Around and Back Again
Photo by Jeanne RiceAnna Waronker and Steve McDonald are music-making machines. They both have played major roles in successful LA-based bands. Waronker wrote ridiculously catchy songs and strummed oddly tuned guitars in harmony-heavy, violin-laced That Dog, while many years previous—at the tender age of 11, no less—McDonald began a long-running career in the riff-rock/pop group Redd Kross (with older brother Jeff) as a song creator and hair-flailing bassist. Waronker's and McDonald's bands of yore have played shows with the likes of Black Flag, X, Foo Fighters and Weezer, yet when you meet them, they give off nary a hint of we're-cooler-than-you attitude.
And as if that weren't enough to warrant this resourceful and prolific husband-and-wife team a gold star for radness, they are, at the moment, venturing into the world of the "new career," which consists of Waronker's solo effort and McDonald's latest band, the Steven McDonald Group. They also—sometimes collectively, sometimes with others—run a record label; do production work; write songs for TV shows, movies and other rock star types; and somehow find time to do Disneyland with Sonic Youth. Really.
We rendezvous with the duo at the 101 Coffee Shop in Hollywood, and within minutes, Waronker's sipping on a soy chai latte (she's not vegan but thinks the soy at the 101 "tastes so good"), while her husband believes the fried chicken has his name written all over it.
As McDonald digs into his Thursday special, Waronker begins by reminiscing about That Dog. "It started as a total joke," she admits with a laugh. "I didn't even know I could write. [My friend and I] were just putting songs together because we were bored. But after about six months, I started getting into it and realized that maybe I'm a musician."
Much like Waronker, McDonald recalls that there were no real expectations with Redd Kross. "The difference between starting a band as an 11- or 18-year-old," muses McDonald, "vs. later in life like Anna and I have done is that as a kid, you don't have any experience of rockdom. It could range from the most absurd, grandiose expectation of world domination to 'Wouldn't it be cool if we could play the local park?'"
"With That Dog," continues Waronker, "it was, 'What if we were on MTV? What if we were in magazines—ha, ha, ha—wouldn't that be funny?'"
"And when Anna started That Dog, that was becoming more of a possibility," interrupts McDonald. "She came of age in her band just before pre-grunge, and suddenly weird music . . . Kelley Deal was on the radio playing the riff to 'Cannonball,' and she had been playing guitar for only six months."
We mention that we saw Kelley Deal live during the Breeders' peak era, and yeah, it was weird. And kind of awful.
"But awesome at the same time," McDonald says with much enthusiasm. "Jimmy Page couldn't have played that riff with more soul. When Redd Kross started, it was '79, and the radio was Fleetwood Mac—Fleetwood Mac before Courtney Love embraced them 20 years later. It just seemed like someone else's world. But now, I have more realistic expectations with my EP. I think it's still the same in a sense that I've been through so much, yet I still have a desire to do this. The only difference now is that I have the burden of knowledge."
With his new band, McDonald has nailed down a sure-fire formula for creating groovy, ass-shaking rock. The Steven McDonald Group goes the way of mid-era Who, spiced with a little bit of T. Rex sass while leaving the kitsch of Redd Kross behind. Waronker's solo music, much like that of her previous band, is glistening with blissed-out, summertime-fun melodies, the perfect soundtrack to her sophisticated, journal-entry-type brand of sing-along lyrics.
The couple agrees that music now feels more like a profession, and after having done it for so long, they have a pretty good idea of the inner workings that go into putting out records. Last year, Waronker started a label, Five Foot Two, with her same-height Go-Go's guitarist sister-in-law Charlotte Caffey (Caffey is married to McDonald's brother, Jeff). "I pretty much wanted to have the control," Waronker states matter-of-factly. She also wanted to put out music by bands and artists she and Caffey knew but whom the Industry had neglected. Five Foot Two has already released Waronker's solo album and the Steven McDonald Group EP and is the imprint responsible for reissuing Redd Kross' nothing-short-of-perfect 1987 CD, Neurotica. There's also a new Muffs record in the works that will be sportin' the Five Foot Two logo.
And if you're going to put out records, you might as well learn how to produce them. Both Waronker and McDonald have logged time manning the controls for projects other than their own. With brother Jeff, Steve co-produced Frightwig's Phone Sexy (Kurt Cobain was a fan), the Donnas' Get Skintight ("We really wanted handclaps on 'Hyperactive,'" says McDonald, "but they weren't buying it") and Imperial Teen's first album. As Anna and Steve, they produced Imperial Teen's most recent effort, On.
"Anna's crazy on the Pro Tools," gushes her husband. "She fucking kicks ass!"
Purveyors of sun-kissed music that they are, we ask what they believe makes the perfect pop song.
"Verse-chorus-verse-chorus," Waronker quickly responds. "Strong melodies and a point of view in the lyrics. It's gotta be fun to listen to so that you want to hear it over and over again."
"What people think sounds like a very simple formula can be very complex," McDonald adds. "Trying to get all those elements in a simple two-and-a-half-minute song . . . Sentiment with a sense of darkness that sounds good and you can dance to."
Seems as if Anna and Steve have pretty much seen and done it all. Or at least a really good chunk of it. But one or two moments have got to stand out, right? Right.
"Going to Disneyland with Kim and Thurston of Sonic Youth and their daughter," says McDonald. And the time they somehow got invited to Debbie Reynold's house for her birthday party. "We walked in, and there's Sean Connery, Rod Stewart, Madonna. It was one of those moments where you're like, 'My life is crazy.'"
Anna Waronker and the Steven McDonald Group perform at the Detroit Bar, 843 W. 19th St., Costa Mesa, (949) 642-7022. Sat., 9 p.m. $8. 21+.