Riffs, Rants & Rumors: Social Distortion's Mike Ness – Punk Survivor

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Welcome to the inaugural edition of Riffs, Rants & Rumors, a new weekly column where we’ll survey the sweet and the sour, the sublime and the ridiculous, the tragic and the triumphal, from all across the rock and roll landscape. To kick things off, we caught singer Mike Ness for a conversation about his long-lived band, Social Distortion, who have spent the last three decades becoming punk legends by combining their hardcore roar with country, rockabilly and other influences. Social D are touring from now through March in support of a brand new album, Hard Times and Nursery Rhymes, that puts a well-directed twist on the LA punk trailblazers’ signature sound.

A while back, the band had stated that their next project would be a radical departure, an acoustic-based album. “I wanted to take some older songs and recreate them in an acoustic, more intimate type of setting,” explains Ness. “In our live set right now we take a song like ‘Cold Feelings’ and slow it down, and we have acoustic guitars and an accordion¦it’s real quiet and haunting. I wanted to record that way with the same [Social Distortion] songs that you’ve been listening to for years, but a different approach to them.” Ultimately, though, the ever-increasing amount of time since the last album, 2004’s Sex, Love and Rock ‘n’ Roll, led to a different plan. “That would have been great maybe two years after the last LP. But because so much time had gone by, that got put on the back burner. It wasn’t that we changed our minds, it’s just that we haven’t gotten around to it yet.”

Instead, Ness and company went to work on an album full of raw, rocking energy that pays tribute to the band’s ’70s punk roots while still tossing in the country flavors that havebecome a Social Distortion trademark. For instance, there’s a cover of Hank Williams’ bleak classic “Alone and Forsaken” that’s given a powerful, punky update. “When I heard [the original], it just slayed me,” says Ness, “That’s how I always pick the covers. It’s a song I’ve been playing alone in my house for five or ten years, now it’s time to take it to the stage.” Meanwhile, Ness describes his own “Bakersfield” as being lyrically “an homage to Buck Owens, but musically it’s an homage to the Stones.”

So how did a bunch of young punks at the start of the ’80s wind up introducing rootsy elements into their music in the first place? “My mom had the Smithsonian Folkways set, my dad had Johnny Cash, and The Dillards, and bluegrass, and Merle Haggard,” reveals Ness. “By the time I got into punk, when I was 17 years old, I couldn’t sit through a five-minute Muddy Waters song, I didn’t have the patience. I wanted something fast, hard, and loud to get me revved up for the night ahead, of craziness.” But by the time  Social Distortion cut 1988’s Prison Bound, Ness had come back around to those earthy sounds. “That’s when I was really just painting houses for a living, listening to oldies all day long on the radio, and just really felt like this is where it all began.”

Eventually, Ness would earn the admiration of another artist with deep roots in Americana”Bruce Springsteen. Over the last several years, Ness and The Boss have popped up at each other’s shows, joining in on each other’s songs. How did this friendship begin? “In 1992, when Somewhere Between Heaven and Hell came out, I believe he was quoted in Rolling Stone magazine [saying] that he thought that was the record of the year or something like that. It seems like the people I gravitate to are the storytellers, whether it’s Woody Guthrie or Johnny Cash or Hank Williams, people who tell stories in their music, and he’s absolutely one of them.”

So does Ness still consider the Social Distortion of Hard Times and Nursery Rhymes to be a punk band? “From my perspective, I look at the word ˜punk’ as the beginning of something. Ultimately that’s what it was. It was the beginning of what is now. So that’s why I say yes, I still consider us a punk band. It’s as much a part of us as anything. I do think [punk] was kind of a runaway train. It was a revolution, but unlike the revolution of the ˜60s, at least the hippies kind of had an objective and a goal, where punk was very narcissistic. At least the hippies kind of got off their ass and did stuff. Punks just thought you had to destroy everything, with no thought into the future”you can’t just destroy, you’ve gotta have a plan to do something better.”

Social Distortion US tour dates:

1/27 – Los Angeles, CA – Hollywood Palladium – SOLD OUT

1/28 – Los Angeles, CA – Hollywood Palladium – SOLD OUT

1/29 – Los Angeles, CA – Hollywood Palladium – SOLD OUT

1/31 – Modesto, CA – Centre Plaza

2/1 – Davis, CA – Davis Freeborn Hall

2/3 – San Francisco, CA – The Warfield

2/4 – San Francisco, CA – The Warfield

2/8 – Portland, OR – Crystal Ballroom – SOLD OUT

2/9 – Portland, OR – Crystal Ballroom

2/11 – Seattle, WA – Showbox SoDo

2/12 – Seattle, WA – Showbox SoDo – SOLD OUT

2/15 – Reno, NV – Grand Sierra Theatre

2/16 – Fresno, CA – EOC Gym Events Center

2/19 – San Diego, CA – House of Blues – SOLD OUT

2/20 – San Diego, CA – House of Blues – SOLD OUT