Cover Story: The New Queens of Noise

Indie-sensations-turned-TRL-darlings, The Donnas, have exceeded everyone's expectations -- except their own

The Donnas

When The Donnas signed to Atlantic Records, singer Brett Anderson remembers telling the label her band had no qualms about trying to break through to a larger mainstream audience.

"(We were like) 'OK, well, that's what we want to do,' " Anderson says. "We want to be on (MTV's teen-friendly countdown) TRL and we want to be on Rock radio."

Atlantic's response wasn't what a band would normally expect from a major record label.

"They were like, 'Well, that's a funny joke, but that will never happen,' " Anderson says.

Looking back, Anderson says she didn't think Atlantic had doubts about the band or their music. The label was just being realistic.

After all, a key hurdle faced by an all-female band like The Donnas is that MTV and radio traditionally limit the amount of play they give to "girl bands."

"I think they (Atlantic) wanted the band to have some longevity and to grow and stuff," Anderson says. "But I think they weren't really picturing that it would grow so fast."

As Anderson's comments suggest, The Donnas might be primed for commercial takeoff after all. In early January, the band was featured on Total Request Live as part of a week of MTV shows dedicated to emerging new bands. Soon after, they were the musical guests on the hallowed Saturday Night Live. The video for "Take It Off" is currently a video channel mainstay and, yes, riding high on the TRL charts.

Such high-profile appearances are widely viewed as a sign that a group is ready to break through to a mainstream audience. The Donnas also are beginning to get that airplay on Rock radio, the very format that Atlantic's personnel were skeptical the band would be able to crack — at least this soon.

While the exposure is welcome to the band's four members — Anderson, bassist Maya Ford, guitarist Allison Robertson and drummer Torry Castellano — Anderson isn't letting herself get caught up in this turn of events.

"The thing is Rock radio only plays two girl bands right now, and they're not even (all) girl bands," Anderson says. "Like right now (Los Angeles alternative rock station) KROQ is playing the Distillers, sometimes, Courtney Love and Gwen Stefani (who fronts No Doubt). Even those bands are all guys with just female front people.

"I think they (Rock radio stations) made a big move by putting our band on, but that's only one band. I don't really see a trend to that happening. I just see that they've got one band so far."

Even before the radio play, The Donnas had been steadily moving up in the music world.

While it might seem like the group exploded overnight, their "meteoric rise" has actually taken a decade of hard work (May 9 will officially mark 10 years of Donna-dom). Anderson, Ford, Robertson and Castellano first got together to play as band in 1993 at a school talent show in their home town of Palo Alto, Calif. They were all 14 at the time.

They decided to continue as a band after that performance. Going with band names like Screen, Ragady Anne and The Electrocutes, the group originally pursued a harsher, more complex sound.

That musical direction began to change when they met a local musician and aspiring band manager, Darrin Raffealli. He had the idea to re-name the group The Donnas and convinced the women to each use the first name Donna and the first initial of their last names as stage names, a la The Ramones.

Raffaelli (The Donnas' version of the Runaways' Kim Fowley) wrote all of the songs for the first two Donnas records, The Donnas (1997) and American Teenage Rock & Roll Machine (1998). But by the time the band was ready to record its third album, The Donnas Get Skintight, the members had decided to write their own material, and the band and Raffaelli had an amicable parting of the ways.

"I think his biggest contribution is that he taught us, like, how to keep songs simple enough for people to latch onto them," Anderson says when asked about Raffaelli's role as a songwriting mentor. "We were into our (instrumental) abilities so much that our songs were really inaccessible. Yeah, he was the one who sort of taught us it was OK if your songs aren't the most complicated songs in the world, so people could understand them."

Get Skintight boosted The Donnas' profile considerably, as the CD received strong reviews for the songs' edgy sugar-sweet sound and the group's fun-loving and sometimes sarcastic lyrics.

The 2001 release, The Donnas Turn 21, drew even more press and set the stage for the group's departure from indie Pop/Punk label Lookout! Records (onetime home to Green Day and Operation Ivy) for Atlantic Records — even though Anderson says the band knew some punk purists might rebel against the move to a major label. But as she notes, The Donnas never pledged allegiance to Punk Rock's do-it-yourself, indie-label ethic in the first place.

"I think we just decided we had gone as far as we were going to go on an independent label," Anderson says. "I think you need to be on a major label to get played on the radio, especially major stations. You know, it's a sad fact, but we decided it was more important to us that they played girls on Rock radio than (staying) true to something we never said we were being true to in the first place anyway."

The group's breakthrough Atlantic debut, Spend the Night, covers much of the same musical and lyrical territory as the previous efforts. But the sheer catchiness of songs like "It's on the Rocks," "All Messed Up" and "Pass It Around," plus the cheeky lyrics of "Take It Off" (which turns the tables on the girl groupie stereotype) and "Who Invited You" (a sly putdown that'll ring true to anyone who's ever had an unwelcome party guest), remain as irresistible as ever.

Anderson, though, says she can hear significant improvements on Spend the Night over the earlier Donnas records.

"When I hear the albums, it's like I hear my own voice and to me it sounds totally different, totally different on every album," she says. "But I understand that people think they're the same. I just don't agree with them.

"I think the sounds on the album are just a lot more full and everyone has gotten a lot tighter and a lot more confident in their skills and stuff so they can try new things. Because it's, like, when you play live a lot, you get better at your instrument. So instead of thinking, 'Should I put this part in the song? I don't know if I can pull it off live, so I'll just be safe and make it simpler,' we're like 'No, I'll put that in.' "

Even with the band's growing success, Anderson says the four Donnas still carry an "us against the world" mentality. The group tightness is a defense mechanism against skeptics who question whether the members play their own instruments on their records and who want to treat them more like pin-up girls than musicians.

"You just have to prove yourself all the time to all kinds of people," Anderson says. "And it's like everybody has their preconceived ideas about girl bands. And some of them are true and some of them aren't. It's like whenever you meet someone, you sort of have to figure out, 'OK, what are you expecting? And what am I going to have to prove to you? Or do I have to prove anything?' Like 'Do they already get it?' "

It's moments like those, Anderson says, when their solidarity — the kind that's forged only through the kind of close friendship the four Donnas enjoy — comes in handy.

"We started as friends, before we were in a band, and we always said that," Anderson says. "And we're never that far away from the idea that being friends is more important than having personal success."

THE DONNAS play Bogart's on Tuesday with Rooney.

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