L7’s Donita Sparks on Old Punks, New Music, and Continuing Harassment
On the occasion of the LA punks’ first record in twenty years, Sparks explains why getting the band back together—and pissing in hats—is necessary.
Back in March, L7’s co-founder Donita Sparks appeared as part of a panel for the Epix network’s new docuseries Punk, with fellow subjects John Lydon (a.k.a. Johnny Rotten), Marky Ramone, and Henry Rollins. Notably, Lydon tore into Rollins and Ramone, the latter of whom threw back enough abuse to cause a ruckus that made the rest of the series seem tame by comparison. That it was Sparks who acted as a referee shows how much she’s matured—but don’t think that she and longtime L7 members (Suzi Gardner, Jennifer Finch, and Demetra Plakas) have mellowed with age.
Born in Los Angeles in 1985, the crusty quartet raged and raved, on-stage and off, until its 2001 implosion—only to reform for live shows in 2014. Not long after they’d reunited, L7 reignited their socio-political torpor with 2017’s post-election rant, “Dispatch from Mar-a-Lago.” Now, they have their first new studio album since Slap-Happy (1999): the incendiary May release Scatter the Rats. We spoke to Sparks about where she’s been, how L7 has changed over time, and how she’s engaging with our present-day culture.
L7 has been very honest and vocal about how early in your career, men in the music biz were sexually inappropriate and touchy-feely. How did you deal with it?
Jennifer talked about it in the film [the 2016 documentary L7: Pretend We’re Dead]. I don’t recall anything like that. I do remember urinating in a hat over such bullshit—she said that was this one guilty promoter’s hat, so that’s how we dealt with it back in the day.
What role do you think L7 played in breaking men—at least in your industry—of such bad habits inasmuch as men are harassing women somewhat less, or getting nailed for still trying?
I don’t think we have played a role; I can say, however, that when the four of us are together, we can be an intimidating force, personally and professionally. I have been in solo bands away from these guys, so I can vouch: people don’t want to fuck with us when the four of us are united as L7. They just don’t. Whether it’s by our wit or us urinating in a hat—whatever it is, you’re gonna lose.
How do you think creating the Rock for Choice festivals with the Feminist Majority Foundation made a worthy forum for women’s issues and philanthropic enterprise?
We raised a lot of money for the attorneys to represent abortion clinics that were bombed, and for legal fees for doctors whose lives were being ruined by being stalked. It was very pragmatic fundraising for very specific needs and a very real threat. People were being murdered for performing abortions. No one ever did shows on that scale for that issue. That was our cause that we got behind, as no one else was doing so at the time. Protest scenes can get all kumbaya and folky. We infused some rock ’n’ roll—current day rock n’ roll—in that scene.
“Protest scenes can get all kumbaya and folky. We infused some rock ’n’ roll.”
Speaking of kumbaya, you seemed like the calming voice of reason between John Lydon and Marky Ramone at that Punk press conference. What can you say about that, seeing people you respected musically go at it?
It was completely surreal. I had a bit of nervousness going onto that panel, as I had never met Lydon, and of course I am a huge fan. He speaks his truth fearlessly. Every other guy on the panel I had met before, and had friendly relationships with. It was wild, weird, and incredibly entertaining. It was so punk rock, the venom coming out of them—and hilarious. There was the Mount Rushmore of Punk going at it. I wasn’t trying to calm anything, I just wanted to let them both know how great and inspiring they are.
Were the reasons for L7 getting back together the same reasons you became united in the first place?
I don’t think so. The desire to be in a band got us together in the first place, especially since we weren’t the best of friends. We were just weirdos who wanted to play music and get better at it as time went on. The reunion happened because we felt that there was still interest in us, and that there wasn’t anyone who had our particular spin. We thought that younger people who hadn’t experienced us the first time needed to experience L7. We had a lot of interest from young people on our Facebook, people starved for an act like us. The documentary got us talking about how, if we were ever going to do it, the time to reunite was now—we’d be too old in fifteen years.
Are you better friends now?
We are…umm…kind of the same. We love each other, but we don’t hang out. Demetra and I are close, and have always been. But we all have different lives and are different personality types.
Too many bands reunite just for the sake of playing live and cashing in. After you reunited, when did it become apparent that you guys had new creative juices flowing, and that fresh songs could come out of that?
We just started jamming during sound checks while on tour, and found that new things were sounding very cool. We also decided that, if we were going to continue playing shows, we didn’t want to do it as a nostalgia act. To do that, we needed new material, and we were inspired by our sound checks, as well as what was going on with our new president. That definitely pushed us to do something fast. People really expected something from us in regard to him, and we would be negligent if we didn’t respond. So we came up with a funny look at a riot at Mar-a-Lago. Clearly from those tracks, we still had something to say.
Considering your eleven new songs, what fresh signature did you need an L7 track to have—be it on “Ouija Board Lies,” “Uppin’ the Ice,” or “Murky Water Café”—to connect your past with your present?
The title track is pure vintage L7, but then you get “Uppin’ the Ice,” where we wanted to make a dance-rock song. We like mixing it up in the studio. I’m not one to press “record” and just keep going. Many of the greatest albums ever were recorded like that, and I’d love to get us in a blazing live recording—but I like studio playfulness, like on “Burn Baby” and “Proto Prototype,” where you get that dive bomb effect. We want to have fun. You say it sounds fresh, but I have friends who are just glad to hear a real hard rock album—something that’s catchy and hummable—out there again. FL