Social Distortion had just released its 2011 album Hard Times And Nursery Rhymes when I spoke on the phone with Mike Ness, the rockabilly-punk group’s frontman. While we discussed the album in detail, the edited transcipt below focuses on money and travel — my two favorite topics.
WHEN YOU TOUR DO YOU TRY AND DO TOURISTY STUFF ALONG THE WAY, SAY THE BOOK DEPOSITORY IN DALLAS OR THE LIBERTY BELL IN PHILADELPHIA? OR IS IT ALL ABOUT GETTING TO THE NEXT GIG?
I try to find stuff that is not necessarily on the tour guide. I just like to get interesting facts about places that I’m visiting. You’ll hear, Oh yeah the mayor’s in some scandal or something. Or you just hear something about that town’s history that maybe isn’t talked about. I like getting stuff like that.
IF YOU WERE TO QUIT BEING A ROCK STAR AND BECOME A TRAVEL COLUMNIST, WHAT SORT OF ADVICE WOULD YOU GIVE?
Just be aware of your surroundings at all times. You hang a left in a bad neighborhood, you’ve gotta know how to handle yourself.
I GUESS THAT’S A CHALLENGE FOR YOU IF YOU’RE ATTRACTED TO SIGHTS IN THE DODGY NEIGHBORHOODS?
I used to hang out in Greenwich Village all the time when I would go to New York. Now I find myself more midtown or uptown. It depends. Sometimes I wanna go into the dodgy area to find junk stores or go on a hunt. Other times, I just wanna sit down and have a cappuccino and not worry about anything. Smoke a cigar and just watch the people go by.
YOU TRAVEL SO MUCH FOR YOUR JOB, DO YOU EVER TRAVEL FOR FUN?
Yeah, now that the kids (Julian 19, Johnny 14 at the time) are growing up I look forward to traveling with my wife. Now it’s time for us, I guess. We spent years raising children and now you have to start thinking about the second half of your life.
WHAT’S IN YOUR ITINERARY IN TERMS OF DREAM COUNTRIES OR DREAM CITIES?
I recently went to some places for the first time. I went to Australia for the first time, really enjoyed that. I fell in love with Argentina, particularly Buenos Aires. I get to see some of these places when I’m traveling for work. Then I think, “Oh man we need to come just when I’m not working.” Especially when you get to some of these older countries, then you really get into the history. You realize how young the United States is and how immature we are!
HAS ALL THIS TRAVEL CHANGED YOUR MINDSET?
Oh yeah, completely. It was a process for me. In the mid-90s, I hated Europe. I was an arrogant American. All I could see was the stuff that they didn’t have that America did. As you get older now it’s just like, God, America could learn so much from these other countries. Even Canada, jeez. We’re just so arrogant and so self-righteous. You see these other countries and you can’t help but think, Wow!
DO YOU AND YOUR WIFE HAVE A RETIREMENT DESTINATION LINED UP?
Well, we have a little rural property with three acres in northern California and that’s kinda where we see ourselves. The pace of life is slower and we both love working in the land, and digging and planting, doing stuff like that. Drive a tractor. That’s when I’m the happiest is where I’m cutting the three acres down and in a zone.
YOU’RE A BIT LIKE RONALD REAGAN AND GEORGE BUSH — YOU SPEND YOUR SUMMER VACATION CUTTING SCRUB?
That’s probably where our common interests would end, right there.
ARE THERE ANY STATES OR COUNTRIES THAT YOU HAVEN’T PLAYED, OR AT LEAST HAVE NOT DONE PROPERLY?
Yeah, definitely. Japan is definitely one. We’ve been over a couple of times but both times we were over there we were on a lame festival. We didn’t feel we were able to accurately show people what we’re about. And also the U.K. It was always just kinda come in and play London one night. That’s cool, but England is a big place. And then there’s Scotland and Ireland. I think we’re kinda concentrating on that a little bit this time. Just trying to hit these places that we feel are important, that we’ve maybe not purposely neglected, but just didn’t give a fair chance before.
AND YOU’VE DONE ALL 50 STATES?
I’d say we’ve done at least 45 of them.
IS THE LAG BETWEEN RECORDS, BETWEEN THIS ONE (HARD TIMES AND NURSERY RHYMES) AND THE PREVIOUS ONE (2004’S SEX, LOVE AND ROCK ‘N’ ROLL), AN ACKNOWLEDGMENT THAT THESE DAYS IT’S MORE LUCRATIVE TO BE ON THE ROAD THAN IN THE STUDIO.
We’re on the road regardless. But yeah, it’s sad but true. Record sales used to mean something, and now they really don’t. It sucks for us. For me having a couple of gold records wasn’t the money that I made from selling those it was the acknowledgment of there’s your accomplishment right there hanging on the wall. I still buy CDs. I can’t speak for the rest of the world. If I want something and I wanna hear it I go out and buy it.
DO YOU GO TO AMAZON.COM, OR THE LOCAL MOM-AND-POP STORE, OR BEST BUY?
Usually it would be a Mom-and-Pop store, yeah.
WHAT WERE THE LAST FEW RECORDS THAT YOU BOUGHT?
Man, I couldn’t tell ya. I’m the kind of person who will go a couple of years without buying anything. Then I’ll find a cool record store and I’ll drop two or three hundred dollars on every genre that I like, I’ll buy some big-band stuff, I’ll buy some blues, I’ll buy some punk rock, I’ll buy this, and just get a nice assortment to add to the library.
DO YOU THINK SOCIAL D ALBUMS WITH THEIR FOCUS ON TOUGH-LUCK STORIES, INSPIRED IN PART BY YOUR OWN TROUBLED LIFE, ARE A GOOD SOUNDTRACK FOR THE HARD ECONOMIC TIMES?
Definitely, definitely because hard times are hard times. They don’t necessarily need to mean emotional stuff. I lost a ton of money on real estate last year, man, just a fuckin’ ton. I can’t even justify losing it. It’s like, What the fuck happened? When you are very wealthy and that happens, you can kind of come out of it OK, but when you’re not and you lose it … I worked so hard for that. I’m definitely not immune to that by any means. The state of the economy right now … Even during the Depression people needed booze and entertainment, so I’m the entertainment?
WHAT HAPPENED? YOU WERE INVESTING IN RENTAL PROPERTIES OR SOMETHING?
I wish. I just made some bad choice with moving the family. I bought something, found something better, borrowed the money to buy that. That property value went down. I’d already gutted it. And then another house that we had lived in before is taking a long time to sell. But at the same time, that’s what I do. I make money and I’ll make it back, and it kinda was a good lesson, y’know?
DO YOU INVEST IN STOCKS AND BONDS AS WELL?
No, I don’t know anything about that. My one regret is that I didn’t get an education and learn about some of this kind of stuff, or have parents that could show me about it. I had to figure out a lot of this shit just on my own, through trial and error.
CAN’T YOU GET YOUR MANAGERS TO TEACH YOU?
Yeah, definitely. I’ve got great business managers, a couple of Jewish sisters who are busting my balls all the time. That’s good.
ARE YOU MAKING ANY CONCESSIONS TO THE TOUGH ECONOMY IN TERMS OF THE SIZE OF THE VENUES, OR TICKET PRICES?
No, we’re very lucky. We’re still selling out shows and still in high demand. I definitely don’t take that for granted. I’m very fortunate that we can still go out and sell out the majority of shows on a tour. Our job is just to make sure that they’re happy when they leave and they wanna come back the next time.
DO YOU CONSIDER YOURSELF A TORMENTED ARTIST STILL?
Well yeah, but I don’t know if it has anything to do with being an artist. I’m chronically irritable and discontent! That’s part of my personality. It does help having an artistic outlet for that and a way to let loose.
AS A ROCK ‘N’ ROLL POET HOW MUCH THOUGHT DO YOU PUT INTO LYRICS?
I put a lot of thought in the lyrics. I don’t want to ever regurgitate old things. This record I didn’t want to get stuck in any one style of writing. I wanted fictionally, I wanted nonfictionally. I wanted to write heavy songs, but I also wanted to write songs that were light and just provided a temporary escape for people. Character writing instead of a hundred percent autobiographical. I think by doing it, it really opened the door for me, and it gave me a lot of more freedom. And also I gained confidence from trying write in a new way and succeed in it.
DO YOU APPRECIATE OTHER PEOPLE’S LYRICS?
Of course, all the time. Just picking up on little things whether it’s a line from a movie. I was watching an old gangster movie the other night and this guy goes, “Yeah she’s got a great big dollar sign right where most girls have a heart.” Oooh, that’s genius. I wish I would have thought of that.
HAVE YOU THOUGHT ABOUT WRITING A MEMOIR?
It’s definitely in the forefront. I don’t want it to be like Motley Crue, just all the girls you’ve slept with and all the drugs you’ve done and all the hotel rooms you trashed. I want my book to be almost the struggle of going from a boy to a man, and even once you are physically man trying to figure things out, trying to correct the things that are so much a part of you because of the way that you are raised. Things that were basically survival skills for you end up being deficits later on in life. I kinda just wanna write an inspiring book that does talk about my music career but also my personal journey and struggles that I had to overcome.
I WAS READING A BIG ROLLING STONE PROFILE FROM 1992 WHEN IT SEEMED YOU WERE ON THE VERGE OF SUPERSTARDOM … WHY AREN’T YOU GUYS HEADLINING COACHELLA?WAS THERE A FORK IN THE ROAD AND YOU TOOK THE WRONG TURN?
No, I don’t think so. Our level of notoriety and level of success has been a very gradual and organic thing. We’re never gonna be a stadium band. We’re multiple nights in a nice theater-type band that can fill it every night and put on a high energy show 30 years into our career better than we’ve ever been. For us, the longevity is better. If you would have peaked out in ’92, it’s hard to say where we would be right now. Rather than every single year just gradually moving up the rung a little higher. We’re here for the long haul.
WILL YOU STILL BE DOING THIS WHEN YOU’RE 75?
I hope so.
DO YOU LOOK AT CURRENT MUSICAL TRENDS AND JUST FEEL COMPLETELY OUT OF IT?
I don’t ever feel that way. I didn’t get to where I’m at by paying attention to charts and what’s popular right now, and what’s selling. I’ve kind of unpurposely ignored that all the time. Maybe that’s what just gives us a little bit of timelessness in our sound, I don’t know. There’s some good stuff always but for the most part you’ve gotta really sift through a lot of stuff to get to the good stuff.
DID YOU EVER MEET JOHNNY CASH? (SOCIAL D. COVERED HIS WIFE’S RING OF FIRE)
I met Johnny Cash once … He was pretty stoked on it, y’know.
HOW ABOUT MICK JAGGER AND KEITH RICHARDS? DO THEY KNOW ABOUT YOUR HOMAGE (WITH UNDER MY THUMB)?
Probably not. They will some day.
NOTE: Unrelated to the above interview, my gossipy rock bio Strange Days: The Adventures of a Grumpy Rock ‘n’ Roll Journalist in Los Angeles is available here. For more info, go to strangedaysbook.com
Copyright © 2011, 2013 by Dean Goodman. PLEASE DO NOT CUT AND PASTE THE WHOLE THING