Interview: L7’s Donita Sparks on transcending gender, feminism in rock, and pretending the ’90s are dead
Whether the ‘90s were a good time for music or a shitty time for music, those of us who look back with wistful eyes and a heavy dose of nostalgia agree that it was pretty kickass. Sure, the latter half of the decade’s sickly sweet teen pop revival sucked, as did everything nü-metal, but in the ’90s early years of grunge and Riot Grrrl, music felt on point. Sad/angry musicians made sad/angry music about hating themselves or hating everyone else, and grumpy, self-loathing teens willfully ate it up. And bands outside of the Riot Grrrl movement combined feminism-heavy messages with their unique brand of metallic punk rock. For fans, this was easy to get behind. But for bands outside the Riot clique, the landscape was lonesome, and musicians seeking feminist allies found few confidants.
In the late 1980s, Donita Sparks felt this isolation. As the frontwoman of grunge punk pioneers L7, Sparks — who along with Jennifer Finch, Suzi Gardner, and Dee Plakas crystallized the band’s place in rock history with their 1988 self-titled album — felt like the only feminist in a sea of testosterone. It wasn’t until they forged relationships with other feminist bands that L7 saw the ’90s as a critical time period for political and musical growth. Throughout their 10-plus years in action, which included six studio albums like 1992’s Bricks Are Heavy, crafted by Nevermind producer Butch Vig, and the founding of Rock for Choice, a benefit series supporting women’s reproductive rights, L7 produced the decade’s heaviest, most transgressive songs, combining thrash and punk with wit and raunch, and rejecting conformity in a culture that disparaged individualism.
Following the band’s disbandment in 2001, Sparks and Finch embarked on solo projects, with Sparks fronting Donita Sparks and the Stellar Moments, and Finch lending vocals to Los Angeles punk band The Shocker. But L7’s 15-year hiatus (18 years since the original lineup performed) eventually came to a close once Sparks caught wind of their continued praise from fans online, leading to several reunion performances in 2015.
Playing the Paradise Rock Club in Boston this Thursday (August 11), their first show in Boston since 2000, L7 reunites once again for a stop along their four-month international tour in promotion of the band’s upcoming documentary, Pretend That We’re Dead. Slated for release this fall, the film, fully backed by fans via Kickstarter, chronicles the band’s rise and fall from influential feminist trailblazers to their eventual crash and burn in the early aughts. Recently, we spoke with Donita Sparks about the upcoming documentary, the possibility of new music, and if getting nostalgic for the ‘90s is just kinda dumb (answer: yep).
Stephanie Dubick: What have these past few years been like for you in getting the band back together?
Donita Sparks: Personally, it’s lightened my load because there was some estrangement with the band members. So everybody talking, hanging out, and laughing together has been amazing. It’s taken the icky load off and the air has cleared. On that level, it’s super cool. On the performance level we’re having fun and seeing people out there of all ages really having a blast.
When you say icky load, what do you mean?
Well, I’m not telling you that exactly, but it’s just like when divorced people can become friends again. I think everybody’s older and less rigid in their stance on things. It’s a sort of “life is short” kind of thing. It’s a maturity.
You’ve mentioned that you feel L7 has been overlooked in music history. In getting the band back together, were you trying to cement a more solid place for you guys?
I think people just need to be reminded sometimes. Anytime I’m asked by a journalist to submit a list of my ten favorite albums of all time, I inevitably leave out somebody that happened to slip my mind, or that I hadn’t thought about in a while, and then I look at my record collection and I’m like, “Yes, that one! Oh my god, how could I have forgotten the B-52s?” So it’s just reminding people about us and our contribution to the cathedral of rock, and also our contribution to feminism in rock, which I think has been grossly overlooked a lot in the media. This has been some vindication.
What is your take on feminism in music today?
I think there are more people saying that they’re feminists in general. I remember a time when that was something that only a certain stripe of woman was saying, and I was one of those women. Sometimes it felt kind of lonely. I think feminism in pop culture, with pop artists, is great but it’s not really my bag. It’s feminist, but you still better look hot. A lot of that seems to be going on: your power is in your attractiveness. That I don’t click with much.
There’s a been a few examples recently of men writing reviews that hone in on a woman’s appearance instead of their music, and it’s weird that this level of sexism still exists today.
I think some women do that, too. Like, “Oh, she’s so fierce,” and it’s like, “OK, I’ll show you what fierce is.” But I think it’s great overall that young women are getting the message.
Do you miss the ‘80s and the ‘90s? Do you find yourself getting nostalgic for those times?
No and no. I don’t miss the ‘80s at all. I kind of had a tough time in the ‘80s. And the ‘90s, the ‘90s were sort of fun for me, personally, because I was travelling a lot and meeting a lot of interesting people and connecting with a lot of like-minded people. In the ‘80s I felt a little more isolated in Los Angeles and didn’t really connect with people. With the ‘90s, just travelling around the country, I’d meet these other sort of misfits and the tribe got bigger for me. So no, I don’t miss the ‘90s. I missed going on stage, and I missed coming off stage. I remember I was at Coachella one time and I was watching some band from backstage. I saw them come off the ramp and they were drenched in sweat and they looked exhausted. I was like, “I miss that.” It was giving it all you got and then you’re a wreck coming off stage, but then you’re really high at the same time. It’s a fantastic feeling, but it hurts when it’s not you. When it’s so much a part of your identity for many, many years and then you don’t have that, it’s just a weird thing. You’re watching that as a voyeur, not as a participant.
So, after you guys disbanded, did you lose that sense of identity as a performer?
In getting the band back together, do you feel like that identity is starting to come back?
Yes I do. I know that I don’t want to hide as much as I wanted to before. Like, I’m actually going out to social events and making the scene. I wasn’t making the scene for quite a few years. I was just laying low. And stuff like Facebook has really helped me to reconnect. I’m just making the scene; being around, showing up, supporting other people, them supporting us, that kind of thing.
I feel like a lot of musicians tend to shun social media, but I think it can be beneficial to a degree.
It’s very beneficial to a band. We knew about a demand for a reunion because of social media. It was through Facebook and people starting up fan pages — even though we thought we were buried — and fans posting YouTubes and Facebook fan pages. I was watching this all happening and going, ‘Wow, this is kind of crazy.’ So social media definitely helped to spur this reunion on.
How does it feel being back together again? Does it feel right? Is it still taking some getting used to?
It feels great as this point being back together, but I think the real question now is: do we put out new music? That was not the intention when we got back together; it was just sort of like, “Hey, let’s play some shows and have some fun and do some travelling; let’s go see our fans who have been so nice.” And now it’s like, “Well, should we put something out? Should we do something for Record Store Day?” We’re kind of contemplating that now. We just needed to feel each other out. We needed to see if we could be in a room together for an extended period of time — which we can. Nothing was ever super contentious, it was just icky feeling. Then there’s a documentary on us that’s coming out in a couple months, and that’s been another thing that got us all connected again and will hopefully spur on some new interest from people who have never even heard of us.
Is the documentary finished?
It isn’t finished. It’s getting closer and closer. I’ve seen a few edits but it’s almost there. I think they’re shooting for November for the release.
Have much of a hand did you have in making the documentary?
We had all of this home movie footage and I was like, “How do we want to deal with this? I’m sure fans want to see it. I’d like to see it edited together somehow.” And I was talking about it at dinner with Sarah the director, and she said she wanted to see the footage, and she really liked it. She had some gaps to fill in because our original video camera was stolen, so there were some years that were not captured which had to be filled in with photographs. I’ve been feeding her photos and all kinds of press clips. I’ve been kind of taking it on myself to provide her with the content for the whole thing. We all did separate interviews, and I’ve been approving things here and there, but it’s overall her trip.
What can we expect from the film, and is it going to be anything like the The Beauty Process?
The Beauty Process movie was Krist Novoselic’s surrealistic ax to grind against the music industry. We were his mere players in the film; we were his characters. That was not at all a documentary. It’s a surrealist piece, it’s great, and he’s got some cool stuff in there. That’s actually going to be a part of the DVD package that comes out for Kickstarter people. Krist has generously given us that footage — the whole movie — for the release of the documentary, which is really cool. This doc is just more about our story. It’s got some gender politics in it, it’s got friendship issues in it. It’s got the struggle of what we went through to get there and then to lose it. Also, a lot of the footage is really funny. It’s us being us, away from the media.
Do you feel like the media portrayed you inaccurately over the years?
Press has changed a lot from 25 years ago. It was very focused on our gender at the time and I’m sure all-female bands still get that. In my experience, in talking to journalists on this reunion run, I think a lot of people have moved beyond that. It almost comes as a question of how it used to be as opposed to how it actually is. We did an interview in France with this older journalist, this guy, and it was like fucking 1985 again. He was so titillated by sitting there with us — it was weird. It was like, “Dude, you’re such a dinosaur. You’re asking me the same fucking questions from 1985.” He was asking questions like, “Ohhh, what’s it’s like to be a girl band? Ohhhh, what about groupies?” I couldn’t believe it. I was like, “Dude, how do you still have a fucking job?” It was wild. But I do find that the line of questioning has changed quite a bit. We have a stature now, believe it or not. We finally got some kind of stature in rock so questions have gone beyond [gender] now. I think in most minds we’ve transcended the gender issue. We’re rarely asked to do a “Women in Rock” issue with something. We used to be asked to do that shit all the time and we never did; we were always dead set against it. We are not doing a “Women in Rock” anything because it’s just a way to ghettoize us. We weren’t respected enough to be in the real issue. It would always be a “Women in Rock” issue, and we always said “fuck that” which helped us get a band platform from early on.
It’s nice to hear that questions have moved beyond gender.
Yeah. It’s never about our gender now. It’s about feminism in rock, us being pioneers of grunge rock, pioneers of punk rock. It’s gone to a higher level of status. I think people feel that we’ve proved ourselves. We have nothing to fucking prove. You either dig us or you don’t, and we don’t care because we don’t have to care. It’s not like we’re selling anything. We’re not selling a new record, we’re not selling our band. We’ve done the work and here we are, come check us out; this might not go for that much longer.
L7 :: Thursday, August 11 at The Paradise Rock Club, 967 Commonwealth Ave. in Boston, MA :: 7 p.m., all ages, $24.50 :: Advance tickets