Some bands are legends and some bands are entire civilizations—that’s Redd Kross, whose discography goes back to that first pre-cease-and-desist-call (always a promising sign) EP in 1981 and then zig-zags between the fringe and the front-and-center of American guitar music. I don’t know if Redd Kross have seen it all, but I think they might have heard it all, maybe even by the time they put out all-covers LP Teen Babes from Monsanto, and their newest Researching The Blues is the kind of record that reminds you why you even care about records in the first place. Redd Kross plays with the Melvins for New Year’s Eve tonight at the Alexandria Hotel, and the founding McDonald brothers speak now about blood and mustaches. This interview by Chris Ziegler.
Who was the cool mystery uncle that you guys had who taught you barre chords and had New York Dolls LPs? He’s a shadowy, yet crucial, figure in the complex Redd Kross history.
Jeff McDonald (guitar/vocals): Well, it was a combination of two of them. There was my uncle Shane McDonald. He has a son who plays indie music. He’s only six years older than me but he has really good taste in music and he showed me how to play barre chords on the guitar, which, as any musician knows, is kind of the gateway to being in a band. You learn barre chords, you’re ready to go. And then my aunt Colleen, she gave me my first guitar book that had diagrams that I was able to figure out, which I just recently found. I was clearing out a bunch of books and I found my original Cat Stevens guitar book that was given to by my aunt Colleen McDonald.
Have you ever thought about doing the Online Museum of Ye Olde Redd Kross and throwing that up there?
JM: I thought, ‘Oh no no no no, I’ve got to keep this.’ It’s like my Bible.
Is this the sum total of formal training in the Redd Kross organization? Learning some Cat Stevens songs on open chords?
JM: You’ll have to talk to Steve. Steve had the formal training.
Steve McDonald (bass/vocals): Well, if you count Mr. Upton’s orchestra in elementary school and junior high school as formal training, then yeah.
What were the big hits in your grammar school orchestra?
SM: Well, it’s funny, I just heard the Bill Conti classic ‘Gonna Fly Now’ the other day. I thought … I’ve got to find some more of this Bill Conti stuff because ‘Gonna Fly Now,’ the theme to Rocky, is actually a pretty impressively laid-together track. It’s up there with any great Morricone or spaghetti western or whatever soundtrack music that people are obsessing on.
JM: Well, one more song, Steve, that’s kind of your Rosetta Stone … one of the first songs you learned was “King of the Road” by Roger Miller, I believe. Which kind of led to “Annette’s Got the Hits” because that’s like a bassline-driven riff song.
SM: Eh, “Annette’s Got the Hits” is more like “Peter Gunn.”
JM: What’s weird is that I always paid attention to the school orchestra because I had this fetish for any kind of electric guitar and I would just stare at the bass players. I remember this one kid, before Steve, more my age—I’m three and a half years older. This guy’s name was Rick and he was a notorious stoner. He had one leg and he was in a wheelchair and he played a blue Kay SG bass.
That’s quite a visual, man.
SM: Because I remember we had this fetish about, like, wouldn’t it be great if Rick’s band played at an outdoor stage at Hawthorne High and he was playing, standing on one leg, in huge bell bottoms with a shoe propped underneath the empty bell like sort of pulling it off, and then a big breeze could come and blow the bell up.
JM: Yeah, that was the fantasy.
SM: The breeze would blow the bell away from the hush puppy, which is a totally weird and cruel fantasy. But nowadays he wouldn’t even have that. He’d have a prosthetic that would work even better than a regular leg.
How come you guys weren’t in Decline of Western Civilization Part 1? It seems like that would have been prime Redd Kross time.
JM: You know, that was a state of suspended animation for us. The original Redd Kross had broken up obviously because Ron Reyes was in Black Flag and Greg Hetson was in the Circle Jerks and around the time that they were doing that film we were only toying with playing. Actually, I saw a photo of us playing at the Fleetwood, which is where a lot of that stuff was performed, and we were like a five-piece with Dez Cadena on guitar and this other guy Chet from Wasted Youth and I think we’d only done a couple of gigs. We were not serious, so we weren’t in the running.
SM: We’d also been sort of traumatized by our experience. In our world, things happened pretty quickly and there were a lot of hurt feelings around the first two years or sixteen months of our band. We were pressured by Black Flag to kick John Stielow out of our band, the 13-year-old drummer from Hawthorne, California.
JM: Who returned for Born Innocent.
SM: Yeah, he eventually returned for Born Innocent but Black Flag, after the first time we played for them, they said, ‘Yeah, you guys are cool. You really have to lose that drummer. He sucks.’
JM: We replaced him with a drummer who had never played drums before, but he was part of their friends.
SM: We were sort of spineless about the whole thing when I think about it because we did exactly what they told us. We were very obedient. We changed our name and we kicked our friend out.
JM: But the funny thing is, the first time we ever played in Hollywood, we got a record deal. Well, it wasn’t really Hollywood. It was Chinatown, but the first time we did an actual show, we opened for Black Flag at a Hollywood-type venue and Robbie Fields snapped us up immediately after the first show so everything got together really quickly and then fell apart within one year.
Did this screw up your baseline reading for how shit’s supposed to be? Getting a deal at your first show?
JM: Yeah, definitely, because when we were going to do Born Innocent we were back to wanting to be in a band again and we were getting serious. Well, not serious like career serious, but wanting to play shows. We made demos for Born Innocent and we thought, ‘Oh, Frontier Records, they’re having a lot of success right now. We’ll just do our demos and then we’ll do a record with them,’ and then boom, we got a rejection letter from Lisa who ran it and it was like, ‘Oh, this isn’t going to be so easy.’
SM: But my brother is still bitter about that rejection letter from Frontier Records. They recently did a thirty-year anniversary and they really pursued us hotly to play that show and Jeff refused.
JM: I didn’t want to play an oldies show. Who wants to do that when you don’t have to?
SM: It was actually a really great night. Water’s always been under the bridge for me with everybody.
JM: Me too.
SM: I remember Lisa and Liz over at the Echo, who were putting the show together, they were just totally baffled as to why we were being such hard-asses about the whole thing.
You don’t often hear ‘Redd Kross’ and ‘hard-asses’ in the same sentence.
JM: Candy ass.
SM: Hard candy asses.
That’s a great concept—the hard-candy ass.
JM: That’s yours. The hard-candy ass.
After all this time, what made this actually be a Redd Kross record instead of just like … a solo record? Or anything at all?
SM: It was because we started playing together again in 2006. Originally this record was supposed to come out in 2007 right as we were having reunion shows, but the whole thing lost steam because I didn’t know how to finish it. We didn’t have a bunch of money to give to a mixer. I had to get the confidence to just go, ‘I fucking know how to do this.’ And rather than trying to get someone else to do this I’m just gonna do it. Jeff was my cheerleader. Jeff sent me off to Australia when I was on tour with Off! with the new version of ‘Researching the Blues’ and I was so inspired. He had these new mixes, these rough mixes that were really crazy that had way too much of this or that and I could tell there was something going on that I didn’t know how to do yet. I was like, ‘What the fuck did you do?’ Like the song ‘Meet Frankenstein,’ he put this compressor on the very end where technically it was kind of wrong but it sounded fucking awesome. There’s that fucking, you know, “A Hard Day’s Night” sound that I don’t know how to do. I didn’t go to engineering school—it’s all trial and error. I wish someone had took me aside five years ago and said, ‘These five things are actually essential and you should beg, borrow and steal until you have them.’
Do you want to actually call out those five things for all our teenage readers?
SM: Well, I would definitely say the Chris Lord-Alge suite of plugins are definitely worth grabbing. They’re amazing because a lot of them are really ugly-looking and look very un-vintage and very un-groovy. I love that because you might be in a studio working with some cool kid and they’re gonna see what you’re doing and they’re gonna freak out cuz they’ll think it’s uncool on some level. I don’t like the way Chris Lord-Alge’s records sound either, but he’s got this one plugin that has a general sort of compression and EQ but it doesn’t use standard compression settings, it says like ‘More Butt’…
Finally, a language I can understand!
SM: ‘Less Style’ and ‘More Oomph.’
Steve, I did an interview with you when Sparks was doing their 21 album thing and you were talking about how you were really into Sparks because they were kind of the godfathers of underground music in the U.S.—I feel like Redd Kross is sort of in the same position today.
SM: I’m not sure, but Chris, I’d love to get your take on it and get some advice on how we could cash in on it.
JM: I don’t know if some bands get it from us or if they get it on their own, but I read a review of this record and it was a really good review except that the person mentioned one of our songs and was talking about it having a Byrdsy ‘ooh ahh’ and I was like, ‘Byrds! I don’t listen to the Byrds anymore! That was the 5th Dimension, the Cowsills, REAL harmonies, you know what I mean?’ I just go crazy over that shit because I’m past that stage.
SM: I remember going to the Smell once, kind of in the early days for the Smell, and I was probably in my late thirties at this all-ages club, feeling a little out of place even though those DIY/all-ages places are definitely in my DNA and I feel comfortable in those places … but definitely not feeling like I was a part of that environment. But maybe the person who put it on recognized me because they put on the first Redd Kross EP and it sounded really good. I’m not like Billy Corgan, used to walking into places and hearing songs off my albums, so it was bizarre and I had to realize, you know, this is a sound that … you know, seeing bands at the Smell, that’s kind of come up in the last five or ten years. That Redd Kross has had an effect on at least Southern California underground rock youth culture. That’s really cool. That’s neat. It’s funny to feel like you might be a reference for some, but we’ve had this weird career, like Sparks too, where we just continue to do our own thing.
Of all the things you’ve done as a band, what’s a mistake you made that you want to warn people to never do? Or what’s something that’s good that you’d encourage everyone to do?
SM: Everyone is gonna have to make their own mistakes or carve their own path. I just know from working with kids that I warn them and I can go like, ‘Oh, danger! No! No!’ but ultimately it’s up to them. Rarely does it ever happen where you make a connection and save someone from making their own mistakes. For me the thing that was always really hard was that record Third Eye. I don’t wanna take anything away from it because there’s a lot of people that have connected with that record and it means a lot to them and I don’t wanna say that it’s not a worthy record or whatever. But for me, I just think we were in over our heads. We had some personnel changes that happened in the middle of the record—our drummer quit during the basic tracks—and suddenly we were like, limping. And our drummer had really become an integral member of the band. Someone’s in the band and next thing you know they’re singing leads on three songs. He kind of just got up and left in the middle of basic tracks and so, for me, it was a really, really important, pivotal moment. We were limping and our manager just encouraged us to keep moving forward. ‘Let’s finish this record, let’s put it out, let’s hire a drummer to go on tour with us because we got some momentum. We can’t stop right now.’ I think if we had waited a while—even if we lost our deal with Atlantic—that would have been fine. But having put that record out where you had all the tastemakers waiting to hear what we did …
And you were only at like half-power?
SM: We put out something that wasn’t, in my opinion, at our most confident and it was detrimental. If you’re gonna make that leap from indie band to major-label band, make sure you are running on all pistons. If something happens in the middle of that and you’re suddenly handicapped in a way, take a chill. Breathe. Figure out what your next move is before you put yourself out there on the line. Because you only get so many of those shots—you really kinda only get one. So after Third Eye came out and it didn’t set the indie world or the mainstream world on fire, you lose your tastemakers and you’re still in the world of the underground—but if you don’t have the tastemakers on your side, you’re really screwed in terms of getting something to the next level. I felt much more confident about the records we did in the following years when we had this new lineup and newfound confidence, but they kind of fell on deaf ears.
What is the story—because this is the kind of thing that’s an L.A. legend—where your bass got stolen and you and Thurston Moore find it for sale twenty years later?
SM: Well, it was classic bad attitude left over from the punk era. I was really burned from years and years of walking into guitar shops as a young person and being treated like a fourth-class citizen.
Because you want to buy something?
SM: I had a ‘76 Gibson T-bird bass that I bought in 1983, I think. I played it on Born Innocent so I guess I bought it in ‘81 or something. My parents gave me the money. It was way beyond my skills. I had no business with that nice of an instrument. Anyway, I worshipped this instrument and around ‘82 or ‘83—we were opening for the Bangles. They had just started touring on their first album and they invited us to come play with them in Tucson, Arizona—the Alligator Club in Tucson, Arizona—and they guaranteed us $400, which was the largest guarantee that we had ever been given at that point in our career. We went out there and we were excited and we were friends with the Bangles and we were going to hang out and play a show. And we get to this place and it’s kind of like this brand new strip mall—Real Housewives of Orange County way before the fact. After the Bangles do their sound check, we do ours and the establishment pulled us aside and said, ‘Um, this is a brand new club and we’re in the business of entertainment and because of that we’re thinking that your performance is not going to be necessary tonight …’
JM: ‘But we will pay you. We will pay.’ This dude also had a mustache.
SM: ‘We will pay you your full guarantee. We ask you, don’t perform.’ … So we agree. ‘Like, fine, we get to hang out and watch the Bangles and make $400? Fine. I don’t have to sweat at your stupid show and I get to have fun.’ So then what happens is Susanna Hoffs, who was pretty mischievous back in the day … She was going to the bar and I was only 14 or 15 and she was buying Zombies for me. It was the first time I’d ever tasted that cocktail.
JM: Like a Long Island Iced Tea.
SM: I had probably four of them and I was off my rocker—wasted. I got really drunk off Susanna’s booze and then I made out with Debbi Peterson. It was kind of a rad night.
JM: You know what else happened that night? I shared a room with Vicki Peterson. She used to be my girlfriend and we wake up in the morning, open the door and there is, like, a gallon of blood outside our doorstep. Literally someone was stabbed outside our doorstep.
SM: So at the end of the night, I’m wasted, blitzed, and we load up our gear, get all our gear out. We had a fun time and then we realize, ‘Oh, I forgot my bass. Let me go back and get it.’ And we went back in and it wasn’t there. And these huge, thick-necked bouncers were like, ‘There’s nothing left! Get out of here!’ ‘What?’ ‘Nothing’s left! There’s nothing here!’ Basically the club stole my bass to reimburse themselves for the loss they had incurred that night. And the other thing is, we got that check, and after Jeff had his blood experience the next morning, we were smart enough to get that check to one of those check cashing places immediately and there was a little bit of a scuffle going on at the check cashing place. But we eventually got the cash. It was exactly how much money I’d spent on the bass. It was really a burn. Anyway, flash-forward to until, like, 2002. The bass is gone for twenty years basically and I walk into a shop on Sunset—Freedom Guitars—and there it was on the wall and I knew it was mine. The bass was so out of my league that I was obsessed with every grain and nick of the instrument so I knew it was mine. I kind of approached that situation the wrong way. I’ve never seen the video but if you watch the video, I’m probably going to come off like a real asshole. Rather than me seeing that the bass was there and being cool and talking to the owner of the shop and saying, ‘Hey, look, we got to work this out because this instrument’s stolen and I’d really like to get it back’—and mind you, he was asking $2500 for it in 2002 and I didn’t have that money—we just walked in there guerrilla-style with a camera. Dave Markey’s filming and Thurston Moore as some kind of celebrity eye witness.
I thought more like the muscle. The heavy.
SM: Yeah, he’s big too. He’s 6’7” or something? He might be scrawny, but he’s tall. So we walked in there and they were like, ‘Can we help you?’ and I was like, ‘Yeah, that bass up there? IT’S MINE! IT’S MINE! I WANT IT BACK! IT’S STOLEN,’ and I just started screaming and yelling and whatever.
Did you ever get it back?
SM: I took them to court. We had two court sessions—one where I saw another case that stuck with me for life where a crazy bag lady was taking a frozen yogurt shop to small claims court and you could tell that it had been, like, the tenth time they’d been back there and she was crazy and her case was this: she was taking the frozen yogurt shop to court for stealing her calories. ‘AND I WANT ‘EM BACK!’
JM: She didn’t look like a bag lady. She looked normal. And she was talking about them trying to have sex with her as well.
SM: It was one of those cases where everybody—the defendants, the judges—everyone was rolling their eyes but I really enjoyed it. I’d never thought of taking a frozen yogurt shop to court over stolen calories but that’s a good story right there.
JM: Is it illegal to steal someone’s calories?
I don’t know. Depends on how many.
SM: Basically what happened is the guy at the shop knew that I was just going to keep pursuing this like a crazy person, like the calories lady.
That’s great that she was so inspirational.
SM: Yeah. And also because it was traumatizing when the bass was stolen back in the day. My parents didn’t know for a year and a half that the thing was gone because everybody loved that bass.
And you hid that from them for that long? That’s heartbreaking.
SM: Well, I felt like I was going to be in so much trouble. I’d gotten wasted on Zombies so I was partially responsible and it was just crazy. Eventually the guy sold it to me outside of court for what he had paid for it, which was $600. Anyway, that was a long and boring story.
I wanted closure on it, though.
JM: Steve got the closure too.
What in 2012 are you secretly proudest that Redd Kross has outlived? Certain labels? Certain people? The American space shuttle program?
SM: I can’t specifically name anything. But I do feel a pride … I read something recently that someone was being really supportive of us and they were saying they loved our new record even if it was ‘totally out of step with the indie world of 2012.’ And I just felt like, you know, I don’t want to criticize your praise of us, but if two guitars, bass and drums just playing really great songs and executing it like every note is your last—if that’s out of step in any time, then I don’t care if we’re out of step. As far as for the hipster trendy bloggers that are kind of too busy looking at what the other person thinks before they decide, that world and whoever the kings are of that world, if they don’t jump on board with us … I pretty much know that their moment is fleeting anyway and I don’t care. The world of rock criticism has always kinda irked me and it’s a weird time for me to be saying this.
It’s almost dead, so you might outlive it after all.
SM: I’m not bitter either. Everything has worked out fine how it’s supposed to be. History has rewritten itself many times now. But one night I was very drunk and I ran into this band I didn’t really know that well. It was this crazy night—maybe like four or five years after Redd Kross had gone on hiatus, and I had my own morose John Lennon Lost Weekend night. I remember cornering this band and telling this kid, ‘Man, you know, don’t listen to reviews. Half of that shit is some dude partying with some other dude in some room that has nothing to do with you.’ And maybe that’s true? I don’t know.
Did that band turn out to be Vampire Weekend or something?
SM: No, and I wish I was coming from a righteous place but I can’t even profess I knew their music very well.
This is a question you may not want to answer for legal reasons, but can you give me a quick list off the top of your head of the celebrities that might have had cause to sue you guys for something—but haven’t yet?
JM: MacKenzie Phillips, Cher, Susan Atkins, Elizabeth Montgomery …
SM: Bobby Sherman. Who else? Those are the main ones. You said Linda Blair, right? Those were the T-shirts. And the original album covers of Third Eye, Jeff had stopped at the supermarket on the way to the photo shoot and just got heaps and heaps of pop culture artifacts, like a bottle of Joy dishwashing soap and stuff like that. We sprawled all that stuff out in a gallery display for the cover and every single one of these references had to be removed and this was pre-Photoshop. It was really expensive professional airbrushing.
JM: They were laid at the feet of the models.
Like it had to be all painted over on the negatives? Like Stalin-era Russia?
SM: Yeah, the photo shoot probably cost a fraction of what the retouching cost. It was really sad because they actually went as far as to do test pressings of the cover so you can look at the color codes for color correction. They never pressed them in terms of folded covers with vinyl in them, but they did go to the point where you would look at the test. I have one of them framed in my rehearsal studio. It’s so much better with all this mysterious stuff. At one point there was a Yoko Ono face on the ground and they turned it into a doll face instead. It’s really sad. There was, like, a three-foot Marie Osmond doll.
JM: Now it’s just a blank pedestal that’s still there. Which is more arty when you think about it. That we originally had a Marie Osmond doll there but we airbrushed it off.
You have that song on the new record about the world getting uglier everyday, which I agree with on both literal and metaphoric levels—but what kind of ugliness drove you over the edge?
SM: I wish I could take credit that tagline but I didn’t write that line. It was Jeff and Charlotte [Caffey] wrote all the chords and the melodies and they had that chorus: ‘It’s getting uglier … everyday.’ So I pursued it and I finished it. For me, it was a general sort of feeling that shit was really out of control at the time. My really good friend had just been diagnosed with MS and we’re all dealing with it still, and it was just one of those things where … I don’t know if you know anything about that particular disease, but they just know very little about what it’s caused from or where it came from or what the fuck it’s doing. It’s just really gnarly. It’s really just a general sense of like—shit, man, we’re really just fucking everything up with the way we’re living and everything that we’re fucking doing here because that shit is ugly. The line ‘It’s getting uglier’ wasn’t just like literally talking about we’re all growing older and our ugly faces have gone to shit.
At this point, the next step logical step for Redd Kross seems to be Svengali-ing. Have you thought about the Svengali phase?
SM: You mean like put together a boy band?
Yes! A Redd Kross boy band.
SM: Jeff I’m sure would be really good at putting together a boy band, he’s very into like modern Asian pop—K-pop. I remember when I saw the Runaways movie and I watched the Kim Fowley segment in the trailer where he was just working them into the ground like dogs and I thought, ‘God, I have been such a hack all these years. THAT’S how it’s done.’
I don’t know if that’s the message that scene was meant to convey, but that’s awesome that you took that away from it.
SM: I just love the line when he had Cherie Currie in the corner by the scruff of her collar or something and he said, ‘It’s not about women’s lib, it’s about women’s libido.’ And I was like, ‘Fuck! Why didn’t I think of that!?’
BLUNDERTOWN + SPACELAND + KROQ PRESENT REDD KROSS WITH THE MELVINS ON MON., DEC. 31, AT THE KING EDDIE BALLROOM AT THE ALEXANDRIA HOTEL, 501 S. SPRING ST., DOWNTOWN. 8 PM / $60-$65 / 21+. TICKETS AVAILABLE HERE! BLACK FORMAL ATTIRE ENCOURAGED. LIMITED EDITION MELVINS/REDD KROSS SPLIT 12″ AVAILABLE. REDD KROSS’ RESEARCHING THE BLUES IS OUT NOW ON MERGE. REDDKROSS.COM.