The Donnas – American Teenage Rock ‘N’ Roll Machine – Interview

The Donnas

American Teenage Rock ‘N’ Roll Machine (Lookout!)
An interview with guitarist Donna R.
by Scott Hefflon

How old are you guys, er, gals?
I’m 18, the singer (Donna A.) is 18, and the other two (Donna F. – bass, Donna C. – drums) are 19.

One of the songs says, “I’m only 17…”
We wrote and recorded that last summer when we were 17, it just took a while for us to get it together with Lookout!. The album’s been ready to go since last Fall, but they finally just put it out. The singer was 17 at the time, and the song’s about her anyway…

Who writes most of the lyrics?
Our singer does. She also co-writes the others with Darin Raffaelli, an excellent writer and friend of ours.

How come you’re not Donna A.? Your name’s Allison…
But my last name’s Robertson, and we go by last names. It’s kind of confusing, people always think my name is, like, Rhonda…

By the way, are those leather pants you’re wearing in the photos?
No, they’re purple plastic. They’re the same ones I’m wearing on the cover. They’re vinyl, and God are they uncomfortable. They’re OK to wear for about an hour on stage or for a photo shoot, but we did a cameo in this movie thing where we’re playing at the prom, and I had to wear them all day… Once you sweat in them, there’s no place for the sweat to go. I thought I was going to get a rash or something, but luckily I didn’t. I wanted so much to change back into jeans or something, but they wouldn’t let us change.

What’s funny is, those are total rock stars pants, but if you wear ’em too long, ain’t a groupie in the world gonna think you’re hot shit when you take ’em off and you’re all sweaty and nasty.
They’d be great for rain…

Actually, the riff in “You Get Me Hot” just came on, and I wanted to ask you about something: The Runaways and the Ramones are pretty obvious references/inspirations, but, man, that’s a Mötley Crüe riff from “Too Fast for Love,” isn’t it?
Oh yeah. Well, my favorite band is Kiss, but in the last few years, I’ve been getting back into bands I was into when I was a little kid, and that includes Mötley Crüe. I still like them, because guitars really count for me. No matter what kind of music it is, if the guitarist’s good, I listen to it.

And that first Mötley Crüe album has the riffs, man…
It’s all about the first record, I think. The other records are OK, but that’s the one.

Sure, Shout at the Devil was a cool-ass album with some larger-than-life stylin’…
And cool pictures inside, too. But there’re a few songs on it that just don’t make it, especially compared to Too Fast for Love. There’s not one bad song on there.

It was swaggering gutter rock, something sexy and primal anyone could relate with. By Shout at the Devil, you could only relate to it on a comic book level, or perhaps a super action/adventure movie.
It’s bigger than Kiss, I think. And I don’t think they knew they were going to be bugged as much as they were by all the Satan stuff. And they’ll be dealing with that for the rest of their lives.

And then they put out Theater of Pain and Girls, Girls, Girls
Girls, Girls, Girls always makes me laugh. It’s so obvious that people’d been teasing them about the make-up and everything, because Girls, Girls, Girls might as well be called We Are Not Gay. On the cover, they were wearing all black, nothing shiny anymore, they’re all on motorcycles with, like, five o’clock shadows… So yeah, I liked ripping off that little guitar lick, because we used to cover that song. It didn’t really sound all that good, but I figured this’d be a good way to pay homage to them. And it’s in the same key.

And “Gimme My Radio” is pretty obviously a tip o’ the hat to the Ramones’ “Do You Remember Rock ‘n’ Roll Radio?.” How much are you into the Ramones?
Actually, I like the first two albums, but I’m really not the biggest Ramones fan in the world, and I don’t think anyone else in the band is either. We like certain songs, and we all love Rock ‘n’ Roll High School ’cause it was on once a year, every year, on channel two, and that’s something everyone our age just knows. You knew that movie before you ever knew who the Ramones were. I mean, it’s not as if I don’t like them and I don’t have their records, it’s just that I don’t consider them my biggest influence. But they’re the kings of that style. I don’t really listen to a lot of bands that rip-off that style, because I tend to like bands who create their own. I also don’t listen to all that many new bands. The only band like that who’s happening now that I listen to are The Groovie Ghoulies.

That’s what I wanted to hear. I mean, hell, they’re your labelmates…
I actually don’t really listen to any other Lookout! bands – it’s not that I don’t like them, it’s just that by the time we got signed to Lookout!, I wasn’t really into that stuff. Now, I’m meeting all the people in the bands, and I feel kinda guilty. They know all of our songs, and everyone knows all of their songs except us. We’re just not really that style, I guess. All the bands are really nice, ya know? I haven’t met one rude person on the label, yet. It’s just hard, ’cause we’re so new, I feel like we’re the babies. Everyone else already knows each other so well…

Do you feel at a disadvantage, or do you feel you’re bringing a fresh perspective in?
I don’t think it’s a disadvantage, I think it’s kinda cool. Maybe some people are used to being treated like stars, or, like, girls like us might’ve been their groupies, but we’re not. We’re their labelmates. Some people, we don’t even know who they are, and they’re really used to people recognizing them. So it’s kinda cool.

Do you run into times when people think you’re, like, girlfriends of the band, instead of being the band?
Yeah, that just happened in D.C., at the Metro Cafe. We had just finished loading in, and I was just hangin’ out. I don’t hang out in my Donnas shirt, so it’s not like people just know who I am. So this guy from the club comes up to me, and he’s like, “You know, it’s a $10 cover.” And I was like, “Why are you telling me? I’m not inviting anyone, I don’t even know anyone from here.” He just stared at me, totally pissed off, and said, “Don’t act like I didn’t see you sneak in. I saw you sneak in with the band, I saw you carrying equipment. It’s $10, you can’t just get in for free.” After I told him I was in the band, it dawned on him and he left me alone. We used to get that a lot more, when we were younger, because I don’t think it even occurred to people that 13 and 14-year-old girls could be in a band. But it didn’t happen that much on this last tour we were on. We’ve been getting a lot of press lately, and I think that’s really been helping us.

Do you worry about being, like, “press darlings” for a short time, and then being dropped like yesterday’s news when “the new thing” comes along?
I think people try to turn our band into a teenage thing, especially with the “teenage rock ‘n’ roll” title, but it’s not like that’s our only gimmick, or the only reason people like us. The thing we want people to like is the way the music sounds. If the Donnas are over once we hit 20, well, I know I’ll never stop playing. The only thing I like to do is play guitar.

Also, how long has Ozzy Osbourne been writing songs about teenage alienation?
Yeah, and Alice Cooper? “Eighteen?” I don’t think he was even 18 when he started playing that song. I think we was, like, 22 or something. I just saw him, and he’s, what, 50-something now?, and he sang it, and it was great.

You mentioned 13 and 14, is that when The Donnas started?
Yeah, we were in 8th grade. Jordan Middle School had a little show called “Day on the Green,” and they were trying to do the “Day on the Green,” bands playing outside thing. All these all-guy bands were going to be playing, and the bassist and I had instruments and everything, but no songs or band put together, and we were joking around about how cool it’d be if we could get a band together and play. But we had no friends, basically. I mean, we had acquaintances, but we were pretty nerdy, I think. We finally decided the other two girls were the ones we wanted to play with. We were friends with them, but not, like, best-best-best friends, if you know what I mean. We asked our drummer if she was interested, and she was totally excited ’cause she’d always wanted to be a drummer. She rented a terrible drum set,terrible – it sounded like pots and pans. But she had no idea how to play. For the first few songs, she just, like, hit random things in the same rhythm with the rest of us. And our singer took, like, a week to decide she’d do it. She thought she’d be terrible, but I knew she was the one. At that age,no one wants to sing. But I’d heard her, ya know, singing to herself or singing to the radio, and she had a better voice than anyone else I knew. So finally they said yes, and we started hanging out every day after school and practicing. I think we had three weeks to practice, but we didn’t really have any time to write anything. So we did covers.

What covers? What were the first songs you ever played?
L7’s version of “American Society,” a Shonen Knife song, “Rocket Ride”…

“Rocket Ride” by Shonen Knife, or “Rocket Ride” by Kiss?
I wasn’t good enough to play “Rocket Ride” by Kiss. Anyway… We also did an oldie, “Hey Little Girl” by The Syndicate of Sound, but we changed it to “Hey Little Boy.” And the fourth was a Muffs’ song, “Big Mouth.” No one in our school knew those songs, so they probably thought we wrote ’em, and on top of that, no one could believe we were actually playing. As I said, we were pretty unpopular, and no one suspected we, like, played instruments. But that’s what we did in all our spare time.

Is this a big lifestyle change? To suddenly be big rock stars and all that?
No, not at all. I still don’t have any friends. I’ve been making friends by touring with the band, that’s how I meet people now, but when I was in school, being in a band was actually a way to get even further from school. No one wanted anything to do with us because we were in a band. Now, the only people I hang out with are the people in my band, so it’s still the same. People are always like, “You were unpopular in high school? How could they not like a babe like you?” [And the frightening thing is, her mock-dopey tone is probably what I sound like, dork-boy writer that I am.] What they don’t get is that at my high school, it was just not in to be the way were are. It was out. We were totally out.

It’s funny that the tight [excuse the innuendo] band you became wasn’t spearheading a Donnas movement, it was all you had. Your only friends were the people in The Donnas.
Actually, at the time, we were called Ragady Anne. For about two or three years, most of the way through high school. Then, either sophomore or junior year, we changed our name to The Electrocutes. I don’t know why. I think there were about five other bands called Raggedy Ann.

How’d you come up with Ragady Anne, anyway?
Oh God, no one’s ever asked me that! Every time I tell people about Ragady Anne, they don’t care. They just want to skip right to the Donnas. Well, I think we spent about two or three weeks trying to come up with a really cool name, just to prove to the other bands how cool we were, or whatever. They all had terrible names, like Verbal Constipation, Pablo and the Invisible Purple Butterflies, Groove Handle, and stuff like that. We spelled our name funny…

Real punk rock. No anarchy symbols in there anywhere?
No, we were never really punk rock. We’ve never called ourselves punk rock or tried to look punk rock, or anything, but I’d feel like a faker because I don’t have a very punk rock lifestyle. I’m totally California, jeans and T-shirts…

Do you have a rock lifestyle?
I’m really into music, but I’m not constantly at huge parties with all sorts of drugs, constantly at shows, hanging out with all the Lookout! crowd… I’m kind of anti-social. I like to just hang out alone and listen to music, but then I love playing shows and going to parties. So it’s not really one or the other.

Why’d you change your name from Ragady Anne?
We kept the name for a long time. And everyone teased us about it, calling us “the Ragadies,” in a really derogatory way. Mostly by guys, the girls didn’t seem to really care, but especially by guys that were in bands. They thought we were so lame. One time, this band that we totally liked – we thought they were cool, but they thought we were dorks – invited us to their cool practice space. We thought they invited us to be friends, but they really invited us so we’d play a song and they could laugh at us. They laughed at us the whole time we played. We just wanted to go home.

Are they still together, or did they break up?
They broke up. None of the bands we went to school with stayed together.

Is that a sense of vindication?

So you changed your name…
Right. And we did this show as Electrocutes in San Francisco with the Vulcan Ears, they were a surf band who dressed like people from Star Trek, and they were really fun and silly. When we were there, we met this guy named Darin. He was in a bunch of bands, like Super Charger, and after the show he came up to us. We thought he was totally insane the first time we met him because he was so excited to me us. He said he had a whole bunch of songs written that he envisioned an all-girl band playing. We were like, “You want us to play some songs of yours? OK, I guess.” But he wanted it to be a completely different thing. He wanted to teach us the songs, then record them and put them out. The first time we recorded with him, it was kind of awkward. We’d only recorded a few other times, and this was at his job after it was all closed up, at a Mailboxes Etc., and he had all this really shitty recording equipment. We just hung out and recorded these three songs, which later became the first single for The Donnas. After that, we decided he was pretty cool, so he kinda became our friend. We thought we were just going to do that one single, but we ended up doing two others with him. What happened was, The Donnas was kind of a joke to us, and we really wanted the Electrocutes to be our main band, but no one really cared about the Electrocutes, and more and more people liked The Donnas. We were offended, and for probably half a year, we said, “Yeah, we’re just gonna do this for a few more months and then it’s quits for The Donnas. Fuck that shit.”

Were The Donnas getting more shows?
Yeah, people were totally into it.

And you didn’t write any of the music or words or anything?
Not the first stuff, no. Darin already had all the stuff done, he just wanted us to play it. We thought it would be a cool side project, but then it overtook our band. But we were friends, ya know? It’s not like he was bossing us around and telling us what to do…

It wasn’t like a Milli Vanilli-sorta thing…
No, we played the songs, we just didn’t write them. But then, because we were hanging out so much, we started to write Donnas songs with him, and come up with various ideas of our own. In the beginning, I was kind of uncomfortable because someone was teaching me to play our songs – it was like being in a cover band. But then we realized we were really having fun, and it was the first time people were coming to see us play and having a really good time at our shows. With our Electrocute songs, they were too fast and messed up for people to really get into ’em. So Darin became like a fifth member of The Donnas, and now we write songs together.

Are any of the older Donnas songs on this record?
No. These are all new songs. And they’re different, too, because we made them ours. Before we were just playing the songs Darin had written, but now we embellish them and change them around. I think the new songs are a lot faster than the older ones.

Then, unfortunately, the tape ran out. We talked for almost an hour afterwards – about someday getting a pizza with Ace Frehley (her idol), about how Slash totally rocks (though not as much as Ace, naturally), and how she can tell if she’s going to be friends with someone by asking which is their favorite Kiss member. Can you guess which one is hers?