Not only have The Donnas evolved from a self-taught, high school garage band into a successful international outfit, the listeners have also had a chance to watch these four Palo Alto teenagers grow to become lovely, mid-20s career women.
“It’s the ultimate reality show,” lead singer Brett Anderson says, in between sips of her coffee in Los Angeles, where she now resides. “People have asked if we are interested in doing that [a reality show], and I say, ‘Why do we need one?’ If you listen to our early records again, it’s sort of like opening our high school yearbooks. It’s sort of embarrassing to have it out there for everyone to see. At the same time, though, I’m proud of it.”
The Donnas have graduated, The Donnas have turned 21 and now The Donnas have gotten a divorce — from their record label, Atlantic, which released them from their contract. But Anderson says it was an amicable split.
“It was like a revolving door,” she says. “We had so many people working with us at Atlantic, and they all turned over, and all of the sudden we didn’t know anybody any more. They actually wanted us to stay and record a third album, but it worked out well for everyone.”
And she adds, “Really, it did. I’m trying to tell people not to worry about it. It’s the best thing that could have happened to us.”
One of the hardest-working bands in the business (six albums in eight years), the band is studiously using the downtime to craft material in the studio and experiment with some new sounds. The Atlantic records showed a marked departure for The Donnas from their trademark, punk-girl attitudes, as the band delved into some more unorthodox territory — ’70s psychedelia and some darker, more metallic edges. Anderson says it was a necessary move artistically, but that the band is using the downtime to craft songs more reminiscent of the old energy.
“We look at the older albums and know we have something to go back to,” she says. “We went more for dynamics on ‘Gold Medal,’ but dynamics alone can often sound flat. We’re looking to capture that live energy in our next record as well. It’s a challenge. We’re pushing our limits. But it’s been fun to try and top ourselves.”
Given that they have verged on even greater commercial success in recent years, and given their mass appeal (the girls who rock, and singing all the rock songs better than the guys ever could), it’s doubtful they’ll be labelless for very long.
“We’ve had a bunch of offers,” Anderson says. “We want the right one. We’re not afraid to wait. We still have our publishing deal and our management company, so we can tour and license songs and do fine financially. The label is the least important. They just loan you money any way. It’s sort of like a bank with an opinion.”
The FoggFest marks a return to familiar territory for the Bay Area expats. Anderson says she gets back to the Bay Area regularly, even though she now calls Los Angeles home.
“Growing up, no one told that you that you could like both San Francisco and L.A.,” she laughs. “But it’s great here and it’s great there, too. I do get back often, to see family and friends, and I’m definitely excited for the gig. I never try to stay away from anywhere I like for very long.”
The next big festival?
“I wake up today and the Web site is down,” Robbie Kowal laughs. “Four days out from our festival, and we’re in this crazy Web limbo. But we’re laughing about it because this happens every time we put on a show. And this is the first go around with this event. There are bound to be some bumps.”
Kowal and his Sunset Promotions partner, John Miles, have spent 10 years producing Bay Area shows. They are the engine behind the popular (and now controversial) North Beach Jazz Festival, and have teamed with BMP to bring the Festival of the Golden Gate to fruition.
“Our mantra is ‘everybody dance.’ And we don’t define ‘dance’ as house or techno. We have wide latitude,” he says, “but we want to make people move.”
Kowal has dreamt of putting on an event like this for years — a multiday festival reflecting the openness and diversity of San Francisco. He avoided the abundant city bureaucracy this time by working with with the National Park Service to use the Fort Mason site. And FoggFest 2007 is already in the works.
“It’s a great site, and people don’t even know its there,” Kowal says. “You walk over the ridge and you see this gorgeous open field with a view of the bridge. People have been telling me for years that they want to see an event like this. There is so much going on in the Bay Area musically in the summertime, but very little of it actually happens in San Francisco itself.”
Of course, that may have something to do with lousy summer weather. But the acronym spun from the festival’s name — FOGG — gives the event a whimsical, devil-may-care attitude akin to Seattle’s massive Bumbershoot, a festival named for an umbrella.
“The comparison to Bumbershoot is appropriate. So the weather might be lousy. Who cares? It’s FoggFest. We’re going to do it anyway,” Kowal says. “Of course, this event isn’t anywhere near Bumbershoot in magnitude. Yet. But we see a potential for it to grow to rival a Bumbershoot, or a Coachella.”
And while it may not yet rival those other festivals in size or stature, Kowal’s first soirée is quite impressive. The event features three stages and a diabolically diverse lineup of musical and theatrical acts — gospel, soul, funk, alt-rock, blues, world music, performance art, etc., etc. You name it, FoggFest has it.
“I think our lineup this year really goes with our company ethos,” Kowal says. “We’ve never really had the ability to go out and book the ‘hot’ band that’s all over the radio. Instead, we have to pick and choose. And so we put forward good bands, cutting-edge bands, artists people will genuinely like to listen to. I want to hear Brian Setzer playing rockabilly again. I want to hear Dr. John singing about post-Katrina New Orleans. And James Brown to top it off. Wow. All brilliant artists. We really think people will like what we have to offer.”