Over the past summer, many fans saw a tour made in Rock Band heaven - The Donnas toured stadiums with Blondie and Pat Benatar, putting some of the toughest female-fronted bands in history under one roof.
Unfortunately, one person who missed that tour was The Donnas’ drummer Torry Castellano, a/k/a Donna C. She was nursing a shoulder injury and had to stay home and do physical therapy. On the plus side, that did give her time to do interviews, so we were glad to catch this chat.
Along with some great backstage dishing, you’ll learn how a teen garage band grew up to make some of the most fun records of the past decade. And if you love The Donnas and their Rock Band song “New Kid in School,” don’t forget there’s lots more on Bitchin’, the Donnas’ latest and their debut on their own label.
Brett Milano: Hi.
Torry Castellano: Hi, it's Torry from The Donnas.
BM: Hey, how're you doing?
TC: I'm alright. How are you doing?
BM: I'm doing great. There's a lot of Donnas fans that work here that were real excited to hear that I was going to talk to you.
TC: No, really?
BM: Oh yeah.
BM: Yea, I think a lot people here love the band.
TC: Cool, cool. Say hi, I guess. [laughs]
BM: So how are you feeling? I heard you were sidelined at the moment, right?
TC: I'm sidelined. Yeah, it's a bummer, but I've been having this shoulder problem for about two-plus years now. And my doctor finally said, "You need to stop for a while if you want to get better." So I've been doing a lot of physical therapy and everything. That's helping, it's just a slow process, which is really annoying because I don't have a lot of patience. [laughs] But it's the right thing to do because I want to be able to play and I don't want to be in pain every time I play.
BM: That must be the worst if you're a drummer.
TC: Yeah. We've been playing for so long I think it's just a repetitive stress injuries can get to you.
BM: So are you gonna get back in shape and then go back into the studio with the band when that happens?
TC: Yeah. Hopefully I'll be able to get back up there and play shows too. Before the next record I hope to be better. But we'll see. And we have a friend of ours right now that's filling in for me, and she's great. And so I'm really excited that she could do it and we didn't have to say no to this tour this summer, because I was really excited we got asked to do it.
BM: When you were on the road with Pat Benatar and Blondie, were either of those particularly inspiring to you when you all started playing?
TC: Definitely, definitely. When we were fifteen, we did a cover of "One Way or Another." [laughs] So we really have always loved Blondie and Pat Benatar both. I just think they're both great. Debbie Harry and Pat Benatar are great frontwomen, but also just the bands that they both work with are so good and Clem Burke [of Blondie] has always been one of my favorite drummers.
BM: He's great.
TC: Yeah, he's awesome. I just think the songs are so awesome. We've definitely been influenced by both of them.
BM: Have you heard of any good backstage parties between the three bands?
TC: I haven't yet. But I'm flying to New York on Wednesday. I couldn't go on the whole tour 'cause I had to do this physical therapy. We were like, "Yeah, I'll just hang out, you know? [laughs] I'll just go on the tour and hang out with you guys." But then I had to stay at home. So hopefully in New York there'll be some good parties.
BM: I gotta ask about the early days of the band. When you all played together you were - what? - fifteen, sixteen, was it?
TC: We started actually when we were thirteen and fourteen.
TC: In the eighth grade. And we just kept playing. We really didn't know what we were doing when we first started. None of us could really play our instruments. We're all self-taught. So we'd just walk home from school, walk to my parents' garage and just play for hours, just trying to learn what we were doing. [laughs]. It was really fun, to have something fun to do after school. Because we grew up in the suburbs and there's not a lot to do a lot of the time.
BM: You were literally a garage band, right? It was your garage?
TC: We were literally yes, my parents' garage. And we had to make deals with the neighbors because some of them were really cool about it. Some of the neighbors really loved our band from the beginning and would sit out across the street. [laughs] One of our neighbors across the street would sit out - he was in his 90s - and he would sit out by his garage and listen to us play every day [laughs] which is really cool. He always wanted us to get keyboards - that was the only critique. But some neighbors weren't that into it, so we had to make hours and you know, the police got called sometimes…
BM: How did you set it up? Did you just move all your parents' stuff into a corner and put all the band's stuff in there?
TC: Yeah, we basically took over the garage. Thankfully they weren't putting a car in there even before we started, but after we came in they really couldn't. [laughs] Not that we had a lot of equipment. When we first started I was on a rental drum kit, and then I got all these mishmash hand-me-down drums from different people. The amps were really small and Brett [Anderson] was singing out of a guitar amp for a while. But we definitely liked to decorate the garage too. After a while we kind of made it our own.
BM: You were on the road when you were still in mid-teens. Was anybody around you telling you "You can't do this. You're too young.?"
TC: We would play at city-sponsored events in Palo Alto when we first started and then we started playing in San Francisco in clubs when we were about fifteen, sixteen, and we weren't allowed to play at some of the clubs in San Francisco because we were too young and we were underage. Or sometimes we would play, but then we had to get offstage immediately and leave the bar right afterwards. We couldn't hang out there. But some of the clubs - like Bottom of the Hill - they were really supportive. They knew we weren't going to take advantage of them. We knew that if we messed it up for one of them we couldn't play anymore. [laughs] So we weren't gonna do anything crazy.
BM: Were your parents cool with some of the lyrics you were writing at that time?
TC: You know, they've always been really supportive. I think we've been really lucky because a lot of bands are like, "Our parents hated our music and stuff." But I think they thought most of them were pretty funny. They've never been shocked or upset by any of our lyrics. They're pretty liberal parents.
BM: They got the joke.
TC: Yeah, they got the joke. I think that we always got good grades in school. We were pretty good. I think that if were failing or something that they might have had a problem. But since we were doing everything we had to do or we were supposed to do, they kind of let us do whatever we wanted to do.
BM: I'm sure you had a certain amount of sharks coming after you, being four teenage girls in a band and going on the road. Did you have to get a certain kind of smarts to hold those people off?
TC: Especially when we put our first record out on Lookout!. Lookout! was great to us, and we went on our first tour. When we played our first show in L.A., when that record came out - well, it wasn't our first show in L.A., but it was our first show when that record came out - a bunch of kind of suit guys came down and were like, "Let's re-record this record and put it out on a major," or, "I have a great idea. Why don't you guys put your instruments down and we can make a girl group and you can dance." They had all these crazy ideas and we just had to be like, "Thanks, but no thanks." Because we had heard a lot of horror stories about majors, so we were pretty skeptical from the beginning.
BM: After a while you pretty much took your own reins in terms of taking the style to a different direction and expanding things, right?
TC: Yeah, I think that we've changed a lot throughout the years, our sound and stuff. It has to do with learning how to play our instruments [laughs] and also just growing up. We've always loved the kind of rock that we want to play, but when you're not so good, you might not be able to play like a kind of, not a slow song, but a slower song. If you make everything really fast, it sounds tighter. [laughs] I think in the beginning we would always make things really fast because we wanted to sound tight. But as you get better, you can kind of slow it down a little bit and still sound tight.
BM: The first couple of records were real like three-chord punk, like Ramones-y kind of thing. I think after a while you kind of say, "Okay, we've done that. Let's do something else." And that's pretty much what happened, right?
BM: Were you all closet fans of things like KISS and that whole '70s big hair type thing?
TC: Definitely, definitely. I don't even know if we were so much in the closet. [laughs] We loved these bands. People thought it was crazy, but we didn't care.
BM: What was the first time you got to meet one of your musical heroes?
TC: Let's see…oh, gosh. Well, we actually got to meet Gene Simmons. [laughs] That was kind of when we were still pretty young. KISS did that movie…
BM: Detroit Rock City.
TC: Yeah, Detroit Rock City.
BM: And you were in that.
TC: Yeah, we did a song. We did "Strutter" on the soundtrack. And so we were shooting the video and we did the KISS makeup and everything, which was really fun. And he came down to the video shoot, and he was such a funny guy. And he and Maya, our bass player, got into it a little bit, [laughs] kind of joking around. And everyone kept going, "Did he hit on you? Did he hit on you?" And I think he thought we were even younger at that time than we actually were. We must have been eighteen at that time, seventeen, eighteen. But I think he thought we were even younger because he didn't hit on us at all and was like, "Oh, are you still in elementary school?" And Maya got mad at him for saying that. [laughs] It was kind of funny. But it was cool.
BM: I'd expect Gene Simmons to take you in the corner and start giving you business advice.
TC: Right? I know. I was surprised that we didn't get some of that either. The funny thing though is a few years later when he had his show on. Maya had a crush on his son - he's really cute - and called Gene up and was like, "I wanna hang out with your son." And he was really nervous, like Maya was gonna corrupt him or something. [laughs] Which I thought was kind of funny.
BM: Wow. So how did you keep everyone else in the world from hitting on you? I assume you saw a certain amount of that.
TC: Oh, well, it's funny. I think people think that it happens all the time. And it does happen sometimes, but sometimes it happens in a funny way. Like, a lot of times we get guys coming up to us who wanna prove that they know about music and stuff. To try to impress us, I guess. And they'll be like, "You know, when you were playing just then," - they do it to Allison a lot - And they'll be like, "I know that you used a different chord in that solo than you did on the record," or "You messed up right there." And it's like, you know that's not very…that's not going to make her want to hang out with you. [laughs] But for some reason they think that if they get you into an argument or something, then that's flirting. It's like angry flirting. And they think it's gonna work. But it doesn't work. I'll just tell you right now.
BM: That was very big in my high school, that kind of approach.
TC: Oh yeah? Some people really get into that, but that's not what we're about, I guess.
BM: So people don't expect you to be the same kind of girls you are in the songs, like that sort of hard-partying kind of image?
TC: Oh no, they do. They do. [laughs] Well, if we're doing interviews or a photoshoot to something. We'll show up at like, 11 in the morning or 10 in the morning, even. And they're like, "Why aren't you wasted?"
TC: And we'll be like, "Well, it's 10 in the morning." And they'll be like, "So?" They think we're gonna be in leather pants like all the time, and wasted at 10am. Which, I'm not saying it hasn't happened, but it just doesn't happen every day. [laughs]
BM: Yeah, and usually you like to start around 11am, at least, right?
TC: Really? I mean, come on, man. [laughs]
BM: So, you're running your own record label right now, which I assume is kind of rewarding and is probably a big headache too. How's that going so far?
TC: [laughs] It's been pretty cool, actually. We're with a great distribution company, Redeye, and they've really helped us a lot. I think we're all really excited that we got to do this, just because we've been putting out records for so long. We've seen a lot of different things and the record companies think of things that work, things that haven't worked. It's nice to finally be doing it ourselves. We're a very small label. We're just working on ourselves right now, so I think if we went out and tried to sign other acts or something and were working with them, it might be a lot harder. But we know what we want for our band, so I think that makes it easier.
BM: Does it change things that you can now do anything you want to when you make a record?
TC: [laughs] It's nice that there's not as many of those chain phone calls, kinda, where it's like, "Okay, we want to do this." "Okay, let's talk about it with these people." And then "Let's talk about it with these people." And then… And it's like all these different people need to hear about it and say what they think about it. And we've been pretty lucky to do what we really want to do or what we've wanted to do on our actual records. But it is nice now because we've cut out so many middlemen.
BM: Great. Well, I'm at Rock Band, and you've got "New Kid In School" in the game, I gotta ask, have you been able to play it?
TC: You know, we did play it once. We went to a party for it, and that was really fun. 'Cause it's a really fun game. [laughs]
BM: We think so.
TC: [laughs] Yeah. Some of us are better than others. I enjoy playing the bass, because [laughs] it's the easiest. And you just get to watch other people do what they're doing and play a few notes here and there. But I think actually playing the drums is really fun too.
BM: I've seen a couple drummers play their own songs in the game and it's funny, because usually what they do is stop following the game at all and just play what they play in the song. And they fail.
TC: I've done that before. It doesn't work. You can't do that. [laughs] You have to really follow the game. And I've definitely done that a lot of times. It's been embarrassing actually. Not when I was playing my own song, but at house parties. People will be like, "Oh, do you want to play the drums?" And I'll be like, "Sure" and some song will come on and I'll start playing the beat 'cause I know the song, and then I'm totally failing and bringing everyone in the whole song down. And I'm like, "Oh, man. That's embarrassing."
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