By John B. Moore
Redd Kross may have started out as little more than a
curiosity, a group of teens playing punk rock with an 11-year-old on bass, but
they evolved into one of the best American
Power Pop bands of the ‘80s and ‘90s. Indeed, the Beach Boys may have
soaked up much of the local pride from Hawthorne
California, but siblings Jeff and Steven McDonald
– the Osmond Brothers of punk rock – deserve just as much attention as their
fellow local musicians having helped create the Southern
California punk scene in the early 1980’s. The boys grew up and so
did their music, adding more melody and sharper hooks and the added attention
of major labels and fans across the globe.
That all stopped in 1997 when the band, exhausted from
touring, decided to take a break and live their lives for awhile.
Singer/guitarist Jeff, married to Charlotte Caffey of the Go-Go’s, continued to
play here and there, but spend the bulk of his time off stage helping to raise their
daughter. Bassist Steven was involved in a slew of projects, most recently the
hardcore band OFF!, as well as producing some critically lauded albums like The
Format’s Dog Problems. Guitarist
Robert Hecker went on to front the band It’s OK, while longtime drummer Roy
McDonald (no relation to Steven and Jeff) was busy with his own life.
But Redd Kross was never officially dead and an impromptu reunion at an LA festival in 2006 propelled the
band back into the world of touring, though not as rigorous as before. All the
while, Jeff continued writing songs for a Redd Kross album that he knew might
never be released.
Six years after that reunion gig and 15 years after their
last album, Redd Kross is back with Researching the Blues (Merge) and ready to pick up where they last left
Jeff McDonald spoke recently about the reunion, the long
task of writing this record and why he will never forget the smell of stale
I am admittedly
surprised that you guys put out another record. It’s been so long since you
played together and then a few years before you finally put out new music. I
thought you guys had ended it. Had you thought about getting back together for
JEFF MCDONALD: The whole thing actually started as another
album because I started writing songs and getting together with Roy and then my
brother got involved and then Robert got involved. We started doing some
touring – we’d done a lot of touring in Europe – but we started work on the
record a few years ago and then we had to keep putting it on the back burner
because stuff would come up; we’d have to go off on tour, or someone would have
something come up. The record just kind of happened when it was supposed to
happen. It was always my intention to make one. I didn’t even know that we
would necessarily play a lot; I just wanted to make another record.
Yeah, it was just totally turned around because we got busy
playing and with other things, people had lives they had to deal with so we
didn’t have the luxury of being together five or six days a week like we did
earlier. It takes a lot more time to get things done these days.
all in the same areas still or scattered throughout the country?
You know, we’re scattered throughout California. We’re all within a 50 miles
radius and it’s still a hassle when we all have to get together, but we do get
together to rehearse when we have shows and tours planned. We used to approach
rehearsals like it was a job, five days a week for many, many years and we
can’t do that anymore. But thankfully we also have more tools to work with than
we did years ago, we’re better players now.
seems many bands nowadays that reunite are fine with playing the one off shows
or tours, but an album is the last thing they want to do. The album is that
Holy Grail you hope for, but often never get.
Well, during that
period of doing nothing – well, not nothing, I was raising my daughter – I
still played music and when I started writing songs they sounded like Redd
Kross songs. We still had the name and my brother is still my brother, so I
said we could do a Redd Kross album and just throw it out there. We didn’t know
that we could put it on a label or anything, we just kind of did it and if no
one wanted to put it out we would have put it out ourselves. But I think timing
worked out well. Not finishing it until a couple of months ago turned out
pretty well, because everyone we gave it to like it. I guess it’s all mystical.
guys have all been doing your own things since 1997, playing in different
bands, producing, did that change in any way the way you went about writing
Yeah, Steven did a lot of outside production, producing a
lot of different groups, and I would just kind of fiddle around with these
songs. I would sit down with a guitar and sing something into my computer; I
would always record it and put into an iTunes file. I’d be driving with my iPod
on shuffle and a random guitar part would come up and I would remember “Track
27” and then go home and finish it. So it was sort of like roulette; that’s how
the album got finished because I rarely sit down and finish a song from start
to finish. If the guitar parts good when I come back to it, then it’s worth
working on. So on this record, I wrote all of the songs myself except for one.
find it easier now to write with all the technological advances out there?
Would it have been easier in the ‘80s and ‘90s if you had had what kids have
now at their disposal?
I used the technology in the most basic ways. When I use the
laptop it’s just to record into the
mic in QuickTime, I don’t even bother opening a real recording program. It’s
kind of a glorified tape recorder and in those days I had a schedule, so let’s
say for Third Eye, I recorded most of
that record quietly in my bathroom, into a tape recorder, because in my
apartment the guy next door would bang on the walls the moment I strummed my
electric guitar, even with no amplification. I always had to write under duress
to some level, so I guess I’m just comfortable doing that. I don’t really
utilize the technology, it just looks different.
seems like there is always one person holding out on these reunions. Was that
the case for you guys?
I may have been the
hold out, but not for any big reason in particular. I just remember being
burned out from performing, and that’s what I consider my strongpoint:
performing. After the Show World tour
I just wasn’t interested in performing much, but I still loved music and I
still saw bands. I just didn’t feel like doing it and then I realized 10 years
had passed, and I hadn’t been on stage. Everyone else in the band had played in
other groups and I was the only one who hadn’t stepped on a stage for over a
decade, so when we had an offer to play this festival in Los Angeles – it was
the Don’t Knock the Rock Film and Music Festival that was curated by a really
good friend of mine – I just said okay, we’ll do a Redd Kross set and we just
had a lot of fun. I was able to get over any kind of fear or apprehension I had
about going on stage and then it just felt very natural from that point on.
you apprehensive at all that maybe there wasn’t still an appetite for your
I think because of the type of show that we chose for that
first outing we knew people would come out. I live in Los Angeles, so I knew there was interest in
seeing us, I was more worried that I wouldn’t look natural on stage, so we rehearsed
a lot for that show and I know this is cliché, but the moment I got on stage it
was like riding a bike; it all came back. Because there are some breaks between
shows I always get rusty, but it always come backs. It takes about one week.
personally miss Redd Kross or were you too busy with other things in life to
even think about it?
The first couple of years I didn’t miss it at all. During
the 90’s we were on the road all the time and a lot of it was in Europe. I was really glad to be home and it really took
me a couple of years to start thinking about it. Somewhere down the line I
started thinking it’d be fun to play again. But it took a few more years before
we could actually do it.
talk a little about the new album? It sounds like it picks right up from where
you left off with Show World in ‘97.
The thing about it is, we never really consciously think
about what kind of record we’re going to make. The one thing I did think about
is that I wanted the record to be short, because when we were on record labels
in the past we were always contractually obligated to make these long records
because of CD technology and my attention span is just like everyone else’s. If
I can get through an entire record, in 30 minutes, I am really happy. I didn’t
feel as obligated with this one. If the song felt finished, but had no guitar
solo or didn’t really have a chorus, but had a bridge that repeated then it was
done. It was really weird, but more organic because I didn’t really write this
one with a real intention of releasing it. I’ve always loved pop music and I’ve
always loved heavy music. There’s a song on here, “Stay Away From Downtown,”
that I had originally written for a movie and I found the demo and it was a
cross between Television and Fleetwood Mac. I had forgotten about it and when I
found it I thought “let’s try this again.”
were playing shows when you were still working on this record, so did you play
any of these songs live?
I know what it’s like to see a band when they start playing
new songs and even if it’s like Sgt.
Pepper’s II you don’t want to hear anything new. Steven has a habit of
saying “Here’s a new one of our new album” and I’m like no, just try and slip
it in and hope no one notices. So we’ve gotten away with it and slipped a few
in with good response, so I’ve told (Steven) to stop announcing it.
the focus on the band when you first started out was on your ages. Did that
bother you at all at the time that it was mentioned in just about every write
Yeah, when we first started playing live we were really
ridiculously young. There weren’t any other teenage bands in Los Angeles playing
punk and we 12- to-16 and all the other groups were in their 20’s, so the
magazines like Flipside and Slash always talked about that. We were
like the Osmond Brothers and we were well aware of that… It’s was weird.
think that helped you get a lot of the initial attention? Helped you stand out?
I think people thought we were funny because we were little
kids… but luckily we were very precious and took the whole pop culture route
because we were the punk rock Osmond’s and that’s how we looked at it. We
weren’t like normal little kids. We were just insane music geeks so we fit in.
It became more of a problem when we started touring. Touring hadn’t really been
an option for independent bands
until the early ‘80s and we were still underage and the first tour we did, I
might have been 18 and Steven was still underage and after driving hundreds of
miles to get to the clubs we’d have to ague to get inside and then we’d have to
sit in the kitchen until it was time to play. Smelly kitchens in these bad
clubs, that smell never goes away. It’s like rancid grease and gas coming from
these old stoves.