Mike Ness is a true rock ‘n’ roll survivor. He’s been the leader and one constant member in the seminal punk-rock band Social Distortion for nearly 40 years, and he’s still going strong at 56 years old.
We caught up with the legendary frontman in his dressing room before Social D took the stage at a recent show in Port Chester, New York. He discussed the band’s 40th anniversary, which he clarifies will take place in 2019, despite Wikipedia and other sources listing the band’s formation as 1978. “I was a junior in high school in ’79 when the band formed,” he recalled.
Ness made headlines over the summer when the mainstream national media picked up a story about him apparently leaping into the audience at a show in Sacramento and getting into a physical altercation with a Trump supporter. While the Social D frontman was not at liberty to discuss the matter at the time of our interview, he did say that the headlines misrepresented the incident.
Among the other topics Ness was able to discuss were his views on President Trump, his rough years of drug abuse in the ’80s, and his relationship with Bruce Springsteen, who joined Social D onstage at a recent show in Asbury Park, N.J.
He also explained why it’s been such a long wait for a new album since the band’s last disc, 2011’s Hard Times and Nursery Rhymes, and when he plans to begin working in earnest on a new Social D album. Read our interview with Social Distortion’s Mike Ness below:
On 2019 marking the 40th anniversary of Social Distortion
Well, I didn’t think I was gonna live this long, for one, but I was one of those guys who wanted to be a rock star since I was 5 years old, so I wanted the band to become successful, even when it wasn’t considered cool to be successful, in punk rock. I was looking at bands like The Clash, Generation X and The Buzzcocks and the New York bands and the San Francisco bands. I wanted a tour bus, I wanted roadies, and I wanted to put on a good show so the people get their fuckin’ money’s worth. I wanted to become successful, but I just didn’t know that the lifestyle would be so self-destructive for me, personally. I just took it to the extremes, and I didn’t think I was going to live to be 30.
On the 30th anniversary of 1988’s Prison Bound, and the rough years leading up to that album’s release
In 1984, people were just walking out of Social D shows because I was like the Johnny Thunders of the West Coast. All the fuckin’ gear is in the pawn shop, I’m either missing or in jail or a hospital somewhere, or I’m out with some fuckin’ stink-bag in some motel room. I’m sick, so I gotta get well before the show, and I can’t wait to get out of there and go get more dope. It starts out as sex, drugs and rock ‘n’ roll, and just becomes drugs.
In ’85, I got my shit together after my third hospital stay or something, fourth or fifth attempt, and it stuck this time. After I got clean in October of ’85, out of somewhere, I got a crazy work ethic. It just made me like, “I’m serious about music. I want to do this for the rest of my life, so I better start treating it seriously.”
In the first couple years of my recovery, the band wasn’t making any money back then, so I learned a trade, I learned to paint houses, and listened to the radio during the day. I listened to Chuck Berry, oldies. I was starting to see the importance of grabbing ahold of our American roots. I’d been such into British stuff, but then I was like, “We’re a fuckin’ American band.” It brought me back into my childhood of hearing the Carter Family and Woody Guthrie and stuff like that, which resonated with me as a kid. Now that I was clean and sober, I was like a kid again, rediscovering all this stuff.
On the long gaps between recent Social Distortion albums, including the eight years since the last album
Every time, I say, “We’re not gonna take that long,” because I don’t like to take for granted that the fans are still gonna be there waiting. We’ve toured so much in eight years. I can’t really write a record until I stop touring. You tour so much, you take a little bit of time off, and then you gotta earn some money, so you just tour more. I’ve been writing songs along the way. But this [recent fall trek was] the last tour. In December, January, February, March, I’ll be in pre-production, getting ready to do the next record. [A 2019 release date] would be nice, for sure, but I don’t want to just rush a record to meet a deadline. This record is really important for our career. I want to make a fuckin’ statement. I want to write the record of my career.
On the two new songs Social D have been playing – “Over You” and “Born to Kill”
“Over You”, last year I got invited to do that L.A.M.F. stint, revisiting that Johnny Thunders record. It really hit me how much of an impact that had on me, ‘cause it was punk, but it was blues-based punk. That’s what I like about the first wave of punk, because it was rock ‘n’ roll, traditional, but just sped up a little bit. That record [L.A.M.F.], the Heartbreakers records, and his solo records really helped shaped me. So, “Over You” — that rubbed off on me again — playing with Walter Lure, Clem Burke, Glen Matlock, it was like, “I forgot how fun and simple this stuff is.” It’s like taking bubble-gum rock with louder guitars, find a melody but make it tough. “Over You” is definitely an example of New York Dolls, Thunders, just that ‘70s rock. “Born to Kill” is just a little more straight-out fuckin’ punk.
On his thoughts on President Trump, and if the current political climate will influence new Social D music
It’s interesting, because in my personal life, I’m an activist. I’m a member of the ACLU, big anti-racist. But the only political song I’ve ever written was “Don’t Drag Me Down”, which is in the set right now. And I introduce it as an anti-racist song I wrote in 1994 in hopes that kids would hear this in later generations, wondering what racism even was. And I also just say that I didn’t expect this to resurface in [current times].
It’s not my fault, but Trump’s name is unfortunately synonymous with racism. I’m not a Trump supporter, but what I’m trying to say is in the past, when I’ve tried to write topically or politically, it’s come out very trite. It’s also a challenge to myself to try, because I do feel there’s some crazy, crazy shit happening. Disappearing freedoms, right before our very eyes, with Fox News leading it. This is fuckin’ wrong. And as an artist, you feel a certain responsibility to inform people. But it’s met with hostility, but I’m not afraid of that. I don’t want to divide my crowd, because I’m sure a lot of Social D fans are Trump supporters. I’m just glad they voted. I’m not going to try to separate my fans just because of my own personal beliefs, but I’m so into history and exposing truths. I do feel that there are truths that need to be exposed. It’s fucking crazy.
On the end of the Warped Tour, and what it meant to play the traveling festival
Well, it was just a good chance to play in front of big crowds at a good time in our career. We had just released White Light, White Heat, White Trash. There were a lot of younger kids coming to see what they had heard from the older kids, so it was kind of like the beginning of Social Distortion kind of handed down to younger generations. Not every band has that. A lot of kids don’t want to hear what their parents were listening to, but for us, it’s just been the opposite.
On performing with Bruce Springsteen, and seeing his Broadway show
Well, you know, it’s funny. I became a Springsteen fan later on, much later. I was not getting turned on to Springsteen when I was a kid. His live shows are what I really like. You know, we just kind of became friends. He was a big supporter of Social Distortion in the early ‘90s. I was like, “How did this guy even hear of us?” Then we met a couple of times, we jammed a couple of times.
I just went and saw his Broadway show … you know, most of my idols are dead — Hank Williams has been dead for a long time, The Ramones died, Joe Strummer, Tom Petty — they’re all gone. I don’t have older guys to look up to much more. I’ve got Neil Young, there’s a handful. David Bowie died. I’ll tell you what, Springsteen’s Broadway show just was a life changer. This is a guy who has no fuckin’ mask. I remember dating a girl a long time ago and her telling her mom [about me], “Oh yeah, he’s covered in tattoos, by the way,” and her mom said, “Oh yeah? What’s he hiding?” It was so inspiring [seeing Springsteen’s Broadway show], not only as a musician, because it sounded so good, him and an acoustic guitar in an old theater, but just seeing him as a man.
My whole book that I’m trying to write, it’s a rock ‘n’ roll book, but it’s more about my struggle learning to be a man, and dealing with the fucked up tools my parents gave me, and the impressions they left on me as a kid that I’ve carried into adulthood that are hard to change. And to see someone [like Springsteen] confront their past, and make sense of it all, and articulate it, in such an authentic way, was beyond inspiring.