Social Distortion

Social Distortion - Mike Ness

  • April 21st, 2007
  • Phone

Social Distortion is easily one of the most influential punk bands around. It’s been thirty years and they’re still going strong. I had the great privilege of getting to talk to the one and only Mike Ness over the phone for a few minutes while they were in Calgary as part of their North American tour with I Hate Kate and The Black Halos. The interview went pretty well as we discussed the evolution of punk, trends, the Another State Of Mind documentary and touring with The Ramones among other things. If you don’t know who Social Distortion are, I highly suggest you check them out immediately, their legacy is legendary. Thanks to Mike for doing it and to Shane for setting it up.

Bobby: Starting with the basics, you guys have been on this North American tour with the Black Halos and I Hate Kate for around a week now, how’s that going so far?

Mike: It’s going really good.

Bobby: Has there been any really memorable moments from it so far?

Mike: Memorable moments? Not yet, no.

Bobby: For this tour you guys initially announced a small string of tour dates in Vancouver, Edmonton, Calgary and Winnipeg and they all sold out instantly. Instead of moving to a bigger venue, you just added a second show in all the cities. Do you think it’s important to play in the smaller clubs, like the 1,000 to 2,000 capacity venues, instead of the four to five thousand seaters?

Mike: Yeah, most of the time it’s better for us. Smaller crowds, smaller venues, you can feel it more, get into it more; and doing two nights allows us to see the city a little bit longer and absorb the culture of the town we’re playing in.

Bobby: You guys were also in the studio in December and January, is that right?

Mike: Well yeah, we’ve been putting together a greatest hits album and we were recording a new song so it starts at the beginning of our career and ends with the current status.

Bobby: The song’s called “Far Behind” right?

Mike: Yes.

Bobby: Can you tell us anything about this track? Were there any special guests or what is it about?

Mike: The song is about anyone who’s ever talked trashed about you because of their own insecurities. You know, everyone has someone like that and usually you weed them out but sometimes they re-appear. They never change. It’s kind of sad.

Bobby: What made you guys decide to do a greatest hits album now?

Mike: We just decided it was time. We’re writing for the new studio album so we thought we could easily put this together and put something new out while we were working.

Bobby: When do you think we’re gonna see the new studio album? Will it be another eight year wait?

Mike: Realistically, it won’t be until 2008.

Bobby: For a few years now you guys have been playing new songs live, like “I Won’t Run No More”, “Diamonds In The Rough”, and “Bakersfield”. I remember hearing “Diamonds In The Rough” two years ago when I saw you in London. Are all of those tracks going to be on the new album or are you still deciding?

Mike: Yeah, I think some will. We have a lot of songs – we don’t have a shortage that’s for sure. We want the next record to be better than the last one, that’s just how we do it.

Bobby: Being in a band for so long and writing songs for nearly three decades now, how hard is it to keep it fresh in the studio while writing new songs?

Mike: Well, I’m chronically irritable and discontent so I’ll always be able to write.

Bobby: You guys formed in 1978, nine years before I was even born. Do you think it’s weird that now, thirty years later, you’re still playing for the same kids you played for in the early 80s but also for their kids and people like me who weren’t even born when you formed?

Mike: That doesn’t feel weird, it feels good. That’s what you want to always do – keep your old fans and grab new ones along the way. We’ve managed to do that. I think we were a little bit ahead of our time and now the second generation has caught up with us and appreciate us and the old fans have stayed loyal. They also have passed it down to the other generations. Whether it’s word of mouth or whether it’s a nephew or a niece or a cousin or a child – a son or daughter – it’s all word of mouth. Maybe they bought tickets to AFI and maybe their uncle or big brother were like “well, that’s cool, but if you want see where all that stuff came from, maybe you should go check this out.” Or a kid goes to the record store to buy a Blink182 record, “why don’t you pick up a Bob Marley record while you’re there?” It’s cool though.

Bobby: Think of the evolution that happened over the past three decades. Like you guys say on your website that when the Orange County punk scene was growing up in the 1970’s and early 80’s it was treated as a gang and a gang movement. There were constables cracking down and warning people to beware of the gangs. Now, punk is like the norm and socially accepted – how do you think that transformation happened, from being a gang to being socially accepted?

Mike: Well, there’s two ways of looking at it. One way of looking at it is that we were part of a revolution, we wanted to change things, and twenty-five years later it has become the mainstream. Maybe twenty five years, society has opened their mind. That means more people will hear what you have to say provided you have something to say.

The other hand of it, it’s a double edge sword, when something cool becomes popular it suddenly becomes very uncool and very homogenized. We got tattoos for anti-social reasons, nowadays you get them to fit in or be accepted. That’s just one example.

Bobby: Last semester, I took a music class, and when we were studying Elvis the teacher brought up an interesting graph. It shows how the music industry is in a constant revolution going from Cultural Logic, some sort of subculture rebellion against the norm to create a new sound. Then the major corporations pick them up and use Industrial Logic to mass produce it and make money, which pisses kids off and starts yet another cultural evolution. You’ve been in the scene for so long, you’ve seen so many trends come and go, do you think the Industrial Logic / Cultural Logic graph would be a good way to describe the music industry?

Mike: Yeah. But Social Distortion has made it a point, pretty much, to always ignore what is hot or what is going on in the current trend.

Bobby: A lot of people say that “punk is dead”. Do you think punk is dead or that it will ever die?

Mike: Well, to me, the word “punk” means the beginning of something. To me, the punk movement was the beginning of what it is now. It’s kind of hard to say that it’s dead when it’s today’s style of music’s basic format now. But hopefully, it’s represented right and interpreted correctly. That’s the key. You can make Avril Lavigne look like a junkie, but that’s just makeup.

Bobby: You were saying that you can make people look punk, now there’s so much emphasis put on the fashion. Like you were talking about tattoos earlier and how people get them because that’s what’s expected now. Do you think now that there’s too much emphasis put on fashion and what sells rather than what you believe in and the introduction of new things?

Mike: Yeah, that’s exactly true. That’s accurate. The whole thing of punk rock is to be an individual. So when everybody looks the same, it’s kind of weird. So I think now, it’s more punk rock to be yourself. I have friends who have no tattoos and I think that’s so cool, because it’s more of a statement now to have none. I have so much more respect bands like The White Stripes or The Hives, who are trying to set trends rather than to follow them.

Bobby: Personally, I am fascinated with the old punk scene. It’s something I never got to experience and never will because I was so young, but it is so interesting to read about and hear about. I’ve read in interviews that you’re interested in acts like Muddy Waters, Hank Williams, George Jones, 50’s music and music from the 20’s and 30’s. Do you think it’s important for people to look back at the history of the music, to see where it came from and where the current scene and sound evolved from?

Mike: Absolutely. I mean, it’s my opinion that if you don’t have roots you don’t have anything. If you don’t have roots, you’re not grounded. If you’re going to go walking around the streets looking like this or that, you have to know what it is that you’re representing – where it came from and where it’s been. For us, it was that experience. It was a revolution against what was happening at the time. Now you just go to a mall and become something. You can become an instant biker or an instant rockabilly or an instant punk rocker and literally not even know what it is, where it came from, or anything. So I really think that punk, to me, means rebelling and that is an attitude. It’s a spirit that’s inside. I don’t care what you look like on the outside – that does not impress me – it’s what’s inside. You could be a corporate lawyer and still have this punk rock rebelliousness. You’re fighting for something you believe in, you want to make changes in the world and you want to take on the big guys.

Bobby: What are some acts and performers that you think have been incredibly influential on the music landscape and should definitely be looked at if anyone was looking into the evolution of punk and rock and blues and rockabilly and all of that?

Mike: Well, I would start right at the very beginning with bands like the Carter Family. The thirties’ folk music to the swinging jazz of the forties; basically jazz and blues and folk music and country music and primitive, early rock and roll that spawned into to the sixties and seventies glitter music. David Bowie, Lou Reed, New York Dolls, Beck. Those were all people who contributed to the evolution of rock and roll.

Bobby: I started working on the questions for this interview on April 15th , which happened to be the 60th anniversary of when Jackie Robinson stepped onto the baseball field crossing the racial barrier. But it was slightly overshadowed because a few days before Don Imus was fired for saying racial comments about the Rutgers University women’s basketball team. I was also doing research for this interview and read a story about how in 2003 you knocked out someone on stage for calling you a “nigger”. I also read in an interview where you talked about the music scene and racism in the 50s, saying you “couldn’t put a black guy out there, gyrating his hips” so they found a good looking white man in Elvis. Do you think it’s somewhat sad that its been 50-60 years and there’s still racism problems?

Mike: Pathetic is the word. I see it everyday. I’ve had my life threatened for my beliefs and that’s okay. I feel a certain responsibility to say what I feel when I see something wrong. To me, racism in this day and age, it’s just astounding. I can’t even understand it.

Bobby: When looking back at the documentary “Another State of Mind”, what do you like or dislike the most about yourself at that period of time?

Mike: I don’t know. I was a little drunk. Every time you see me in the movie I have a beer in my hand. I get kind of sad. I was lost, I was hurting inside, the movie doesn’t really show it that much but I almost died after that. I just see a scared, messed up kid. But I also see the beginning of what is now, the beginning of our career and the beginning of it all. In that aspect, it’s neat.

Bobby: One final question, I love going to concerts, I try to go to as many as I can, but of course, there’s always some which are a bit more memorable than others. So, thinking back, what are some concerts that you went to or you played that were really memorable for you?

Mike: Probably touring with The Ramones. That was a very good experience. They were like grown men but they acted like little children. It was like a comic book strip that came to life. It was entertainment everyday just watching them. It was nice to watch them on stage, but it was more fun to watch them behaving backstage, bickering and arguing. Awesome.

Bobby: Okay, I guess that’s about it. Thanks a lot. Do you have any final thoughts you’d like to add?

Mike: Time for a vegetarian dinner.