INTERVIEW: Social Distortion
As much as American punk rock has its scars and deteriorating skeletons in its closet, the genre has its stories and for those who enjoy a feel-good pick-me-up, there’s California’s SOCIAL DISTORTION. The four-piece from Fullerton haven’t been the most active pioneers but as recent photos from an independent zine suggest, they’ve been an integral part to the uprising of hardcore and acted as a limb for a new sound since their birth in 1978. With the quartet readying to hit “play” on the idea of new music, we spoke to guitarist Jonny Wickersham to discuss the band’s near 35-year progression and how they’re not trying to resurrect the chapter they first penned in the 1980s.
Social Distortion has really personified the phrase “do what feels right”; from your experience, has setting your own pace always been the right move?
Yeah, I think so. It seems like it’s really worked out especially in terms of our release dates for records (laughs). They haven’t been super consistent over the years and there’s usually periods of several years in between, which seems to be fairly uncommon in the music industry. We feel pressure from several different areas to release albums every so often, but we just do it when we feel like its time to do it.
It seems like not putting out a record every year has helped keep people interested and has given us a chance to evolve as people. I’ve said this in the past, but some of my favourite bands put out too many records (laughs) and to me, time helps build a little bit of anticipation too. There’s a good chance we might get a record out a lot sooner this time. It’s already been a couple years since the last one came out and it looks like we’re going to be working on something early next year, which would be totally cool.
They say quality over quantity, so it’s better to take your time right?
It’s a weird thing, because I always think about the way The Beatles’ career played out. Those guys were around between 1960 and 1970 and they made all that music and they evolved. At the end, they were nothing like the band they started out as. It’s really interesting to me that they were able to squeeze out all of that music into that period of time. You don’t see that anymore and I think it’s largely because people can’t handle it. Fans don’t want to see artists make those drastic changes, which is why a career similar to The Beatles will never happen again.
You mentioned the theme of evolution. I know you’ve been a member of Social Distortion for about 12 years now but can you tell me a bit about the transitions you’ve witnessed in the band with regards to songwriting?
On the last record we ventured into making an album that was a little bit more rock and roll. Not just in the songwriting, but also in the production and sounds that we were getting out of our instruments. It was definitely leading into a 70’s rock and roll type of thing. We pulled influences from our greatest musical heroes, like the Rolling Stones’ early stuff. It’s cool to see us become better musicians as a band as time goes by, because if you work as much as we do you can’t help but notice that the chemistry between the group solidifies. It’s just really cool. For Mike and I, who are both a couple of punk rock guitars players, it’s cool to be able to achieve these things because it’s new and neat to us. I think right now the band sounds amazing. We’ve got the greatest rhythm section in the world and we’re super stoked on that.
Would you say that the wisdom you’ve gained over time has influenced the band’s lyrical progression?
I think that one of the most notable evolutions of Mike’s writing was between White Light, White Heat, White Trash and Sex, Love And Rock N’ Roll. White Light was a very dark and angry album while the other was a much more optimistic and hopeful record. In some ways it was also more mature. The cool thing about Mike is that he doesn’t seem to be afraid to write about what’s really going on with him, and he isn’t afraid to be mature as a person or as an artist. That’s why I like being a part of Social Distortion.
It’s a band that comes from the beginning of Southern California punk rock and even though I wasn’t playing in the band back then, I was still around. I’m five years younger than Mike, so I was around watching them grow and play shows. My point is, we’re not trying to be that band from the 80′s. We’re all around 45-years-old and we’re not trying to present ourselves like we’re still running around in the gutters of L.A. (laughs). I just think that would be ridiculous. We have to be honest at this point in time and write about the reality of our lives.
As a band known for performing songs before deciding to record them, does such a practice take the element of surprise out of a new record if fans already know what it’s going to sound like?
It has to. Mike’s always done that and we’ve always performed songs even if they weren’t completely finished. Now, every show you do, someone captures a new song and throws it up on YouTube. Back in the day you could do things like small shows at home in a small venue and it could actually be a warm up show for a tour or a chance to showcase some new material in a smaller and relaxed way. But now, that can’t happen anymore because everything is documented at this point and there’s nothing you can do about it.
Ness previously stated that he wanted the new album to be different than Hard Time And Nursery Rhymes but do you anticipate being able to stick to that promise?
I think it will be different but that doesn’t mean that any direction we’re talking about now will actually happen on the new album. Hard Times wasn’t supposed to be how it turned out. We had planned out certain ideas before going into the studio for that album, but if it wants to do something else then you have to let it. I can say from my own experience that some of the best songs I’ve ever written are the ones I had very little to do with. I can look at the lyrics and say “I don’t even know where this came from,” and it may not be what I set out to say, but they work. On the other hand, some songs that I toil and toil over just turn out to be super crappy. You just have to let creativity happen, and it’s taken me years to learn that.
What was it like creating Hard Times with help from Epitaph Records?
We didn’t really run into any conflicts at all. Brett Gurewitz is an old friend of ours and he came down to sing backgrounds on the record and hang out and that was really cool. I think it’s neat being on Epitaph as I like what he’s done with the label since the very beginning. This is actually the second band that I’ve been in that has done a record with them as I was in U.S. Bombs and we did an album on Tim Armstrong’s Hellcat. Both of those experiences with the label were totally cool.
How does working in that environment compare to working independently?
I remember hanging out in the studio while Social Distortion was recording Prison Bound,which was a record they completely did on their own. Mike and I were painting houses then and they would play a couple shows, get a little bit of money together, go into the studio and record for a while. When the money was gone, they’d take a break from recording, play some more shows and get some money together to record again. They recorded Prison Bound piece-by-piece like that and completely on their own. But it has been good with Epitaph and it’s good to be involved with a record company that has a large distribution because they can get your record out all over the place and it’s next to impossible to sell records nowadays (laughs). At this point, I feel like we’re making albums for us and also for the fans so there can be new music for them to listen to. But this is also about continuing our story.
Making a good record isn’t cheap, and the music has to come from somewhere. Anyone can make a record now. I can sit at a hotel and use ProTools to make an album if I wanted to. Technology has made it that convenient to do but that doesn’t mean it’s going to be a good record. We are the kind of band that likes to go into a real studio because we like things as analog as possible as it just sounds better. You have to keep making records and hopefully you can sell enough to at least pay yourself back for your work (laughs).
As a band with a history that’s not exactly picture perfect, what do you think provides the most encouragement to continue to be Social Distortion?
The fact that there’s really nothing else we know how to do (laughs). I think that everybody in this band is a real rock and roller to the bone. I know for myself and for Mike, this is all we’ve ever wanted to do our entire lives, and that’s the truth. I’ve been playing in a band since I was a kid, and I haven’t always been able to do this, and I have definitely not been able to call it my job all this time. I am very grateful and I know a lot of very talented people who aren’t in a position to be able to do this, so I’m just trying to keep that as the focal point for the rest of my life.