Social Distortion explores music’s roots on new record

The band he plays in has penned its share of tunes about addiction — to dope, booze and women — its catalog frequently colored black by tough luck as grim as autopsy photos.

So the comparison is a suitable one, and Jonny Wickersham chuckles a bit as he gives voice to it.

“We’re like a gateway drug,” the guitarist says. “Social D leads to the Carter Family.”

Sure, Wickersham’s band, Social Distortion, has long been one of the defining acts of the vibrant Southern California punk-rock scene, having helped define the sound with their high-velocity hooks, beginning in the late ’70s.

But there has long been an underlying rootsiness and swagger to Social D’s bare-knuckle swing that’s as rooted in the honky-tonk and blues traditions as it is to harder edged rock ‘n’ roll.

Hence the Carter Family reference.

On the band’s new record, “Hard Times and Nursery Rhymes,” due out Tuesday, they continue to excavate the true roots of rock ‘n’ roll, mapping its genomes, educating themselves and their audience at the same time.

For Wickersham, it all began when he was a kid and he got his first blues record, “Muddy and the Wolf,” a collaboration between Chicago blues greats Muddy Waters and Howlin’ Wolf, backed by Eric Clapton, Steve Winwood and members of the Rolling Stones.

“I was blown away by the song ‘Killing Floor,’ ” Wickersham recalls. “As soon as I heard it, I heard ‘The Lemon Song’ by Led Zeppelin. I was like, ‘Wow, man.’ It all kind of came together for me.”

Still, as a young aspiring guitarist who had gotten into music tagging along with his musician dad at gigs with his bar band, Wickersham had a steep learning curve when it came to emulating his heroes.

At least at first.

“I was really into Led Zeppelin and Jimmy Page when I was in elementary school,” he says. “And it was hard for me, because I’m not one of these musicians who’s just loaded with natural talent. It was frustrating, because I wanted to learn how to play like Jimmy Page or Keith Richards, but it didn’t come so easy.”

Then the epiphany came in the form of the debut from a bunch of leering, sneering British punks.

“When I heard the Sex Pistols, I picked up the bass and I actually learned how to play three or four songs off of ‘Nevermind the Bollocks’ by ear, starting with ‘Submission,’ ” Wickersham remembers. “So it was like, ‘This is cool, man. I can do this.’ ”

From there, Wickersham became a punk lifer, playing in bands like The Cadillac Tramps and the U.S. Bombs before joining up with Social D in 2000.

The band is largely a reflection of its rock-hard frontman, Mike Ness, a former heroin addict who’s long written intense, autobiographical songs that give Social D’s repertoire an honest-feeling, real-life dimension.

“I’ve always felt that each record had a lot of what was really happening in his life,” Wickersham says. “He writes songs about his experiences in real life.”

This being said, there tends to be a fair amount of time between records for this bunch, so that they can actually go out and live the lives that Ness writes about in such unflinching fashion.

“It’s kind of worked out in a cool way for Social D in that there’s not records coming out on a regular basis, so when one does come out, it’s given the band time to evolve and mature together as musicians and just with life experiences,” Wickersham says. “It’s not like, ‘All right, it’s been a year and a half, let’s get in there and do another record, knock one out.’ The fact that we’re not the most prolific band in the world seems to be a cool thing in that regard.”

More importantly, it seems to have helped the band maintain its hunger, which is palpable on “Hard Times,” which is an invigorated, heart-pounding effort.

To hear Wickersham tell it, focusing on the past helps stoke the flames of the present.

“We’re still trying to emulate our heroes. Even now,” he says. “We still want to be as good as The Stones. And I think it shows on the records. I’m just glad that I’m not in a band with a bunch of people who don’t really give a crap anymore.”

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

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