I write songs for myself, and I hope that other people will like them too.
– Mike Ness
If you’ve been a fan of Social Distortion for any time at all, you know that Mike Ness is into authenticity: authentic sounds, authentic images, authentic tales of outlaws, cars and guitars — things that endure, things that the passage of time only serves to make more real. These days you can often find Ness at one of two places: Onstage captaining the never-more-powerful Social Distortion, or off it plundering the roads, flea markets and secondhand shops of America for those vintage items — guitars, amps, radios, motorcycles — born in an age where authenticity was sacred and endurance was prized. “It was a time when art and industry were combined and craftsmanship was kind of a part of life,” Ness says. It was also a time that, while not lost, seems to be more real, more meaningful, than too much of our own. The same could be said of Social Distortion’s music.
There’s no map for sustainability in the world of punk rock, no frayed handbook to guide bands through what happens in the extremely unlikely event that they fail to burn out. So Social Distortion are writing their own, remaining steadfast in their loud, highly tattooed corner of rock n’ roll and refusing to make any concessions to time. Over the past few years alone Social Distortion have been brought onstage by Bruce Springsteen, booked their first-ever dates at the massive Reading and Leeds festivals in England and dropped an album, Hard Times and Nursery Rhymes, that was quickly regarded as being as scorching and swinging as anything that preceded it. “Ultimately you want your new stuff to be as well-received as your old stuff,” Ness says. “It’s nice to see the new songs become sort-of classic Social D; that’s what you want, for fans to like ‘Gimme the Sweet and Lowdown’ as much as ‘Ball and Chain.'”
But perhaps most tellingly, Ness has gone and built a new studio in California, a base from which Social D can soldier on in the coming years. “When I got clean, I decided that if I wanted to make this work I was gonna have to look at it like a job, and get serious about it,” Ness says about the band’s staying power. “I still think about the longevity thing. I don’t take it for granted. I know that the last two records had some very large gaps between them, and our fans have been very patient. I wouldn’t want to test that.”
Hard Times And Nursery Rhymes (produced, for the first time, by Ness himself) is the band’s first record since 2004, but the break hasn’t changed them much. It maintains Social Distortion’s key components — an all-but-perfected mix of punk, bluesy rock n’ roll and outlaw country — but it also finds them stretching the boundaries of their signature sound. “I didn’t want any one style of writing,” Ness says. “I didn’t want it to be all heavy, like White Light, White Heat, White Trash. I wanted some heavy and some light. I wanted some fiction and some nonfiction. I wanted versatility.”
That’s evident right away. The record’s first vocal track, “California (Hustle and Flow),” finds Social Distortion not roaring out of the gate so much as swaggering behind a chunky Stones-style locomotive groove. “This record has a lot of my influences,” Ness says, “But how far you go with those influences is up to you. With this record I wanted to go a little farther. I wanted people to hear that second track and realize, ‘Wow, this is not just another Social Distortion record.'” (For good measure the track has hints of “Ball and Chain” and the Stones’ “All Down The Line” and, for the first time, female backing vocals. “I’ve been listening to records for years with (backing vocals), and I was like, “Hey, why don’t I do that?” Ness laughs.)
It’s not that the band’s punk foundations have eroded; the first single “Machine Gun Blues,” a reel of gangland fiction set in 1934, could hail from “Somewhere Between Heaven and Hell.” But the record is evidence of the band’s ability to evolve as well. “Bakersfield,” a setlist staple in recent years, is a waking-on-the-railroad-tracks story of wrecked love, forgiveness and Buck Owens; it closes with a spoken-word verse to make Merle Haggard smile. “Can’t Take It With You” sports a Jerry Lee-style piano solo that scorches paint. And set closer “Still Alive” is a soaring carpe diem with an added emotional weight that can’t be described or duplicated.
“I live my life, pick up a guitar and try to report what I’ve observed,” Ness said. “The only thing different that I’ve noticed in the last 10 years is that I’m able to integrate the positive things in my life too, not just the negative. It’s important to write about fear and pain, loss and love, but I also think it should be balanced.”
For Hard Times, Social Distortion is Ness and longtime guitarist Jonny Wickersham, along with bassist Brent Harding and drummer David Hidalgo, Jr. Ness says the band’s firing on all cylinders, and predicts more to come — soon.
“I have a lot of songs that we didn’t finish on the last record, and we’re all feeling inspired right now. In the past the creative process would stop when the record was done, and I’d get into press and tour and performance mode. This time I realized that I didn’t have to stop when the record was done — I kind of kept writing. I think the band feeds off that — they realized it too.”
That record will be born in that new studio in California, a musical headquarters that Ness assembled. “I basically found a place close to home,” he says. “But I didn’t know what I was doing. I’d never built a studio before. It was basically just a big rectangular warehouse that I turned into five rooms.”
The studio is specifically designed to be a throwback to that vintage Americana, the physical complement to the music. “(The studio) has got jukeboxes, pinball machines, old radios and amps, microphones, everything music and entertainment-related,” Ness says. “I created a place I wanted to go to write and create and fill it with things that inspire me.”
But wherever it happens, that creation remains Ness’ primary focus. “I write songs for myself, and I hope that other people will like them too,” he says. “We honestly believe that there are hundreds of thousands of people who don’t know that they’re Social D fans yet.”