Big shoes to fill for Social Distortion

The 1981 compilation was called “Hell Comes to Your House,” and featured “Lude Boy” and “Telling The
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The 1981 compilation was called “Hell Comes to Your House,” and featured “Lude Boy” and “Telling Them,” the first raw recordings of an embryonic Social Distortion.

Jonny “2 Bags” Wickersham was only a teenager at the time, and was out on a five-day furlough from a youth camp where he’d been sentenced for a year. Upon returning to his father’s house in Anaheim, Calif., he went to the record store down the street and picked up the album.

“I think that was probably the first recorded stuff I had of Social D, and then they came out with that 45 around then, ‘Playpen’ and ‘Mainliner’ — it’s all a little hazy, considering the times, you know,” Wickersham said with a laugh. “And they were just always playing around, playing at shows, the Galaxy — I used to sneak into the Bogs, or go see them at the Cafe, or at Fenders. They always struck me as one of the coolest bands, you know.”

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Social Distortion frontman Mike Ness particularly stood out to Wickersham at the time — “He’s got a thing that’s just pretty much undeniable,” he said. As the ’80s wore on and Social Distortion began experimenting with roots rock and Americana within their hard-core format, Wickersham continued to follow the band and the budding cowpunk scene, hanging out at the clubs with other scene luminaries such as X’s John Doe and Dave Alvin.

“I was younger than all those people by quite a few years,” Wickersham said. “I would go to the shows and see these people hanging around, like Dave Alvin, John Doe, seeing The Gun Club play at the Music Machine. I just felt like a little punka-dunka kid in my boots. I would see those dudes hanging against the bar, like, cool as [can be]. That was like the sophisticated thing.”

Big shoes to fill

At the time, he never would have guessed that someday he’d play in Social Distortion. But ever since cofounder and Ness’ right-hand man, Dennis Danell, died in February of 2000, Wickersham has been the band’s second guitarist. Despite his previous experience playing with such punk bands as Youth Brigade and U.S. Bombs, filling Danell’s shoes has been a daunting task, to say the least.

“Back in those days, Dennis, he was the other half of the band,” Wickersham said. “Mike had those characteristics that make him a strong front guy — he’s Mike Ness — but Dennis, man, was his homey, his road dog. It was as much Dennis’ band as it was Mike’s back in those days, and I’m sure in a lot of ways Dennis probably kept the band going. To be the guy that was gonna replace him — I knew Dennis; he was such the greatest guy. I just tried to go about it with as much respect to Dennis as possible.”

The band’s current U.S. tour will bring them back to Northern Lights on Thursday night, almost exactly one year since their last performance at the venue. Early next year, the band will release “Hard Times and Nursery Rhymes,” only the second Social Distortion studio album featuring Wickersham.

The album represents many firsts for Social Distortion — it’s the first album with bassist Brent Harding, the first to be released on Southern California punk mainstay Epitaph Records and the band’s first all-new studio album since 2004’s “Sex, Love and Rock ’n’ Roll.” Current drummer David Hidalgo Jr., joined after the recording sessions were over — a friend of the band’s handled drums on the album (Wickersham would not reveal who).

Fans that have seen the band live in the past few years should already be familiar with a couple of the songs, including “Bakersfield” and “Still Alive,” although at this point only one other new song has been making set lists.

“We’re playing one new track that we’d never played live before we recorded it, and so we’ll probably just slowly bring them into the set,” Wickersham said. “I’m sure by the time the record’s out, we’re going to be playing a lot of them.”

Never rushing things

Long waits between studio albums are nothing new for Social Distortion — in more than 30 years of existence, the band has only released seven proper studio albums.

“Social D records don’t come out every year or 18 months,” Wickersham said. “We just want to make sure it’s happening; there’s no reason to just blow ’em out, and I think that’s actually turned into a good thing although it hasn’t been intentional. I think the fact that we’re not just pushing a record every year is good; I think a band needs to have time to evolve and grow a little bit, just take it all in.”

Early in the band’s existence, such gaps could be attributed to Ness’ issues with heroin addiction, which he beat in 1985. Five years separated the band’s hard-core-leaning debut in 1983, “Mommy’s Little Monster,” from the sophomore effort “Prison Bound,” where the band first began developing its now unmistakable country-tinged sound.

With “Hard Times and Nursery Rhymes,” Ness, always the band’s main songwriter and sonic architect, produced the album on his own for the first time. He and the rest of the band spent a long time on the overall sound of the record, which has undergone various mixes further delaying the release date.

“We spent so much time trying to really just get the best possible tones on everything — not just working on guitar tones, but sonically trying to get a good-sounding record as well as focusing on the writing and everything,” Wickersham said. “It would be a shame to lose that in the mix, which can happen.”

Intense focus

For Wickersham, who contributed songwriting to three cuts on “Sex, Love and Rock ’n’ Roll,” having Ness fully in charge of everything was actually a bit limiting at times.

“He was present and involved in every note that was laid down, and that was at times pretty painful, I think for me and maybe for the whole band,” Wickersham said. “At times I felt like I had more involvement on ‘Sex, Love and Rock ’n’ Roll’ than on this record. But that being said, I think that he did an excellent job producing this record — there’s really nothing wrong with a guy having a focus and not wanting to let that be diluted.”

It’s this focus that has helped Social Distortion remain together and relevant through the years, according to Wickersham. Thinking back again to the band’s early days in the 1980s, Wickersham remembered when Ness began writing songs with a rootsier feel to them.

“Mike embraced that sort of a thing in his own way, which is what rock ’n’ roll is all about and always has been,” Wickersham. “It’s always been about being influenced by something from the past and adding your own thing to it, man, and moving forward.”

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