Social Distortion's Johnny "2 Bags" Wickersham Talks About Staying Vital in an Aging Punk Band
Hardscrabble punk band Social Distortion comes to the Pageant on Wednesday. The band is touring in support of its new album, Hard Times and Nursery Rhymes, which came out earlier this year. We talked to guitarist Johnny "2 Bags" Wickersham about what sets the new album apart Social D's greatest influence and the solo album he's working on.
Michael Dauphin: You actually got co-writing credits for "Machine Gun Blues," right? Did you and Mike Ness sit down and write songs together, or was it something you had been working on?
Johnny "2 Bags" Wickersham: Well, it was different this time. On Sex, Love and Rock 'n' Roll, he just asked me, "hey, man, what do you got?" He knew I had some songs that I had been writing with bands I had previously played with (Youth Brigade, Cadillac Tramps). So I gave him a bunch of songs that were already mapped out and structured. And he took the songs and built off them; almost using them as inspiration and building off the song--or the idea of the song. Whereas the songs on this album that I helped write, it was more me offering up riffs and melodies that I had. I didn't necessarily give him a whole song. It was more me contributing to ideas he already had.
How would you say your influences--in terms of writing--differ from Mike's?
I think we actually write pretty similarly. I generally just pick up a guitar and start playing some chords or whatever, and then a melody will pop in my head. I try to write in a manner which the melody and the chord progression happen at the same time. I find that the best ideas I have tend to happen where, based on the melody, your hand just kinda knows which chord to go to next. It's a very intuitive thing. The hardest thing to do is to just have an idea about a subject and try to write about it. That's tough for me. My favorite songs I write are the ones that really fell like they're coming out of the blue.
You guys have a tendency to wait a while between albums, but I read that you hope to begin writing for the next album relatively soon. Is there something in particular that has revitalized your approach to making records?
Well, I don't know. We can only see how that goes. [laughing] Time will tell. Right now we tend to do a new record every five to seven years. Then we go tour that album relentlessly. Touring is what we do; it's our job. But throughout that entire process, we're working stuff the whole time. We're demo-ing songs and working on them at soundchecks. After a few years between albums, there always tends to be a little pressure from the outside. But Mike doesn't want to go into the studio until it feels right. And I totally respect the fact that he does not want to force a record out. He's a great example of someone who's going to write a record about what he understands and what he has experienced himself. As opposed to feeling obligated to just force a record. I think it works to our favor, really. Some of my favorite bands put out records every year or year and a half. And I just get burnt out after a while.
Social D has a pretty distinct sound and it's pretty established at this point. We're never going to steer too far away from that. But at the same time, when you put a few years between our records, it truly gives us a chance to evolve in our own way. We can come back with a fresh take on what Social D does, as opposed to "here's another SD record." We're never going to compromise that sound. It's not like we're going to make a Pet Sounds or something. And, honestly, the anticipation and build up tends to work in our favor.
There are a lot of bands, younger than Social D, that cite you as a guidepost in terms of where they want to be ten years down the line. Are there any particular bands you guys look to as an inspiration?
I always say that collectively we all agree that the Rolling Stones is the band we look up to. Obviously we've covered them in the past and I think it's obvious we are inspired by them. And they're a good example of a band that always evolves in between records. And we definitely strive for the same thing. Mike and I are very punk rock guitar players, and the other guys in the band are real "players." It's exciting that we're able to write a song like "California (Hustle and Flow)" on the new album. For us to be able and tackle a blues number like that, and try new stuff... it feels great.
What does a day at home, between tours, typically consist of?
I mostly catch up with all the stuff I had been neglecting while on tour. There's always stuff to do. But outside of that, I've been doing some recording of my own. I've slowly been working on [an album]. I'm in no rush, really. I'm going to have some great musicians on it--people I admire. I have Pete Thomas (Elvis Costello & The Attractions) playing drums. And Davey Faragher (Elvis Costello & The Imposters) plays on a couple songs. He's an incredible harmony singer too.