Rank Your Records: Steven McDonald Ranks the Eight Redd Kross Records
A look back at the weird catalog of the cult band.
Redd Kross is America's greatest example of a cult band. But they're also so much more than that. They heavily influenced the likes of Nirvana, Pavement, Stone Temple Pilots, and Sonic Youth, and were the prototypes for some of American music's biggest movements: SoCal and hardcore punk, grunge, indie rock, the Paisley Underground, glam metal, and of course, alternative rock. And yet, Redd Kross were such misfits that they never legitimately belonged to any of them. Brothers Steven and Jeff McDonald formed the band—then named Red Cross and featuring Greg Hetson (Circle Jerks) and Ron Reyes (Black Flag)—at the ages of 11 and 15, respectively, and bred their own vigorous brand of punk rock that made them instant local sensations. But once they delivered their first record, they quickly learned their destiny: Redd Kross were part of the counter culture and they would never be understood by the mainstream.
Along the way though, Redd Kross had plenty of close calls with the popular culture they fixatedly wrote about in their music. Multiple deals with major labels produced albums with commercial potential, like 1993's Phaseshifter and 1997's Show World, and 1990's Third Eye even led them to acting roles in the David Cassidy-starring, Roman Coppola-penned film, The Spirit of '76. But over their 38 years, the moment never came for Redd Kross. Instead, they became a curiosity for fans and the press alike (In 1993, Entertainment Weekly hailed them as "the most important band in America.").
Thankfully, Redd Kross is still a thing. But for Steven McDonald, it's one of four things he currently has on the go. On top of playing in the band with his brother, he also plays bass in hardcore supergroup OFF! and more recently, in sludge-metal heroes Melvins, and is a full-time producer, who's worked on records by Turbonegro, Fun., Be Your Own Pet, and most recently, the Side Eyes, a band featuring his niece, Jeff's daughter, Astrid McDonald.
According to McDonald, all of his projects are currently busy. "Right now I'm trying to get another OFF! record, and we're making a new Melvins record," he says over the phone from his Los Angeles home. "But I'm also trying to really push a new Redd Kross record through the pipeline in the next three months. I know Jeff has a bunch of songs, and I'm feeling good about writing at the moment. Knock on wood."
Noisey called up McDonald, fresh off a tour with the Melvins, to revisit the Redd Kross catalog and rank his band's records.
8. Third Eye (1990)
Noisey: Why is this your least favorite?
Steven McDonald: The thing about Third Eye is that it's sort of a polarizing album for Redd Kross fans. Now, more than ever, people tell me that it's their favorite record of ours, but back in the day it wasn't like that. The reason I have it at the bottom is because I don't feel we were ready when we made that record. This was a moment in time where we were an underground band—we were an underground band then and we're still an underground band, which I'm proud of—making a bid to become a mainstream band. Not every band gets that opportunity, especially nowadays. There are a lot of eyes on you. My brother wrote a batch of songs that I stand behind.
When I ask him if it was a success or a failure, pushing us into the mainstream was a failure, obviously, that didn't happen. But Jeff would say the reason why that didn't happen was because we went "too bubblegum." He means bubblegum music from the early 70s, like AM radio. He doesn't mean what was going on at that time, like Debbie Gibson or Tiffany. It was a weird call. He got really obsessed listening to AM radio music, and to him it was about celebrating thrown-away pop culture from another era. And that was sort of a thing we had been working on and building up for years, and this was our moment to vomit all of that into this piece that would hopefully be force-fed to the masses. And it was just an oddball fit.
We made some weird calls. We chose the producer for the wrong reasons. We had a management team that set us up to interview all of these different producers and we made an uninspired choice. Many years later when I asked my brother why we chose that particular gentleman [Michael Vail Blum (The New Radicals, Suicidal Tendencies, Dogstar)] he said, "Well, during the meeting process he seemed like the most passive choice." So he assumed it would be easy to tell him what to do. But in making the album we learned he was more passive aggressive. He would sulk when he didn't get his way. It was decisions like that. We weren't very on top of that. We weren't ready for that opportunity.
So when I hear that record now I remember all of the anxiety I had. I remember feeling like, "How the fuck are we going to relate to billions of people when I don't like what's going on in popular music. I don't like what the masses like. I don't like Bon Jovi. I don't like Spin Doctors or whatever was in the Top 40 back then." It made sense to us to try and be a pop band because we loved popular music, but popular music from 20 years earlier, like the Beatles and the Rolling Stones. So it was always an awkward ambition for us.
This was your major label debut. Did that change anything for you?
Now when I talk to bands that had a similar experience at that time, like Buzz Osbourne of the Melvins, for example, he had a very different experience. His whole thing was like, "Fine, you can sign us but we're never gonna achieve what you want us to achieve. Go for it! We're an underground band so don't expect it to be anything but an underground record." That was a much healthier place to be coming from. We didn't have that objectivity. So that is my emotional reaction to how the whole thing worked out. There are a lot of people where this was the first time they heard us and they think of it as a pop classic, and I'm grateful for that. I have so much baggage attached to that though. I felt like a failure for years.
At the time you guys had the same management as Nirvana.
Yeah and I remember being told by them that Kurt Cobain didn't like Third Eye, but supposedly his bandmates did. So even in their camp there was contention about it. Kurt thought it wasn't cool, supposedly. But we encouraged Sonic Youth to use John Silva as their manager, and then Sonic Youth brought Nirvana to him. So we were directly linked to that experience. And he knows this. But he owes us! At the time it was really difficult, because I was hoping we could go on tour with Nirvana and be anointed by the Kings of Cool. But to the contrary—we could barely get John on the phone. Every time we called our management no one could get back to us because they were chasing Kurt around.
Tell me about the Paul Stanley guest vocals on "1976."
That was just for fun. [Guitarist] Robert [Hecker] always did a great Paul Stanley impersonation and we liked to create our own mythology. My brother was really good at that. So we went as far as to thank Paul Stanley on the record. It was just good fun to confuse people further. It's been notated in interviews now that Robert did his voice, but we didn't give him credit for that on the record. We just thanked Paul Stanley, which led people to believe he did the singing. We didn't want to leave Robert's talent unmined.
7. Teen Babes From Monsanto (1984)
I had a fun time making this record, and I would have put it higher on the list, but it's a mini-album of covers. So just for the fact that we didn't write the songs, except "Linda Blair," which we re-recorded as "Linda Blair 1984." My brother always said the point of this album was to school the hardcore kids on the history of rock 'n' roll. It was sort of our stab at a record like Bowie's Pinups, which was the first covers record we had known. That record meant something to us because it was the first time we'd heard some of those songs. So we wanted to do that for our generation and turn them on to bands like the Stooges. I think a lot of people heard some of those songs for the first time on this record. So I've always been proud of this record, but it's lower because I don't think it has the substance that some of our others do.
Would you ever do a sequel to this?
Actually, my brother reissued Teen Babes this year and included all of the other covers we've recorded. So that isn't exactly what you're asking, but making a Teen Babes Part 2 is also something we'd love to do. Buzz Osbourne recently asked Jeff and I if we'd take part in a history of rock 'n' roll concept record that he and Dale want to make. So the four of us perhaps will record a history of rock'n'roll as according to the four of us. Maybe it will be the sequel.
6. Neurotica (1987)
This was always a frustrating record for me because of stupid, annoying band member reasons, like I never liked the sound of the record. It was the first time we had a budget, $50,000, which was considered a small budget in 1986 but reasonable for an up-and-coming band. Today that is so much money to record. We were going into big studios and dealing with expectations to push ourselves to the next level of professionalism. We were learning how to be in pitch and to play with metronomic timing and to not rush the drum fill, so a lot of shit that I don't give a fuck about anymore and I really wish no one had imposed on me. That created a lot of neuroses. A lot of the records I love have never been about any of those things. So the fact that it became a priority for us to make a professional record was unfortunate timing for us. So this record sounds insecure and stiff to me. In my experience, the more you focus on those things the more diminished the returns are. At least for a garage musician like myself. I was not a studio musician. Looking back now I can see that. We were never going to be Steely Dan.
The album was produced by Tommy Ramone. What was that like?
Yeah, Tommy brought a few good stories and he was a sweet man. But to be totally honest, and I feel shitty saying this because he was a Ramone, I think we would have been better off without him. Let's put it this way, the Ramones had released Too Tough To Die at this point, which Tommy co-produced with Ed Stasium, and the record sounded really alive. It was a great record for the Ramones and was called their comeback record. Tommy was an original Ramone, and the Ramones were part of the pantheon, they're untouchable, so we hugely respected him for life.
But I think all that Redd Kross needed at that moment was a good engineer. I think all Redd Kross ever needed was a good engineer to make a record. We didn't need anyone else's opinions. We didn't want them, quite frankly. We always had to weed through the process of dealing with a producer. We just needed an engineer to make our ideas as big and exciting as we envisioned them. And working with Tommy Ramone, that wasn't really his forte. He was an ideas guy that helped create the Ramones' identity, but he wasn't really bringing ideas to the table with us. If anything, he poo-pooed some of our ideas. When we told him we wanted the bass to sound like Led Zeppelin's "Good Times Bad Times," he scoffed at us, like it was an outdated concept. To me it's timeless. The first Led Zeppelin record is one of the best sounding records ever, and I wish we got closer to that sound. Still to this day. But we were in the mid-80s, which was a terrible time to intersect with ambition in the music world. For my taste, at least.
Sonically, I wanted to knock it out of the park with this record. I wanted it to compete with the first Jane's Addiction record and Guns 'N Roses, and in our minds we wanted it to have the pop sensibility of the Partridge Family but the live ferocity of the Who's Live At Leeds. Which is a great fucking recipe. But we were working with a producer who was trying to cultivate his own career, which was unfortunate. On the flipside, we did achieve some cool things in a way that no one else has, and I'm proud of that. We might have become an underground band with a stronger following in 2016 had things gone more the way I wanted to go.
A lot of people feel that this album helped spawn grunge. Have you ever heard that before?
Sure. We toured the Pacific Northwest in 1986 and '87, and I know this talking to Buzz Osbourne, but Neurotica came at a time when that scene was coalescing. We were just a step beyond them. We were referencing the Stooges a couple of years before people like Mark Arm were. It was just a record where all of these warring factions in a cliquish scene were able to agree that it was cool. Bands like Soundgarden, Green River, Malfunkshun, and Screaming Trees supported us, so I guess, yeah, were one of the bands people in that scene dug.
Sub Pop wanted to reissue this album. What happened with that?
There was a period in the 90s where Sub Pop wanted to reissue it. They always gave it props, saying how important it was in the Pacific Northwest and their label. Our labelmates at Big Time Records, the Hoodoo Gurus, actually won the release rights to that record in a lawsuit with the label owner, Fred Bestall. He didn't have the money to pay anything, so he just gave all of his assets from the label to the bands he owed money to. So the Hoodoo Gurus were our friends, and while we were on tour with them in Australia, they unceremoniously gave us back the masters to the record—a CD master on this gigantic Betamax tape and papers saying we had the release rights. So our manager went to Sub Pop, and they were into the idea of reissuing it, but then they chickened out because they weren't sure they had the North American rights. But we eventually reissued the record ourselves on our wives' label, Five Foot Two, around 2002.
5. Red Cross (1980)
In my opinion this is one of the greatest records ever made.
I love it and I'm really proud of it but I'm not gonna rest my whole vibe on it. It's just such a weird thing that it exists, and that it happened. I wouldn't say it's the most important thing I've ever done. I'll leave that for Calvin Johnson to say. He told me to my face that basically I peaked at the age of 12, and it's been downhill ever since. But I'm very proud of this record. I had a very unique start and it was very bizarre. I was 12 years old and our very first show was playing at an eighth grade graduation party with Black Flag, who were totally unknown. And I was just finishing sixth grade myself. This was in the suburbs of Los Angeles, Hawthorne, California. Think Dazed & Confused or Dirk Diggler's living room in the first ten minutes of Boogie Nights. And we had irate eighth graders who wanted to kill us because we weren't playing Foreigner covers. They hassled us and we fucking stood up to them and played "Annette's Got The Hits." And Jeff told them we would play some unreleased Led Zeppelin, but then we played a noise jam that sounded like Teenage Jesus & The Jerks. These kids bought it.
So a lot of shit happened with the birth of our band. We got to play with a lot of my heroes at the time, like the Germs. I might bellyache with an opportunity to intersect with mainstream culture at the wrong time, but on the flipside I might say I had great fortune intersecting with underground culture, at the right place, at the right time. I definitely took advantage of that opportunity and it's displayed on our first record.
4. Born Innocent (1982)
This was our first full-length, which kind of cemented our future as a weirdo band for life. At the time, I was frustrated by the experience because six months earlier we were ready to make a very competitive record for the time and the scene, but a plethora of reasons we had to wait to make it. By the time we got to it, we had disintegrated into this weirdo, stoner kind of thing that is displayed on Born Innocent. But it's a much better time capsule for who my brother is. He is a truly enigmatic weirdo. The opening song is an anthem for trash culture icon Linda Blair, and I think it really set the tone for our future. It was a great example of what my brother was about. I might have been more of a normal kid and would've had a shot at appealing to a larger, mainstream audience.
I feel like this record became individualistic against its will. I wanted it to compete with the landscape at the time, which the demos we did six months earlier had. In retrospect, they were more boring. It was a pretty normal hardcore record. But I was always bucking for us to be competitive with who was hot shit at the moment, which would have been the Circle Jerks and Bad Religion at the time. And my brother was always like, "Fuck that shit. We're gonna do it our own way." And that's what we did.
Soon after, we had to change our band name, and rather than changing it to Red Kross, which would've made more sense, the amount of times our band name has been misspelled would've been cut in half, he insisted on adding the extra D. When I asked why he wanted to do that he said, "Well, it's like Redd Foxx. Like, duh!" It was the most confusing thing in the world, but that's how he rolls. But then that record went on to inspire Thurston Moore and that dude from Pavement [Stephen Malkmus]. It cemented our place in indie rock and underground music.
This was definitely a formative moment.
I think it's a great introduction. It's very snotty, it's very mischievous, it's very playful. I think it set the stage for the direction we took and sent us out on our own, not really as a part of any other scene. We could interact with other scenes, but we would never be perceived as a grunge band or a hair metal band or a hardcore band. That meant we wouldn't get a free ride from that wave, but also we wouldn't die when that wave goes away. We were just in our own fucking stratosphere.
What kind of response was there to covering Charles Manson's "Cease to Exist"?
Well, on the original version of the record, we didn't list the song because we were actually afraid. Rodney Bingenheimer [KROQ DJ] was always a fan of the band, and he used to hang out with the Manson girls, so he knew Charlie. Part of the folklore was that Dennis Wilson was on Manson's hit list because the Beach Boys covered one of his songs without giving Manson credit. In a lot of ways, we were just being outrageous. We were on the cover of Flipside magazine with a banner that said, "Charlie Saves" painted on it. We were into talking about that stuff, but at the same time, we were also uniquely afraid of being killed by the Manson Family. Because you have to understand, it was only 12 years after the murders.
3. Show World (1997)
Show World is a really good, well-crafted record. It was a hard record to make and we actually recorded it twice, so there is kind of a lost album out there. I think Jeff called it Black Shampoo. I can't even tell you what the tracklist is, but maybe half of the songs on Show World are on it. I think it's almost a whole other album. And Show World was just a time where we learned how to make a record. By that point we knew how to craft a great pop record. We were comfortable in the studio, but we had a lot of anxiety about it being now or never. It was our second album for the same label, which had never happened before, and I was just about to turn 30. I never understood that I could continue doing this if we became a mainstream band or not. And that's my own fault, but I also feel like there wasn't a lot of support for that thinking. It's a different time now, and when I look back in retrospect I wish I had known what I know now. None of this is make or break, but it felt like that at the time. So I felt like I didn't enjoy the process. I liked the record but I couldn't imagine millions of people liking it. And then that would create anxiety for me. Today, I would be at peace and never think about that. But those expectations were put upon us and we allowed ourselves to participate in it.
After Show World you went on a lengthy hiatus. When did you make that decision?
It came to me after we toured the album. We lost our drummer [Brian Reitzell], who had been with us for five years and was a big part of the time. So it felt like a real blow when he left, but I understood. And so I had to look at whether I wanted to put the band back together, which is something we always had to do. I was always the catalyst, the guy who would make things happen, like place ads in the classified section and put together auditions. At the time I just couldn't go through it again. I was 30 years old and I had been in a band since I was 11, so I thought maybe I should approach music from other directions, so that's what I did.
I went to school and studied music theory. I auditioned for bands like Weezer and Zwan. I got several callbacks and funny stories about them. I started producing people, and kind of retired from Redd Kross indefinitely. But I didn't know that going into Show World. It was only a year after. We were losing our record deal, and the thought of going backwards and working with an indie didn't even occur to me that it was a possibility. That didn't feel like progress. Things happen as they should have. But you have to understand, you're talking to a person who's spent the last year with Buzz Osbourne. So I could look at some of it as lost opportunities or wasting ten years by not sticking with Redd Kross. I don't know if Jeff would've been up for it anyway. He likely needed a break from it too. But I've been in three amazing underground bands instead of one band that had a few big hits. And that's totally fine.
I always liked the message behind "Mess Around." There aren't enough pro-monogamy songs in rock 'n' roll.
[Laughs] Yeah, it's a good one! Friends of mine even used it at their wedding to walk down the aisle to. I think it got a little bit of airplay in Canada too!
2. Phaseshifter (1993)
Phaseshifter was one of these moments where we had put together a new lineup and we were coming out of Third Eye, which felt like chaos. This was a new beginning. We got a whole new lineup, went over to the UK and got a deal, and we had a new shot at breaking as a mainstream group, mostly through our UK label. But the main difference was that we got to work with John Agnello, who was the perfect producer to work with this. If I do have one regret for all of these records it's that John didn't work on all of them. If he had worked on Neurotica and Third Eye, I would have such a different feeling about those records. But it wasn't meant to be. He had a very casual approach, he always knew how to make things sound good, and he always trusted our vision and allowed us to be creative. He also taught me how to do a lot of things in the studio.
Touring the record was also the first time we've done that with the musicians that made the record with us. We just moved forward very confidently. It was unfortunate timing in America at that point because there was a stigma because we had been dropped by Atlantic and the industry wasn't really gonna give us a chance. Canada actually did though, and we got airplay on the radio and MuchMusic. So that was fun and something that extended through Show World. But I always wished back in the day that Phaseshifter was our major label debut. I don't necessarily think that the songs are any better than the other records, I just have a better feeling about the sessions from that record.
Who came up with the idea to start the album with a sample from Red Cross' "Standing In Front Of Poseur"?
That was Jeff. We were getting reflective on the journey we'd had so far. In my mind, I was putting it out there as, "Yeah motherfucker, I was 11 years old on that recording screaming, 'Hit it!'" Before Nirvana, before Guns 'N Roses and Jane's Addiction, all of these bands that had mainstream success, we wanted to point out that we had coal to burn.
1. Researching the Blues (2012)
Why is this your favorite?
For me, it's my favorite collection of my brother's songs, most importantly. If I hear it, it always sounds like the way I think it should sound. I feel it really showed people what we could do. And it makes me excited to make another one. It's also very gratifying because we finally took the reins ourselves. We were a band that had never been on top of their shit, didn't know how to make business decisions, and finally we became accountable and made the record ourselves. We didn't know if anyone would give a fuck about it, so it's very gratifying on that level. To me this record feels like the beginning of another chapter. I know it's been almost five years since it came out, and maybe we'll never put out records every year or two, but I feel like there will be more records and this was the beginning of it. I think it might also be our most relevant chapter. We never had hit records, so we can't cash in. But at the same time we're never gonna have to experience that moment when you play the one big song and then after everyone bails. We're always hopeful forever. I think that is a good thing.
Also, Anna [Waronker, that dog.] and I have a seven-year-old in school now, so I am dealing with what I call "mainstream people" or "normal people." I'm dealing with them more than ever now. And when people ask me about my band, I always feel weird, like people expect me to be famous. It's the stupidest thing. But in terms of creative success, this is the record that I am most proud of by far. It's the record I would want someone who doesn't know Redd Kross to hear first. To me, it just has the most substance. It's the most applicable to my life.
What made you come back and release a new album after 15 years?
The band started playing together again around 2006 with the Neurotica lineup. And we did a few shows and went into the studio soon after. So we started the record but we didn't finish it for a long time. It was really down to not knowing how to finish the record or mix the record. It took us a long time to decide to take the reins and learn how to do that ourselves. So I wish John Agnello had done all of the other records, but I also wish we had done all of the other records. That's what I encourage young artists to do today because it really allows you to prioritize and be more efficient. Even though it's a big responsibility, you don't have to deal with anyone else's agenda or idea of what will make it an appealing record.