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INTERVIEW – DONITA SPARKS, L7 – September 2016

| 4 October 2016 | Reply

INTERVIEW – DONITA SPARKS, L7 – September 2016
By Shane Pinnegar

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L7 blazed a ferocious trail through the nineties, defying musical trends from cock rock through to grunge in pursuit of their no-bullshit, punk-tinged, (so called) ‘riot grrrl’ muse. Controversy was never far from the four-piece, and after a myriad of dramas and internal squabbles L7 disbanded in 2001, not reforming for intermittent live shows until 2014.

Guitarist & singer Donita Sparks is jovial down the line on a sunny Los Angeles afternoon, happy enough to trawl through her band’s back pages in advance of their forthcoming Australian tour, nineteen years after their last visit to our shores – “we were at a festival with Primus and Jesus Lizard and I can’t remember who else,” Sparks says, probably referring to Mandurah’s Solar Stomp Festival, held on 13 April, 1998, and at least one East Coast gig at a property in Torquay a few days earlier.

L7: Australia 2016 – tour dates

Thursday 6th October – PERTH Capitol
Friday 7th October – ADELAIDE The Gov
Wednesday 12th October – MELBOURNE 170 Russell
Friday 14th October – BRISBANE Eatons Hill Hotel
Saturday 15th October – SYDNEY Metro Theatre
Tuesday 11th October – MELBOURNE 170 Russell

The band put years of backbiting and tension behind them after Sparks reached out to bassist Jennifer Finch about some footage she was preparing for a documentary on the band.

“Well, I was digitising everything,” she explains, “and I had spoken to a director about our home movies that were being digitised, and she wanted to take a look at them, and then asked me if she could take a stab at doing a documentary. I was going to figure out a way to edit them and release some of the footage anyway, but she wanted to actually go for a documentary, so I was like, ‘okay, just make sure it’s good.’

“Everybody needed to do audio interviews for the doc, and also coincidentally at the same time, our booking agent in the U.S. called up and said, ‘can I throw your name out there for festivals next year?’ I said, ‘well, we’re not even a band – I need time to let it sink in with everybody.’ I gave them nine months and everybody said yes when I called them again nine months later.”

That documentary remains unreleased for now, but its release is imminent.

“It’s called Pretend We’re Dead,” elaborates Sparks, “and I believe it’s been accepted to a couple of film festivals in November in the U.S., but it’s still being edited. They edit right down to the wire for these festivals, so it’s not finished, but it should be finished – it WILL be finished – by November because it has to be, because it’s going to be in a couple film festivals.”

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Sparks says the rough cut she’s seen so far stirred up a lot of memories.

“It made me feel… you know, just getting everybody’s stories is interesting. I found out stuff about my bandmates that I never knew, in particular why they might have left the band, which I did not know, and so it’s kind of interesting. I think in watching a lot of the old footage of us, I’m actually impressed with the band and maybe at the time what I thought were some of our flaws, I did not see. Having the more objective view 20 years later, I’m not seeing the … I’m not hung up on the flaws I thought that there were. You know what I mean? Which is really cool. I see what everybody’s contribution to the band was, and that’s been great.”

It’s a story we’ve heard over and over: bands get dysfunctional and break up because people haven’t talked to each other properly, but ten or twenty years down the track you put a camera in front of them and have a third party ask them questions and they’ll be a lot more open and honest than they could be to each other individually.

“Absolutely!” Sparks confirms. “You know, we had so much history together, we were together for about fifteen years. It’s very much like a marriage, and in particular, it’s like a marriage when there’s no money, and you start out broke, but then it becomes your profession, and then you’re not making any money at your profession. Shit will get tough, and that’s how marriages fall apart too, so a band is… some bands are like families. Ours was like a marriage, you know? It’s not like we were sisters. It was like we were married to each other, and now it’s like having sex with your ex. We’re not married. We’re exes, but we’re just getting the benefits of that situation as opposed to some of the pressures of being married.”

Thinking of a couple of my exe, that’s a cringe-worthy thought!

“Well, just think of the good ones,” laughs Sparks. “Think of the good ones!”

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Convening in the rehearsal room all together for the first time in thirteen years must have been a bit awkward?

“Yes, it was,” she agrees. “I, fortunately, had spoken with everyone and I had seen Jennifer at a couple of art openings recently, and I had actually gotten together with Suzi [Gardner, also guitar/vocals] to play some guitar with her – non-amplified in her bedroom, just like we used to way back in the day when we would write songs. So it was the least weird for me, because I had already been in touch with everybody. Everybody else hadn’t seen each other in years, so weirder for them, but then our humour kicked in and our vernacular kicked in, and we did a lot of laughing, and we sounded pretty decent when we first started playing. That always helps.”

Sparks says that the reformed band’s live shows have found them playing better than ever, and they’re taking things more seriously than in their heyday as well.

“Our live shows are pretty tight, and we’re not screwing around. Sometimes when you play too much, you start to get bored – not with the audience or anything like that, just your… I don’t know… there would be inside jokes, and our roadies would come out and iron [clothes] during Pretend We’re Dead, and do silly things just to amuse me, really, and to amuse the rest of the band – but we’re not doing any of that kind of silly stuff at this time. We’re just packing in as many songs as we can as tightly as we can, so most people will hear their favourite tunes, you know what I mean?”

As for the dark humour in the band, the media didn’t always get the joke.

“Oh, I don’t know how dark it was,” says Sparks, “there was definitely humour – some of it was dark lyrically, a little tongue-in-cheek, but it’s a combo, you know. We were legitimately pissed, and then a little bit writing in a teenage, anthemic way as well, to speak for that kind of teenage angst kind of trip.”

The media preferred to focus on the band as angry young women, often overlooking the serious messages in their songs. It makes us wonder whether if they had been men they’dve been painted more as earnest and heartfelt, rather than angry, angry, angry all the time.

“I think we got both,” Sparks affirms, “and I think some of our fans only tap into that anger side, and I think some of our fans only tap into the humour side, and then some of our fans get both of it. It kind of depends where your head’s at, right? If you’re a frustrated kid, you’re going to really tap into that anger, you know, living out in the suburbs or something, but you could also be out in the suburbs as a kid tapping into the funny stuff, too. I think though, that lyrically we hit on some cultural issues that maybe some of our peers didn’t back at that time, and we tapped into some lyrically political issues that a lot of our peers did not at that time as well. We kind of stuck our necks out a little bit further with that stuff.”

L7 definitely had something more to say than Poison or Whitesnake, for instance…

“You know, Every Rose Has Its Thorn – I don’t know, man, that’s pretty heavy,” she says sarcastically. “That’s pretty heavy shit he’s laying down!”

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Sparks confirms that she has no time for labels such as Grunge or Riot Grrrl.

“We didn’t identify with either. I mean, the word grunge, the word grungy is something kind of grimy and dirty, and that fit our music, definitely, but when it became this, like, ‘hashtag grunge,’ pre-hashtags, as a musical category, I think it was fine at first when it was mostly referring to Sub-pop bands, but then when it got very bloated with a lot of label-signing bands, calling them grunge, who were like Silverchair or something, then it just got silly. It started out, you know, grunge was really punk rockers doing hard rock, or their version of hard rock. That’s what grunge originally was: punks who grew out their hair is kind of where it came from.”

As mentioned above, wherever L7 went, controversy followed – especially in England, where some of the most notorious episodes in the band’s history occurred. It was in England in 1992, on The Word TV program, that Sparks dropped her pants during a live broadcast, and also in 1992 at The Reading Festival when she extracted and launched her tampon at a restless crowd. In 1999 in London, the band even raffled drummer Demetra Plakas off to their crowd for a one-night stand. Were L7 particularly volatile on tour?

“England will bring that out in a person,” says Sparks, drolly, and having lived there for a couple of years, I can only concur.

“I’m kidding, I’m kidding…” she quickly counters, before going on to explain. “No, I mean, you know, being punk rockers – and we’re also kind of from the art punk scene in Los Angeles, like the art punk ghettos that used to exist in Los Angeles – so getting weird was always part of the fun of it, you know what I mean? If shit got weird or unpleasant, we would get weirder, and that’s just the performance artist in us coming out when something like that goes down. It’s not even a point of anger. It’s just a point of getting weird for the sake of doing something amusing, that’s so shocking that it’s funny. Again – it’s funny.

“People look at that like it was such a thing of anger, but it’s like, you know, that shit that went down in England to me is also very John Waters. You know what I mean? It’s feminist and it’s funny at the same time.”

Well, I always found it amusing, but the majority of people didn’t. A lot of people found that really shocking.

“Well, understandably so,” laughs Sparks. “I don’t think anybody has topped me in the shock department with throwing out a used tampon. Come on: what do you got? Bring it. Bring your A game when you’re around L7, because we set the bar pretty high with that one!”

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Twenty years on, is there any difference with the crowd reaction to the likes of Shitlist, Pretend We’re Dead and Wargasm?

“Well, Shitlist, everybody’s just screaming their heads off with smiles on their faces with that one,” Sparks says happily. “I think they’ve been waiting twenty years to do it, and then there’s a lot of young people who have never seen us before, who are going crazy, because I think for them, they never got to experience not only grunge, or that kind of thing, but maybe women playing that kind of music. It’s a big love-fest going on.

“I also don’t see the audiences being violent like they used to at times. There was a lot of pushing and stage-diving, and kind of violent behaviour going on at our shows years ago, but it’s not that way anymore. Everybody’s very supportive of each other. The middle-aged people are super happy to see the young people there and if there’s an occasional crowd surfer, all the old ones pick up the young ones. It’s really cute, you know. It’s not as threatening as it was. It’s just kind of… it’s just joyous, in my opinion. It’s a very joyous event for all.

“Is it more respectful? Yes, because the middle-aged people, they’re not going to get violent. What do they have to get violent about? You know what I mean? The young people can get kind of rambunctious, but the older ones there are just sort of there to catch them. They’re a soft place to fall if the kids get a little wild. You know what I mean?”

Having had time to get used to being L7 again, and all being a little bit older and wiser, does this look like being an ongoing affair – will there be new material, for instance?

“I don’t know about that…,” Sparks admits. “Maybe we’ll put out a couple songs or something. I don’t know if we’ll put out an album. I don’t know if people want to hear a new L7 album. I don’t know how bands who reunite put out an album – I’m not sure how their albums do. We don’t have a record label. I’m certainly not going to put up the money to record an album. I just don’t have that much money laying around. We’ll see. We’ll see what happens. We’re getting some offers here and there to do some projects. We’ll see.

“I mean, I think we’d all like to kind of keep this going for as long as we can, just because it’s been such a fun endeavour. As soon as it stops being fun, it’s over, you know. That’s why we’re not going on tours that are two months long or any of that stuff. We’re just kind of going out for a couple weeks, coming home, because we’re not promoting an album. When you start promoting an album, that’s when you kind of have to really just spend 100% of your time promoting that record. None of us – our lifestyles are not compatible with that at this time.”

Category: Interviews

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