Social Distortion nears 35th anniversary, makes annual trip to Vegas

Currently, Mike Ness is sitting in his home studio, surveying his surroundings, looking at a '46 jukebox, a 6-foot Coca-Cola sign and an old neon clock.

"I'm like that show 'American Pickers,' only I've been doing it longer and I can out pick them any day," the Social Distortion frontman says, cataloging his wares. "I'm an antique collector, I'm a junker, I also have a store, so I go out to estate sales and auctions and buy a bunch of junk and bring it home. It's what I do. That's kind of how I get out and see the city."

Ness' longtime hobby dovetails nicely with his career - he's long been preoccupied with vintage goods and sounds alike.

In Social Distortion, Ness excavates the roots of country, rockabilly, blues and punk and puts them in a modern context.

There's a clear sense of history in the band's music, a lineage.

And yet, it's not retro, and Ness, whose look is somewhere between James Dean and a cast member of "Oz," with plenty of tattoos and black leather jackets, is far from an anachronism.

Like the things he collects, Ness simply uses the past as a bridge to the present.

"I tell people a lot of times that Social Distortion is the Carter Family with Les Pauls and Fender Bassman amps," Ness says through a persistent sniffle, sounding as if he's battling a cold. "It's three chords and a melody, and that's all it is, but the simplistic thing of that, that's what makes it so fun.

"I've always considered us a little bit more than just a punk band. My musical background started at 4 years old. I didn't hear the (Sex) Pistols until I was 17. I was immersed in '60s and '70s rock 'n' roll, country and all this other stuff. Even the punk bands that I like are from the first wave. The Pistols are laced with Chuck Berry and the Ramones are just a girl band with loud guitars."

Social D's latest record, "Hard Times and Nursery Rhymes," recalls the band's initial forays into Americana in the mid-'80s, when the group sought to distinguish itself from the increasingly overstuffed California punk ranks by embracing an earthier, more rootsy swing indebted to Johnny Cash as much as Joe Strummer.

Ness says the move was partially practical: He turned 50 in April, and he feels that Americana is something the band can play at any age as opposed to full-throttle, ears-back rock 'n' roll.

Also, "Hard Times and Nursery Rhymes" completes the circle that started with 1992's "Somewhere Between Heaven and Hell," maybe the band's finest moment.

"Hard Times" sounds as if it could have been that record's follow-up, just more fleshed out, with female backing singers and songs that don't pick quite as many scabs as Ness has in the past with his tough luck lyrics.

Ness always has been Social Distortion's creative focal point, he even produced "Hard Times," but he's collaborating a bit more these days, enjoying the give and take.

"It finally feels like a band again," he says. "In the past, we used to just get my friends in the band and musicianship would come second. I was always unhappy after the shows, it was like, 'God, this is so easy, why don't we sound better?' Now, I have surrounded myself with amazing musicians and then we've become friends because of our mutual admiration for what we do."

All this puts Ness in a different place than he has been before.

He's a father, a successful businessman, a respected musician.

But it's been a long, slow climb, and when reflecting on his career, one of the first things that springs to his mind is when he finally got to quit his day job after years of balancing music with the rigors of the blue collar 9-to-5.

"That was a milestone for me," Ness says. "I was painting houses for a living and going and recording 'Prison Bound' after work, riding a motorcycle home from Fullerton to Costa Mesa. Those are some long days."

Those long days are long gone, as Social Distortion is at the peak of their drawing power.

The band has started a winter tradition in recent years of taking over West Coast House of Blues venues, selling out dozens of shows in San Diego, Anaheim, Calif., and West Hollywood, Calif., on multinight stays.

Vegas, too, has become an annual stop for the group around this time.

"Vegas is part of Social Distortion's beginning," Ness says. "We have strong roots in Vegas because in the early days, we were not a national touring act until the mid-'80s, that's six years after the band was conceived. In those years, we had a little route (California, Nevada, Arizona) and that was basically it. We didn't have booking agents and stuff back then. We just did what we did.

"Back then, we would play in warehouses and industrial complexes and have 200 or 300 people in there," continues Ness, recalling the band's first local shows. "There was no security, no bosses, no one to tell us what to do. And that's the way we liked it."

Now, the band is primed to turn 35.

Ness has seen a lot of things, including the insides of plenty of jail cells earlier on in his life, but he never thought he'd see this day.

"It's like, 'Wow,' " he says incredulously. "I wasn't even supposed to live to be 35. It is an interesting phenomenon, our career."

Contact reporter Jason Bracelin at or 702-383-0476.