Miking the Donnas Channel Instrument Mic
All photos: Steve Jennings
On a frigid January night in Boston, Allison Robertson, Maya Ford, Torry Castellano, and Brett Anderson — known collectively as the Donnas — file into a Commonwealth Avenue pizza joint for a quick bite. The quartet slips in, unnoticed by the college-age crowd queuing up across the street at the Paradise Club where the band will perform later that evening. The band's famous, but not that famous … yet, anyway.
That could change in a hurry. Things are going well for the Donnas. Earlier in the week, Spend the Night, the group's major-label debut, jumped 60 notches to become Billboard's greatest gainer for the week (the payoff from a pair of high-profile gigs on Saturday Night Live and MTV). At a nearby table, a customer scans a prominent Boston Globe feature marking the band's arrival, complete with a large, alluring color photo depicting group members with hair perfectly coifed and waist flesh prominently displayed.
At the moment, however, the four young women eating pizza in the back booth look nothing like the hottest rock band in town. Brimming with nervous enthusiasm, Robertson, Ford, and Anderson could easily pass for a trio of college seniors hanging out. And with her plain white parka and hair in pigtails, the diminutive Castellano is the last person you'd expect to see behind a set of drums.
Looks Can Be Deceiving
In reality, it's everything the Donnas aren't that makes them so appealing. Despite what the suggestive pix and lurid song titles (“Gimme a Ride,” “Hot Pants”) might have you believe, offstage, guitarist Robertson (aka Donna R., daughter of session guitarist Baxter Robertson), bassist Ford (Donna F.), drummer Castellano (Donna C.) and vocalist Anderson (Donna A.) are anything but man-eating nymphs. Instead, they're funny, articulate, and gear savvy. They're also remarkably casual about their late-breaking burst of success — mostly because they've been around long enough to know what's what. Even though they're all just 23 years of age, the Donnas have been plugging away for a full decade (they marked their tenth anniversary this May), refining their act over a four-album span with indie imprint Lookout Records before signing with Atlantic near the end of 2001.
Having gradually worked their way into the pop arena largely through word of mouth, the Donnas understand the importance of touring and have been careful to maintain the integrity of their stage act. “A lot of people can't figure us out just from seeing a picture of us, or even from hearing a few of our songs on CD,” notes Robertson. “But we've managed to convert a lot of them once they've been to one of our shows.”
That turned out to be the understatement of the evening. At 11 p.m. sharp, a few transparent hand-painted props were moved into place, and the Donnas took the Paradise Club's stage — still looking very much like the casual crew in the pizza shop. They immediately launched into a pile-driving version of Spend the Night's opener “It's on the Rocks,” then spent the next 90 minutes blowing through new cuts “Take It Off,” “All Messed Up,” and “Dirty Denim” with machine-gun efficiency. Anderson's between-song banter was cute, bassist Ford's jokes ranged from bad to worse, but congeniality isn't what the band's about. Tonight — as on every other night of this, their first tour as a major-label act — the Donnas' goal was to remind doubters that there's still nothing more powerful on God's green earth than a handful of short, tuneful pop songs performed live, loud, and at breakneck speed. By 12:45 a.m. they'd succeeded in delivering an amazingly torrid hard-rock show.
1 kick Audix D6 2 kick Shure Beta 91 3 snare top Audix D4 4 snare bottom Audix D1 5 hi-hat AKG C 451 B 6 rack tom Audix D4 7 floor tom Audix D4 8 overhead left AKG C 451 B 9 overhead right AKG C 451 B 10 bass DI Countryman 11 bass cabinet Sennheiser MD421 12 guitar cabinet Shure SM57 13 guitar cabinet Sennheiser MD421 14 Allison vocal Audix OM-7 15 Brett vocal Beyer M 88 or Audix OM-5 16 Maya vocal Audix OM-7
All Rock, All the Time
There's a reason that the Donnas play as tightly and toughly as they do: they've put in the time, seeing more stage action in ten years together than have most current acts. The group's first incarnation was called Ragady Anne, which was formed by the girls while they were eighth graders living in the San Francisco suburb of Palo Alto. By the mid-'90s, the teen quartet had morphed into the Electrocutes and had begun making inroads into the ultrahip Bay Area. In 1995 they changed their name to the Donnas (the name was initially conceived as a pop alter-ego to the thrash-rock Electrocutes). Three years later they signed with Lookout. Tracks like “Well Done,” Midnight Snack,” and “Do You Wanna Hit It” showed not only the influence of mentor acts like the Runaways, the Breeders, and L7, but also such classic sources as Motley Crue, AC/DC, and Kiss.
Naturally, any band that uses one guitarist, plays three-minute songs, and has members who all share the same name invites comparison to punk pioneers The Ramones. “We get that a lot,” says Robertson, who even delivers her barre chords with one foot forward and bangs slung over her eyes. “It doesn't matter — to us, they were a band that played great guitar rock, like most of our idols.”
Great guitar rock has been in fairly short supply of late, and if nothing else, the Donnas' breakthrough into the musical mainstream gives modern-rock listeners something else to chomp on besides the usual parade of buzz-saw guitars and butt-headed vocalists. “It's the kind of stuff that's been absent from radio and MTV for so long,” laments Robertson. “I'm hoping we can help bring it back again.”
A Major Adjustment
After spending nine years in the relative calm of the indie world, life in the fast lane has been a bit of an adjustment for the normally road-ready Donnas. “The biggest difference is that we don't have very many breaks — three days off here and there is about as good as it gets,” remarks Robertson. “Even when the first part of the tour ended last Christmas, we still had to do all these different radio shows. So it's been a pretty hectic time. With Lookout we could just say, ‘We'd like to have about two months off here, if you don't mind,'' even when people were pressuring us to keep touring or not take as much time off if possible. Getting a breather from Thanksgiving on is a luxury that we missed this past year.”
Even with a tight schedule and the pressure of publicity, the Donnas aren't exactly wilting under the spotlight. “It's been a lot of fun so far, actually,” says Robertson. “For one thing, we aren't really in the pop-star category, where they work you to the bone. But the best part is we're out there touring on behalf of an album that came out way better than we'd hoped for. That makes a huge difference.”
They Know What They Want
It didn't happen by accident. In the studio the Donnas are by their own admission opinionated and highly principled. They leave nothing to chance — no matter who's running the controls. Several early versions of Spend the Night were summarily rejected before mixmaster Chris Lord-Alge came in and nailed the finished product. “We didn't want to have anything to do with those first few mixes — it wasn't us at all,” says vocalist Anderson. “Until Lord-Alge came in, and suddenly there it was. It was incredible — he was like a mind reader.”
As Robertson points out, it's worth the extra effort to ensure that the band has a product that will hold up onstage. “Which is why we like to be there for the mixes,” says Robertson. “I know we can be annoying sometimes because we don't always know what we're talking about. But in reality, the way we are hearing it usually makes the whole song sound better. If you've written a song a certain way, then you have expectations for how it should sound. And if it's not there in the final mix, naturally you're going to be disappointed.”
Though the band has occasionally relied on material from outside writers (such as current producer Robert Shimp, Robertson's husband), Spend the Night was a completely organic affair from start to finish.
“The way we work is I'll come up with a bunch of different guitar riffs, things that I can just store away for future reference,” notes Robertson. “I do it that way because I don't like writing songs without lyrics — I find that if I have an idea of what the songs are about, I can address the music a little bit better.” Once the lyrics start coming together, Robertson begins to pull out the riffs, “although if an idea pops into my head while I'm reading the lyrics, I'll go with that instead.”
From there, she tries to complete the song, doing a basic recording then bringing in the other band members. “The whole process of getting the material together for Spend the Night took about a month and a half,” says Robertson. “Then Robert [producer Shimp] came in to cut the demos, which was a little tough because we didn't have the money or the time to go into a big studio. Our rehearsal space was the size of a bathroom; we were using headphones, and it was hard to hear because the drums were live. But we managed.”
Judging from the Donnas' massive live sound, it's obvious that few artificial ingredients were used during the making of Spend the Night. “That's the whole point,” says Robertson. “Don't get me wrong — I like overdubs, not so much because I like to layer the guitars but because a lot of the time the song comes into its own because of the overdubs. However, in the studio I purposely try to avoid anything that I can't easily do live — especially if it's going to be well up in the mix. Otherwise, I'll want it a little more buried and subliminal — I don't want people coming to the shows and saying, ‘It really doesn't sound the same.''
“Nobody ever forces anything on us,” she continues, “but occasionally someone will say something to the effect of, ‘Maybe it could use a little extra guitar here,'' or ‘What about these vocals? Maybe you should add some harmonies'' — stuff like that. But we're a band with one guitar and one vocalist, and we have to be conscious of that, or we'll end up with this big slick project that we then have to take out on the road.
“As a result, Brett won't do a bunch of harmony parts on the record if nobody's going to be singing them once we're playing the songs live. It's the same way I feel about my guitars,” Robertson says. “Sure, I want them to sound fat in the studio, but not to the point that I can't easily reproduce the sound once I'm onstage. We're kind of paranoid about it, and I know it can be annoying for anyone in the studio or at the label. But the thing is, we're the ones who have to tour and play those songs every night and deal with people and critics.”
“That's why I like to think of us as a true ‘live'' band,” says Anderson, “because we have a live approach to everything, even in the studio. And we've managed to pull in a lot of people who've heard us perform live. So obviously that's a big concern for us when we're recording — we're always asking ourselves, ‘Will it hold up onstage?'' As a result, we're very careful about how we put the songs together in the studio.”
Not that Robertson has anything against live backing vocals. “It's just that I'm not one of those guitarists who can easily play and sing at the same time very well! I mean, if the meter of the vocal part goes easily with the guitar part, I can do it. But if they're fighting each other, forget it — I won't even bother. It's just a coordination thing, really. So when things like that are suggested, we're very careful not to attempt anything we can't physically pull off later on.”
Love That Low End
Ironically, it took four women to prove to a generation of metal-head males that without blend and bottom, you're nothing. Bouncing on her throne like a windup toy with a jammed spring, Castellano propels the rhythm with a solid wall of crash ride and kick drum. Bassist Ford's playing is present but not obtrusive, leaving ample room for Robertson's thick barre chords and fills.
Even Anderson's choice of vocal mic — a Beyer M 88 (see the table “Miking the Donnas”) — is designed to keep the low end fortified. “It's usually meant for bass drum,” says Anderson. “But it gives me the sound I want. And it's an incredibly sturdy mic as well.” (At press time we were informed that Anderson was also experimenting with an Audix OM-5.)
Figure 1: Despite their success, the Donnas still use much of the same gear that they did in their indie days..
Though the Donnas feel right at home in tight quarters like the Paradise, the success of Spend the Night has meant bigger rooms and bigger audiences. Still, the band isn't about to trade in the gear that's served them so well (see Fig. 1).
“It's pretty much all the same stuff,” says Robertson, who holds down the fort with a Les Paul Standard through a Marshall JCM2000 half stack. “When we first got the budget, I thought about getting some different equipment to take out on the road, but I just stuck with my JCM2000. That's all I've used for the past few years — I don't deviate all that much, though I have used a [Fender] Vibro Champ for a few parts in the studio.” Robertson used a vintage JCM900 for a time, but eventually gave up on it. “It sounded great, but then it broke and we had to keep taking it to different people because we were on the road, which was a drag. So I finally just got rid of it and borrowed the money to get a 2000 — and it's lasted forever. To me, it's just the most versatile amplifier.
“In the studio I was using a Les Paul Junior Special, not a vintage one or anything, but it has an awesome sound,” says Robertson. “That and my Les Paul Television model are my ideal guitars — they use the P-100 and the P-90 pickups, respectively, which means you can get that low-end, meaty crunch yet you can still hear all the strings. Plus they have the ability to sound like two different guitars in one. I'd love to use them live, but I can't get the sustain I want out of them without using pedals.”
In Allison Robertson's world, pedals are prohibited. “It's nothing but amp overdrive, that's all,” she says. “I don't even bother with the overdrive button — it squeals, it's hard to control, it's just too much. The funny thing is that people are always coming up to me and saying, ‘That's great distortion! What kind of pedals do you use?'' No one can believe I get my sound without a box. I've actually had people challenge me because they saw me stomping on my stage tuner and just assumed it was a pedal! The way I see it, if you have a really nice guitar and a great amp, I just don't see why anyone would want to mess with the natural tone. I mean, it's not perfect, and it can change from place to place, but for the most part, that combo gives me great sound overall.”
Of course, it helps to have a pair of Marshall half stacks up there, right? Wrong. “Everybody thinks I'm using two Marshalls because I carry around a spare JCM2000 that I keep right next to the other one when I'm playing. Only the main one is miked, but I keep the spare switched on anyway in the event I happen to blow up the main amp [laughs]. I've managed to fool a lot of people that way — ‘Hey, cool, you're running two Marshalls, no wonder you get so much volume!'' And I'm like, ‘Well, actually, I'm just using one of them, sorry!''”
Given the size of the room, bassist Ford has been known to double up on her own arsenal from time to time. “I use an Ampeg 8×10, but depending on where we are, I'll sometimes go 16×20,” she cracks. “And I use both of them!”
Watching the Donnas at work, one can't help but think of such all-female bands of the past like the Blackhearts, the Go-Gos, and the Bangles — bands that lost the edge once the hits started coming. It won't happen with the Donnas, claims Robertson.
“That can't happen to us — I mean, we can't write ballads, we are who we are,” she says. “The thing is, people need to be reminded that there's nothing wrong with a simple lyric over a simple chord progression played by a band that just bashes away all night. That's what we're about.”
David Simons is a New England-based music journalist.