Social Distortion's Mike Ness on must-have albums: If you don't have these, you're not alive

Social Distortion (due tomorrow night at the Boulder Theater) has had a rotating cast for more than three decades, with Mike Ness being the only constant member. Ness has aged well; he and the band still tear through material with reckless abandon, and the singer doesn't sound a whole lot different now than he did at the beginning. We spoke with Ness about the act's latest album, Hard Time and Nursery Rhymes, and got his picks for the must-have albums that built the foundation of Social D.

Westword: Hard Times and Nursery Rhymes is the first album you've produced yourself. How did that go?

Mike Ness: It was really good. I've always been there with producers co-producing, but this time, I took all the lessons I learned from those other guys, and they were valuable. This time, I kind of wanted to do it myself. It was a good time. I really enjoyed the process and the amount of focus that it requires. It really helped me stay on focus. I'm very detail-oriented. You know, big or small, it was like there isn't anything going through those speakers that I didn't know about.

I read about how you recorded the album analog and wanted to give it a '70s feel.

Yeah, I'm not a big digital guy. I don't have an iPod or a dock or any of that shit. I live for the tubes. Something about tubes that are good.

It kind of warms things up.


Are you a big fan of vinyl?

Yeah, I am. I just built the band a new rehearsal studio, so I'm finally pulling out a lot of albums that have been in storage a while. Actually, I'm looking right now at a record bin that I bought in Dallas. Just a record bin out of a record store that holds albums.

"California (Hustle and Flow)" really kind of sticks out in my mind as a song that has that kind of Exile on Main Street vibe. Was that kind of intentional?

Yeah. This record could have easily followed Somewhere Between Heaven and Hell. I wanted to bring back a little bit of the roots thing. I wanted to give it something that the other records didn't have, and that was the girls singing. I've always loved that. It's like, "I want to do that."

Is Exile on Main Street a favorite album of yours?

It's a must-have. If you don't have it, you're not even alive.

What other albums do you think fall in that same category of must-haves?

I would say the Ramones' Road to Ruin, Johnny Thunders & the Heartbreakers L.A.M.F., any Hank Williams record and any George Jones record. That's about it. That's the foundation of Social Distortion.

Have you always been into country, even as a teenager?

I had all that stuff around my house. My mom and uncles gave me Rolling Stones records in second and third grade. My dad had Johnny Cash and the Dillards. Then we had folk music and bluegrass. So I grew up with all that music long before I ever heard the Pistols. So that's why our foundation has always been a little bit more traditional, more blue-based rock like the music of the '60s and '70s.

If you listen to the first wave of punk, it was very blues-based rock and roll, just a little faster and a little snottier. The Pistols album is based with Chuck Berry. The Ramones are laced with '50s and '60s kind of pop songs. They had Marshalls and leather jackets, turned it up a notch, and it worked.

I was kind of curious about the song "Gimme the Sweet and Lowdown." Is the title any sort of reference to Woody Allen's film Sweet and Lowdown?

Well, I'm sure it's a subtle influence; I'm a huge Woody Allen fan. But it's more just like just cut the bullshit and give me the sweet and lowdown. Just get to the point, and let's not dance around the rosebush anymore. Just get to the fucking point.

You've talked about some of songs on the new album being fictional and some being non-fictional.

One of the main focuses with this record was that I didn't want it to be just autobiographical about my hard times and my life. I really wanted to branch out and set up the next ten to twenty years of record making with more style in the writing. That was intentional that this record was fictional/non-fictional, heavy/light. Dark and light. There are some songs that are evocative and make you think. There are other songs, like "Far Side of Nowhere," that are intended to help you forget everything and just enjoy the moment. That's what music is supposed to do, I think. It makes you think sometimes, but also makes you not think.

One thing I noticed after seeing you guys the last few times you've come through is the diversity of the crowds. Dads bringing their kids and younger audiences. How do like that?

I love it. One of my favorite things to do is look at the line of the people going into the show. It's totally diverse. And even back in the day, in the early days, I didn't want to play just for punk-rockers. I felt that we had something more to offer. Maybe we didn't have quite the global message that the Clash had, but the Clash wanted to reach the world. And that's what I wanted to do. I didn't want to just play...that would be as narrow-minded as the people who said that punks suck. So our crowds have always been mixed, and I've always enjoyed that.

And even the ages, too. It spans a few generations.

Yeah. Five years old to sixty or seventy. It's pretty rad.

You've come through town a lot. Do you have any fond memories of playing in Colorado?

Well, Denver and the state of Colorado really was very important around the time I was rebuilding the band in the late '80s. Yeah, there were a handful of places across the country that you could go to and there would be 300 people there, and Denver was one of them. That was when I was getting serious about it. It just really helped build what we are now.

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Jon Solomon writes about music and nightlife for Westword, where he's been the Clubs Editor since 2006.
Contact: Jon Solomon