Redd Kross Recall Working With Tommy Ramone: Exclusive Interview
Of all the bands to emerge from the late '70s Los Angeles punk underground, none were more clever, smart, irreverent or flat-out rocking than Redd Kross. When they began (as Red Cross) in 1979, Jeff McDonald (guitar/vocals) was 14 and brother Steven on bass was a mere lad of 11. They shared bills with the likes of Black Flag while still in school and released a self-titled EP in 1980 followed by their full length debut, Born Innocent, in 1982.
Flipping the punk rock aesthetic on its head, the band took to referencing the likes of Kiss, Bay City Rollers, the Partridge and Manson Families and obscure cinema. Toss in a psychedelic, thrift-store fashion sense and a genuine knack for pop songwriting of the highest order and you have all the ingredients for magic. But it left more than a few 'punks' dazed and confused.
It wouldn’t be until 1987's Neurotica that they began to turn heads their way with a cheer and a smile at what they found. Adding a burst of genuine '70s glam into the equation, Neurotica (produced by Tommy Erdelyi aka Ramone) should have put them over the top into the mainstream.
Alas, in 1987, such things were far out of reach for a band like Redd Kross. In 1990, they released Third Eye, a more polished pop effort that somehow managed to merge the hard rock style of Kiss, and maybe early Van Halen, with Phase 3-era Osmonds. As perfect a match as that was, it failed to ignite sales.
By the release of Phaseshifter in 1993, the music world had been dismantled by the whole Nirvana explosion. This helped Redd Kross and Phaseshifter get more notice, with some critics tagging them as a cross between the Beatles and Led Zeppelin. However, by the release of Show World in 1997, things had changed again and it seemed the band were destined to be outcasts. A long hiatus followed until around 2010 when they started doing some live shows. Ultimately, a new album, Researching the Blues, was issued in 2012 (on Merge Records) and suddenly, people were talking about Redd Kross once again.
2019 finds the band back with a new album, the brilliant Beyond the Door, which proves they are still as unique as ever and unwilling to play anyone else’s game. The one constant throughout their 40-year odyssey has been brothers Jeff and Steve McDonald as the core. Their twisted pop vision remains intact and they are, to paraphrase Bernie Taupin, still standing better than they ever did. There is also a documentary in the works. Welcome to the world of Redd Kross.
So you guys just kicked off this tour with the Melvins, this is your longest tour in many years isn’t it?
Jeff McDonald: It’s the longest tour we have done since the ‘90s.
Given that Steve and Melvins drummer Dale Crover play in both bands, teaming up with them makes good sense, I would think.
Jeff: Yeah, that’s definitely true.
Steve McDonald: Plus just practical things, little things like I don’t have to move my pedal board after sound check. These are the little things that make me very happy on the road. People don’t understand, like agents and managers, they have no idea.
Plus you obviously all get along, so that’s another hurdle. Did you ever tour with anyone that at first you thought was going to be good, then halfway through you were realized you never want to see these people again?
Steve: With Redd Kross we’re always been pretty lucky. Traditionally, it’s always the tour manager of the other bands who was hateable. Luckily the Melvins have been doing this for so long and it’s really Redd Kross joining along on a Melvins organized tour, and the crew are great.
Jeff: We’ve opened for a lot of crappy bands who were nasty, but as far as touring partners, we’ve been pretty lucky.
What was the first record each of you bought?
Jeff: The [Beatles'] White Album. That record was purchased at a supermarket, when grocery markets used to have records.
Steve: When Jeff had started school and before I had started school -- we’re three-and-a-half years apart -- for whatever reason one day my mom took me to Muntz City Stereo in Hawthorne, California. They had a good record collection, and Mom said, "Pick out two records." and I would have been about five years old, before I started kindergarten, and I picked out Killer by Alice Cooper and Rolling Stones' Get Yer Ya-Ya's Out.
Those are good jumping off points for a five-year-old!
Jeff: And I got, from the same store, [David Bowie's] Hunky Dory. It was like the first discount record store, because up until that point you could only get records from, like, Sears, J.C. Penney, grocery markets or sometimes the drug store would have a bin of records. And they were expensive at those places, unless you bought at a discount store like Muntz City, Hunky Dory was $2.99 but the records at like Clark’s Drugs were like $6.00, and this was in the early ‘70s.
One thing that always stood out with you guys over the years is that in interviews, you didn’t really talk about yourselves in any traditional way. You would just talk and let people into this world you had. You would always veer off-topic into this other thing, ignoring the typical explanation of a song’s meaning or whatever.
Jeff: Well, when people would ask those kind of questions I draw a blank. I guess they’re boring questions, like, "What does this song mean?" I don’t know, what does it mean to you? I mean, honestly I don’t know so there’s nothing really to talk about.
Steve: But that doesn’t mean that the song doesn’t mean anything. I kind of corner Jeff on this sometimes but he would prefer that the listener make their own interpretation.
Jeff: Well yeah, because say for instance, you go on about some song that means something completely different to someone else. That’s a bummer for them. I would rather just let people decide for themselves. I know how it is when I listen to music, it’s more important how it makes me feel or what I think, not what the intention was. I don’t give a shit about that, so why should people care about mine?
Exactly! I always thought, if you watch or read old Bob Dylan interviews -- he was the one person who could have gotten away with pontificating about such things, but he would always deflect such questions.
Jeff: Dylan is a good example. I mean, you really don’t want to get in the way of how it is received by someone else. That’s part of the fun. It’s always interactive; you have a listener and a performer.
Steve: Right, you are inviting the listener to have their own interpretation. Like, a novelist might have a very direct intention of how they want the reader to interpret. But like Jeff is saying, he wants it to be loose and ambiguous as it can mean many things to many people.
What was it like working with Tommy Ramone on Neurotica?
Jeff: Well, I mean, the Ramones were kind of like the second coming of the Beatles for me personally, so to actually have someone who was responsible for the sound, and an actual member, was really exciting. But the producer, especially when you’re young and you’re bratty, they’re the one that kind of have to take the fall if you’re not living up to your own particular idea of what perfection is. Tommy was good, he was very nurturing. He was very New York, you know, and we were very Southern California.
Steve: We might have seemed like aliens to him.
Jeff: Yeah. It was very fun and he was really funny. He would have stories, like I remember when VHS first came out, one of the first things I remember seeing was a copy of the Rolling Stones at Hyde Park, and there is, at one point, other people have noticed it too since it’s reached the YouTube stage, there’s a guy dancing wildly in the audience that looks so much like Joey Ramone its mind-blowing! Tommy said it was very possible, but it’s since been debunked that it wasn’t him.
Steve: Tommy’s thing was that Joey was always a fan, especially of the British Invasion, and it was very possible he could have flown to see the Rolling Stones. It wasn’t that big of a deal to hop on a place and go to London from New York.
Jeff: Even though it’s been debunked, even by his (Joey’s) brother, I’m still not entirely convinced.
Steve: And there’s that other image of a young dorky guy holding on to like a Sears guitar, that’s supposed to be Joey Ramone, but that was debunked as well.
One thing about you guys is that, despite obvious nods to the past, you are always looking forward. You never come off are though you are still doing this for pure nostalgia.
Jeff: I look at playing rock and roll, creating it, performing; it’s all art and if you’re into it for the art, you’re an artist for life. It’s a predisposition to a genetic decision that we all seem to share. And then, people like Ray Davies or Neil Young, even if people aren’t buying their new material in large numbers, they’re still vital, because they’re artists. So when you see them, it’s not an embarrassment. Like the Who. That’s why they’re still doing it. I think they went through a period in the ‘80s where their motives maybe were not pure but now it’s like pure joy, and it comes across that way, same with the Stones.
Was there more of a feeling of urgency to do the new album, Beyond the Door? Keeping whatever momentum had come from Researching the Blues and touring?
Steve: Well, when we did Researching the Blues, we started it about a year after we had reunited, knocked out the basic tracks, but then spent the next five years trying to finish it. A lot of that was just practical matters, and the other part of that was we were doing that without any support. We didn’t have a record label. We were just making a record hoping that someone would give a fuck. So when we made this record we already knew that Merge wanted to put it out, so that makes a really big difference to a musician sitting in a room trying to figure out why they’re torturing themselves trying to finish a record.
And sure, art for art’s sake and Jeff is more of an artist than I am but I prefer to know that it’s not just for my own sake. And I’m just so much busier now, I’m in three bands so we had various thing to use as deadlines to work toward. This record we did in our own environment. I recorded it at my rehearsal space and I imposed those deadlines because I didn’t want it to go on forever. I set a mastering date so we would have to finish it.
And that keeps you moving forward as well.
Steve: I like to say that these are the good old days.
Jeff: And even though you know that is a classic Carly Simon line.
Steve: Yeah, I said that the other day in an interview and I swear I don’t know that song.
Jeff: I thought you were lovingly quoting Carly’s “Anticipation."
Steve: And that makes sense cause a lot of times I’ll think I have found some profound moment and it’s just a Mick Jagger lyric, and Carly Simon and Mick Jagger are very similar. Similar bone structure. But also with us, in terms of like nostalgia, it’s like a silver lining of never breaking through into the mainstream and having that one hit song. Because I think then that’s a problem for bands that try to continue on, and it’s like you have a mainstream crowd that just wants to hear that one song. But also, we are forever hopeful.
Jeff: We are grateful we didn’t have that one hit in the ‘80s.
Steve: It might have been helpful to get high-paying gigs at Indian casinos.
Jeff: Or on ‘80s cruise ships.
Steve: I don’t scoff at that but I do kind of prefer what we’ve got.