I’ve loved Los Angeles band, L7, since I was a teen! One of the first songs I learnt on the guitar was one of theirs ‘Pretend That We’re Dead’ from 1992 release, Bricks Are Heavy. I’ve always loved the rawness and power of their music as well as the honesty and humour in their lyrics. I remember hearing their song ‘Shitlist’ and grabbing for a piece of paper and pen to write my own! In some ways, band’s like L7 helped me in channelling my anger and frustration into something more creative and productive rather than destructive, they also helped me feel ok with expressing the anger and frustration I was feeling as a teen grrrl. During my recent chat with L7’s co-founder and vocalist-guitarist [I love the Flying V she uses], Donita Sparks, used the phrase “pissed off with smiles”—I think it’s the perfect way to describe L7! We chatted about the reunion, their beginnings, becoming a songwriter, feminism, the L7: Pretend We’re Dead documentary in the works, new music she’s been making and more. In October when the band comes to Australia you’ll find me front row centre at their show, hope to see you there.
A lot of people think of L7 being from the North Hollywood or West Hollywood hard rock world but you were actually from the art and punk world in the Silverlake/Echo Park area; what was that world like back when you started?
DONITA SPARKS: We were all into punk rock years before L7. We’re all from different parts of the country, we all kind of moved here. I’m originally from Chicago, Suzi [Gardner; guitar-vocals] is from Sacramento, Jennifer [Finch; bass] was from L.A. though. Suzi and I did, and still do, live on the east side of Los Angeles. At that time, it was a punk art slum [laughs]. It wasn’t a fancy neighbourhood, a lot of gangs; it wasn’t a posh neighbourhood like it is now. We both worked at the L.A. Weekly, we also worked at the same restaurant. We knew a lot of artists, writers and musicians and were a part of that. Our first shows were eclectic, we had poetry readings and performance art, maybe an art band and then us [laughs]. The art people who we were friends with, really liked us because it was like what we were almost presenting was this hard rock band, which was very not in vogue at that time in the art punk scene.
I noticed that the bulk of songs you’ve been playing in your live set since the reunion are from album, Bricks Are Heavy. I think there’s maybe seven songs from that record. What do you remember from that time when you were writing those songs?
DS: That was our biggest selling album so we want to play the songs that people want to hear, that’s why we’re playing that many from that record; I think we’ve taken one out from the list. What was going on at that time was the same shit that’s going on right now, the right-wing being a big drag! George H. W. Bush had been president for a while, Clinton was about to run… I don’t know. Just the same shit that’s going on now. There was a big war on women’s bodies, and there still is; it was more on a national level, now they’re trying to chip away at us state by state as opposed to nationally. There were a lot of strong independent labels out at the time, a lot of those bands were getting signed to major labels. That was a big thing that was going on then, that happened to us.
Did you have any apprehension signing to a major?
DS: We didn’t have any apprehension, we wanted to make the jump, strictly from a distribution standpoint. We liked Sub Pop [Records] a lot, but we were definitely looking for a major label. There was not a bidding war over L7 at all, there was one label interested and that was it, so that was the deal we got, it wasn’t a great deal.
When asked about your songs previously you’ve said you love them all and you can’t choose a favourite; I’m curious, is there a song you’ve written that holds a special significance for you?
DS: [Laughs] Nothing that comes to mind, no. There’s not one that stands out, I don’t have a favourite. I don’t love all of our songs and I don’t love all of my songs. I think the lyrics in ‘Wargasm’ are pretty good, as an anti-war song I think they’re pretty good ‘cause they’re funny but also very cutting, biting and truthful, the way I see it.
I noticed there isn’t any songs from your first self-titled release that was on Epitaph Records in your set. I’ve read you comment that you didn’t feel you were ready as a writer when you made that album; when did you feel like you were ready/became a writer?
DS: Correct. Yes. When Suzi and I wrote ‘Shove’ and I wrote ‘Fast & Frightening’. Shove, the lyrics were very personal of what we were experiencing. On the first record, many of the songs felt like they were telling stories that did not apply to us, the songs were more lyrically clichéd. Shove was the first song that we actually sat down and wrote together that was, you know like, my landlord didn’t like my dog, and my father didn’t think that I was anywhere and I was wasting my life. Interestingly, Shove, was the first song that did get attention and that we put out on Sub Pop. It’s kind of interesting that when you do start writing about yourself, in a more truthful way, that’s what people start connecting to, as opposed to a lot of rock clichés that I felt we were doing on the first record. I didn’t think that at the time, I didn’t know how to write, I wasn’t a writer yet. It’s not like I was a kid writing songs when I was a teenager, I was not. My first writings was in my early twenties, but I didn’t know how to be a writer. They just weren’t very good, I got better, and so did Suzi.
Do you create often?
DS: I’m a very creative person, my follow through isn’t great. The inspiration is very good but the perspiration is very bad, I’m terrible at it [laughs]. It’s good when I’m in a band because other people are depending on me to have the follow through. If I’m just on my own it’s more difficult for me to actually execute my idea because I’m not that driven, unfortunately. I wish I was more driven, a lot of people think I’m driven [laughs]—I’m not!
What’s one of the recent things you’ve created?
DS: I don’t only create music, I create a lot of things. I have a lot of creative ideas. I do a lot of writing. I do a lot of pitching for [television] show ideas. The last musical stuff that I’ve done is kind of ambient electronic, which has not been released because it’s not yet finished.
Will it get released sometime soon?
DS: I hope so, ‘cause I like it, it’s cool.
Previously you’ve commented in relation to girls and women being fierce, that there’s other ways to be fierce without being scantily clad; to you, what makes a woman fierce? When do you feel most fierce?
DS: A woman is fierce when she is brave—brave to be herself, brave to not be a conformist, brave to speak out for other people and other things. I somehow think that feminism may be being exploited in pop culture right now. I think these young women are getting the impression that feminism is dancing with your pants off; that like being a dancer for Beyoncé is the peak of being a feminist, it’s like, no! That’s cool but, it’s also very fierce to go to school in Afghanistan, you know what I’m saying?—that’s fucking badass!
I totally get you. A few years ago when talking of L7, you said it was more about raw emotion whereas your most recent music project, The Stellar Moments, was more about channelling other strengths and you felt there was more spirituality to it; how do you feel about L7 now you’re back together for this reunion?
DS: L7 are not creating any new material at the moment so it feels just like a very powerful entity taking the stage again. When the band broke up, I along with everyone else in the band, had an identity crisis. With the Stellar Moments stuff, there was a lot of introspection. It was a very humbling experience for L7 when we broke up. There I was on my own trying to make that band [Stellar Moments] happen. With L7 now reformed, it feels like a victory lap! The whole thing feels like our music has held up enough that people want to see us play again, that feels really good. It’s been very pleasurable performing our songs again. I see it on the faces of our audience that there is a relevancy in their lives, I can almost see them looking back at themselves 20 years ago; somehow our lyrics are still relevant in their current everyday lives.
Maybe that’s in part because of what you were talking about before, the same shit is still happening. People talk about how, oh things are getting so bad, it’s getting worse, but if you look back at history, for as long as there’s been people around, there has always been some kind of bad time or bad shit happening.
DS: Yeah, there’s still injustice going on. I think even though a lot of your songs have a youthful anthemic rebelliousness about them, I think as a person in middle age, you can still feel that youthful rebellion and anger—it’s still there, it’s still pissed off. We’re pissed off with smiles on our faces. There’s really horrible shit going on in the world now so it’s kind of this cathartic thing, every day there just seems to be this horrible tragedy going down. It’s nice to be able to get together with other people and just get cathartic for a bit.
When you were talking about the band’s break up a couple of decades ago, you said that you were reluctant to make the final announcement that L7 were disbanding because you’re a kind of superstitious person; what are some other things you’re superstitious about?
DS: I’m not going to tell you [laughs], they’re very personal. They lose their power if spoken about! A lot of show biz things… it’s not that I don’t step on cracks in the sidewalk or anything like that, it usually has to do with life preceding.
I totally understand ‘cause I have my own superstitions and feel the same way, that if I do talk about stuff they lose a little of their magic. It’s the same when you have great ideas or are being creative, sometimes when you share them and talk to people about them before they’re done it can lose a bit of that magic.
DS: Yeah! That’s right.
The last couple of years you’ve been digging through storage to find stuff for the L7: Pretend We’re Dead documentary, that’s coming out in September; going through everything must have been a real trip down memory lane, did anything you find spin you out?
DS: No. It’s weird ‘cause I’ve been doing this for a few years now, gathering up all of this shit… I’ve been watching all this footage and looking at photos and nothing has really jarred my memory. What I haven’t done though is read my diaries from that time, I’m sure if I read them there would be all kinds of memories in there. I would say, in watching a lot of the live footage that we had in our home movies, I was very impressed of us as a band. Looking at it objectively 20 years later, I really saw the individual contributions of each member of the band and saw our strengths individually, far more than I did 20 years ago. Before I used to see everyone’s weaknesses, including my own, but now I see our strengths. I was very critical of the band. Now I just think, wow! Whoa! I think we’re all pretty fucking good! That was super cool. It brought a higher appreciation for us. I think that’s just the nature of when you’re a younger person, you’re really hard on yourself. You either have that arrogance that you’re the greatest or that insecurity that you suck. Years later I can look at that project of L7 and it’s like, we were good, and have certainty about that.
What’s one of the most fun times you’ve had with L7?
DS: There’s so many! We even just have fun in present day at rehearsals laughing about shit. We’re all pretty funny people and can crack each other up, we riff very well with each other. That’s something we always had that brought us together, our humour, it’s just the little things that we can laugh about for hours.
See you in the pit!
*Images courtesy of L7’s site, FB & Donita’s IG; mixed media collage art by me.