations have passed it on. We’re lucky that way. Certainly, I’m still enjoying it.
So, at this point in Social Distortion history, you could be in your mid-career?
I’m going to live to be 100. That’s how I’m looking at it.
Social Distortion performs August 30 at House of Blues in New Orleans.