Mike Ness, foreground, and Social DistortionPhoto by Danny Clinch, courtesy of Giant Noise
Mike Ness knows any interview he does is eventually going to address the possibility of new music from his legendary punk band, Social Distortion. So, even though we’re talking with Ness about the stacked tour he and Social D are about to embark upon with co-headliners Flogging Molly, he’s quick to provide an update on new music from the band.
“Normally we don’t do co-headlining things just because it’s never really presented itself, but because we’re getting ready to go into the studio and record a record we’re wanting to keep out there, letting people know that we’ve got something coming, so it’s just a good opportunity to kind of combine and try something we haven’t done in a long time. We just felt it was a good fit,” he said of the tour, which hits Houston this week. Wednesday night’s show at Revention Music Center will be just the second of more than 30 planned dates across the United States and will include support from The Devil Makes Three and Le Butcherettes.
While Ness is stoked for the live sets, he admits he’s a little bummed about what he’s putting on hold while on tour. Social D fans, here’s your new record update.
“I was in pre-production mode for three months, you know we were meeting four, five days a week here at the studio, working at arranging and writing the songs. Then you’ve gotta shift gears into tour mode and it’s a whole different set of songs. It’s just shifting gears sometimes is hard. I wanted to keep working on the record but you know, of course, I want to tour as well,” Ness said. “We just spent three months arranging and kind of orchestrating 23 songs. We’ll pick the best 12 and then we’ll go into the studio in January and record ‘em.”
Ness said the album doesn’t have a working title yet. It’s been more than eight years since the band’s last LP, Hard Times and Nursery Rhymes. Fans know Ness is a meticulous songwriter who does things at his own pace.
“I can tell you that we got so much work done in that three months, that I was very happy with the progress and the amount we got done in such a short period of time. I was surprised. I’m really happy with that. I quit telling myself that I had to write the record of my career just because someone told me that’s like unnecessary pressure to put on yourself,” he said. “But, every record I just want to try and outdo the last one.”
The band expects to begin recording its new album early next year
Photo by Danny Clinch, courtesy of Giant Noise
That’s been his M.O. since he formed the Southern California-based band in the late 1970s. The legend goes he and his bandmates had more determination than musical talent in those early days. Ness was only a teenager then, but he felt he couldn’t fail. He’d seen his future at the tender age of five and never focused on any other career besides making music. He made his dream come true, by building on early releases like 1983’s Mommy’s Little Monster and 1988’s Prison Bound.
In 1990, the band released its eponymous, signature album Social Distortion. Songs like “Story of My Life” and the Johnny Cash cover “Ring of Fire” cemented the band’s trademark “cowpunk” sound. It went on to become the band’s best-selling album and one which frequently appears on “best of” lists related to punk music.
When did Ness know the album was something special?
“It definitely wasn’t during the writing of it because honestly that record in particular was the pivotal moment of where I was trying to really define this band’s sound, and in a way that was going to separate it from everybody else. I wanted to sound different than everybody else,” Ness said. “When I was writing ‘Ball and Chain,’ ‘Story of My Life,’ ‘Sick Boy,’ I was really happy but honestly I didn’t know if people were going to like it. But I had to put a record out that I was happy with; so, it was huge risk-taking, you know, but I had to be true to myself and write a record that I liked. When it started to get airplay that’s when I realized, wow, that risk paid off by staying true and just believing in myself.”
Social D lyrics are often introspective, Ness’s personal reflections on the successes and failures we encounter as humans. That’s what makes songs like the confessional “I Was Wrong” and the uplifting “Reach for the Sky” enduring. Another such song, “Don’t Drag Me Down,” from 1996’s White Light, White Heat, White Trash has resurfaced as resonant in the current political climate.
“It should be Beto O’Rourke’s campaign song,” Ness said of the track. “I do really admire Beto. If I was to pick a Democrat, yeah, it would be him. I just wish more people thought the way he thinks. I think he has the big picture in mind and it has nothing to do really with making money, it's just for the better of the country. But, you know, ‘Don’t Drag Me Down’ is an anti-racist song and you’re right, it’s just as relevant now as when I wrote it, maybe even more relevant now.”
Last year at this time, Ness was involved in a fracas with a pro-Trump fan at a live show. We skipped questions on that matter, but Ness is writing an autobiography, so maybe we’ll get the whole and official story of that event in his book someday.
“I’ve had to put it on hold. I had a rough draft that I had done with some ghostwriters. Honestly, at the end of the day it was flat, it lacked emotion, it lacked my words, so I decided, at the risk of losing the book deal, I just couldn’t put it out,” said Ness, ever the perfectionist. “You know, when I figure out how to get eight days out of a week, I’m gonna finish that. But right now, the record is the priority.”
In the end, if there’s a guiding theme to Ness’s story, it might be determination. His determination to present his art in his fashion, even if it means long waits between releases. His determination to overcome a heroin addiction early in his career. His determination to stand out from the multitudes of OC punk acts at the start. And, his determination to follow his life’s path, which he saw clearly as a grade-schooler.
“When my book comes out, I mean, there’s a whole chapter on being five years-old at my babysitter’s house. She lived in this old grove house and she had a spare bedroom and I would go in there and turn on the radio. It was about 1967 so you’re hearing good rock and roll on the radio,” he recalled. “For me, it was an escape. I come from an alcoholic home, so it must have been some coping mechanism for me to just escape into this magic world of music. It did something for me, so I thought I have to do this in some capacity, I have to be a part of this.”
“I didn’t have a voice in my home so when I was 17 and started this band and 99 percent of society was telling me you can’t do this, you can’t have that voice. I was like ‘Oh, you watch me.”
Social Distortion and Flogging Molly perform Wednesday, August 14 at Revention Music Center, 520 Texas. With The Devil Makes Three and Le Butcherettes. Doors at 5:30 p.m. for this all ages show. $28 and up.
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Jesse’s been writing for the Houston Press since 2013. His work has appeared elsewhere, notably on the desk of the English teacher of his high school girlfriend, Tish. The teacher recognized Jesse’s writing and gave Tish a failing grade for the essay. Tish and Jesse celebrated their 33rd anniversary as a couple in October.