by Jim Harrington
It's a few songs into a recent Electrocutes gig at Cubberley Auditorium, and some of members of the sparse crowd are having a hard time hearing vocalist Brett Anderson. Anderson has got a tough job. She's up against a sonic wall of maximum rock 'n' roll coming from the rest of the quartet. And, to borrow from the spoof rock group Spinal Tap, the volume is cranked up to 11.
When the noise stops between songs, someone from the audience yells "more vocals," to which guitarist Allison Robertson answers from the stage:
"More guitar, more bass and more drums."
That's the Electrocutes for you: an all-girl band of Palo Alto High School seniors that has attracted a wide following on the Bay Area music scene.
Despite the group's popularity, members don't go out of their way to promote themselves. In fact, they can be more difficult to get an interview with than Hootie and the Blowfish. They're not easily impressed by circulation numbers; if you want an interview, it's on their terms. Newspapers come in a distant second to tests and school work for these students, all of whom keep school high on their priority lists.
Don't let their looks or ages deceive you. These 17- and 18-year-olds are music veterans, having played together since eighth grade. They've rocked major San Francisco clubs such as Slim's and Bottom of the Hill, released independent label singles and full-length albums, and have enough media savvy to preface even not-so juicy comments with "off the record."
But once you get by the barriers, these four rockers are willing to talk at length--especially if the topic is one of their favorite bands, such as Kiss, Motley Crue or Metallica.
"I've got (Kiss') 'Love Gun,' and I like (Kiss guitarist) Ace Frehley's solo album a lot," said 18-year-old bassist Maya Ford.
"My first single I bought was Twisted Sister. I was 5. You know that song 'We're Not Gonna Take It?'" stated Robertson, 17, who specifically requested that this article mention that she plays a Gibson Les Paul.
The Electrocutes perform hard-edged tunes--loudly.
"You've got to be loud. You can't not be loud," drummer Torry Castellano, 18, explained of the Electrocutes' theory of amplification. "Why be quiet?"
Although in concert the band can sound like a Boeing jet engine during take off, there are some undeniable pop elements present. Still, even at their catchiest--check out "2 Fast for Love"--the Electrocutes are still tougher sounding than that other all-girl Paly band--the Donnas. That's not to say the Donnas can't throw it down.
"The Donnas rock and the Electrocutes rock harder," Robertson explained.
"The Donnas are more like old-fashioned and more goody-goody, where the Electrocutes are more heavy metal," Ford said.
News flash: the Donnas and the Electrocutes are the same band. Well, maybe they're not the same band, but they have the same members. But the members have different names in each band.
Where's Abbott and Costello when you need them?
After a few round-and-round conversations with band members, it becomes clearer that, yes, Robertson, Ford, Anderson and Castellano belong to both quartets--but that's where the similarities end. The foursome started the Donnas as another musical outlet, allowing them to play tunes that wouldn't work in the Electrocutes' regular repertoire.
The four young ladies strive to keep the bands separate. They go so far as to take new identities when performing as the Donnas. Each of their first names become (you guessed it) Donna, followed by the initial of their last name: Brett Anderson becomes Donna A., Torry Castellano transforms into Donna C., Maya Ford answers to Donna F., and Allison Robertson goes by Donna R. They each wear a T-shirt with the fictional name on it.
Anderson, 17, says the Donnas are "kind of happier and younger" than the Electrocutes, while Ford says that the two bands would never hang out with each other "because the Electrocutes are, like, meaner and cooler."
"And everyone who likes the Donnas hates the Electrocutes," Ford adds. "And everyone who likes the Electrocutes hates the Donnas. Well, not everyone, but almost."
Next week, the Donnas leave the Electrocutes at home and head off on a short tour of Japan. A Japanese record store owner who sells the band's albums is flying the four teenagers out for a week-and-a-half concert tour in the land of the rising sun. At least one Donna is looking forward to the upcoming, overseas trip.
"I'm really excited because I'm going to try and work on my Japanese," said Castellano, who is in her fifth year of studying the Japanese language in the Palo Alto school district.
Ford is one Donna who is decidedly less optimistic about the approaching adventure.
"I don't want to go," she said, "because we have to go to bathrooms in holes in the ground, and I'm not going to have enough money to get everything I want, and I don't think anyone is going to go to our shows."
As much attention as the Donnas have received--a recent opening gig at a sold-out Slim's received rave reviews--Robertson says that the future is for the Electrocutes. For a show at a San Francisco club, the quartet can pull in $100-125.
"The Donnas aren't going to be together for that much longer," she said. "But the Electrocutes have bigger and better plans and we all know it."
Donnas fans can count on one more record, maybe another tour, Robertson said, then say sayonara. The Electrocutes came first, and they are going to be around longer.
The Electrocutes' origins stretch back to the eighth grade at Jordan Middle School. Robertson and Ford were interested in starting a group and when the opportunity arose to play at a middle school band fest, known as Day on the Green, they went forward full gear.
"I wanted to be in a band just because it sounded like fun," Robertson remembered. "(Music is) pretty much the only thing I want to do with my life."
The guitarist and bassist had limited experience playing and tapped two fellow classmates--with even less experience--to round out the quartet. Castellano had never even played the drums prior to the invite to join. Anderson was selected to sing for the band, Robertson said, simply because "she just seemed like she had the guts to do it." Anderson's experience was limited to a few piano lessons at the time.
That first show was not one for the records. They played covers of Shonen Knife, Muffs and L7 songs. They played them loud and they played them fast. In a sea of boy-filled bands, the Electrocutes were seen by many as something of a novelty. That perception is still held by many today. The Electrocutes are irked that some people think of them as an all-girl band and not just as a band.
"We always have problems with that," Robertson said. "I think people should live with it and realize that as many girls can play as guys.
"I just don't think it should be separated as girl bands or guy bands--just bands."
When forming the Electrocutes (formerly known as Ragady Anne), the young teenagers were not looking to strike a blow for equal opportunity.
"We didn't do it as a big feminist statement, it was just this would be kind of cool," said Anderson.
"We wanted to be better than all the guy bands, and we just wanted to be a band," Ford said.
If the sex barrier wasn't enough, the Electrocutes also have to fight against their youth, which frightens off some potential bookers.
"We are not allowed to play some clubs in San Francisco--that I won't name--because we are young and they are nervous," Castellano said.
The band is getting less young by the minute, and their upcoming graduation from high school signals a fork in the road. To the left is the rock 'n' roll lifestyle--gigging, touring and trying to make it in the music industry. To the right is college.
While none of them has definite plans, all four are seriously considering college. Castellano hopes to get into Brown University. Ford has been accepted at U.C. Santa Cruz and is waiting to hear from UCLA. Robertson also hopes to get into the University of California system.
"I don't know," Ford said. "I think I'm going to go to (U.C.) Santa Cruz and do that for four years."
And then? "And then I'll be a rock star."
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