Somewhere Between Heaven And Hell: An Interview With Social Distortion’s Mike Ness

Social Distortion

The inked knuckles of Social Distortion frontman Mike Ness’s left hand curl around the neck of his guitar revealing the word “LOVE” to his audience, though only the quickest eyes in the crowd will see flashes of “PAIN” as his right hand rips across the strings.

It’s a fitting juxtaposition, especially given the contrasting content of his band’s seventh studio album, Hard Times and Nursery Rhymes. “It was really fun to make,” explained Ness. “As far as the writing I tried to try some different things but also keep some signature aspects. Lyrically I didn’t want it to be just autobiographical—not just about my mess of hard times or this or that. So I did a little character writing, I did a little fiction, a little non-fiction, a little heavy, and a little light. I didn’t want to get stuck in just one style. That made it really fun you know?”

It is fun, and the new songs expand the reach of the band’s influence even further than the groundbreaking signature punky roots-influence sound of their older work. Hard Times marries the grit of tunes like 1992’s “Bye Bye Baby” with power pop-inspired harmonies and guitar hooks galore, especially evident on “Far Side of Nowhere” and “Gimme The Sweet And Lowdown,” one of Ness’ favorites from the new record.

“It was nice to not just be so serious about the writing. That really freed up a lot, having more of a cynical look at it rather than having to have some sort of profound [message] like ‘I was Wrong,’ or ‘When The Angels Sing,’ or ‘Angel’s Wings.’”

Though he hasn’t forsaken his “junkies, winos, pimps, and whores” (see “Machine Gun Blues”), prison walls, or flirtations with mortality, he now approaches these themes with the kind of insight that comes from years of hard-won wisdom.

“I think White Light White Heat (1996) was a particularly dark album and I was just in a dark place in my life. I had success, I had sobriety. I wasn’t a rich rock star but I was comfortable, but I didn’t have anybody to really share it with. The thing that was missing from my life was love,” Ness confessed.

“Over the last 14, 15 years I have learned to get inspiration from the positive things in my life, not just the negative. And I think that provides a good balance. It doesn’t mean you have to lose your edge. There are still plenty of things I’m pissed off about, [but] I don’t want to be Aggro Man and go through life angry. There has to balance, there has to be purpose, and there has to be direction. If you don’t have love, you’re fucked, I’m afraid.”

Though he’s earned a justifiable tough guy reputation through both experience and song, there is quite a bit about his personal life that may seem contradictory on first examination. A long-time vegetarian, Ness has devoted himself to supporting a number of social, environmental, and ethical groups such as PETA, Amnesty International, Natural Resources Defense Council, and Farm Sanctuary, among others. “ I could very easily see myself becoming a Greenpeace guerilla, you know?” he said with a laugh. “I just feel like if you don’t have something in your life worth fighting for, you don’t have anything—you’re not really living. When I was a teenager, yeah, it was music. I had to defend it. The reaction to punk rock was very violent and volatile at times, and I had to fight for it. But now there are other things that I feel just as passionate about. I’m a fighter. That part of me is never going to change.”

Physically, while his heavily tattooed muscular build hints more at outlaw than family man, the Orange County native takes delight in finding opportunities to change outsiders’ perception of his lifestyle.

“I have three dogs [whose] combined weight is probably less than your average person’s dog. I love tearing down stereotypes. Like people probably would think, ‘Yeah Mike Ness probably walks down the boardwalk with his pitbull and his shirt off and his stripper girlfriend next to him,’” he said chuckling at his own image. “And it’s like ‘No, actually I have chihuahuas.’”

And what of his iconic ink? “I’m not as willing to go through the pain as much as when I was younger. The things I have tattooed on my body are expressions of my personality. It’s hard and soft, it’s good and bad, it’s conflict, it’s intensity, it’s passion. When I was 17 I got them because I thought they were cool. Then there was a while there when I got them to be very antisocial. I have a tough time with it because when things that are cool become popular, they tend to become un-cool. So, sometimes—not all the time, but sometimes—I think it’s more of a statement if you don’t have any tattoos. When I was 17 I wanted just four tattoos like The Stray Cats. They had one on each forearm, one on each bicep, and that was it. Then it just became more and more. I didn’t really plan it, but now I kind of have to finish my full shirt so it at least looks like I knew what I was doing.”

Ness’ tattoos, like his music speak to the power and value of emotional nakedness. With pain and love permanently etched into his skin, and the similar sentiments of his songs seared into the hearts of Social Distortion’s fans, it’s clear that he hasn’t gotten where he is today by hiding behind a mask.

“We’re a band that’s become successful by being honest. That’s what our fans have always appreciated, isn’t that a fact? It seems like my fans have appreciated the writing more when I let down my guard than when I’m putting it up.”

Madison fans will be fortunate enough to see Mike Ness and Co. with their guard down and amps turned up right here in town for the first time in nearly 20 years. Social Distortion hits the stage at the Orpheum Theatre tonight (November 29, 2011) with opening acts Chuck Ragan and Suedehead. Tickets for the show are still available online (here) and at the box office.

 –Shelley Peckham


Related Content:  Madison Week In Music + Ticket Giveaways (11.23.11 – 11.29.11): Social Distortion

5 Responses

  1. […] Related Content: Somewhere Between Heaven And Hell: An Interview With Social Distortion’s Mike Ness […]

  2. […] Social Distortion – 11.29.11 – Orpheum Theatre, See the live concert photos or read Shelley’s interview with Mike Ness […]

  3. […] Somewhere Between Heaven And Hell: An Interview With Social Distortion’s Mike Ness […]

  4. […] Em entrevista a Shelley Peckham, do blog True Endeavors, publicada em 29 de novembro de 2011, Ness disse que se você não tem nada em sua vida pelo que lutar, você não tem nada – você não está realmente vivendo, em referência à sua luta pelos direitos animais e também por inúmeras causas sociais. […]

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