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Share the bass: The symbiotic relationship between the Melvins and Redd Kross

The Melvins

The Melvins Photo courtesy of Speakeasy Public Relations & Marketing

To employees of the L.A. Clippers: Please stop calling Steven Shane McDonald about buying season tickets.

When I first phoned the Melvins/Redd Kross bassist to talk about the bands' tour and upcoming First Avenue show, McDonald screened my call, expecting a salesperson.

"I get calls constantly by numbers that I don't know what they are to sell me season tickets that I can't afford," McDonald says once we finally connect. His son's into basketball now, he explains. "I started going to basketball games, and now the Clippers are calling me constantly."

Cult stars: They're just like us!

The Melvins and Redd Kross have developed an alliance in the last few years, sharing a rhythm section in McDonald and drummer Dale Crover, and now they're on a 10-week joint tour.

McDonald started playing with Melvins around 2016, after Crover filled in with OFF!, the old-school hardcore group McDonald's in with Circle Jerks' Keith Morris. But the bands—both of which laid groundwork for and subsequently weathered the early-'90s grunge and alt-rock boom—have run in adjacent circles for years, starting out as fans of each other.

"I know that Buzz and Dale went to a Redd Kross show in Tacoma, Washington, in 1987, maybe," McDonald says. "But I didn't meet them then."

Buzz Osborne recalls that Tacoma show as taking place in 1986, with Green River and Malfunkshun on the bill.

"I loved them before that," Osborne says. "I was a huge fan of the record they did called Teen Babes from Monsanto." (Not surprisingly, this is the EP on which Redd Kross covered "Deuce," by noted Melvins inspiration KISS.)

"I think the first time I met them was that time Buzz and Dale jammed with Yoko Ono at the Roxy in Los Angeles," McDonald says. "It was when she had a band called Ima in the early '90s with her son, Sean. And at the end of the show Buzz and Dale got up and jammed with them, and I met them after that."

McDonald and his brother Jeff formed Redd Kross when they were teenagers at the end of the '70s, establishing a trash culture-addled version of punk on 1982's Born Innocent that's evolved into power pop. In August, they released Beyond the Door, their second album since returning from a decade-long hiatus, and their first studio effort with Crover.

The Melvins are an American sludge-metal institution, prolific and reliably weird, who've released dozens of albums of punk-spiked Sabbath-worship. Surely the move from melodic and harmony-rich to slow, dense, and epically heavy requires a drastic change in approach each night?

"The Melvins are louder," McDonald deadpans.

"As far as Dale playing in Redd Kross," he adds, "a lot of people might not know how groovy he actually is. He can lay it down and hold down the fort, he can play slow and heavy and ham-fisted, but he also can be very danceable."

In sludge metal, guitars often sound like basses and basses often sound like burbling magma. Low frequencies are revered. Yet Crover and Osborne have spent the past decade frequently shaking up the bass in their output.

This started, per Osborne, when difficulty arose with a once-permanent bassist, and he and Crover decided not to marry themselves to a replacement. Since then, in addition to working with McDonald, they've recorded an album credited to "Melvins Lite" featuring upright bass and Basses Loaded, for which a rotating stable of four bottom-enders contributed. They brought in original drummer Mike Dillard (who left the band in 1983) and put Crover on bass for 2013's Tres Cabrones. On their most recent full-length, last year's Pinkus Abortion Technician, they had McDonald play "lead bass" alongside Butthole Surfers bassist Jeff Pinkus.

(Confusion is understandable: Wikipedia lists both McDonald and Pinkus as current members; the Melvins' own wiki, seemingly not updated in a while, lists another of the band's past bass-playing associates, Jared Willis of Big Business.)

"I kind of feel like whatever me and Dale do is the Melvins," Osborne says, "and I prefer to leave it that way."

One of McDonald's unique assets is to the band is he's, uh, really good at bass.

"I would say Steven, without question, ability-wise, is the best bass player we've ever worked with," Osborne says. "You put something in front of him and you take the leash off, you're going to be surprised with what you get. There might be some heavily schooled studio musicians, but those guys are a dime a dozen. Who gives a fuck about that? Great. Who cares? You can go play something perfect for somebody else. Steven's got instincts, showmanship, all of it, rolled into one, and I want it. I want to be part of that."

Playing together for more than 30 years, Osborne and Crover have a natural, evolved musical language built around Osborne's idiosyncratic songwriting style, which features long, lumbering riffs and an instinctual use of unorthodox time signatures.

"He's not really a math rocker," McDonald says. "He definitely doesn't count out the bars. If I ask him to explain it in technical musical terms, because I did go to music school, he'll say, 'I don't know any of that. I just do what I do. That's how it sounds normal to me.' The riff might go on for four bars, or eight bars. Buzz is also the master of writing a riff that's really fucking long. When you're expecting the sequence to repeat, it's like, 'No, he's still got more to say.'"

Redd Kross' new album, Beyond the Door, is the group's second after a decade hiatus. The band first came back together in the mid-'00s.

"By '97 we had been doing it for 20 years," McDonald says, "and I was only in my early 30s, because we started so young, so I wanted to go on hiatus."

Although they went into the studio soon after reuniting, it took years for their first post-hiatus album, 2012's Researching the Blues, to materialize because finishing it required McDonald to learn how to mix—they couldn't afford to pay someone else.

McDonald says he and Jeff are still finding new ways to collaborate after 40 years of off-and-on bandmate-dom. The title track represented a new frontier for them: McDonald had most of the music written, with Crover's help, and Jeff asked if he could try writing some lyrics and vocal melodies for it. (McDonald admits this might seem an obvious way to work on music, but it's not one he and Jeff had tried so far.)

"There's a certain kind of shark that can't stop moving, or water doesn't go through those gills and then they suffocate," McDonald says. "I feel like a band is kind of like that, you have to keep moving forward, you have to keep oxygenating those gills."

Redd Kross weren't purposefully inactive during the gap between Researching the Blues and Beyond the Door, but because band members have regular, non-band careers too (they can't all play bass in Melvins and OFF!), the logistics are more complicated. This tour is Redd Kross' first of this length—10 weeks—since coming off hiatus, and the relationship to the more active Melvins is part of what's made it feasible.

"In some ways the Melvins is like a Make-a-Wish Foundation for Redd Kross," McDonald says. "Since Dale has been playing with us, suddenly that's an option. That hasn't been an option for 25 years."

Melvins fandom spans generations. "Every time I go out on the road with them, it's like, 'Where do you keep finding these 14-year-olds to follow you?'" McDonald says. "The Melvins are like a master class in sustaining a small cottage industry for yourself in a rock band. I know that I'm certainly taking notes."

Osborne and Crover have carved a big niche for themselves by trusting their instincts ahead of anyone else's, regardless of whether that means putting two basses on a record.

"I know I'm right," Osborne says. "I'm not wrong. I'm right about all this. [People] can think they know better, but they don't know better. I've been knowing better for a long time."

Melvins
With: Red Kross, Toshi Kasai
Where: First Avenue
When: 7 p.m. Tuesday, Sept. 24
Tickets:
18+; $22/$25; more info here