How Redd Kross Killed Kurt Cobain and Other Stories of Teen Angst
Since early 1978, brothers Jeff and Steven McDonald have been working on a band, music, or some form of noisemaking. At first, they were The Tourists. Then in 1980, they became Red Cross (but some nutty nonprofit organization already had dibs on that name) and finally wound up as Redd Kross. Sure, over the past 37 years, the McDonalds have taken some breaks here and there from Redd Kross to raise children, relax, recharge, etc., but the fact remains that their passion for music and all things pop culture has allowed their musical acumen to continue to grow and flourish. From their first recording, the 1980 EP Red Cross, to their most recent full-length, Researching the Blues (2012), the band has continued to expand its sound, even if it hasn’t performed nearly as much as fans would like.
We caught up with the brothers one day after they were done practicing a couple of weeks ago. Always entertaining, the McDonalds occasionally finish each other’s sentences and are not shy about sharing their thoughts on their career, the scene (or "scenes," as they point out), and pretty much anything else they could think of. Catch them on Friday night at the Crescent Ballroom as they return to the desert and promise to bring the “razzmatazz.”
New Times: Hi, guys. What’s happening?
Jeff McDonald: We just finished rehearsal.
How was it?
Jeff McDonald: We’ve been having great rehearsals and going through a lot of songs.
Are you going to bust out with some special stuff for the Phoenix fans, since it has been two decades since you have been here?
Jeff McDonald: I assume everything will be special since it’s been two decades.
Steve McDonald: We’re banking on that.
Jeff McDonald: So far, we’ve had just the best times on this tour, so we’re thinking it will be special. We don’t play that much, so we have such a good time when we play.
You took some time off, Jeff, to raise your daughter, correct?
Jeff McDonald: Yeah, that was in the early 2000s. We took this long break. I didn’t want to play. I wanted to recharge. I really wanted to be ready to perform again. Redd Kross is band that (pauses) . . . We’re kind of like seasoned performers.
Steve McDonald: (interjects) more like Liza Minnelli.
Jeff McDonald: And the Osmonds . . .
Steve McDonald: We don’t consider ourselves peers of like the Foo Fighters. We’re more like peers of Liza Minnelli and the Osmonds.
Jeff McDonald: We always make sure our show has a certain razzmatazz. Some people call it razzle dazzle, but I call it razzmatazz. I think some of our latest shows that we’ve done in the past year have been some of our most exciting gigs. We never play the same show twice. We always write up the set list, like, five minutes before the show. We kind of keep ourselves on edge on purpose.
So, how many songs did you run through today (in practice)?
Jeff McDonald: Umm, we are just kind of getting our feet wet again . . .
Steve McDonald: Like 30.
Jeff McDonald: Was it 30?
Steve McDonald: Yeah. Some of them are a minute and half long, but . . .
Jeff McDonald: We know songs from any record in our career. We do a little bit . . . You know, songs that work with the set. Sometimes we’ll be playing in front of an audience and a certain song doesn’t seem right for the vibe, so we’ll cut it, and sometimes we’ll throw in a song that isn’t on the list. We do that stuff constantly. I think it really irritates some people in the band . . . But um.
Steve McDonald: No one cares . . .
Jeff McDonald: Steven can handle it.
Steve McDonald: I can just never tell if we skip a song if it’s because someone can’t read the set list.
Jeff McDonald: It happens. I’ve skipped like four songs before on accident.
Somebody with good penmanship should write the set lists.
Jeff McDonald: I have the worst penmanship in show business. I have the penmanship of a doctor.
So you prescribe your songs?
Jeff McDonald: We prescribe our songs. We don’t perform them.
I hope you prescribe “What They Say” for Phoenix. (Off 1987’s Neurotica album)
Jeff McDonald: That would be very interesting. Maybe we will. You know what, maybe we will. That is a good request. We have a few more rehearsals, so we’ll see.
Do it for the bass players in town.
Steve McDonald: (Laughs) Oh, yeah.
Jeff McDonald: We’ve always had at least two bass solos in every show we’ve ever done, right?
Steve McDonald: I don’t know, but we’ll do one at this show since it’s actually . . . um . . .
Jeff McDonald: Demanded.
Steve McDonald: If it’s demanded.
Jeff McDonald: Steven is locked and loaded to do a bass solo at any time.
As well he should be. Bass players are always ready for a solo.
Jeff McDonald: But most are not capable. But I have to give it to Steve because he’s a very capable bass soloist.
Steve McDonald: (laughs)
When you look back on your beginnings, does it trip you out how everything has unfolded musically and historically, especially for the L.A. scene you come from?
Jeff McDonald: Well, yeah. It’s just our lives, essentially. We were so young [when we started]. Seeing the cycles of music and business and groups and trends. Seeing them all kind of go in circles, and waves, and tides. I don’t even know, I mean, there have been so many "scenes" since we started.
You guys have been able to bounce around, too, from scene to scene.
Jeff McDonald: I think it’s been because we’ve always been music-based. We always wanted to be our idols, and we’ve listened to a lot of music from all different eras, which kind of set us aside from our peers when we were first coming onto the scene. We just had a vast musical knowledge. There was no reason to pigeonhole ourselves into just punk rock or grunge or metal, whatever. We have parts of all that stuff, but we never really felt like being in a scene. We’ve kind of been that way on purpose. Not snobs, but there was just too much stuff we wanted to do musically.
Was music something that was big in your house growing up?
Jeff McDonald: Yeah. My father liked music. We had a stereo in the '70s and we would tape whoever was playing on the radio with our reel-to-reel. We lived in a small house, so anything that anyone was listening to in our house, everyone was listening to it.
I assume your parents were supportive of you guys picking up instruments and playing.
Jeff McDonald: Well, they bought [the instruments] for us.
Steve McDonald: No, actually you bought your first Stratocaster from your job.
Jeff McDonald: Steven got the first electric instrument.
Steve McDonald: I did. I got a Fender Musicmaster for Christmas in 1977. We started the band in early ’78, so it had to be ’77. Jeff had a Stratocaster copy that he bought at Hogan’s House of Music for $40 (the amount was in stereo as Jeff chimed in at the same time) after he worked at a fish and chips shop for three months.
Jeff McDonald: My dad wouldn’t buy me an electric guitar. Steven got his bass because he was in the school orchestra. So, yeah, when I got the $40 Stratocaster, we started writing songs. Just like the Ramones, we quickly realized it was hard to play other people’s songs, so we started writing our own songs. We wrote the first batch of songs . . . Steven was ahead of me at first, musically, but as soon as I learned barre chords, I was able to write songs.
When did you guys hook up with the first lineup? The first recorded lineup of Red Cross included Ron Reyes (Black Flag) and Greg Hetson (Circle Jerks, Bad Religion), correct?
Jeff McDonald: Well, Ron Reyes wasn’t in the original band, but he was on the first recording. Greg Hetson went to my high school. At the time, no one knew what punk rock was and Greg was in my photography class. I was a freshman and he was a senior. I had gone to the Whisky [A Go Go] and taken pictures of, like, Exene [Cervenka of X] and he recognized who it was and he was into “new wave” music. He was one of like three people in Hawthorne [California, where the brothers grew up] who had an electric guitar. He wasn’t in my social crowd, but I asked him if he wanted to come over and jam with because we were trying to put together a band. I said, “Yeah, my brother is 11 years old” and he was like, “Oh, I don’t know about that.” When he finally came over to our house and we showed him the songs, like “Annette’s Got the Hits” and, do you recall? Do you remember any of that, Steve?
Steve McDonald: Vaguely. I don’t know. I kind of remember being in our bedroom and playing along with no amplifier. He had a Pignose, which is kind of an old, portable one-watt amplifier. He had a Gibson S-1 guitar, you know, just random tidbits.
Jeff McDonald: Steven was in the school band with this kid named John Stielow [who now lives in Phoenix] who was like a year or two older than Steven. We started rehearsing. There were certain pressures, you know. Like, nine out of ten rehearsals were broken up by the cops.
Steve McDonald: We were always like [takes on an affected child-like voice], “Oh, man, it’s the fuzz.” We were just doing our thing in our own time and were like, “Just give us a break.”
Jeff McDonald: Every single rehearsal was like that until we got a rehearsal place. We were like the Partridge Family, practicing in a real garage.
Steve McDonald: Back to John Stielow for a second . . . Our very first drummer who was in junior high when we started. We were called The Tourists at the very beginning. It was all the same songs as our first Red Cross EP. And then John later rejoined a couple years later and played on most of the Born Innocent album, and he and I just recently reconnected with on Facebook.
Jeff McDonald: He might be jamming with us.
Steve McDonald: Well, maybe, but [makes the ssssshhhh noise]. Tourists fans might want to come down to the show just in case.
Jeff McDonald: Tourist purists.
Steve McDonald: The purists (laughs).
In 35 years or so, that you’ve been recording, do people ever request songs you don’t remember?
Jeff McDonald: They request songs we don’t know how to play. All of our later records have songs we’ve never played live. In fact, we could do a really strong show of songs we’ve never played live. If we get short for "themes," maybe we’ll do that.
Do you think a band like Redd Kross could happen again? With a 15- and 11-year-old leading it? I can’t imagine it would have been easy for you guys had the Internet been going on back in 1978 and everyone knew what you were up to all the time.
Jeff McDonald: Right, I mean, I don’t know. Definitely. There is probably cool group of little kids writing their own songs that are really great. We just don’t know about it.
Steve McDonald: I don’t know, I’ve worked with some really good young bands. In some ways, it is so much easier now. We used to cold-call people from the phone book [for gigs].
Jeff McDonald: I remember tracking down the Dickies in the phone book and got one of the guys' grandfather’s house because he was a junior or something. I’ve actually met a lot fans from the phone because people would track us down and call us.
Steve McDonald: Yeah, that wall phone in our parent’s house in the kitchen. It got a lot of action.
Jeff McDonald: That’s how we made it happen by calling any lead. We were much younger than the other bands. Being 11 [years old] and 14 or 15. We got really lucky, just calling people and asking for gigs. There wasn’t really a “scene” yet. We just got lucky.
Steve McDonald: We also ran print ads in the back of Slash magazine. There’s a few of them out there where we were trying to get bookings for our band.
Jeff McDonald: Never got one.
Steve McDonald: Never got bites, but it would say, “Featuring the amazing 11-year-old bass player Steve,” and it had our parents' number on it.
Jeff McDonald: I saw one those recently. It was amazing.
Flipside loved you guys.
Jeff McDonald: That was like when Born Innocent [1982 album] came out.
Steve McDonald: Then we became Flipside material. They put us on the cover.
Jeff McDonald: We were very different than the other bands in L.A. at the time.
I always wondered how you guys pulled off all the cool stuff you did.
Jeff McDonald: We had outside influences, and we had influences that were rock 'n' roll, too, but we were really into movies, too, like the early VHS stuff, the underground movies, weirdo movies. We went to Russ Meyer marathons, early John Waters and his book, Shock Value (2005), was a huge influence. He really spelled out the do-it-yourself aspect . . . You know, following your passion. When you look at the early John Waters films, he was very, very serious and did everything himself. We had to do everything ourselves because we weren’t part of any, well, the hardcore scene. It wasn’t just music.
Thank you, by the way, for introducing me, back in the day, to Beyond the Valley of the Dolls (The 1970 cult classic film).
Steve McDonald: (Laughs)
Jeff McDonald: Yeah, we’ve been very lucky in L.A.. There was an art house scene, and we saw all the weird underground films, sometimes with the filmmakers in the theater, too. The movies were just as big of an influence as any of the bands that we were into, especially around the time of Born Innocent.
You mentioned feeling like you were not part of the hardcore scene. Did you guys ever identify as a punk band?
Jeff McDonald: Maybe for, like, stuff when we first started. But after that, it was definitely no. We didn’t know what we were, and we didn’t really know how to get to where we wanted to go, but we weren’t like everyone else, but I don’t think we would have called ourselves a punk band by the time we did Teen Babes from Monsanto (1984). No way. The only place for us to play was in that scene. We got mixed results from audiences. We would have converts, but we also had people who were very confused by the way we looked and sounded.
A lot of musicians from that time who I have talked to have mentioned being disillusioned by the direction punk took in the early '80s, talking about how it felt like you had to wear a uniform and you had to sound a certain way. Did you feel the same way?
Jeff McDonald: Oh, yeah, definitely. We kind of wrote the book on that. We’d go into the war zone — when it became like really uniformed, as you say. We performed in those situations. Sometimes we would get people on our side and sometimes they’d be throwing shit at us.
Steve McDonald: There is a performance you can see of us playing at a pier in Santa Monica in a Dave Markey film called The Slog Movie (1982). We looked crazy. Jeff is in like a psychedelic pimp outfit from a thrift store. What you don’t see in the video is the entire Suicidal [Tendencies] gang is there and they are pelting us with kiwi fruits that some hippy was selling out of a fruit stand. Dave [Markey] ran out of film as this was going on.
Jeff McDonald: Another funny thing about that show, my friend told me I said from stage, “The next song we play is a cover of song that I got from a record I bought from a garage sale at Mike Muir’s (singer of Suicidal Tendencies) house” then we went into “Somebody wants to love you” by the Partridge Family. So you know, that’s the kind of stuff. And then what happened . . . all those people were into us after that.
Steve McDonald: We played with Suicidal a few times after that. They were cool to us. Places like Godzilla’s in the San Fernando Valley, they were like . . .
Jeff McDonald: Horrible pits.
Steve McDonald: And it got uncomfortable. There were people in our age group by then. A couple years prior, everyone was much older than us. The teenage take on the punk rock thing was kind of like a contact sport, kinda jock-oriented vibe that we didn’t identify with.
Jeff McDonald: And I didn’t like any of the music that was happening at that time [in the punk scene].
Steve McDonald: It was really monotonous
Jeff McDonald: Everybody wanted to have, like, British accents, everyone wanted to be Johnny Rotten and Sid Vicious.
Steve McDonald: So for us, those were kind of like the dark ages.
Jeff McDonald: But it was important for us. We would be on bills with bands that were nothing like us, and we would get booed, and we would get so much power from it. In Texas once, we played for 3,000 cowboys and Steve ended up jacking off his bass in some cowboy’s face because they were booing so much. We never left the stage, though, no way in hell . . . It was like fear didn’t exist. It confirms what we do is for real because it has a certain power. Otherwise, it would be scary to have 3,000 cowboys booing.
I remember seeing you guys once in San Francisco at the Warfield with the Butthole Surfers in 1991 and the crowd was not as into you as I thought they would be.
Jeff McDonald: You never know with the Butthole Surfers. That could have been an off night for us, definitely.
Steve McDonald: I think we enjoy it most when an audience is with us, but we’re not afraid to deal with it the other way.
Jeff McDonald: That hasn’t happened in so long, and it usually only happens when we are on weird bills, but we can handle it.
You guys totally handled it.
Jeff McDonald: I don’t remember any details of that show. I usually remembered Butthole shows because they were like the craziest shows of all time.
Steve McDonald: The next night we played at the Palladium in Los Angeles with those guys [Butthole Surfers] and supposedly that’s the night Courtney [Love] and Kurt [Cobain] met for the first time.
Jeff McDonald: That was the night they became lovers. Yeah . . .
Steve McDonald: They consummated their . . .
Jeff McDonald: They did . . . That’s when they got “together.”
Steve McDonald: That’s a little bit of rock history right there.
Damn. Now I’m going to have to spin this as Redd Kross is responsible for Kurt Cobain’s death. My editor is going to love this.
Jeff McDonald: Go for it. Yes . . .
Steve McDonald: We take full credit. Go for it.
Thanks. Makes my job easier.
Jeff McDonald: Sure . . . the pressure. Got to find the soundbite. Redd Kross killed Kurt Cobain, so that’s it. It will take the heat off Courtney.
If you guys hadn’t have played that show, they might have never hooked up. She was probably there to see you guys. Have you guys had a lot of pissed off boyfriends come up to you angry because their girlfriends were busy swooning over you?
Jeff McDonald: You know, it’s really weird. We had this kind of weird, underground teeny-bop image. A lot of girls liked us, but for some reason, their boyfriends liked us, too. We had a lot of couples as fans. We were going for you know, after having come out of the underground, male-dominated punk thing, it was refreshing to have the girls come along.
Most of the gals I knew in the '80s and '90s liked you very much.
Jeff McDonald: It was great. It was still in the underground. It was unique. It wasn’t taken to the Katy Perry level, which I wish it was. If we had the resources to the things some of the people do now, it would just be the most insane thing on Earth, but who knows?
Which brings me back to the question about whether a not a band like you guys could make it now? You guys seem pretty grounded, but with the scrutiny the current state of the media is afforded, would a young band be able to hold up? When I was following you guys in the '80s, I had to wait for the new music zines to come out every month or so to find out what you guys are up to.
Jeff McDonald: It takes some of the fun out of it. I was thinking about cover songs, for instance, in the same way. We’ve always liked doing covers and been good at doing them. We made a whole album of covers. I think about times when the Rolling Stones played covers that were basically unknown, obscure songs no one knew of, and now you can’t do it. Every cool gem out there is available for everyone to hear. It’s right there on YouTube. Playing cover songs is good for writing. Learning a new cover song makes you want to write a song like it. It refreshes the writing.
People like to hear something familiar but done your way.
Jeff McDonald: I like to pick covers that people think are our songs. (Laughs) So only the most knowledgeable person would come up and say, “Oh, you did such and such. That’s so cool blah blah blah. The rock cover geeks, I guess.
But on Teen Babes from Monsanto, the first two songs are by Kiss and the Rolling Stones.
Jeff McDonald: Right, but no punk band in 1983, none of our peers were listening to Their Satanic Majesty’s Request and finding deep album cuts. And Kiss was like the enemy because remember you weren’t allowed to be a rock star. You weren’t allowed to be a song writer. You weren’t allowed to be an artist. To throw Kiss in their face because everybody loved Kiss when “Beth” came out, like the punk kids at the time. It was fun to revise it.
I always thought Their Satanic Majesty’s Request was the coolest Stones record…
Jeff McDonald: We were playing with bands like TSOL [Southern California punk band True Sounds of Liberty] and hardcore bands, and they didn’t listen to that kind of music. It was weird for most people to hear it [Redd Kross playing “Citadel” by the Stones]. When we were making Born Innocent, we were listening to the early Rolling Stones all the time. The record doesn’t sound like the Stones, but we were obsessed with Got Live If You Want It! [Rolling Stones live album from 1966] all the time. It’s the most trashy punk rock record of all time.
Tell me about the songwriting. Jeff, you’ve always been kind of the principal songwriter in Redd Kross, right?
Jeff McDonald: Well, no, yeah . . . I write more songs than anyone, but.
Steve McDonald: He’s the principal.
Jeff McDonald: But Steven’s capable of coming up with Redd Kross songs, too. I go into songwriting mode. They come in batches, and I’ll put them on tape and come up with like six songs at a time. I don’t write a lot of "failed" songs. I usually only work on what I think is good. I haven’t written that many songs for someone who’s been around this long. It’s too heartbreaking to write a shitty song.
How have you guys handled it when one of your bandmates — or your brother, in this case — hates what you bring in, song-wise?
Jeff McDonald: We at least try to work on it. If it is not happening, it just kind of fades. It’s never, “Oh, I hate this.” We have a couple of songs where we’ve worked on them and then sort of lost interest before it was presented to the public.
After you bring new songs in, do you then let others put their own flavor in?
Jeff McDonald: Yeah.
Steve McDonald: Yeah, we do.
Lyrics come first or second?
Jeff McDonald: They almost always come after the music. I’m going to try, though, to come up with lyrics before the music. It’s a challenge for myself because it is a drag when you’ll get a really great song and you end up singing scat lyrics to the melody. We had like four songs on our last album that didn’t have lyrics when they were recorded and it was really difficult. You get married to the nonsense, and then it is really hard when you put the real lyrics in.
This one also features Jeff's daughter, Astrid, who sings for Redd Kross' opening act, The Side Eyes.
Ever have someone totally misinterpret your lyrics?
Jeff McDonald: That happens a lot. Someone will think something’s really heavy and it’s not or vice versa.
Steve, how has playing with OFF! changed your approach with Redd Kross, or has it?
Steve McDonald: I don’t know. Well, doing OFF! I think inspired me to get off my butt and do some things with Redd Kross. We sat on Researching the Blues for a long time before we finished it. When OFF! kind of burst onto the scene and suddenly, like, these middle-age guys had a career doing a brand new band, it kind of reminded me of when we started our band and would get people’s attention by saying, “Our bass player’s 11 years old.” So, by the time I was like, 40, I was thinking people only like 11-year-old bass players and it was surprising to see the success of OFF! and how we (OFF!) beat the ageism thing.
It’s one of the positive things about rockers in the internet age. We don’t need a marketing company to decide who is into you. Boring kinds of business shit are what OFF! kind of reminded me about what we needed to do with Redd Kross. For a while I would sit in my room with the Redd Kross record and wonder if people even cared, but it’s nice to know they still do. It put the fire under my ass to get motivated.
Both of you guys have gone over to the knob-twiddling side of the business, as well, correct? Did you both work on Researching the Blues from a production angle?
Steve McDonald: Well, the last record was very collaborative. Jeff has done a lot of songs on his own. He’s got his own little studio in his home.
Jeff McDonald: We recorded the basics of that record in a normal studio, then we took the sessions back home and worked on them.
Steve McDonald: Some of the songs we did in our rehearsal room on an eight-track. Then we did some re-tracking. It’s kind of a hodgepodge. The bass and the rhythm guitar were from the original eight track.
Jeff McDonald: I’ll do my vocals at home by myself at times.
Steve McDonald: But ultimately, the record was three-quarters finished for probably three years or so before I knew how to make a ProTools mix that made the record sound the way I thought it deserved to sound. It is always a progression. We got it to a place where Jeff heard it, and he helped me with some things I was blocked on and, you know, it just took a while. But it had to go to a place where the finish had some magic and it was fitting for the songs.
Jeff McDonald: Any time the actual artist sits behind the board, there is always going to be the technical side of their brain that will never be completely satisfied, but we take that on because we know our band, and the music that we make together, Steven and I, so well, we don’t need another person to come in.
Steve McDonald: I kind of learned my lesson. I brought like four songs to a guy I had great admiration for [McDonald declined to say just who it was] and the records he made with his band, and I could tell that he wasn’t hearing it the same way I was hearing it, and he didn’t have the same enthusiasm for it that we had. It was super-discouraging. It’s hard when you’re trying to self-propel yourself and you don’t have management or a record label or a whole team behind you. It kind of set me back for a while. Some artists don’t have that weird perfectionism, or whatever that demon is in our head when you’re dealing with that technical side really hard when you’re also doing your own band and have your expectations attached.
For me, it’s been a constant battle to know when to not get too caught up and knowing when to step away, when you’re getting too emotional, losing perspective or knowing when to bring Jeff in and see if he’s got some insight. I’ve been making records constantly for the past 10 years and I’m really excited. We’ve been working on our own little recording space more. I’m excited about Redd Kross making another record, and I think it will come along a lot faster. It’s crazy because I’m in my late 40s, and I’m sure I’ll laugh at what I’m doing now a couple of years down the road, but making records is a constant (pauses) . . . It's problem-solving constantly. It can be energy-zapping. It’s hard to get to a place where you can feel spontaneous.
Going back to taping things off the radio with your reel-to-reel. Has that had a noticeable affect for you on how you work in the studio?
Steve McDonald: Yeah, all the experience has. The music I grew up listening to as a kid, all the years of doing Redd Kross. The Beatles . . . I will get discouraged for a while, then I’ll pick up a book on how the Beatles recorded and I’ll get inspired again because I love the sound of their records and I’ll read about what they went through. It’s very inspiring.
By the way, who is playing with you guys these days?
Steve McDonald: Jason Shapiro from Celebrity Skin.
Jeff McDonald: A legendary L.A. band. We’ve known them for years.
Steve McDonald: Jason is on guitar and Eric Skodis is on drums. He played in Imperial Drag with Roger Manning from Jellyfish. He’s got a Suzi Quatro/Sweet swagger to his shuffle.
Jeff McDonald: We always get members of the band from sort of like our extended family. We wouldn’t go and get someone from outside the family. We’ve got a really, really good lineup right now.
That's super-cool. Thank you so much! I've taken up an hour of your time, gents. What else would you like to add?
Steve McDonald: We’re excited about coming to Phoenix. It’s been a long time since we were there. We’re excited to let Phoenix on the whole next chapter. Which I think has been a really cool chapter.
Jeff McDonald: It’s going to be great.
Steve McDonald: Anybody who liked the band before, it’ll be good to see you, and any younger person who is kind of intrigued or knows some of the other things we’re involved in, come check it out. Even if you don’t know the songs, it’s an entertaining night.
Jeff McDonald: And plus, we’re always great in the desert. We just did a great show at Joshua Tree. Just be prepared. There’s something about the desert.
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