The seven-year break between albums hasn't hurt Social Distortion's momentum: Hard Times and Nursery Rhymes, the band's seventh studio album, debuted at Number Four on the Billboard Top 200 Albums chart after its January release – the first ever Social Distortion album to crack the Top 10.
And the group will be supporting the release with a string of U.S. tour dates, kicking off April 26 in Albuquerque, New Mexico and finishing up May 20 in Nashville. "The tour will be a typical high-energy Social D show, with new songs off Hard Times combined with songs picked from each previous album," singer/guitarist Mike Ness says. "We always try and mix it up and throw in surprises."
In a wide-ranging interview with Rolling Stone, Ness also discussed Social Distortion's latest release, the origins of the group's logo and the best place to get a tattoo.
Let's start with the new album, Hard Times and Nursery Rhymes.
I think with this record, it's the same influences as always – the Rolling Stones, the Ramones, Johnny Thunders, Hank Williams. But I kind of wanted to push it in other directions, and separate it from similar stuff we'd done in the past. It's a challenge, but the influences are so broad that you can grab different genres from those same influences. But wanted to re-establish our place in American roots music, at the same time.
The main objective I guess of the record was to try and have some versatility. It has different grooves, different moods throughout, so for 40 minutes, you go through a little journey.
Why did it take seven years between Hard Times and Nursery Rhymes and the last album, Sex, Love and Rock 'n' Roll?
Well, the record only took four months to make. [Laughs] The problem is you can't make a record until you stop touring, and we were a pretty busy touring act. We toured the last record for probably three years. I know I took about six months off, doing nothing, but that was really about it. I toured the Mike Ness Band again, to let people know that that was still important to me. We hit a lot of new countries for the first time – South America, Australia. I don't like to wait that long, and I told myself I wouldn't let that happen again. But we've been busy – we weren't just relaxing.
When was the last time you watched the cult classic documentary, Another State of Mind [which followed Social Distortion and other punk bands during a rough 1982 tour]?
That tragic comedy? It's been a couple of years. But we're actually talking about making a new one. I want to show what has changed, but I also want to show what is still the same. I think that that film really captured the emotion of that period and the disparity of trying to do something when the rest of the world was telling you, "You couldn't do it."
There's a famous scene where the bands enter through the back entrance of a venue, in fear of getting beat up by tough guy locals. Was that what a touring punk band regularly faced back then?
Not so much as a band, but as an individual roaming the streets looking that way, you pretty much knew that something was going to happen.
What is the origin of the famous Social Distortion logo of a skeleton holding a martini and cigarette?
That I found – it was an invitation to a New Year's Eve party that my friend had designed. At the time, I saw that, and it just felt like, "That's it right there. It's life and death, it's celebration." It just felt powerful.
Social Distortion toured with Neil Young twice, in 1991 and 1993.
It was a great experience. It was also a dues paying experience, because back then, even if we did have 500 fans there, which would have been large for that period of time, they were scattered because of this prearranged seating thing that our fans were not used to. Second of all, we were going on at 8, where most people were just finishing their dinner and figuring which off-ramp to get off at. I know we got some converts from that, but the main thing that I got out of that was that was the main period of time where I was going back and forth searching for my guitar tone, amps and all that. I really learned a lot from those guys – from Neil's guitar tech, as far as Fender amps, Gibson P-90 pick-ups and Les Paul Deluxes. And the other thing was it was right when I was becoming very "groove aware" – realizing that if a song doesn't have a groove, you're just bashing through chords. I would watch Crazy Horse basically turn their back on 10-15,000 people, face the drummer, get this groove and then come back out.
Where is the best place in the U.S. to get a tattoo?
I like to get them backstage. I like to have my friend, Oliver Peck, come out and just tattoo me backstage. It's private and you don't have to deal with the shop and a whole bunch of people coming in and looking. He's got a shop in Dallas – Elm Street Tattoo. He was out on this last tour when we were touring with Lucero, he's friends with them and I had known him from years ago. We just got close, and it was pretty cool – just set up backstage right before the show, get a tat. Pretty convenient.
Lastly, would you say you were one of the first punk rockers to sport the "runny eyeliner look," which has become the norm with modern punk bands?
Yeah. I stopped wearing that because of that!