"I have to live life--the rights, the wrongs, the ups and downs--pain has always been a good motivator for me. I'm still convinced that it's hard to write a good album when everything is going great." In the end, Mike Ness says, "we probably wrote 40 songs to come up with these eleven."
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The songs Mike is talking about make up WHITE LIGHT WHITE HEAT WHITE TRASH, Social Distortion's sixth album. WHITE LIGHT WHITE HEAT WHITE TRASH, produced by Michael Beinhorn (Soundgarden, Red Hot Chili Peppers), contains new Social Distortion originals including "Don't Drag Me Down," "Untitled," "When the Angels Sing," and the first single and video, "I Was Wrong."
From the opening blast of "Dear Lover" to the album's surprise conclusion, WHITE LIGHT WHITE HEAT WHITE TRASH is the latest in a long line of sharp, edgy and urgent SD releases. Under Beinhorn's rigorous guidance, the band builds a firestorm of guitars over simple but brutally effective rhythms as Ness' vocals bring out all the pain, anger, and jubilation in his lyrics.
WHITE LIGHT WHITE HEAT WHITE TRASH follows up Social Distortion's critically acclaimed Epic albums, Somewhere Between Heaven and Hell (1992) and Social Distortion (1990). Where those records reflected SD's affection for primal '50s country and rockabilly, both in their Ness originals and their covers of Johnny Cash and Ed Bruce, WHITE LIGHT WHITE HEAT WHITE TRASH draws its primary inspiration from the first wave (1975-79) of American punk rock.
"I write all the songs in my dining room with my acoustic guitar," says Mike Ness, "and every record I write usually is an example of what I'm listening to. The last two albums, I was listening to a lotta Hank Williams and dark rockabilly and blues as well, so that came out. What I've been listening to the last couple years is back to Johnny Thunders and the Clash and Ramones and Dead Boys, as well as early LA bands: X, the Dickies, stuff like that. That stuff all has so much more soul and substance than what's called alternative now."
"Alternative music has become so marketable that a lot of it's become just imagery. Everybody's cool now. The guys in some of these bands--ten years ago, they would've been in Poison. Some of them were in Poison! I can tell, man: You ain't down, you ain't been around."
If four years between albums doesn't seem like a very "punk rock" recording schedule, consider the events that followed the release of Somewhere Between Heaven and Hell in February '92. Social Distortion toured for nearly sixteen months, including supporting dates with Neil Young, a co-billed swing with the Ramones, and their own headlining tour with Reverend Horton Heat supporting. The band changed drummers twice, finally settling on Chuck Biscuits (ex-DOA/Circle Jerks/Black Flag), whom Ness calls "my #1 pick, who I remembered so clearly from DOA." (Chuck didn't arrive until after the completion of WHITE LIGHT WHITE HEAT WHITE TRASH.
During this time, SD won a lengthy legal battle to reclaim ownership of its back catalog, including the albums Mommy's Little Monster (1983) and Prison Bound (1988), and all their early singles now compiled on Mainliner. The band also assumed ownership of an Orange County studio called The Casbah where, says Dennis Danell, "we recorded our first two albums. It had belonged to our producer for those records, Chaz (Charles Ramirez), who died in a tragic accident. We ended up owning the lease on it and it's our studio now. We've got a Tascam board in there, where we do our demos and demos with other local bands, just like Chaz did with us."
Then, of course, Mike Ness had to write the songs. "It's never worked for me to make a record, go out on a tour, then come home and write another one," he explains. "I have to live life for a while--otherwise what am I gonna write about, the f**kin' tour?"
Ness credits Michael Beinhorn for a relentless, demanding production style which, in the end, brought out performances that the singer didn't know he had in him. "In the past, producers just kinda let me do my thing," Ness admits, "and I figured as long as I sang on pitch, everything was OK."
"But Michael saw a potential in me that took me beyond my own self-imposed limits. There were days I sang the song all day long, 'til I became so comfortable with the song that I could play with the phrasing, get behind or in front of the measure."
All basic tracks were recorded in New York-- "90% on analog," according to Ness-- with overdubs and mixing done in Los Angeles. The time in Manhattan proved especially beneficial for this lifelong Southern Californian. "New York offered a musical alternative I wasn't getting at home. I found myself going out more, seeing more bands, making more friends. I wrote 'I Was Wrong" and 'Angels Sing' there, somewhere between walking into St. John's Church and walking into the peep show."
"The alienation and frustrations I felt as a teenager, I still have a lot of times--that is me. And I've felt the loss of loved ones: my grandmother, my mother's mother, passed away in December '93. She was the pillar of the family, the strong one, and her death came out of nowhere. 'When the Angels Sing' is about that loss. My feelings came out more in that song than what I felt at the actual funeral."
With their new album on the street and their new drummer pushing the rhythm, Social Distortion will begin a major US tour in the fall of 1996. "We're just anxious to play right now," says Mike Ness. "We've been locked in the studio for a year. Now we wanna get out and show everybody what we're about."
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