Interview: Redd Kross Guitarist Jeff McDonald Talks 'Researching the Blues'
Last year, rock and roll veteran punksters Redd Kross released their first album in 15 years, Researching the Blues, on Merge Records.
What does some time to grow do for a band of boys with glammy makeup and a psychedelic sense of style? For Redd Kross, it seems marinating in those creative juices does a body good.
Researching the Blues features 10 new songs clocking in at just under 32 minutes. It hits you with its lively hooks, infectious throwback beats, crunchy guitar riffs and rough-edged vocals, and then leaves you panting. There’s even a sha-la-la-la or two thrown in for good measure. If you’re looking for deep cerebral lyrical meaning, keep walking. If you’re looking for a party, well, hellooooo!
Founded 34 years ago in Los Angeles during the first wave of LA punk rock by brothers Jeff and Steven McDonald (then respectively 15 and 11 years old), Redd Kross’ Ramones-inspired songs like “Annette's Got The Hits” and "I Hate My School" garnered radio airplay and a pretty good run. After several lineup changes, the current iteration of Redd Kross includes their “classic Neurotica” lineup, joined once again by guitarist Robert Hecker (IT’S OK) and drummer Roy McDonald (The Muffs).
We caught up with guitarist Jeff McDonald at his LA home base to talk about the album, his gear and a few other tidbits.
GUITAR WORLD: It looks like you’ve been doing a bit of touring.
Yeah, we just got back from an East Coast tour. We were in Australia twice this year and we did a complete tour — an unusual tour. We did Spain then we went to Sweden. So we had this nice Mediterranean right over to complete Arctic white Christmas. It was incredible.
You guys took a break for a while. Do you have renewed energy now that you’re back in?
In the ‘90s, we were barely home. Most of our stuff we did was in Europe. And we all just had families, so we did a lot of behind-the-scenes things. For me, it was experimenting with film and producing other art. My brother, Steven, who’s also one of the founding members, he toured with people like Beck and produced records for bands like Fun. I think the reason we started playing again was because we’re lifers, so to speak. I had no desire to go on stage for a good 10 years, and then we started again. And also, since this is Guitar World, I have an insane collection of guitars. Like, I would still buy them, but I’d have nowhere to play them. So now I’m getting opportunities to play on stage.
Do you switch out which guitar you play live depending on how you’re feeling?
Yeah, definitely. Since most of our tours involve airplanes, and we fly to a lot of our shows, with all the new baggage restrictions, I found a case I can stuff two guitars in. So I have to make a choice. And my favorite guitar of all time since the '90s — I’ve used it on every record — is a 1964 Guild Thunderbird. I love it. It’s kind of familiar territory always, so I always feel comfortable with it onstage.
But now I’m starting to freak out about it getting stolen. So I’m starting to bring other options with me on the road. We just got an endorsement deal from this guitar company called Musicvox that makes these strange, kind of 1960s mutations. They’re really interesting. I’ll bring those on the road to supplement my vintage gear. So hopefully nothing will get stolen, and we can still have something groovy with flash.
What guitar did you use to record the new album? Was it the Guild?
Yes. They’ve become very expensive. The one I have, it kind of has an interesting story. It was owned by Peter Holsapple, who is this legendary musician from North Carolina who was in this group called the dBs and NRBQ. So it was on all of these live DVDs with him. He was the fifth member of R.E.M. during the peak of their career, so that guitar was on all the R.E.M. tours.
And then he was getting married. He needed cash and sold it to my wife, Charlotte Caffey, who’s also the guitarist of the Go-Gos, for $400. And I took it over. So it’s been all over the world with me. It has so much voodoo for a guitar. I went to Australia the last time; it was the first time I went out of the country without it. I always felt kind of strange not having it. So I don’t know. I’ll still bring it.
Yeah, you wanna have it but if anything happened to it, you’d be so bummed.
I worry more about it getting lost on airplanes, more so because I remember reading … I’m such a guitar geek, and I’m reading this Jimmy Page interview where he’s talking about his original black Les Paul custom that he had used on all of his session work and early Led Zeppelin, and then on his first American tour, it got lost at the airport on the way to San Francisco. I’m like, “Oh, god, nooo.”
Let’s talk about the album. You released Researching the Blues in 2012.
Yeah, it’s kind of still new to us, because we’ve done our touring so sporadically. In the old days, we would just stay on the road for months and months at a time, but now we do it in increments. We did world tours in like two weeks here, there, at home a couple weeks, so it stretches it out, but it makes it much easier to deal with.
The sanity level is three weeks, I think, for a lot of bands. After three weeks, you want to start killing each other. But before that, it’s a vacation.
What was the recording process like for this album?
Well, we got together and rehearsed the songs and then went into the studio and just laid them all down. Then I worked on the tracks from home quite a bit. Things are a lot different now. This is the first album we recorded using Pro Tools. I tried to shake things up and make it feel more spontaneous by mixing in some random gear and pedals.
Did you play any of the songs on Researching the Blues live before you released the album?
No! I don’t believe in playing new material before the release. People like to see a live show with songs they know. And if I did play some new material, I would never tell people it’s new. That’s a tip for your readers. If you’re gonna play new material, don’t tell people it’s new. They just automatically turn off. Just keep going like it’s all stuff they wanna hear. Keep the energy up.
That’s good advice. Any other tips?
Yeah, when I’m writing I like to put the new material I’m working on in the mix with other songs. Then it’ll just randomly come up while I’m listening. Then I can hear if they just feel right along with other songs I like to hear. It kinda of helps me know if I’m on the right track.
Redd Kross will be touring this summer. Find out what’s next for Jeff and the rest of Redd Kross at reddkross.com.
Photos: Jon Krop
Laura B. Whitmore is a singer/songwriter based in the San Francisco bay area. A veteran music industry marketer, she has spent over two decades doing marketing, PR and artist relations for several guitar-related brands including Marshall and VOX. Her company, Mad Sun Marketing, represents Dean Markley, Agile Partners, Peavey, Jammit, Notion Music, Guitar World and many more. Laura was instrumental in the launch of the Guitar World Lick of the Day app. She is the founder of the Women's International Music Network at thewimn.com, producer of the Women's Music Summit and the lead singer for the rock band Summer Music Project. More at mad-sun.com.
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