Social Distortion frontman Mike Ness with his favorite guitar—a 1976 Les
Paul Deluxe—at an August 10, 2010, gig at Harrah’s in Council Bluffs, Iowa.
Although its lineup has evolved considerably
over the last 30 years, veteran SoCal
punk quartet Social Distortion has maintained
its raw, Stones-y sound thanks to its one
constant—frontman (and notorious vintage
Les Paul aficionado) Mike Ness. Social D’s
latest album, Hard Times and Nursery Rhymes
is the band’s seventh studio outing, and it’s
powered by Ness’ trademark blend of bluesy,
high-octane rock ’n’ roll and stories about
love, heartbreak, and souped-up Ford V8s.
But there are also new twists like soulful background
vocals (“Can’t Take It with You”) and
pensive piano melodies (“Still Alive”). And
these updates to the classic Social D sound are
due in no small part due the fact that Ness,
for the first time ever, sat in the driver’s seat
as the album’s only producer.
“I think if I’d done this any sooner in my
career it may have been a recipe for disaster,”
says Ness, “but it was perfect timing for this
album.” Jonny Wickersham, who’s played
previously with Cadillac Tramps and US
Bombs, also played a pivotal role in guiding
’s hot-rod groove. Wickersham—
who had been co-founding Social D guitarist
Dennis Danell’s long-time guitar tech—joined
the band in late 2000 after Danell died of a
brain aneurysm. The Ness-Wickersham teaming
proved fruitful on their first collaboration,
2004’s Sex, Love and Rock ’n’ Roll
, and their
bond as musicians and friends has grown over
the intervening years, as evidenced by their
interlocking melodic guitar parts on tracks
like “Machine Gun Blues” and “Far Side of
Nowhere.” But it’s also palpable in arrangements
like “California (Hustle and Flow)” and
the drag-strip instrumental “Road Zombie,”
where the two guitarists meld their love of
Keith Richards’-style rock, ’70s-era NYC
punk, old blues, and country.
We recently tracked down Ness and
Wickersham during their fall tour to talk about
vintage Gibson guitars, Ness’ first time in the
producer’s chair, and how Neil Young’s guitar
tech forever changed the Social D sound.
Mike, you’ve helped out as co-producer on
Social D’s last four records—and your two
solo records—but this time you took all the
responsibility on yourself. From a guitarist’s
point of view, what were the biggest challenges—
and rewards—of doing that? And
what did it teach you?
The album should be called Tones
because the biggest thing we focused on right
from the start was getting guitar tones that
matched our live sound. We did it old-school,
with analog tape, an impressive Neve board, and
all sorts of outboard gear, like Pultec EQs and
Fairchild compressors. We also had technical
help from engineer Duane Baron, who helped
capture sounds and levels. Through this producing
process, I’ve truly realized that, in a lot of
cases—less is better. Instead of recording guitar
after guitar, and stacking track upon track in the
mix, I just recorded the setups we use live. I also
learned that I liked producing a lot
me to have an incredible amount of focus on
every single detail. We just wanted to make the
best, most true-to-form rock ’n’ roll record we
could possibly make without any compromises.
When I look back in five or 10 years, I won’t
have any regrets—that’s a real satisfying feeling.
Jonny, how has being in the band for several
years now, as well as this new experience with
Mike as the producer affected your playing?
When I was in the Cadillac
Tramps, I tried to be this hot-shot blues player
ripping through scales—playing too much,
too fast, and being unfocused [laughs
I joined Social D, I thought I’d jump right
in and handle it. Instead, I actually found
out this thing called time
. Mike has a sixth
sense for time and groove—it’s in his blood.
It all started with Mike taking me through
the paces and showing me the songs and how
they were to be played. And [former Social D
drummer] Charlie Quintana gave me a metronome,
too. That was the first time I played
to a click track. It was elementary stuff, but it
really tightened my playing and technique.
The biggest thing I’ve learned working with
Mike and Social D is finding and knowing the
right feel, groove, key, and tempo for each song.
For a band with a reputation like this, there has
to be someone at the helm with a clear focus—
and no one has a better vision or ear for what a
Social D album should sound like than Mike.
Mike, if you could go back in time as producer
of some of your earlier recordings,
what would you change?
One thing that happened a lot during
some of the older recordings is that there was
this high level of compression. When I listen
back now, some of the tracks just had the life
and original tone squashed out of them. With
this record, there was no one else to blame, so
I did what I felt was right and sounded best.
Your singing sounds more natural now
instead of pushing your voice to sound more
aggressive. Was that a conscious decision?
Yes, definitely. In the past, I’ve had producers
pushing me to be angry and aggressive
and almost yell when I cut my vocals tracks.
I always felt that was such a one-dimensional
approach. On this record, I just wanted to go
back and recapture my singing voice from the
’80s. If you’re aggro man from start to finish,
there’s no room for dynamics or peaks and
valleys of emotions.
“California (Hustle and Flow)” sounds like
the Stones’ “Tumblin’ Dice” and “Can’t You
Hear Me Knockin’.” How did that song
Oh yeah, that Rolling Stones
vibe was completely intentional—as a band
we just thought, ‘lets go for it, man.’ We all
have our favorite bands or groups, but if we
all had to agree on our biggest influence,
there’s no doubt it’d be the Stones. The best
way to honor our heroes was to do something
like “California (Hustle and Flow),”
where we pulled out all the stops—with the
rhythms, the riffs, the backup soul singers—
and just go for it.
It started with Mike coming up with a
riff that could’ve been on Exile
, and once
I heard him play through the chords a bit
I just tuned to open G—just like Keith.
Another thing Mike’s real good at—and
which is evident on that track—is that he’s
not afraid to play less for the betterment
of the song.
Oh yeah, that was the whole point with
this track—“How would a Social Distortion
version of a Rolling Stones track sound?” My
favorite part is the back end, where it goes
from the main melody and rhythm and then
just goes full throttle with a greasy, slutty rock
groove that gallops to the end of the song. We
had the song all the way done, but what I’d
envisioned wasn’t matching what I was hearing
on the track. I kept hearing these soulful
background singers, so we had to at least try
it. After hearing it once with the singers, I
knew we’d done the right thing.