They've always been enamored of glam metal, but on their first major-label record and fifth release, Spend the Night, in-your-face punk hotties the Donnas manage to sound more like Mötley Crüe than Mötley Crüe has since, like, Girls, Girls, Girls.
"We'd watch MTV and see Mötley Crüe on Headbangers Ball, and you forget about it for a while, but then you always go back to all the stuff you liked when you were little," says bassist Maya Ford (a.k.a. Donna F -- that's the gimmick, get it?). "When we started off, the music we wanted to play seemed so complicated. It was impossible. But we all got better at our instruments, and finally we learned how to play the music that we always wanted to play."
Somehow the group's embrace of pancake-makeup-wearing, groupie-grinding-in-the-bathroom excess makes sense. Though they were raised in affluent Palo Alto, California -- Stanford intellectuals, Internet gazillionaires -- the Donnas just weren't cut out for the preppie set. Instead, they indulged in glue-huffing, cheeba-smoking and headbanging. Sounds like a pipeline to a career at Fatburger, but for the Donnas, it meant getting their parents to buy them instruments -- and hammering away at them until the neighbors complained. Now, after nine years as a band, these gals know how to snarl and solo like real rock stars. On Spend the Night, Allison Robertson (Donna R) has twisted her guitar into a cranked-up Flying-V fretboard-tapping, whammy-bar-whammying, shit-kickin' rock & roll beast. Brett Anderson (Donna A) can pull off a credible take on Vince Neil's sneer, and Torry Castellano (Donna C) shows her fondness for Tommy Lee's signature cowbell clank. Now that they've had some success, the Donnas get the opportunity to meet some of their former rock-star crushes.
"It was cool to meet Nikki Sixx," says Ford. "He's a big guy and fills up the whole room. His wife has this clothing line, and they were trying to get us to wear some of their clothes. He was really nice, and it was cool that he came to our show and said we were good. It was exciting to put someone like that on the list. He looked really good, too. He wasn't all aged and decrepit or anything.
"Also, CC DeVille of Poison came to our show about three years ago and talked to Allison a lot," Ford continues. "He was, like [in a drunk old rocker voice], 'You guys are really great.' He also came to our last show at the Roxy in Los Angeles and wanted to introduce us. He really wanted Allison's phone number. She got his number but never called him.
"We've always wanted to play with Cinderella. We haven't really talked to them about that yet, but for our album cover, we wanted to have a Cinderella poster in our bedroom. So our manager called the band, and they were really excited about it. And they were, like, 'Yeah, we'll jump out of the wall in your video.' But, anyhow, the poster didn't end up appearing on the cover, because we got the band's OK, but then we had to get the photographer's OK, and that didn't work out."
When the Donnas first hooked up in the eighth grade, they sounded like a teenage-girl version of the Ramones. On their early seven-inches, which include such classics as "I Wanna Be a Unabomber" and "I Don't Wanna Wanna Go to School No More," the Donnas played and shrieked with the abandon of a gang of liquored-up girls in bumper cars on the last day of school. The Donnas' high-school years featured songs that had that wonderfully teenage, tragic if-he-doesn't-love-me-I'll-never-love-again feeling that usually doesn't last beyond the twelfth grade.
Disclosure: Those songs were written by Darin Raffaelli, who handled the band's songwriting and recording in its formative years. He's also responsible for inventing the whole "Donnas" shtick -- the matching T-shirts and "wanna wanna" lyrics, undoubtedly lifted from the Ramones.
Eventually, after the Donnas practiced and toured incessantly, they parted ways with Raffaelli and began to indulge in their glam-metal vision. On one of their leaner and meaner efforts, Get Skintight, they delivered a rip-roaring cover of Mötley Crüe's "Too Fast for Love," on which Robertson nails every one of Mick Mars' seedy humping-in-a-Hollywood-gutter riffs. With each successive release, they've added more cock rock to their sound. It's only fitting that a major label would eventually want to sell them to the masses and that the Donnas, who've always aspired to be rock stars, would jump at the chance. But working with Atlantic Records is, of course, a different experience than recording for the group's former down-to-earth pop-punk label, Lookout!
"It took us a lot longer to make this album than in the past," says Ford. "With Lookout!, we'd write all the songs and just give them the album. But Atlantic wanted us to do demos first, and we were actually in the middle of recording, and they made us stop for three weeks 'cause they had to think about it and debate about what they wanted to happen. And we were, like, 'We want to finish our album now.' But in the end, we really like the outcome. There are just more people that you have to listen to and differences of opinion. They were kind of afraid of the producer [Robert Shimp] that we always use, 'cause he's not, like, some old, superexperienced guy. He's worked on a lot of stuff, but they wanted to bring someone else in. So they brought in another producer [Jason Carmer], and we worked with him as well. So we compromised."
Shimp married Robertson a year ago, but the other three Donnas remain single -- and, one might surmise from their lyrics, totally boy-crazy. Mötley Crüe was obsessed with poontang, and nearly every song on Spend the Night is about boys, from "All Messed Up on You," wherein the Donnas are bonkers for some fella, to "It's on the Rocks," in which a jerk boyfriend gets the heave-ho. Although partying all weekend long, stirring up trouble and getting stoned have been common themes on all their albums, ultimately, nearly two-thirds of the songs are about boys.
"You know, when we really like a boy, we get really excited," says drummer Castellano. "We all have different kinds of guys that we like. We may all think one guy is really cute and agree on it and everything, but we don't ever compete. The ones that come up to us after a show are often the really drunk guys who are, like, 'Let me buy you a drink' or 'Come back to my house,' and we're not into that. A lot of them are too old or too young. My ideal guy would be the Jay character from Jay and Silent Bob, though I've never met him."
"The boy-craziness is kind of an exaggeration," says Ford, "though we do always have crushes on guys. There was a tour where we had a makeout contest [the inspiration for the song '40 Boys in 40 Nights'], but that really doesn't happen all the time."
In addition to the pack of girl-band geeks who arrive in force at Donnas shows toting cameras, horny dudes often jump onstage and try to get busy with their favorite Donna.
"We have incidents all the time," says Ford. "Some fans just get a little too excited. They're all pumped up because they are rocking out really hard, and they want to be part of the show. They're usually really drunk, and they don't realize what they are doing. One time, our tour manager had to punch this guy in the face, and he was knocked out on the floor. He punched him so hard, it sounded like glass breaking. When we play in Germany, a lot of guys like to jump onstage and take their pants off."