A conversation with Steven McDonald of Redd Kross, OFF! and now The Melvins is always a treat.
While the term "elder statesman" applies to McDonald, it seems inappropriate to use “elder” to describe anyone who brings so much youthful enthusiasm to his work. Especially in his latest endeavor, playing bass with the now L.A.-based sludge, grunge and experi-metal pioneers, The Melvins, who originally hailed from the Pacific Northwest.
Truth be told, McDonald, who turned 49 in May, seems to be very pleasantly pleased. When a legendary bass player joins a legendary band, the odds are in the fans' favor of seeing something amazing at every gig, and this union doesn’t disappoint at all.
McDonald, who cut his teeth in the Hawthorne-based Tourists in 1978 (who would become Redd Kross in 1980) at the tender age of 11, has a long line of music success under his belt. Along with his brother Jeff McDonald, he's responsible for some of the best power-pop/punk hybrid music ever with his work in Redd Kross. In 2009, he formed punk-rock supergroup OFF! with Keith Morris (Circle Jerks), Dmitri Coats (Burning Brides) and Mario Rubalcaba (Rocket From the Crypt). In addition to his work with a bass in his hand, McDonald also has an ever-growing list of artists he is recording and producing, including The Format's Sam Means, with whom he just did an absolutely killer record, Ten Songs.
The Melvins, with whom McDonald began collaborating in late 2015, have enjoyed a long, steady career of cranking out album after album and tour after tour of heavy, noisy sludge rock, influencing everyone from Nirvana to Tool to pretty much every stoner rock band ever along the way. McDonald joins a long list of great bass players, including Shirley Temple’s daughter, Loir “Lorax” Black, Joe Preston and Kevin Rutmanis (Cows), who have played with Melvins drummer Dale Crover and singer-guitarist Buzz Osborne over the years.
I caught up with McDonald while he was home in L.A. during a break in The Melvins’ touring schedule to find out how it’s going with his new band.
How did you end up getting together with The Melvins?
I’ve known them for a long time. Buzz moved down to L.A. in the early '90s. I think our common link was the late Bill Bartell of White Flag. One of the first things I remember of The Melvins was Dale and Buzz jammed with Yoko Ono and her band, Ima. Bill was a real freakazoid and [Dale and Buzz] like freaks. So that was the connection. We’ve been in contact off and on throughout the years.
What directly led to me playing with the current lineup is Dale went on tour with OFF! about two years ago when Mario wasn’t able to do a three-week tour and we got to hang out more. When the moment came and they weren’t able to make it happen with one of their other lineups, my name was fresh in their minds.
Did you ever imagine yourself playing with The Melvins when you were first becoming familiar with the band?
I’m such an egomaniac I probably think that about every band I see. "Oh yeah, this band’s good. They’d be better with me." [laughs] Like I did with The White Stripes. [Note: On his own, McDonald recorded bass lines for The White Stripes' White Blood Cells and released the tracks on the internet as Redd Blood Cells in 2002.] It was so long ago — the first time I saw The Melvins was 20 years ago. I’m always astounded by things that happen in my career/life.
It’s mind-boggling to be touring with The Melvins, especially going to places like Seattle and San Francisco where they lived for many years, so it’s like hometown gigs for them. Also going to Bristol, England, is a place where they have spent a lot of time. Their tour manager lives there and they
come back there year after year.
It’s fun. It’s neat to take part in something that’s like ... you know, I’m playing Seattle with The Melvins and they’re like grunge royalty and I feel like I get to be a part of their victory lap. I never miss the opportunity to value these moments.
How long are you going to play with them? Is this a permanent thing?
I don’t know. My joke is that they are rock & roll polygamists. They're swingers … they’re rock & roll swingers. But you know, that’s fine. All of the people they play with, they all have different projects. We haven’t had any scheduling conflicts with the other outfits I play with and the philosophy seems to be that with grown-up, adultlike people there’s always a way to work anything out.
There’s nothing predetermined that I know of. It’s definitely not the kind of situation where you have a relationship conversation. It’s not like dating a girl and you have to have that conversation to define where it’s going. We’re not defining the relationship.
That’s a long-winded answer to the fact that I don’t know how long it’s going to go, but I’m proud to be a member of the sister-wives club when I think of all the different bass players that they have in their stable. The joke I make is that, "Steve’s out with the band right now while the rest are home with the babies."
How was it working with The Melvins when you recorded the Basses Loaded tracks [a 2016 Melvins compilation with a variety of bass players] compared to working with Redd Kross or OFF!?
Their philosophy, from what I’ve seen, is very spontaneous. Dale will go down to the studio and lay down the drum track in one, maybe two passes by himself, just hearing the song in his head. That’s a skill that not everybody has. Dale, I think, is pretty freaky gifted in that way. Melvins [songs] are not your standard kind of 4/4 affair. A lot of Buzz’s riffs are pretty complicated, so it’s impressive that Dale can do that.
Are you having a good time?
It’s been really fun. No one’s really taking a swan dive into their own ego, you know? When I say fun, it’s like yeah, we’ve had a good time. Were there ecstatic moments every night where we were getting wasted and fans are adoring? No, that’s not really their style. They kind of keep their heads down and do the work.
The Melvins like to get to the venue early and be there all day. I choose to take my skateboard and do a little sightseeing. I don’t like to be at the venue all day. It makes me a little anxious. I’d like to see the guitar shop in town.
It’s an ego head fuck, the thing that we do, and for many, many reasons, many that I’m totally not qualified to try and philosophize on, it’s a bit of an emotional roller coaster being on tour. But this "slow and steady wins the race" way of doing things, in the long run, is way more gratifying. I’ve ended several big tours with The Melvins and felt way more refreshed and healthy than three-week tours I’ve done with other bands.
You always seem like you’re having a blast onstage…
It’s been totally positive. Even if I’m destroyed from the fatigue of touring, most people wouldn’t read that from my onstage performance. That’s just part of who I am. It’s part of my belief system about playing music. It’s part of how I perform. It’s a sincere thing. I am really having a good time and I’m looking forward to doing more stuff. We have an eight-week tour coming up where we’re playing smaller markets.
You’re playing Flagstaff, Arizona ...
That was actually my idea. We needed a gig between Las Vegas and Boulder. [The Melvins] have never played Flagstaff before. I don’t know that I have either. I did go to a gig there once. It’s kind of the Arizona version of a town they cut their teeth in, Olympia, Washington.
How many songs of theirs do you have down at this point?
I’m not sure. [laughs] Actually, I haven’t counted. I think of it more in terms of length. We’ve probably played, at one point or another between recording and rehearsing, close to two hours’ worth of music. I know they want to work on some new stuff before we head out on this next leg.
When are you heading out?
I think it’s Aug. 3.
What else is happening with you guys?
Well, The Melvins have got a documentary [The Colossus of Destiny] that’s done. It’s premiering at the Don’t Knock the Rock Festival at the Regent on July 27 downtown. If you’re a Melvins fan, you have to see this movie. It’s very complete. It covers every era of the band. They talked to every musician who’s ever played with the exception of a few. We’re going to be playing, I think, an acoustic sort of thing. That’s a don’t-miss thing.
What’s happening with Redd Kross and OFF!?
Well, my brother [Redd Kross' Jeff McDonald] has been writing songs while I’m on the road with The Melvins. I’ve got a little recording space that I share with all the bands that I’m in. I call it the Whiskey Kitchen. I’m doing a couple records for Burger Records and In the Red Records at my space. My niece, Astrid McDonald, has a band called The Side Eyes. They’re totally rad. I’m making a record with them. My July is full with all the different balls I’m keeping the air.
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With OFF!, we just had a conference call a little while ago. We’ve got plans to try and do some stuff in the coming year.
The Colossus of Destiny: A Melvins Tale premieres at the Regent Theater on Wednesday, July 27, followed by a Q&A and intimate set by The Melvins. More info.