Legendary L.A. groovy punks Redd Kross are back for reals with a new album, Researching the Blues (Merge), and soldiering on with their insistence that punk is indeed groovy. They were never strictly “punk” according to the norms of the early-’80s California scene they grew up in; nor did they always sport the “Brady Bunch extras” look they cultivated later in that decade, when the founding brothers starred in the goofy cult classic Spirit of ’76 and went off about Charles Manson, Cher, shag carpeting, and whatnot. But brothers and founding members Jeff and Steve McDonald have consistently crafted oddly catchy tunes via an undying love for Cheap Trick and all loopy things L.A. And judging by their new record, they’re still as good as distilling those influences into songs as ever.
The band has had the same lineup for six-plus years, and when we caught lead singer/guitarist Jeff McDonald on the phone, they had recently returned from a two-week tour in Australia. Since the Brothers McDonald pop up in the occasional film and TV show, when Jeff started by saying he’d just returned home from Universal Studios I figured he was lining up a new role…
Hey. I just got back from dropping my daughter off at Universal Studios—the amusement park. Her and her friends have season passes.
Oh, I thought for a second maybe she was starring in the next Jurassic Park or something. I always assume you L.A.-ers are always up to some movie biz action.
Ha. No no.
So what about your daughter, Astrid? Is there going to be another Ze Malibu Kids record, or was she involved in the new Redd Kross record?
Actually, yes, it’s really strange you asked that. When I started getting songs together for this album a few years ago, we’d been going to a lot of teen pop shows, and I started writing this song about teen pop. And then I realized, I can’t sing about this, it’s from the eyes of a sixteen girl! We saw at least seven or eight Jonas Brothers shows, Miley Cirus, that whole pop thing from a couple years ago. So I gave her the song, and she sang a great vocal. It’s called “Pop Show,” and it’s on the iTunes version of the album, and the Japanese version. I wish it was on the real record here, but it isn’t. They wanted a bonus track or whatever. I don’t even know, do they have “bonus tracks” anymore? Whatever… Anyway, Astrid is 17 now, and she and her friend are working on music, and I’m going to help. I guess we’re hip enough that I’m not an embarrassment, so I’m going to co-write some songs. I’m a big fan of girl groups anyway.
Who are some of your favorite girl groups?
You know, it’s weird, right now girl groups have made a huge resurgence via the Kpop scene, you know the Korean pop scene? A lot of the Kpop stuff is bad and I don’t really like it. But the good stuff is always done by girls. Right now I am obsessed with this group called 2NE1 [ed: 21, get it?]. I just discovered them through a Korean pop TV station in L.A. here, with subtitles. So what they do with Kpop is they have these entertainment production houses. So you’re signed when you’re a teenager, and then you’re a trainee for awhile—you get in physical shape, you dance like 20 hours a day, you learn how to deal with the press, and you record and record until you’re ready to make your debut. It’s kind of a cross between like the Phil Spector/Motown model and the Olympics gymnastic team. But 2NE1 have this reality show, and it’s really fascinating seeing people come up through that system. The guy that ends up producing and writing most of the songs is from the U.S. actually, he’s Korean-American. And these records are amazing! 2NE1 has recorded a couple songs in English. A lot are in Korean with English in the choruses; and a lot of the English is really bad broken English. But a lot of the YG Entertainment groups—the one that 2NE1 and Big Bang are in—everything is pristine as far as that. 2NE1 are the new Ronettes as far as I’m concerned.
So, the new album. Wasn’t it going to be called Motorcycle Black Madonna or something?
Ha, yeah. But when you do that stuff, and make these premature announcements, it’s always doomed. That was doomed. Like before we made Neurotica, we’d announced that it was going to be called, The Shroud of Laurie Bono Christ, and of course by the time we got around to finishing the record, you’re way over it. But yeah, Researching the Blues. We couldn’t come up with a title, and I’d just thought about that. I’d been reading these John and Alan Lomax books, like Bob Dylan and history of the Carter Family—just these ridiculous, scholarly American roots books. And I’d remembered that we had this song on Ze Malibu Kids record called “Fiona Apple,” which actually had nothing to do with Fiona Apple. And there was a line in the song, “She wrote a song about me while researching the blues.” And I just thought that was funny, I couldn’t even remember the origin of that line, but I liked the idea about being scholarly about the blues. But it can mean many things, like obsessively doing things that make you miserable, which a lot of people do.
Thank God, because I thought for a second it would be Redd Kross doing old blues covers and “rediscovering roots music” or something like that.
Someone else brought that to my attention, because usually when “veteran rock bands” make like a comeback record or whatever, they return to the blues, and they make some boring bad noodly blues album. So I understood that that title would fuck with people a bit.
That reminds me a bit of when that terrible band, the Killers, released their second album and were proclaiming their love of Bruce Springsteen. I mean I like Bruce, but it was funny that a band like the Killers had to dredge up some idea of “authenticity” in their music…
Oh gawd. A lot of people do love Bruce Springsteen. But from when we were at our most busy and psychedelic in the later ’80s, there was “Born in the USA” and Bruce was the absolute epitome of horrid for us. You liked Prince if you had to like anything currently popular at that time. But I’ve come to terms with Bruce, though I still think he’s completely overrated. Sorry. Because I’m a Bob Dylan fanatic, and I always hated that comparison.
Have you ever met Dylan? It seems like you might’ve stumbled across him at some point.
No. And I usually have no desire to meet people who I really admire, but I think I’d have something to talk about with Dylan, because he’s such a huge fan of music, and I’d just ask him some question about Blind Willie McTell or something, and there’d be something to talk about.
Having grown up in the general L.A. area, the assumption is that you did frequently bump into famous folks.
Yeah, well here in L.A., you get this thing called “familiaritus.” You constantly see people, and you think, “Oh wait, is that someone from television or someone I should know or something.” But the people you do end up seeing on the street, it’s totally bizarre and hilarious. It’s like, “Oh look, it’s Charlene Tilton!” Ha.
Yeah, you get that in New York of course. Like I’ll go to these gallery shows with old photos from the Max’s Kansas City or early CBGB days, etc, and you see these old 70-something heps with grey hair, in angular glasses and snazzy B&W suits, and you see them and think, “Well, that might be that “Warhol superstar” or something, but who knows. The visions in our heads are from from 1974.
But yeah, when they have a shag haircut but it’s grey, then they usually are some old scenester. Ha. Actually, the other night it was Anna’s birthday, and we went out to this nice restaurant in Beverly Hills. And all the sudden Lady Gaga shows up. So that’s a funny sighting. It was fine, a few teenagers milling around, a couple cameras. But by the time we left, we walked out into about 200 cameras flashing in our face. My God, this woman has to deal with this every day. I mean you have to have a certain mindset. I don’t see how you could survive that crap every day. You hear celebrities complain about it all the time—though most of them perpetuate it, it’s part of that whole pop thing. But God that would be annoying.
Okay, so going way back to a different sort of celebrity sighting, recount the story of your first show in 1981, opening for Black Flag.
It was one of their first shows too. Keith Morris was the singer. They’d played a local gig at a Moose Lodge in Redondo Beach. Punk shows were really really rare in L.A., but even more rare near where we lived. Steven and I had already had some songs, been putting the band together. Black Flag were local, so I’d talked to them before. They were like 10 years older than us, so they had established a rehearsal space in an old church in Hermosa Beach, and invited us to come down. We’d never played in front of anyone before. So they invited the like 10 local punk enthusiasts in the south bay to come down to that space and play a show. We did our first EP with this kind of punk version of “I Wanna Hold Your Hand” and “Who Are The Mystery Girls” by the New York Dolls. So they thought we were really cool, and we made friends with them. They played, really great. Then after that, our drummer was graduating from the eighth grade, and there was this girl in his class who wanted to have a graduation party, and wanted to have bands. So we showed up with Black Flag, and we were her bands! And we were booed the whole time by Stoners yelling for Zeppelin. The only groups you’d see in clubs around then were cover bands. So we had a great time being booed. And then Black Flag had these old raggedy amps, and they just cranked them up and completely freaked everyone out. Then we played our first Hollywood shows with them too.
How’d you hear about the New York Dolls?
Well, I had this uncle with great taste, and a few cretins in our neighborhood had Alice Cooper records, and Suzi Quatro, and the Dolls. And then we lived in an area with the aerospace industry, so there was this little liquor store with booze, and the union guys would come out and look at magazines, and most of them were pornos. But they also had the really odd cheap rock mags like Creem, or weird magazines from New York, like Rock Scene stuff. And then the Rodney Bingenheimer radio show, and then we learned everything from that. Then it was just a matter of convincing our parents to drive us to Hollywood to see our first punk shows.
What were your top five favorite regional bands that you guys would go see every time when you started seeing shows?
Okay, Black Flag, all the time. The Go-Go’s were my favorite. X, constantly, saw them like almost every other week. There was a band from SF who I completely loved called the Mutants. The Dead Kennedys, but only during their first single period. Then bands like the Avengers, the Dills, the Zeros… L.A. and San Francisco bands were just fantastic those days.
It’s strange how many of those bands didn’t get to release whole proper albums.
I know! I saw Jello Biafra talking about that, that California had the greatest bands back then that never got past their first single. Like when you hear that first Bags single on Dangerhouse, it’s like, oh my God! Why didn’t they make a whole album?!
I’ll assume you had some run-ins with Kim Fowley?
Well sure, you know, you always do. The minute we got out there seeing shows and playing, we knew Kim was around. I had that first Runaways LP when it came out, we loved them. So you’d see Joan Jett and Kim Fowley at the Whiskey. Our funniest run-in with Kim was when we were making Neurotica, we were looking for something interesting to do. Our first choice to produce it was Sonny Bono, but he wasn’t available. So we met Flo & Eddie, but we thought, eh, they’re too angry. So we talked to Kim, and we knew we couldn’t handle him producing us, but we tried anyway, and told him we wanted to make a rock opera. And he said, “Oh, I’ve got a rock opera!” And he gave us this manuscript for this thing called “Room Mates.” We were dying to read it, but it turned out to be so bland and boring, so we had to pass on “Room Mates.”
I always wondered about the photo shoot for the cover of Neurotica.
Well, there was this prop house that just had all these weird random things in it, like those prop heads that looked so psychedelic. It turned out those things had been in all these cheap ’60s movies, like How to Stuff a Wild Bikini and stuff like that. So they show up occasionally in ’60s movies, I’ll be watching a movie on TV late and night and see one of those! But this place had tons of shit, but only really weird psychedelic props. Like they had this pink glitter Eiffel Tower that was 15 feet tall. Then we’re like, “Oh man, how can we use this?!” So when we shot the video for the single, “Annie’s Gone,” we went back to that prop house and got a few of those things. And I was looking at it recently, there’s this giant doll in a giant high chair that’s 10 feet tall. That prop house disappeared.
So, the new record. How did it come together? Was it one of those things where you do a couple songs here, time goes by, another couple songs there…
Yeah, it was kind of a nightmare, because we would start it, and then put it down for awhile. We started to the first sessions on half-inch analog tape. Then after like a year, then we dumped that down onto other tape. Then basic tracks got done in three or four days. Then I was stuck with them for another two years, with lyrics, harmonies—so I did that at home on ProTools. Then mixing, Steven became really busy and had kind of forgotten about it. But then I started mixing it and hearing it again as a whole, and I was thinking, “My God, this record is really good!” You lose perspective after awhile. Sometimes, when you are working obsessively on an album over a month or whatever, you start getting insecure, and remixing too much, and thinking it’s horrible… But after leaving this one for almost a year, it sounded like a different group. I left in a few mistakes. It enabled us to make a more freewheeling record, even though it took a long time to get together.
You have a song on the new album called “The World’s Getting Uglier.” Has the world gotten uglier since Redd Kross initially called it a day around the early 2000s?
Well Steve wrote that lyric, so you’d have to ask him. I think he says he’s getting uglier every day, and I’d agree. Ha.
Redd Kross’ obsession with trash TV is legendary. What are your favorite recent TV shows you’ve been obsessing over.
Oh God, I just get obsessed about the fact that I watch too much fucking TV! Every time I get sucked into one of the Real Housewives shows, or whatever—ugh! I do get to hone my comedy chops when The Bachelor and The Bachelorette are on. My wife and daughter are obsessed with those shows. And they actually laugh at my nasty comments that I make. It’s the only show they let me talk through. So I guess that inspires me on some level. I have to admit.
My girlfriend and I went through a Bridezillas period.
Oh yeah, I went through that, but then I get to a point where I say, this is just too negative. But then I’ll start watching this again.
Yeah, you know each episode is essentially the same thing. I prefer the very few episodes where the wedding just doesn’t happen.
Yeah! There was one where the dude left the lady at the altar and went to Las Vegas in a stolen rental car. That was a good one.
I bet you couldn’t blame the guy.
Oh my God, no, of course. I just wonder, my God, who casts these shows?! What mental institution are they plundering?
Well, there are a lot of failed aspiring actors on those things, just there to get seen by agents or whatever.
True, but the really good casting directors know exactly what type of psychosis to look for, like who is just a slight sociopath. They can’t go too far. They did with that one guy who ended up killing that girl and chopping her up, connected to some VH1 show. Sometimes they go too far. But when they get it right, it can be really fun. I still watch Survivor, because it’s like being in a band. My wife Charlotte has been in the Go-Gos for 35 years, and she agrees. It’s like being on tour with rock bands. Everyone ends up on the hot seat at some point. You get so sick of each other, one becomes an emotional punching bag for someone else, or someone pushes buttons out of boredom. That happens whenever you put more than four people together for too long.