Name: Redd Kross
Progress Report: Iconic pop punk band talk about Researching the Blues — the band’s first new album in 15 years.
Formed over 34 years ago in Hawthorne, California Redd Kross are one of those bands that pretty much every other band worth their salt manages to name check at some point in their list of references. The band was founded by brothers Jeff and Steven McDonald (at the ripe old ages of 15 and 11 years old) and very famously played their first gig opening for Black Flag at a middle school graduation party. If that weren’t enough of a famous beginning, the band also caught the ear of Rodney Bingenheimer (arguably the most influential DJ of all-time other than John Peel) who helped break the band by playing their songs on LA’s KROQ throughout the early ‘80s. Next month Redd Kross will release Researching The Blues, the band’s first new studio album in 15 years. I talked to Steven McDonald about how the new album finally came to be.
STEREOGUM: Have you been doing a lot of press stuff already, talking about the record?
STEVEN MCDONALD: Just sort of starting. My brother’s been doing a lot. I’m in the band OFF! also, so I’ve kind of been all over the place. I mean he wrote most of the songs, so he’s kind of the Brian Wilson of the group. I’m the Carl. I’m the guy that just deals with the stress and makes everything happen and will probably die at a young age.
STEREOGUM: I’m always curious with there being such a long gap between the records, what is the chain of events that makes everyone say, “We should do this again”?
MCDONALD: I guess you do whatever feels right and exactly what are the elements that give you that sign that says right now. I don’t know. I have no idea. We did one show like five years ago. We took a ten-year hiatus and we’ve done about maybe a dozen shows in the states since 2007 I think. The first show that got booked, my friend was doing this rock movie festival, where he had some bands play. It seemed like a fun event to do – this thing called ‘Don’t Knock The Rock.’ Just a weird combination of you start talking to some old friends you play music with and just random things kind of came into play. And with our band, it’s me and my brother, and we live five minutes from each other, and even though we hadn’t been playing in Redd Kross for several years, we still see each other all the time and had done various other musical projects. But the actual record, I mean just tooling around in the basement for a long time and coming up with stuff, and the record getting finished this year was really a combination of us doing so many other things. I’d produced a lot of bands and done other musical things and touring live with people like Sparks and Beck, you know, but then Jeff gave me the most recent version of the record that we had started a while ago. He drove me to the airport last December to go to Australia with OFF! and he gave me the closest things resembling what the final version of the album is and it just kind of blew my mind. I was just really excited with where he’d taken the stuff and I came home intent on finishing the album, so that was sort of the last stage before it got finished.
STEREOGUM: Do you guys have your own studio you work out of or where did you record?
MCDONALD: Yeah, we recorded the album in about two weeks at a studio in Eagle Rock called King Size Sound Labs. But then it was the last twenty percent of like pixie dust — backing vocals and mixing — that took a really long time. And it was just because we had our own studio, there was no clock ticking. And just life concerns. And also there was a time there when I thought we needed to hire someone to mix it get someone pro to put the songs in the framework I thought they deserved. It took us so long and we didn’t have the money to do that — to give someone ten grand to go mix the record. And it actually turned out that I knew how to mix it myself … so I just mixed it myself.
STEREOGUM: You had done that before though, right?
MCDONALD: Mixed records? Yeah, but it’s never been one of my favorite things, it’s always been kind of intimidating. And then also I thought my own record needed more objectivity. But then I don’t know it just had some development spurt and suddenly I could mix the way I wanted to hear it and Jeff was really digging what I was doing, so voilà.
STEREOGUM: You guys always have so many other projects — when you come back to doing this band again are there certain aspects that just immediately fall back into place?
MCDONALD: Yeah, some things are very familiar, are very comforting. And then some things are always subject to change. On this record it’s like my brother wrote all the songs and I’m the producer slash mixer and we never really had like that kind of defined role, so that was new, and it kind of actually worked. It kept the siblings from going at it too much. But then there’s just like all of the history and stupid inside jokes from the last thirty plus years that never go away, that are just so comforting to me. I mean I love that I’ve put myself out there in the world and I’ve had to be a part of other groups and organizations and stuff, which is challenging, I mean things like going to Norway in November to work at on a Turbonegro record. For a California boy, that’s enough to lose your mind. Still I’m glad that I did it and I’m proud of my work, but there’s nothing more comforting than being in a room with my brother where him and our drummer are just talking endlessly about Bob Dylan bootlegs and we have stupid inside jokes about public access shows from 1984. With them I can just turn my brain off and I don’t need to worry about the social aspect of this environment — that’s sorted.
STEREOGUM: There’s something really great about that.
MCDONALD: It’s so great. If that’s all you know and that’s the only environment you ever have it can be somewhat crippling. I mean the first twenty years of my band I had never done anything else. So by the time I was 31 I felt pretty … like a babe in the woods, because I didn’t know what other people go through. And I think it’s been very helpful for me to be one of the guys in other environments. It’s really shown me a lot more of what everyone’s experiences are like. I’ve had so many good experiences but it also really makes me appreciative of the thing that my brother and I have and the strange world we’ve created as well.
STEREOGUM: I have that conversation a lot with friends or people I know in bands who at some point in their early to mid-thirties feel like they’ve just woken up from a perpetual adolescence and they’re all of a sudden like “Wait, I have to do taxes?”
MCDONALD: A lot of people don’t make it; I mean that’s the thing — like all the rockstars that die at 28.
STEREOGUM: It must be fun, then. Will y’all tour at all for this record? Do you want to?
MCDONALD: We’ll have to see. For now the only things we’re really booking are little one-off weekend dates and things like that. We’ll see what the reaction is like and see the demand it might create. But we don’t even have a van. But we’ve been doing shows here and there – we went to Australia and did a tour with old friends the Hoodoo Gurus. Some of the stuff we’ve been doing has been feeling really fun and exciting. And I’m a crazy person with so much stuff on my plate recently, and I’m really dedicated to this new OFF! record. We’ll see what kind of down time OFF! offers me to pursue other stuff.
STEREOGUM: It can be a weird position for bands that have been around for a long time — especially a band like Redd Kross that has had such a mythic history in people’s minds. And there hasn’t been a single press release that doesn’t mention your first show and how young you were. There’s always that history looming over the band, which for some bands can be a hard thing to overcome or put aside when you want to make new music. When you have this musical legacy that people want to always talk to you about.
MCDONALD: I guess, but I think with us it’s weird because we’ve never had any mainstream success. There’s not like one song that anyone wants to hear or live up to. With an exception of the first year of our band, we’ve never been part of any one community. With our first year with Black Flag, that still was a weird scene where like all the bands that were part of that scene didn’t sound anything like each other. The Minutemen sounded nothing like the Meat Puppets that sounded nothing like Redd Kross that sounded nothing like Black Flag. The only reason we were all part of the scene was geography and just isolation. We were an island of misfit toys that found each other, and weirdos that had fun playing with each other so it’s not like everyone expects us to make hardcore music or glam music. I think we’re just a rock band. Which might seem ridiculously general, but I wouldn’t know how to specialize in something more than that. And also the thing about our legacy — it’s fun. I’m proud of the fact that I was 11 years old playing clubs, opening for Germs and Black Flag. It’s funny, so whatever.
STEREOGUM: And now that you’re a parent that must seem even weirder.
MCDONALD: Yeah. I mean my son is gonna have all sorts of crazy experiences too — the only difference is that I’m gonna be with him. He already has a very cool stripe for his coat or whatever which was that his first show was a Jay Reatard in-store at Amoeba Records. He was in the Baby Bjorn on my chest at six months.
STEREOGUM: That’s an auspicious beginning.
MCDONALD: The funny thing was I was thinking “Oh we’ll go say hi to him,” but then when Jay got onstage we realized he was not in great spirits, because he was drunk and telling patrons “fuck this record store, buy Mail Order from Goner Records in Memphis.”
STEREOGUM: What happens next for you? Are you in the middle of doing stuff with the other band right now? What’s next on your plate?
MCDONALD: I think Redd Kross probably has half a dozen shows either confirmed or just about confirmed around the time of the release of the record. And OFF! has tons of shows confirmed. There’s just lots of touring ahead for me right now which is crazy because during the ten-year hiatus of Redd Kross I did very little touring, but now I’m diving back into it. But it’s fun. All this stuff is really good, that we’re doing. And Keith — we’re roommates and he’s a weirdo and all my singers are eccentric weirdos, so I’m grateful to be part of it.
STEREOGUM: And the first single from the record was released today, which is exciting
MCDONALD: Yeah, on my birthday!
STEREOGUM: Today’s your birthday?
STEREOGUM: Wow, happy birthday! And you’re stuck doing this press stuff?
MCDONALD: Yeah, but it’s cool. I just get to hang out with my boy in New York. It is the ultimate birthday. It’s bitchin’.
Redd Kross’ Researching The Blues will be released by Merge on 8/7. Stream the entire album now at NPR.