There has to be a heaven, because Mike Ness has already been through hell.
This is how the Social Distortion frontman describes his life.
You hear it in his voice, a lived-in baritone that’s burlap-rough around the edges but which has been softened at its core by the hard times of decades gone by.
The past is present in pretty much everything Ness does, from the vintage threads he wears, to the customized hot rods he drives to the way he narrates his life story in song.
Ness is a rock ’n’ roll originalist, favoring a throwback approach to the music he makes, right down to plugging his guitar in with a cord as opposed to going wireless at his band’s gigs.
When Social D recently put out a box set that included some of their earliest recordings, Ness was adamant that everything remained as it was initially tracked with no studio enhancements.
“I just made it a point to put a label on there, ‘Absolutely not digitally remastered,’ ” he says. “I don’t want to change something so it sounds good in somebody’s Bose headphones. It’s like listening to an old John Lee Hooker record. Don’t touch it, you know?”
This preservationist vibe is palpable on Social D’s last studio record, 2011’s “Hard Times and Nursery Rhymes,” an album that burrowed deeper beneath the band’s punk rock surface to get more directly in touch with Ness’ Americana and blues roots.
Ness has always been way more Woody Guthrie than Johnny Rotten, and while “Hard Times” isn’t as hard-driving as a formative Social D record like 1992’s “Somewhere Between Heaven and Hell,” a combustible blend of heartache and hellfire, it sees the band moving forward by looking backward.
“What’s good about evolving is that sometimes that doesn’t mean necessarily that you’re going all technical,” Ness says. “Actually, sometimes that means going more primitive.”
Ness is putting Social D’s next record together and has about 20 new songs in various stages of completion. He says the tunes range from garage punk to the gospel-inspired.
“I kind of want the next record to have a little more variety,” Ness states. “If there’s ever a time to try new stuff, it’s right now, because I want to show people that we’ve grown: ‘Wow, that’s different.’ ”
Ness is quick to note, however, that this growth has to come naturally, which may explain why Social D has taken their time between records of late: Their next album will only be their third in the past 20 years.
“We’ve always just tried to be authentic, and that means being true,” Ness explains, citing as an example the way he chooses cover tunes, a staple of the band’s live gigs. “The songs that I pick to cover are just songs that I love so much, that I’ve been playing in my living room for so long, it’s like, ‘I want to start doing this in front of people.’
“It’s the same with the songwriting,” he continues. “And that came from extreme risk taking. I didn’t know when I was writing ‘Sick Boys’ or ‘99 to Life’ or ‘Ball and Chain’ that people were really going to like it. But I knew that I did.”
In doing so, he became an unlikely punk progenitor, a survivalist who weathered years of drug abuse, and who is now a clean-living vegetarian who prefers to spend his time downtown at the boxing gym, not the bar.
Still, he remains a punk at heart, and in the most highly charged political times in recent decades, punk rock has been the soundtrack to protest, a musical call to arms.
Ness doesn’t advertise his political views, but he also knows that fronting Social D gives him a platform to be heard.
The way he sees it, he’s not here to tell you what to think.
He just wants to get you thinking.
“I’m an activist, whether it’s animal rights or human rights, but I don’t like to preach and I don’t like to cram stuff down people’s throats,” he says. “I never set out be a role model, but once people find out that I’m an anti-racist or that I belong to PETA or that I do yoga, I feel a certain responsibility because I do trust the fans. They trust me; I want to trust them. I trust that they’re open-minded.”