Interview – L7’s Donita Sparks: ‘We Kicked Off the Feminist Era in Music’
It’s a little disconcerting to realize that the halcyon days of grunge are three-decades-plus behind us; but rather fascinating that some of the bands that defined the scene and sound circa 1990 (it was primarily a West Coast movement, initially), are still relevant enough today to be deserving of re-releases.
Certainly the big boys, Nirvana, Soundgarden, Alice In Chains, have continued to be revered, long after their expiration dates (tragically, the lead singers of all three have died of suicide or overdose); but admittedly the memories have started to fade a bit, especially when it comes to bands with girls. After all, in all its maleness, grunge absolutely had a female problem. (The more sensitive Kurt Cobain famously remarked of the scene, “Because I couldn’t find any male friends I felt compatible with, I ended up hanging out with girls a lot.” But that was Kurt.)
Luckily there was L7, a loudmouthed, all XX chromosome quartet (Donita Sparks, Jennifer Finch, Suzi Gardner, Dee Plakas) from LA who built a Puget Sound sized bridge between punk, metal, and…well, more punk. And metal. They tore it up at Lollapalooza. They had a legit hit with “Pretend We’re Dead.”
The Seattle boys, and everyone else, stood up and paid attention.
L7 survived better than most, and 35 years since their first gig they’re back together with a newish album (2019’s Scatter the Rats, via Blackheart Records), and a remastered 30th anniversary re-release of their 1990 classic Smell The Magic, via (of course) Sub Pop, out September 18.
We caught up with lead hellraiser Sparks to chat about junkies, hair bands…the usual.
I guess the reason we’re talking is that it’s been 30 years since this record first came out. It went by pretty quickly.
I don’t know. I don’t think it went pretty quickly. It’s just amazing that it’s…
Been 30 years.
Yeah, it just sounds ridiculous. I remember my mom would have, like, high school reunions and it was like, “It’s my twentieth year!” And I’m like…20?? So now I’m a person who starts to say, “I’ve known him for 20 years!” I’m one of those people now. Just throwing the decades, the multi-decades around.
It was interesting to be reminded that Smell The Magic actually came out before (Nirvana’s) Nevermind, right? It was a year before.
Our first album came out in ’87, but this one had more momentum. The underground scene was very strong, very independent, and all over the country there were different scenes with corresponding labels that were regionally based. It was an exciting time, it was like…post-post-punk, or something that was sort of…very strong in its DIY-ness.
You were an LA band on the ultimate Seattle label.
Yeah, I thought it was cool about Sub Pop that they had a visual aesthetic, they had a musical aesthetic, they had a sense of humor…and we sort of fit right in, even though we were an LA band. I think we were a little more punk in our aesthetic, our clothes were a little more punk; but yeah, it was a good place to be.
And listening back to this record I was reminded of how, while punk in attitude, it was really very heavy hard rock.
Yeah, we were basically…Suzi (Gardner) and I were sort of from the art punk scene, and we were punk rockers who were trying to do…who were doing heavy rock. Our ability to play came out sounding kind of like…we came up with this weird, deconstructed metal performed by punk rockers. We were also hanging out with weird junkie artists, you know, in LA. Speed freaks and stuff like that.
They were just regular junkies in Seattle.
And I think maybe that came into their scene a little bit later. We were kind of a little bit more in an urban kind of mix, where Seattle was a bit less urbanized than certainly it is now.
I’m guessing that X, The Germs, all that early LA punk was an influence on you?
Yeah, certainly, and that was before the really hardcore bands came in and it got very sort of…sucked some of the fun out of it, in my opinion.
I want to ask about a word that has been used in your press release, and that’s ‘feminist,’ or ‘feminism.’ But I’m wondering if when you were in the middle of it in 1990 and 1991, was that a conscious effort to promote feminism and to call yourselves feminists?
I think we always led by example. Our agenda was to be a really good rock band, regardless of our gender. We chose a genderless name. We refused to do “women in rock” issues of anything.
That’s a good answer.
Yeah, and we just…I think that we were an inspiration for Riot grrrl, but we do not consider ourselves Riot grrrl. However, I do think that era was really, really important to young women, and also very, very important to gay kids and trans kids, and so I think it may be appropriate that that word is attached—even though this record is pretty universal. We bitch about things equally.
People assume that Riot grrrl kicked off that feminist era in music; but we kind of kicked it off. We started Rock for Choice; and we loved Riot grrrl, but we weren’t having meetings—like, Riot grrrl, they [literally] started bands to deliver their political message. We started a band because we wanted to be a good band. We were in LA; they were on college campuses. It’s a very different thing. But more of the same team, you know what I mean?
And at the same time there were many more macho bands around. So the point was you helped other young girls see an option that they could embrace.
But I think the fact that we weren’t hitting people over the heads with it constantly—I think the dudes just like the rock and they don’t really care. I think we deliver the rock and they know it, and that’s why they’re fans of ours.
Were you involved in this remastering of Smell the Magic?
Yes, I was involved, and part of the remastering happened because—first, Smell the Magic was an EP, and it was on vinyl. Then CDs came out the same year. It was like, new technology! So all of a sudden, Sub Pop wanted a CD, but asked if we had more songs. So we had an extra three or four songs or something. But those songs were never on vinyl, so this record was re-cut, and mastered to have all songs available on the vinyl edition for the first time.
It sounds really great.
It does sound great. It sounded great when I played it out of my computer with headphones on, and through a system. It sounded loud, it sounded energetic, and lively. So that was good enough for me.
Are there plans to do another one? Maybe Bricks Are Heavy?
It’s weird, when we signed to Slash, that was also with Reprise/Warner Brothers, and they sent our catalogue to Rhino. Rhino’s been, like, licensing it out to anybody who wants to license our stuff, and I find it hard to believe they’re cutting them from the master. You’ve got to go into the vault and actually find the physical masters to work off of.
Image by Charles Peterson
So you had more control over Smell the Magic, in a way.
No, we had complete control at Slash. Nobody ever tried to fuck with us, you know what I mean? They knew better. That was also at a time where if you had some momentum and you had a legitimate audience, it was harder to get fucked with than if you were a band that just got signed and somebody was rolling the dice and taking a chance on you. We had lines around the block. It would be been really bad if someone tried to fuck with us, because we had a legit audience. Nobody fucked with us until later.
One of my favorite lines of Kurt Cobain’s was, if he could, he would’ve been in a new band every two to three years, because those first few years of playing all the shitty clubs are the best time of being in a band.
Ours were incredibly, incredibly difficult years. It took us over five years in complete oblivion. Even though we had a record on Epitaph, it went nowhere, and we had no following. We were just floating it out in the clubs. We were spending money we didn’t have to rehearse. It’s a big money investment when you’re working shitty jobs.
And in LA there was still Poison and Ratt around, the hair bands.
Yeah, but they were playing on Sunset Strip, and we were more sort of Hollywood and Silver Lake and downtown LA. Listen, I got a kick out of those bands. But it was very much like, there’s us and them. And those guys were very accepting of L7. Even though we never played with them, they liked our raunchy t-shirt, and they liked that we were chicks that weren’t wearing bustiers. They kind of accepted us—not all of them, I guess, but the ones who had something going on were not threatened by us.
You’re a real success story surviving more than 30 years in the music business.
Yeah, well, you know, we got our asses kicked there, and we broke up for awhile, and that was really tough. But we’re having a really good time, and hopefully next year…it’s so weird, all of our shows that were scheduled for 2020, we have the exact dates in 2021, so it’s like…it’s just very fucking weird.