Mike Ness Reflects on Social Distortion’s Legacy
Mike Ness is the epitome of rock ‘n’ roll. He formed Social Distortion back in 1978 and is still going strong as frontman of the legendary punk act. As the band works on a new album and as Ness prepares to release an autobiography, aptly titled ‘Story of My Life’ after one of Social D’s biggest hits, we caught up with the veteran rocker to discuss the band’s legacy and more.
The 51-year-old rock icon’s musical journey has certainly had its ups and downs, as he battled through drug and alcohol addiction in the ’80s before achieving mainstream success in the early ’90s with hits such as ‘Ball & Chain’ and ‘Bad Luck.’
Ness has taken bits of rock ‘n’ roll, punk, country and blues and has turned them into a sound that’s distinctly Social Distortion, one of the most revered acts to come out of the So Cal punk scene. In the interview below, he tells us of his battle with addiction, as well as his ability to stay clean for so many years. He also looks back at the benefits and pitfalls of signing with a major label, and talks about his favorite artists in the industry.
Check out our interview with the legendary Mike Ness below:
It’s 30-plus years since the release of Social Distortion’s classic debut album ‘Mommy’s Little Monster.’ What are your memories of writing and recording that album?
I don’t even remember making that record. It was just a blackout. But I recently watched the film ‘Another State of Mind’ and I still write the same way — alone with an acoustic guitar. Even though we’ve evolved musically and lyrically, a lot of things have stayed just the same.
In between ‘Mommy’s Little Monster’ and ‘Prison Bound,’ you had some hard times in terms of drug and alcohol addiction. But you’re a rare exception in the rock world in that you cleaned up and have have stayed clean for 25-plus years. For those struggling with addiction, what’s the most important factor in staying clean for so long?
For getting clean, it was simply pain was a great motivator. I was addicted to drugs and alcohol before I had any success with the band. I wasn’t shooting dope at the St. Regis Hotel or in the back of a limousine.
"To be doing what I was doing back then now, if I didn’t die, it would be going to prison, and I’m just not willing to do that at this juncture in my life."I started at the bottom and ended up getting even lower. So for me, that actually helped me. Because of my painful childhood, it wasn’t easy for me to keep going on and it put me in a very lonely situation. So that just kind of puts you in a desperate position where you’re willing to try something new.
As far as staying clean all this time, it’s just been keeping in the forefront of my mind that I could go back to that at any moment, and I know the disease progresses. So, to be doing what I was doing back then now, if I didn’t die, it would be going to prison, and I’m just not willing to do that at this juncture in my life.
After 1988’s ‘Prison Bound,’ Social Distortion signed to Epic and achieved mainstream success with 1990’s self-titled disc featuring ‘Ball & Chain’ and ‘Story of My Life.’ What was that like for you, being in an underground band for a dozen or so years at that point, to suddenly achieve that notoriety?
Well, it’s everything. Pretty much every band’s dream is to sign to a major label — at the time I was painting houses for a living — quit the day job and devote all your time and energy to what you love, music. In that aspect, it was great. Now, we can get out and tour the country and more people can see us. We’re getting regular airplay, more people would hear us.
But it just wasn’t financially the best situation for a band to be on a major label where they’re fighting everything and you’re constantly going into debt with them. It worked for a while, but when it was time to renegotiate, we really figured out that they weren’t doing anything for us we weren’t doing for ourselves. And it was very liberating to just go back to the do-it-yourself way with which we started the band.
One of your biggest influences, The Rolling Stones, just celebrated 50 years as a band. Social Distortion have now been around 35 years. Where do you see Social D in the next 10-15 years?
Well, none of us really know how to do anything else. We still love what we do, so I imagine we’ll still be doing it.
That’s great to hear. Speaking of influences, Social Distortion have recorded some great cover songs over the year — ‘Ring of Fire,’ ‘Under My Thumb’ and ‘Making Believe,’ to name a few. Is there a song out there that you haven’t covered yet that you’d love to record?
Most people don’t realize that I’m a huge Tom Petty fan. He’s a great storyteller and an amazing songwriter and musician. Usually, how it works is that I love a song so much that I play it in my living room for five years and all of a sudden I take it to rehearsal and say, ‘We’re gonna cover this.’
Along the same lines, you’ve collaborated with great musicians like Bruce Springsteen and Brian Setzer over the years. Is there a dream artist out there whom you’d still love to work with?
"One of my fantasy gigs was to play rhythm guitar for the Ramones. Not to sing or be the frontman. Just chew bubblegum and play rhythm guitar."Well, when I did work with Springsteen, he showed up to Asbury Park and we warmed up on the bus, and I never heard my voice fuse together with someone’s so naturally before. We almost had the same tone, and it was very profound to me. Working with a bigger artist is every musician’s dream, kind of, to give you even more credibility and experience. Bruce, Tom Petty, Keith Richards.
But one of my fantasy gigs was to just play rhythm guitar for the Ramones when they were still together. Just one tour. Not to sing or be the frontman. Just chew bubblegum and play rhythm guitar.
Finally, Social Distortion have been described as ‘punk rock,’ ‘rockabilly,’ ‘punkabilly,’ ‘cow punk’ and more. For someone who has never heard the band before, what term would you use to describe Social Distortion’s music?
When I used to see bands in the early days, you would see a rockabilly band playing with a punk band — it was just one underground scene. You didn’t leave there going, “Fear wasn’t very rockabilly and the Blasters weren’t very punk.” Ultimately, it comes down to American rock ‘n’ roll. We have many facets to us — there’s punk, there’s country, there’s blues, there’s bluegrass, even folk music. I have to say it’s good old fashioned catchy American rock ‘n’ roll.
Our thanks to Mike Ness for taking the time to speak with us. Social Distortion’s most recent album is 2011’s ‘Hard Times and Nursery Rhymes.’ You can pick up that disc, as well as their other albums, at iTunes.
Watch Social Distortion’s ‘Story of My Life’ Video
Watch Social Distortion’s ‘Gimme the Sweet and Lowdown Video’ Video