Thirty years in, Social Distortion are as vital and voracious as ever. Their shows continue to sell out, and their material still speaks to people. Their latest, Hard Times and Nursery Rhymes was one of the best releases by a California band in 2011.
Tonight at GV30 — the weekend series of shows celebrating Goldenvoice's 30th anniversary — Social Distortion is playing alongside fellow punk innovators X, Bad Religion, The Adolescents, and The Vandals at the Santa Monica Civic Center. We spoke with the act's front man Mike Ness about Goldenvoice's impact, the L.A. and O.C. punk scenes, the secrets to longevity, and the DIY spirit that continues to drive him.
Tell me about your relationship with Goldenvoice and its importance to local music.
They were kind of like the beginning, ya know. They were back in that period of time when you had a handful of nightclubs in Hollywood and a few in the O.C. Very few promoters had this vision. They were instrumental in helping launch Social Distortion in that they were providing venues and facilitating the scene. Even when I wasn't performing I was attending their shows, and a good time was had by all.
Obviously, we're friends and have a working relationship still. More than that, it's acknowledging the significance of Goldenvoice. I mean, they may as well be another band like us, the way they started back in the day. They were do-it-yourself promoters. They didn't like the way things were, and they changed it. They were an integral part of this revolution I would say.
What about the bands sharing the bill with you at GV30?
X is a band I grew up with. They were one of the first bands who mixed Americana with punk rock. There was a handful of bands who did that like X: The Gears and The Blasters. The Gears all had pompadors and they had this rockabilly feel, but it was punk rock too. X were one of the first bands that I saw integrating Amerciana and folk music with punk rock. The Adolescents will make it feel like a hometown night… Fullerton bands coming together again.
Speaking of Fullerton, and O.C. bands vs. L.A. bands: What are the differences/simularites you've noticed over the years?
There was always kind of regional separation, but I didn't let that bother me. The only difference I saw was suburbia versus a more urban setting. I fit in with both and so did my friends. I was always looking more for simularities than differences.
Unlike other artists from O.C., you never left.
I lived in New York for six months. I lived in L.A. for a Summer. For some reason, I'm still here. I have a love hate/relationship with Orange County. I love the beach. I love being familiar with everything here… all these neighborhoods I either grew up or spent time in. Being from Fullerton, it was a two hour bus ride to Newport where I live now. The ocean air is great. I don't know if I could ever leave this.
It is pretty beautiful there.
I do sometimes feel a little out of my league because there is so much big money here. Most of these people have enough money not to have to worry about property taxes on a 4 million dollar home. I can't relate to that.
But you're a successful rockstar.
I feel sometimes I do live above my means.
A lot if us do these days.
Yeah. It's all smile now, cry later….
Your latest labum Hard Times and Nursery Rhymes has some cuts that seem inspired by your surroundings, the track “California” in particular. What's behind this one, lyrically?
With this record I wanted to step out of any one style of writing. I didn't want it to be all autobiographical. I got into some character writing. “California” is a very reflective song about me growing up and turning into a grown ass man. “Sweet and lowdown” is very reflective too, but also a little bit more character driven.
Soundwise, these songs are very Stones-y.
I grew up on The Beatles and the Stones long before I ever got into punk rock. My foundation is blues-based rock n' roll of the '50s, '60s and '70s. Then I got into punk. That's why Social Distortion has always been a little bit more traditional as far as rock 'n roll punk style…
Do you feel the need to keep a punk edge, FTW type attitude to the music even after all these years?
There's a lot of ideals of punk that I've tried to keep in tact; mainly the angst, the energy, and the attitude. Punk rock like anything else has had a lot of stereotypes, and it's felt like their were these punk rock police, especially in the '80s.
Like, “What do you mean you can't sing a love song”? Tell that to Johnny Thunders and he'll break a guitar over your head. So I think I've been able to decipher through it. I love to debate about this, because I was there. I was in those basement clubs in Hollywood and at the Starwood. I watched punk grow and change and morph. So I think I grasped the things that I needed from it. Mostly just the raw honesty of punk and the energy and the urgency of it.
Your shows are quite energetic. After so many years, is this why they're still such hot tickets? Social D still sells out consecutive nights at big-ish venues. Why are your fans still so loyal?
You mean why are we still so cool? (laughs) I say that with humility. I don't know. We' re lucky.
We have noticed bands with a rootsier feel or who have a Rockabilly or greaser type vibe have the most loyal followings. Do you agree?
It's a lifestyle, but more than that, with us, we've always taken pride in our live performances. Anybody can make a great record these days with a good budget, but then you go and see 'em live and its disappointing. We try to give 150% every night.
As you get older, is it hard to maintain the energy?
Of course, if you give a 150% that doesnt leave you with much the next morning… But by the time you're walking out on stage you've kind of forgotten that you did one last night and the adrenalin kicks in and you realize another couple thousand people who deserve it and want it and paid for it are there. Thank god for adrenaline.
Adrenalin is better than drugs. You've been clean for decades right?
Are you a health nut? Do you work out?
You ever seen that show Parks & Recreation? I'm kind of like Rob Lowes' character. I talk about eveything I'm doing. Why I'm doing this, why that is good. What benefits this or that. I've been a vegetarian for 15 years. I hit the boxing gym 4 or 5 days a week when I'm home. I'm trying to get back into yoga after taking 5 years off.
It shows. You look good.
I'm almost 50. You get to a certain age where your body is just not going to take care of itself anymore. You have to do it. Especially in this line of work. You could play the best show of your life, but if you're 15 pounds overweight, that's what the journalist is going to write. I try to avoid that.
You've always maintained a vigorous touring schedule, even if you haven't put anything new out.
Yeah but now we're just trying to find that balance. We realize that these long gaps in between records, although they may have worked to our advantage in the past, aren't the best way to do it. We also realize we may have lacked a little discipline and now we are working on always writing instead of just when it's time to make a record.
So you're constantly writing these days?
I realized that the creative process doesnt have end to when you're finished with the record. In the past I just kind of shut down, or went in press mode or tour mode. Trying to keep those gates open proved to be a very productive thing. We ended up with a bunch of songs we didn't use this time. I didn't finish them but there are great songs and its a great start on the next record. So our fans will see another record 2-3 years later. Usually we put out a record every 5-8 years.
As far as the road, do you remember tours from back in the day? How have things changed? Less wild?
It's funny I have friends who didn't grow up the way that I did or anything. They come back stage and it's like, this is it? I did what most people do in the college years in junior high. And when I drink or was drunk, there was no band. I turn into a liar, a cheat and thief… I mean all the band's gear's in the pawn shop. I am either in jail or in a hospital or a motel room. For me, the hi-jinx of a rock n roll band.. it's darker. Maybe it was fun and crazy in the beginning but where it went was very sad and very dark and dangerous.
How much do you remember from those early days?
I have a lot of good memories. Being a part of that early punk scene, it was so fresh and new. Going to shows at The Starwood and going to Oki Dog afterward. It was community, a real community.
Ever thought about writing a book?
Actually yeah, that's kind of where I'm at right now. I'm in the process. I'm trying it out with someone. If it's going in a direction I want to, I'll definitely continue.
He's definitely got a built-in, no brainer for the title: Story Of My Life.
Social Distortion play GV30 celebrating Goldenvoice's 30th Annversary tonight, Dec. 16, at the Santa Monica Civic. Tickets here.