Redd Kross have always been a band that should have been bigger. Musicians love them. Music critics too. But larger success has always eluded the L.A. power-pop group, despite releasing a pair of great records in the early '90s. And for a time, it seemed like there might not be any more Redd Kross records. The band's last album, Show World, was released in 1997 and the band had been pretty quiet, even if its members hadn't. But alas, all that changed this year when the band released Researching the Blues, a straight ahead rock & roll record, and a return to form for the band, who have always been led by brothers Jeff and Steven McDonald. For the latest edition of Tell Me About That Album, we caught up with the pair to chat about the record, but the conversation turned to lots of other things too, like David Cassidy, Green River and the ghost of Johnny Ramone. Redd Kross play a free show at Chop Suey on Friday, which you can attend by RSVP'ing here.
Jeff McDonald: Lots of stuff. It would be so funny to hear what that record would sound like if we'd worked on it consistently the whole time.
Steven McDonald: It would sound like black metal.
Jeff: It would be like an audio landfill. We just started it then, but a lot of the work was done a year before it was released.
Steven: We laid down all the basic tracks and maybe a third or a fourth of the vocals in two weeks time, so in some ways I think we did more than half of the record back in 2007. We just went into a regular studio and bashed it out but then it was a process of finishing it that took a long time.
Jeff: It was a weird way to record the record.
Steven: It was by no means a lack of interest or belief in the material. For me, it was a matter of believing in them so fucking much and going, "I don't want this to be finished until it can be the absolute best it can be."
Were all the songs written and done in 2007 then?
Steven: The basic tracks for all of them were done.
Jeff: We made the mistake of saying we were working on a new album a couple of years ago and then every time I'd go out to shows it was like, "When's your new album coming out?" I remember I went last year to this annual Johnny Ramone memorial at the Hollywood Forever Cemetery, which is this big thing that happens in Hollywood every year, and I was interviewed on staged, and they said, "So, when's the new album coming out." And I was like, "Oh, next July." And then the album actually came out that next August, so I guess Johnny Ramone actually helped it.
Was this a preferable way to work versus your usual process?
Jeff: I would never want to do it like this again because I can't stand not finishing things. It was haunting me.
Steven: A couple people said, "Oh, Chinese Democracy." At some point, I did feel an enormous weight. We'd taken so long on this. It was like, "This is going to have to be Sgt. Peppers or something." And in reality it's Rubber Soul. It's just a really great, simple record.
Where did the album's title come from? Did the song give way to the title or vice versa?
Steven: That was one of the songs that really kick-started the finishing of the record for me. It had been put together piecemeal for a really long time.
Jeff: It had different choruses.
Steven: Jeff had never come up with the actual lyrics and vocal melody. It was this bitchin' groove, but Jeff got really inspired and finished the vocals to that song and did the crazy wah-wah solos and put a mix together and put it on a CD together with a bunch of other rough mixes that he had done. And he drove me to the airport to go to Australia with my other band Off!, and he said, "I'm really excited about some of the new things I'm doing with the record." I was on the train in Perth, Australia after a 25-hour flight and I had managed to put the CD onto my iPod by then, and I was on the train going to the beach because I was trying to avoid jetlag, and I had a cell phone with really good cell reception. I just heard this guitar solo starting wailing and I said, "Fuck yes!" And he had this new lyric, "Reaearching the blues" and I just loved that. It seemed kind of funny, but also dark and serious. I remember I called him from Australia. I was facing the Indian Ocean and we talked about finishing the record for an hour. And that's what I did. I came home right after that and finished the record. That's when that song became the title track of the album too. What I didn't know, which Jeff told me later, is that I had written that lyric many years earlier.
Can you tell me about the cover, which feels sort of like a classic album band photo?
Jeff: For me personally, that was the goal of the record. I wanted to make a rock album. There are very few solid, poppy rock records coming out. I wanted it to be from a rock band. And when I saw that photo I was like, "That looks like a vintage album cover." And I had the guy who took it put it aside. The whole concept of the album - and a lot of people get it - is that this is a rock & roll album.
Steven: Two guitars, bass and drums, really great melodies and smart lyrics.
Jeff: We wanted a rock & roll album that was like, "Here's the band, here's the music." It's a much harder thing to achieve than people think.
Do you remember the first time you played Seattle?
Jeff: Seattle was always one of our favorite places to play. We started coming there in the mid-80s, and we'd do these shows where the opening acts were always whatever the sound of the time was, like, "Oh, they sound like Fishbone or The Dream Syndicate or R.E.M." When we started playing Seattle and Portland, that's when we started meeting musicians who were in real bands and real bands were playing with us.
Who are you thinking of that you remember meeting?
Jeff: All of the grunge superstars. They all opened for us at one point.
Steven: Not all of them. We never played with Nirvana. There was a pretty monumental show that I just found the flyer for that we did in Tacoma that was actually on the eve of my 20th birthday. We headlined and it was Green River, Soundgarden and Malfunkshun.
Jeff: Green River played with us a lot and we became friends with Mark Arm but those kind of groups were few and far between in the rest of the country. It was always fun to see those bands and know there was something happening.
Steven: We got up to the Pacific Northwest at a pivotal moment in that region. It was the dawn of a scene. I was just talking to Buzz Osborne [of The Melvins] recently and he said [that time] reminds him of our early history, like hanging out with Black Flag in Hermosa Beach and The Descendents and Meat Puppets.
Do you have any favorite memories from making the film The Spirit of '76, which parodied the '70s and was littered with weird pop culture cameos and produced by a Coppola?
Steven: I remember we played the I-Beam in San Francisco and the Coppolas -- Roman and Sophia -- were big fans. We played there like once a month and their dad was starting this company to make low budget genre films. It happened really fast.
Jeff: Their dad had come up with Roger Corman and they wanted to do something like that.
Steven: They had seen the Super 8 films that we had done with Dave Markey, The Teenage Love Dolls, and that really inspired Roman [Coppola], who was producing the film, and it was his first stab at being involved in film production. He was a teenager himself at the time. And it was his concept. He came up with the idea of time travel, sort of Bill and Ted's Excellent Adventure meets Carwash. And then he assigned Lucas Reiner, who was Carl Reiner's other son, to write the film and possibly direct it. It was his brainchild.
Jeff: It was really fun.
Steven: We went up to Alameda, California, which is a suburb of San Francisco and we spent a few months up there. They put us up in this swingers condo in the marina, and Jeff and I were roommates. We got to hang out with David Cassidy a lot. And Jeff and I were always big proponents of bubblegum music but specifically The Partridge Family and viewing it as great pop records. Those records were written and recorded by the same people who did like Mamas and the Papas records and The Beach Boys records.
Jeff: We were record geeks.
Steven: It'd be in between takes and we'd be like, "OK, David, so it's 1971 and you're in Western Studios and you've got Hal Blaine on drums you're just about to do the lead vocal on "Summer Days," what was that like?"
You were like his worst nightmare.
Steven: Yeah, in his mind he thought he should have been in Traffic or something and he thought we were crazy people.
Jeff: We got him right at the peak of him not having come to terms with that stuff. Now I'm sure it's a different story but then it was a bitter experience.
Steven: It was also hard for him to be doing this '70s farce at the time and then being sequestered with two pop culture fanatics that really wanted to put it on a pedestal and look at it with one of the icons of it. He did not share our enthusiasm.
Jeff: We came out of it going, David Cassidy's cool but he's no Keith Partridge, that's for sure!
What are your current pop culture obsessions?
Steven: I like Korean girl groups. That's my new thing. That call them K-pop but I think that's an unfair trapping because there's a lot of bad Korean pop groups. But there's a handful of groups that I'd put on the level with The Ronettes as far as I'm concerned.
What's the difference between that and like One Direction?
Steven: It's way more abstract, maybe because its Korean. The pop aspect is definitely there but its way more avante garde. One Direction is like if Squeeze were a boy band. My daughter is into One Direction and they didn't play instruments and I wasn't totally taken by them but they kind of did sound like Squeeze.