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Round and Round with The Donnas: An Interview with Allison Robertson

donnas1For more than 15 years, The Donnas have brought their unique brand of balls-out rock n’ roll to the masses. These lovely, yet hard-rocking ladies are currently on tour supporting their seventh studio album, Bitchin’, on the latest leg of their “Feather the Nation Tour.” Jason Price of Live-Metal.Net recently caught up with guitarist Allison Robertson when the band stopped in New York City. She tells us all about how the band has managed to remain such a tight unit for so long, what it is like to perform alongside one of there biggest idols (Stephen Pearcy of RATT) and clues us in on the future of the band. Allison pulls no punches and quickly proves The Donnas are more than just a bunch of pretty faces.

Live-Metal.net: For those not familiar with The Donnas, who did the whole thing come about?

Allison Robertson: We started when we were in middle school, at about 13 years old. We pretty much just formed because there were a bunch of other bands playing at our school and we just started playing guitar. I asked Brett [Anderson] if she would be interested in singing and Tori [Castellano] if she wanted to play drums. We just pretty much formed just for one show. We ended up having a great time. It wasn’t really about getting signed or being a professional band at that point. It was more of a pastime, a kind of afterschool thing.

What inspired you to get into music and to go this route?

I really don’t know. I have always liked music and my dad is a musician and my mom is very musical. My mom worked at record labels and did album art. I was born in L.A., so my parents dragged me to a lot of rock shows. So I always kinda wanted to do something, but I was painfully shy as a kid. So I always had dreams of being in a band, but I never really thought that I would try to learn an instrument or have the balls to get up on stage up until the age that we actually started our band. I think that forming the band gave me the courage to do it because it is like a gang and it’s not just me up there by myself.

The band has been together for more than 15 years. To what to you attribute the band’s longevity?

I guess because since we formed at such a young age and such an awkward age. We really didn’t know many people and we all came from different cities and ended up in this small town. I think because we were so awkward that is how we bonded. That is why we formed the band. It was a way of having something to do and not feel like total outcasts. I think that is what has been our foundation, still today, even though it has been so long and we have changed a lot and we are different. In a way, we are kinda still the same that we always were. We appreciate each other. It’s like, I know what they were like when they were 13. It’s good to be around people that remember you that way. You can’t be fake or be assholes to each other because the others will call you out because they know you so well.

What is the biggest misconception about The Donnas?

I would say that it is that we are Valley Girls or that we are stupid. I think that some of the songs, the content, it’s obviously not the most serious music in the world. We obviously aren’t throwing a million vocab words in there and I think a lot of people just assume that we are really stupid or that we have done so many drugs or drank so much that we are really screwed up. I think people are pretty surprised when they meet us that we are easy to talk to and friendly and not total dumbasses! So that is probably the biggest misconception! [laughs]

donnas4The tour that you’re out on now just started about a week ago. How is it going so far?

The tour is going very well. I think that this is one of the best tours that I have ever been on. It’s kind of hard to imagine it ending. The Hives are amazing to tour with. It’s very much like being on tour with our brothers, not to mention that they are one of my favorite bands. So we get to party with them and have fun backstage and every night get to see one of our favorite bands on stage, right on the side of the stage. They really sound awesome. It’s the perfect tour to be on. You can make friends with other bands when touring but not necessarily like their music or like their music but they turn out to be assholes. So this is pretty much the best tour I have ever been on. We might be doing some more touring with them soon, so we are hoping for that!

Who and what were some of your influences that have helped shaped The Donnas we know today?

All the years of touring have made us hardened in certain ways. We definitely used to get stressed out and worry about what people thought of us. We kinda got that out of our system and I think that has really helped our character. We used to be very self-conscious or had people heckling that it got to us and we would mess up on stage. Every year since we started there was something we learned about ourselves, either on stage or in interviews. I feel like now we have been through it all and just don’t care about it anymore. We want people to like it, we want people to have fun, we want to have people like our music and to keep our fans happy, but besides that we don’t care if we look cool or if people think we can’t play. We feel pretty confident in almost everything we do now. I don’t think we have ever thought that we were perfect and there is always room to get a lot better, but at the same time it isn’t like we are “Oh my God! If we screw up, it is going to be a career breaker!” or “Someone’s going to laugh at you,” ya know? We just have fun and it makes it much more enjoyable that way. That way we can just kick back and party, which is what we always should have been doing.

The Donnas music has evolved since the first few albums. Where do you see the band going musically from here?

Every album we try to change it up a lot, but the goal is always to make something bigger and louder than the last one. I feel that with the songwriting, it always depends on what has happened since the last album. We really base our songs on what has been going on in our lives. Since Bitchin’ came out, we have had a lot of fun touring and a lot of crazy stuff has already happened, so we already have a lot of ideas. I feel that the general direction of the future is just to outdo ourselves and create an even harder, louder album than the one before. I don’t think any of us don’t think we can’t be a little bit better than we were before every time on our instruments. On guitar, I am always looking for new ideas and trying to do things that I thought I couldn’t do. So hopefully, on every album after this one it will be something like that coming from all of us. Outdoing ourselves is always going to be our goal.

What is the songwriting process like for you?

I usually come up with riffs and just gather up ideas. Maya [Ford] and Brett write a lot of lyrics. The last album we all collaborated a lot more on the lyrics than we had in the past. They definitely both come up with a lot of things that are prolific and have notebooks full of concepts and titles. I usually keep a notebook. I am usually better with titles and choruses. I have never been so great at lyrics. So we just kinda get together and get a running theme or maybe someone has a song idea that fits with someone else’s song idea and go from there. Then I pull out some riffs and we start thinking of titles or different concepts and work with that to come up with the melodies once we have a chorus idea. I usual just create a sort of backbone of the song with guitar and go to rehearsal and figure it all out. This time we came up with a lot of the melodies for the vocals before the lyrics were finished. I think that helped because then we already knew what we where writing the lyrics to and I think the phrasing came out a lot better then it had before.

How have the fans, in your opinion, been reacting to the new album?

Oh, well our fans are always really, really supportive. I think that most of them are really excited about this album. We always try to give them what they really want and on this album I really think we tried to leave no stone unturned. We tried to go over it with a fine toothed comb and think about “Do we love it?” and “Will our fans love it?” Even though we always do that, we tried to remember all the things that they loved about past albums, even the packaging. I feel like our older albums had a lot of pictures and we tried to make sure that we included that even though not a lot of people are buying the physical album anymore. We still have fans that do that and we even have a lot of fans who buy the vinyl, so they were pretty psyched that we did that like we always would. Everyone seems to like different songs, which to me is a compliment because it isn’t like there is just one song on there. If all the fans are kinda strewn over the whole album, it’s even better because it means that we reach different people.

How long do you plan to stay out in support of this album?

I guess until it feels like we are sick of playing the songs or it seems that nothing much is going on. But, I think so far, especially with The Hives tour that we are on now, it is kinda like the album just came out. The album came out in the fall, which is always kinda bad time for new releases. It’s almost cursed, ya know? If you put an album out around the end of the year, it is pretty much going to go missing until the next year with Christmas music all over the radio and people just go for the blockbusters during the holiday shopping, so it gets kinda lost in the shuffle and excitement of the holidays. I feel like now that we are on The Hives tour, it is a rebirth for the album, so I feel we have quite a while. We are definitely going to tour through the end of the year for it!

Are you working on any new material while you are out on the road?

Well, some bands write on the bus or do a lot of demoing while on tour, but we don’t usually do that. We usually just try to concentrate on what is at hand. I think everyone really just collects ideas. I know Brett keeps notebooks and I usually jot down ideas whenever I get a melody or a riff. A lot of times, I know this sounds stupid, but I wake up from having a dream and I think of the melody and I just record it on my phone. You just never know. So I feel like we just start the gathering on tour and once we are done and on a break, that is when we will actually start working on the next songs.

You recently worked with Stephen Peary of RATT on a remake of “Round and Round.” How did that collaboration come about?

Well actually, I think he just had heard that we were doing a cover. It was just for fun. We were doing it basically because it sounded like a challenge. We loved the song and we were looking for a new cover to do on the tour. We don’t always play covers, but I think our fans like it and it is a nice break from the album. We were doing it on this last tour in the fall and we got a call from him. He contacted us and said that he had been working on a remake and was just kicking it around for fun and thought it would be a really good idea for us to come in and play on it. He already had some of the track finished, but he let me do some of the guitars and a mini solo. Brett sings on it, as well. It was just really fun and easy. We invited him to come sing with us inL.A. at a show a few weeks ago. That was really cool because we idolize him and he is the nicest, coolest guy. It was a match made in heaven and I hope that we do more stuff with him because he rules!

Where will we see the single end up?

It is all his thing. I think he is going to release it when he is done. I am not sure if he is actually putting it on a CD or if he is going to release a single or something on the Internet, but it is definitely his track.

Doing covers to me is a great way off saying, “Hey we like other bands, too!” I always like showing the appreciation for our favorite bands through covers because it’s not all about you. It’s about who you’re inspired by.

Ever had a Spinal Tap moment on stage?

Definitely, all the time. It’s everyone’s favorite movie and we know it like the backs of our hands. Almost everything that happens feels like a Spinal Tap moment. On stage we have had many times that we couldn’t find the stage door. That kinda thing always happens. We don’t have a lot of stage production, but we have had that smoke that covers the entire stage, so you can’t even see across the stage. It’s kinda ridiculous, it kinda looks like a school dance! [laughs] It seems to me anytime you try and take a chance you can end up with a Spinal Tap moment. You have to take a risk every time you do something weird. There have been times when I tried to do something cool and have tripped, so those are like mini Spinal Tap moments, but I would rather get out there and do something stupid than not do anything at all by standing there trying to look cool.

Do you think music today and rock n’ roll in particular has lost it’s flair from the past?

I think it is weird because you could say that everyone is really styled now, but look at the ’80s and see how everyone was so obsessed with image, whether it was metal or new wave. I also feel like that there was something about back then that was a little more original. Now people are really styled and a lot of rock bands to have some type of schtick. It is really hard to find something that is original. I feel like in the ’80s, there were a lot of things that were really different and more bands and people with crazy images and stage shows, but they actually backed it up with good songs and good performances. Like Poison, for instance. People make fun of it and some people love it, but they always made sure that they had really good moves. If you look at some of those videos they are doing dances and knee slides, but now when you go to a show you don’t see people taking chances like that. I feel like things are a little bit stale these days. I think people are afraid of losing there cred for doing something more fun and are obsessed with looking cool.

Any plans in the works for more releases on Purple Feather Records?

There aren’t yet, but we definitely want to get to that point and put out our friends’ bands or bands that were in the position that we were, where you just don’t fit in. There are plenty of bands out there that just might not fit in at a major label that just want to get their music out there. That is how we have always been.

So you have a show, “Fun in the Dungeon with Allison Robertson” on Women Rock Radio. What has that experience been like for you?

Great! I have always wanted to do something like that, but I was too shy or too awkward to have done it, even a few years ago. Now it’s very low key and it’s for the Internet, so I don’t get paid and it is for fun, so I can stop and start again whenever I want. I love the people who run it because they are so amazing. That is why I did it in the first place. They interviewed me and I just loved the vibe. I also liked the message because I don’t believe in separating women and men in music, but I do feel like it is cool to have a station that only concentrates on females in rock. It is a great way to celebrate some unsung heroes. I have had the opportunity to play bands like Girlschool, Rock Goddess and, of course, everyone loves The Runaways. I try to find more rare tracks by some of those bands and put on stuff that maybe people have never heard, like really weird, rare bands. I don’t mind also playing pop or dance or rap and mixing it up because I feel like concentrating on females rocking no matter want the genre.

And finally, when do you think Chinese Democracy will be released?

Hmmmmm, I’m gonna guess in the year 3000! [laughs] I don’t think it is ever coming out. Just a side note, we saw Guns N’ Roses play in Belgium a few years ago and they did a bunch of Chinese Democracy tracks. I waded to my knees in mud just to see those songs and just to see the vibe! So I was one of the lucky couple thousand at that festival who got to see that. It wasn’t bad, it wasn’t bad! But I just get the feeling that it is never coming out! [laughs]

That’s all the questions I have for you. Is there anything else you want to add?

I just want to say thank you to everyone who does come out to support us and bands in general. I think a lot of people aren’t even going to shows anymore, probably because they’re thinking, “Why go to a show when you can just watch it on YouTube?”, which I can kinda relate to, but it is cool when people still feel a connection to us and want to come out and see us live. I feel it is really different to be there at a show. It is such a great feeling and I hope that doesn’t die with the Internet as so many other things have. Go out, support those bands, have a beer, listen to some live music and don’t forget about it!

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Allison Robertson Fun Fact: Her father, musician Baxter Robertson, wrote the track “Feel The Night” on the Karate Kid Soundtrack.