One of the most eagerly awaited releases of 2004, The Donnas “GOLD MEDAL” takes the top prize for vital, edgy, modern rock’n’roll at its finest. Having broken into the mainstream with their 2002 Atlantic debut, “SPEND THE NIGHT,” the Bay Area-based combo now raises the bar, as musicians and songwriters, to deliver the best work of their career. Produced by Butch Walker (Avril Lavigne, Injected), tracks like the provocative first single, “Fall Behind Me,” shimmer with rock energy, blasting off the blocks with newfound invention and intensity. With the October release of “GOLD MEDAL,” the Donnas take an Olympian leap forward, setting a sparkling new standard for pure rock’n roll brilliance.
“We threw away all of our old rules,” says bassist Maya Ford. “We were like, Let’s start new. Let’s do everything we can think of and not restrict ourselves. We just decided that it was time to try stuff we’ve never tried before.”
“It really is a click adds guitarist Allison Robertson, “but I definitely think this record is the Donnas growing up. It’s totally natural we just weren’t limiting ourselves in any way.”
After almost 10 years as one of rock ‘n roll’s coolest combos, with the release of “SPEND THE NIGHT” America fell head over heels for the Donnas. The album the band’s fifth full-length collection debuted in the #1 position on the Billboard “Heatseekers” chart of new and developing artists, fuelled by the breakthrough rock radio smash, “Take It Off.”
The Donnas were also all over the TV airwaves, with appearances on an assortment of high-profile programs, including Saturday Night Live, The Tonight Show with Jay Leno, Late Night with Conan O’Brien, and The View. In addition, the “Take It Off” companion video clip was a “Buzzworthy” sensation at MTV and MTV2, spending weeks on the Total Request Live countdown.
Long hailed for their animated live performances, the Donnas spent months on the road, playing all over the world on their own headlining tours as well as at such famed rock festivals as Lollapalooza, Coachella Valley Music & Arts Festival, and the UK’s Carling Weekend. They were also the subject of significant features in major magazines and newspapers across the country, including cover appearances in Seventeen and Alternative Press, and profiles in Rolling Stone, The New York Times, and Vanity Fair.
After a year-and-a-half of constant work, the Donnas finally parked their tour bus in September 2003. The first order of business was some well-earned rest and revivification.
“I spent a lot of time recovering from the wear and tear of the road,” says singer Brett Anderson. “Your voice just gets totally thrashed, and you start sounding like Marge Simpson’s sisters. So after we got off the road, I just tried to do everything I possibly could to recover and repair my throat.”
Unfortunately, drummer Torry Castellano needed to deal with more than just simple wear and tear. As the Donnas rehearsed for Lollapalooza 2003, she found herself in excruciating pain every time she sat behind her kit and started playing. Castellano was diagnosed with deQuervain’s Tendonitis, a condition brought on by irritation or swelling of the tendons found along the thumb side of the wrist.
“We’re all kind of self-taught,” she says. “I always held the drum sticks the way I assumed you should. Well, it turns out that that was the grip of death.”
Cortisone shots helped Castellano finish the band’s summer touring commitments, and in October, she had surgery to alleviate the condition for good.
“It was scary when Torry had to take a break,” Anderson says, “because we weren’t sure how it was going to be when we came back, if it was going to be the same.”
“After my surgery, I had to work with a drum teacher to learn a new way to play,” Castellano says. “My goal was to get better in time to record my parts. It’s been really hard, but I’m doing pretty good.”
With Castellano recovering, the Donnas got together in January 2004 to begin woodshedding new material. From the start, they knew some changes were in order. Having spent nearly a decade as the Donnas, the band found themselves feeling trapped by the Ramones-style gimmick, and decided the time was right to ditch the cartoon monikers Donna A, Donna F, etc.
“We’re real people,” Anderson says. “We’re not characters. We started the Donnas in high school, but we’re not in high school anymore.”
More importantly, they wanted to shake things up by incorporating different influences and deeper emotional terrain into their trademark style.
“We spent so much time on the road,” Ford says, “we played the same songs over and over again. We got really tight, but after taking a break, we realized that we didn’t want to write those same kinds of songs again. We thought it would be cool to challenge ourselves so that playing live would be more interesting.”
After meeting with a number of producers, the Donnas opted to team up with Butch Walker, an artist-slash-producer best known for his membership in Atlanta alterna-trio, Marvelous 3.
“It just clicked,” Robertson recalls. “Any band I mentioned, he knew. Any song I mentioned, he knew. We went into pre-production with him and it was great. He liked the exact same parts that we liked, and the parts that I was feeling could maybe be better, he was like, ‘Yeah, that could be better.’ He was just really encouraging.”
While Walker proved a motivational force, the Donnas’ strongest muse remains the bond between the four bandmates. Friends first and foremost, the Donnas’ enduring personal connection allows for true artistic collaboration.
“We inspire each other,” Ford says. “Sometimes I’ll bring some of my lyrics to Brett and we realize that we’ve both written the same song!”
“When I write lyrics, I’m thinking about all of us,” Anderson says. “I wouldn’t write something that would be untrue for any of the other girls. Not that they’ve been through everything I’ve been through, but that if they went through it, they would react in somewhat the same way. I think the other ones think that way when they write lyrics. I remember when Allison brought in “Don’t Break Me Down.” I was going through exactly the same things the song was about, but the lyrics were coming out of someone else. It was great, because when I sang it, I felt as if I had written it.”
“Our biggest strength is that we communicate so well,” Robertson says. “We almost don’t even need to speak. We have a mental telepathy going on. It sounds so corny, but we really are like family.”
While the Donnas’ previous work focused on their lifelong affection for the balls-to-the-wall heaviosity of AC/DC and KISS, this time out they were determined to incorporate their full range of musical tastes. Inspired by a diverse spectrum of heroes from the Rolling Stones and the Beatles, to the Cult and .38 Special, to Dolly Parton and Bikini Kill; the Donnas wanted to make music that would reflect their voracious appetites for rock ‘n’ roll.
“We’ve always been a band that has a zillion influences,” Ford says, “but we weren’t really using all of them. So on this record, we tried to pull from everything that we love. I could listen to classic rock radio all day and be excited.”
Among the goals was to keep things clean and straightforward, in the style of such Seventies staples as the Sex Pistols and the New York Dolls, while still pushing the artistic envelope. As a result, such songs as the darkly evocative “Revolver” and the astonishing title track are more complex than anything ever heard before on a Donnas record, infused with intricate melodies, two-part harmonies, and danceable rhythms.
“Everybody was interested in trying out new sounds,” Robertson says. “There is more space for everybody to breathe. These songs are much more challenging. I feel like there is never a dull moment when I am playing the new ones.”
“We wanted to slow things down a little bit,” Castellano says. “It’s still very rock ‘n’ roll, just not as fast. That definitely helped me, because I don’t know if I could’ve played as fast as we used to while I was recovering.”
Along with the elaborate musical structures, the Donnas also felt the need to express more complicated emotions than in the past. New songs like “Don’t Break Me Down” and “I Don’t Want To Know If You Don’t Want Me” see the band honestly confronting the difficulty of conducting relationships while devoting one’s life to rock ‘n’ roll.
“An old rule of our band was that you can’t let your real feelings show,” Robertson says. “You can’t write a song about how you really feel. You have to write songs about being strong, even when you’re not feeling strong.”
“We’ve been through a lot since we made the last record,” Castellano says, “so we had a lot to write about. We didn’t want to have to have attitude all the time.”
With “GOLD MEDAL,” the Donnas have pulled out all the stops, resulting in something truly remarkable; a fresh, focused, and full-on collection that retains the band’s irrepressible spirit and humor, yet ups the ante on every possible level.
“I feel like these songs have a lot more to say,” Anderson says. “I always feel like, ‘This is the best record we’ve done yet,’ but I think we’ve made a real leap on this one.”
“The title of the record says it all,” Castellano says. “This is the sound of the Donnas really going for it, pushing ourselves and doing the best we can. There have been plenty of obstacles, but they’ve only pushed us to want to do even better. We believe in making positives out of negatives.”