A Chat with Allison Robertson
Allison Robertson is living the rock and roll dream as guitarist for the Donnas, the all-female band from Palo Alto that broke through to national success with their 2002 major label debut album, Spend the Night. Combining influences from ‘80s pop metal with seminal female rockers with attitude like L7 and Joan Jett, the Donnas stood apart from the girly pop tarts that the music industry is constantly pushing – these girls can actually play their instruments and rock. The band played the main stage on the Lollapalooza tour in 2003 and released their follow-up album Gold Medalin 2004. Last year the band decided to leave Atlantic Records and have just released their latest album, Bitchin’, on their own independent Purple Feather label. Bullz-Eye recently caught up with Robertson to discuss the state of the recording industry, the making of the new album and what it’s like to tour with your idol.
Bullz-Eye: A few years ago you were on the cover of a guitar magazine with Tom Morello and Dave Navarro. What was that like?
Allison Robertson: Yeah, that was for Lollapalooza . Well, it was pretty cool, but it was even cooler when I was on “Guitar Player” all by myself.
BE: Aha, I missed that, when did that one come out?
AR: That was for Gold Medal [in 2004], during the press…I got the cover, so that was like really exciting, because you know, they don’t put girls on the cover at all, usually. The first one with the other dudes was awesome, and then it was really cool to have my own because on “Guitar Player” they put your guitar up on the top as well. So I had my SG up on top and there was a full feature about my gear, and just everything about the record.
BE: Every guitar player’s dream.
AR: Yeah and the whole thing was really cool, and I was able to talk about how guitar magazines don’t usually feature girls at all. They let me say whatever I want and it was just a really cool interview.
BE: With your new album, you’ve left Atlantic Records and started your own label. What prompted that decision at this time?
AR: Well you know, Atlantic had been switching personnel. The team we had been working with was sort of falling apart, not because of us, but just because the staff was changing constantly. And our rapport with some of the people was just not as deep as it had been if some of the people who had been working with us had stayed there or hadn’t been fired. You know, they just laid off hundreds off people. So it was just harder to feel like a family. The last album we did there wasn’t really cohesive, it felt like we were switching…oh, now we’re talking to this person about the art, and this person about this and that. We didn’t have a team anymore and we’re just that kind of group that needs to feel like we want to work with people. We don’t want to just do our own thing and never meet anybody at the label, we were trying to work with them. So it just felt like it was a good time to get out of there before it got worse, and luckily that’s the kind of contract we had with them. We were able to leave or stay, and we just had meetings and talked about it and just decided to do it. And then after that, we weren’t sure if we were going to sign with another label – another major, another indie, something like kind of in between, like a major label with distribution but more of an indie vibe? There are so many options, but to be honest, everyone we met with, no matter how positive the meeting went, everybody seems kind of scared. Everybody [at major labels] seems confused and also kind of behind the times. I feel like everybody seems like an old man at a high school dance. We felt like at the end of the day, when we were done with the album and it didn’t have a home… it had come up to put it out ourselves, but it seemed like something we would do only if there was no choice. And it also seemed hard, so we weren’t really considering it until we realized that was the best option and almost, like, the only option. Everything else just seemed like a stupid idea.
BE: The whole major label industry seems like a dinosaur going through its last phase.
BE: Have they been digging their own graves with their policies?
AR: I don’t know. I think that nobody knew that the Internet was going to explode the way it did, so fast, what it can do for music and what it can undo for music? And to be honest, I think it’s great for a band like us who don’t fit a mold. So ever since the Internet sort of started where you could have a message board, even before MySpace and all those things, I feel like our band has always benefited from that, and we’ve always been the kind of band that people do bootlegs of and all that. So it’s not like we’re offended when people say they downloaded it. We have the kind of fans that buy our stuff anyways, so to us we’re more like a touring band and anything we can do to get our name out there and get people to go to a show is more of our goal. So for me, I think that the major labels just were hoping that their formula was never going to be outdated, like they could always update it with new stuff, but I don’t think they realized that it was going to be crushed and now the playing field is totally leveled out. Nobodies who are on no label can be just as popular in other ways.
BE: So how did recording the album on your own compare? Did you feel like you had more freedom, were able to relax more, or what was that like?
AR: We were pretty lucky, I think, that we didn’t know what we were doing with the album at first. When we first started writing we were still on Atlantic and not sure whether we were going to stay or not. So we were still kind of thinking, “Oh we’re going to be playing these for people there,” making sort of, like, super demos for them. For a few songs, we were recording and pretty much making them like we’d want the album to sound, but thinking we’d go and re-record everything. So we did that and that was kind of meant for somebody, but once we left Atlantic and didn’t know where we were taking the album, we were just making demos that we weren’t sure if we were going to record again or not. I think at first I thought “Oh yeah, I’m gonna totally go to a studio and re-do all these guitars so, whatever,” you know what I mean? And I was really relaxed, because guitar playing for me, I always feel like I’m better when I’m sitting alone in my bedroom, especially when I was a teenager, I was like just the best guitar player in the world when I was just playing along to records. Then the second you’re in the studio, I feel like I get tense and I worry and I think too hard. So I think that this was great, I was so relaxed that I actually played better. And then we kept recording with Jay [Ruston, producer on Bitchin’], we were so comfortable with him, he has a home studio. And all we did was bury ourselves in music and just record, and add stuff. Every day, we talked about what are we going to do today, and just kind of go for it. And it was blissful, just guitar heaven and backing vocal heaven…Usually all four of us are there for everything and we like hearing everybody doing their parts. It was really cool. And we didn’t know if we were going to re-do everything, so that kind of created this other thing, no time limits…we always had barely any money to record [in the past], no time, like maybe a week for recording and a week for mixing or something like that. It was always a time crunch issue and it was always like, “Oh, I have all these good ideas but it’s too late,” or “Oh shit, I wish I could fix that solo because I could do it better, but oh well.” And we would just let it go. But t the same time, I like things to be spontaneous but there is something to be said for being able to get all your ideas down.
BE: There’s a fine line there.
AR: Well, yeah, you might have some great ideas that actually are better than what you did the first time. So you should have that opportunity, but we’ve never wanted to be in a studio for like a year. You can overlap shit forever, and that sounds terrible.
BE: The power pop harmony vocals are one of the standout things on the album. How much did you have to work on those or did they come naturally?
AR: All our other albums we’ve wanted to have backing vocals and gang vocals and huge things like that, and never really had the time to think about the arrangement. And this time, I did a lot of stuff on MIDI files and I would arrange guitar parts with a drum beat and bass line. And then I’d start hearing more things and add in keyboards that were sort of holding the place of vocals, and then backing vocals. So that helped because we already had ideas way before we went to record… and also sometimes when we were jamming, and me and Tory would be working on drums and guitar riffs, and we would come up with melodies and then go “Whoa-oh, whoa-ah” and just start doing “Whoas.” And it would be, like, that would be killer there, and then that would just make it all the way through because it was catchy. So a lot of the stuff we just started singing way before we even had all the lyrics done. We try to do as many[vocals] live as possible, but it’s not always possible to do ‘em all, but as many as possible and the ones that matter most.
BE: That gets into my next question about the songwriting process. Who are the main writers? Do you go about jamming more and then adding vocals, or which comes first?
AR: Well, we do it different ways every album and experiment. For this one, a lot of the riffs and stuff I came up with jamming with Tory, just drums and guitar. I would write down riffs that I thought sounded good, or I’d ask Tory, “What do you think?” It’s funny because a lot of people feel like drummers don’t write, but for me I play off of her so much that I’ll be playing something boring and then she’ll come up with some weird rhythm and that will really take me somewhere different. So we did a lot of that, and then we’d start coming up with melodies over that. And then Maya and Brett write a lot of the lyrics, but for this album all four of us really contributed lyrics. I would do kind of a songscape on the MIDI and we would follow it kind of like a guide, and go okay, we sort of have a rough melody. And we knew where there was going to be a bridge and we would just all sit around together and come up with lyrics and fill in. We definitely did the melodies first and then filled in the melodies with lyrics and the phrasing and everything. If anything was awkward at all coming out of your mouth, I would go, “No no no, we’ve gotta have it sound smooth.” I wanted everything to kind of tumble out of your mouth and say it, you know?
BE: Okay, cool. And now, what’s it like on the road for you guys? Are you the party animals that your songs would suggest or is it more family-friendly?
AR: It’s funny, I think we know how to do both and I think that’s kind of the beauty of our friendship and our closeness, and the fact that we grew up together. It’s like we love to party, and just the other night in New York City we had this interview we were waiting to do, an on-camera thing, and I was just losing my mind ‘cause I was like, “All I wanna do is I want the doors open at the club, and I wanna watch both opening bands,” because I love the two bands we’re on tour with… and I want to play, and then I want to party. And everyone was just like, “Exactly.” That’s all we want to do, I can’t wait to play, I love playing, but to be honest, we’re one of those bands where you can definitely bring an eight-year-old to the show and I don’t think that most parents would be offended. It depends on the parents, but people do bring their kids or whatever, and our moms love it, so it’s not like we offend people in that way. We’re not, like, gross, I think we have values, but as soon as we’re done playing and even during the show I feel like all I want to do is party, and this tour especially, it’s like a big weight has been lifted now that the album is out. I feel like a lot of the responsibility of working on the album and putting together this label and making sure everything was working, now it’s like all we have to do is play, which is fun. And drink, and hang out. And the bands we’re on tour with are party animals, too.
BE: You’re out with Donita Sparks from L7?
AR: Oh yeah, she’s our idol. She and Dee [Demetra Plakas, drummer from L7 and Sparks’ current band], they don’t know because every day we tell them, and they probably think we’re just kissing their asses for no reason or just because they’re here, but they have no idea that every night I watch their show and I’m, like, in a dreamland. I can’t believe I even have met her. I don’t even know if we would have formed a band if we didn’t know about them. That was what propelled us to the thought of, “Oh, a girl can do that and also do it in that way.” It wasn’t super-girly, it was bad-ass. I remember my vision of our first show was to come out onstage and blow people away in the style of L7. And we didn’t do that [laughs] but you know, at the same time that was my vision, it was like a dream in my mind, like we’re just gonna go up there and fucking give ‘em hell man, ‘cause that’s what L7 would do.
AR: You know we didn’t know what we were doing, but I still think just having that aspiration to be something like L7 or a band like that that was just different, that gave us strength to keep going when it wasn’t the norm for bands in our school, or the area.
BE: It’s still not the norm for bands these days; there are not that many hard rocking female musicians out there.
AR: I know, and there’s also that fine line of, you know, a girl can either be really super girly, or they’re almost too manly, and both can alienate different crowds. And also both can alienate me as a rock fan. I do a female rock radio show where I only play female rock and roll. It’s on an Internet radio station, called Women Rock Radio, and that’s what they do, they only play girls. So I study a lot of that stuff, and even for me being a DJ there, there are a lot of things that cross the line either way. And I’m all about a band that really knows how to fucking rock, without looking like they’re trying hard. Because I think a lot of girls end up trying so hard to be manly and that doesn’t come through as natural to me. And then the same being super girly, I feel like, for me, there’s a middle ground that you can find. L7 is one of the bands to me that is like ultimate. Girlschool, you know, and there was this band called Rock Goddess back in the early’80s that were like Girlschool. Those kinds of bands, they just sound like Motorhead, but they’re women. And they’re hot too, but they fucking play like they don’t even care. And they know how to drink beer and shit, but they’re not trying too hard. That’s just natural to them.
BE: Right on. And what’s the other band that’s on tour with you?
AR: They’re called American Bang, and they’re from Nashville. Their songs are killer, they’re about the same age as we are and they’ve been friends since they were kids. So we have a lot in common because they have the same kind of friendship in their band…and they’re just having fun ‘cause it’s one of their first tours. So for us, the energy is amazing because we’re out with our idols as well as a band that’s never been on a full-on tour. So everybody’s excited to just be here.
BE: So how long will you be out on the road?
AR: Well this tour has been about three and a half weeks, and we have a week and a half more, it's almost over. And then we're going to Europe for about a month, and we'll be back for the holidays. We're not sure what we're doing next year, but I'm sure Australia and Japan eventually need to get in there. And another U.S. tour, maybe supporting another band, probably.
BE: Well, that sounds like it'll be a blast.
AR: Yeah, I mean, touring is the best part.
BE: Anything else you'd like to add?
AR: Just come out and see us, support the rock, it's important. It's weird, I feel like people don't even know that there are rock shows in their town. You'll run into people in the street and they're like, "Oh my God, you're in the Donnas," and I'm like, "Yeah, yeah." They're like, "What are you doing here?" "Well, we're playing." It's like, dude, they don't even know we're playing here tonight... so I feel like as many people as you can get to come to the shows, is important. I've been trying to tell people as much as possible.
BE: All right, cool.
AR: Cool, well it was good talking to you.
AR: All right, you take care now.