Sometime around 1981 or so, the LA music scene shifted from the Hollywood-based punk sounds to a more suburban-influenced hardcore assault. It was also at this time that I first experienced Red Kross. At this point, the founding members, Jeff and Steve McDonald, had already released a Posh Boy EP, Annette's Got the Hits, and had gone through several band members. And, this was all before the youngest brother, Steve, was old enough to drive.
On that particular evening, Red Cross were a trio, consisting of Jeff (guitar) and Steven (bass) and Johnny Nobody (drums). Just after the opening band Circle One finished their sweaty, macho blast of three-chord hardcore, Red Cross stumbled onto the stage with flashy guitars, platform shoes, teased hair, black eyeliner, and gold lame pants. The shaved-head assemblage fell silent in utter horror. Nevertheless, Jeff ripped into his screeching, sloppier- than-hell Johnny Thunders guitar licks while he and Steven pranced about the stage with choreographed KISS-like stage antics, all the while singing--actually more like whining--odes to their favorite pop-culture idols (Linda Blair, Tootie from TV's Facts of Life, Charles Manson). The crowd proceeded to shower the two with spit and beer. Unfortunately, these hardcore fans didn't appreciate the McDonald brothers' punk-rock aesthetic. Actually throughout this band's entire 18-year career, most people don't really understand what they're doing. Because whatever style of music the band is creating--or re-creating--it's either a little too early or just years too late.
Now, nearly two decades later, the brothers McDonald are still together. And a lot has happened since the beginning: They've since become Redd Kross (after the actual organization threatened the 14-year-old Steven with a lawsuit); they've gone through countless line-up changes (it has remained stable with guitarist Eddie Kurdziel and drummer Brian Reitzell); they've released five full-length albums (1982's Born Innocent, 1984's Teen Babes From Monsanto, 1986's Neurotica, 1990's Third Eye, and Phaseshifter in 1993); they've appeared in several feature films (Jeff and Steve starred in the cable-channel classic Spirit of '76), and they've both survived serious bouts with drug addiction. But after 18 often tumultuous and tortuous years as a band, the brothers have maintained a solid partnership and are now releasing their sixth album.
This new album, titled Show World, marks a departure for Redd Kross. Gone are the '70s- inspired, goofy lyrics and silly posturing. Instead of relying on those over-used gimmicks, Jeff and Steven McDonald have delivered 14-tracks of well-crafted pop bliss. It seems they've finally come to terms with their own potential and have made a serious effort at making a solidly good Redd Kross record. Although this album, like their others, reflects whatever genre of music that currently inspires them (they're now stuck somewhere in the late '70s power-pop era), some tracks, like the Velvets-inspired "Follow the Leader," stand out to show the world that, as songwriters, Redd Kross have grown up. In fact, one could even go so far as to say that they've actually matured.
Now don't worry, Jeff and Steve McDonald haven't turned into a couple of bitter ol' rock hacks. Au contraire. Actually, when I met up with Jeff and Steve last month at the Hollywood Hills Cafe, most of our discussion centered around their rather immature hobby of some crank calling LA's more famous inhabitants. These well-constructed pranks would put the Jerky Boys to shame. But when asked about their new album, it was clear they take this project very seriously and were eager to discuss its creation.
JENNIFER: You put out Phaseshifter over three years ago. What have you been doing since then?
JEFF: Jennifer, I'm disappointed in you. What an obvious question.
JENNIFER: No, really, what have you been doing? Why does it always take so long in between records? You've been a band for 18 years and you've put out only five albums!
STEVE: The one thing I want to say in defense of our work ethic is that we were on tour for almost two years after Phaseshifter was released.
JENNIFER: Can't you write songs while you're on the road?
STEVE: No, we don't tour in the most luxurious fashion. So it's not that easy. Besides, we get so into our performance when we tour--it's all we're really thinking about. We did try to put out a record after only two years. We thought that was a bit more respectable. But we just weren't able to do it. We weren't ready. We also tried to work with a producer, and we weren't ready to do that either.
JENNIFER: Didn't you hire Robert DeLeo from Stone Temple Pilots to produce Show World?
STEVE: Yeah, but it didn't work out. Actually, we hired Robert because we knew our record label was going to force a producer on us. We figured it would be better to work with another musician rather some fluffy British guy the label might hire.
JEFF: Mid-way through the session, we realized we don't need a producer. We know what we want. I don't believe producers can make a band successful, anyway.
STEVE: I think the producer gets too much credit with a self-contained band. Take Nirvana, for example. I heard that Butch Vig did a lot of cutting and pasting after the basic tracks for Nevermind had been recorded. But he didn't tell Kurt to turn on his distortion box then turn it off. Butch Vig didn't invent the "loud bit, quiet bit" grunge sound.
But I do think bands need a producer when they are trying to be democratic and no one can agree on how the band should sound. That's when a band really needs someone to come in and override the different opinions in order to make something coherent out of the chaos. I guess for our sake, we don't try to run our band like a democracy. Jeff writes most of the songs, so as songwriter, he has the final say.
JEFF: I don't think most successful bands are a democracy. In fact, my goal is to be 100 percent self-sufficient. I don't want any outside people involved. I don't even want to use an engineer on our next record. I would like to have the technological knowledge to do it all ourselves. Because even if you're working with the coolest people on Earth, they still inhibit your performance. I find that some of the stuff that comes out when no one else is around is a little more interesting.
And now with technology the way it is, people can make their own Exile on Mainstreet at their house with little or no outside help. Actually, for their new record, [the Muffs'] Kim Shattuck recorded her vocals at home. Because of technology, you can now take digital eight-track and record your vocals at home and then transfer the vocals onto analog tape.
JENNIFER: Jeff, if you write and make all of the decisions, what is Steve's role in the band?
STEVE: I work on the music, the arrangement, harmonies. The last record we wrote everything together, but this one Jeff finally learned how to use his home studio, so it's mostly his stuff.
JEFF: It was because I was homebound with the baby. I wasn't out partying like Steve. I have a real responsibility.
STEVE: I remember you said after you finished your solo project [which has yet to be released] that you now enjoy writing songs.
JEFF: Yeah, it was fun.
STEVE: For us, writing songs was always like pulling teeth. It was always a very slow, tedious process.
JEFF: Not anymore, now it's my favorite process.
JENNIFER: Since we're talking about the songwriting procedure, why did you open up Show World with a cover?
JEFF: Because [the Quick's] "Pretty Please Me" just sounded like an opening song to me. The Dickies used to do that when Steve Hufstetter was in the band, I always loved that song. We've always picked songs that we connect with and after a while it becomes our song. I don't really consider the covers we do as someone else's song.
JENNIFER: I remember when you used to do "Puss in Boots" by the New York Dolls. You guys were totally in that glam thing way before those Sunset Strip bands. Do you remember when Poison started referring to themselves as the "Glam Slam Kings of Noise?"
STEVE: Actually, we were into glitter rock...
JEFF: Which is the British '70s bubble-gum pop with style--Suzy Quatro, the Sweet, stuff like that. We started hearing about these bands who claimed they were influenced by the New York Dolls. So we were like, "Yeah cool, let's play a gig with them." Because, like you said, at that time, we were the only group who were into that kind of thing. We played our one and only heavy metal show at the Country Club in Reseda. It was Poison, Redd Kross and Leather Wolf.
STEVE: When we heard that Poison called themselves the "Glam Slam Kings of Noise," we thought it was a direct reference to the Runaways song "Queens of Noise." And we thought anyone who is into the Runaways has gotta be cool.
JEFF: We were so excited to see Poison, but when we did we were totally appalled. It was like Dynasty on parade...
STEVE: And not the KISS album, the TV show!
JEFF: It was like if Punky Meadows [guitarist of Angel] had sex with Donna Mills from Knots Landing and the baby got a job at Guitar Center. That's what Poison were like.
JEFF: I was really upset that they called themselves the "Glam Slam Kings of Noise." They didn't even have the balls to refer to themselves as the "Queens" of Noise.
STEVE: You should go back into the BAM archives and find the original print ad for that show and run it in this article. It would be really cool.
STEVE: Oh, we shouldn't pick on those guys.
JEFF: No, I'm not picking on them. Poison were very entertaining. I mean, c'mon, they're responsible for some of the greatest rock videos of all time--"Unskinny Bop." They brought the whole Ron Jeremy aesthetic into rock 'n' roll videos. They're awesome. And that stuff is coming back, I would never write it off.
Here's something that's very BAM-oriented. We used to crank call Poison years before they were famous. We got their hotline number from their BAM ads. Actually, it was really just the phone number to their bachelor apartment that they all shared. Anyway, I pretended to be this old man who managed Lita Ford. I told them that Lita was really interested in producing Poison's record.
JENNIFER: Were they into it?
JEFF: Yeah, they'd say [imitating C. C. Deville's voice], "All right, man, c'mon down to the show!"
JENNIFER: Didn't you get caught and have to call Poison to apologize?
JEFF: No, you're thinking of the crank calls I made to them a few years later, which was during the height of Poison's popularity. What happened was, our band did one record for an Enigma Records subsidiary. In fact, we were gonna release Neurotica on Enigma, but it didn't end up working out. Anyway, at that time, Enigma was handling both Poison and Stryper. So, of course, I couldn't resist a few crank calls. I would call the A&R person at Enigma pretending to be C. C. Deville. I'd start yelling at her complaining about all the attention the label was paying to Stryper and how they were literally ignoring Poison. Eventually, they figured out I wasn't C. C., so then I started calling Gloria Bennett.
STEVE: She used to place ads in BAM all of the time. Her ads would say that she was vocal coach to Michael Sweet of Stryper, Exene and Vince Neil [laughs].
JEFF: I called her saying that I was Michael Sweet from Stryper and I was going to sue her because she screwed up my voice. I told her that while I was onstage I was reaching for a very high note and I got a hernia. But I made the tragic mistake of saying this on her answering machine.
STEVE: Yeah, Jeff, in your own voice.
JEFF: She was so upset, she almost had a coronary. She called Enigma, and the same person who I had crank called before took Gloria's call. They knew immediately it was me. And I thought, "What am I doing?" I felt really stupid...so I blamed the whole thing on Paul K. from the Imperial Butt Wizards.
STEVE: Yeah, Jeff said, "I'm sorry, but my friend Paul is kind of a prankster and I left my phone book alone in a room with him and he went a little crazy."
JENNIFER: Did you ever actually apologize to Poison?
JEFF: No, the whole thing was just kind of dropped...along with our relationship with Enigma.
JENNIFER: Jeff, how has your crank-call addiction translated into the '90s? I bet you could do a lot of damage on one of those on-line services.
JEFF: Uh, not anymore--I was kicked off America On-Line for writing a letter to the Barry Manilow fans in his folder. I wrote the letter as if I was Barry's lover. I was only trying to give the fans some insight into Barry's off-stage personality. I said that Barry was as generous to his fans as he was to his lover.
STEVE: What's wrong with that?
JEFF: I don't know, but I was kicked off permanently.
STEVE: You must've wrote some really weird shit.
JEFF: No. I just traced the history of our relationship. How we met at Studio 54 and how we went to Barry's penthouse apartment to listen to a test pressing of Donna Summer's new album. We drank a little bit of wine and it blossomed into a secure relationship from there.
STEVE: Did Barry leave him in the end?
JEFF: Yeah, but they're still friends. But I know that doing things like that, you have to pay karmically. So I stopped for a while. Online services are really great, though, because often times when I'm writing lyrics I need some extra motivation. So I'd go into some abstract area, like Trisha Yearwood's folder and post my lyrics in there. You can actually find original drafts of my lyrics from the last album scattered throughout AOL on various folders.
JENNIFER: Weren't you posting in the Hole folder?
JEFF: Actually, I started with the Hole folder. Hole has a very active folder with a lot of crazy teenagers and Courtney would occasionally post there, too. So I created this entire Hole album with song titles and everything. I told everyone in the Hole folder that I had heard the tape of their new album and how great it is. I called their new record "A Whore's Bath," which I think is a really good title considering the Hole aesthetic. I came up with these really good song titles, too. Let's see there was, "Babylon Hangnail"...Courtney eventually found out it was me, but she thought it was funny.
JENNIFER: Yeah, I'm sure she did. How did she figure out is was you?
JEFF: Ahhh, Courtney Love is a genius. We crank called her a few times before we even knew her, and way before Hole was famous. And within seconds after the calls, Courtney had the number where we were and she was crank calling us back. She was so well connected, even before Kurt and Nirvana.
JENNIFER: You'd finally met your match, huh? What did you do to her?
STEVE: It was kinda mean. Back then, Courtney had this rivalry going with the lead singer of the Nymphs, Inger Lorre. Inger got signed to Geffen and would let everyone know about it at the drop of a hat. Courtney was very vocal about her dislike for Inger. So, we called every place that Courtney could possibly be one night and left her messages. We pretended to be the bass player of the Nymphs and left messages for Courtney defending Inger's good name...
JEFF: And threatening her with lawsuits.
STEVE: We were like "Is Courtney there? No? 'Cause this is whoever of the Nymphs and we just want Courtney to know that we're on Geffen Records and she shouldn't be talking shit about our singer Inger. You tell Courtney that she's just jealous 'cause Inger can sing and she can't!"
JEFF: Within 10 minutes, we got this phone call at Steven's apartment and it was Courtney crank calling us by saying she was Inger from the Nymphs.
STEVE: But as a result of those phone calls, we were told years later that we could never tour with Nirvana. We have the same manager as Nirvana did, so we asked [our manager] John [Silva] to hook us up with them. And John said [sneering], "You can forget it. Courtney hates you." And we had to hear about all the crank calls...
JEFF: But we're friends with Courtney now.
STEVE: You have to realize that Jeff was taking his, uh, hobby to a point where it actually did damage to our career.
JEFF: Yeah, but everytime I make a crank calls involving a celebrity and some fake project, it always comes to fruition--on some level, anyway. I did another Courtney one that I forgot about. I found out which room she was staying in at the Chateau Marmont, so I called her pretending to be Crispin Glover. I said, "Hi, it's Crispin. I'm making a film with Michael Hutchence from INXS and we want you to play the part of the wicked goddess." She got really mad and hung up. But when I went to go see The People vs. Larry Flynt, sure enough, Crispin Glover's in the movie.
But I don't make crank calls anymore, they can be very, very...
STEVE: Don't you dare say therapeutic.
JENNIFER: I hear you've got a side project going together.
JEFF: Oh yeah, Zee Malibu Kidz.
JENNIFER: Who's in the Malibu Kids?
JEFF: No, it's Zee Malibu Kidz. With a "z."
STEVE: And it's best said with a German accent.
JEFF: It's Anna Waronker [Steve's girlfriend], Charlotte Caffey [Jeff's wife], Steven and myself. It's a concept album inspired by post-industrial German pop.
JENNIFER: Sounds kinda ABBA inspired to me.
STEVE: It was actually inspired by a trip Jeff and I took to Berlin in 1988. Jeff used to date this girl from Berlin. He went to visit her and I was invited to go along. It turned out that her roommate was this guy Blixa. But we had no idea who he was.
JEFF: It was Blixa Bargeld of Einsturzende Neubauten. Because of him, we thought all Europeans wore leather pants, drank screwdrivers all day, and played their own records all night long.
STEVE: It was our very first European experience. And we weren't hip to the whole industrial thing. I had to sleep on the couch. So I was exposed to Blixa the whole time. We were probably horrible house guests, but he was a very stern host. He would say things like, "So, how long are you staying? Ten days, huh?" I remember the very first morning I was horribly jet-lagged, and I was blasted out of bed by a Nick Cave & the Bad Seeds record.
JEFF: I said to my friend, "Why is Blixa blasting Nick Cave records at three in the morning?" She said, "I think he's trying to impress you."
STEVE: Anyway, while we were in Germany, we came up with this concept that if Blixa lived in LA, his favorite band would be the Del Rubio Triplets. Then we made up Blixa's second favorite band, Zee Malibu Kidz. It was the most absurd Americana thing we could think of.
JEFF: Germans are really into American pop culture, but they kinda get it wrong. Well, sometimes they get it right--they were the first ones to really acknowledge Lee Hazelwood and Nancy Sinatra during a time when it was absurd to like Nancy.
STEVE: Zee Malibu Kidz is like David Hasselhoff as seen through German post-industrialist eyes.
JEFF: We were gonna change the name of our band from Redd Kross to Zee Malibu Kids.
STEVE: Zee Malibu Kidz has turned into this weird, acidic children's music. Our friends tolerate it, but the ones who really respond to it are three year olds.
JEFF: And for some reason every child who's heard this record has made it their favorite album. Astrid [Jeff's two-year-old daughter] listens to it four times a day. She makes us play it over and over.
JENNIFER: Tell me the truth: Did you get pissed off when you heard "Big Bang Baby" by the Stone Temple Pilots? After all these years, some band comes along, takes your sound and gets a hit single with it. Are you bitter?
JEFF: No, I'm not bitter at all. As far as success goes, we've been able to avoid getting a job for what, like, 10 years.
JENNIFER: Jeff, you've never had a job.
JEFF: Yeah, well, you've been bitter about that for years. But the only thing that I get bitter about is the way we have to travel. If we had a hit record, we would be able to travel first class, or at least business class. Sometimes I feel like some old blues guy. We'll be traveling through Europe in this horrible old Laura Scudders bread truck and it's really cold and there's an open screw hole on the floorboard and your feet get numb from the cold air. It's like boot camp. But most people only have to go through boot camp once, we have to do it every other month.
STEVE: I ran into Scott [Weiland] at a that dog show at Spaceland. We started talking and I told him, "The last time that dog played Spaceland, they covered 'Big Bang Baby.' " And he turned bright red...but he's always kinda red anyway.
JEFF: He's a ginger fellow.
STEVE: He started getting all nervous and stuttering, like, "Oh yeah, when I wrote that song I was really inspired by you guys."
JEFF: They never really denied it. That song was more of a tribute, anyway.
STEVE: Scott thought I was nailing him for it, but I wasn't. If anything we were kinda flattered.
JENNIFER: What about the video? Do you think he stole your moves Jeff?
JEFF: Are you saying that STP ripped off some of my early public--access cable performances? [laughs]
STEVE: Stone Temple Pilots pay homage to things they like. But we don't get bitter, we don't feel like someone's taking credit for something that we've been doing for years.
JEFF: Well, except for Pearl Jam, who sound exactly like our Born Innocent demos. They took that sound and ran with it.
(c) 1997 BAM Media
By: Jennifer Schwartz