On May 19th Chicago will be treated to the return of Redd Kross, who are in town for the Hozac Blackout Fest at the Empty Bottle. They will be performing the first  Red Cross EP and the first full length Born Innocent  in their entirety, along with some surprises. On the eve of this momentous occasion, Steven McDonald has been kind enough to grant Victim Of Time an interview.
VoT: This year’s Hozac Blackout lineup is the greatest ever. How did this extra special first Red Cross EP and Born Innocent in their entirety show come to be? I’ll admit I was stunned to find out you guys got booked!
Steven McDonald: [Laughter] How did it come to be? Well…for me the catalyst was Mario Rubalcaba of Spider Fever who’s playing Friday night, and he’s also the drummer of OFF!, a band that I play in with Keith [Morris of Black Flag and Circle Jerks] and Mario. Mario, ... one of his other bands (Spider Fever), he plays in a few, had done stuff with Hozac, and so he’s known Todd [Novak – Hozac Records] for a while, and at any rate him and Todd got to talking so they kind of dreamed it up together. Mario clued me in and the next thing you know now it’s happening in [a few] days!
Check out RED CROSS 1st EP (Posh Boy Records 1980) right here:
VoT: I’m glad it’s happening!
SM: Yeah, me too!
VoT: A lot of musicians seem to musically “evolve” and they lose interest in their early work, if not show outright disdain for it…
VoT: For example, I’m not holding my breath for a Modern Lovers first LP reunion tour, or The Replacements 'Sorry Ma Forgot To Take Out The Trash' tour. Now you’re a guy who can play his ass off, has backed Sparks, which must mean you’re a virtuoso –
VoT: …what inspired Redd Kross to do shows, playing songs you wrote as kids? Not that I’m complaining mind you, I think it’s great!
SM: Well, y’know, I’m proud of those records! We’re still doin’ newer stuff too, we’ll play some other stuff as well. The EP and LP are maybe a half an hours worth of music. I think the night will go a little longer than that. I think there’s a sense of confidence about what we do anyway. It’s not like we had that one hit song that was massive and then we never had any success after that, it’s like everything’s underground weird shit!
VoT: The Red Cross EP came out in 1980, Born Innocent came out in 1982, pretty near the birth of LA punk, and damn near ground zero of LA hardcore. Your first gig was opening for Black Flag, Ron Reyes [Black Flag] was in the band at one point, Greg Hetson too [Circle Jerks/Bad Religion]. It’s one of the most documented musical era of all time, it seems like, books, video, kids view it as legendary. What story or stories did you personally witness that you find yourself telling people you meet, kids, over and over and over again that didn’t make it to a book, like, say…We Got The Neutron Bomb?
SM: I found myself talking the other day about being at an X show when I was a little kid, about 200 people at a crowded little club called The Hong Kong Café. Darby Crash of The Germs, who was like my biggest idol at the time, loved X. Everyone knew he kinda hated everything, but he loved X. He was in front of the crowd, sitting on the stage against the monitor worshipping them. At the time, this was kind of bizarre. To me it was like if Mick Jagger was front and center for, um, like you know…[pauses]
SM: Yeah [chuckles], like some other British Invasion band, and in the middle of the set, in-between songs, Billy Zoom the charismatic guitar player stops and says “get him off the stage!” It was an awkward moment, [Darby] started cryin’, everyone was like…some big power move, and then Pat Smear jumped up on stage and punched Billy Zoom in the face!
SM: …and then ran into the kitchen of the club which was just off the stage. So, for me being a little kid and watching all that, that was like, uh, my idol's in a ridiculous showdown.
VoT: Yeah, ha, I’m assuming they’ve kissed and made up since.
VoT: I don’t know! I don’t know if Pat and Billy Zoom ever talk much, I don’t know what went down, I don’t think anyone ever chased Pat into the kitchen, but it was pretty funny [laughter] the show just went on.
VoT: You guys covered "Cease To Exist" by Charles Manson, the secret track on Born Innocent. Has Charlie ever commented on it, and who receives the royalties for the song?
VoT: I don’t know, I don’t have an answer for either of those. I don’t know who his publisher is, I suppose someone’s collecting either the BMI or ASCAP for that. Y’know, at the time we were a little bit freaked out. I think Sandra Good and Squeaky Fromme, it hadn’t been too long since they had attempted to assassinate Gerald Ford. There were still like some freaky stragglers who could have came you know, looking for us, or just like, wanting to connect with us for all I know. We kinda didn’t really want to invite that into our lives. We were just at that time kind of discovering the folklore and mythology about Los Angeles in the late 60’s. Growing up, everybody was affected by the Manson Murders and my parents had a copy of Helter Skelter in the living room and looking at the pictures with the blacked out bodies…so creepy. Then later on hearing the rock ‘n’ roll stories, hearing about Dennis Wilson, hanging out at Charlie’s house, and vice versa, and all the hippies moving into Dennis’ house, there was this rock ‘n’ roll story that didn’t seem all that different from the environment that we were living in. It was kind of bizarre; it was like a piece of LA heritage. Not that I idolized him, it was more just creepy to realize that I was part of the same culture. It not that long, it’s a decade later and I think it was just kind of fascinating to us.
VoT: I’m imagining you checked your groupie’s foreheads to make sure they weren’t covering up an X…
VoT: 1984’s Teen Babes From Monsanto. I’ve owned this record for years, it came out on Gasatanka Records. It’s a prophetic title, since you guys have been on some labels that have uh…run out of gas.
SM: Ha ha ha! Gasatanka was the brainchild of Pat Fear of the band White Flag, he’s been a friend of ours, it was his label and it went through Enigma Records which was one of the big indies.
VoT: 1984, a full two years after Born Innocent, why were you guys inspired to release a collection of covers? [Steven Laughs] That’s something a band usually does when, uh, The Spiders From Mars are about to break up, or Guns ‘N’ Roses are about to strangle each other…
SM: Well, we were probably just smoking too much pot to write our own songs [laughter] and also we were kind of going through a transition and that was the music we were listening to. In retrospect if you think about this band from the punk era…the first album was ’80 but we recorded in ’79 and we started in ’78 so we definitely caught sort of the peak of the first wave of LA punk rock even though we were so young, and so for in ’84, ’83 I guess, we started covering influences like The Shangri-La’s, Boyce & Hart, and Kiss and Man Who Sold The World-era Bowie, - showing off where our heads were, trying to turn our friends on to stuff we thought was really cool, and doing our own take on it. […] I dunno, it’s a cool record, we’ll probably play a tune or two off that at the Blackout.
VoT: I’ve journeyed to L.A. a dozen times or so, and among the rock scene there’s this obsession with the Partridge Family. What’s the skinny on that? Looking at the slipcover to Teen Babes, I’m wondering if Redd Kross somehow spearheaded this.
SM: Well, probably on Teen Babes, we planned on including a Partridge Family cover but we couldn’t afford enough studio time to record it properly. We used to cover "Somebody Wants To Love You." Dave Markey had a film called The Slog Movie that documents early 80’s LA hardcore and we’re in that video doing a Partridge Family cover. I think we were playing with a bunch of hardcore bands, and the Suicidal Tendencies, they weren’t even a band yet, they were a gang and they were in the crowd […] and it’s not documented in the film, but what happened was that the Suicidal gang really decided that they had had enough of these weirdos playing Partridge Family covers at a punk rock show and they started throwing kiwi fruits. These hippies were selling kiwi fruits, the first time I’d ever tasted a kiwi fruit! [Laughter]
VoT: Hopefully not involuntarily!
SM: Nah, yeah, not voluntarily, it was kinda funky, a cool moment because we didn’t back down, and then afterwards they offered us protection. We earned the respect from the Suicidal gang. For us it wasn’t an LA thing, for us, I think I was raised by television as much as I was raised by my parents and it was impossible not to look back at those previous 10 years of our lives as we were writing songs and trying to think of things to talk about, things to reference. We had just gotten though a very psychedelic experience which was popular culture in the 70’s. This is stuff that people were throwing away, they thought it was disposable and we were like wait, dust that off. The truth is, that stuff was masterfully crafted. Great pop songwriters like Carole King and The Wrecking Crew played on that stuff. We loved it and we weren’t afraid to wave that flag. A lot of people kind of connected to that perspective and it might have been considered very “un-punk.” At some point we found ourselves fueling off these things. We were rejected by a lot of the so-called counterculture, the rebellious subcultures like punk rock and stuff. We found those environments to get very regimented and they ended up having more rules and more strict rules than mainstream culture and that was a drag. It became a thing for us to just like piss off the supposed rebels. We were always finding ourselves in these weird situations playing with bands like Social Distortion and the audience wanted to kill us! [Laughter] How do you shock a room full of weirdos? Do something weirder!
VoT: Your next LP, a lot of people consider the definitive Redd Kross LP, 1987’s Neurotica. You were absorbing your cultures, your LA mythology, eating bowls of Frosted Flakes and ready to record your new record. You found new members [guitarist] Robert Heckler and [drummer] Roy McDonald. Are they playing the upcoming Hozac show?
SM: Actually Robert can’t make the show so we’re playing with a fill in guitar player Jason Shapiro who was a brother in arms from the same era from an LA band called Celebrity Skin.
VoT: Oh yeah, wow, cool, totally familiar with them.
SM: Yeah, we did a record recently and we’ve been playing with Robert, and it is essentially the Neurotica lineup. Yeah, Robert joined the band at that time [Neurotica era] and [he] actually joined when we started touring which was right after Teen Babes From Monsanto, and yeah, he’s a wonderful weirdo!
VoT: You guys must have loved him, you let him write songs. Those are usually a musician's last words, "hey guys, I've got some songs!"
SM: Ha ha! Yeah, I think we’ve always been very inclusive. We’ve had many different lineups but we only use people that we’re inspired by. I think they’ve had some effect on how things have mutated and some records had very different flavors, and y’know we were excited about working with different people and Robert is such a bona fide unique artist.
VoT: Neurotica – the definite Redd Kross record to a lot of fans, and certainly to the press, do you agree?
SM: I don’t know, I think it was just the culmination of what we talked about in Teen Babes From Monsanto, taking all those influences and mixing them up into our own experience in the post-punk era, and mixing it up into a brand new stew and I think that record was a really fresh moment for that and it just turned a lot of people on. How the record holds up? For me it’s kind of hard for me to be totally objective, I like our new record best [Laughter] - very Paul Stanley of me to say! I’m proud of that record. We’ve never played it in its entirety. I would do that sometime.
VoT: Cool. Okay, Chicago has always been fascinated by power pop type stuff…
SM: Oh yeah.
VoT: Off the top of my head, Cheap Trick, Material Issue, Urge Overkill, even Celebrity Skin for that matter were some bands that were embraced by Chicago. I’m imagining you guys were heralded as living gods around the time Neurotica came out in Chicago. Would this be fair to say, and please tell me any impressions or recollections you have of Chicago when it came to touring?
SM: I can’t remember, it must have been Neurotica – the first time we played Chicago it was an all ages venue…
SM: Yeah Medusa’s, exactly, with The Meatmen, it was a daytime show and it was a hot summer day so we didn’t know what to expect and it ended up being really really sweltering, and really really bitchin. It was a packed club and kids were just going crazy, it was super fun. And that’s what sort of started our positive rapport with the city of Chicago! It’s a town that has always been a highlight for us on tour. Maybe Omaha wasn’t great [laughter] but Chicago you knew was going to be a blast. And as you said, Cheap Trick, shit like that, we felt kind of a kinship too.
VoT: After Neurotica was released your label Big Time folded and you guys were in limbo for a while. Was there any particular opportunity that was missed as the result of this legal situation that was particularly upsetting?
SM: Uh, [chuckles] I don’t know…maybe. I don’t remember! [Laughter] There was momentum with the record and then the label fell they kind of lost their funding. The guy who owned the label I guess he had funded everything on money that wasn’t really his. While we were on tour he got sued and so by the time we were home the label didn’t really exist anymore so I think we could have had maybe more marketing support but y’know, I was pretty oblivious to that stuff at the time, I didn’t really know. I was just off doing my job being a bass player extraordinaire!
VoT: This brings us up to Third Eye on Atlantic Records. You guys were on a major label. Good or bad experience?
SM: Uh, eh, well, you know it was fine, it was a little awkward. It was a little weird for us. I don’t think it really envisioned what we were doing, making sense in that world but it was the obvious next step to do. I don’t think we’ve ever really had a community that we felt, outside of that first year with that weirdo Black Flag community but everyone was different but by the time we were doing the Third Eye record we just wanted to take the stuff that we were doing a step further with no expectations of what was going to happen. The major label world, it’s hard not to feel their expectations and when we didn’t turn into like The Bay City Rollers overnight that just kind of ended very abruptly. It was kind of jarring.
VoT: The songs were there, I like the record, but in the press I read that Third Eye “threw some fans” and they didn’t get it, but it doesn’t seem that far of a jump from Neurotica. Did this press perception have anything to do with the fact that it was the start of grunge, and you’re dressing like the Bay City Rollers, The Quick, like uh…glitter rock dudes?
SM: Yeah, probably that, probably also the sound of the record, but we just got really, really bubblegum. I think my brother was thinking, well, how do we interact with mainstream culture? What’s been mainstream that we’ve enjoyed? He’s coming back to early 70’s mainstream radio which I don’t think was necessarily a very competitive move at that time. We were doing our own thing and people wanted us to compete with Jane’s Addiction, and instead we were competing with 1910 Fruitgum Company! [Laughter] I think now days maybe that would translate easier. At the time people just didn’t get it. It was also a little bit of an oddball record for us too, we were having some personnel changes when we were making the record, had I been older and wiser maybe we would have gotten our personnel straightened out. Like I said, members of the band have such a big effect. We lost our drummer during that record and he’d sing some amazing lead vocals at the time […] his name was Victor Andrizzo, he was in the band for a couple of years. He’s a big session player these days, a sweet guy but at the time we were having creative differences and it just became a struggle. Also, we were working with a producer…we hired someone just based on [that] it seemed like they were very passive. We were walking into a major label situation and we just wanted to make sure that we controlled this conversation creatively. I think I would make that decision differently now because we ended up working with someone we had absolutely nothing in common with creatively but that we thought that they seemed passive, that we would be able to control them and tell them what to do. And unfortunately what happened is they just pouted a lot.
SM: We’d say we don’t want that guitar sound, we sound like G.E. Smith, we want it to sound like The MC5, and he didn’t understand that - so he would just pout! Thinking back to making the record, it wasn’t a very fun process. We weren’t ready for it, but I hate to weigh down the experience people have with my weirdo insight because I think that I think people who connect with that record, it means a lot to them. I think that sometimes the whole story, is uh, even though I lived it doesn’t mean that it’s a more relevant story than what just a listener had. Maybe things would have been different had we had the Phaseshifter  album but we weren’t ready to do that yet. Part of the Redd Kross experience is we were so young, and we were making records, going through puberty, ha, and going through stuff like that and I think that the evolution of it for me is like watching us learn how to do what we wanted to do, having these grand ideas but not really always knowing how to execute them. But I hate saying this stuff because in some ways it sounds like I’m admitting defeat or that I agree with the haters. I don’t. It is what it is, and if you dig it, great! It’s only the new record that I finally feel like we know how to make records. I’m 44 years old now so I better know how to make records!
VoT: Great answer! [Steve laughs] Okay, 1993’s Phaseshifter and 1997’s Show World, [both on Mercury] the haters were gone, no bad hype over those, "Lady In The Front Row," "Teen Competition," some of my favorite Redd Kross stuff of all time…
SM: Oh, thank you.
VoT: You guys really stayed true to yourselves which is admirable in that post-Cobain era of big advances, signings, buses full of A&R guys... Well, do you have any specific story, maybe a funny example of the record company trying to get you do to do something you weren’t comfortable with?
SM: I don’t think Redd Kross was ever enough of a real concern at the corporate level, at the top of the chain for anybody to even try to tinker with what we were doing. […] Y’know all those clichés like SST, around the time we signed to Atlantic there was this bumper sticker “Corporate Rock Still Sucks” [Chuck laughs] and whatever. I could get into a fight with Steve Albini about this stuff and he makes some good points about why major labels are not right for bands, but I don’t think they really make that much sense, anymore for sure. It’s a very different landscape but at the time for what we were doing it made total sense to give it a shot and see what happened. I don’t regret anything about being on majors, I just regret that we didn’t have a home, one single home for doing all these records because it would have made the catalog a lot less confusing to have them in one place, just from the logistics managerially. We were very nomadic for many years as far as business side, going to different labels, and it was only in the 90’s that we made 2 records on the same label!
VoT: So no guy ever showed up with a cigar, and a leisure suit saying “say, you guys should wear some ripped jeans and flannel, the kids are into that!”
SM: No, that would have been awesome, but it probably would have been a better sign, that we were going to get more attention at the record label had that happened. [Laughter] That guy never showed up, and you can’t blame that guy for a record that you don’t like. There was no background deal where we sold our soul.
VoT: Here’s an important question. Redd Kross’s hiatus of 15 years. To put this in perspective, that’s more years than you were on the planet when your first record came out. I know you’ve done other stuff, but why so long?
SM: Well, it was a 10 year hiatus from playing live, 15 year hiatus from making another record. Y’know, I just wanted to do other things. I continued to do music but by the time we were done with Show World, I had been doing Redd Kross for 20 years. I had made career decisions about my life at age 11. So at 31 I was like I’m not even sure as an adult, I totally back these decisions I made when I was 11. So I had to see, maybe I’d be more fulfilled in music behind the scenes, or being a side musician, studio musician, or producer and what I found was I enjoyed all these other jobs and for me as long as I do it well, I like whatever I do. Ultimately, I realized that performing is a big part of what I do, Redd Kross is a big part of who I am, and now I’m a grown up and I realize that I don’t need to put all of my eggs in one basket. I can spread them out and that keeps me from actually ever getting bored. It keeps me grateful. We actually started the [new] record pretty soon after the hiatus ended. There were some things that started to take precedence at some point and we got distracted. We did like 70 percent of the record in a couple of weeks but then just doing the finishing touches, the mixes took about 5 years!
SM: Ha ha, yeah, but I don’t think that’s going be obvious to someone who listens to it because the record doesn’t sound like a shelved record or an overworked record. It sounds like a really spontaneous rock record by a great rock band!
VoT: Cool. Punk rock fans have this tendency to worship “the old stuff” with almost religious zeal, and sadly seem to not embrace the “new stuff” by their heroes, when their heroes reach middle, or old age. Yet your punk rock supergroup OFF! seemed like it was universally heralded! There remains quite a buzz about the band and its music. How did that feel?
SM: Surprising. It’s great, fun, awesome, it’s still the same, it seems to be the case. We just released our 2nd record and with the exception of Pitchfork which still gave it a respectful, review but the first record was just like [critically] over the top. Ultimately when I think about it, I think maybe one of the reasons people really respond to this, is in the current landscape I think people are kind of inundated with new stuff being presented to them. The beautiful thing about the internet is you don’t need a lot of middle men to get your stuff out there. The downside of that is it’s overwhelming to people how much stuff is out there.
VoT: I agree.
SM: Ultimately I think people kind of go, there’s so much stuff but what’s the real stuff? What’s the authentic stuff? I think that’s the chord that OFF! struck with people, was an authenticity chord. I think the same is true with the new Redd Kross record. Now that I listen to this record, I think this is just a really great fucking rock record! My brother wrote all these tunes and he’s like a bona fide “Gabba Gabba Hey, we accept you one of us” weirdo and his point of view is very unique in his way of expressing rock and roll. It’s very pure and authentic. I’m just very grateful that I get to be part of projects, and I really believe in them. I think we struck a chord with the other “misfit toys” on the island!
VoT: Ha ha! How would you describe the styles on the new record? It’s called Researching The Blues, which made me wonder. I know you’re a Jack White/White Stripes aficionado, and went viral with that whole situation where you recorded bass lines over their record and posted it on the internet. Did that inspire the title?
SM: You know, it’s just a really great rock record, it’s all territory that Redd Kross has referenced prior, I just think it’s done in a way where we’ve executed and realized it to its fullest, and that’s satisfying to me. The title, Researching The Blues, my brother wrote that title, and I think for him it’s just funny… [Laughter] For me I think there’s something a little deeper to it. I do think it’s humorous but I also think there is something very real about it. You’ll have to judge for yourself when you hear it. Some of it is very esoteric, some of it is sort of literal, but ultimately all of it has the ability to make you feel a bunch of different things and I’m just very proud that we pulled it off.
VoT: Well, you’ve had plenty of years to come up with it [Steve laughs] so I’m really looking forward to it. Would you say there’s plenty of power pop that Redd Kross fans know and love on the record?
VoT: Cool, my remaining question, do you still enjoy a good bowl of Frosted Flakes?
SM: Yeah, of course, but now I have a 3 year old to eat them with me!
VoT: Thanks Steve!
Check out Redd Kross HERE and soak in these incredible video clips:
"Blow You A Kiss In The Wind" official video: