Starting the band when he was only 15, Redd Kross singer and guitarist Jeff McDonald was some kind of va-va-va-voom visionary who, along with his brother Steven (only 11 at the start), were not only able to see every great and not-so-great band of the legendary late-70s LA punk scene (not to mention most of the San Francisco scene too), but ingest all that vitriol and somehow see a similar savage sarcasm in the cheekiest pop culture they also devoured from an early age. They harbored a deep love for the bizarre “harmonies” of Kiss and the oddly catchy riffs of Cheap Trick at a time when their peers would routinely bash on such kitschy classic rockers. Redd Kross could chew on The Brady Bunch, the Manson Family, Russ Meyer flicks, The Ronettes, and the latest Avengers single and make it all come out coherent-ish, as evidenced on on their first few classic albums.
Flirtations with major labels, their neo-70s zeitgeist masterpiece, Neurotica (1987), and an eventual undertow drag-along in the alternative rock wave of the ’90s (including starring in the goofy cult flick, Spirit of ’76) eventually ended with them tamping it all down in the early 2000s. While the younger McDonald, Steven, stayed quite active in numerous side projects (he currently plays bass in hardcore supergroup OFF!), Jeff needed a break to raise his now 17-year old daughter, Astrid, and keep things humming along with longtime wife, Charlotte Caffey (guitarist for The Go-Go’s). But about six or so years ago, the McDonalds, Neurotica-era bassist Robert Hecker, and new addition, drummer Roy McDonald (from The Muffs and no relation), started lining up gigs and slowly piling up recordings, leading to the recently released Researching the Blues. Surprisingly cohesive, but expectedly way-catchy, it sits in their kooky canon perfectly.
I nabbed Jeff lounging at home after recently returning from a two-week Australian jaunt and just before the band starts touring again, where they promise to be doing tunes all the way back to their 1982 debut EP, Born Innocent. Of course, the conversation soon turned to celebrity chit-chat, something LA gadabout Jeff McDonald does like ringin’ a bell.
Did you ever have a bad run-in with a hero or a celebrity?
Jeff McDonald: No. I did meet someone who wasn’t a hero, but was really obnoxious. That was Peter Noone.
The blonde golden boy of Herman’s Hermits?
JM: Yeah, I was at some big oldies rock & roll function. He was so drunk, and he wanted someone to call him a cab. So we’re standing around outside, and he hands me his cellphone and was just like, “Dial it.” I was like, “Dial what?” And he goes, “Just dial it!” and looking at me like I can read his mind. He grabs it out of my hands and just storms off.
Steven had breakfast with George Harrison once. He’s married to Anna Waronker, and her father is that famous producer Lenny Waronker, who’s an old friend of George’s. It was right after the stabbing thing had happened. George was really freaked out, and he’d come to America. Steven said George was trying to find people to help him mellow out, but all his friends were completely out of their minds. I don’t think I would’ve wanted to be there.
Your brother’s gaining some new celebrity status of a sort with OFF! So do you have any other favorite bands that have two identical twins or two brothers in them?
JM: Well, there’s The Kinks of course. You got the Shangri-Las, the twins in the Shangri-Las. That brothers thing is never a big deal to me, because I’ve just always been in a band with my brother. Oh, and the Jonas Brothers—there ya go.
Okay, so going way back to a different sort of celebrity sighting, recount the story of your first show in 1981, opening for Black Flag.
JM: It was one of their first shows too. Keith Morris was the singer. They’d played a local gig at a Moose Lodge in Redondo Beach. Punk shows were really really rare in LA, but even more rare near where we lived. Steven and I already had some songs and were putting the band together. Black Flag was local, so I’d talked to them before. They were like 10 years older than us, so they had established a rehearsal space in an old church in Hermosa Beach and invited us to come down. We’d never played in front of anyone before. They invited the 10 local punk enthusiasts in the South Bay to come down to that space and play a show. We did our first EP and punk versions of “I Wanna Hold Your Hand” and “Who Are the Mystery Girls?” by the New York Dolls. So they thought we were really cool, and we made friends with them. They played really great. Then after that, our drummer was graduating from the eighth grade, and there was this girl in his class who wanted to have a graduation party and wanted to have bands. So we showed up with Black Flag, and we were her bands! We were booed the whole time by stoners yelling for Zeppelin. The only groups you’d see in clubs around then were cover bands. So we had a great time being booed. And then Black Flag had these old raggedy amps, and they just cranked them up and completely freaked everyone out. We played our first Hollywood shows with them too.
So the current Redd Kross line-up started playing shows more than six years ago, right?
JM: Yeah, just about. We started getting gigs, touring a bit, European tours, an Australian tour, so that’s another reason it took awhile to get the record done. I was really fried from our last album, Show World. We’d been on tour for most of the ’90s. Even if I didn’t have a family, I would’ve stopped. It was too much. I was the only one in the band who didn’t perform live for like a decade. And one day, I just wanted to do it again!
What happened after Neurotica? It got great reviews and was maybe the band’s best overall album. It was one of those moments where it looks like the hits will start coming or whatever. I know the label, Big Time, folded quickly and there were some contractual problems, the band was in limbo...
JM: Yeah, I really don’t know. I mean the label folded right after the record came out, before we even got to tour on it. So if you got that record, you got it when it first hit the stores, because then it was gone. But there was this time in the very late ’80s where no major label would even consider signing some underground punk band from LA. But then the Chili Peppers got some success, so labels started looking around LA again. We kind of had to wait around for awhile. But we were one of the most popular bands in Los Angeles, and we’d get all these record label people to come to our sold-out shows. We’d play a few songs, but then decide to play side two of Sgt. Pepper’s in its entirety. Our fans loved it, but the record people would always say, “I don’t get it.” It was always, “I don’t get it.” But then we went to New York and played one of our worst shows ever. It was in this old church with no ventilation, some one-off thing. But it was sold out, more than a thousand people, and it started a bidding war. So you learn these lessons that it just doesn’t matter how you think you should plan things.
Wasn’t the new album going to be called “Motorcycle Black Madonna” or something?
JM: Ha, yeah. But when you make premature announcements, it’s always doomed. Like before we made Neurotica, we’d announced that it was going to be called “The Shroud of Laurie Bono Christ,” and of course by the time we got around to finishing the record, we were way over it.
We couldn’t come up with a title for the new album. I’d been reading these John and Alan Lomax books, just these ridiculous, scholarly American roots books, and I’d remembered that we had this song on the Ze Malibu Kids record called “Fiona Apple,” which actually had nothing to do with Fiona Apple. There was a line in the song, “She wrote a song about me while researching the blues,” and I just thought that was funny. I couldn’t even remember the origin of that line, but I liked the idea about being scholarly about the blues. But it can mean many things, like obsessively doing things that make you miserable, like a lot of people do.