Mike Ness of Social Distortion

No matter how many miles, how many states, provinces, counties or countries you’ve toured; life on the road is always an unpredictable animal.

I had attempted to reach Social Distortion mastermind and front-man, Mike Ness, several times on his cell phone to no avail, and was almost ready to give up on the idea that I would be speaking to one of my favorite vocalists and lyricists when the phone rang. I answered with the typical “Hello?” and there was Mike Ness, apologizing to me for the delay in our scheduled talk. So much for the warnings I had been given, about Ness being a difficult person to chat with; during the next forty minutes, he engaged me openly about everything I put his way. “We got into town today and our hotel wasn’t ready” he sighed, “just luck I guess”. The band had just finished their sound check at the Royal Oak Theater in Michigan and had a little bit of down time before that night’s festivities were set to begin anew.  “You know, it takes about a week to get into the swing of things, and we haven’t gotten there yet. I mean, the shows have been great; it’s just the other twenty-two and a half hours that we have difficulty with” explain Ness when asked how the band was getting used to life on the road once again. “You have to figure out when to take a bath and when to wind your watch. It is hard work but we obviously love it, or we wouldn’t do it so much”.

Hard times are what the group has been singing about over the last three decades, always telling the tale of the working class, the downtrodden and those less fortunate souls. After all the years, Ness continues to write lyrics along similar lines as he did back on the band’s debut, “Mommy’s Little Monster” in 1983. I wondered aloud if his lyrics had the same impact on him today as they did then, to which he responded; “they are my beginnings and the good news is when you come from dirt, you can only go up, but you know, it’s important to remember where you come from, so yeah, we’re not rich superstars so that kind of just keeps you aware. I’m kind of like you, I’m a journalist, and I report what I see or what I experience and sometimes I do it auto biographically or sometimes I do it through character writing but it’s really just down to experiences”. His lyrical themes were accentuated in a music video made for a track off of the group’s most recent record, “Hard Times And Nursery Rhymes”, in which a bank robbery goes wrong and people get killed. The clip for “Machine Gun Blues” looks like an homage to Bonnie and Clyde or to John Dillinger, and is set in the very same year Dillinger was gunned down by the FBI. “Actually, it’s neither,” Ness replied when asked to whom the song and video referred, “ I just wanted to portray a robbery that went wrong, no one was supposed to get hurt, and I wanted to portray how your life could change in a matter of seconds dramatically. I wanted to show the not so glamorous side of that life”.

Their fifth studio effort, “White Light, White Heat, White Trash”, was the record that really propelled the band into the limelight, but according to Ness, it was also the darkest album the band has written, during a rather bleak time in his life. “Each record is just kind of reflective of where I’m at in my life and that was a very dark period unfortunately, you know, ten years into recovery. Was starting to have success with the band and I bought a house and all this stuff but there was no one there to share it with, you know, and I was angry and I was getting into fights a lot and being promiscuous and it just wasn’t very good for the record, it wasn’t a very productive period as far as moving forward with the band”. Yet, the album is perhaps the bands swansong; its greatest achievement so far and certainly the best-selling record in the bands long history. “There’s a lot of emotion, I don’t mean dark in a bad way. I refer to that period as a dark period, you know, emotionally, that’s necessary to get to another place in your life and it helped me write some great songs so I don’t regret it”.

They say expressing yourself can help deal with life’s hardships, weather through a painting or lyrics to a song, we all need an outlet. ”It is very therapeutic, absolutely. I’m in the process of writing a book right now about my life story and it’s the same thing, you know, it helps me process things that have happened and somewhat understand why they have happened and you know song writing is very similar. I have a couple of writers that I’m working with and they are kind of getting the initial stuff down and then they’ll give it to me and I’ll add the stuff that I want and change it and do whatever I have to do. Writing songs is a very self-indulgent thing, I write songs that I like and I hope that other people like them too. The book is going to be very similar, it’s going to be a lot of me trying to make sense of my life, the things that have happened as a child and how that affects me as an adult, and how that affects my other relationships. It’s not going to be a fucking Motley Crue tells all fucking book, about how many chicks you slept with on the road. Its more my personal journey from a kid to a man and even at 50 years old, still just grappling with the tools or lack of tools that have been handed down and having to build a house with some fucking cheap fucked up tools”. Being in a working band, travelling to every corner of the globe, only to repeat the journey over again the following year, must create hardships within family life; “Yeah, of course, that’s one of the things I talk about in the book. On one hand I’m very lucky to have made a living doing what I love to do, but it has a price, you know? But, leaving my wife and kids at home for long periods of time, several times a year, missing out on a lot. It makes consistency a very hard thing, and that’s what kids need and what a relationship needs, so it’s challenging and luckily I have a strong women who has stood by me. Some couple that I know just could not endure, and some people just have no idea what you have to endure. I’m not complaining, I just want people to know that it’s not all that it’s cracked up to be”.

Ness and company have a lot planned for the foreseeable future, what with the book, the current tour and plans for three new records on the horizon. Of the three, perhaps the most intriguing is the promise of a future solo album, which would be the first since 1999’s “Cheating At Solitaire”. “I did a little tour a couple of years ago just to let people know I’m still into it and I have a lot of material for that, to do another record, it’s just finding time. I want to do another Social Distortion record, then do an acoustic record with Social Distortion and then I want to do a Mike Ness record, and probably in that order.” Of course, Ness remains water tight on revealing anything about new Social Distortion material. “I don’t want to give it away. I’m very happy with the last record and what we established with it, you know, we kind of re-established our love for American roots music and all that, but the next record could go in a completely different direction, you know, it could be more garage or more primitive, I kind of want to do a bit more edgy record. I’ve set aside four or five months next year just for that purpose and year I’m trying to get the record out in a timely manner”. Time hasn’t exactly been a cause for concern in the past, where large gaps of time have elapsed without fresh material. So, what takes them so long to put a record together? “Nah, it doesn’t take that long, that’s a misconception I think people have since we have had a couple of large gaps in between records that  it does take us a long time to write but this last record only took six months to make and I think it’s just stopping the touring and getting into that mode that needs to happen and , you know, and then you get into a more reflective mindset, we are constantly moving on the road, it’s very difficult to slow down and try to write. It’s good for me to just do it after a tour, when I don’t have any more tours coming and then I can just relax and get into that zone”. A lot coming up in the future! “Yeah, we’re in no hurry to stop, we don’t know how to do anything else”.

When he’s not on the road, strumming his guitar or writing books and lyrics, Mike Ness is probably in a garage somewhere building a hot rod. In 1999, he sang about being in love with his car, and that image is fitting of the man’s look. “Well, I’m working on a ’36 Ford right now. A three window coupe that we just chopped 3 ½” in the front and 3” in the back, you know, to me it’s just another form or expression like the tattoos or the clothes or song writing or how you decorate your house, it’s all just various forms of expression and for me taking a car that Detroit designed and taking it one step further is a lot of fun and I’m more handy on the design end of it than I am elsewhere. I mean, I can turn a wrench decently, but body work and that, to do it right you have to have been doing it for a long time and I usually have to pay somebody to do that.” Ness passion for cars is omnipresent; as he seems to really light up when asked about his automobile collection, “I own about ten, starting from ‘36 and I think the youngest car I own is a ‘64, so about 30 years of Detroit iron. The ‘36 I’m working on right now is probably my favorite; I’m building it very traditionally to how it would have been done in the late 40s and early 50s, like in the custom car scene and at car shows. I’ve been doing it for so long that I’ve acquired a good eye for design and I’ve researched a lot, so building the car correct is pretty easy for me. My next project will be a chopped ‘50 Merc (Mercury), so, those are the two dream cars and then the only thing missing would be the ‘40 Merc”.

If he’s not in the garage, chances are you’ll find him in the gym, where he practices his boxing. “Yeah, I do that to stay in shape and I’ve tried all kinds of things but lifting weights and that just doesn’t do it for me, you know, I need the contact so, I do boxing and a little wrestling and jujitsu and it helps my body and my mind, and it’s a great way to stay in shape and if I’m ever in a situation, I know what to do”. Staying in shape is one thing, but is there any further interest in the sport itself, I had to know. “I love to watch boxing, that’s the one sport that I can sit on the couch to watch otherwise I’m just sort of a playoff kind of guy. I’ll watch the Stanley cup or the Olympics or something but for me, sports have never held my attention long enough”. Considering the man’s sense of style and his obvious obsession with days of yore, is there any wonder that when probed about his favorite fighters, the first two that he mentions are Jack Johnson and Mohamed Ali? “I still love the classics. Jack Johnson especially, because he was champion when nobody wanted a black champ, and he wasn’t afraid to stand up against the system” So what is it about yesteryear that is so appealing to Ness? ”just the clothing and the style, the cars, the architecture even the industrial age, its where art and industry were combined, look at the kitchenette stove from 1945 or a Chevy fleet line car, some of the furniture, so much thought and creativity was put into it whereas we live in such a disposable time today where you throw up a strip mall and in 15 years we’ll tear it down and put another one up, or cookie cutter houses or planned communities. When your cell phone dies, you go and trade it in for a new one and they bury it in a 3rd world country and they get our cancer. It’s just insanity. I’m kind of like that guy in Midnight In Paradise that should have been born in a different time, you know?”

Interview written and conducted by Kieron Yates.

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