Hard Time and Nursery Rhymes – An Interview with Mike Ness
Anyone who has dabbled in the world of punk rock music has undoubtably heard of Social Distortion and has enjoyed their music. Although their sound carries influence from Rockabilly and roots music, there is no denying that the attitude of Social Distortion is pure punk rock. Now six years after the release of their last studio record, they are back in the studio and out on the road. The new album titled “Hard Times and Nursery Rhymes” is just out on Epitaph Records.
Social Distortion formed in the fall of 1978 under the influence of Johnny Cash and The Rolling Stones as well as the early punk rock bands of the time, most notably The Clash. Over the years, frontman, Mike Ness has seen many of his band mates come and go for various reasons. The band even went on hiatus from 1985 until early 1986 while Ness dealt with his own addictions. Social Distortion has weathered the storm of rock and roll through occasional mainstream success and unyielding hard times.
In the following interview with Social Distortion frontman, Mike Ness, he discusses the new album, the secret behind his signature tone, his love of vintage gear, and the possibility of an acoustic album looming in the future.
Guitar.com: Tell us about this new album.
Mike Ness: I’ve been working on it for three months now. I’m producing this record myself and I was going after a particular sound, so I found a studio that helped me achieve that sound. This studio has a great live room and I wanted to get our guitar tones and our drum tones as accurate as possible. I don’t believe in sound booths. I’m doing this whole records old school. I’m really happy with every aspect of it – the writing, the recording. I’m just trying to out-do the last record.
Guitar.com: How have you found the producing experience?
Ness: Yeah, I’ve always co-produced records with producers but this time, with me being at the helm – it has allowed me to be a lot more focused. And the tone that we got from that studio – the warmth and depth of the recording has just been incredible.
Guitar.com: How was the vibe in the studio this time around?
Ness: Well, a lot of times it’s like the guys come into the studio and do their parts and then I’m left in there for months alone unfortunately. Because I’ve got to do the vocals and I don’t like people around when I’m singing. But the vibe is great right now, we all have a lot of the same influences we’ve always had but I think we’ve dug a little deeper into them.
Guitar.com: Sonically, how does the album size up to the previous albums?
Ness: The influences on this album are everything from The Ramones to the Rolling Stones and I would say that it’s an equal influence of all of that. I’d say the sound of the record is consistent with our previous albums.
Guitar.com: You’ve always been known to test out new material in your live shows before putting the songs onto an album. Have you been playing some of the songs from the new album?
Ness: Yes we did, there were three in particular; “Can’t take it with you”, “Bakersfield” and “Still Alive” are all songs we’ve been playing for a couple years now. And they have been well received – they’re not really radio songs, they’re live songs. When I’m writing a song, sometimes I can just tell that it’s going to be all over the radio. Some songs can get a crowd going and some songs are catchier than others.
Guitar.com: On this new record, was there any conscious effort to make songs sound a certain way – or did you just let it flow and let the songs fall where they may?
Ness: It’s always in the back of your mind but I try my best to ignore it and just write honestly and write what I’m feeling. Thinking about how well a song is going to be received by record labels and radio stations – that just doesn’t work for me.
Guitar.com: How did you come to know the guitar?
Ness: I was very fortunate to grow up in a time in the 70s of good blues based rock and roll. I grew up with The Beatles and The Rolling Stones before I ever heard The Sex Pistols. So I had a good foundation of what the guitar should sound like and a group should sound like. I didn’t ever have any formal training – I took an introduction to classical guitar in the 8th grade where I learned to play “This Land Is Your Land”. And within two years of that I was writing my first songs. I learned early on that some of the best songs in the world are three or four chords and a good melody. It was in the early 90s when I was really searching for my own sound and tone with guitars. I was going back and forth between Fender and Marshall Amps. When I was touring with Neil Young, I got the best schooling ever on guitars and tone. He taught me that basically if you don’t have tone, you might as well go home.
Guitar.com: In the early punk rock years, it seemed like music was less about tone and more of a social movement.
Ness: Yeah, it was. But most of our sound comes from the way that I play. I play rhythm guitar in a very specific way where there is a lot of attack and I’m trying to achieve the true value of the notes. I’ve never met another rhythm guitar player who plays exactly like I do but it’s cohesive to the way that I write. It works together with the melody to create the song. Our songs have always had melody – even back in the early days.
Guitar.com: It seems that as punk rock became more accepted by people with nice suits after they found out how to sell it, it began to lose its edge. Do you still hold on to those punk rock idealisms? I’m sure a lot of the elements of the early scene are diminished and warped by now.
Ness: There are certain ideals that we held onto and I feel like we picked the important ones. Things like honesty, the angst, the high energy of our live show. Those things are imbedded in my personality and they won’t ever go away. Those were the main ideals that I grasped from punk rock – and they weren’t necessarily anything that punk rock invented. If you look back through our history that stuff has been there since the beginning of music. But punk at the time was new and fresh and different. I like to say that Social Distortion is Rock and Roll with a punk style to it. Its pretty traditional rock and roll but it’s got that punk attitude and edge to it that maybe other bands may have missed out on.
Guitar.com: As the music industry shifts, I know your life has seen some changes over the years with marriage and kids and growing up in general. Is there anything you look back on and see as being pivotal to your career as a musician?
Ness: I’m grateful for where we grew up – in a Mecca of opportunity. I often think if I’d grown up in a small town in the Midwest I’d probably be in prison or something because of the boredom and the missed opportunities. Being in Orange County and being close to LA in a time when the music scene was blossoming – it was a fantastic opportunity for us and I’m sure it’s a lot harder for bands today. It’s been a long road, I’ve been doing this 30 years now and some days it’s the greatest thing in the world and you’re having fun and sometimes it’s frustrating and discouraging but you’ve got to stick with it through the good times and the bad.
Guitar.com: What pulls you through the bad times?
Ness: Just knowing that the bad times are temporary. I’ve been through enough bad times in my life to where I know that when you’re going through a hard time, you’re just paying for a good time to come. I’ve learned to look at life that way.
Guitar.com: It’s been a long while since you’ve released a solo album. Have you given any thought to putting together another one sometime soon?
Ness: Definitely. I had a chance to tour that a little bit last year. Social Distortion took a break and I did a solo tour just to let people know that I’m still very interested in doing that. I’ve got nine or ten songs ready to go and as soon as I get a break from Social D, I’ll work on that.
Guitar.com: You’ve toured with tons of great musicians and been able to play with Bruce Springsteen and Neil Young. Do you think that when you do your next solo album you might have some guest appearances?
Ness: It’s definitely a possibility.
Guitar.com: The time has come to talk about gear. Now, I know this is something you’re very well versed and passionate about. What guitars did you use recording this new album?
Ness: The guitar that I write on is a 1940 Gibson J-45. I have three of them – I searched high and low for them. I had a 1940 Martin D-18 that I sold last year; I’m just a Gibson guy. I gravitate to the Gibson J-45 every time I write. It’s a balladeer’s guitar. Then my main guitar that I use on stage and recording is a 1976 Gibson Goldtop Deluxe. When I got that guitar I took the humbuckers out and tossed them immediately into the trashcan and replaced them with P-90s. I learned that trick from Neil Young. The rear is a Seymour Duncan P90 pickup that is made especially for me the way I like it. The guitar has a Maple neck and I use a capo. And something about that Goldtop with the Maple neck and a capo makes open chords ring out really nicely. The trick is to find one under 9 pounds which is hard to do.
My amp is a 1967 Fender Bassman which has been modified by Billy Zoom who owns that company Divided by 13. It’s modified with a preamp to give it better tone at lower volumes. Those Bassmans sound great at 10 but it was killing the microphone at that level so he modified it for me and it works really nice now. I play through that 50 watt head through 2 vintage Marshall Cabinets with Greenback Celestion Speakers. That’s my tone. It’s very organic because I don’t like a lot of processed sound.
Guitar.com: Building a great tone is a lot like building a great hot rod. Which you and I both know because we both build hot rods in our spare time.
Ness: Yeah, it really is. It’s the matching combination of the carburetor and the intake manifold, the cam, headers and everything all working in sync. It’s the same with building a great rig to get the tone you want. Crafting a car is alt like crafting a song – it’s an expression of yourself.
Guitar.com: They don’t build shit like they used to. There's something about taking something old and making it your own and making it useful that is really very cool.
Ness: Yeah, making it fast, making it loud, and making it beautiful again. I collect vintage cars and guitars. The latest guitar I got was a 52 Telecaster that I bought from my guitar player Johnny. It had a lot of the paint stripped off of it and it was a really nice grainy chunk of wood. It has a really nice neck that was signed by the maker back in ‘52. I can’t afford to go out and buy a forty thousand dollar telecaster right now. The fact that it was stripped down right now made it affordable but it’s not something I’m worried about right now – to me it actually looks cooler that way. I never really bring my vintage guitars on stage. I’m just too worried about them getting a drink spilled or something like that. But I use them in the studio sometimes and on special occasions.
I’m always looking for antique stuff though. When I’m on tour, I’ll sound check around 4 and hit the town looking for vintage stuff – everything from toys to furniture to clothes to guitars.
Guitar.com: Any final thoughts comments or plugs?
Ness: I’m really excited about this new album and we’ll be touring a lot this year. So we hope to see everybody out there.
- 1976 Gibson Les Paul Goldtop w/ P90 Pick-ups -
- 1940 Gibson J-45 Acoustic -
- 1967 Fender Bassman 50 watt head -
- Two (2) Vintage Marshall Cabinets w/ Celestion Greenbacks -