Social Distortion: Another State of Mind

Social Distortion: “Machine Gun Blues” (Hard Times and Nursery Rhymes, Epitaph, 1/18/11)

Social Distortion: Hard Times and Nursery Rhymes
Social Distortion: Hard Times and Nursery Rhymes

For those who grew up in the 1980s, with their vision of iconic Social Distortion frontman Mike Ness shaped by his smart-ass, hilarious lesson in eyeliner application in the cult punk doc. Another State of Mind — or those who became fans in the ’90s, listening to him spin tales about torturous personal demons — the 2010 version of Ness may be a bit of a shock.

He’s a vegetarian. He doesn’t drink or smoke. He’s in good shape, boxing at the gym a few hours a day, and he looks younger than his 48 years, with a healthy tan and barrel chest. He’s a happily married man with two kids who, when he’s not touring, lives an idyllic suburban life in his native Orange County ’hood — yep, the same one he so often used to talk about being home to the “pimps, junkies, and winos” who have, for years, inspired his outlaw jams.

Emerging from the back of his tour bus to talk, clad in suspenders and a white button-down, he instantly reaches for a bottle of water and tells a handler that there’s no way he’s listening to his new mixes tomorrow morning if he doesn’t get enough sleep. It’s a far cry from some of his darker days and darker stories.

Yet all that is somewhat immaterial. Ness kicked his more self-destructive habits years ago, and it’s arguable how much of an outlaw he ever was — real fans have known for decades that his confessional, gunslinger songwriting is just as much an extension of his love for roots music like Johnny Cash and Hank Williams as an exorcism of his own demons. It’s not that sexy, after all, to get up and sing about being a happy dude.

Or is it? On Social Distortion’s upcoming album, Hard Times and Nursery Rhymes (out January 18, 2011 on Epitaph), fans will find their swaggering guitar hero lightening up a bit, singing a few uplifting love songs, incorporating more classic-rock flourishes like Supremes-style backing vocalists, and even venturing into a pop-rock sound.

“[The new album] is a little bit of everything,” Ness says in his inimitable greaser drawl, sipping a water. “It’s a little bit like every one of our records. But I also know that I pushed the envelope in some areas. It’s still the [Rolling] Stones and the Ramones and Hank Williams, but I think our fans appreciate the fact that we’ve never been afraid to evolve. So I wanted to put some things on it that weren’t just a typical Social Distortion album.”

“I was a punk rocker then; now I’m a man. So I’ve taken the good stuff from that, but I’ve lost a lot of the stuff I thought wasn’t worth keeping.”

Social Distortion is, after all, Ness and pretty much Ness alone. He’s the only original member of the band, so it makes sense that the album mirrors where he is in his life. Combine domestic bliss with his emergence, after a couple of well-received solo records paying tribute to his non-punk musical heroes, as a great contributor to American rock in general, and you have a less standoffish, more complex, and — it might as well be said — happier Social Distortion record. It’s been almost 30 years, after all, since Ness was running wild around the LA punk scene with the likes of The Germs and FEAR. These days, you’re more likely to find him jamming with Bruce Springsteen.

“It’s very validating,” Ness says of being increasingly recognized for his contribution to American music, instead of the guy who trashes the joint. “When I did the solo stuff, that shed a different light on me. And then, yeah, this record for sure I think is going to be thought of as a classic American rock-‘n’-roll record. And I say rock ‘n’ roll because punk is very much a part of us, but we always consider ourselves more than a punk band. I took what I wanted from punk. It’s invaluable, the experience I had, being part of the early punk scene. But I was a punk rocker then; now I’m a man. So I’ve taken the good stuff from that, but I’ve lost a lot of the stuff I thought wasn’t worth keeping.”

Recorded entirely analog, Hard Times was a — ahem — hard and long time in the making. The six years between records weren’t, Ness says, entirely due to his songwriting perfectionism; the band had to mix it three times, including hiring a professional mixer, before getting it right. “[The first time] we mixed it, we listened to it and we weren’t stoked,” he says. “So we thought, ‘Maybe we’ve been with it too long; maybe we should hire a professional mixer.’ That’s what they do. So we did, and we listened to it, and it was like, ‘Well, it’s different, but is it better?’ And it wasn’t. So we needed to figure out what was wrong with our [original] mix, which was a little too much low end, a little too much sub. We’d spent too much time with it. So [they took some time away] and when we finally re-approached it, it was like ‘This is how mixing should be.’ It was fun.”

Fun. Though Hard Times can’t be characterized as totally “fun” (it’s still Social Distortion), it’s definitely a less weighty affair than, say, the awesomely dark White Light, White Heat, White Trash, or even the band’s last album, the markedly aggressive Sex, Love and Rock & Roll. The most traditional punk jam, closing track “Still Alive,” is a paean to optimism and survival, and love song “Diamond in the Rough” could easily, minus the loud guitars, be a Springsteen or even a Bob Dylan track. Whimsical gems like “California Hustle and Flow,” “Gimmee the Sweet and Low Down,” and “Can’t Take it With You” keep feet tapping with unexpected and addictive hooks, while those looking for more traditional bad-ass Social D material will dig gangster ode “Machine Gun Blues.”

For Ness, it’s the successful continuation of a career that many predicted would go down in flames decades ago. One could say that Ness was, for a long time, underrated both as a musician and a man. Asked if his career has turned out like he thought it would, he flashes a smart-ass greaser grin — the same one from his sarcastic, though surprisingly thoughtful, eye-liner lesson in Another State of Mind — and says, “It’s certainly where I hoped it would be.”