Published Jan 23, 2011Mike Ness is a punk rock institution. Hammering out some of the genre's most addictively melodic songs since 1978, the founder/guitarist/vocalist for Orange County, CA-based quartet Social Distortion has kept the spirit alive for much longer than most of his musical brethren. From humble, independent beginnings creating the Southern California punk scene and forging the North American tour trail with fellow DIY outfit Youth Brigade through major label dalliances, drug addiction and the inevitable boosts/boons a 30-plus year-old band encounters, Social Distortion has seen — and probably done — it all. Such is why Ness's life/name have become so entangled with Social Distortion, the soft-spoken, tattooed and gravel-throated minstrel is part of an elite group. Not unlike Motörhead's Lemmy Kilmister, the Sex Pistols' Sid Vicious or any of the Beatles, Ness is just as infamous as the band he conducts.
Despite approaching age 50, he's still primed for action, issuing seventh Social Distortion album/Epitaph Records debut Hard Times and Nursery Rhymes, their first studio work since 2004's acclaimed Sex, Love and Rock 'n' Roll. Rich and vivacious, he's proud of the album's diversity thanks to swelling choruses, rousing backup vocals and that consistently anthemic Social Distortion drive. "I wanted to bring a lot of diversity into this record by opening up parts of my musical past that haven't always been prevalent. It's kind of exciting," he notes before touching on the band's notoriously long gaps between albums. "Although this record is out, I'm going and continue the process of writing so maybe there won't be such a large gap between records. Even when the record's done, it doesn't mean the creativity of writing is."
What are you up to?
I have some stuff I'm working on with my car. My wife has a list of to-dos that'll never get done. Well, at least for a couple of months since I'll be on tour.
What are your current fixations?
It's pretty simple but lighting a fire every night. I have a wood fireplace and that's one of my favourite things to do: light it, watch it and see if I can make a better fire than last night.
Why do you live where you do?
I've been here in Orange County forever. There's easy access to everything and although everyone has a love/hate relationship with their home, ultimately, I love it. Besides, the Southern California weather is unbeatable.
Name something you consider a mind-altering work of art.
I love certain forms of graffiti: more of a basic style with that stencil art. It features of a lot of provocative images. There's so much work and talent put into it, like with a custom car. With all of that time and work put it into, it makes it a kind of sculpture.
What has been your most memorable or inspirational gig and why?
I think my first concert ever. It was Rod Stewart at Anaheim Stadium. I was 12 or 13 and saw someone with purple hair for the first time; smelt marijuana in the air. I was like, "Wow, what is this?" It left quite the impression on me [because] it was about that time I wanted to live for music. In my bedroom, I had a poster of Bruce Lee and one of Keith Richards. I figured it'd be easier to try to be Keith Richards.
What have been your career highs and lows?
Wow, there are so many of each, it's hard to say. Finishing this record is a high because we took some risks and that's how I've gotten through life: taking risks. Sharing a stage with Springsteen was a high. Touring with the Ramones was a high. As far as lows go, they're just part of it whether it's, "Tell me this isn't the venue we're playing tonight," "What do you mean radio's not picking up the single," or paying taxes at the end of the year and realizing what you're left with in the bank.
What's the meanest thing ever said to you before, during or after a gig?
One thing I really hate is, "God, I thought you were taller!" It's like, "Well, who fuckin' told you I was tall? I'm not 6'5. I'm about 5'10."
What should everyone shut up about?
God, I don't know. Let me ask my wife... she says I'm too self-absorbed to notice. She's right on the money with that one.
What traits do you most like and most dislike about yourself?
I must like the self-absorption if I'm 48 years old and haven't changed! In my life, my saving grace is that I'll always come around. If I'm being hard-headed or stubborn about something, I'll come around and strive to be a better person. There's always room for improvement and being receptive to change. We can all be better people.
What advice should you have taken, but did not?
Everything from safe sex to not doing drugs... basically everything. My life has been like it was one long opposite day. Even just staying in school. I really gave up on it at an early age and I short-changed myself. I came onstage in Toronto one night and said, "It's great to be back in British Columbia." Little things like that are a constant reminder of why I should've stayed in school and paid attention.
What do you think of when you think of Canada?
I like Canada. Being able to travel to other countries and see how different countries are run. I always thought the U.S. could learn from Canada. You're not at war with anyone and seem to have a pretty good foreign policy with everyone. There are great bands from there and when I see MuchMusic, the videos are cool and creative. Most people who make fun of Canada haven't been there; don't take time to check it out. I have a good time there.
What was the first LP/cassette/CD/eight track you ever bought with your own money?
It was probably given to me by my uncles because I was turned onto music much earlier than other kids. I had Beatles, Stones and CCR records when I was in third grade. By seventh grade, I was listening to Ziggy Stardust, Lou Reed's Transformer and Kiss. By 11th grade, the Clash, the Ramones and the Sex Pistols. It was a progression influenced by my parents' music like my dad listening to Johnny Cash. Without really trying, I was exposed to great music.
How do you spoil yourself?
I have several ways. I love to collect. I have about four hours to myself every day before it's time to go to work, do sound check and get ready for the show. I'll spend those four hours hitting junk shops, antique malls and vegetarian cafes for nutrition. I also like to dress up from time to time, so I like expensive shoes and designer clothes. I'll mix them in with vintage shop stuff and yeah, pamper myself a little bit.
What do you fear most?
It's always just been the unknown; what you can't predict or foresee. Life's full of those unpredictable events and changes. For me, I don't like change much even though in my experience when I've made change, it's for the better. I still don't like it and still resist it, though.
What has been your strangest celebrity encounter?
Probably when we were on Sony, I got invited to and after-Grammy party in New York. We got introduced to Springsteen and Mariah Carey but I wanted to meet Robert De Niro. We were formally introduced but it was awkward. We met and shook hands but I think I let too much time go by. There was about four seconds of silence and I was like, "Well, thanks so much! See you later!" What was I gonna say? "I love your work"? What do you say to Robert De Niro? I guess an introduction was enough and I left it at that. It was awkward for a moment, though.
Who would be your ideal dinner guest, living or dead, and what would you serve them?
A peanut butter and banana sandwich with Elvis. That'd be awesome.
What song would you like to have played at your funeral?
How about, "Let The Good Times Roll" by the Cars?