Redd Kross on the Pop Culture Obsessions That Shaped Their Band

When Redd Kross formed, vocalist-guitarist Jeff McDonald was 15 and his bassist brother Steven was 11. They grew up in the Beach Boys' hometown of Hawthorne, Calif., their first show was opening for Black Flag, and by the mid '80s they had embraced a retro '70s look and supported it with tunes that ranged from punky garage rockers to full-on power-pop sing-alongs. They flirted with bubblegum sincerity (and even starred in a movie with David Cassidy and Leif Garrett long before I Love the '70s was on VH1). This evolution from snotty teenage punks who thought it was funny to cover Charles Manson into the self-aware pop culture-worshipping firebrands who recorded the landmark mixture of glam and hardcore that is 1987's Neurotica is the reason why they've counted artists like Thurston Moore, Dave Grohl and Scott Weiland as fans over the years.

Into the late '90s, they seemed unstoppable, having put out six LPs. But around 1997, things petered out. Steven began to work as a record producer for groups like Imperial Teen, Turbonegro and (with Jeff) the Donnas. He also toured with groups like Sparks and, most recently, the hardcore group OFF! Jeff meanwhile started a family with the Go-Go's Charlotte Caffey, worked on studio music projects and largely avoided the stage. All this changed, though, in 2006 when Redd Kross reunited the lineup that recorded Neurotica and began touring again.

Now, they're releasing their first record in 15 years, Researching the Blues. Easily their most cohesive album, it spotlights their hard-rocking side (the title cut), knack for infectious choruses ("Stay Away From Downtown") and penchant for pop-culture nostalgia (the '70s-ish "Meet Frankenstein"). Basically, it's everything a Redd Kross album should be. We recently caught up with Jeff, who previously shared with us just what the hell he's been listening to for the past 15 years, and found out what sorts of things inspired him when writing Researching the Blues as well as clarified a few murky points from their illustrious history.

The title Researching the Blues seems loaded.

It's funny. It could be taken very seriously or as an absurd concept. You could say, "Oh, I must be researching the blues, because I keep behaving in a way that's making me miserable but I can't stop." That's one way. Or you're literally researching the blues.

One song that sounds particularly upbeat is "Stay Away From Downtown," but it seems to have a dark side. What is it about?

That's one of the songs that are actually a bit older. I wrote it 10 years ago, probably. I wrote it for a movie called Permanent Midnight; it was based on the book by Jerry Stahl, who was a junkie and also a writer for the show ALF. It's a really great book. I based the song on his tales of scoring drugs downtown, being arrested, just this horrible gross situation. I made a demo, which then sounded like a cross between Television and Fleetwood Mac, but it wasn't chosen for the movie. When I pulled it out for Redd Kross, we played it straight rock.

"We weren't like Axl Rose, where we looked at Charles Manson as an antihero."

One thing Redd Kross was known for in the '80s and '90s were your colorful, almost Partridge Family-like clothes. Do you ever regret any of your fashion choices?

Occasionally. A lot of the stuff we did we did was years before it'd become fashionable again. The clothes that we wore in the '80s, they were hard to find. No one wore flares. No one wore striped pants. People would be shocked when we'd go onstage. People would gasp sometimes. In the context of where we were playing—hardcore shows where everyone is doing their flannel, t-shirt-and-jeans, skinhead thing—it was an incentive for us to find our audience because people would recognize themselves in us. We started growing until we were able to leave that world of hardcore shows and do our own thing.

One thing that set your debut, Born Innocent, apart from other groups at the time was that it featured a Charles Manson cover, "Cease to Exist." What did you learn from covering him?

Even though it was one of the first punk-related Charles Manson things, we did it just because it was funny and irresponsible. We were huge fans and really influenced by John Waters and Pink Flamingos and all his Mansonisms. We used to just tell our parents we were into Charles Manson just to drive them crazy. Then we'd have to say we were joking. They were furious we were on the cover of Flipside magazine in our garage and we were holding this picture of Charles Manson with the word "Lie" on it. We were laughing. They were not happy.

We weren't like Axl Rose, where we looked at Charles Manson as an antihero. Not at all. It was more just the aesthetic and we did it and dropped it after a while. But we're associated with it, which is kind of a bummer … We've done these Born Innocent shows, where we play it from beginning to end. But doing "Cease to Exist," I like our version of it, but it  felt like, uh, why are we doing this? We can't perpetuate this thing.

"I mean, what's the most artistic thing you can do? Oh, have a nude person in the picture."

Speaking of things that might anger parents, how did Sofia Coppola end up naked on the cover of your 1990 album Third Eye?

Steve was going out with her at the time. We're absurdists at heart. In the original version of the cover, she was surrounded not by flowers but products like Joy soap, Skippy peanut butter, more like an installation. She was totally game to do it.

Did her father—who made The Godfather—ever say anything to you about it—specifically about her lack of clothing?

We were so naïve then. She was like my daughter's age now. She's much more boho than my daughter; my daughter is much more conservative. Her parents probably thought it was artistic and we weren't showing anything. That was our whole intention, an arty-looking record cover. It wasn't a sexy thing. Some people might find it sexy, but it wasn't meant that way. The mask she had on, it was called a dork mask or something; it had big buckteeth, it was hideous.

You make it sound as if the nude thing was an afterthought.

It was. I mean, what's the most artistic thing you can do? Oh, have a nude person in the picture. The whole thing just came together really fast. You here, wear this, you should be nude, and okay, we'll put all this stuff on the ground. We had Yoko Ono's face on a stick amongst all these commercial products. We ended up having to airbrush out all the products. Proctor & Gamble would have come after us for sure.

Going back to your early days, how was it that the International Red Cross came after you to change the spelling of your name from Red Cross to Redd Kross?

In 1981, we played this free picnic show in the park with another group called the Salvation Army. The next Monday at school, my brother gets called into the office and has a phone call from the International Red Cross. Somehow someone snitched and they found him at school and they wanted our contact, to send us a cease and desist. It could have been somebody fucking with us. That's the kind of gag I would have pulled. But I think we took it seriously because it happened to Michael Quercio from the Salvation Army as well. We just went for the Red Foxx spelling.

Another band you played with early on was Black Flag. Weren't they much older than you?

Yeah, they were a decade older. Black Flag had just started and played a local show where we're from and that was extremely rare for any kind of original rock, music let alone a punk rock DIY show. We met them there; they invited us to where they rehearsed to play for them. That was the first time we played in front of anyone, them and about 10 of their friends. We thought we were great then they performed for us, then they were just starting to branch out they were just starting to break into that original Hollywood scene, that original L.A. movement that the Germs were a part of, was really only about 100 people. It was really hard to get gigs in Hollywood because it was just like 10 bands that played. When they started getting shows, they took us along. We were little kids.

Researching the Blues is out now via Merge.

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