They're every mother's nightmare, every schoolboy's dream. But don't call the Donnas punks, and don't mistake them for a gimmick band. After seven years of honing their chops, they just might be the coolest band in America
By: Kate SullivanThey’re every mother’s nightmare, every schoolboy’s dream. Butdon’t call the Donnas punks, and don’t mistake them for a gimmickband. After seven years of honing their chops, they just might bethe coolest band in America
“I think we should be on the Anger Management Tour, ’cause we have a lot of anger to manage,” Torry Castellano says, giggling. Castellano, thedrummer for the Donnas, is wearing excellent lip gloss and speaks in a candy-girly voice. Today, she and her bandmates are doing what they always do: driving aroundSan Francisco, looking for trouble.
Anger management takes many forms for Castellano (a.k.a. Donna C.), guitarist Allison Robertson (Donna R.), bassist Maya Ford (Donna F.), and vocalist BrettAnderson (Donna A.), 23-year-old garage grrrls who got together in eighth grade, grew up on the road, and have released five albums, including their great new major-label debut, Spend the Night. A big part of their rage-control strategy is simply hanging out together and doing Fun Donnas Stuff. Take, for instance, their Appetitefor Destruction alter ego. “After practice, sometimes we all switch instruments and do a Guns N’ Roses medley,” says Castellano, the group’s most ebullient member.
Today, Robertson has a super-fun idea for a Donnas-style activity: the pound (as in animal, not the local punk club). Castellano wants a new cat, and a few minuteslater, we arrive at an incredibly fancy shelter (“Thanks for driving, Brett!” they chime in unison). Each future pet here has its own room, and the cats watch cartoonson their own TVs. The band wanders among the doggie cribs and kitty condos, hypnotized. In the cat-quarantine area, Castellano falls for a steel-gray flirt withconjunctivitis. “Ooh! You just wanna play!” she says, squatting and sticking her fingers into the cage.
It’s a total Donnas moment–playful, empathetic, communal–the perfect embodiment of the most atypically ass-kicking band in America. The Donnas have spent thepast seven years managing their anger via girlish camaraderie and a mean-hot garage rock that owes as much to Mötley Crüe as to early ’90s riot grrrls like Bratmobile(who, inspired by a Donnas show, re-formed in 1999). Pegged by some as a gimmick when they emerged in 1997 as gum-smacking teenage Ramonas with matching T-shirts andlipstick snarls, they’ve stayed around and become better than anyone expected. Except themselves. “We’ve never pretended to be punks,” says Castellano. “We’ve always wanted to be as big as possible.” But theDonnas are punks–with Radio Disney hearts.
“We went to see Britney [Spears] in Vegas with them,” says Bratmobile guitarist Erin Smith, “and it was the most amazing experience of my life. Britney was so good,and watching the Donnas watch her and knowing that one day all the people in the audience are gonna know who they are–it was incredible.” To the Donnas, pop cultureis a playground to be manipulated. They’re opinionated, obsessive trash junkies: 90210 reruns, Popstars, Backstreet Boys (“before that ballad shit”).
“We tried to learn the lyrics to ‘Are You Ready for Freddy’ by the Fat Boys in the back lounge of the tour bus, and all the guys were scared of us ’cause we allhad our Fred Krueger claws on. And we were screaming the words and talking like Fred Krueger,” says Robertson.
The Donnas seem to get more kicks from being in a band than anyone since their spiritual forerunners, the Go-Go’s. They’re a weird mix of personalities. Guitarshredder Robertson–both the Guitar God One and the Married One–seems world-weary, holding herself as if she has no idea how great she is. Ford–the Quiet One–is anexcellent lyricist who won’t let on how smart she is. Anderson–the Sexy Singer–is dry and tough and speaks with a bit of a lisp. Castellano–the Talkative One–collects stuffed animals and has a Kiss banner in her bedroom. In their non-Donnas life, they’re everyday girls with everyday insecurities. Onstage, they’re athrashing Hydra, revitalizing the all-for-one rock-band dynamic.
The Donnas’ punk-rock chutzpah didn’t come easy. When the band met in junior high, they were outcasts among the rich kids in posh Palo Alto, California. Ford andAnderson connected through their love of Twin Peaks. “What they had to go through socially in high school was awful,” says Smith. “They were total weirdos.”
Bonding over a shared love of metal and punk, they dubbed themselves Ragedy Ann, and found a scene at all-ages riot grrrl shows. They played their first gig at ajunior-high outdoor concert. “Our band and a few other girls would all go to the city by ourselves on the bus,” says Robertson. “And we’d go see Sonic Youth or BikiniKill or Tribe 8. We were definitely better off at shows, but nobody liked us anywhere.”
“I always felt like the biggest dork,” says Anderson.
A local would-be rock mogul, Darin Raffaelli, discovered the band and convinced them to adopt an alter ego, “the Donnas,” and replace their riot grrrl songs with apassel of Ramones-style tunes he’d written, which got released as The Donnas in 1997. But punk’s amateurism didn’t quite fit with their passion for guitar-slinging’80s bands. “In cock rock, it’s all about how well you play,” says Robertson. “Guys are always waiting for you to mess up.”
Soon they started recording their own songs, complete with Robertson’s ribald Ace Frehley-inspired guitar solos. American Teenage Rock ‘n’ Roll Machine (1998)inaugurated the sound, which they honed further on 1999’s Get Skintight and 2001’s coming-of-age-on-the-road album, The Donnas Turn 21. (featuring such tunes as “40Boys in 40 Nights” and “Are You Gonna Move It for Me”). “My little sister was into them,” says Mary Gormley, who helped woo the band to Atlantic. “They’re witty.They’re great players. I think they can make records for ten years.”
Spend the Night is by far the best Donnas album. It’s a big, clean, ballsy rock record with clear goals: having a good time all the time–and putting guys intheir place. “Take It Off” is a pumped-up makeout anthem that subverts hair-metal cockitude; “Dirty Denim” throws attitude at fashion-conscious rock boys; “TooBad About Your Girl” is an old-fashioned steal-your-man thriller; and “Back Seat” is about–well, figure it out. It’s seamless and fun-loving, though it almost gotsnagged by the predictable major-label recording grind.
“We were super depressed,” says Robertson. “We heard one mix sitting in the car outside the studio, and all four of us hated it. We really wished we’d driven awayand never come back.” Fortunately, they hung tough until they got the right sound. “I said ‘I told you so’ to one lady at the label. That felt good,” says Anderson.At a time when goody-goody girl singers with no originality are big on pop radio, the Donnas are beautiful freaks. “Everyone around you says, ‘What do you think ofMichelle Branch? Do you want to beat her up? Are you guys going to get in a catfight?'” Robertson says. Anderson pipes up, “Maybe I don’t like [some people’s] musicand I puke when I hear it, but I’m not going to beat them up!” Says Castellano dryly: “No, we did not beat up Vanessa Carlton, even when she thought we were thestylists at the Teen People photo shoot.”
Shit-talking is reserved for their lyrics, which spurn femmy, dear-diary tropes for tough gender flips. “We have a line, ‘You write about me in your diary,'” saysRobertson. “We’re all about that, ’cause it’s not us writing in a diary; it’s the guy!” Get Skintight offered vitriol like “I knew you were lame from your walletchain”; on Spend the Night, we get “I must have had too many Diet Cokes / ‘Cause I’m laughing at all your stupid jokes.” Elsewhere on the record, band boys getskewered plenty, particularly certain New York hipsters and their “dirty denim” look (“You paid two hundred dollars to look like that / Why don’t you check out thelaundromat!”). And while the Donnas mainly sing about boys, sex, cars, and partying, a lot of the seemingly autobiographical material is classic rock exaggeration.”40 Boys in 40 Nights” was based on a kissing contest Ford and Castellano held on tour. “Maya won,” Anderson says, “after, like, four guys.”
In a sense, the Donnas represent the oldest punk-rock paradox: hard on the outside, soft on the inside. They feel no shame about being totally girltastic–andtotally rawk. The vibe is reminiscent of the Powerpuff Girls episode in which one Puff spots a puppy and instantly transforms from hard-ass crime-fighter intobaby-talking sweetie pie.
“There’s room for all kinds of women,” says Smith. “The Donnas are a different kind of girl band than anyone has ever seen.” Perhaps remembering the many women whocame before them–from the Ronettes to the Runaways–Castellano smiles. “We are all each other’s muses,” she says, adding slyly, “and each other’s Svengalis.”