Alcohol, boys and coversThe ABC's of punk rock were learned and then demonstrated by a few females who are not an overnight success in the music industry. The Donnas are a group of four women (they are older than twenty-one, a fact that inspired the title for their fourth CD) who have been playing together for some fifteen years. Palo Alto, California claims them as their own--as well they should. Three elements usually appear in their music: alcohol, boys, and covers.
Article & interview by Ken Cox
Unashamedly, singer Brett Anderson (once known as 'Donna A.'), guitarist Allison Robertson (previously called 'Donna R.'), bassist Maya Ford (the artist formerly known as 'Donna F.') and drummer Torry Castellano (who was previously 'Donna C.') sing about alcohol in many of their songs. On their bestselling CD Spend the Night, the four belt out "Pass It Around," in which one person isn't keeping the party going because he's holding on to his liquor and not sharing it with anyone. On the cover of the fourth CD The Donnas Turn 21, the gals are out at the local bar with the evidence of consumption on the table in front of them. No doubt Carrie Nation, the vehement anti-alcohol activist of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, is no relation of theirs.
Not only do these four glorify alcohol in various forms (beer, Tanqeray, and Hennessy, to name a few), they also are boy-focused. "Forty Boys in Forty Nights" is an obvious example. "Too Bad about Your Girl" looks at a poor soul who would be better off with Donna A. than the lousy date he's stuck with that evening. The Donnas do not mind telling men to leave them alone. "I Didn't Like You Anyway" deals with being rejected by a boy but his b-o-r-i-n-g (spelled out in the song itself) existence is pushed aside because there are better boys out there in the land of dating.
From alcohol to boys to cover songs go the Donnas. They are accused of being the Ramones without male vocals; granted, the sound is somewhat similar, but these girls rock on their own power and are not carbon copies of the group that made punk history years earlier. The Donnas cover Motley Crue ("Too Fast for Love") as well as Judas Priest ("Living after Midnight"). They do use Ramones-like gimmickry. In their slowest song, "You Don't Wanna Call," there is what sounds like a BellSouth telephone operator saying that the telephone number is no longer in service. On "Last Chance Dance," from their debut CD, The Donnas, a disc jockey at a high school prom says over a loudspeaker that the song to be played is the last dance tune of the evening. The sound effects before the song also have the feel of a Ramones cop but the girls include the gimmick with pride.
Gold Medal, the sixth CD, did not live up to its title: "Revolver" was the best song while all the other material sounded as if the Donnas were trying to go country-punk. The rest of the songs were slow compared to the Little Richard rapidity of Spend the Night.
Bitchin' is the seventh and most recent CD, and the sound is much better. The songs are up tempo and are a return to the band's more aggressive style. They are portrayed on the back cover with angry facial expressions, and they are dressed in traditional black heavy metal leather outfits a la Suzi Quatro.
So, when one hears The Donnas, one is being introduced to the ABC's of punk rock--at least from the feminine side of the punk lifestyle. Alcohol abounds and awaits them; boys bother, bless, and build up their confidence; covers of groups they love are sprinkled within the contents of their seven CD's. Fans are happy that The Donnas are touring again, learning and using their ABC's to achieve world domination.
INTERVIEW- 21 QUESTIONS FOR THE DONNA
Thanks go to Brett, Allison, Maya, and Torry for their cooperation and for Adrianne Rigg and Gina-Marie DeGregorio for helping with this.
1. Has growing up in Palo Alto been a good thing or a bad thing for you?
Brett: It was good because there wasn't much to do, so we had to entertain ourselves and invent stuff.
2. How do your parents feel about your status in the music industry?
Torry: All our parents have always been very supportive of our band! They're huge fans. I think we're pretty lucky, because most parents aren't! We just had a fan club show in the desert this past weekend and all of our parents came out.
3. How did your classmates at Palo Alto view you in your early performance days?
Allison: From what I gathered at the time, many of our classmates thought we were freaks and told us frequently that they thought we sucked or that our band was a joke.
4. Do you go back to the old school at home? How are you treated if you do?
Maya: NEVER! I hate school! But when I run into kids from high school in L.A. or at a show in a strange city, they are always nice and pretend like we were friends in school. I guess people get older and realize that the weirdos are actually the smart ones and deserve more respect. Most of my teachers liked me except for the history teacher, but that's cuz I called him a bastard and got kicked outta class. He tried to make us watch Christian rock videos. I told him I was Jewish. My French teacher was also annoying, so I dropped out.
5. Who came up with Ragady Anne as an early name for The Donnas?
Brett: I don't really remember. We just liked it because it was cute like a doll, but tore up like the music we liked.
6. Is there a certain process you go through in writing songs?
Torry: Each song's process is different. For this past record, we did a lot of jamming to come up with the music. Usually lyrics start with an idea from one of us and then we get together and work on it. For a few of the songs on Bitchin', we all four got together and wrote the lyrics, which was really fun.
7. Are there lots of your unreleased songs that could fill up a couple of CD's?
Allison: Yes, definitely TONS of extra songs, considering how many albums we have and that each album has demos, original versions, and unreleased songs or bonus songs for different regions.
8. Do you see any change in the content of your music, from your high school days until now?
Maya: I think our music has a little more depth and character than it used to. We learned a lot about songwriting and performing from touring so much, and we got sick of the same old three chords, started expanding our music. For instance, I used to only play two strings on my bass. Now I can play all four! I try not to though cuz that G string is wimpy and lame. Also, we have been through some extreme love connections as well as nasty breakups. Getting your heart really smashed and broken usually results in an awesome song. We are women now and we know how to use and abuse boys, throw 'em away and write a song bout it. We wanna make our next record as dirty as possible.
9. Who decides the set list for your concerts?
Brett: We write them together, usually backstage before the show, or if it's a big show or tour we write one at practice and then play it over and over.
10. Do your CD covers reflect the true individual and/or group personalities of The Donnas? On Spend the Night, you appear girly-girlish; on Gold Medal, you appear like The Beatles on a psychedelic background; on Bitchin', you look like heavy metal biker girls with an attitude.
Torry: I think each cover represents where we're all at [during] the time of that record; each record explores different types of rock 'n roll. For the Spend the Night cover, we wanted it to look like we had a fun party in a room with records and beer bottles everywhere. For Gold Medal, we were going for more of an organic sound and we wanted the cover to reflect that. For Bitchin’, we wanted the cover to be all about metal, just like the music.
11. Why were there so many slower songs on Gold Medal – especially since Spend the Night was your blockbuster CD?
Allison: Hmmm, I don't really consider the songs on Gold Medal slower, but I do think our musical spectrum was broadening on that album. Spend the Night isn't exactly THE blockbuster, as the two were both very popular and many fans prefer Gold Medal! Considering that neither have gone gold yet, I think they both have their merits and I'm very proud that they are not identical albums.
12. Billboard has Bitchin' ranked as #8 in the top independent albums. Are you happier to be in this category or do you wish you had stayed mainstream in recording?
Maya: I was really happy when we made the stripper charts! Ha, I like being independent and don't think we ever fit in the mainstream, anyway. We are kinda weird, we wanna do it our way. We are paving a path for other outcasts that don't wanna be like everyone else.
13. Whose CD would you pre-order and why?
Brett: M.I.A. seems like she still has a lot of new ideas in her, I'd bank on her next record being different than anything I have right now and refreshing to my eardrums. And I don't mind throwing a few of my dollar votes her way : )
14. What can a person who has never attended a Donnas concert expect to experience?
Torry: We like to put on a show. We like to headbang and sweat. We want people to come to party and we want them to have fun.
15. What is the craziest thing that has happened at one of your concerts?
Allison: People jumping off a box seat balcony at one theater because they were so high on drugs. Several shows have included grown men coming up onstage uninvited and proceeding to take off their pants.
16. Do you play other instruments besides guitar, bass, and drums? Are you self-taught or formally trained to play?
Maya: I play the Vibra Slap 2, the recorder, and the Jew’s harp. I'm self taught but started taking lessons last year from an awesome Swedish bass player, Jorgan Carlson. I love him; we sit around hungover in his studio and play Michael Jackson songs, get inspired. I can't read music, I don't jam, I just play songs. Jorgan helps me slow things down when I can’t figure out how to play a crazy bridge or bass fill that Allison wrote for me.
17. What would you do if you were not The Donnas?
Brett: Probably be a flavor tester for candy or work at the Exploratorium in San Francisco, or dominatrix, or a monk.
18. What is the best advice you've ever been given?
Torry: Tori Amos told us to hold on to our publishing rights, and I think that that is great advice! It's so important for musicians to know and understand the business side of things, because no one else is going to protect you. Also, it's very tempting to take a huge advance either from a record company or a publishing company, but it's much better to take a smaller advance and not be in debt!
19. Which one of you would do really well on Dancing with the Stars?
Allison: Most likely everyone BUT me. I have no rhythm in my feet.
20. What is the meaning of life as you see it?
Maya: Playing rock and roll forever with my band.
21. Are there any long-term goals for The Donnas?
Brett: I like to just focus on what's next. We have a big event coming up in the desert for our fan club that we've been planning forever. Oh but someday I do want to play at Madison Square Garden, before it's submerged by the melting polar ice caps.
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