gold rush: the donnas

25 11 2004

With the release of their new album Gold Medal, California’s The Donnas are finding new depth to their bubblegum-punk/heavy-riffin’-rock sound. re:fuel’s Rich Trenholm met with vocalist Brett Anderson and bass player Maya Ford ahead of their recent Camden show.

After debuting their fistful of new material under canvas at the Reading and Leeds festivals, the Donnas are today taking centre stage. Both Maya, curled up in the dressing room, and Brett, perched and poised to field most of the questions, are quietly confident about the new record. So why Gold Medal?

“Partly because we’re from California so there’s the gold rush thing, and also we’re sort of like overachievers on this record. That idea just came up and it just kind of stuck because of the gold rush idea. And we’ve been thinking lately that we’re so proud of what we’ve done that we kind of rewarded ourselves before we brought the album out. Not a gold medal in the sense of, “we beat everybody,” but more like, “we beat ourselves,” says Brett.

“We overcame our expectations because we didn’t even know if we were going to be able to make this album, because of Torry’s wrist,” adds Maya, referring to drummer Torry Castellano’s deQuervais Tendonitis, an excruciatingly painful condition hand injury.

Fortunately Torry recovered and ‘re-learned’ the drums in time for the record to go ahead. “For a while it felt like maybe it would never happen. We’re just so proud that we were able to do it and that it’s better – I think it’s better than any of us thought it was gonna be,” continues Maya.

Brett sums up the band’s pride in Gold Medal. “We feel like we can reward ourselves and we don’t have to worry ‘what does everyone else think?’ Obviously we love when other people like it too, but it’s very important to be happy with the album first before you put it out there for others to devour.” “So when you read a bad review you can be like ‘fuck them man, they’re stoopid, they don’t get it,” deadpans Maya in her languid California drawl.

Gold Medal may spell a new depth to The Donnas music, but can fans expect big changes? Maya believes the change is in the pace of the band’s musical development. “I wouldn’t say it’s a departure, it’s more like a continuation in the direction but accelerated. We were always going in a direction, y’know what I mean? But on our last albums we took, like, steps, and this one’s more like a leap.”

The songs evolve in a democratic and considered way, according to Brett. “We start off with fragments of music and fragments of lyrics and we sort of put everything together like a puzzle. So every song is like a mish-mash and maybe it started with a line, maybe it started with a guitar riff. All the parts come from different places to make one song, so it’s not like we just sit down and write it beginning to end. It’s made up of so many different talents put together, like when Allison (guitarist Allison Robertson) has finished writing the guitar then Torry writes the drums, then we have the whole thing and we’ll maybe change something on the guitar to fit the drums.”

Has this unhurried work ethic added to the broader sound? It seems the band drew on each other to find the direction they wanted. “I put a lot of thought into the bass lines on this album,” says Maya. “We wanted a different feeling, so the bass lines were more melodic, and it helped us to find a new direction.” Brett continues “I got a lot of melody ideas from the bass lines. On the other albums I used to write melodies to the guitar. If you have good bass line you’ve got so much to work with.”

Both laugh when recalling their more urgent song writing methods from the early days. “When we first started out we used to yell out letters and then play those chords” laughs Brett. “It was a lot more random.”

There’s been a lot of press mileage in The Donnas Ramone-like adoption of fake names. Publicly they are no longer Donna F, Donna F, Donna R or Donna C. However Brett reveals, “we dropped them a long time ago, but everyone found out about them and picked up on it and made it into a big deal.”

What did these girl-gang alter egos mean to Donnas A through R? Brett seems resigned. ”It meant that we didn’t really have a personality so much. And they (the names) were so much in themselves that now it’s become a big deal that we’re dropping them. We just want them to faaaade away…”

Maya adds, “It made us feel like caricatures. They would put their idea of you onto you. They’d be like ‘this one’s the quiet one’. But aren’t we all quiet sometimes? We all get annoyed sometimes. You go through phases, you change. You’re not always happy, if something happens in your life that sucks then you’re not in a good mood – and you won’t feel like talking about your band. But if you’re laughing, you’re ‘the giggly one.’”

“You can’t just be yourself, people label you…” announces Brett. “Like you’re one of the seven dwarfs or something” continues Maya. “It’s really annoying.”

A lot of press attention has also focussed on the band because they don’t have any blokes in. Gasp! “Yeah, I think people don’t do that with guy groups so much,” reckons Brett. “Maybe if a guy’s personality jumps out at them in a certain way, like The Strokes, they’ll maybe say ‘Nikolai is tall, and shy’, then kinda… but it’s not the same with men. They’ll decide how they want women to be, like ‘she is the happy one.’” “So she always has to be happy,” adds Maya.

Brett continues “I guess we’re used to thinking about girl groups like that, like with The Spice Girls or Destiny’s Child… And they’re so used to being like ‘OK everyone get into character.’” “Or TLC, crazy/sexy/cool,” suggests Maya. “Yeah, or Destiny’s Child: the sexy one… and the other two.” They both laugh, but it’s a laughter tinged with recognition of a sad fact, as Maya points out: “Imagine being ‘the other two.’” “It’s horrible!” exclaims Brett. “And that’s what they do with your whole life!”

The obvious answer to such labelling is to reply through music. Brett doesn’t see Gold Medal as a direct riposte to the male-dominated music/media industry, but does believe they are defying classification: “Well we were looking at things in a different way than we used to, and showing a different side to ourselves, because people were starting to pigeonhole us: ‘all you guys write about is boys…’” “’…and you keep bringing out the same album’” interjects Maya. “But actually they’re not the same. They’re all different.”

“They’re all totally different. There’s a lot of really cool things in there, but people hear just ‘partying’ or ‘boys’ and loud guitar and say it’s exactly the same. So we tried to exaggerate the dynamic on this album,” says Brett.

“Because people don’t get it if it’s subtle. People don’t get subtle change. You have to beat them over the head with it,” suggests Maya.

“Most people are… pretty dense,” adds Brett, but there’s hardly any bitterness in the pair despite their recognition of the discrimination they face.

Maya is philosophical. “It’s positive and negative. It’s kind of annoying because we have to talk about it, and we have people doubting us, that people think ‘they’re a girl group, I bet they can’t play, I bet they don’t really do anything except sing and dance, they’re not real, someone put them together.’ As if girls could never think of being in a band on their own. We just want to be a band, and we’ve always wanted to be a band.”

re:fuel thinks the game is up when Brett announces “It’d be amazing to do an interview where you’re asked questions about your life, and touring, and your music, and that’s it.” Fortunately she follows up by saying “I totally understand why people ask, I mean everyone asks. But it’s totally understandable because there are some obvious things that make us what we are, and being female is one of them.”

Maya recognises The Donnas’ significance: “There aren’t that many female groups out there that are doing what we do: just being a normal rock band. It’s good in a way because it gets us a lot of attention. Y’know, people are like ‘uuugh, girls! I have never seen that before, what a novel idea’ and they go and buy our album. And that’s cool. More money in our pockets…”

Brett is less sanguine. “Sometimes that’s the kind of attention you wouldn’t want anyway because they’re seeing if you really can do it, or they’re judging you before they even see you. Or being really sceptical. Or they only like you because you’re girls.” Maya makes a face. “They don’t even care if you can play, they’re just like at your show…” She tails off as she implies the boys might not be there just for the music.

“It’s cool to have people at your show” Brett concedes. “It’s just annoying if you know they’re watching you and they’re not even listening.” “You can play an awesome show but then you come offstage and all they want to talk about is what you wore onstage or like how much your boobs moved,” muses Maya. “You don’t wanna hear that. You don’t even wanna think about that.”

“It’s horrible. I used to wear two bras,” reveals Brett.

Touring was to keep The Donnas away from home for the US election, but couldn’t stop them voting. The band had absentee ballots, and they believe they’re not the only ones aware of the importance of the contest. Maya reckons, “I think most everyone in America’s into the election, and musicians and actors want to see a change. Or they don’t, y’know.” Brett agrees. “This is an important one. A lot of apathetic people are like ‘whatever, it’s just one vote, it doesn’t matter.’ But every vote matters.”

So are the musically accomplished, politically aware and prejudice-battling Donnas having fun? Of course they are, they’re in a rock band. The wild ride that is rock’n’roll just has its ups and downs. According to Brett, “The problem is – the fun parts are really fun – but all the stuff like a million hours on a plane and waiting round in airports to play a show that’s really fun for like… two hours. So it’s kind of equal parts fun and boring.”

Maya puts the whole thing into perspective: “You spend so much more time waiting round so we probably complain more than we really feel. But at the same time I’d much rather be complaining and then having some fun once in a while than just sitting at home.”

Although with Gold Medal to listen to, sitting at home can’t be that bad.
This interview originally appeared at in mid-to-late 2004. The interview took place in a freezing cold room at the back of the Electric Ballroom, Camden. It was only my second ever interview, and it went OK, although I hadn’t heard the new album except for a live airing at Leeds some time before, and I thought I’d genuinely cocked it up when i started in on the ‘girl band’ thing. Fortunately the US election questions won them over again. Thanks to Toni for setting it up.