Redd Kross have been the quintessential underground band for the past three decades. The band has nearly always eschewed both pop and indie convention by staying true to its sound, likely angering as many pop fans with its snottiness and random references to Tatum O’Neil and Shonen Knife as they would indie purirsts with its insistence on lacing its acidic songs with undeniable pop hooks.
From Hawthorne, Calif. and based around the duo of brothers Jeff and Steve McDonald, Redd Kross first released music in 1980 with a self-titled EP, after opening for Black Flag as teenagers for its first gig. Other musicians came and went as the band released records throughout the ’80s and ’90s, hitting their stride with 1987’s Neurotica and 1990's Third Eye. Following 1997’s Show World, the band all but disappeared, with its members occasionally surfacing for other projects — Steve McDonald famously added bass parts to The White Stripes’ White Blood Cells, redubbing it Redd Blood Cells, which saw thousands of downloads and press hubbub. The brothers McDonald separately produced albums by other artists as well.
The elusive band returned in 2006 to play a set at REDCAT in Los Angeles covering the band’s entire catalog, featuring the Neurotica-era lineup of the McDonalds, Robert Hecker and Roy McDonald. They toured and played a killer set of the entire Born Innocent album opening for Sonic Youth, who played all of Daydream Nation (I was there! Yessss.), at the Greek Theater in L.A. In 2008 they played Coachella, among numerous other festivals and appearances over the past few years. Now, finally, Redd Kross have released an album of new material, entitled Researching the Blues. The album has seen some of the band’s best reviews, garnering an 81% on reviews aggregator Metacritic, and it’s not hard to see why, hearing the enlivened swagger the band displays on songs like the title track (download free here), while maintaining the dynamism that has always set the band apart, also including shimmering power-pop ballads like “Dracula’s Daughter” and “Winter Blues.”
I sat down to speak with bassist Steve McDonald, who also produced Researching the Blues and plays bass in hardcore veterans’ band OFF! as well, as Redd Kross prepares to embark upon a set of shows including an Aug. 28 appearance at Amoeba Hollywood, where they’ll be playing a mini-set and signing records. The band also will appear at Sept. 1-2’s FYF Fest; tickets are on sale at Amoeba Hollywood.
Me: You guys have been playing together again now for a few years, how did you guys finally set about writing and recording new music? Were some of the songs older, or were they all written recently?
McDonald: My brother wrote all the songs. There were a chunk of them that came right before we went into the studio, ’cause we did the bulk of the record in like two weeks. Probably about half the record was recorded right around that time, and half the record were songs he had slowly been putting together in his basement.
Me: Is it surreal to now have perhaps your biggest audience and some of your best reviews after 30 years?
McDonald: Oh yeah, I cry easily. Complement me into the ground. That sounds crazy, I feel crazy, but yeah, I didn’t realize how much it meant. I’ve worked very hard in the past 10 years making records for other people, so if we were gonna make a Redd Kross record, it didn’t have to be Sgt. Pepper, it could just be a simple record, but it had to be a great record. It’s hard over a period of time to have objectivity. Although I always knew it was good, I had a really hard time finishing the record and mixing it and feeling confident that I could put it in the best context it deserved. It would be like having a beautiful portrait and not being able to afford enough money to put a good frame around it. And I really, really wanted it to be finished right.
When I hear about people talking about the record sounding great, that is very encouraging. And then when I hear people talk about it being perhaps one of our best records, that means the world to me. In my opinion it is our best record. But that’s my weird slanted biased unobjective opinion. … Maybe it’s because we took a long time away and did all these other things, but it’s the one record where I listen to where I feel like I hear it as if it’s someone else’s music and I think to myself, if this was someone else’s music, I would be stoked to have this record. That might sound weird and arrogant and cocky, but I do feel confident that we made a record that achieved what we set out to do. … With this one, I kind of want everyone to hear it. I want all the kids that I’ve made records with to hear it, my favorite artists to hear it. I want my folks to hear it. That’s a great feeling, to be 45 years old and to feel like a teenager with his first demo that he couldn’t believe he finished. I feel very lucky.
Me: Have your parents heard it? What did they say about it?
McDonald: Yeah, well, I actually haven’t given it to them. They streamed it a little bit on NPR and said yeah Steve, it sounds great! They went to a recent show at the Roxy, the record release show, they were just so impressed and loved it and had a great time.
Me: That’s awesome they were able to stream the record, that they’re down with the streaming.
McDonald: A little bit. Like, I clicked the button, I heard a little bit of it, I don’t know what happened, but what I heard sounded great!
Me: Well, the thing I find most remarkable is that despite the time lapse between albums, the album really sounds like the next natural album you guys would have recorded. There’s no kind of ill-fated attempt to make electronic music or chase some trend. Was there that sort of pressure, like, we have to make this sound like such and such in order to compete?
McDonald: I don’t really care if a sound has ever been heard before. I think if we strived to make music that’s never heard before, I think we’d be losing the core of what great music is to me, which is just really great songs performed honestly to the core of some kind of emotion that the artist is trying to express without a lot of distractions, without a lot of concern if this Korg keyboard sound was overlooked in 1989 and now sounds like something that no one has ever heard. I don’t really care, do you know what I mean? I’m not gonna get caught up in that. I love great songs, that’s what attracted me to music in the first place. That’s all I really, really wanted to do with this record, was to put the songs in the best possible light, and to showcase everybody’s strengths as much as possible. And I think that that’s a timeless goal. …And if you’ve achieved it, it’s not gonna be dated and out of touch, hopefully. Hopefully you’ve got good taste and you’re making something great.
Me: Has it been difficult to balance Redd Kross with OFF!, and has that experience playing in a new band been helpful in breathing new life into Redd Kross?
McDonald: Yeah, I just want to make sure that everything I do, I’m doing it the best I possibly can. My biggest fear would be at the end of the day, ’cause the thing is, I personally, I think I get, I wouldn’t say bored is the right word, I think at some point, when I’m just doing one thing, I start losing my gratitude for that one thing. And that’s not a good place to me. And I find that I sort of do that in almost everything I do. And I often find that it’s not the thing, it’s me. And it’s good to be able to design my life in a way that I can step back and do something else until I’m grateful to go back to that other thing again. I’ve been very lucky to be able to do that, but scheduling it has been quite complicated, yes, for sure.
… With scheduling, it’s like, I don’t want to piss anyone off, ’cause with OFF!, I love OFF!, and I’m really, really proud of what we’ve accomplished in these past couple of years. It’s really happening, but scheduling shows and stuff, it’s like, booking agents want to schedule shows six months in advance, and when we start talking about calendars and conflicts, it just makes me want to take a nap, I get so uptight. But the cool thing is everybody in both camps is cool with it. I’m very, very lucky to have inherited two groups of weirdo, eccentric freaks. And all of it’s good, so nobody feels like Steve is making anyone else look bad with something else. It’s not like oh yeah your bass player has that other band that really is kind of a drag. It’s like no, they’re good, and it’s a cool thing. It’s all good. Hopefully it all brings some kind of positive piece of enthusiasm and interest to the table for all of it.
Me: I feel like there isn’t an accurate way to describe Redd Kross’ music. I always see Redd Kross referred to as a punk band, and sometimes I feel it is more power pop or garage rock. Is there any way to accurately describe Redd Kross to the uninitiated?
McDonald: When I’m at the airport or wherever and people see a group of us together and are like are you guys a band? They want to know the name. And I always feel weird about that, because people typically want to go home and tell someone about someone famous they met. It’s like, oh, I’m not famous, don’t worry about that. It’s always like I’m disappointing.
But when they ask what kind of music it is, the only thing I can really default to is just, it’s rock ’n’ roll. As far as subgenres, especially for people who aren’t into underground music and know all the kinds of subgenres and classifications, and don’t know all the genres and subgenres, it’s like, that’s all you need to know about us. I think that in my mind, we have more in common with Teenage Jesus & the Jerks than we do with Bob Seger, which is what most people probably think of when they think of rock ’n’ roll, they think of “Night Moves” or something. But at the same time, I think that I’ve seen so many movements and eras and genres come and go and then come back, even that label power pop, for instance. That label has meant so many different things. It’s been interesting hearing so many people refer to us as power pop for this record because as one point out there I might have cringed at that expression because it might have meant things that I didn’t want to be associate with, or some sort of ghetto that I could never get out of, or something that’s not very cool. But all that shit’s subject to change. History gets rewritten constantly, and I’ve been around long enough to watch it get rewritten.
Me: It seems too that power pop has always sort of been out of step with the mainstream. Bands like Big Star and Teenage Fanclub never got as popular as their music would lead you to believe they would, and even Cheap Trick to me sounds curiously out of time. Why do you think that is that something that seems so widely appealing usually ends up being an underground thing?
McDonald: I don’t know, maybe The Beatles took up all the success points. Maybe they ate them all up in one fell swoop. I mean, are The Beatles power pop? I don’t know. They were culturally the most important rock band ever, and they’re the No. 1 influence for all the groups you just described. I don’t know. I remember someone telling me that in the ’90s that Beatle pop or power pop didn’t sell, and I remember thinking, wow, that’s interesting, that kind of rattled around in my head for a while. I mean maybe because it’s certainly fun to sing along with and hear these satisfying melodies, and there’s maybe a little bit of maybe some people make certain sounds, if it’s too easily palatable than it’s not to be trusted as having substance. I personally always like my punch a little spiked. I like it to be fun and easy to listen to, but I like it to be smart too. I think bands like Cheap Trick and Big Star and Teenage Fanclub are also perfect examples of that.
But as far as a bigger cultural question of why haven’t these groups — I don’t know, they do cross over into the mainstream sometimes. It’s funny, the mainstream has become more or less irrelevant anyway, it seems like. As things have become more niche, niche-ified or whatever, and everybody can customize their playlists and they can make their iTunes world so that they really only try to tell them about stuff that they know they’re going to like, or they go to Amoeba and find their one person that knows exactly what they like.
Me: I wanted to ask a bit about the record and its title. Two songs have “blues” in the title and would sort of lead you to believe its this blues revival thing, which, “Researching the Blues” does have this sort of heavy blues riff, but then “Winter Blues” is more like a lush power-ballad. I thought it might have more to do with the idea behind the blues, sort of regret or nostalgia or lament, especially when coupled with some of the concept in songs like “Uglier” or “Stay Away From Downtown” or “One of the Good Ones.” Is there a concept behind the record, that sort of revisiting the past?
McDonald: I think as far as bigger picture, I can’t really speak for my brother and his lyrics, other than I know he’s pretty adamant about listeners being able to interpret the words themselves, more like a Bob Dylan thing. I don’t think he would ever say anything is supposed to have one specific meaning. We definitely didn’t sit down and look at the whole thing as a piece and try to say something as a piece. I think it’s just a really good time capsule of where we are as people at this point in our lives. There’s a continuity there because of that. … I think my brother always says all of our records are concept records just because he thinks of them as time capsules.
… The title “Researching the Blues” is funny because that song, we were working on it for a while. It didn’t have lyrics and I hadn’t heard it for a long time, and that was the one song that had me super jazzed on getting back into finishing the record. We had started that song in our rehearsal space and we recorded it, but it was an instrumental, at one point it was called “Indian Giver” or something like that, it was like “Give it back! Give it back! Don’t be an Indian, Indian giver give it baaaack.” I remember that was the chorus. …But then Jeff gave me the recording after he put those guitar solos over it, those crazy wah-wah solos. I remember hearing it for the first time and just saying the F-word out loud. When I heard that first solo, it was like, fuck, yes. The whole thing about “researching the blues, is that what you do.” Him sort of taking it to this place and using this metaphor or some maybe self-destructive behavior, or in any shape or form that could take place. And then put it into this nerdy, almost like record-collector framework of like researching the blues, just this really funny concept. It was funny because later on, I just learned recently that I came up with that lyric. I guess I came up with that lyric on a song Jeff and I had written like a decade earlier. It’s actually a song about Fiona Apple — but not really about her, but it’s called “Fiona Apple.” It’s on this record we did in the early 2000s, this side project band, and there’s this lyric in the song about researching the blues. I had totally forgotten. He just grabbed it and always thought that was a really funny thing, the idea of someone researching the blues. The continuity that’s come together with the look of the record, all that stuff, we’ve just been kind of lucky. It’s just been a culmination of our tastes, just snapshots of what we like and what we identify with, and it just kind of gelled.
Some of the topics are dark, “Uglier,” that’s pretty dark, a really good friend of mine was diagnosed with MS a few years ago and it’s a very difficult thing because you don’t know where it comes from, and just feeling really crazy at that time. … Everything just felt really out of control. That’s the only song I wrote lyrics to on the record. It’s got a decidedly different feel to the lyrics, too. It can be viewed as a socially conscious song, whereas Jeff’s stuff is much more poetic than my stuff.
Me: Listening to some of the older records and the new one, I’m reminded of something Redd Kross does, which few bands seem to lately, which is write a whole bunch of different kinds of songs, the way “Love Is You” or “Dracula’s Daughter” sort of break up the more aggressive songs on their respective records. Is that something you guys deliberately aim to do, have that sort of pacing?
McDonald: I think I probably think that way more than Jeff does, I probably do look at it more from a scientific like, we’re trying to find a nice balance and I’ll try to control stuff like that. I don’t want to have too many short songs, too many long songs and try to make things seem well-structured or whatever, but ultimately my brother is like, it’s the song, the song is the song is the song is the song. Ultimately he did the sequencing at the end of the day and I was kind of all freaked out at first, but then I realized no, it’s great. It starts off with this triad of rip-your-face-off rockers, but then there’s this sweetness to the record, I think. There’s little moments of conflict and strife after that original moment, but for the most part I think it relaxes to this fun kind of summer experience. That’s why I’m really glad we got the record out before summer was over.
Me: Do you know of any plans to reissue the band’s catalog on vinyl?
McDonald: Yeah, well sure, our catalog has always sort of been disarray, and we were always on different labels and stuff. We were really like snotty-nosed teenagers about dealing with responsibility. We were not very consistent or prolific. Only two records, ones from the ’90s, actually came out on the same label, and those are major labels, which makes it so much more difficult. You’ve got to license it or something from these people, and they charge you these stupid amounts of money. It would be great to have everything in one cohesive collection. I haven’t really had the time to make that a major concern. I would love to. If there’s anybody out there who wants to help us collect the best masters they can find and help try to push this agenda along, I wouldn’t hate you for it. It would be great to put everything in a little bit more historical perspective. But I think mostly now that we have this home with Merge, we’re really into enjoying this moment and looking to the future.
Me: Usually I ask bands to make us a list of records they’re into or something, but given your band’s influence from TV and cartoons and such, I thought it would be better to ask us to make a list of TV shows.
McDonald: I’ve been so lame on keeping up with my pop culture lately. My whole family are obsessive about stuff still. They’ve all gotten into like reality shows. I have a 3-year-old son, I’ve been showing him The Monkees lately. Really important stuff, it’s great. I’ll always love The Partridge Family. I really believe in that stuff. It’s not a TV show, but at the same level of artistry, I think of ABBA as maybe my all-time favorite music. … I like that stuff. I also like it scary and weird and dark. Lately what I’ve been watching more than anything just to turn my brain off is Netflix, I take it on tour with me. I’ve gotten really into watching Upstairs/Downstairs. It’s like totally boring and I can just turn my brain off and think God, those English people are so weird. All that fuss over knowing your place. That’s been my most recent obsession with popular culture. Probably my favorite current artist is Ty Segall. He’s really fucking awesome. He’s got it! The kid’s got it. And then also, my 3-year-old son’s first ever rock concert was at Amoeba, when he was 6 months old, he saw the late, great Jay Reatard. He was in my baby bjorn watching Jay. Jay was drunk and saying really rude things to the crowd. I’m glad I got to give him that.
Jay Reatard at Amoeba Hollywood - August 18, 2009