It’s three decades and counting for the Los Angeles punk legends. Steven McDonald
tells how they do it.
BY BARRY ST. VITUS
Iconic SoCal band Redd Kross is
back in action after a fifteen year recording absence from the scene and firing
on all cylinders. Since starting 34 years ago, they’ve just dropped their 7th full-length album, deciding it was long overdue after doing several reunion
shows over the last six years. Chief songwriter Jeff McDonald wrote most of the
material over the course of 2007 to 2008, and Steven McDonald got down to work in the studio earlier this year,
finishing up the pre-mix and polishing the final production to perfection for
their return to the spotlight. Researching
the Blues was released last week on the Merge label to rave reviews in the
trades, as well as on NPR. I recently spoke with bass player Steven to get a
little more background and inside information on this auspicious event.
BLURT: Steven, how did a
couple of kids to decide to start a band?
You guys were like 11 and 15. Is there something in the water down in
Hawthorne that compels brothers to start bands?
STEVEN MCDONALD: Yeah, some kind
of radioactive material that’s not filtered out. Yeah, I don’t know. I mean the
Hawthorne that we grew up in was a different Hawthorne from the one the Beach
Boys inherited in the mid-’50s. We were growing up there in the mid-’70s. The
neighborhood that we grew up in was slowly being chiseled away by what is now
the 105 freeway. They would by a block of homes, then change their plans, then
buy another row or section of suburban track homes and there were all these
vacant homes while they waited to build this freeway. It’s funny, I knew the
freeway was coming my entire life, but, by the time I was like 16, our entire
block was vacant, and we had our rehearsals in our garage, so we’d just open
the garage doors and blast Marshall Stax. No neighbors to complain, just vacant
suburban houses! A very different image than the Beach Boys’ ‘be true to your
school’ of the mid-’50s suburban homes down in So. Cal. <chuckles>
What did your parents think? Were they supportive of you guys after you
Well, yeah, I think so. Except,
uh, they might’ve been, uh, a little confused by us. They’re not like hippies or something like that, but they saw that we
were ambitious and passionate, regardless if they understood the punk rock
music we were interested in. I think that they thought, ‘Hey, they have a very
strong interest in their thing and they follow through with it.’ When my
brother came home with multi-colored hair, my mom kept crying. ‘Oh, what are
the neighbors going to say?’ But, ultimately, when it really came down to it,
they’d help us… helped us get a pickup truck so we could drag our shit to the
Whiskey A Go Go. They were definitely supportive. It was just a mixed bag for
them. <laughs> We were freaky!
That’s cool, I mean no parent wants to hear their kid say that they
want to go to clown school or be a philosophy major or something, you know?
Just hope that it’s a ‘passing phase.’
So, flashing forward, Redd Kross has been doing some reunion shows over
the last six years…how did this album finally come into being?
We actually started the album a
while ago. We initially went into the studio to bash it out, and just put it
out. We didn’t know who we were going to put it out with, but basically, we
went into the studio for two weeks, and then it came time to mix the record, we
just didn’t have any money to pay people to mix the record. So, I eventually I
sidetracked producing other people, and making other records, producing other
projects, and eventually I learned how to mix. And then, when I felt confident
that I knew how to finish this record, I went back and finished it off. I
finished all my backing vocals and then mixed it downstairs in my house in sort
of a fit of desperation! So, that’s it. The record technically took five years
to make, but was about a month’s worth of work combined, where we finished 70%
of it in two weeks. We didn’t put it on the shelf for lack of interest, just
lack of resource. We didn’t have a record label, and I couldn’t afford to spend
ten grand to pay for someone to mix it, the way that I thought it deserved to
be mixed. Because I just really believed in the songs, I didn’t want to
compromise it with a less than appropriate finish. <laughs> I know that’s a boring answer, but it was mostly
Well, everything always seems to come down to MONEY!
Yeah! But, I mean, the flip side
is, the cool thing is, that I learned to mix! It’s mixed at least the way I
wanted to hear it, and my brother wanted to hear it! It’s boring technical
stuff, but it’s really a gift to musicians to not have to depend on technical
people to help realize your electronic vision.
And, those people don’t necessarily have YOUR vision.
Right, and you’re relegated to,
you’re limited to, how you’re able to communicate it, and often, as musicians
you don’t always have all the technical jargon…you may have some obscure
adjectives that people don’t get. That was always a frustration for us making
records, trying to figure out how to communicate what we heard in our heads to
I was just reading the Keith Richards’ Life, and he said that when they were in the studio recording the Some Girls album, that he spent five
whole days straight in the studio trying to get “Before They Make Me Run” down
to the way that he wanted to hear it, until he just passed out on the floor!
He’d been doing drugs and not eating or sleeping for five days just to do that
one song, just to get it right!
How do you guys get along generally? Do you usually see eye-to-eye on
the music and band matters, in general?
Yeah….we’re brothers and over
the years we’ve, uh, been argumentative and uh, have had our share of
outbursts. <laughs> But we’ve
grown older and have learned to grow more comfortable with what our abilities
are and trust what the other person’s abilities are. It’s kind of a natural
(Steven’s next comments were garbled here, but he spoke to playing
outside the band for years and seeing how others musicians work things out and
cooperate, and that it was something of an eye-opener for him. Especially how
it was decided who handles what.)
I think that Jeff and I are
finally coming around to that in some ways. On this record, he wrote everything
and I recorded it and mixed it and it was just kind of an organic thing. We started
off saying what we were going to do, and those were the roles we were going to
have. For me, it was a really nice thing, ‘cause I’ve produced a lot of other
artists and it was really nice for me to take the Redd Kross record, and kind
of take a step back in some ways, and focus more on the technical, and rather
than me challenging myself to figure out if I’m an artist or not, be an
artistic person and support Jeff as an artist. I think that’s kind of what
naturally happened. So, I don’t have weird insecurities about the lyrics or the
songs or something. I mean for me, it’s my favorite batch of songs my brother’s
ever written! It was just a challenge for me to, uh, frame it in the best
possible frame that I could do. And vice versa, you know, instead of being
weird in the studio about knobs and who gets to be in control of the technical
side, my brother really supported me and encouraged me through that process. So
it felt really nice and healthy, and there were times where there were
disagreements, but for the most part we were just supporting each other through
it, and doing it when we felt inspired to do it.