“I can’t go around pretending I’m still 15 years old, running around, living on the streets and going completely haywire like I was. That would be really foolish.” – Ian Maleney talks punk with Social Distortion‘s Jonny Wickersham.
Social Distortion have been a presence on the Orange County punk scene since the late seventies. With a long list of band members rotating around front man Mike Ness, the group moved from Buzzcocks and Ramones-influenced power punk through to a softer sound influenced by the likes of Johhny Cash and other American Roots music. These days the band play venues very different to those they started out in and release albums on Epitaph, perhaps the Sony Music of the pop punk world.
Guitarist Jonny Wickersham answered a few questions about what “punk” means to him now, almost 35 years into his musical career.
Do you consider yourself a punk? That’s an interesting question because people often ask sort of a variant of that. A lot of times, people want to know how the punk scene differs nowadays from the early days, the late 70s or the early 80s for me. But do we still consider ourselves punks? I don’t consider myself a punk in the traditional sense of the word, that’s for sure. As for being a punk rocker, I would say for sure because any kid that gets into punk rock music as a young adolescent, especially if there’s something about community that somehow gives you a sense of belonging and vindicates the fact that you’re already outsider. For me, I was an outsider before I was in punk rock so when I was first exposed to that element and the bands, I just felt an immediate connection. You’re not searching for anything consciously, it’s just something that happens and you don’t realise that it’s happening or why. You don’t even care. It’s just like millions of other kids around the world, we’ve all shared that same experience of finding a form – it’s almost always a form of music – it’s some kind of scene that surrounds some kind of music and that’s your home. If that happens for somebody, if somebody has that experience at a young age, unless they completely turn their back on it, then I think you would always feel that connection. For me, I’ve always played in bands. I’ve done a ton of jobs over the years, I’ve done whatever I’ve had to do to get by, pay the rent and eat you know? But music is always the first thing and I’ve been playing in punk bands my whole life.
Obviously you have to mature. You gain a different perspective as you go through life and you can’t fight that. I can’t go around pretending I’m still 15 years old, running around, living on the streets and going completely haywire like I was. That would be really foolish. I have to go through this world and be where I’m at. I have to use the lessons and experiences that I’ve had in the past as a way to form the perspective that I have now. That’s a very long answer to a simple question, sorry about that.
Are you still connected to the things that excited you about punk music in the first place? Do I still put on Stiff Little Fingers’ Gotta Get Away album? Fuck yeah I do! I still listen to all the same music as I came up with as well as music that I might have discovered yesterday. I’m not the kind of person that turns my back on music that I like if it goes out of fashion. I’ve never understand people who, if they’re into a band who aren’t really well known – and when you’re into a band that aren’t well known, you kind of feel like they’re you’re band – and then maybe they get real well known, they get big, I’ve never understood when people go, ‘Oh that band sucks. Everyone is into them now, I don’t like them’. I never got that. Unless the band does turn into a horrible piece of shit, I get that, but just because other people discovered them, you can’t all of a sudden deny the fact you ever liked them.
Is that something that has happened to Social Distortion? Yeah, for sure. I’ve only been in the band for 12 years, out of the band’s 30-odd years of existence but I’ve been a witness to damn near all of it. Coming from the same area as the band, seeing them playing all the punk rock shows growing up in small little venues, bars, roller rinks, warehouses and back year parties and all that. I got into Social D when it was a completely different kind of band and I was there for the transitional years. I was hanging around with the band when they were in the studio recording Prison Bound and I saw the reaction from the kids to that transformation. A lot of people weren’t having it at the time but Mike and the band persevered anyway. Mike just always played the music he wanted to play. If he wanted to take a direction into more American Roots music, that’s what he did. Ultimately I think it was a great choice. Everybody in the band is steeped in that kind of music as well as the early punk rock music. I think it’s a cool thing and I always did.
I remember being at this show in Tijuana this time, I don’t think Prison Bound was even finished being recorded yet but they were already doing a bunch of those songs live. We all went down to hang out when they did a show there and it was chaos. Kids were jumping up on stage and trying to throw sucker punches and cheap shots. All I could hear was ‘Play faster!’. Everybody wanted it to be faster. A big brawl broke out between us and a couple of people because they were coming on stage and then the show ended up getting shut down. We had to pack up the gear and get it into this van and get it out of there. People were throwing bottles. It was just gnarly man. The promoter wouldn’t let me and my buddy ride in the van with all the stuff because they were after me and my friend Chris, so we had to walk back across the border back into the States down in San Diego. The thing was, they were fighting the change that the band were going through. As I said, it worked out good and I love the sound of Social D. I love the blend of influences that goes into the band and what it has become in recent years.
Social D have signed with major labels in the past and are signed to Epitaph now, who seem like a major at this stage. How do you align being a punk and working with labels like that? Yeah, Epitaph is kind of pretty much like a major label I guess. This is the second band I’ve been in that has done records with Epitaph, the Bombs were on Hellcat, Tim’s label. There was major distribution and everything involved. I don’t get way into that, I don’t take a stance on that necessarily because I’m not a record company guy but I have friends like Sean Stern from Youth Brigade who owns BYO. I guess ultimately, no matter what you want your image of your record label or business to be, at some point you’re utilising some form of the machine to get your product out there. I think unless you’re actually pressing the CDs in your garage and mailing them out one by one from your house, if you’re utilising distribution companies and stuff, at some point you are engaging with that, I’d imagine. Like I say, I’m not an expert in the field of labels, at some point you’re using the machine to get your stuff out there.
There are examples like Dischord and Gravity Records that would seem to prove that there are ethical ways to go about this stuff. Well yeah, Ian… I’ve felt that he and Joey Shithead are probably the only guys, as it appears to me, who have really walked the line they’ve talked about as far as making a statement and standing by it for so long. I don’t know if everybody in punk has done that. Social Distortion has never really been about that kind of message, Social D has never really had a political message per se. The songs are more about personal issues and the struggles that people go through involving family and their place in the community. It’s just more of a social thing, not such a broad global kind of thing.
So the kids getting into the music have to find their own path through it, find what works for them. Yeah, I guess that it just depends on what bands they’re into or what they’re listening to. If they’re into Minor Threat and they’re a straight edge kid and if that’s their thing, then they need to hang good on that. But maybe they’re a kid who just wants totally nihilistic destruction or maybe they’re a kid who can feel a connection to what Milo Aukerman [of the Descendents] is talking about in his songs. That’s not political, that’s not burn it all down either, by any means. He’s writing love songs. It just depends, there are so many facets of what you want to call punk rock. Maybe you’re into Christian Death and Rozz Williams. I don’t know, that’s really hard to answer, what is punk rock? For me it’s just been such a hugely multi-faceted kind of thing, you can’t pin it down. What I used to trip out on in the early times was when people would try to turn it into something that it wasn’t always about, try to dissect it too much and ask, ‘What is this?’. Really, it’s a bunch of people making it up as they go. Like I just mentioned, maybe their whole position in life is so opposite. A guy like Rozz Williams, how does he compare to a guy like Ian McKaye? Are they both punk rockers? Did they have the same message? Absolutely not. Did they look the same? Absolutely not. Did the music sound the same? Absolutely not. But to me, they’re both punk rockers. I don’t know how you can create one message out of all that.
And then Social D have their own message as well? Yeah, absolutely. Everybody is like, what is Mike talking about? Mike is writing songs based on his personal experience. If he was to try to write songs not based on what he knows and what he has experienced, he would basically be lying to you. You want that? No. You do what you do. Not everybody is a politician. Not everybody is down for staying independent forever. That’s like the punk rockers who’d say, ‘Why do the cops beat on the punks all the time? Why is everybody down on the punks?’. I’d hear people say that and I’d be like, well, isn’t that the fucking point man? I never understood that. Are people supposed to treat the punk rockers like they treat the fucking football team? No! We’re the ones telling everybody to fuck off. We’re the ones running around the streets, fucking off and you want everyone to treat you a certain way? I never understood that.
Social Distortion play The Academy on Tuesday 21st August.