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“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 Hard Times’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?
Ness: 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—it allowed 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?
Wickersham: 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]. When 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?
Ness: 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?
Ness: 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 come about?
Wickersham: 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.
Ness: 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.