BY DAVE CONSTANTIN
(Originally published in DRUM! Magazine’s November 2007 Issue)
“They call it the ‘grip of death,’ and there’s a very good reason for that’” says Torry Castellano, drummer for Bay Area-based band The Donnas. “Because if you hold your sticks too tight, it’ll kill you. Not literally, but it’ll ruin your wrists or your hands. Pretty soon, you won’t be able to play at all. And for a drummer, not being able to play feels like death.” She lets out a laugh, but it’s a laugh intended to cover up real pain. The death grip, as it turns out, is a subject with which the pint-sized blonde is all too familiar.
In 2003, after years of slogging it out in the club circuit (and still being derided with the tired old line: “They’re pretty good – for girls”), The Donnas were enjoying what was at the time their biggest brush with success: A plumb slot on the main stage at Lollapalooza. “We felt like this was our big chance,” says the 26-year-old Castellano. “We were going to go out there and kill. And that made us play really hard and fast. I was determined to hit the drums harder and faster than ever.” But before long, Castellano started experiencing pain in her left hand and wrist.
A self-taught drummer and matched-grip player, Castellano had her fair share of pain in the past. “Your usual garden-variety pain, sure,” she says. “You play a long set and your hands are sore – big deal. That comes with the territory of being a drummer. But this was different. This was pain that wouldn’t go away – severe pain, very sharp and stinging. In fact, it kept getting worse. Then came the numbness. And then my wrist swelled up to almost twice its normal size.”
Castellano devised a primitive remedy that had her enacting what sounds like a scene from Raging Bull. The second she got backstage after each set she would grit her teeth and plunge her throbbing hand into a bucket of ice to fight the swelling. “That didn’t work,” she says soberly. She started getting cortisone shots, which were enough to get her through the tour, but not without a few more harrowing nights spent playing through the pain. Eventually, she saw a specialist, who diagnosed her with DeQuervain’s tenosynovitis (irritation or swelling of the tendons along the thumb side of the wrist). Castellano’s options were physical therapy or surgery, neither of which sounded too promising. “It was pretty scary. I kept thinking, ‘What if I’m worse off than before?’” In the end, she opted for physical therapy, which took much longer than she expected. “I had to learn how to grip the sticks properly. Now I hold them so loose that a slight breeze could knock them out of my hands. But at least I know I’ll never have to go through that again.”
Of course, it’s not just her hands that have suffered from lack of discipline. “I’m definitely a heel-up player – more like a leg-up player,” she laughs. “I constantly have to stay focused on keeping my knee from bouncing up and down too much.” But for all the trouble her lack of technique has caused her, it’s her D.I.Y. spirit that got her to where she is today. “I had to learn everything on my own. I read drum magazines and books. I learned how to tune my drums, when to change the heads – I taught myself the whole thing.”
Fortunately, she’s never had to suffer her growing pains alone. The Donnas began as a group of eighth-grade, girl-power pioneers from Palo Alto, California. Originally calling themselves The Electrocutes, the four close-knit friends decided to turn their love of music into something tangible. “The other girls started picking up guitars, and since I wanted to play the drums I figured, ‘Why not?’ I got a really crappy rental kit and we all came home from school and started rehearsing in my garage with our tiny amplifiers.” The girls immediately set to work emulating their hard-hitting heroes. “I was obsessed with Metallica,” Castellano says. “I wanted so bad to be Lars.”
The girls first opened some eyes playing in their high school cafeteria when they followed a group of slack-jawed jammers with a tightly rehearsed set that included songs by L7, The Muffs, and Shonen Knife. “I think it surprised a lot of people,” Castellano remembers. “It was just so much fun to have something to do after school. We got made fun of a lot, but we didn’t care – we had our mission.”
Pretty soon, that mission was ringing in one successful gig after another. “We kept playing clubs in San Francisco, and even L.A. But then this guy who owned a record store in Japan brought us over there and we thought, ‘Hey, we can see the world if we’re in a band!’”
It didn’t hurt their visions of grandeur to have parents that supported their daughters’ choices to pursue their dream. “We grew up with pretty liberal hippie-type parents,” Castellano says. “Actually, I think they thought it was pretty cool that we were in a band. Plus, we kept our grades up. We didn’t become burnouts or anything.” Then, just a few weeks before they were set to leave for college, Lookout Records offered them their first record contract. College was instantly forgotten and the future looked pretty bright indeed.
Over the years, it seems, Castellano and crew haven’t made a whole lot of choices they would end up regretting, including their recent choice to split off from Atlantic Records to start their own label, through Red Eye Distribution, called Purple Feather Records. “Our relationship with Atlantic wasn’t a bad one,” Castellano says. “It was kind of like a marriage that was awesome for a while but then became not so awesome – not that I would know anything about being married,” she quickly adds with a twinge of defiance.
With that same defiance Castellano attempts to sum up the title of the band’s seventh studio album, Bitchin’, which sees the girls moving away from the softer, girlie-girl image of their last two albums and back to their harder-edge roots. “It’s a bitchin’ record, and we’re not afraid to say so,” she quips. “As we laid down tracks we would look at one another and go, ‘That is so bitchin’!’ I mean, do we do our fair share of ‘bitching,’ as in complaining? Of course we do! What girls don’t? But the title is supposed to mean ‘That’s bitchin’’ the way you would say ‘That’s cool’ – you know? Hearing her own words in her head, she suddenly lets slip a giggly, schoolgirl laugh, and the façade is momentarily shattered. “Did that just sound dumb or what?” she concedes. “Talk about not explaining your album title correctly. Just say I said ‘bitchin’’ a lot. Bitchin’, bitchin’, bitchin’. There, that explains the album title!”
Band: the Donnas
Birthplace: Palo Alto, CA
Influences: Lars Ulrich
Web Site: http://www.thedonnas.com
All Geared Up
Sticks: Vic Firth