Q&A: With Jeff McDonald Of Redd Kross

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EDITOR’S NOTE: This interview originally posted back in 2014. We are re-posting it today in advance of their show with The Melvins at Underground Arts on Saturday Oct. 12th.

BY JONATHAN VALANIA You were born in an age of mockery, which was followed by a decade of irony. You were 15 years old when you played your first gig, opening for Black Flag. Your little brother was only 11. His bass was taller than him. You named your band after the crucifix masturbation scene in The Exorcist. Early on you were fascinated by pop culture gone horribly wrong, you wrote punky odes to Linda Blair, MacKenzie Phillips and Frosted Flakes. You covered Charlie Manson. “No metal sluts or punk rock ruts” was your motto. You recorded six albums before calling it quits in 1997. A bunch of stuff happened, not the least of which was your brother adding bass to every song on The White Stripes Red Blood Cells, with Jack White’s tacit approval. Fast forward to 2012, you release a new album. It’s not just one of the best albums of the year, it is the best album of your career. The title track is Nuggets-worthy 60s garage punk. “Uglier” has the greatest Kiss chorus never made. “Dracula’s Daughter” is, without irony, one of the prettiest songs ever made. “Stay Away From Downtown” is the greatest power-pop song since Cheap met Trick. You are Jeff and Steven McDonald, your band is called Redd Kross and the album is Researching The Blues. (Redd Kross’ seventh album, Beyond The Door dropped in August. Look for a proper album review later this week.)

PHAWKER: Before we get started, let me just say that the new record is fucking awesome, man. So first question, how old were you and your brother when you started the band back in ’78?

JEFF MCDONALD: Fifteen and eleven. We recruited the drummer from our junior high school. So he was thirteen or something like that.TShirts-JeffStar

PHAWKER: When did you guys decide that you were going to get serious about music? When did you guys start picking up instruments, listening to stuff that was more than just on the radio?

JEFF MCDONALD: I never listened to the radio. I’ve always been a big fan of records and albums. You know, Beatles and Rolling Stones when I was a toddler, practically. And when the whole, you know, the whole thing started with The Ramones and before even The Sex Pistols, we heard all this stuff via Rodney Bingenheimer’s radio show, that legendary show. At the time, where we grew up, they didn’t have bands that played original music. In the late ‘70’s, groups were just cover bands. They played Led Zeppelin, and all that various stuff. These groups would have these huge Marshal stacks, be very professional, and they’d play at the local clubs but they would play Led Zeppelin songs. And there was no way to get booked into a venue unless you were a major label act, or you were a cover band. That’s how, at the first LA punk scene started, which was, you know, it only consisted of about a hundred people, and this guy Brendan Mullen started this club called the Mask, which was this tiny place that used to get busted all the time. But until then, there was no place to play original music.

Basically there was no hope for us to ever get a gig. But there was a really rare show at a moose lodge in Laguna Beach which was near where we lived and we knew one of the bands. They were called The Alley Cats, and we loved them. They were one of the first LA punk bands. And they had this other group, Black Flag, on the bill. So we went to the show, and it got busted by the cops, and everything. I’d never heard of Black Flag, and we talked to them after the show, and they had a little single that they put out, and I just called Greg Ginn the guitarist, said, ‘We’re in a band, and we want to play with you guys.’ They had only played, you know, one show. So they said, ‘Come down to our rehearsal space, and, you know, we’ll check you out and see what happens.’ So, you know, we went to their, they rehearsed in a church, an old, abandoned church, and they invited, like, ten people. And we played for them. And they were like, ‘Aw, that’s great.’ And they played after us in a little tiny room with their loud amplifiers. We were in. So once they started to play in LA, at the very few venues that they could get into, they always brought us along. So we just kinda lucked into it. At the time, I was so tenacious, I would just cold-call any one of the bands that I loved, used to look them up in the phonebook. And I would ask them if we could play with them, and usually they would just laugh at us. I remember calling X and talking to John Doe and The Dickies.  I got nowhere until I met Black Flag. That’s kind of a long-winded answer, but that’s how it happened.

PHAWKER: I never understood how you guys fit into the hardcore scene.

JEFF MCDONALD:  We didn’t fit in, but we had to play those shows because there was nowhere else to play. So we would be at bills with all these groups and it wouldn’t go over well, but we learned a lot. It was really fun to kind of realize these people, spitting, throwing crap at you? It didn’t matter, because there was a certain power to be had by having a guitar. It’s just like trial by fire. That’s how we really cut out our own identity, by defiantly being individuals at times where most of the groups were cookie-cutter.

PHAWKER:Is it true that the name comes from the crucifix masturbation scene in The Exorcist?

JEFF MCDONALD: Sure! I don’t even remember who made up the name Redd Kross. We were just sitting around and we realized that we had to change our name. We were originally called The Tourists, and we knew that there was a band already called The Tourists, who later turned out to be Annie Lennox and Dave Stewart’s band from before The Eurythmics. So we changed our name. So we went with Red Cross without really thinking much of it. Afterwards, we were like, ‘Why did we choose that name?!’ But we were already starting to become known, so we were just, it ended up being our name. And we’d be like ‘Yeah, Linda Blair.’ And then when we changed it to R-e-d-d K-r-o-s-s, we claimed that we named ourselves after the mixing board the Beatles recorded all of their Sgt. Pepper on. That board was called a Redd, r-e-d-d. Whatever suited the moment.

PHAWKER: So the irony is, is that you guys started out so young, but in the video for the first single from the new record, “Downtown,” it’s your daughter, I believe, that plays the obligatory hot babe in the video. Is that correct?

JEFF MCDONALD: Yeah, her and friend kind of the demonic versions of Liv Tyler and Alicia Silverstone.

PHAWKER: So now you’re married to Charlotte Caffey, guitarist from The Go Go’s and your brother is married to Anna Waronker from That Dog, who is the daughter of the legendary musicbiz honcho, Lenny Waronker. Is there some kind of dating service for West coast rock people? How did that come about?

JEFF MCDONALD: Well, for me, I was always the most successful male groupie in Los Angeles because when girls started coming around, girl musicians, there were these group of guys that would just follow them around like puppy dogs. We called them GBGs or Girl Band Geeks.  But I was, at the time, going out with Vicki Peterson from The Bangles. I went out with her for five years, during the whole career of The Bangles. So, after that relationship was over, I started dating Melanie from the  Pandora’s, another all-girl band in LA, then I was a bachelor, and then I married Charlotte. So, I was kind of like the James Taylor of the LA garage scene.

PHAWKER: That Pandora’s album It’s About Time is still one of the greatest garage-rock revival records of all time.

JEFF MCDONALD: Oh yeah. That was when I was going out with Melanie. We shared a rehearsal space with [The Pandoras]. That was a really fun time; that kind of ‘60’s flower power revival thing that was happening in LA.

PHAWKER: Speaking of Flower Power, reading up on you guys I was suprised to learn that you backed up [legendary lead singer of The Seeds]   Sky Saxon for a few shows. Tell me about that experience.

JEFF MCDONALD: I was with Greg Shaw from Bomp Records. He had a club in LA for all of the underground garage revival bands called The Cavern club, of course. And I was there the day that Sky arrived from Hawaii. He had been living in Hawaii with some cult for many years. It was just like Jesus coming off of a space ship. ‘Oh my god, it’s Sky Saxon!!’ It was just totally insane. Greg Shaw asked if we would back Sky up for a show at The Cavern Club. We’re like, “Yeah, sure.” But Sky was so weird, he wouldn’t rehearse or do anything. We were at the gig, and all of a sudden, we noticed that there were microphones and video cameras. We were like, ‘Oh, shit.’ It turns out that we were recording a live album. Sky wouldn’t look at the audience, and it was just so strange that we would just start jamming on Runaways songs, and he was just talking about leprechauns jumping from bushes. Anything to kind of piss off the scene, because they were so intensely 1966. We would purposely do “Dazed and Confused” and Sky was unknowingly making up new words for it. It was pretty genius. The record actually exists; it’s called Sky Saxon and Purple Electricity. It’s one of those 35 cent albums you’ll find…It’s actually, people that I know who are completely into noise and insaneness think it’s a brilliant record, other people think it’s the worst record ever made. I think the truth lies somewhere in between.

PHAWKER: So, true or false- Alex Chilton’s version of “Can’t Seem To Make You Mine” is that actually better than The Seeds?

JEFF MCDONALD: Yeah, yeah, yeah, definitely. Well, The Seeds were, you know, they were one of those bands, when they were most successful it was just total failure in action. They were actually trying to be The Doors and The Rolling Stones, but they failed so badly, they came up with something that was really original.

PHAWKER: Your brother Steve has been working as an A&R scout?

JEFF MCDONALD: He was for many years. I don’t think he’s doing that anymore, but he did for a long time. He’s also, with that job, been able to produce a lot of people. He produced fun.

PHAWKER: The ‘We are young’ band?

JEFF MCDONALD: Yeah! He did their first record.

PHAWKER: Small world. What have you been up to for the last 10 years?

JEFF MCDONALD: By the end of the ‘90’s, I was really burned out from our grueling tour schedule. We were just on the road so much, we became an international group, you know, late ‘80’s and ‘90’s, so we’d be gone for months at a time. And that was what I had always wanted to do; that was my dream when I decided to play music, was to travel and do all that stuff. It was kind of just after a while, it, ugh, I was at the brink of a nervous breakdown. So when we took our time off, it ended up lasting ten years. It wasn’t really our intention, it just happened. Even though I had recorded and stuff [during that time] I had never stepped foot on stage. I never even jammed with anyone. So when we played again, I was kind of nervous, like, ugh, I don’t know if I can do this. But I was able to. I was completely refreshed and ready to go.

PHAWKER:  Last question, why is Researching The Blues so great? And don’t bullshit me, did you guys make some kind of deal at the crossroads or something?

JEFF MCDONALD: I don’t know! I think it’s because we made it and we didn’t have to. Not a lot of people are making real, straightforward, rock and roll records. It’s what I love, so we figured, ‘Well, we have the ability to make a really good record now, so let’s just do it.’ We didn’t have a record deal or anything. Once we finished mixing it, we just sent it out to a couple people and everyone wanted to put it out.