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Wednesday, May 4, 2011

Story of His Life

Mike Ness stretches Social Distortion in new directions

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Social Distortion is the rare punk act that not only still tours heartily more than three decades after its start, but still sounds fresh and vital doing it. Indeed, press frontman Mike Ness about the flood of old-school punk acts reunited and back on the road and he might even bristle about it.

"For us, we never quit and came back," Ness says. "There are a lot of people who aren't getting mailbox money anymore, now they're reforming and, I don't know, sometimes it rubs me wrong."

Anyone who's familiar with Social D (as their fans call them) knows that's the last thing you want to do. While the band is known for blending punk-rock fervor and muscular backbeats with country roots and rockabilly, Ness in particular is known for his hard-luck scrapes and bad attitude. His time in jail while struggling with a heroin addiction in the mid-'80s inspired their second disc, 1988's Prison Bound. Over the years he's penned more than a couple of dark odes, including "Born to Lose" and "Down on the World Again."

It's a pigeonhole Ness seeks to escape with Social D's latest, Hard Times and Nursery Rhymes. Produced for the first time by Ness himself, it widens their scope with tracks like "California (Hustle and Flow)," which uses female backing singers for a Muscle Shoals soul sound mixed with a rock bite reminiscent of Joe Walsh, and the bright jangly rock of "Far Side of Nowhere," which channels a hard-bitten Byrds.

"It's about broadening the spectrum so I'm not so limited," Ness says. "I just remember years ago after [1996's White Light, White Heat, White Trash]: It was Mike Ness—the angriest guy in rock 'n' roll. But I don't only want to write songs that are angry. I don't want to just write songs about my hard times."

Producing proved to be a terrific experience for Ness, allowing him to really focus on details big and small. ("I wondered why I didn't do this years ago," he says.) The band did everything old school, recording to tape on analog equipment even though it cost three times as much and was, at the time, coming out of Ness' pockets. He says that was necessary to get the sound he wanted, reminiscent of the warmth of the late-'60s/early-'70s rock he grew up with. That organic warmth may be subtle, but it's pervasive, and helps bring the songs across as something different.

And on this record, Ness sings—more than just barking in his gruff, whiskey-scarred baritone, he really sings. "The last two records the producers were really trying to get me to be angry, and sing it at a high-intensity level, where there's no room for any dynamics," he says. "On this record I really wanted to go back to just singing. The attitude is there. It's part of my personality; it's going to come out. Every single word and phrase doesn't have to be emphasized."

The final new element is the addition of drummer David Hidalgo Jr., the son of the famed Los Lobos guitarist. Hidalgo is Social Distortion's third drummer since Charlie Quintana left the band after nine years in 2009. Ness says he's a great fit, bringing what he calls "storytelling drums."

"Not that he doesn't have the intensity or excitement, because I need that too out of a drummer, but he primarily has that from-the-ground-up foundation because if the song doesn't have a groove, you're just bashing through chords," Ness explains. "It's an old punk-rock bad habit, and it wasn't until the early '90s that I got conscious of that, after touring with Neil Young and watching them play every night. Something with the backbeat and the kicking snare in relation to the bass, and the bass's relation to the guitars, and leaving a nice pocket for the vocals to swim around."

Ness couldn't be more excited to hit the road with a new album, particularly since it's been seven years since the band's last record, Sex, Love & Rock 'n' Roll. He's hoping to corral the guys at the end of the year and head into the studio to make an acoustic album with the band. He compares his intentions to what Rick Rubin did with Johnny Cash. "It's traditional, but it's also contemporary. And it's stripped down, but it's just as powerful as a full band at volume 10," Ness offers. "It's just another chance to show people another side of us."

Social Distortion plays the Rave with openers Chuck Ragan and Sharks on Saturday, May 7, at 8 p.m.