Twenty Years Later: Remembering the Bratty Punk of The Donnas' Debut LP

Twenty Years Later: Remembering the Bratty Punk of The Donnas' Debut LP

We tracked down singer Brett Anderson to talk teen tearaway punk rock and how she wound up back in college.
January 27, 2017, 3:33pm

It was thanks to my affinity for late 90s early 00s high school rom-coms (where I found my love for Letters To Cleo), that I discovered The Donnas. Specifically, I was watching Adrian Grenier and Melissa Joan Hart's faux romance evolve into something real in Drive Me Crazy, when Grenier flexes by taking Hart to see The Electrocutes—which is essentially the band The Donnas were before they made The Donnas their primary concern. Decked ou in their (very 90s) glitter tops, their give-a-fuck Riot Grrrl informed attitude palpable in every hair flick and riff. Grenier's love for the band showed off his rebellious qualities and made him a brooding bad boy you wanted to whisk you off to a show. (The band later appeared on Charmed too).

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After seeing the film, I took a deep dive into The Donnas discography. It was 1999, and the band had released three albums since forming in 1993, but it was enough to get me started. The Donnas were badass young women whose aesthetic was a studied blend of The Ramones and The Runaways, while their lyrics were thrillingly, unabashedly brazen, introducing me to slang terms for doing drugs ("Everybody's Smoking Cheeba") and plotting to kill a crush's girlfriend ("Get Rid Of That Girl"). Best known for 2002's  Spend the Nightvia Atlantic Records—and the still seminal bossy pop of "Take It Off"—The Donnas self-titled debut LP was full of lo-fi melodies and three chord anthems, mixing sassy teenage rebellion with a punk snarl. With no single song clocking over three minutes it's the the kind of music perfect for playing on your walkman as you snuck out of your parents' house for a night on the town. This year their debut celebrates its 20th anniversary. Since The Donnas' last show in 2012, lead singer Brett Anderson has been studying at Stanford, playing in a band called The Stripminers, and working on her own music (she's recently signed a publishing deal). We caught up with her to discuss The Donnas' oft overlooked debut, 9/11, downloading, and what it was like having two different band identities.

Noisey: How did you come up with the name The Donnas?
Brett Anderson: It was rearranging the McDonald's logo. It's pretty random.We had actually started in 1993 when we were in middle school. We were in two bands: The Electrocutes and The Donnas.

Wait, so you guys were really The Electrocutes? So the Drive Me Crazy director didn't make that up?
Yeah! The director used our other band's name. He was a fan of our band and was like "wouldn't it be cool if we used your secret name?" We have a record out as The Electrocutes called Steal Your Lunch Money. When we put out the black and white The Donnas record, we were still doing The Electrocutes. The Donnas were more Ramones-style punk rock, and The Electrocutes were more thrashy. We were really into Sonic Youth. We actually played at Stanford on the radio station as The Donnas and then we left and The Electrocutes played. The Electrocutes was our real band, and The Donnas was our side project. People really started liking The Donnas, so we ended up merging the bands together. American Teenage Rock 'n' Roll Machine was really when our bands were merged together. I think the music changed a lot by that record.

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Were you spearheading the songwriting effort, or was it more collaborative?
Yeah, it was definitely always collaborative. We always wrote from a group perspective. We called ourselves the "Fun Generation." Whenever I wrote lyrics, I would try to focus on something that represented all four of us. When someone else would write lyrics, I always tried to be really open to trying to make it a group identity.

What were you guys listening to when you made your self-titled debut LP?
The influences for that LP were the Ramones. For The Electrocutes, it was like Free Kitten, all the Riot grrrl stuff, Bikini Kill, Bratmobile, L7, Sonic Youth, Faith No More, Metallica, KISS, Poison, Mötley Crüe and David Lee Roth. We were all over the place.

An OG pic from Brett's personal archive

What were your favorite songs to write and perform on the black and white record?
At that time, we were writing with producer Darin [Raffaelli]. That record almost feels like oldies to me. I love oldies. "Let's Rab" and "Let's Go Mano" were songs we wrote with Darin. "Rab" is a word our friend at school used to say, so we made it into a slang word for that song. "Mano" was a made-up slang word too. "Last Chance Dance" was interesting because the intro of the song is our 8th grade geometry teacher who was actually giving a real-life announcement. I can't remember if we wrote that song because of the dance or if it was a coincidence. I just remember Allison asking if we could use it for the song.

Did you start to find success from your self-titled record, or did that start happening with Spend the Night ?
This record feels obscure to me still. I felt like no one knew who we were really yet. I do remember "Huff All Night" was one of my favorite songs. It was really fun to play, and it was really fun to write. It was one of the first times that I ever thought about how the melody and chorus structure went together.

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How did Spend the Night and signing to Atlantic change your life?
It was crazy. I just heard the story again from another perspective, and I hadn't realized this, but we had a tour planned and then 9/11 happened. It happened on a Monday, and we played that Friday in LA at The Palace. We had a whole tour planned, and our parents didn't want us to go. We decided we needed to do it -- it was an important thing to do. We got to New York, and our show was sold out at Irving Plaza a month after 9/11 happened. All of the record labels were there. It was the first time people came out because they were hiding under a rock since 9/11 happened. It was just such weird timing. The country was in mourning. We were scared and upset, but all this good stuff was happening with our band. It was complicated. I also remember that show was so great in spite of everything going on in the world. We were like, "If there's one thing we know how to do is put on a show."

Do you still keep in touch with the girls in the band?
Yeah! I'm actually texting with Maya right now.

Have you guys performed together lately? Are you guys going to perform together again?
Not in a while, and people ask a lot. We kind of did a lifetime of performing really early and all at once.

What are you doing now?
I'm at Stanford now. I'm finishing my BA It's kind of crazy. On the self-titled record, we have a song called "I Don't Wanna Go To School." It's just funny to make such an identity leap. I remember being on tour and saying, "College is bullshit. You just get a bunch of debt, and you can't get a job." Now it's like, "I'm in college." I'm studying psychology. This degree I actually started at UC Berkeley in 1997. It's crazy. We went on tour, and we thought the tour wouldn't be successful, so we all went to school for a semester.

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What's the biggest change you saw happen in the music industry over the years?
The first thing that happened was Napster, and that was a big disaster because record labels saw it coming and didn't embrace it. They could have and should have done a lot of different things. That's easy to say because I'm not a record executive, but we were pretty involved in the business and we saw it coming. Like, you can't just arrest America. We're going to have to get smart about this. What we ended up doing, begrudgingly was our product (our record) became our marketing tool. So, you'd just give your records out and try to spread the word about your band. Your product became your live shows and merchandise.

Looking at how things are today, do you think the music industry has changed for the better or worse?
That happened and we were completely unable to make a living directly off of what we did. We had to make an indirect income off of all of the periphery things. So, that was difficult and discouraging and then the recession happened. It was like the music industry had its own recession and then the national recession happened. It was a double whammy. I never felt money come back in the music industry. It was a one-way valve. Now I think about it and I imagine what it would be like being a new band coming up right now. I don't know how they do it.

What advice would you give to your younger self?
I would say, don't worry about the future so much and how what you're doing now will affect you later because it's totally not a big deal. I thought everything was life-changing or make or break, and it's just not that big of a deal. I would tell myself to go to the prom. I didn't go to the prom because I thought it was stupid or a formality. I would have remembered the prom, and I don't remember what I did that night.

Ilana Kaplan is a writer based in Brooklyn. Follow her on Twitter.