Redd Kross (Online Bonus Interview)
Bonus Cuts from Our Redd Kross Interview
When you put out an old school newsprint magazine, you’re always restricted by the space available. Stories have to be written and edited to fit within the given page-by-page layout, along with considerations for photos, headline and adverts. Sadly, sometimes this means some choice bits end up chopped out of the final edition.
Luckily we don’t have such restrictions online, so often we’ll publish expanded versions of interviews on the website. In the case of our Redd Kross story from January, the print and online versions were identical, but I had such a fun conversation with Steven McDonald that I figured it’d be nice to put up a few outtakes after the fact, especially now that they’ve announced an Atlanta show (Wednesday, April 3rd at the EARL). He’s as full of great stories as this band is full of great songs, and I’m looking forward to seeing them again like you wouldn’t believe.
Stomp and Stammer: You married into record industry royalty. Knowing your interest in music, do you hear all kinds of great stories from your wife Anna’s dad, Lenny Waronker, about the artists he’s worked with?
Steven McDonald: “Yeah, Lenny’s in many ways been a mentor to me. You know, he grew up childhood friends with Randy Newman, and Randy Newman was definitely not an obvious pop star, and it was Lenny, when he was a youth, encouraging Randy over the years to stick with it, and to play in that arena that probably seemed very foreign to someone like him. To the point where he eventually had hit records, and Lenny produced those records. [Lenny] is someone who has a deep love for great songs, and artists, and knowing how to support that person through what might seem like ridiculous obstacles. I have learned much from him. Much from him. And, you know, our backgrounds are different, and I’m coming from a position of having been a musician for years, but I totally pick his brain for stories. They’re fun. He has crazy stories. He ran record labels, too, with some of the craziest guys on ‘em. He ran Warner Bros. during Fleetwood Mac and Prince’s peaks. Those are the kind of stories he has. Yeah, it’s weird, for me – I’m from a scrappy punk rock background, but it’s still all this love of music. Love of the experiences, of great artists communicating, and feeling connected to that.”
Did you ever get to know Lenny’s father, Simon Waronker, before he passed away?
“Si? A little bit, but not so much. Si is pretty interesting – he started Liberty Records in the ‘50s, and he had grown up a violin prodigy, and he was sent to Germany actually as a child, because he was such a good player. But then sent back, and narrowly escaped all the craziness of Nazi Germany. At any rate, he eventually jumped ship from the musician side of things to the music business side of things. Which I identify with. He realized it wasn’t good enough to be the best violinist; he didn’t want to do that anymore, he wanted to own the best violinist! So he became the music contractor for all the big score sessions for the Hollywood movies – he was the guy you’d have to know if you needed a player. But then eventually he started Liberty Records, which was an indie label. He was putting out those Martin Denny records – that was Liberty Records. It was a really great label. That groovy thing that people got into later, like Combustible Edison in the ‘90s, the ‘cocktail nation,’ it was all inspired by Martin Denny, and that whole vibe from the ‘50s. And the crazy thing about that is that indie labels, in the beginning of the pre-rock era, the record industry period, those were the people that were really the clichéd, cigar-chomping, the old ‘steal songs from the poor black man’ kind of gnarly people. And Si was part of that culture, and Lenny was a reaction to that culture. So Lenny is like the opposite of Si, where he always believes in the integrity of the artists.
“It’s pretty funny, but when I got to meet Si, he would tell these stories… he’d talk about Julie London’s ‘Cry Me a River,’ which, I can’t profess to know that record well, but it was a groundbreaking record at the time, and he talks about how all he was interested in was the record cover! He didn’t care if she could sing, he just wanted to know that she was going to make a great record cover. And on that record, they had spent so much money on Julie London’s record cover that when it came down to record the record, they didn’t have any money left for the arrangements. They couldn’t spend the money on the big arrangements that were really popular then. And so they had a band with piano, bass, drums and vocals. And it started this movement of these scaled down, stripped down groups that became standard. But at the time it was hailed as this groundbreaking record! It was so stripped down, and it was all an accident, only because they’d spent all their budget on the record cover!”
“Yeah, and it’s like, that reminds me of loving Russ Meyer films. The guy made these films really, really cheap, and he was all about exploiting titties. But he was an artist, and he made these incredible visual masterpieces, but the motive, the agenda behind them was making a quick buck. He was a filmmaker making a quick buck who inadvertently made great art. So those are funny stories, but I think if I had lived in that era, it probably would’ve been hard to deal with.”
What were some of the first bands you and Jeff saw?
“Well, Jeff’s older than me, so I don’t ever remember a time when music wasn’t extremely important in my house. The Beatles were always a big part of my environment. And then a little later in the ‘70s, there was Led Zeppelin, and arena rock stuff, and Deep Purple. I remember seeing Black Sabbath and Deep Purple on TV, like the first California Jam festival, ’74. Elton John was huge to me, and then my mother went and saw the Goodbye Yellow Brick Road tour when I was eight years old. I couldn’t go, and I was really pissed. And then KISS came out, or at least we became aware of KISS on the first Alive! album, and that kinda peeled my head open. And then they came to town, and we were really, really persistent about it, and we got our parents to take us…well, actually to drop us off. Luckily we grew up really close to the Los Angeles Forum, and that’s where the Lakers played for many years before the Staples Center was built, and my parents were Lakers fans, so they would go to the Forum. And it’s the same place where the Barnum & Bailey Circus would happen, so I guess from their perspective it was relatively safe, even though it was a very different crowd at a KISS concert in 1975 than a Barnum & Bailey Circus! But, you know, nevertheless they took what I guess was a 13 year old Jeff and a 10 year old me, and dropped us off at the Forum and let us go… or maybe younger. This was ’76, ’75 maybe? I was eight years old (laughs). Yeah! So it was like 12 and eight. The average age of the crowd was probably seventeen. And that was my very first concert. And then I saw Led Zeppelin soon after, on the Presence tour, And then we saw the Ramones on Don Kirshner’s Rock Concert, and that just kinda went and changed everything. We went from thinking you had to be a wizard and a sorcerer to play guitar to realizing, well, no, you just really need to learn a few barre chords, and have enough balls to get onstage. So the Ramones and the Runaways were really the things that inspired us to thinking we could do it too. Soon after that we went and started going to shows at the Whisky. The first show I saw in a nightclub was the Avengers and X. And I saw the Runaways at the Whisky soon after that, too. It was like the very, very end of the Runaways, post-Cherie. I was really young – I was probably ten the first time I went to the Whisky.”
How’d you get into the Whisky A Go Go being that young?
“The Whisky’s always been all-ages. And this was late ’70s, and the Whisky, its heritage from the ‘60s was that it was a place where bands would come and do a residency. And often that would include a late show and an early show. And so Black Sabbath or Led Zeppelin’s live touring schedules from the early days in their career, it was always like a week’s residency at the Whisky, and that probably meant an eight o’clock show and a ten o’clock show. So we caught the sort of tail end of that. I don’t think the Runaways were doing a residency, but they probably did a couple of days. They might’ve done like a Tuesday through a Thursday or something, and had an early show and a late show. And we’d get [our parents] to take us to the early show, and then they’d wait outside. I remember there was a gas station across the street, and they would wait [there] in their 1969 Toyota Corona. They would just park and wait, like they were taking their kids to the movies or something like that, I guess, is the way we sold it (laughs). And we would inevitably come out at nine or whenever and beg them to let us stay for the late show (laughs). I mean, you know, it’s like, I’m very grateful for how supportive they were. And they weren’t musicians. My dad is a welder. And once he started his own shop in the ‘80s, my mom started working for him, doing administrative stuff. So they’re not like weird hippies. My dad liked some good music, like Waylon Jennings, and he loves some Cat Stevens. But the basic thing is just that they saw that their kids were really passionate about something, and rather than try to break us of it, they didn’t try to fight it. It was kind of like, okay, this isn’t going away – there’s no reason to try and nix this. Maybe if there was an expectation of what I should be with my life, like a doctor or something, that would’ve been a different situation, but there wasn’t that kind of expectation of me.”
Is your son (now three-and-half) going to be hanging out in nightclubs when he’s ten years old?
“Well, you know what? If he wants to, I’ll take him. But he’s not going to go with his 12-year-old older brother without me, that’s for sure! (laughs) But, um, I will say I’ve always at least presented him with good music. His first show was Jay Reatard at Amoeba Records when he was six months.”
I’m sure that made a big impact on him.
“Yeah, probably won’t remember that…”
When you got to be teenagers, and you were playing music, did you start getting in trouble, doing things your parents were upset about? Were you problem kids?
“Well, for starters, we played with Black Flag when I was 11, at a [middle school] graduation party (laughs). We got them the gig, Yeah, they were daredevils, and adrenaline junkies, and once we started to experiment with certain things, you know, we went pretty whole hog. And my brother dropped out of high school by the time he was sixteen. I stuck with it, I managed to at least graduate high school. But yeah, there was one point where I got into a relationship with a woman twice my age, and I ended up running away from home…there were all sorts of different things like that that happened during the really early days. But by the time I was graduating from high school, I’d already kind of lived a life of craziness, and it was time to kind of shovel that aside, and get really serious about our careers. And I abstained from any kind of partying for about 15 years, starting at 19. And just really dove whole hog into a music career. Both of us did that. And in some ways, I think that we probably took things too seriously. But I think that’s the only way we could’ve done it anyway. I think back to me at 22, and meeting rock stars, and being too square about the whole thing. But whatever, that was my past, and I’m really grateful that I’m not a casualty now.”
And you still have the same hair you had at 22!
“Ha ha! Yeah… Quite a few grays. But yeah, I’m lucky I still have hair.”
Photo by Jon Krop.