The Donnas love sex, drugs, and rock and roll. Listen to any of the Bay Area rock chicks’ five albums — including their new major-label debut, Spend the Night (Atlantic) — and you’ll hear song after song dedicated to the pursuit of that unholy trinity. But spend some time talking to the band and you’ll realize they can get just as excited about leisure activities of a more innocent nature — like hanging out at the pharmacy. "We like Boston," enthuses drummer Torry Castellano when I tell her what newspaper I’m writing for. "It’s nice, because there’s a CVS right near the Middle East, where we usually play. We love drugstores."
Castellano is calling from the road, the day after a big Donnas home-town show in San Francisco. It’s been a busy week for the band: the new disc came out and they embarked on a five-week North American headlining tour. They’ll be at the Middle East next Thursday.
The Donnas get their minds out of the candy aisle and into the gutter on "Take It Off," the first single from Spend the Night. Since the 1998 release of their underground breakthrough, American Teenage Rock n’ Roll Machine (Lookout!), they’ve been casually refining their approach, mixing old-school heavy-metal bombast with punk-rock energy and riot grrrl attitude. So naturally, "Take It Off" is a glammed-up sex anthem worthy of Kiss — with the tables turned on the boys. Frontwoman Brett Anderson’s rhymes are as hilarious as they are horny: "Stop starin’ at my D cup/C’mon baby just feel me up." But like most Donnas tunes of recent vintage, this one’s no punk-rock in-joke. It’s a real heavy-metal song, with glitzy vocal harmonies, a spine-tingling bridge, and a guitar solo Ace Frehley would kill for.
The band have been perfecting the arena-sized swagger of "Take It Off" for a couple of albums now, at least since they covered Mötley Crüe’s "Too Fast for Love" on the 1999 disc Get Skintight (Lookout!). And their songs have been crying out for a major-label production budget the whole time. "We’ve always loved bands like AC/DC, Kiss, and Guns N’ Roses," Castellano affirms. "This is the record we always wanted to make, sound-wise. We’ve always wanted to be a big huge rock band, but sometimes when you’re recording in a basement and you don’t really know how to play, it doesn’t work out."
The only weird thing about the Donnas’ signing to Atlantic is that it happened now — not four years ago, when the release of Rock n’ Roll Machine set off a media blitz. But as Castellano points out, the band wanted to make sure they were ready to take the plunge. During their punk-rock apprenticeship, they’ve managed to hone their musical skills and establish a solid touring reputation — not to mention, as they put it on the title of their last album, Turn 21 (Lookout!).
"We’ve had offers since Rock n’ Roll Machine came out, but people were like, ‘Oh yeah, we could re-record your record and change it all around,’ or whatever," says Castellano, who’s obviously offended by the idea. "We really wanted to have a strong fan base before we signed, so they knew that we knew what we were doing. Atlantic seemed like the best fit because they got that we’ve been doing really well on our own, and they just wanted to do what we were doing but make it bigger. Which is what we wanted too."
All it takes is a quick glance at the credits on Spend the Night to realize that despite their new record deal, the Donnas still have strong ties to the Bay Area punk scene. They retained the services of Turn 21 producer Robert Shimp, who enlisted the help of another local producer, Jason Carmer, for the new album. They got to record at the biggest studios in town for the first time, but they also cut some tracks at Toast Studios, where they’ve been working for years. "The biggest difference was time — we had a lot more of it," Castellano emphasizes. "I think it’s really important to have a lot of time in the studio, and also to write. We wrote more songs than we put on the record, which helped."
The band also remain friendly with Lookout!, the long-running Bay Area punk label most famous for launching Green Day. Their manager, Bratmobile drummer Molly Neuman, is the general manager of Lookout!, and the label just released the vinyl version of Spend the Night with an extra track. "There’s only a certain level of success you can get when you’re on an indie label," Castellano laments. "And it’s too bad, because we love the people at Lookout! They always did a really great job. That’s why we had them put the vinyl out."
The exhaust-fume high of "Take It Off" extends to the rest of the album, and so does its unapologetically bawdy sentiment — see also "Take Me to the Backseat" and "Please Don’t Tease," a smart power-pop move that branches out from Kiss to embrace the Stones and Creedence. "It’s on the Rocks" kicks the disc off with an enormous cowbell-driven groove from Castellano, who does Tommy Lee as well as guitarist Allison Robertson does Ace Frehley. The more time the girls spend on the road, the funnier their stories get: some slickster gets laughed out of the party on "Who Invited You," and they have their tour manager send another one packing on "You Wanna Get Me High." The album’s ultimate kiss-off is "Dirty Denim," a hilarious indictment of designer rock dudes that ends with a riot grrrl shout: "You paid 200 dollars to look like that/You oughta check out the laundromat!"
At this point, the Donnas are far removed from their teenage beginnings, when the story of their relationship with Bay Area garage-punk vet Darin Raffaelli — he named them the Donnas and also wrote and produced their first two albums — threatened to overshadow the music. The band remain friends with Raffaelli: Spend the Night is dedicated to him, and they just went to his wedding. But there’s only one man for the Donnas these days, and that’s Freddy Krueger, the Nightmare on Elm Street character played by Robert Englund. There’s a picture of Freddy inside the jewel box of the new CD, and they watch the Nightmare movies religiously when they’re on the road.
"We just got the DVD box set, and it’s so cool," Castellano gushes. "We’ve only been on tour for a few weeks and we’ve already watched a lot of them. Actually, we’re going to be in Vancouver in a few days, and I know they’re filming Freddy Vs. Jason there. I want Robert Englund to come to our show. That would be so awesome."
The Donnas perform next Thursday, November 7, at the Middle East; call (617) 864-EAST.