Steven McDonald & Redd Kross

It’s been 40 years since SoCal brothers Jeff and Steven McDonald, then only 17 and 13, first released music as Redd Kross – okay, the band was actually called Red Cross initially – but, cease-and-desist orders aside, that’s one hell of long time for a creative relationship to survive and thrive. From their scrappy beginnings as an amped up, pop-culture-obsessed punk unit to the muscular Kiss and Beatles informed power pop band that clinched them not one, but two major-label deals in the late ‘80s and ‘90s, to their most recent series of excellent albums for Merge Records, Redd Kross have brought superior songcraft to the rock ‘n’ roll table. When the McDonalds began their musical journey it would have been unthinkable for a band, at least one seeking to achieve professional results, to self-record, produce, and mix their own albums. But, as recording technology has evolved over the ensuing decades, both brothers (Steven more obsessively than Jeff, as you’ll see) have embraced the freedom and ability to maintain the integrity of a creative vision that DIY record-making affords. The younger McDonald, who had already tasked himself with mixing Redd Kross’ 2012 album, Researching the Blues, also recorded and engineered all of their latest release, Beyond the Door at his own studio, The Whiskey Kitchen. Propelled by the inimitable Dale Crover of the Melvins (see interview this issue) on drums, it’s an album that sounds so full, so energetic, so totally tubular, that it led an occasional Tape Op contributor such as myself to think, “Fuck! Who recorded this?” That’s the very question that lead me to pitch a story on Redd Kross to the magazine.

Was being in control of the recording process something that you always wanted to achieve?

Jeff: Even on our early records, like Born Innocent, we had guidance; but we were actually producing them ourselves. We had all the arrangements; everything. But we didn’t know the technical aspects, like what a compressor did, so it took a while.

Steven: I think that, from the very beginning, the goal was to be able to be totally self-sufficient. But before computers, the studio was so intimidating; it was a mad scientist lab that we knew nothing about. I paid for our first recordings when I was 11 with my paper route. We went to a place called Media Art [Recording Studio] in Hermosa Beach, and it was 2-inch, 16-track. We would do the graveyard shift and get it for half price. We’d start at midnight and record till 9 a.m. I was 12 years old. It was very psychedelic, because we did not live a graveyard shift life.

J: It was sort of scary and horrifying, but also very cool.

When did you get your own recording gear?

S: We had done some tracks for compilations and B-sides on ADATS, and on a Tascam 38 1/2-inch, 8-track that we borrowed from Jeff’s wife, Charlotte [Caffey]. She was in the Go-Go’s and had built a home studio at the height of the band in 1981, when that was the pinnacle of home-recording gear. There’s a dbx noise reduction box that a lot of people swear by that you can run everything through, but I don’t use that. I’ll still use that machine sometimes now, because the kids want to use tape since they were robbed of that era. But I’ll always say to them, “Look kid, I’ve made as many shitty-sounding recordings on tape as I have on digital!”

J: It’s an awesome sounding machine.

S: When Redd Kross was on hiatus from 1997 to 2006, I got into trying to learn how to do this myself. Finally, I got my first Mac and a [Digidesign] Digi 001 in 2000, and Jeff got one around the same time. It wasn’t until we had Pro Tools that we seriously thought about doing this ourselves.

J: I produced a record on Sympathy for the Record Industry by a band called The Beards, which was Kim Shattuck from The Muffs and Lisa Marr from Cub. It took me almost a year because I didn’t know how to use Pro Tools.

S: In my studio I’m still using the Digi 002 I got about 15 years ago. That has eight inputs, and then I use a 20-bit ADAT to Lightpipe in another eight inputs. Theoretically the recordings are all 24-bit because they’re on Pro Tools, but eight of my channels are digitized, via 20-bit.

J: It’s vintage digital retro!

When did you start recording and mixing all of the Redd Kross music yourself?

S: For our last record, Researching the Blues, we did the basic tracks at a nice studio in Eagle Rock [Los Angeles] called Kingsize Soundlabs, because I didn’t know how to get a good drum sound yet. Then we did overdubs and some vocals at our own space. I spent a bunch of money on a mixer because I love their records. I obviously didn’t have the goods to get the sound that they get on their own records, and I realized that I had to figure out how to mix it myself. That record started in around 2008 and we didn’t finish it until about 2011 because I was also playing in other bands – OFF! and the Melvins – and getting up the nerve to finish the record.

J: I started working on some vocals at home that I hadn’t done yet, and then sending Steven rough mixes.

S: I was in Australia on tour and feeling far away from home when Jeff sent me those. I was on the city tram in Perth when I listened to them, and it was the first time I’d heard the songs in a year or so. I was going crazy because I was so excited about how good it was. That was a real shot in the arm. Then Jeff started cheerleading me through the process of finishing the record. It’s still not a pristine record, but I think that it has an energy that is appropriate for the performances in the songs.

The drums on your recent record, Beyond the Door, also sound like they were recorded in a nice, big room.

S: Are fucking with me?

I’m totally not fucking with you! They sound great!

S: You’re going to make me cry. My studio, The Whiskey Kitchen, is a rehearsal room in Glassell Park [Los Angeles] with just the shitty foam that comes with the room on the walls. I’ve done nothing to it. The ceiling is high, but I don’t think that I’m utilizing any of that. It’s not a reflective, lively room at all. It’s carpeted floor.

Well, then you’ve figured out how to make some smooth moves in post!

S: I’ve taught myself how to use reverbs. Basically, everything I do is back end. All my front end is 500 Series preamps that I built from kits, like Hairball Audio. There are a couple of songs where I was still using this ‘70s Yamaha PM-1000 mixer. I found a place online where people were taking them and putting direct outs and new capacitors in them. I thought, “Okay, I’ll try that.” But those slowly started to die, and it wasn’t until I went to mix the album and I heard the song “When Do I Get to Sing ‘My Way’” [a Sparks cover] that was recorded two years earlier on some of that Japanese [gear] that I realized, “Oh, now I can hear what I’m missing.” What’s not working, come mix time.

Steven McDonald & Redd Kross

That’s the worst feeling.

S: I’m not coming from a studio background, so it’s only been through strict woodshedding in my little space and figuring it out myself. I can’t go make coffee for someone now! [Be an intern. -ed.] The only way I could glean information was to hire one of these guys, whose work I love, to work on one of my records and then ask, “Can I take a look under the hood? Are you cool with that?” The chance is that they’re going to have so much more gear that I don’t have anyway. My actual fantasy would be to work with someone that I admire and respect, and then ask them to work on my system!

What reverbs did you use on Beyond the Door?

J: [Fender] Twin Reverb.

S: Yeah, everything’s going through a Twin Reverb. No, I’m kidding. But I’m just dicking around. I have a [Sonnox] Oxford reverb [plug-in] that I use. But it’s mostly on the snare. I also use a slap delay; I have a little bit in there. My father-in-law, Lenny Waronker, is a producer. I was talking to him about his producing days, and I don’t remember what particular session he was referring to, but he was talking about how they used an early take. He said, “We had to go with this take and we didn’t even have the reverb right yet.” I realized, “Oh, right. Because that’s the one thing that you guys could fuck with.” The whole thing was probably going through a chamber. That stuck with me. I maybe even misinterpreted what he was saying, but it made me realize that on a lot of my favorite records everything might be going to reverb. If you can find that magic spot, then who cares if someone would laugh at you about it or think it’s wrong? I love reverb on bass. I know that people will tell me that it creates some rolling wave that crosses out sounds. But when I listen to “Hello Hooray” on Alice Cooper’s Billion Dollar Babies, I hear a reverb on the bass guitar. I fucking love it. It’s so bitchin’!

What’s your drum mic’ing scheme at the studio?

S: Shure was very kind to Redd Kross two years ago and gave us a nice care package of BETA 57s and 58s to go out on tour with. I use one of the BETA 57s on snare and a BETA 52A on the kick, as well as a PZM [mic] inside the drum. For overheads, I have a couple of Shure condenser mics in a “cross” pattern [X/Y]. I point them away from the cymbals; a little bit behind the drummer. That’s a method someone recently showed me. Our drummer, Dale Crover [Melvins], nails the cymbals. I don’t want it to take over everything. I also have two room mics about 10 feet away in a stereo pair; I bleed it in a little bit. Otherwise they sound pretty trashy.

Is Dale one of those drummers where, when he hits the drums, it just sounds great?

S: Oh, yeah. People know him best for the Melvins and Nirvana, where he’s more coming from a post hardcore/metal place, but I feel Redd Kross brings this inner Ringo [Starr] out of him.

J: Yeah, he brings the swing more with us.

S: It’s awesome, because it’s a skill he definitely possesses, but he doesn’t get to flex that muscle as much.

Steven, are you also mixing at The Whiskey Kitchen? If not, is the room that you’re mixing in tuned or treated at all?

S: I mix in a bunch of places, and none of my areas are tuned. They all have lots of bass traps – they’re horrible! We have a room downstairs at our house that my wife, Anna [Waronker, of That Dog], and I use, but we’ve done nothing to it. Often, playing it back through these little Infinity [home] speakers that I have depresses me intensely, because there’s this peak around 200 Hz – this muddy area – where I’m going, “FUCK! FUCK!” I have a pair of AKG headphones that Jeff bought me about five years ago for Christmas; one of the most supportive things anyone’s ever done for me, on a technical level. I can trust those for low end, as well as to have a sense of what’s going to happen.

Do you guys generally agree on how mixes should sound?

J: We’re pretty in tune when it comes to that. If Steven has been working on something all day and I come in fresh and have notes, he never has a problem with them because he knows that I’m fresh.

S: I remember that on the song “Fantàstico Roberto” on the new album, Jeff came and was like, “You need to turn the bass down.”

J: I said down? I’m always telling you to turn the bass up! [laughs] Steven has way more ability to hyper-focus for long, long periods of time. Where I’m like, “Okay...”

S: Yeah, I have a tolerance for repetition that I think is unique, at least in my family!

Steven McDonald & Redd Kross

People always ask me, “How can you listen to songs over and over again without losing your mind?”

S: I would add to that question, “How are you able to listen to it that many times and not lose perspective?” Because that’s the key. It’s about not getting lost; forest from the trees. You will start thinking, “I can’t tell what’s up, what’s down, or what side it’s coming out of.” That’s a muscle that needs to be flexed; it doesn’t come naturally. You have to be tolerant to repetition to get to that place.

J: Sometimes you have to walk away for a while.

S: Sure, but I’m an obsessive, crazy person; if I get into something, I will overdo it.

Is it hard for you to let a record go?

S: There’s an expression, “Records are never finished. They’re only relinquished.” I relate to that. I gave myself a deadline with this record and set a mastering date. I was also trying to work with it in the confines of other projects.

Speaking of other projects, Steven, you worked with The Side Eyes; Jeff’s daughter’s [Astrid McDonald] punk band. Their record, So Sick, sounds super heavy and exploded. What was your approach?

S: I changed her diapers, so we’re very close. Their record definitely benefits from where I’ve taken my studio recording. We did it live in my space. I think we captured an energy; a moment of a young band in their infancy. I think back to our early recordings, where we’d rehearsed in the garage and then we’d go into this sterile studio environment. They’d take my amp… “Don’t take it away from me. What are you doing with it? You’re putting it in a closet.” Now you have these headphones, right? “Okay. This is totally foreign and weird. This feels weird. I can’t tell what’s going on.” I’m trying to remove that part of the process. In my space, I’ll do a lot of live recordings. I’ll turn the bass guitar way down, but I let the guitar bleed. I don’t give a fuck. No vocals, because you can’t use that vocal track anyway.

Do you see a different mindset in a young punk rock band recording now versus 40 years ago when you guys were starting out? Are they more comfortable with the technology?

S: This doesn’t apply to The Side Eyes, because they’re good kids. They’re very considerate people, especially for their age. But I’ve worked with a lot of young bands. Sure, someone’s always got a kid brother that that has [Apple] GarageBand. That trickles all the way down. They don’t value it on the same level. They’re saying, “Well, my little brother’s got GarageBand.” So, the whole [recording] thing is dumbing down a bit, or it’s being devalued from the very start. But I’ve also found that when you do it cheap, because there’s something about the band that you love, that then they don’t take it seriously. I think part of it has to do with their recording experiences prior to coming and working with me, but there is this new expectation that you crap it out really fast and then someone’s going to fix it for you. The old mentality of being in the garage and rehearsing, rehearsing, rehearsing… in my experience some of that work ethic’s been lost.

Even before you started recording your own records, you were generally credited as the producers or co-producers. Was that a struggle?

S: When we made Third Eye for Atlantic Records it was our major label debut. We worked with this guy that we picked for the wrong reasons.

J: We thought he would just be a technician.

S: He seemed the most passive. Because all we wanted was a good kick-ass engineer who wouldn’t give us pushback on our ideas. Then, when we were together in the studio, he was remarkably passive aggressive.

Steven McDonald & Redd Kross

I love that record.

S: Well, thank you. From a technical aspect it’s done well, but there are a lot of guitar sounds that bummed us out then and they still bum us out now. We were constantly battling with this guy over it. He was pushing for an Andy Summers [The Police] sound – the word “glassy” came up a lot. We were saying, “No! What are you talking about? We want fucking Pete Townshend on The Who’s Live at Leeds!” This guy was worried about his career; it was 1990 and a shitty time in popular music. He was trying to appeal to that moment, and we didn’t give a fuck about that.

J: If you listen to the record, we won most of those battles. There’s nothing that dates it. It was the fight that was so annoying.

S: We still caught a lot of flak, because it was our major label debut and it had this cleaned-up sound that we never wanted in the first place. People were like, “You guys sold out!” The next time we got to make a record was Phaseshifter, and we worked with the great John Agnello [Tape Op #14]. We definitely should have given him a co-production credit, but we didn’t. We had a chip on our shoulder at that moment, because people had treated us like we had sold out. John settled for “recorded by,” and we got the production credit. I would say John taught me more about producing than anybody else has ever done. The next record, which was our last record before our hiatus, was Show World with Chris Shaw [#83]. I remember we were still trying to do that same arrangement, and Chris wouldn’t have it. He said, “Look, I live and die by the credit.” I remember not understanding what the value of it was to him. These guys are talking about their next job. It’s not about ego. It’s, “No, this is how I get work.” Not to take away from our vision, because I do think we deserve some kind of production credit, but I think we could have been groovier!

Tape Op is a bi-monthly magazine devoted to the art of record making.

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