The Donnas – Spend the Night – Interview

The Donnas

Spend the Night (Atlantic)
An interview with guitarist Allison Robertson
by Scott Hefflon
live photos by Pia Schachter

How many interviews do you do a day?
Since the record came out in October, it’s been pretty steady. When we’re on tour like this, it’s usually at least three a day. And we do a lot of stuff on the phone before we get to each city. Like I did a bunch of interviews for this Boston show last week and the week before.

You do them on a cell phone when you’re traveling?
Yeah, and that gets really annoying, because a lot of time you’re trying to do the interviews while driving through the middle of nowhere, and you can’t get a signal. The people get really mad and keep calling back and calling back. They get offended and think you did it on purpose.

You’d think cell phones would be great for doing interviews during down time…
If you can get a signal, yeah, it’s great. Same thing with our satellite dish on the bus. People think we’re so spoiled cuz we can watch any channel any time, but they don’t know that the thing only works about four hours a day.

One of the themes I noticed – it was there before, but now it’s more upfront – is payback/revenge. Like how “the popular boy” wouldn’t’ve talked to you before, and now he’s coming to your shows and tryin’ to get with you (“You Wanna Get Me High”), and the great pleasure you take in telling him to go fuck himself.
It hasn’t really happened where everyone has changed their mind about us.

I think of the trendy girls in Josie and the Pussycats who snubbed the band, but when the band got big, they dressed up just like them and showed up at their hotel room screaming like possessed fans.
Yeah, I know that scene… I’m one of those people who thinks they want vengeance, but then when I actually get it, it doesn’t feel as good as I thought… My favorite book is The Count of Monte Cristo, which is all about revenge. When I was in high school, I always dreamed about getting all those people back, and how sweet it’d be. But really, we never thought we’d get huge. We never even thought we’d get signed, not even to Lookout. We thought we’d never even put out an album with a color cover. And the thing is, all the really popular kids in our high school would still probably never admit that they liked us. Even though we got a lot better, they’d be like “they’re the same band to me.” That’s the kind of high school we went to.

I prefer thinking of it as “spite,” not “vengeance.” Being “motivated to succeed out of spite” is far different than, like, going on a Carrie killing spree…
Yeah, I see what you mean. Vengeance sounds like stabbing someone, spite sounds like a motivation to get better at what you do. “You Wanna Get Me High” is specifically about some kids who wanted to smoke us up and chill with us after a show, and while they weren’t the popular kids, they were afraid to hang out with us back in high school because they knew we were lame in the eyes of the popular kids. I didn’t even know any of them. This one girl was like “don’t you remember me?” And I was like, “I remember your name and your face, sure, but you never talked to me, ever…”

How old are you?

So your five year high school reunion is this year?

Are you gonna go?
(recoiling) No. There’s no one from my high school that I ever want to see again except for the people in this band. I have one best friend, who’s always been my best friend, and she’s the only person from that school that I care about.

When I went to my high school reunion, a lot of people took me aside – making sure people were watching – and told me that they’d always respected me for doing my own thing. And I took pleasure in telling them that that they were still cowards, and that I still didn’t give a shit about their approval.
Like Romy and Michelle’s High School Reunion. That’s cool. There were some people younger than us who were cool to us that I’d like to see again, but no one from my own class. I was always nice to people, I’m just shy, so people thought I was weird because I wasn’t bubbly. In my school, it was popular to do sports. Not necessarily the cheerleading thing, but all the popular girls did soccer and softball. So they were all preppy, but also sporty, ya know? And I couldn’t fuckin’ hit a ball or run the mile in under 15 minutes or whatever. I wasn’t in shape, so that was out. I wasn’t slutty, so that was out. It’s not like I had no friends whatsoever, I just had a few friends, and most of them are in this band.

There were a few other girls that we hung out with, and we’d all walk home from school together, eat a snack, gossip and talk shit about people, and then the others would go home and the four of us would practice. Even when we practice – even to this day – most of it is just us talking. We hardly ever got around to really practicing, and we still don’t (laughs).

Because you’re on a major, you must’ve gotten a lot more time in the studio this time…
Yeah, we did, but we didn’t take as much time as we could’ve. We were told we had three months, and we were used to, like, three weeks, from start to finish. We still could’ve done it in a month or less, like we did Turn 21. With the extra time, we told ourselves we were going to take it easy and not stay there ’til five in the morning and all that. But we had delays and time stolen away, and then people were worried there was no single… A lot of people thought we should go back and write more, and the band didn’t want to write any more… It’s not that our songs were bad, but the demos were really stripped down, and no one could hear where we were going with it.

Aside from the much better production – not polished, but pro – the thing that really knocks Spend the Night up a notch is that you obviously had the time and ability to go back into the songs that one extra time to add another part to the chorus, or to hone in on individual aspects of each song to really bring them forward.
We could’ve done that even more, but I like that it’s still pretty raw, and that it sounds like our live show. I love to record, so it’s not like I went in and did one take live and that was it… I love doing extra guitars, but it’s because I love texture. I’m not trying to cover up or do anything I can’t do live, because we’re obsessed with making our records sound as close to live as we can.

Have you changed your gear over the last few years?
When I was younger, I couldn’t afford a Marshall, so I borrowed my dad’s keyboard amp, and it had no meat to it, ya know? So I used a Boss Metal Zone pedal all the time. It simulated a Marshall sound. But now that I have a Marshall, I never use the pedal anymore… I used to play a Les Paul Studio – that’s what I used on American Teenage Rock’n’Roll Machine. And then I got the Les Paul Standard during the Get Skintight tour. Since then, it’s been the JCM2000 Marshall and my Les Paul Standard. It’s really funny because so many people have been asking me lately, a lot more than last year.
On this record, I used lots of guitars to get texture. Not so it’d sound like eight different guitars, but so it’d sound like one really impossibly cool guitar you could never actually buy. I used some Gibsons, like an SG classic that has a really dark tone… Angus (Young, from AC/DC, duh) plays an SG, but he uses Humbucker pick-ups so it’s really bright, but I use the P90s so it’s really dark and evil sounding. I also used some Flying Vs for the ringing and emphasis, but the guitar I used the most was a Les Paul Junior Special – not a vintage, cuz I can’t afford vintage…

So you have a few guitars, but it’s not like Rick Neilson, or that scene in This is Spinal Tap where Nigel won’t even let Rob Reiner look at one of his guitars….
(laughs) I have a few, but not they’re not collector’s items or anything. I play the Standards all the time, because, to me, they’re the quintessential guitar. You work on it a bit, get it sounding good, and you can play all your rhythms, all your leads, and never use any pedals.

You don’t use any pedals anymore?
No. Well, I have a chromatic tuner, but that’s it. After we played Saturday Night Live, our message board was filled with people wanting to know what pick ups and tubes I use because I don’t use any pedals. It’s funny cuz it’s so simple; it’s all standard equipment. Sure, I’m crazy when it comes to the EQ, but it changes all the time. I’ve seen people go up to my amp and write down the settings (laughs).

Doesn’t a Les Paul get heavy, night after night?
Les Pauls just feel natural for me, I like their curves. But yeah, they’re really heavy. But I like that. SGs are too light, I feel like there’s nothing there… And they’re too thin; I have no place to rest my hand… I’m not as much of a guitar geek or gearhead as I wish I was. I know what I use, and I like to keep it simple…

What have you been listening to, either just for fun, or that might’ve developed your sound?
Before Get Skintight, I was listening to so much Cinderella it hurt… (laughs) They’re one of my favorite bands because they’re a lot bluesier than the rest… They’re kind of the marriage of Joe Perry, Jimmy Page, Ace Frehley, and Angus Young, especially in the solos. They aren’t wanky or noodly – sure they show off a little – it’s familiar with a twist, and it fits the songs. That’s what I aim for.

Do you write your solos ahead of time, or do you just kinda make them up in the studio?
I usually have ideas, maybe the way it starts, ahead of time… I sit in my garage with a tape of the rhythm parts, and I just keep playing and playing over the top of it. And usually, if I write a solo, I end up changing it at the last minute anyway… Three or four of the songs, I didn’t even have any ideas for, because I’m a slacker (laughs). And as I said, we lost a lot of time because they didn’t hear a single, so when we finally got back in the studio, it was down to the wire, with no time for overdubs or anything. But I think it’s good to crunch… I always got good grades in school for papers I’d written the night before.

What else have you been listening to?
I always make a tape of stuff I don’t want to forget about while writing and recording an album, kind of to remind myself what kind of record I want to make. There’s always a lot of ’80s pop rock on it, like “Jesse’s Girl” and “867-5309 Jenny,” and then a Cinderella song, an AC/DC song, a Kiss song, and always a Sex Pistols song. Them and The Clash I think were great guitar rock. And Johnny Thunders, either The Heartbreakers or the New York Dolls. And lately, I’m kind of obsessed with Deep Purple and Steppenwolf. It’s not like they’re new to me or anything, but I’ve just been listening to both of them almost obsessively recently. There’s always been something about Richie Blackmore’s playing that I love.

What about new stuff? Where do you get your information and your music?
Bands give us CDs, and we really do listen to them. When we were younger, we didn’t realize that, like, we should really listen to the bands, cuz they were going to be the bands we’d be touring with… I try to keep up and read the music magazines, but I’m pretty behind. If you were to quiz me on new bands, I’d do really badly, but if you quiz me on ’80s music, I’ll do really well (laughs). I hear about all the buzz bands, but by the time they get covered in Spin or something, no one cares anymore. When I was a kid, I scoured the 7″ bins in the indie record stores cuz I wanted to find great bands no one had ever heard of. Now I usually just meet people and they give me their CD, or they tell me who they like or who they’ve played with that I should check out. The Witnesses from New York I really like, and we’re playing tonight with Longwave, who are really cool. And while a lot of people now hate The Strokes or something, I think they’re one of the best bands to come out in a long time. I hear the influences, but I think they rock, ya know? And they can pull it off live, which a lot of hip buzz bands can’t.

Do you ever just wing a solo on stage?
Nooooo… I can’t jam. I never took lessons, so I don’t know music theory and scales and stuff. But it depends on who you are. I’ve met a lot of people who can’t play by ear, and that’s weird to me, cuz that’s all I know how to do. If you need to take lessons, take lessons… I just didn’t like lessons. I was intimidated, my family didn’t have enough money, and my dad showed me a few chords… Well, mostly I was just stubborn (laughs). I’ve looked at a few chord books, and someone once got me some tabs (tablature), but I couldn’t do it, and it made me mad cuz some of it was wrong. I used to record band videos and watch them again and again to see where the guitarist’s fingers were. One of the first bands I liked playing was early REM. Peter Buck is self-taught as well, so it was very natural and made sense to me. I think he’s a very interesting player, very natural but innovative.

Have you ever taken guitar lessons?
My parents were really excited and supportive of me playing guitar, so after I’d been playing a couple years, my mom bought me lessons as a surprise. She’d already paid for them, so I felt really bad cuz I didn’t want to go. So I went to the guy to humor her, hoping he’d be alright, but he was an asshole. He told me all the things I was doing wrong: I was holding my pick wrong, I was playing chords wrong, my wrist was at the wrong angle… He was very discouraging and condescending. I found out later he taught some of the boys at school Metallica and Guns N’ Roses solos, but he wanted me to buy all these chord books. I said “yeah, sure,” and I never did, and I never went back. But over the years of watching videos, I tweaked how to hold the pick, how to play the chords.

So in the long run, was he right?
No. And he’s still a jerk.

How do you feel kinda being thrust in the “role model” role?
I don’t want to be a role model and tell people what to do, but one of the things that’s really important to us is that we show that you can do it, that you maybe don’t have to take lessons, that you don’t have to be the most popular kid in your school… You just need the confidence to try and to keep getting better. A good friend of mine took drum lessons, and she had a really great teacher who showed her how to play the songs she wanted to learn, and in doing so, also taught her all the techniques as well. But he never said “you have to learn this and this and this or you’re wrong.”

Have any of the other Donnas taken lessons?
When we were 13, Maya’s parents – who were teachers at Stanford – got one of their student to teach her to play bass. The first thing he did was make her get a metronome, and in her first lesson, he told her she was perfectly off from the metronome. (laughs) And then he disappeared. She had a tab book, and she was trying to learn the song “Moving,” but because she didn’t know the song, she had the timing all wrong and, well, it sounded nothing like the song at all when she played it. (laughs) But that’s the way we were; we were retarded and didn’t know what we were doing.


So Brett didn’t take any vocal lessons between last record and this one to learn how to project? Cuz she sounds a lot better on this record…
No. Well, she went to someone to learn how not to ruin her throat… When it’s your voice, it’s different. I think it’s good to find out how not to mess up your voice. She takes a lot better care of her voice than she used to, and I’m really proud of her for that… I think that gives her more confidence as well. Another thing might be because Brett really pushed herself in the studio, and the producers really challenged her as well. That doesn’t work with me cuz all it does is piss me off, but her vocals really came out great on this record.

There are a lot more girl bands – and girls in bands in general – now than five years ago when I last interviewed you. Any words of encouragement to the young bands?
I think it’s great, obviously, but I wish more girls would have more confidence and not get pushed into certain alternative, indie, and punk genres. Not many of them get signed, and when they do, it’s premature and it becomes about the packaging. They never get the chance to really grow as a band, so they’re rushed out there before they’re ready, and then they fall apart. I’d like to see more girl bands that really kick ass, put out records on indie labels, and really do something as a career. It happens to a lot of bands, whether they’re girls or boys, but for girls, I think it’s really important to know how to play. Sure, we don’t want to look like dogs up there, but I’d rather look like a dog and rock out and be proud of the record, ya know?