Music » Local Music

Steve McDonald on 40 years of constant reinvention with Redd Kross

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This month, genre-hopping L.A. rockers Redd Kross will play Detroit for only the second time in the last decade when they appear at El Club on May 10. Redd Kross was formed by brothers Jeff and Steven McDonald, and were a regular fixture of the eclectic Los Angeles punk rock scene of the 1980s. The band played its first show with Black Flag when bassist Steven was only 12 years old. Early members included the likes of Black Flag alumni Ron Reyes and Dez Cadena, along with Circle Jerks guitarist Greg Hetson.

In the course of 40 years together, the band has experimented with the idiom, evolving from the proto-hardcore sound of their first self-titled EP to highly-polished and radio-ready power pop with their 1990 album Third Eye. They eventually settled into a sound reminiscent of the great '60s blues and psychedelic bands the McDonald brothers were reared on throughout their childhood in suburban Hawthorne, California.

The first time I saw Steve McDonald perform was with punk "supergroup" Off! in 2011. The band played a free show at their record label Vice's East London headquarters. When we speak via telephone from his current home in Los Feliz — not far Off! bandmate Keith Morris — McDonald describes how London's mustachioed hipster population had repaid the band's generosity. "It was free, and some fucker stole my tuner!" Mcdonald says. "That was the thanks I got."

Sharing time between Redd Kross, Off!, and the Melvins, McDonald says he tends to remember gigs by things like the equipment that was stolen, or carrying his 8-by-10 speaker cabinet up a precarious fire escape for that Vice show. "That's one of the things about being a die-hard underground rock and roller," he says. "You load your own gear a lot."

In the 1980s, McDonald's prized 1976 Gibson Thunderbird bass was also stolen in Tucson, Ariz., while Redd Kross was touring in support of the Bangles (Steven's older brother Jeff was dating Bangles guitar player Vicki Peterson). "The club paid us not to play. They saw our sound check. It was Born Innocent era," McDonald says.

"The club owner said, 'We're a new establishment and we want to be known for entertainment. So we're going to make you guys an offer. We'd like to pay you your full guarantee, but we'd like you to not play.' We were like, 'What, $400 to not play? Hell yeah!' That was the most money we'd ever been guaranteed at that point in our lives."

"Susanna Hoffs was buying me drinks at the bar all night just for fun. She thought it was funny to see me get plastered. She was buying me, I think, Long Island iced teas, and I got fucking shitfaced that night and that's how they did it. I got shitfaced, and then at the end of the night we had all our stuff loading up and I go, 'Wait, where's my bass?' I ran up to get my bass and these big scary bouncers are like, 'It's not here.' They took it."

McDonald's bass resurfaced at a store called Freedom Guitar in the 1990s. In a grainy home video, he can be seen confronting the store's owner along with Sonic Youth frontman Thurston Moore, who Redd Kross had toured in support of while trying to garner mainstream attention throughout the grunge era. "I guess we were trying to 'make it,'" McDonald tells me. "So we were always touring with bands like Sonic Youth, or Stone Temple Pilots."

At first, the proprietor of Freedom Guitar was unreceptive to McDonald's insistence that the bass was stolen property. Then police were called to remove the musician from the store. "Take the bass and just start swinging it," Moore tells the camera. "Bust open some cop heads."

McDonald eventually got his property back without resorting to violence, through normal legal channels. "He sold it to me for 600 bucks, and I paid $400 in 1983. Which was a crazy amount of money for me in 1983," Mcdonald says. "But I now possess my 1976 Gibson Thunderbird that I played on Born Innocent."

One of the more mysterious chapters in Redd Kross's history is also one of involuntary sharing. The band's first EP contains one song, "Cover Band," whose main riff is nearly identical to "Live Fast, Die Young," from the Circle Jerks' classic album Group Sex.

"The story with that is Greg Hetson. We shared a guitar player, so Greg Hetson the guitar player for the Circle Jerks was also the first guitar player for Redd Kross, and when he joined our band we already had a group of songs. We had like "Annette's Got the Hits" and another couple of songs that ended up on that first EP, and we asked Greg, 'Do you have anything?,' and he presented that riff."

"He was in a band called the Mongrels. So we always assumed that he had written that. But years later we learned that he stole that riff! And then who those guys turned out to be was a pretty well-known journalist — especially here in Los Angeles because he writes for The LA Weekly — Falling James [Moreland] of a band called the Leaving Trains. So Falling James and his bandmates wrote that riff. Greg was in a band with them called the Mongrels, and then when Greg joined our band he presented that as his own. And then he once again stole the riff from Circle Jerks. Which was weird, because at that point Redd Kross had already recorded it and released it. It was a weird move.

"There was a lot of bad blood in the early years of Circle Jerks; they were mining a lot of their early material from Redd Kross and Black Flag. I was 12 at the time. There's another song on Group Sex that I wrote the main riff to when I was 12 that they never gave me credit for, that song '[I Just Want Some] Skank.' But the flip side of that is that I eventually started a band that has been quite good for me with the lead singer. And that water is way under the bridge."

Redd Kross has displayed an interesting habit of popping up at various moments in rock history, first in the Los Angeles punk scene, then as a radio-friendly alternative act with Third Eye during the early years of MTV and 120 Minutes, and later with their albums Phaseshifter and Show World, which in many ways anticipated the garage and psych revival of the early 2000s. After a decade-plus hiatus, the band released yet another '60s inflected album with 2012's Researching the Blues. But during Redd Kross' time off, McDonald garnered national attention with his self-described "stunt" Redd Blood Cells, which lent his bass playing to the famously bass-less White Stripes album White Blood Cells. "Back in 2002, or whatever, I could have felt none more anonymous in rock communities. But that was actually a shining little moment, because I pulled that stunt online and when I look back at it now, it was sort of a cry for help." he says. "I was really sad that I didn't have a band anymore. And you know, Jack and Meg were really kind about it. He's known for not putting up with a lot of bullshit. But instead of punching my lights out, he was very complimentary, and encouraging that I do it."

Asked whether he feels responsible for any of the trends Redd Kross anticipated or perhaps even set in motion — from the power pop and hook-laden punk rock that dominated much of independent music in the late '90s, to the garage rock that captivated mainstream attention in the early 2000s, McDonald instead views Redd Kross' status as that of outsiders. But when asked which sound is the real Redd Kross, his answer reveals a reluctant awareness of their influence.

"All of those different sounds I think are us. It's hard to pin down what is 'our' sound," he says. "It's probably one of the reasons we maintained firm status as an underground group, for better or for worse — because we haven't just stuck with one approach. But it's also one of the reasons why we're on the phone right now."

Redd Kross plays El Club on Wednesday, May 10; Doors at 8 p.m.; 4114 West Vernor Hwy., Detroit; elclubdetroit.com; $15-$17.

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