Typically, when a band releases a greatest hits album, it’s because they or the label they’re on hears a death knell ringing in the distance. Social Distortion released a Greatest Hits compilation (Time Bomb Recordings) June 26, and as far as death knells go, for frontman Mike Ness, the sounds of silence are sweet, despite a career that launched with the California punk scene almost 30 years ago. “For us there’s no end in sight,” he says. “These hits helped people discover us through radio and we decided to acknowledge it.”
I took a moment to chat with Ness about how much things have changed since he helped put SoCal on the punk map… and how much they’ve stayed the same.
French Davis: Has it been 30 years already? You’re aging well, all things considered, Mike. How has the music industry changed around you after all of these years?
Mike Ness: Yeah almost, maybe a year or two shy of it. Well, there’s two ways of looking at the scene now. We’ve seen punk or alternative music be accepted into the masses and evolve and become something. On the one hand that’s good—more people will hear what you have to say, provided you do actually have something to say. I mean, 27 years later, society has opened its minds. There were no major labels knocking at our door when we got started. On the other hand, labels are mass producing crap all year long and the masses are buying it, just like the very beginning. Good music becomes bastardized and homogenized and misinterpreted. There’s a thin line between progress and regress. In the ’40s and ’50s, black music was too nasty and dirty and raw, so they had to bring in orchestras and background singers and bring a “Sound of Music” quality to make it palatable for the masses.
FD: How have you avoided allowing the industry to change you?
MN: I do that partly, maybe to a fault, by ignoring my contemporaries, and what’s going on at the current time. I don’t know who’s on the top of the charts. I don’t listen to the radio or watch music television. That isn’t to say I’m wearing blinders, you have to keep your eyes open for young bands coming up, doing something new and different, so it’s another thin line.
FD: Seems to be a recurring theme here. What about the advances in technology since you started this gig? How has the evolution of recording technology impacted your production? Or even your live performances?
MN: Well, people are able to make records in their living rooms now, and that has advantages and disadvantages. I still prefer analog over digital. I’ve got a Macintosh tube power amp with tone settings and old wood speakers at home. If I had my choice to record, analog will always be my first choice. These days, we’ve kind of found a middle ground when we record. We do part of the process analog, and then come in and mix and do everything else digitally.
It’s gotten kind of unfortunate for everyone these days. People are not buying CDs anymore. I think that that hurts the industry. I mean, one aspect is you have more exposure; people can go on the Internet and find you a lot easier. But the money’s not there. We make our money these days by touring, not sales. In other words the attendance records don’t match up with the sales. It’s kind of a bummer, you work hard in the studio, work on the artwork, put your heart and soul into it all, and then people don’t want to spend $15 and buy it, they’d rather get it for free from someone else.
FD: Well, you’re not alone in that opinion. It seems much of the music-buying public, and certainly the media, have made plenty of noise about the Recording Industry Association of America’s continual efforts to crack down on music file sharing. It sounds like you’re on the same page as the RIAA.
MN: Well, I wish they could think of something to fix it. Maybe we should go back to the days of releasing 45s, you know, just singles…I do think that it’s wrong to get something for nothing; it’s the way I was raised. I guess one song might be okay, kind of to introduce yourself to a band, but to download a whole LP is different. So I guess it’s okay if they’re suing people, we’re not in the business of donating our entire lives and blood sweat and tears. I mean, I’m all for charities, but there’s a limit. I’ve got a guy doing some drywall in my house now, you know, I’m not going to ask him, “Hey bro, can I just pay you half for your hard work?” It’s kind of a result of the slacker generation—I do believe that wanting to get something without having to put work into it is part of the moral decay of this generation.
FD: Well, you’ve certainly captured what’s wrong with the music industry today. So, what’s right with it?
MN: Hopefully, the bands that are honest and true and talented can break through, people can discover them and make a career at it. I think there’s still, every now and then, a band that is a pioneer. They deserve to make it. I guess the good thing is there are a few good bands doing it, but you have to look hard and far for those…I think the Hives are very original and unique, can appreciate the White Stripes, you know, bands that are setting trends rather than following them. The Killers are pretty cool. I think there is some stuff coming through that is decent…that’s what I liked about Nirvana, I looked at Cobain, he was clearly troubled, but it was believable. You gotta sift through all the pop marketing, gotta be believable. I wanna see honest heartfelt songwriting that’s real. That’s the good stuff.
8:30 p.m., July 5, Belly Up, Aspen
2 p.m., August 11, Coors Amphitheatre, Englewood