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Redd Kross celebrates 45 years of weird L.A. power pop with a full-throttle ‘third act’

Last summer, Jeff and Steven McDonald, the brotherly duo who founded the pioneering, sound-shifting band Redd Kross, decided to check out their longtime pals Sparks at the Hollywood Bowl. The McDonalds, long inspired by the band created by brothers Ron and Russell Mael, saw the show with friend and musical collaborator Josh Klinghoffer and Steven’s wife, That Dog singer Anna Waronker, and left with a newfound appreciation for what Sparks accomplished as a band.

“I just thought, ‘God, these guys have never stopped,’” said Steven, who played bass for Sparks from 2004 to 2009. “At first, I thought they were a little crazy but keeping tabs on it all these years and watching it, I know they’re not crazy. They’re just dedicated and have a singular vision.”

In 2019, Redd Kross was ready to celebrate its legacy with a 40th anniversary rollout, beginning with the release of its seventh studio album, “Beyond the Door.” The band’s debut EP was going to be reissued on Merge Records, along with never-released demos and a victory-lap tour that was in the works, with a final show at the Regent Theater to include every person who played in Redd Kross to join in for a jam session.

Then the pandemic hit and the McDonalds were left in the lurch. Though, as they’d describe it, something as neat as celebrating a 40th anniversary wouldn’t suit them anyway.

“I always thought it would be more fun to be like the 37th anniversary or 42nd anniversary, because really, what does it even mean?” Jeff says with a chuckle. “And, ‘Beyond the Door’ had to be our ‘Beatles for Sale’: the weird freak album in our catalog.”

L.A. legends Jeff, right, and Steve McDonald of the band Redd Kross pose for a portrait as they release a new album.

(Jason Armond / Los Angeles Times)

Sitting at a round table at Steven’s house in the Hollywood Hills, the brothers still have the charm and humor that has made them favorites in the underground circuit. The McDonalds started Redd Kross (originally Red Cross) at their parents’ Hawthorne house in 1979 when Jeff and Steven were 15 and 11, respectively. The brothers grew up with a love for melodic ‘60s rock, which has been at the heart of their music. Their journey is a march through L.A. rock history — from hanging out at Rodney Bingenheimer’s English Disco, to opening for South Bay hellraisers Black Flag at a house party, to playing their first “proper” gig at the long-gone Hong Kong Cafe, on a night when David Bowie was in the audience.

Despite Jeff’s joke, the brothers are going big to celebrate 45 years of Redd Kross because, as Steven put it, “People like milestones.” The band is also the subject of a long-gestating, career-spanning documentary titled “Born Innocent: The Redd Kross Story.” Directed by Andrew Reich, the former showrunner for “Friends,” “Born Innocent” showcases the creativity and approach that the McDonalds have taken and how their punk rock beginnings morphed into left-of-center power pop.

Unlike other music documentaries that dive too deep or scrape the surface, ”Born Innocent” is the perfect primer to the band’s history. It also showed that Redd Kross has never bent to what was popular. “We get bored easily,” Jeff says. “And always hated uniforms. Hardcore had its uniform, and hair metal too. We were adjacent to the Paisley Underground, which was bizarre because we hung out with those people, but we were the only ones who’d ever taken acid.”

“They were their own self-contained universe,” Reich says of Redd Kross. “Even in their early punk/garage days when their skills hadn’t caught up with their ambitions, they had a knack for writing great hooks. ‘Kill Someone You Hate’ is raw as hell, but you can’t get it out of your head. Their songs have power and bite, but they are full of joy. They smile when they sing, they don’t snarl, and you can’t help but smile when you listen.”

Jeff McDonald, center, and Steven McDonald, right, at an early Redd Kross show in "Born Innocent: The Redd Kross Story."

Jeff McDonald, center, and Steven McDonald, right, at an early Redd Kross show in “Born Innocent: The Redd Kross Story.” The McDonalds started Redd Kross (originally Red Cross) at their parents’ Hawthorne house in 1979 when Jeff and Steven were 15 and 11, respectively.

(Submarine Entertainment)

As the documentary rolled on, Reich asked the brothers if they’d contribute a new song to close out the doc that traced the band’s origins through their own eyes. That song, “Born Innocent” (not to be confused with their 1982 debut album of the same name), along with the pandemic, proved to be fertile ground to get the McDonalds to quickly move past “Beyond the Door” and get cracking on their eighth album.

A couple of months after that Sparks show at the Bowl, Redd Kross ended up in the studio with Klinghoffer behind the kit (jokingly billed as the band’s 75th drummer) and producing the project.

“It’s an honor that they even considered me,” Klinghoffer says. “It was a perfect opportunity for me to produce how I think it should be done, where you care as much about the people that are making the record with you and the songs as well.”

Their new self-titled double album marks the latest turn in the Redd Kross story. The chemistry and inspiration, as Steven hoped, was instant and buoyed by the five solo songs Steven wrote, Jeff’s three, and the additional 10 written jointly. During Steven’s downtime from playing bass with the Melvins, they went into Klinghoffer’s El Sereno-area studio, playing their friend acoustic demos before knocking out the 18 songs that comprise the album.

“We went in with 14 songs thinking we would have a strong 12-song record,” Steven adds. “We missed the deadline to get the album out in the summer. We didn’t want to do a tour and have the record come out in the fall. So we decided to add more songs.”

Twin brothers  Jeff, right, and Steve McDonald of the band Redd Kross pose for a portrait on a bench

Looking back at 45 years as a band, the McDonalds are uniquely representative of Los Angeles. They are native Angelenos to the point where Steven jokes, “We grew up huffing the fumes of LAX.”

(Jason Armond / Los Angeles Times)

There was a conversation at one point questioning the logic of doing a double album. However, they decided it was a good idea and their trust in Klinghoffer enabled them to work differently than in the past. “We’ve never felt this comfortable with a producer before,” Steven said. “He was the third brother we never had. He kept us on our best behavior.” So much so that during downtime, Steven walked in on Jeff and Klinghoffer watching a documentary on cults. “It was my way in with Jeff,” Klinghoffer says.

Unlike previous albums, the brothers had the songs’ lyrics completed and had an idea of where they wanted the songs to go, no matter how rough the demos were.

“Candy Coloured Catastrophe,” the sun-soaked album opener and first single, stems from a demo Jeff wrote 15 years ago. The McDonalds revisited the loose idea but it didn’t make the cut on their last two albums. This time, it fit.

“During the process, I was very aware that this was a rare chemistry and was a very lucky experience,” Steven said. “I don’t expect it to happen again.”

Along with the documentary and album, Redd Kross is releasing a book, “Now You’re One of Us,” co-authored with writer Dan Epstein.

“There were a lot of deadlines that hit us at the same time!” Steven says. “We’re not used to that with Redd Kross.”

“That’s all Steve,” Jeff jokes.

 L.A. legends Jeff, right, and Steve McDonald of the band Redd Kross pose for a portrait as they release a new album

“I always thought it would be more fun to be like the 37th anniversary or 42nd anniversary, because really, what does it even mean?” Jeff McDonald said.

(Jason Armond / Los Angeles Times)

“I didn’t make the deadlines, they laid it on me,” Steve insists in response. “I was like, ‘Oh, my God, I’m going to have a hemorrhage! But with the record, I was very dedicated to not missing this moment with the doc and book coming out.”

Looking back at 45 years as a band, the McDonalds are uniquely representative of Los Angeles. They are native Angelenos to the point where Steven jokes, “We grew up huffing the fumes of LAX.” The eclectic manner in which they’ve navigated their career hasn’t quite coincided with how the city has changed, but Redd Kross reflects the best of how the city’s off-kilterness continues to influence scenes elsewhere. Outside of maybe X, Redd Kross outlasted its contemporaries. Calling this the beginning of their third act (an idea Steven says he took from a Jane Fonda book), the McDonalds believe they have more in common with the Mael brothers (and point to Kim Gordon) career-wise than anyone else.

“We’ve been doing this [playing music] for so long that the Redd Kross thing has always been on the side,” Jeff says. “It’s always there. So when we decided to pick it up again, we picked it up. It gives you an excuse to refresh and reboot. And now, we can finally say the band is middle-aged.”

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