Mike Ness wants to talk about love. "That's the one thing that was missing in my life. I didn't have very good examples of it growing up, and it's something I've just had to figure out along the way. Better late than never, I guess. The prisons are filled with guys who never found it." For Ness, the leader of seminal Orange County punk rockers Social Distortion, the lack is covered in the title of his band's new record: Sex, Love, and Rock n Roll. Their first album in eight years, it's as passionate and energetic as anything on Somewhere Between Heaven and Hell, the group's highly-regarded 1992 full-length.
The shift toward a more sensitive, mature Social Distortion is evident, if not in the double-time pop punk of the music itself, than in the insightful and introspective lyrics. "Maybe I wasn't afraid to use that four letter word: love. Cool guys aren't supposed to say that. It's kind of like, Why the fuck not? That's what makes a man, a man.'"
It is a change he attributes to several factors. In the time since 1996's White Light White Heat White Trash, Ness released two solo albums that explored his interest in American roots music; shedding his punk rock persona, they allowed room for musical experimentation Ness often denied himself in his full-time band. "If I brought in a violin or a fiddle player with Social D, I just don't know if it would fit. I guess they're just self-imposed limitations, but they're limitations nonetheless. I learned a lot from doing the Mike Ness thing. I think it built a lot of confidence in my songwriting."
It also allowed Ness the opportunity to truly energise himself for working with his old band again. "It gave my a platform to do ballads, honky-tonk songs, blues, jazz, and rockabilly, which made going back to Social D and playing punk again really fresh, new, and fun again. I just feel like there's a good balance between the two now."
Sex also marks the band's first studio release since the passing of founding member and guitarist Dennis Danell in 2000. As one of Ness's closest friends, he was a powerful influence in helping Ness kick his well-publicised heroine addiction in the 80s, and was a driving creative force within the band. Tributes pervade the album, but that theme was spurred not only by the loss of Danell. "I've lost several friends in the last five years. The record is about re-evaluating and re-prioritising things. I'm kind of in the middle right now. I'm either taking life more seriously, or not as seriously. You've got to try and make things count and make things matter. I should have been dead a long time ago, so for me, every day above ground is a good day."
Ness remains similarly appreciative and positive about Social D's place in the punk scene today. "To be in a band that's bigger now than we were 25 years ago is crazy." His outlook on the punk scene itself, however, remains slightly more critical. "We were a part of a revolution, and now it's just a style. But there are people who are aware, who have researched and done their homework, and realised that this was not always just a style that you turned on your radio and heard. This was a fight." With their toughest years hopefully behind them, there is no doubt that for every day Mike Ness remains above ground, Social Distortion will continue that fight.