The rumor going around is that, after recording two albums for Atlantic Records, the Donnas were dropped from the label. The reality is far different.
"We had an option to leave," says guitarist Allison Robertson (the former Donna R.) via phone from her Los Angeles home. "It seems like the people [at the label] had given up on rock radio. For our third album, they said it had to be poppy and we had to write with [outside] songwriters. ... It was obvious that it wasn't going to work."
Welcome to the major-label bizarro world of 2007, when a seemingly picture-perfect band complete with epic rock songs and a great live show can't convince the powers that be to let them, well, be. It's enough to make you wonder whether an act like Led Zeppelin or AC/DC would even be signed today. (Or, more likely, they'd be signed, allowed to release two records, and then marginalized or dumped.)
Not that the one-time Bay Areans (now Los Angelenos) didn't give it the old (post-)college try. After a 2002 Atlantic debut, Spend the Night, the group agreed to record with Butch Walker, who had shepherded discs for Avril Lavigne and Pink. The resulting album, 2004's Gold Medal, sounded like Lindsay Lohan trying to play the Donnas in a Herbie the Love Bug movie. It rocked in parts, but it also felt like all the hard edges had been buffed to a high sheen.
"We were going for something that didn't come across," Robertson says. "We wanted something much looser — a jammy, Rolling Stones, psychedelic vibe — but it came out different than written."
Unfortunately, there was little similarity between Gold Medal's slick recordings and Exile on Main Street. The musicians — Robertson, singer Brett Anderson, bassist Maya Ford, and drummer Torry Castellano — also toned down their trademark party-hearty lyrics, opting for more thoughtful relationship-centric stanzas. (One exception is the strikingly prescient title tune, in which Anderson sings, "So what were you expecting?/ Every song has a perfect ending/ But that's not good enough, not good enough for you.")
When it came time to record the follow-up to Gold Medal, the Donnas agreed to try working with other songwriters. Robertson reports that most of the hacks seemed to be trying to pass off crappy demos from other sessions. The one exception was Holly Knight, who had written tunes for Heart, Tina Turner, and Pat Benatar, and was willing to drink with the band and then write together.
When the group turned over the demos to Atlantic, however, the label still wasn't happy, so the Donnas exercised their option and left. Freed from the major-label mindset, the band set about recording the tunes the way they wanted them to sound. "We planned out each song," says Robertson. "We spent time sitting down and mulling over every word."
The foursome turned to producer Jay Ruston, who had worked with everyone from Meatloaf to the Polyphonic Spree, to help shape the new material. "He seemed to understand better than anyone what we wanted," Robertson explains. "The first albums were so ghetto, but we always wanted to sound better. People assume they were done that way on purpose, but we really just couldn't afford the equipment or recording studios."
While the resulting disc — Bitchin', released on the band's own Purple Feather label this month — does sound cleaner than, say, 1999's Get Skintight, it is way rougher than Gold Medal. It's as if Ruston and the gals found the perfect middle ground between songcraft and cacophony. Whereas the group's early material seemed whipped off in one take, the new tracks sound more carefully composed. Listen to "Girl Talk," with its vocoder intro, ripping guitar solos, and catchy background vocals, or the handclaps and serpentine guitars of "Smoke You Out." Check out the epic build to "Don't Wait Up for Me," with its Gary Glitter chants, or the "Panama"-esque riffage and sliding drum beat of "Save Me." This is not the same band that garnered all those Ramones comparisons. If anything, it may be time to whip out your hair-metal outfits, because Bitchin' most recalls the glory days of Mötley Crüe, Def Leppard, and Bon Jovi. (Never have so many "woah-oh"s sounded so good.)
"Those bands are our favorites," Robertson says. "Bon Jovi was not just pop metal or hair metal, but New Jersey working-class, blue-collar rock. It had that Bruce Springsteen 'everybody is kind of tired, and they get a beer and sing along to the chorus' feel, and that appealed to us."
The '80s vibe is further helped by the two grand anthems written with Knight. It's easy to imagine both "Here For the Party" and "Wasted" pumping out of Camaros in high school parking lots back in 1985.
"We like stuff that's simple and sounds big," says Robertson. "We're not idiots, but we love bonehead rock."
After the disc was completed, the ladies looked around for a new label, but none seemed solid enough or willing to do what they wanted. So they started Purple Feather, named after the plumage that distinguishes mallards from other ducks.
As for the album's title, Robertson says it came about from attending "Metal School," a weekly hair-metal party in L.A. "Someone said, 'Bitchin',' and I started laughing about it. Everyone says the word that way, with the guttural tone. So simple and funny." (Several big retailers didn't find the word amusing at first, but after discussions they seem to have come around.)
It's been 14 years since the quartet started playing together in Castellano's mom's Palo Alto garage, running through covers of Shonen Knife's "Riding on the Rocket" and L7's "American Society." That's a long time for any band, regardless of whether they're signed to a major label. Just what is it that keeps the quartet going after all this time?
"One of my favorite bands is REM," says Robertson. "They're best friends and they went to college together. We all don't fit in, and we fell in love with how much fun we have together. We're not making the best music in the world, but we really enjoy playing together."