Q&A | Donita Sparks
Maybe you remember L7 during their original run. Formed by Donita Sparks and Suzi Gardner back in 1985, the band released six albums in 14 years including the classic Bricks are Heavy which Rolling Stone named as one of their essential albums of the nineties. Combining a kick-ass, don’t fuck with me attitude with female empowering lyrics, the band crafted a sound which was uniquely theirs, existing somewhere in the middle of grunge, punk, and the riot grrrl movement before calling it quits right before the turn of the millennium.
Or maybe you’re younger and the name L7 flashes you back to VH1’s “100 Most Shocking Moments in Rock N’ Roll,” which the network used to play constantly back in the heyday of cable television. The shocking moment: while experiencing technical difficulties at the 1992 Reading Festival, an impatient crowd began throwing mud onto the stage. Donita Sparks, in an act of rebellion, removed her tampon and slung it back into the crowd while yelling “eat my used tampon, fuckers.” TO this day, she remains unapologetic.
Or maybe you remember L7 from Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas. Recklessly driving through Rockstar’s imagined California landscape, maybe with a four-star wanted level, listening to Radio X and blasting the band’s hit “Pretend We’re Dead,” at full volume while a police helicopter attempts to mow you down.
Whichever way you remember L7, the fact is the band has carved out a niche for themselves in rock n’ roll’s rich history. Their influence still rings true today, a day which the band releases Scatter the Rats, their 7th album and first in twenty years. Frontwoman, and resident bad-ass, Donita Sparks sat down with Flaunt to talk about what brought the band back together for another studio recording, why she doesn’t want L7 to be remembered as a nostalgic act, and why her band would fit perfectly into the soundtrack for Russian Doll season 2.
You have L7’s new album coming out in May. Its called Scatter the Rats. It’s your first album in a long time, why the return to recording new music.
We recorded a couple of singles last year. One was called Dispatch from Mar-A-Lago, the other was called “I Came Back to Bitch.” We had a good time recording them and we felt we still had something to say. Doing these reunion tours, we thought “if we wanted to stay touring and we wanted to be somewhat relevant, we needed to do new music. Otherwise we’re just a nostalgic act. We decided to make some new music.
Where these songs you all wrote in the last year or so? Or have they been in the memory bank?
All the songs were brand new ideas, except for “Ouji Board Lies,” which I wrote for the band right before we broke up, yet it still sounds very much like an L7 song, so we brought that back. And a song called “Holding Pattern,” I’d written a few years ago before the band reunited.
You’re releasing the album under Joan Jetts Blackheart Records. How does it feel working under a label owned by such an influential icon in the music industry.
It feels really good. We’ve been friends with Joan for years and I don’t think Joan Jett is going to fuck us over, she’s just not going to do that. She’s a great person. I think its beneficial to both of us. She looks great with us, we look great with Blackheart. It’s a mutually beneficial situation and its also really great because we funded this through Pledge music, crowd-sourcing and crowdfunding. It would be unfortunate if the album only got out to the people who pledged. But now we got Sony Music and Blackheart Records.
On “Murky Water Café,” a standout track from the new album, the lyrics reference the modernity of today’s era with lines like “free wifi come on down,” “we’re emojifying our every move,” and the ending refrain which says “swipe right, swipe left, follow me in.” These are terms which didn’t exist back during the band’s original run. What are your thoughts on today’s smart-phone obsessed generation?
I wouldn’t be walking around doing that in Manhattan. I wouldn’t think it would be wise to be constantly looking at your cell phone. I watch 60 Minutes, these companies are under-serving us, constantly. I personally do not put personal things on my social media platforms. It’s nobody’s business what my cat looks like. I like my things private.
In 2017, L7 released their first single in 18 years and it came in the form of a protest song, the anti-Trump rocker “Dispatch from Mar-A-Lago.” How has politics continued to influence your song-writing process?
It doesn’t all the time. Some songs have touched on political, but mostly cultural issues. We would have been negligent not to say something about the current president, so we decided to take an absurdist route with a riot at Mar-A-Lago. Our documentary premiered four days after the election. People were shell-shocked and like “please say something.”
You released the documentary “L7: Pretend We’re Dead,” back in 2017. How did it feel seeing the group’s trajectory on the big screen?
It felt joyous, proud, and sad. We are all fans of our band. If we were teenagers would we dig L7? Yes, we would dig the band in our fifties. But to see it not survive and thrive was a painful thing. We got more successful than most and it’s tough. People don’t know the financial hardships you go through with a band.
Were you surprised by the excited reaction the release received?
I had a feeling it would be received well because of the footage we shot with our camcorder. That stuff was pretty great and from the premiere we heard from the audience that they thought it was honest and we let our guard down. We’re tough cookies, but we showed our vulnerable side. It wasn’t safe, which can have good things come from it. There are pros and cons to each way of living and earning a living
Did the reaction from the documentary help inspire the newest album? Or was it already in the plans when the documentary was released?
That was not in the plans at all. The documentary got us talking to each other again after we’d been estranged for many years. The new music came from us having a good time performing and wanting to keep it going if we could. To do that we would have to put out new music or we would become a nostalgic act.
How does it feel being with the band members again? Do you still feel the same sense of camaraderie you had during the original run?
We have great camaraderie, we all crack each other up. When you are a band you share the triumph and the tragedies. It’s cool because you are not just out there on your own taking the arrows. We come together for the band and then scurry away to our independent lives.
L7 rose to notoriety in the art punk DIY scene in the Echo Park/ Silver Lake area, which was seen, at the time, as the antithesis as to what was happening a few miles down the street on the Sunset Strip. It seems like Los Angeles has always played a part in the band’s image, and culture. How much has this city influenced your art?
I love LA, I’m a transplant from Chicago and everything about this city I love. The Hollywood Babylon, LA Confidential Noir, the Latino aspect, the media, the bohemian. Echo Park and Silver Lake have a very long history of bohemianism and socialism. I love the Sunset Strip, the old Ambassador Hotel and surf. I tried surfing myself and it’s a brutalizing experience. The gentrification is a bummer but that’s happening everywhere.
Will there be a live tour to support the new album?
Yes, we’re touring for six weeks, it’s going to be a long one. We’re hoping for music licensing for these new tracks. To get some placement in television shows or film because we need that financial support because we’re not making money touring. It’s interesting because that’s why the band broke up in the first place. Captain Marvel wanted to use our song “Fast and Frightening,” and that would have been a great cash infusion for us. And at the last minute they used Nine Inch Nails. It’s a female superhero song and it takes place in nineties Los Angeles. We would have been perfect. And stuff like that is deflating because we could have used the cash, it’s what keeps us alive.
So if you have any music supervisors reading this, where is L7 in Orange is the New Black? We’re perfect for that.
I can see “Pretend We’re Dead” fitting perfectly into Russian Doll.
That’s fucking brilliant. I just watched it and didn’t even think about it. We’re going after Russian Doll for the second season. That’s perfect, amazing.