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As a co-founding member of Social Distortion in the late 70’s punk explosion in Los Angeles, Mike Ness has evolved into one of punk music’s most recognized and respected musicians and songwriters. Born in Stoneham, Massachusetts and raised in Orange County, California , the lead singer and guitarist for Social Distortion has always held American folk and blues roots music in high regard. Social Distortion’s trademark ( ferocious punk cords and aggressive playing style) are infused with thought provoking introspective lyrics, Influenced as much from Johnny Cash and Hank Williams as Joe Strummer and Sid Vicious.
After the release of 1996’s "White Light, White Heat, White Trash," which contained the hit single "I Was Wrong," Social D took a hiatus primarily due to the sudden death of Dennis Danell (from a brain aneurism), the other co-founding member of the band and Mike’s best friend.
Ness took time off to explore his folk, country, and rockabilly roots by releasing "Cheating at Solitaire," and “Under the Influences” , his first two solo releases in 1999. Social Distortion however took more time to produce 2004’s release, “Sex, Love, and Rock–n-Roll.” Dedicated to Danell, “Sex, Love, and Rock–n-Roll” could be the band’s best work to date as the album contains ten solid songs.
Fresh from a European tour, Mike Ness and Social D landed in Chicago to play three consecutive sold-out shows at the House of Blues - a great place to see a live show due to its overall ambiance and great acoustics. It’s also a great place to conduct an interview because the place has a vibe. Just like me, thousands of performers and living legends have climbed three flights of stairs from back stage to hang out. As I walked through dark cavernous rooms, I couldn’t help but think: If these walls could talk…
The walls aren’t talking today but Mike Ness of Social Distortion is. As we were settling in, Ness was initially a bit uncomfortable with our camera gear and asked his tour manager why he didn’t tell him there were going to be pictures. We assured him that the cameras were for photos from the live performance later that night. For now, we just wanted to talk…
MusicPix: Describe Social D’s music…
Mike Ness: I’ve always described Social Distortion as starting out as a punk band but along the way we grabbed everything we could from American roots music and incorporated it into our sound because I saw a connection from that kind of music through punk…being working class music. And music being of rebellion and revolution, I saw the connection of punk music going all the way back to the 20’s-the depression era, blues, jazz, rockabilly, country…all that stuff. In other words, I grew up with the Beatles and the Stones and then I heard the Pistols.
MusicPix: Give us your perspective on punk- now and then?
Mike Ness: We were a part of a music revolution and we set out to change things and it was kind of a runaway train…no one really knew. It wasn’t like we had a leader giving us a direction and a goal to achieve. We just knew that we didn’t like the way things were. So 25 years later, punk has become a major format of music now. It’s been acknowledged as a significant movement. But it’s just like anything…like contemporary country, just like contemporary blues…record companies and radio stations don’t really want the real thing. They just want something that’s going to sell. It’s just like in the 50’s when we had all that racism. They couldn’t put a black guy out there, gyrating his hips and doin’ all that shit. They had to find a good lookin’ white guy to do it. It’s very similar. A lot gets lost in the translation. A lot gets lost in marketing. And all of a sudden, you’ve got this homogenized version of what is.
MusicPix: In your opinion, are there any new, true punk bands?
Mike Ness: Definitely. Every now and then, a good bad breaks through. I personally appreciate the bands that are into taking risks like the White Stripes or the band The Hives- they are two bands that stick out to me as being very individual. They don’t sound like anybody else. They don’t want to sound like anyone else, they are just trying to create their own sound. To me, that was what the whole spirit was. Punk was about being an individual, like taking shit from your best friend even if he didn’t approve. It was like you were going to go out and do it because it was something that you believed in.
MusicPix: Your lyrics elude to looking through the devil’s eyes and he’s looked through yours eyes as well. Songs like “I Was Wrong” reveals repentance in a way and a great sense of thankfulness for living. Was your dance on the dark side a necessary evil?
Mike Ness: Yea, I think so. I think that everything happens for a reason and my past has made me who I am today. Definitely.
MusicPix: I can’t help from noticing the Shriner’s fez on your stage and it’s in your CD imagery. Could you tell us about its significance?
Mike Ness: It’s not so much significance as it is fascination. I can’t get a straight answer out of anybody what a Mason is. To me, that’s just fascinating and I want to go under cover and probe it or exploit it or make fun of it. In a way, it’s really cool because it’s so absurd.
MusicPix: I understand that some of our founding fathers were Shriners!
Mike Ness: I never really looked at it that way but yeah, I see some sort of connection.
MusicPix: What’s on your horizon with Social D as well as your solo work?
Mike Ness: We’re still reverberating off of a very positive studio experience making the last album. We didn’t use all the songs. We have a lot of songs. We have a very creative energy right now so I think we want to do another record pretty quick. Try to decompress next year and in the meantime, write.
MusicPix: You have the ability to clearly communicate your feelings through songwriting but you’ve been quoted as saying that you don’t think you’re a good communicator. Why is that?
Mike Ness: Well, (chuckle) on a personal level, I’m probably a little emotionally retarded. I don’t mean just because of my upbringing…my wife will tell ya, yeah…
MusicPix: Every wife will tell you that!
Mike Ness: [Laughing] Not just me…I don’t know. I keep to myself a lot. I keep a lot inside. Music is just the way I release it I think.
MusicPix: Your lyrics are so true and they make us realize our own truths. Your fans appreciate your honesty. Thank you for that.
MusicPix: You’ve never really kept your political view hidden away and there’s a hot bed of controversy over the Katrina disaster. Would you care to cut loose?
Mike Ness: Well, I’ll talk about it a little bit. We’ve always been an apolitical band-just writing about the streets and stuff like that. That’s because I gave up on education in the sixth grade. Politics bored me and I didn’t want to learn about history or any of that. Now, I wish I had because it’s great stuff to write about. As I get older, I become aware of things….we have written a couple of political songs and we definitely will in the future. But I talk about it when we do Don’t Drag Me Down, especially just coming from Europe…I love the United States. I love America but I don’t trust the government. I don’t agree with their policies and I don’t like John Wayne and I don’t like the John Wayne mentality. We can never admit that we’re wrong. We can never learn from our mistakes. And this (Katrina) is just a perfect example. How can we let this happen to our own country and our own people because of billions and billions and billions of dollars are being spent on things that I don’t feel that we need. Someone stole my idea about having a series (TV) with a black woman as President. That’s what I thought. Or an Asian woman to balance it out…we’re out of fucking balance man. In more ways that one.
MusicPix: Which brings about another great aspect of your songwriting - you talk about dualities. Why do you think we struggle so hard between them?
Mike Ness: It’s almost like when there’s a story, there’s a story underneath it that’s the truth.
MusicPix: It’s no secret that you’ve overcome drug addiction and you’ve been real honest about it. What keeps you clean every day?
Mike Ness: Probably just gratitude. It’s very clear to me where I was, and not wanting to go back there ever again…it’s been almost twenty years, but there’s no doubt in my mind that I could end up right back there, definitely worse if I even lived. It’s gratitude. I enjoy life so much more without it. I wouldn’t do anything for twenty years if it wasn’t better.
MusicPix: You’ve got a family now which makes things different. How does parenting affect your music?
Mike Ness: It’s funny…I think that last record (and people said) that it was more positive than the previous album, White Light, White Heat and it was brought up to me that I was at a different place of my life back then. Yeah, I think that it has a lot to do with it. What good is money, cars, a house, and success if you don’t have anybody to share it with? My examples of love have always been distorted. Basically, I got lucky. I wasn’t going to find love in the places I was looking. I got lucky and I found a woman and we had kids. It’s changed my life profoundly. The record prior to White Light had positive stuff in it. I guess I’m just learning that you can get just as much inspiration from good things as bad things and people like that too.
MusicPix: We have a series of questions that we ask every artist called the MusicPix Six:
What was the first instrument you played and at what age?
Mike Ness: My first thing…I learned some basic drum fundamentals and how to keep a beat. How the bass drum and snare worked. That gave me my whole foundation for guitar playing. It was drums, but really just the intro to drums, that awoke me to the guitar.
MusicPix: What are artist/performed has influenced you the most?
Mike Ness: Oh man….God, I don’t think I can do it! There are just so many that have an equal significance to me. I want to say Mick Jagger but he got everything from Muddy Waters. Then I want to say Hank Williams but you can’t leave out George Jones. Then you want to say Joe Strummer but what about Joey Ramone? Tom Petty…It’s too hard because I look to several. I have all these categories and I keep it at this even thing and I draw from them all equally.
MusicPix: If you weren’t in Social D, what band would you like to play in?
Mike Ness: I’d like to play in the New York Dolls…yeah, yeah. I just saw them for the first time and I’m reading a book about them right now and I’m just fascinated by them. They could have been as big as Aerosmith or any of those bands from that period but they were just plagued by incidents and record labels not wanting to take a risk. I go back to that Alan Freed, Sam Phillips School. Hey man, forget what’s safe. Let’s just turn these people on to this kind of music. Like Sam Phillips discovered this type of music and wanted to introduce it to the rest of the world. I just have so much respect for that. Record companies don’t do that and they haven’t for a long time. I’d love to just play rhythm guitar with the New York Dolls…We are supposed to meet up in New York and I’m excited about that.
MusicPix: What are your (3) ‘desert island’ records?
Mike Ness: Exile on Main St.-The Rolling Stones, The Carter Family, and some Ramones, Road to Ruin is my favorite.
MusicPix: Who do you think is the most over-rated in the music business?
Mike Ness: Over-rated….God I need some pictures too look at… give me a magazine (Grabs a Rolling Stone off the table)
You know what bums me out? I don’t know if it says over-rated but I would love to get into songwriting and scoring and I can’t stand Randy Newman. He’s in all the movies. He’s got a good gig. Over-rated yeah.
MusicPix: Well you’ve got the magazine in your hand, so I have to ask you, have you listened to A Bigger Bang? (Rolling Stones)
Mike Ness: I have not heard it yet. I’m a loser. I buy records two or three years after they come out…you know what I mean? For some reason, I’m just out of the loop. I bought Nirvana’s album long after Kurt died. Not for any real reason than that’s just when I wanted it.
Oh yeah, I know who’s over-rated. Dave Navarro, the guitar player. That’s not meant as a slap…
MusicPix: You’re into old stuff. You go to flea markets. You dig deep into music history from the 20’s, 30’s, music that falls into the margins. Could you tell us why?
Mike Ness: For some reason, it’s easier for me to respect someone when they are dead. When they’re alive, you pick up on all their personalities’ traits or something that you don’t really like and you loose respect. When they’re dead, it’s easy. It’s their legacy. I love Green Day and I think they are a great band but I don’t want to see them everywhere I look. Then I see they have a stylist…oh my God, they’ve got a stylist! So it’s like, it just rubs me wrong. It makes me look at them differently. I can take what I do like and leave what I don’t. I guess it’s more that I just like to go right to the source of things. I would rather go to where it came from. Undiluted- un-cut- the real thing.
MusicPix: What about California? It’s changed so much over the years…knowing you like old things and not strip malls and franchised stuff…
Mike Ness: I think that I’ll always be there. There are just certain things about it –the central coast, the palm trees, the missions, everything. I don’t think I could leave it.
MusicPix: Well you do a great job of describing it in Highway 101- one of my favorites…
Mike Ness: Cool, it’s one of my favorites…
MusicPix: Every music lover has some songs in their life that grab from here to here (hands used to show from the throat to the belly-button) that just touches your soul. Are there any songs that do that for you?
Mike Ness: There were two songs from that Lucinda Williams album, Car Wheels on Gravel Road. One is Lost and we played that at me and wife’s wedding. And the other is, Drunken Angel. It’s not so much situational because she’s writing about a boyfriend that was a drunk and got shot. But symbolically, I was able to see a connection in that song with myself. Wow… how some sort of divine intervention saved me from the fate like that and took me to the stage in Chicago…
MusicPix: And here you are and we’re glad you’re here.
MusicPix: What your perfect world?
Mike Ness: I just feel that we could learn a lot from Europeans and Canadians…other countries…to still being teachable and learn from other people.
1983 Mommy’s Little Monster
1988 Prison Bound
1990 Social Distortion
1992 Somewhere Between Heaven and Hell
1996 White Light, White Heat, White Trash
1998 Live at the Roxy
2004 Sex, Love and Rock ‘n’ Roll
Mike Ness Solo
1999 Cheating at Solitaire
1999 Under The Influences
- Social Distortion