Mike Ness Aquarian Interview

Filed under: Live Music,Reviews — doktorjohn April 30, 2008 @ 1:20 am

I phoned Mike Ness on the morning after the first night of his cross-country tour. Frontman for the three decades-old, hard-core, punk band, Social Distortion, Ness has been recording and performing solo material since around the time of the 1999 Woodstock Festival, which is where I first saw him live. At that time he captivated the crowd of with his utterly sincere manner and rock-with-a-country-twang style. He is a multi-talented singer, songwriter, artist, clothes designer and customizer of vintage cars. Punk and hardcore have come and gone, sending both the celebrated and the little known to obscurity. Yet after thirty years, major personal struggles and numerous tragedies, Mike Ness and MN: Social Distortion have not only survived, but have continued to grow in success and recognition, adding a second generation of fans to their loyal following.

Mike Ness proved to be a remarkably modest, friendly person to interview. He was quick to give credit to many others in music who inspired him, and clear in his love of America and American culture in all its many expressions.

DrJohn: You’re on the first leg of a tour that’s about to cross the country. How’s that tour going?
Mike Ness: Well, last night was the first night and it was pretty good. We’ll work all the bugs out by the time we get out your way.

DrJ: Are the opening bands mainly local people from the regions your tour is passing through?
MN: Yeah, usually, so they don’t have to travel far.

DrJ: Do you have a big say on picking the opening acts or do your managerial people do that for you?
MN: They initiate it and then I have to approve it. I just try to get someone that’s going to fit and trying also to give them an opportunity to perform in front of a larger crowd than they usually get to do.

DrJ: Do you get contacted much by bands that would like to open for you or that feel they should be performing with you?
MN: (Chuckles) Yeah!

DrJ: What do you think is different about the Mike Ness solo as compared with Social Distortion?
MN: It’s kind of an intangible thing. Certainly it’s different, it’s not as loud, it’s not as fast, it’s more musical, and it’s a little bit harder to play.

DrJ: Are you presently engaged in writing and composing for either Social D or creating Mike Ness solo material?
MN: Absolutely. I’m always writing. Even when I don’t pick up a guitar. I mean I’m living life. And then when I do pick up a guitar I get in touch with those experiences and feelings.

DrJ: A few years back you broke your wrist skateboarding and were unable to play guitar for a while. Did that make it difficult for you to write & compose?
MN: Yeah, that made it difficult to do anything. I usually compose on the guitar and so there wasn’t much writing going on in that period, for those few months.

DrJ: Do you see yourself as part of the country & western genre?
MN: I’m really on the outside. It’s never been my desire to get on the inside of that. I listen to mainstream country and I say, ‘Yeah, that’s cool, but this is how I see it.’

DrJ: Would you agree that your more recent Mike Ness solo music was more derived from country & western than is the Social Distortion stuff?
MN: Yes, although that’s the stuff I grew up with until I got into punk music. Then I kind of set country on the side. But in the early ‘80s I started to revisit it. And there were bands like X and the Scorchers that I liked. I really like that connection of rock with American roots music whether it’s country, blues, rockabilly, bluegrass or folk. I just like connecting the two styles, then giving it a bit of an edge.

DrJ: In regard to your early influences, did you grow up with Elvis Presley’s music? Or was that before your time?
MN: There was a little bit of that, of that mid-sixties, late sixties stuff. But I grew up mainly with the Beatles and the Stones on my mom’s side and Johnny Cash and bands like the Dillards on my father’s side. He was the country guy. And my uncles were rock’n’roll. It was like the Smithsonian ‘Folkways Box set’ was around the house. Then it just progressed into the glitter years, to Ziggy Stardust and to T Rex and little bit of Kiss. Then I got into the Clash and the Sex Pistols. When the Ramones came around, I was like, “This is it. This is going to be my whole life.”

DrJ: You are known for having a taste for 1950s retro styles in cars and clothes. Where do you think that those interests come from?
MN: Well, early experiences. For example I think about when the Hell’s Angels had short hair and when my uncles were riding on low-rider-style motorcycles and building Harley trikes, it’s all American culture. I absorbed everything from Elvis Presley to ‘The Lords of Flatbush’ and I remember saying “I’ve got to comb my hair like that!” A lot of it began in my mind with the Clash dressing like early American gangsters and me thinking, “We should be dressing like that because we are American.”

DrJ: Is there a future to Social Distortion or will it just be Mike Ness solo from now on?
MN: There’s no end in sight for Social D, I can tell you that.
We want to do a documentary. We want to do a stripped down, acoustic record with our favorite songs from our catalogue and do a kind of a Springsteen/ Dylan approach, maybe a Neil Young unplugged approach to these songs. It wouldn’t be much new stuff, though. Except that I would put a couple new things on the record. But primarily I’m saving my new stuff for a studio album that I would like to do next year.

DrJ: Do you agree that a lot of your early stuff was self-critical and despairing?
MN: Yeah, ‘White Light, White Heat White Trash’ was particularly dark, more so than any of the others. But that’s where I was at that time in my life.

DrJ: Now that you’ve emerged as a cultural icon do you feel happier these days due to the success you’ve experienced of late?
MN: Definitely. We feel very lucky to be enjoying this amount success so many years into our careers. It’s lucky for us to have lasted this long, and to be more popular now than we were in the beginning. For most bands it‘s the other way around. They’re at first popular and then twenty years later they’re trying to relive that. But for us, it’s been the complete opposite. To me it’s baffling; I’m like “Wow! What a trip! How cool is this?” We feel very, very grateful. I know I am very, very lucky.

DrJ: Good luck with the rest of the tour.
MN: Thank you. I hope you can make one or two shows when we’re in New York or in New Jersey.

Mike Ness will be performing in Philadelphia, May 12; in New York, May 13 & 15; and in Asbury Park May 16 & 17

Below is a pdf of the page as it appears in The Aquarian but reduced in size to fit this blog 😉