Punk & Hardcore

Social Distortion's Jonny Two Bags: "I Don't Know What Else I Would Be Doing If I Wasn't Playing Music."

Orange County punk legends Social Distortion have always been generous about performing in Arizona. The band usually plays a double-header at Marquee Theatre early in the year, and once again, Social D will return to the Marquee on January 22 and 23.

The Tempe dates are part of a string of multiple headlining dates Social Distortion has all over Southern California and Las Vegas. Year after year, these shows continue to sell out, which is a testament to Social Distortion's staying power. After 35 years of rocking songs about hard luck with women and the law, Social Distortion continues to have a mass appeal.

"I really haven't been interested in doing anything else with my time other than being involved with music," says guitarist Jonny "Two Bags" Wickersham. "I think that we just got really lucky in that we've been able to do that and it still is relevant. We're really fortunate because it's true: A lot of bands don't get that opportunity."

We recently caught up with Jonny Two Bags to discuss Social Distortion's legacy, the band's new material, and the guitarist's reaction to The Vandals' writing a song about him.

Up on the Sun: How's the tour going so far?

Jonny Wickersham: It's been cool. We did Anaheim House of Blues and the Hollywood House of Blues: That's where the majority of the shows are. We did a couple in Vegas, a few in San Diego. It's pretty cool. [It's] kind of like being on tour but not really going that far.

You guys have been playing double-header shows in Phoenix since I can remember. What keeps bringing you back to Arizona?

The shows are great there. We play there all the time. The crowd brings us back.

The shows always seem to sell out, or at least get close to it. How does your music continue to reach new, young fans?

Word of mouth is one way, but probably even more than that I'd say due to the Internet. It's interesting, because before I was in the band, I filled in for Dennis [Danell, who passed away in 2000], the original guitar player. He played in the spot that I play in Europe in '97.

At that point, Social D had been over to Europe, I think, twice before that, and it was a cool tour. I did the last couple of weeks of the tour because Dennis had to come home because his son was being born. They were good shows, but it wasn't like they were all sold out or anything like that. Weirdly, Social D didn't get back there 'til 2004, and I was in the band by then. It was a completely different thing. It was completely off the hook, the shows were all sold out and we were doing multiple nights in the same town. It was really crazy. It was just really exciting. The band hadn't been touring over there since '97. That's a lot of years in between. It had to be because of the Internet and word about the band getting out there.

How do you approach your setlist when you play a bunch of shows in the same city? Do you mix it up, or do you keep a lot of it the same?

We try to. We've been doing a pretty good job of it for this run. There's something about being able to get a set together and play it regularly. You just kind of get this groove and this flow happening that doesn't really happen as much when you're dramatically changing the set up. It's a different kind of energy that you put into playing. When you play a set enough times to where you're able to sort of anticipate what's coming, you can just kind of dig in a little bit more than when you're throwing a bunch of songs in that maybe you haven't been playing all the time. You're thinking a little bit more about it [laughs].

We have to do that so people don't come out and see the same set night after night, because a lot of the people that come to the shows, they come to a lot more than just one, so we have to do that for them. After a while, if you're playing the same set every night, it just gets burnt for us, so we've got to change it. We manage to go through all of the songs that we play live over the course of a couple of years, we [eventually] work our way through the whole catalog of tunes, the whole repertoire. There are the standards that we play almost every night -- "Ring of Fire," we play "Story of my Life" most of the time [and] "Bad Luck."

I like that you guys don't shy away from old songs.

Yeah, there are several off of Mommy's Little Monster that we do still. A couple that predate even that record, from Social D's first seven inches and stuff. "1945" or this song called "Rude Boy" that was on a compilation before the band even had an album out. Against all odds, Social Distortion has been going strong for over three decades. What has kept the band going?

That's a good question. It's hard to say. I think that we're just the kind of band . . . What else are we going to do? I don't know what else I would be doing if I wasn't playing music. It's always been so important to me, I really haven't been interested in doing anything else with my time other than being involved with music -- playing, touring, recording, writing.

I think that we just got really lucky in that we've been able to do that and it still is relevant. We're really fortunate because it's true, a lot of bands don't get that opportunity. It's not like we sit down and plan out how to make that happen, it just sort of worked out that way.

How has the music scene has changed since you first started playing in bands?

The Internet and technology has everything to do with the changes in music in the past decade or 15 years, or whatever. Everything from the ability to share music online, which affects record sales, to the ability for somebody to make a record in their living room and get a ProTools rig and set it up in their living room and record the record and go out and press some CDs or upload it, and just get it out there that way.

On one hand, I think that's really great, that gives everybody the opportunity to be creative and express themselves and hopefully it gives everybody a fair chance to be heard. At the same time, that also creates the opportunity to do something to where there's such a huge influx of stuff happening. How are you even going to make a dent when there's so much happening?

As far as record sales and everything, it makes it to where nobody's really making money from selling their records anymore, so you've got to get out in order to make a living. You've got to stay on the road.

Do you see the same kind of passion in fans nowadays that you witnessed in the '80s Southern California heyday?

Oh, absolutely. It's so great that the live show doesn't seem to have lost any power. I was actually kind of concerned with that at one point. I love to look at YouTube just like everybody else. It's all available to see, like, old Mississippi Fred McDowell footage and stuff that you would have never have been able to find. Every one of our concerts is pretty much thrown up on YouTube the next couple of days after. I thought, 'Wow, is this going to kill it for people?' Are they just going to be, like, 'Well, whatever, man. I'll just go on YouTube and watch it,' but it's definitely not the same experience, and I see it in the faces of the people at the shows. I think that people get the same from the shows as they always have. There have been some big gaps between Social Distortion album releases. Why have you avoided the new-album-every-two-years routine?

It's not something we've ever done intentionally, but we just do a record when we feel it's time to do a record. Of course, we always start talking about it long before we do, but it just happens that way. I don't know if we're going to get a record out early next year or not, that's kind of what we're talking about. We probably would like to not put five years in between these two records, but we'll see what happens. Like I said, it's not intentional, and it's weird because I think that that's kind of worked out in a good way for us because the bands that do put a record out every couple of years . . . after a while, there's so many records. I would have to say that for some of my favorite artists of all, there's four, five, or six records that I really like. Maybe eight. Elvis Costello's got a bunch of great records.

Yet he has so many overall.

You know what I'm saying. I don't know that it's necessary to do that, really.

How's your new album coming along?

It's good. It's got some new stuff and some kind of new-old stuff that we've been playing live. A couple of tracks that Mike [Ness] had from years back that we've been doing in our set recently that may or may not make it on to the next record.

It's kind of the usual thing for us, where we'll get some ideas and we'll just throw them in the set and see how it goes. Social D's always been known for playing songs live before they're recorded. That hasn't changed. We've been kind of doing the same thing. We do that, and then when it comes time to really get in the studio, that's when we go through and focus in on what is going to make the record or not. [We] do demos and see what stuff is turning out better in the studio or not. It's been my experience a lot of times that songs which seemed to be really cool live didn't work out so great recorded [laughs].

I'm guessing the song The Vandals wrote about you was all in good fun since Josh Freese drummed on your last album.

That just goes back so long ago. When I was in my late teens/early 20s, it was weird. There were some of us that went in the direction of roots music. Social D/Cadillac Tramps, bands like that [played] blues/country/Americana stuff. We started integrating that into our sound, and then there were other people from our scene that didn't. The Vandals didn't go in that direction, obviously, and at the time, they were kind of goofing around with hip-hop stuff.

Dave Quackenbush would always try to clown me about, "You can't be a bluesman, you're a punk rock dude from Orange County." You know, whatever. It was basically kind of an inside/long-running joke between us. When they recorded that, I was living in Long Beach with my girlfriend, and our roommate Andrea worked at Nitro Records. I didn't even know that song existed until it was on the record. She came home one day from work and she had the advance record. She said, "Check this out," and I was completely surprised, but I wasn't the only one.

There's a song on there about Randy Bradbury, the bass player from Pennywise, there's a song on there on that same record about our old friend Chris [Lagerborg, drummer] who passed away. He played in the Vandals for awhile, he was the first Cadillac Tramps drummer. He played with Jack Grisham and Joykiller, he just played in a bunch of bands. He was a really great drummer and one of our oldest friends. That record featured songs about a bunch of our friends.

At least it was nicer than something like "Aging Orange."

Oh, God, yeah [laughs].

Were you guys friends before it came out?

Yeah, we were totally friends. We hung out all the time.

So, I'm sure you got a kick out of it more than being offended.

Oh, yeah, I was never offended. I was definitely shocked when I heard it because I didn't see it coming at all. It fucking blindsided me, but I wasn't mad about it or anything.

What does this year have in store for Social Distortion?

After we're finished with this run of shows, we're going to take some time off because we've been on the road for about two years straight. We're just going to take some time off, and everybody's probably going to go live their lives for a while [laughs]. Maybe do different music stuff. Just get away from the SD thing for a while.

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Melissa Fossum
Contact: Melissa Fossum