Earlier this year, Mike Ness, frontman of Social Distortion, released his first solo album, Cheating at Solitaire . For nearly 20 years, Mike Ness has made punk rock with an uncompromising attitude by revealing such influences as Johnny Cash and the Rolling Stones. For his solo album, Ness fully indulges in his love of old blues, country, folk, rockabilly, and old school rock n’ roll. Mike Ness continues to show what a versatile musician he is, and what a promising career he has ahead of him long after he is finished playing punk rock. I recently spoke with Mike about the new album, the state of punk, and what “punk” really is, among other things.
The direction you went with your solo record reminds me of where you experimented with Social Distortion’s Somewhere Between Heaven and Hell , with the rockabilly and country feel to it, but obviously you’ve taken it much further into those and even folk type music. It seems that you’ve been wanting to get this music, a type very different than Social D, out for a while. How long would you say you’ve been thinking of doing a solo project?
Mike Ness : Yeah, I have been wanting to do this for a while, probably about 7 years. A lot of it was happening when I was writing Somewhere Between Heaven and Hell . You can hear a lot of this type of stuff in that record. It could have easily just followed that record.
How was it recording the new record, especially without the band for the first time?
It was a lot of fun. You know, honestly the making of the record was a big risk, but once I made the decision and went into the studio, I realized the freedom I had, and began to really enjoy myself. I had a really good time making the record, and I learned a lot about myself and proved to myself that I could do more than one thing. I’ve only been in this band, and it’s been for 20 years. So I needed to prove to myself that I could do other things.
I’ve always liked your songwriting, all the way back to the Mainliner stuff. On this record, you get to show what a big variety of songs you can write and write well.
Well, thank you. It’s nice to be able to show a little versatility and have it recognized. Sometimes it takes a different platform to show it, for some reason. Do you know what I mean? Like, it could go unnoticed in one thing, such as punk rock, but you do it on a different platform, and it gets noticed.
You used a lot of different instruments, such as pedal steel guitar, organs, mandolin… Do you think that you’ll incorporate some of the styles and instruments you used on Cheating at Solitaire on the next Social D record?
I think this has definitely been a phase of development for me, and it will definitely affect the next Social D record. That doesn’t mean the next Social D record will have pedal steel, but you know, you take what you learn along the way, whether it’s production stuff or songwriting things. I think when I wrote White Light, White Heat, White Trash , Social D was definitely entering a new direction. Going to the next level of your career in songwriting, performing, etc. So I don’t think it ended when I finished that record, I just think it began then.
Speaking of the next levels in your career, can you see yourself doing this full time, and not playing punk rock anymore, somewhere down the road?
Yeah, that’s the thing. One thing I don’t want to do is be a 50-year old man trying to sing punk rock. You know what I mean? It’s like I have a hard time watching the Stones. There’s just something about not being afraid to evolve. Let’s face it, these kids who are in the slam pit now, in ten years they’re going to have wives and kids. They may not even be going to shows anymore. I want to age gracefully, I want to mature gracefully, and I want my career to age gracefully. To me, this solo project was a very natural progression into a future. It also cast a completely different light on me, rather than just “Mike Ness, frontman/singer/songwriter of Orange County punk band Social Distortion.” Now it’s really cast a light like “Mike Ness, American singer/songwriter.” Just a much broader picture, and after 20 years of doing the same thing, and trying something new that’s so well received is very fulfilling.
I remember when Somewhere Between Heaven and Hell came out, a lot of so-called “punks” received it as being very “unpunk” because it wasn’t the same old Social D. You weren’t doing the so-called “expected” thing. I said to a friend of mine that putting out a record like that and doing what you wanted to do, rather than what was “expected,” was the most “punk rock” thing you could have done.
You’re exactly right there. It’s more “punk rock” to defy the “punk rock” stereotypes than it is to follow them. That’s what the whole punk thing was about in the first place.
Unfortunately, that’s what a lot of bands aspire to be. Nothing but another clone of NOFX or Korn.
It’s generic music with no emotion.
If you would have released what is now considered punk rock 20 years ago, it wouldn’t be considered punk at all. It has become exactly what it wasn’t supposed to become, music that says nothing and sounds like everything else. I don’t see what’s so “punk” about being like everyone else, especially when it’s so safe and trendy to be that.
I agree. That’s why I feel this record is very “punk rock.” It’s defying everything that is allegedly “punk rock” today. I think Tom Waits is “punk,” you know, so fuck everybody. What a lot of people really forget is that roots music was the first voice of rebellion, and that began with people like Woody Guthrie and Blind Lemon Jefferson. All these old pioneers. It’s just become a trendy style. What people do forget is to be an individual. See, I can’t relate to wanting to sound like another band, I don’t relate to that. I also don’t relate to waiting until something is safe to do it. So yeah, it’s in a pretty pathetic state right now.
When you started, punk rock bands didn’t get signed to majors and get buses, road crew, and tour support. You had to work a lot harder to be an actual “band,” because you did the work. Even though it was much harder, I’ll bet you still wouldn’t want to trade that in for the way it is now, and have everything handed to you.
There’s not enough money in the world for me to be Korn or Limp Bizkit. There’s not enough money in the world.
Speaking of the old days, do you ever go back and watch Another State of Mind ?
No, not really. It’s kind of weird for me, because I feel like I don’t even know that person.
It definitely shows how you were working on that tour.
Yeah. Paying dues.
Listening to this record, it’s very apparent that you are into a lot of types of music other than just punk rock. What other kinds of music are you into?
Well, it ranges. It begins with probably turn of the century European folk music on into the 1920s and 1930s with the immigrants coming here and making Depression-era folk music. When Africans came here, the blues were born. I like ’30s big band jazz. Then into R & B and blues mixing with white hillbilly music, which was bluegrass. Then country mixed with R & B and blues and rock n’ roll being born. Slowly evolving into primitive rock n’ roll on up to the glitter years to punk rock.
It’s funny that a lot of people that like the Stones or Jimi Hendrix or Led Zeppelin say “I hate blues music.” They don’t realize that by liking those bands, and a lot of others, that they are listening to parts of the blues. Without Robert Johnson, there would never have been a Led Zeppelin or Rolling Stones.
Yeah, totally. That’s because they don’t sit long enough to take the time and listen to the words or feel the emotion behind the song. They’re looking at life and music through a straw.
Have you played out yet on the new record?
Yeah, I’ve been out 5 weeks now.
Since the material you’re playing is so different, how are the shows going? How would you compare it to playing with Social D?
Well it’s different, but to be honest with you, I’m having a really good time. I get to really sing. I don’t have to worry about fights in the audience or shoes flying on stage or some idiot spitting on me. People think that’s “punk rock”? It’s like what we were just talking about. It’s what some kid that heard that that was “punk rock” would do. Throw your shoe at the band? Didn’t your fucking mama teaching you any fucking respect? You know what I mean? It’s like a different platform to perform on. I wanted this to be mainly “sit down” tickets, so when people came in, they would know that this wasn’t going to be a Social D show. It doesn’t mean that it’s a quiet lounge, folky, quiet evening, because I assure you, it’s not. I just wanted to make sure that people knew it was different. Most of the places I give them the choice to sit or stand, but there isn’t a mosh pit.
What’s the biggest difference between the crowds at these shows and Social Distortion shows?
People are coming to hear the songs, not to show how much of a man they can be or how much beer they can drink or how many fights they can get in.
Last year, Social Distortion released its first live album, Live at the Roxy , after 18 years of recording. Do you like the way it turned out?
Yeah, totally. It was recorded well and we played well. I think for a live record, it came out pretty damn good.
I really like it a lot. One of the things I liked the most was that you covered the material from the last 20 years equally. A lot of times, live records concentrate more on new material or more on the band’s “classic” songs, but you covered everything evenly.
One thing we tried to do was make it like a timeline of the band’s history.
Over the last few years, you’ve been doing some producing. Do you think you’d like to get more involved in that eventually, or even having your own label?
Most definitely. My whole thing is to take bands that no one would hear, who I really like and feel that they have something, and introduce them to the world. Expose them so they get heard. Especially if they’re not trendy or like what everyone else is doing. I know what I like in a band, and I think I have a pretty good ear and eye for it. So, chances are if I like a band, maybe a lot of other people will too.
When can we expect something new from Social Distortion?
I figure we’ll get a record out by the end of next year, and I’ll be excited about it by then. One thing I learned about this is it’s very apparent to me that I need to do both. This solo record has provided a balance in my musical career that was kind of missing. So from here on out, I can do both.