October 23, 2002

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Total Donna-nation
The Bay Area's favorite all-girl pop punk band solidify into a – surprise – kick-ass rock band, dude.

By Kimberly Chun

PAY NO ATTENTION to the name, flapping in the wind like a page from the Ramones' comic book rock 'n' roll universe: the Donnas aren't your cartoon characters. They aren't your babies. They aren't your hoochie mamas. They aren't your cherry bombs. They aren't your Palo Alto princesses, and they aren't America's latest sweethearts. And they won't take it off, but they will gladly play their latest single, "Take It Off," from their latest album, Spend the Night.

The San Francisco-El Cerrito band are just trying to cut through the crap that surrounds them, now that they're diehard, but far from cynically crusty, rock vets at the ripe old age of 23. So the last thing they want to do is vault over piles of, well, shit, as vocalist Brett Anderson, a.k.a. Donna A., had to. That close encounter of the fecal kind occurred last week, after she stepped out of the band's tour bus, parked on Turk Street behind the Warfield, where they were opening for Jimmy Eat World.

"The worst thing was knowing it was human feces," Anderson says, marveling at the real-life, Ripley's Believe It or Not grit of the lovely 'Loin. Stalking back to the scene of the grime, Anderson doesn't seem like she'd be cowed by much – she's a head taller than me and guitarist-vocalist Allison Robertson, alias Donna R. Curling up like a contented cat on the dusty rose floral cushions on the tour bus, she only looks like a hard-rock amazon – some kind of rock-boy wet-dream cross between a cheerleader and Axl Rose. In reality, she's down-to-earth and more interested in cracking wise than in dressing to impress or acting like a diva.

It's nice to know that seven years after the Donnas began life as Ragady Anne, the foursome, also including bassist-vocalist Maya Ford (Donna F.) and drummer-vocalist Torry Castellano (Donna C.), have become adept at sidestepping the attendant doo-doo that has followed them through the years. That skill will come in handy: Now, with the release of a follow-up to their third full-length, The Donnas Turn 21, the band members have gotten into bed with a major label, Atlantic (though a vinyl version will still be released by their former label, Lookout!). And judging from the band's performance that night, as the Donnas gave Jimmy Eat World, No Knife, and their emo fans a sound spanking with a nonstop rock set that would do their fave hair bands proud, they are obviously set to get on top – and stay there. Anderson straddled the mic and shouted out the lyrics with a punky straightforwardness, Robertson effortlessly flipped off chicken-fried cock-rock licks, Ford bopped with her bass at stage right, Castellano attacked the drums in a flurry of hair like a manic Pekinese, and the emo audience stopped their sobbing and realized what they were missing. Amazingly, especially for a listener who saw them stumble toward AC/DC-style headbanging glory as the metal-laced Electrocutes at a Peninsula community center in 1997, the girls were pulling it off.

That's the paradox of the Donnas. They're all good/bad girly fun and tenacity. They've jumped the hurdles of misconceptions, gossip, and backbiting, and they've moved beyond the realm of your culty rock fan's sicko joke or novelty act and coalesced into a solid rock band. From their origins as Jordan Middle School eighth graders intent on penetrating the all-boy lunchtime band monopoly to their graduation to the local teen center, Gilman Street, and beyond, the Donnas are 99.9 percent pure products of both the indie rock explosion and its subsequent dissemination via MTV in the early '90s, as well as riot grrrl – an influence that continues in the form of "big sister," comanager, Lookout! boss lady, and Bratmobile drummer Molly Neumann.

Other so-called foxcore bands of the time such as Emily's Sassy Lime may have fallen by the wayside, but the Donnas were different. They played all sides of the school yard, flirting with both girl power and jailbait sexploitation while maintaining an everygirl high-achiever outlook that got them into good colleges and kept them going, despite the doubters. They tap into that über-femme dream of girl gangs, together 4-ever.

First there were the rumors of a Svengali – a Kim Fowley to their Runaways in the form of early booster and producer Darrin Raffaelli, who produced early singles and albums – then there was speculation about their musicianship, criticism about their originality, last tour's limo crash (which left Ford with a major head injury and Robertson with cuts from champagne glasses), and the presence of those creepy older, would-be stalker types who inevitably populate every all-female band show.

But the Donnas can obviously handle them. "There's definitely a breed of girl-band groupies. They don't care about your music," the alert, ultraverbal Robertson says, perched on the edge of the sofa. If Anderson is the cozy id of the band, then Robertson is the superego, with her soothing voice and ready analysis. "They don't care about anything, but if there's a girl in the band, they're there. They'd miss their mother's funeral to see a band with a girl in it."

That doesn't go for all of the Donnas' loyal supporters, of course. But some listeners are just raring for a catfight, and the Donnas are accustomed to circling their wagons by now. They hang out with one another, make random appearances at Pound-SF, chow down on waffles at It's Tops, and indulge their snack food cravings on a regular basis. Anderson obligingly hops up and shows off their stash of Butterfinger and Milky Way minibars, stored above the bus minibar, as Robertson praises the virtues of vitamin waters.

"We're not pigs," Anderson says. "We're not hogs. But we like snacks a whole lot!"

Comfort food – and knowing who their friends are – may have played a big part in getting them this far. Robertson happily free-associates on the idea. "It's just, the four of us have this thing that goes on. We're teaching ourselves all the time and helping each other out. All bands say that, but it's different because we never had lessons or anything. So ... it's kind of retarded. We are a band gone retarded," she whispers dramatically as Anderson guffaws.

They had to look out for their vision when it came to Spend the Night: everything was up for discussion at Atlantic, and the band had to stand firm. "The funny thing is, a lot of people questioned things that the band was really set on – everything, songs, whether or not they were hits or singles, what kind of videos to have," Robertson recalls. "We all knew in the beginning what it would sound like it when it was done, but the demos frightened everybody, because they were just demos; they were really lo-fi."

If anything, the band members say they get more pressure from stylists who want them to wear clothes they don't like and makeup artists who make fun of their skin. "We're all different heights, all different sizes," Robertson says. "I just think it's good for people to see there are real girls out there that have talent."

"We want to keep it kind of real-looking in our pictures and videos and stuff so that when people see us in person they're not like, 'Oh shit! What happened to her? Oh sad. Look at you in real life, man!' " Anderson says. "I mean, we're girls. We don't want to look like ... ass all the time."

It's a girl's life – can't live with those preconceived notions, can't live without 'em. So the irony inherent in the ascendancy of nouveau garage rock bands isn't lost on the group. Knowing that and seeing tourmates such as the Strokes getting drooled over at the recent Reading Festival, the Donnas are aware that this could be their moment, but that doesn't stop them from questioning it all, as a onetime baby band that crawled straight outta the garage, their every move scrutinized, yet one that also always tried to sound more polished than their budget or abilities allowed.

"It's weird to watch the backlash against things that are overproduced and really polished," Anderson says. "It's so ridiculous to watch people that have all the money and all the resources go for something that, when people do it, they only do it because they have limitations."

"I think of our high school – there were so many rich people who really dressed like bums and wore the same Birkenstocks, like, all of high school and then went to Reed and dumpster dived," Robertson adds. "That's what [the new song] 'Dirty Denim' is about! They want to appear like people they think are cool – so they mess their hair up and buy expensive jeans that look just right. There are lots of bands right now that are on that wave, but I feel like the garage scene has already happened here and it's still happening. I think people do it here a lot better than what you hear on the radio."

Donnas play with Your Enemies' Friends and Campfire Girls, Thurs/24, 9 p.m., Great American Music Hall, 859 O'Farrell, S.F. $12. (415) 885-0750.