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Mad Donnas

The Donnas live fast, but they don't plan to see their career die young.


The Donnas (three of them so far this year, anyway) have turned 21, but they've yet to abandon their teen spirit. Their new disc, The Donnas Turn 21, is the quartet's most aggressive yet, stacked high with come-ons and put-downs perfectly suited to their aesthetic. And even though they're barely old enough to drink, the Donnas have been partying like frat boys for years, a collective lifestyle as sloppy as the instrumental attack that informs their songwriting. But in the spirit of, say, the equally cheeba-enhanced Beastie Boys, age doesn't mean a thing; the Donnas make songs like tantrums, suggesting the sort of offspring that might have resulted from Aerosmith's dipping into more than just the punch bowl at the Super Bowl afterparty with Britney Spears. They remain happily stunted at an emotional age hovering between Barbies and birth control pills.

"Our bus driver is really cool," enthuses bass player Maya Ford (Donna F.). "He's going to let me drive." Thus the fact that the group records with Lookout! Records takes on added meaning. "He got mad at some toll-booth guy who was being a dick to him, so he released our sewage just past the booth," Ford continues, praising the driver. It's appropriate that Ford and her bandmates are on tour with Bratmobile. The only thing missing from their travels, it seems, is Burt Reynolds behind the wheel.

Bratmobile's members, at home on this stop, have abandoned ship to visit friends, leaving the Donnas to enjoy the satellite dish and Nintendo. "We play Mario, golf and tennis; smoke pot; sleep; maybe drink some Bud," she says with the first of a dozen audible shrugs. If Eskimos have twenty names for snow, Ford seems to have at least as many ways to nonverbally communicate her distraction and ennui.

Ford has just emerged from a pawn shop in Washington, D.C. "I bought a belt buckle that says 'Schlitz' and one that says 'photographer,'" Ford says. "The guy was, like, old, maybe seventy. I tried to get a deal, but he saw our bus and was like, 'What are you doing?'" Ford here affects her best Cocoon voice -- a prank-call croak that proves she's no mimic -- reporting that the pawnbroker said he was too old to rock. The Schlitz buckle is self-explanatory; asked to explain the charm of her other purchase, Ford invokes another of her audible shrugs and in her own sullen voice says, "I don't know. It was just cool."

Even for band members able to play their own instruments, the Donnas have suffered under the weight of their personae. The local press has assaulted the Palo Alto, California, band, suggesting that (at least at the outset of the band's career) the Donnas were as calculated an act as any other teen pop group. Darin Raffaelli, who penned the band's earliest singles and has been accused of continuing to mastermind the Donnas, has said that his responsibility now is just "encouragement." Writer Gina Arnold published a story in the San Jose Metro asserting that the Donnas (each Donna takes her initial from the first letter of her real last name: Brett Anderson is Donna A., Allison Robertson is Donna R. and Donna C. is Torry Castellano) are about as punk as Ricky Martin. Apparently, some are determined to take the Donnas seriously, all evidence of self-caricature to the contrary.

"Gina Arnold never interviewed us," Ford says, hostile now. "She made up some stuff. She assumed that because we went to high school in Palo Alto, we're all rich kids. But our families all moved there for different reasons, and it's not like we ever fit in with typical Palo Alto kids. We were the outsiders, the ones who didn't have pools. We didn't have lessons. We started out playing crappy $100 guitars we bought with our own money.

"A lot of women writers bash us. I don't know why. They just don't want us to succeed. I don't see that it matters if a rock band's parents make lots of money," Ford continues. Her mother teaches writing at Stanford, and Ford is auditing her mother's current Writing for Feeling course, which she says helps her tie together her love of David Lynch movies, other cult films and '80s sitcoms.

"The story I just wrote for my mom is about murdering my roommates. I tore out their eyeballs and pinned them to a donkey," Ford says cheerfully. Her fictional victims were not chosen at random. Ford roomed with Donna R. for a semester at UC-Berkeley, where they endured the disdain of what Ford calls "the goth girls." Some attended the Donnas' hometown shows "just to make fun of us and call us bitches," Ford says.

"We went through that in high school," she says. "We figured college would be less retarded. Now when we go back and meet people from our high school, they kiss our asses. They take their college friends to our shows and act like they're friends with us."

And being a girl group, the Donnas already have their hands full with guys who aren't just pretending to like them. Ford says that each Donna is currently nestled in a long-term relationship, a surprisingly un-"40 Boys in 40 Nights" (the band's current single) thing to admit. "I get mad when people try to touch me," Ford says. "We get weird drunken frat guys at our shows. We prefer the younger kids coming. Everyone thinks we have time to go hang out and party after the show. Like, 'Hey, I've got some Jack Daniels. Come over.'" (Ford's dumb-guy impression is much more convincing than her Don Ameche.) "We've got our own pot and our own Jack Daniels. We don't have time unless you can get on the bus and come with us." Some do just that, following the band on the road. Their most devoted male fans have started a tribute group called the Donalds.

"We don't really collect underwear," Ford adds. "People throw boxers on the stage. It's funny, but we're actually pretty grossed out by it. We don't want to touch it. I mean, when we didn't have boyfriends and there were cute guys, we might have made out with them. But we're not 'hos. We've all got steady boyfriends and whatever," Ford says, this time with the shrug of young love.

However, songs such as the horny "Midnite Snack" and a sweltering cover of Judas Priest's "Living After Midnight" aren't exactly paeans to monogamy. With more of their act than ever riding on double-consonant song titles ("Do You Wanna Hit It?" "Gimme a Ride" and "Are You Gonna Move It for Me?" grace Turn 21), the Donnas are painting themselves into a novelty-act corner, without the Ramones-style benefit of two dozen songs a disc, volume on top of volume to balance out the kitsch. Ford says this album shows the band in peak form, though. "We worked hard on this one. I'm always writing, and we planned this album more than we had before. No songs ended up bad this time, so nothing is filler." Ford says the group is more focused than ever and wants to continue, aiming for the longevity of Joan Jett (for whom the Donnas opened by invitation last year). Their days of "wanna" and "gimme" waning, the aging but not really maturing Donnas are out to prove that they've got plenty of "gonna."

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