The Donnas Wake Up

Punk rock girls playing with the big boys

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"We felt like zombies," says Donnas guitarist Allison Robertson (aka Donna R.), referring to the previous night's gig opening for the Strokes in Omaha. The tour for their just released Atlantic debut Spend the Night has so far taken her and her band mates -- vocalist Brett Anderson (Donna A.) bassist Maya Ford (Donna F.) and drummer Torry Castellano (Donna C.) -- from balmy Southern California through the rainy Northwest and on to Omaha in a matter of days. Now she's contending with a chilly Denver autumn. "It felt like we'd been awake for two days straight," she continues, and even though she is now coming off a marathon eleven hours of sleep, she still sounds weary.

But that's life on a major label, and relentless roadwork is just one of the things the band has had to adjust to. For four years and four albums -- The Donnas, American Teenage Rock 'N' Roll Machine, Get Skintight, and The Donnas Turn 21 -- the Berkeley, California, indie Lookout Records spoiled the band with an attentive staff, complete artistic control and unbridled enthusiasm for everything it did. But last year, both parties agreed that it was time the girls take it a step further, and the Donnas signed with Atlantic.

The band had inevitable concerns that the liberties they were used to would disappear at a corporate-minded label, but so far Robertson has found their new home to be equally supportive. "It's a nurturing feeling when the people putting out your album are really excited about it," she says. "It's kind of pleasant to feel that here as well."

That's not to say there weren't some nail-biting moments during the transition. The band had become accustomed to having carte blanche in the studio, whether it was their decisions to render their debut in trashy, lo-fi sound or to bring in pop iconoclasts like Redd Kross's Jeff and Steve McDonald to produce, as they did for Get Skintight. Atlantic, however, wasn't quite prepared to turn them loose. "The stress came with recording," Robertson says. "There were a lot of different opinions on how it should be recorded, where it should be recorded, who should produce it. We thought we were going to do it exactly the way we always do it. Then we kind of panicked, we were afraid the songs wouldn't come out the way we had written them."

But after calming down, the band realized the benefits of the additional perspective Atlantic gave them. "Sometimes you need a little more input," Robertson explains. "You don't need someone telling you what to do, but you do need more checks and balances."

And from the first seconds of Spend the Night's feral opener "It's On the Rocks," it's clear that the major-label jump has done nothing to soften the group's edges. Tracks like "Take It Off," "Too Bad About Your Girl" and "Take Me to the Back Seat" strut with the same exaggerated badness as their first four albums. If anything, the big-budget production fully reveals the hard-rock chops that previous releases only hinted at, and Spend the Night boasts a potent sonic punch that places it confidently between AC/DC's Powerage and Judas Priest's British Steel on your CD shelf.

"We wanted to make it sound as close to live as possible while still having the balls of a good studio album." Robertson says. "Mostly we were concerned with making sure it kicked everybody else's ass, everyone else that's out right now."

With the band's obvious musical maturation, one would think they'd finally get some of the respect that eluded them when they arrived on the scene like a gang of teenage trouble makers five years ago. But many still regard them as a throwaway novelty act who aren't in on their own joke. "Some people are still stuck on the fact that we wore matching T-shirts," Robertson says, recalling their early stage outfits emblazoned with "Donna" and the first initial of each member's respective last name. "We don't get the credibility that another band that wore matching clothes would get. I think we all know that there are a couple of them out there that are considered the coolest thing out."

They also still have trouble with critics who can't separate the Donnas' over-the-top musical personalities from their real ones. The sassy, predatory sexuality that runs through their lyrics has had them depicted as real-life "gum-snapping hussy sluts" more times than Robertson cares to remember, and some journalists are still trying to uncover the "true" Donnas. "Everybody wants it to be one extreme or the other," she says. "They either want you to be a phony so they can say, 'They're nothing like their image. They're really sweet, clean-cut girls!' Or there's the other extreme where they expect us to stumble out of the clubs with a cigarette and some guy coming out behind us, putting his pants on."