Absolutely. It’s the weirdest thing, people come up to me all the time and say, “Your music got me through some hard times.” And I go, “Me too, man.” You know?
That actually leads me to something I was going to bring up, which is that there’s this weird phenomenon- everywhere I go— and I go all over the world, to see tattooers—there are three bands that are in every tattoo shop: Johnny Cash, Social Distortion, and Tom Waits. Does that surprise you?
It’s great. [Laughs] It means I made it to the American singer-songwriter storyteller club! I think this record is going to help. It started when I did the solo stuff, where it really cast a different light on me, as not just being Mike Ness, front man of Social Distortion, been together 25 years, it’s kind of an old story, et cetera. When I wrote that record, it was a huge leap of faith, and it really did help cast a light on me as an American singer-songwriter too, and to be in the same magazines as Bob Dylan, or Tom Waits, or Wilco, it was really refreshing, and I think that that’s only gotten better as time has gone on. And I think this record is really going to establish it even more. Same influences, you know, The Ramones, Hank Williams, Johnny Thunders, and The Rolling Stones, but I pushed it in each direction a little farther, and people are going to be blown away, I think. I mean there’s definitely some tricks up my sleeve that nobody expected.
And I think you putting out that solo record too, that first record, in the early nineties, when that album came out, a lot of punk rock kids had never heard Hank Williams. Or Dylan. In fact, a lot of punk rock kids were turned off by Dylan, because of the way he sang, or because of his association with hippies, or even their parents. But you came out and did that song in a way that they could say, “All right, here is a song by an artist that I normally wouldn’t back at all, but done in a way that I really like.” So just to open kids’ eyes to artists that opened your eyes, you know, that’s a powerful thing to do.
I remember when we first covered Ring of Fire, man, we got so much flak—in the, like, punk rock communities. But you can’t put rules on punk rock, bro!
That’s the ONLY rule…
Yeah, that’s the rule. [Laughs] And if you do, I’m going to be the first one to break it! Because I just hated that, you know. I hated stereotypical boundaries that were just so confining. And in my opinion, that’s why all these bands in the mid-eighties, like Pearl Jam, and The Red Hot Chili Peppers, and Jane’s Addiction, felt the need to just carve out there own sound and get away from this awful constraining thing. And part of that was, you know, the image, the look. You know, as a kid, I’d look at The Clash, all dressed up as American gangsters, and I’d think, Hey, we’re American! I want to dress like that! [Laughs] You know what I mean?
You never followed the rules though anyway. Like, I remember Mommy’s Little Monster when it came out; it was great, it was skater-punk, and then when the next Social D album came out, we were like, “What’s this sound?”
Yeah, Prison Bound…I probably lost about 50 percent of our fans. [Laughs]
But think about what you gained, man! Your own thing…
Yeah, you know, we got radio, and it was that period of time where, I had already done punk rock, I had grown up with The Beatles and the Stones and Creedence, and then I had like, Lou Reed’s Transformer in the seventh grade. I drew a Ziggy Stardust shirt and wore it to school, and all the kids were calling me a fag, and I’m all, “You’re wearing an Elton John shirt.”
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If you would have just done a Mommy’s part II, you would have continued being only a punk rock band. So it’s smarter, what you did.
Exactly. I mean I was looking at bands like X, and Jason and the Scorchers, and The Blasters, and bands like The Gears, and you know, just bands that had the attitude and the energy of punk, but—and you gotta go back to the first wave of punk anyways; it was all blues-based rock and roll, punk-style. You know? Johnny Thunders, The Ramones, the Pistols are laced with Chuck Berry, and it was people like that who were making connotations to early Americana, so for me it was very easy to just connect the dots.
Johnny Cash too.
Johnny Cash. My father had his records around the house. And it probably started for me in 2nd grade, with Rolling Stones, and Creedence records, and my mom had like, the Smithsonian folk set, which had everything, from Leadbelly, to the Carter Family. You know what I mean? And I was hearing Creole, Cajun, French—everything. And that music resonated with me. It was something about the honesty of that music, and the heartfelt-ness. And then yeah, my dad had Johnny Cash, and The Dillards around. So I really feel like it’s all connected, and I was so lucky to have had uncles giving me records. And when other kids were doing their thing, that’s what I was doing. I was just sitting there absorbing albums. Absorbing and absorbing them. And that’s why I think that a lot of bands, especially the tattooed punk rock thing, a lot of bands don’t understand that if you don’t have roots, if you don’t establish a groove, you’re just bashing through chords. And I learned that from touring with like, Neil Young. You know, I watched Crazy Horse turn their backs on 15,000 people and just get in there and start playing with the drummer and the bass, just finding that groove, and then they wondered out to the crowd. But you know, it’s just so important. And all the music I grew up with, it’s all the same, it’s: ‘If it doesn’t have that swing, it doesn’t mean a thing’.
Let me ask you, Mike, you may or may not want to rap about this, it’s not a touchy subject, I don’t think, but I was just wondering, as one of the most recognized band tattoo images—where did the skeleton come from?
The skeleton was designed by a friend of mine, this girl, this graphic artist, and she had done it for like an invitation to a New Year’s Eve party or something. And so it was kind of like on a postcard, red on black, in her house, and I just saw it and I was like, “I want that. Can I have that?”
[Laughs] When you got it from her, was your intention that it was going to be Social Distortion’s image and logo?
Yeah. Because I had one that I wasn’t crazy about. I had drawn this happy face with the crossed-out eyes and the fedora, and that was like the drunk punk. There was this club in Hollywood called the Hong Kong Café, and we didn’t have ID, so we couldn’t get in, but my little brother figured out a way to go around to the alley, scale the building, and there was a vent that you could squeeze through, into the men’s room. So we would come out at the end of the night, and this old Chinese guy would go, “Oh, how you get in? Drunk punk, no good!”
[Laughs] Drunk Punk, no good!
But when I saw the skeleton logo, I thought, that’s cool. That’s festive. It’s kind of life, it’s kind of death, it’s kind of everything in between.
You’ve definitely been tattooed by a lot of historic as well as fantastic tattooers, and we’ve talked about Eric Maaske. Eric was an unfortunate loss to the tattoo community, and a lot of us knew him, some more than others. Is there anybody—and I know you probably aren’t interested in getting a ton more tattoos—but is there anyone out there that you feel like, Hey, I really would like to get a tattoo from this cat?
Yeah. I just don’t know their names! It’s kind of like, people ask me all the time, “What bands are up-and-coming?” And then I just draw a complete blank, I’m all, “Duhhhhh…” But, you know, there’s a lot of them out there. I live in Orange County now, and one of my favorite shops is Gold Rush. Because Let’s face it, a lot of these tattoo shops, there’s so much ego, and you know, it’s like, I’ve been in some hair salons with little gray-haired old ladies that didn’t gossip as much!
[Laughter] Got that right!
They’re like little bitches, you know what I mean? And it’s like, “This ain’t cool, man.” You know? Or I started seeing tattoo artists acting like rock stars, and it was like “Hmmmmm.” You know what, you’re a great artist, you’re a great tattooer, but if you want to do that, just go get into the rock star thing. So I liked Gold Rush because it had a great vibe, with Tim Hendricks, Eric Jones, Lindsey Carmichael and Bucky Crispin…
That shop is fantastic.
Yeah. And it’s right by my pad. And I was telling you, I was trying to finish this shirt before we went out, but I had to wait until the summer was over, because I wanted to jump in the ocean now and then, if I could, but then that was tough because we were making the record. So… I’ll be seeing Oliver Peck on our stop in Austin, Texas.
A week ago we were in Asbury Park, and you and I had talked about going and getting an Asbury Park-style tattoo, and I think that at least for me I look at tattoos as like the Kansas sticker on the suitcase, when you’re traveling and you’re on tour, and you have the capability of getting tattooed just on the fly. Do you think that on this upcoming tour, that that might be something you would approach, like, “Hey, I’m in wherever, I think I’m gonna go get tattooed?” Is that a direction you would go in?
I’ve only done that once. I was in Tokyo a couple of years ago, and I don’t know why, but I dated it, I wrote, Tokyo 2006, or something like that, and it was really weird, because then all these Japan guys, it was like four of them, and one girl, they were all like “Okay, you tattoo on me now.” And I was all, “Noooooo, you don’t want me to do that, dude.” And they were like, “Yeah, yeah, tattoo your name.” And I swear to god, I scratched this fucking thing on them—I didn’t know what the fuck I was doing.
So you’ve done tattoos!