One of the Good Ones:
The World’s Getting Uglier. Redd Kross Just Keeps Getting Better.
Sometimes you don’t realize how much you’ve missed something until it returns. Such was the case with Redd Kross, a band whose absence from the scene hadn’t really concerned me one way or the other. Just one more band I’d once liked that had faded with the times.
So when I put on Researching the Blues, which Merge Records released in early August, it was a jolt, like being shaken awake by a lightning bolt and burst of thunder in the still of night. Their first album in 15 years, and first since reforming in 2006 after a nine-year hibernation, it could’ve easily been an uninspired, inconsequential blemish or, worse, an embarrassing attempt at superficially recapturing their youthful glory days, like so many post-breakup comeback albums tend to be. Instead, Researching the Blues stands proudly and solely on its own terms, a lively volley of insanely catchy power-rock, where sha-la-la’s and yeah-yeah’s and bah-bah-bah’s face off with stinging riffs, meaty power chords and classic harmonies. It doesn’t need to be doused with cool, obscure covers or TV generation pop culture references like their early records – and perhaps it’s all the more timeless because of that. One could say that Redd Kross have matured, but they’re certainly not creaky. It’s so invigorating, so inspiring, so very reassuring, this record. I’m left with a breathless grin every damn time I play it. It’s my favorite album of last year and, I dare say, the best album Redd Kross have ever made.
“Yeah, it’s the kind of record I wish I could’ve made when I was 23! I didn’t know how to make this kind of record [then],” acknowledges bassist Steve McDonald, who formed what would become Redd Kross with his older brother Jeff in 1978, when they were middle schoolers; by the time Steve was 23, they’d already released an EP and four albums. “And then there’s the other side of it,” he continues, “[the new album] better be good – you’re old! You know? You better have learned something at this point!
“I think I’m so very fortunate,” McDonald admits, before contrasting his circumstance with that of a burned out Sky Saxon, whom the McDonalds backed up for a few shows in the mid-80s. The onetime leader of psychedelic ‘60s rockers The Seeds “was my [current] age then, which is just freaky to me. He had suddenly emerged in Los Angeles in the middle ‘80s, after he had been in some commune in Hawaii. He was very, very lost, very confused. I mean, Sky Saxon became, at least regionally, a huge rock star, and then had the spoils of fame. I guess it’s hard to deal with ego and drugs and all those different things. He had to deal with all those things I don’t have to deal with, and so maybe that’s why I’m still myself, or hungry, whatever it is that makes me want to make a record, and want it to be good, and not be out of touch with all of those feelings and perceptions. I don’t know how or why I managed to not be a Sky Saxon, and how hilarious and absurd and kinda sad he was in the mid ’80s when he came [back] to LA. I remember thinking, ‘Is that what it’s like? Is that what it’s going to be like for me? I hope not! I don’t want to be like that.’”
It’s not as though the members of Redd Kross necessarily needed to reboot the band. They all had plenty of other activities and responsibilities keeping them occupied. Steve was producing bands (including Turbonegro, Imperial Teen and, with Jeff, the Donnas), touring with various acts (Beck, Sparks), doing A&R work for assorted major labels and, most recently forming OFF! with old friend Keith Morris (ex-Black Flag/Circle Jerks), who’ve enjoyed a considerable level of popularity in short order. Steve and wife Anna Waronker (That Dog!) also have a three-and-a-half year-old son. Jeff has been raising a daughter, Astrid, with his wife, Charlotte Caffey of the Go-Go’s – keeping the musical lineage going into the next generation, Jeff, Astrid, Steve and Anna released a one-off album under the name Ze Malibu Kids in 2002. Meanwhile, drummer Roy McDonald (no relation) has been playing in The Muffs since 1995. “We all have kids, everyone has some kind of job in one way or another,” Steve reiterates. But an offer from Spain’s Azkena Festival in 2006, compounded by pleas from their friend, filmmaker Allison Anders, to play her annual Don’t Knock the Rock music film festival in Los Angeles, coincided with a renewal of conversations with onetime guitarist Robert Hecker, who, along with Roy McDonald, played in the Neurotica era of the band, probably their best-loved lineup. The planets aligned, and it seemed like a sensible time to jump back in. Not only that, but Steve emphasizes that even though the business has changed significantly, and their brand of rock ‘n’ roll has become more of a marginal phenomenon, he feels more kinship with present day bands than what surrounded Redd Kross in 1997, when their last album, Show World, came out nearly unnoticed.
“There’s a lot more stuff out there now that I am enthusiastic about. I mean, it might be very underground, but… the underground is also a lot more visible – it’s easier to find stuff from the underground that you might like, that you couldn’t in ’97. When I think of ’97, I think of things like the beginning of that sort of mainstream emo thing, you know, you had Jimmy Eat World. It was like the beginning of Nickelback, with a bunch of shit that was what grunge morphed into, like what the mainstream really was going to do with the grunge movement. And I remember feeling very uninspired. And in England we were just told Prodigy was basically the next god – there was this whole thing about the keyboard is once again taking over from the guitar, and that’s gonna be the newest sound you’re gonna hear in your life. But now, things like Ty Segall and the Reigning Sound, although they might not be on mainstream radio, they’ve got big audiences, they can go out and play shows anywhere, and those are things I love. Garage rock, whatever, it’s just good rock ‘n’ roll, as far as I’m concerned. And there’s a lot more where that came from.
“I feel like nowadays, well, shit, man, any fifteen-year-old can have the most sophisticated music playlist,” McDonald continues. “She’s now 23, but I remember when my niece was 16, I would look at her iTunes library, and she had every Velvet Underground record by the time she was 16! I mean, I did too, but I was a freakazoid! She was a normal kid. And she also had a bunch of pop crap records on there, and all these other things that were total mainstream, but to her, ‘Sunday Morning’ was also part of her mainstream music. And to me, that’s underground music. It’s a different world now. So it’s like, if I can be a player in what’s considered underground, then hey, that’s something to be! That doesn’t necessarily have to be a ghetto that is not a dignified thing to grow old in, if that makes any sense. My brother’d get pissed if he heard me talk about ‘dignified’ and shit like that. He’d go, ‘What the fuck does that mean? That’s not rock ‘n’ roll!’ But I was just always worried… I remember when I was a kid, when I was 16, and there would be the guys in their forties, in the club circuit, that I knew at that time – those people were usually pretty down ‘n’ out – and I remember thinking, ‘I don’t ever want to be like that.’ But now, I’m still in a lot of these clubs doin’ my thing, but it’s not pathetic, and it is something that I can make a decent living doing, along with other things that I do. It’s an important part of the picture for me. Because I’ve learned after many years of working with other artists, and being on the other side that if I don’t also have ‘being artist/musician’ as part of my makeup, I get weird.”
I find it really interesting, and sorta funny, that both McDonald and Keith Morris, who helped shape LA’s punk rock landscape at ground zero, ended up working “on the other side” as A&R reps for major labels (Morris for V2, McDonald most recently for Warner Bros.) They basically became “suits,” yet have straddled both sides of the sometimes contentious industry fence and kept their integrity.
“Yeah, that is really funny,” McDonald agrees. “I remember I kinda had this poseur complex at the time. ’Cause I hated A&R people. You know, from an artist’s perspective, I always felt like, why does this person have this say about who gets resources and what doesn‘t? So when I crossed over into it and was doing some kind of scouting, even if it was just a very unimportant role, just to make money telling someone your opinion of whether or not something deserved further investigation, not only did I feel guilty and weird, but I felt like an asshole, because I hated that world. But I’d also justify it by saying I felt I was good at it! And that I could perhaps bring good resources to someone I identified with and that I could help. Be something I never had, you know. But running into Keith, it was very relief-giving or whatever to go, ‘Oh my God, if Keith is doing this…’ He just had such a chip on his shoulder about everything! Especially the music industry. You know, when I was 12 years old, the worst thing you could be was a poseur. And I was hangin’ out with a crew of people that were at least eight to 15 years older than me, Keith being one of them. And I worshipped these people, but they had a very strict credo about how you’re supposed to be, and what’s acceptable, and it was very narrow. And Keith turning out to be an A&R person, that was definitely not part of the picture from those days. And I still have that guy in my head. I still have those beliefs in my head sometimes. So it was good for me to see Keith being out there and just pounding the pavement with me at South by Southwest, writing down on a piece of paper every single band we’d seen, because you’d seen so many bands you couldn’t even remember what the fuck you saw. It was, like, many lives later. And that’s when Keith and I sort of re-struck up our friendship, I think. We didn’t hang out a lot then, but I remember seeing him, and it was like, ‘Oh, man, great to see you!’ and we just started talking about old times, and it was very fun and easy. It felt good.”
Steve’s business skills have resulted in him becoming the latter day de facto manager of Redd Kross, organizing tours (keep your fingers krossed for an East Coast run in the spring!) and dealing with the day-to-day details. He also produced and mixed Researching the Blues, a responsibility he took very personally.
“I got to treat it like it was my brother’s record – [Jeff] wrote the majority of the songs, well over the majority of the songs, and I did well over the majority of producing, and I treated him as the artist. Yeah, I have worked in the music industry, and I’ve had a bunch of different hats, so to speak. But my brother really has sort of been more ‘untainted’ – he’s still the pure artist, in many ways. And I think for me, it’s a nice thing to pull myself out of the pressure of expressing myself so much, literally, through words and music, and be more supportive of the artist, and express myself that way. I was proud of [Researching the Blues] so much, because I knew my brother had written a really, really great collection of songs. I just knew it was so fucking great, and I wanted to make sure I could whittle together a picture frame that was worthy of the picture itself, in a sense.
“I think this is kind of a new chapter for the band,” McDonald speculates, “and I don’t know if the next record’s gonna come out in another ten or 15 years. I really hope it comes out a lot sooner than that. I would love for it to be another constant in my life. I don’t need it to completely rule and dominate my life, like it has lately, because I have to do all the organizing! But, you know, I would love to see the band get on a semi-regular release schedule – I’m almost afraid to use that word – or release habit. And, you know, have live performances all over the country be part of this repertoire. That would be great.”
Photo by Jon Krop.