Social Distortion going strong

DARRYL STERDAN - Sun Media

, Last Updated: 6:16 AM ET

Somewhere Between Heaven and Hell isn't just the title of an album by Social Distortion -- it's also where the band's fans spend most of their time.

On the upside: The punk outfit founded by California teen Mike Ness back in 1978 is still going strong, somehow surviving endless lineup changes and Ness' drug addiction.

On the downside: Ness has never been a guy who plays by anybody else's rules -- or schedule.

In the band's three-decade existence, he's only managed to crank out six albums of new studio material, along with a couple of solo albums. And fans who have been waiting five years for a followup to 2004's Sex, Love and Rock 'n' Roll are going to have to be patient, the 47-year-old singer-guitarist says.

"I don't travel around with a typewriter," laughs Ness in his trademark rasp. "I have been trying to be a little more disciplined. I'm trying not be too lazy. But I'm never going to make an album a year."

Thankfully, Ness makes up for his lack of recorded output with a near-endless touring schedule. His latest North American trek takes him across Canada over the next few weeks -- including a Wakestock gig in Collingwood, Aug. 8.

We caught up with him backstage at an outdoor gig in Germany, where he was happy to discuss his longevity, luck and love of everyone from Billie Holiday to Bruce Springsteen. Here's some of what he said.

You've been at this for 30 years. Do you find that hard to believe sometimes?

Yeah, it doesn't really seem real. Of course, it's not like I've been at a desk or in a factory for 30 years doing the same thing. It's definitely been a progression in all sorts of ways.

You must feel lucky that you came up with such a cool band name as a teenager. Think about the stupid names you could have been stuck with.

(Laughs) Yeah, I have a friend that started a band called the Limping D---s. Thinking about that, it's like, oh my God.

Were you just lucky, or were you more together than the average dumb punk?

No, having my act together didn't come until way later (laughs). I mean, technically we have 30 years, but the first five was really just a party. I didn't look at it like a serious job. It was sex, drugs and rock 'n' roll. Then it became sex and drugs. Then it became just drugs. I definitely lost focus. But by the late '80s, I was rebuilding my life and looking at it seriously. I don't know where I got the work ethic; it just kind of came. I just realized that if I wanted to continue doing this, I would have to be serious. And when you start getting paid like a professional, you owe it to the people buying tickets.

How about the people waiting to buy an album? It's been five years. What's going on?

Right after our fall tour, we're going into the studio. But I'm opting right now to do an EP, just because I don't want to wait until I have 12 songs. Plus I think it would be cool to go back to the day of the EP. People can get new material and we can tour with new songs. And maybe we can come back in five months and do another one, and then put it all together with a bonus track later for the people who actually want to still buy a CD. I think that's the way to roll with the times and keep it kind of old-school.

You obviously have a huge love for country music. You share that with a lot of punk bands. What's the link between the genres?

It's not just country. It's roots music. Whether that's Depression-era folk, Delta blues, Chicago blues, jazz -- even rockabilly. I'd grown up with The Beatles and The Stones and then heard The Sex Pistols and The Ramones, but I realized music went much farther than that. And when I heard Johnny Cash, it really made sense. Then I went back even farther to Woody Guthrie and Hank Williams -- the storytellers of songwriting.

That's going back to basics.

It is. From Billie Holiday to Howling Wolf, it's stripped-down, it's primitive, it's heartfelt, it's honest. And when you think about it, that's what punk was supposed to be.

What about punk today? Now it has got choirs and orchestras.

To me, punk was a specific period of time in the late '70s in a basement in Hollywood. It was an underground thing; it was the beginning of something. No one knew where it was going to go. It was like a runaway train. And this is what it's become. But you can't really complain about it if you weren't the guy steering it.

You were on stage with Bruce Springsteen recently. How did that happen?

I think it started in 1992, when he told Rolling Stone that he thought Somewhere Between Heaven and Hell was the record of the year ...

That's gotta be a good feeling.

Yeah, talk about validation. So anyway, I went onstage at his show in L.A. and as he was introducing me, I realized how many Social Distortion fans were in the crowd. They didn't know I was there; they were just at a Springsteen concert. That's gotta say something right there. We don't come from the same mold, obviously, but if you're looking for similarities, you'll find them.

Are you guys friends? Does he have you out to the house to barbecue?

(Laughs) No, it hasn't got to that point yet.


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