Singer/guitarist Mike Ness was 17 when his group Social Distortion emerged from the first wave of Los Angeles hardcore. Three decades later, the band members are punk patriarchs whose Americana-influenced style is a genre unto itself.
Social D’s new album, the gritty, bluesy, sometimes downright Stones-y “Hard Times and Nursery Rhymes,” is the act’s first for another L.A. punk institution, Epitaph Records.
You started out on indie labels, then moved to the majors for a while. What led you to Epitaph?
It’s every young band’s dream to get signed to a major label, but once we were on it-I joke a lot saying it was one of the last forms of white slavery. Me and [Epitaph founder/Bad Religion guitarist] Brett [Gurewitz] basically started our bands at the same time. I’ve been familiar with his label for a long time and just watched it grow. They signed us without hearing one track. That just shows what kind of faith they had in the band.
There’s a different feel to the new album. What inspired that?
Blues-based rock, like the first wave of punk music — the MC5, or the Dead Boys, or Johnny Thunders — laced with Chuck Berry. I mainly branched out to those grooves because you can get stuck in those one-two-three-four Ramones grooves, and then all of a sudden your whole album is that way. My main foundation is in ’60s and ’70s blues-based rock. I grew up with all that music long before I ever heard the Clash and the Sex Pistols. That’s what always made us a little bit more than just a punk band.
How did you first blend punk with country influences?
I can remember as early as 1985 covering “Wanted Man” by Johnny Cash. I think being from L.A. and seeing [roots-influenced] bands like the Blasters, X and Levi & the Rockats… you can’t help but start to make a connection. I remember in the mid-’80s listening to [cowpunk pioneers] Jason & the Scorchers and telling [Social D guitarist] Jonny 2 Bags, “Someday, you watch — Social Distortion is going to be like this, just harder.” And that’s exactly what happened.
Social Distortion first recorded in 1980. Does it seem like a 30-year haul?
It really doesn’t. We still love what we do. I didn’t think I was going to live this long, honestly, but ever since I was 5 years old I knew that this was what I wanted to do. You start out as a young man and you end up as an old man, and along that road, not only do you gain wisdom and awareness, but you also hopefully become a better musician. I think that outweighs the fact that I could be some of the kids in the audience’s dad… or even scarier, grandfather.
Do you still consider Social Distortion a punk band?
Yeah, I do, but we’re also a whole lot more. We took from every genre and crafted it into our sound, but you’ll still hear Generation X, the Clash, the Pistols and the Ramones underneath everything, and you always will. It’s part of my personality just as much as the Carter Family is. It’s kind of our inner foundation.
Does punk mean something different now than it did when you started out?
Punk is about being an individual. To me it doesn’t matter what get-up you have on. A surfer kid could be more punk rock than this kid who’s all spiked out and tatted… it’s an attitude that’s inside. In the mid-’80s I had to decipher a lot of the stigmas and stereotypes and fallacies that came along with it. I remember when we covered “Ring of Fire” for the first time people were like, “You guys are doing a country song?” “Yeah, and guess what, I’m going to sing ‘Ball and Chain’ right now — this is a hardcore song; listen to the lyrics!” I still enjoy tearing down stereotypes of any sort.