Mike Ness and Social Distortion Have Matured With Age Like a Fine Wine

Orange County, California, punk rockers Social Distortion should be content to crank out formulaic songs of impulsive teen-angst and rebellion in the vein of “Mommy’s Little Monster” and “Another State of Mind” over and over, right?

They could, but enigmatic frontman and band originator Mike Ness approaches his music from a place of been there, done that. Been there and done the drugs, prison time, surviving band member deaths and facing down personal demons. He’s come out clean on the other side with a kickass band that is as good as any in the business.

“When I was 20 years old I was writing about rebelling against mom and dad and the cops,” Ness says. “I think it may be a little ridiculous if I was 54 and still writing about mom and dad and the cops.”

Don’t get Ness wrong, he and his band have relished the longevity and fan base that has come with nearly 40 decades and seven albums of songs.

Yet, Ness and veteran bandmates guitarist Jonny “Two Bags” Wickersham, bass player Brent Harding, drummer David Hidalgo, Jr., and semi-regular keyboardist David Kalish are on the verge of recording their band’s eighth studio album, and the group is continuing to expand its sound.

Ness feels his current lineup, now together since just shortly after Hard Times and Nursery Rhymes
was recorded seven years ago, are always in sync. He feels it is nice to have a solid core after having gone through nearly 21 previous members over the 39 years of the band.

“They are able to help me execute what I see and what I hear, and that’s invaluable to have guys who can speak your language and understand your insanity,” he says.

When they released Hard Times and Nursery Rhymes in 2011, they saw the band evolve with a more rhythm and blues-rock sound, a la Rolling Stones. Along with proper use of spacing in songs and not having all of its guitars and bass sound stacked on top of each other, Ness even had two female backing vocalists on a couple cuts, “California (Hustle and Flow)” and “Can’t Take It with You.”

The album discussed Ness looking back on the hard days of lawlessness, longing, rock-and-roll excess and redemption from a third-person viewpoint, a slight departure from his usual typical autobiographical voice. The album was tight as hell and showed Ness’s willingness to connect his punk attitude with a more dynamic rock 'n' roll sound.

Along the way, the band gained more critical acclaim, and its biggest fans include the likes Of Bruce Springsteen, Neil Young, and others. Oh, and HTNR climbed all the way up to No. 4 on the Billboard Top 200 albums chart.

“I feel like it was kind of finding our place a little bit more in the industry and the alternative world, and all of that," Ness remarks on Hard Times and Nursery Rhymes. “It’s like, ‘This is us; this is what we’ve worked hard to get to.'"

And while to fans it may seem like forever for a new SD album to hit the streets, for Ness at 55 it’s about taking time to get each one right.

“It has to be organic," Ness says. "You know it’s like ‘I want to finish three songs by this tour’, and then I do that and I can’t even think anymore. ‘Is that the best line I can write or am I trying to meet a deadline?’

“My goal is to be in the studio by Fall. Unfortunately, I have to write the record of my career right now. That’s the pressure I put on myself,” admits Ness.
When Social Disortion hits the stage of The Marquee April 3 and 4, the focus will be marking the 25th anniversary of its fourth album, Somewhere Between Heaven and Hell, released in 1992, It was on that album, the band’s second of three recorded with Epic Records, that it had its first big commercial breakthrough.

The album peaked at No, 76 on the Billboard Top 200, and was anchored by “Bad Luck,” which rose all the way to No. 2 on the Modern Rock chart.

On the long-awaited next album, Ness is continuing to expand the sound.

“It’s tough with Social Distortion, you’ve got two rhythm guitars on 10, you’ve got hard drums and hard bass, and sometimes it’s hard to get the definition you want,” he says, adding, “I’m really playing with guitars that push and play with each other, complement each other; there not just sitting on top of each other, and kick-patterns (drums) that just make the groove swing even more by doing less. It’s fun to play with.”

And while certainly, SD is his day job, he was asked to participate on the noted Ernie Ball “Pursuit of Tone” Documentary Series of the journey of modern rock guitarist.

As if his plate isn’t full enough, Ness is also still dabbling with an autobiography, but not for public consumption for awhile. Mike Ness was born in Lynn, Massachusetts. Despite living nearly all of his formative years in Fullerton, California, Ness has family still back East.

“I went back East and visited my 103-year-old great aunt, to do research. I visited my father and interviewed him, and cousins, collected photographs," he says. "It’s a slow thing; I have a rough draft, but it just wasn’t my work. When it does come time to write the book, I feel like I’ve got a great start, and the more time that goes by the better I am going to be able to articulate in the book.”
In addition to working on a new Social Distortion album where the band’s activity is his day job, his moonlighting solo career may get an update, soon. He even has material to record for his next solo effort, which would be the first since his pair of 1998 albums, Cheating at Solitaire and Under the Influences.

One reason for his renewed vigor and endurance is that besides raising a family with his wife, and running his vintage hot rod attire and auto accessories company Black Kustom Kats, Ness is a big boxing fan and stays in shape by getting in the ring, hitting the speed bag, and jumping rope.

"I’m sparring again against 35-year-olds. It’s a lot of fun. It’s the one thing besides being a family man, and being a musician. I have other passions, cars and other stuff, but it’s the one thing if I stop doing it, I start to hate myself and start feeling soft. It just does so much more for me than just physical. It releases all the chemicals in my brain for that day when I need a release. My doctor says I have the heart of a 20-year-old.”

With so many good things on the horizon, for Ness life is good for Ness and his band. The key has been his gut reaction to everything that comes before him, especially the band and sticking to his vision which has gotten him past those who doubted his vision.

“I remember bands saying 'Ball and Chain' is not a very hardcore song, and I would say, ‘Oh, it’s not? Maybe you should listen to the lyrics,’" Ness says. "The best lesson is that my instincts have been right a lot of the times, with music anyways. Trusting them has paid off.”
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Mark C. Horn
Contact: Mark C. Horn