L7's Donita Sparks Talks Trump, Music Industry Sexism and the Band's Enduring Legacy
As the burgeoning Seattle grunge scene of the early ‘90s exploded into a global phenomenon, fans and record executives alike scrambled to find the next denim-and-flannel-clad savior of rock’s new movement, which favored anguished power chords and stripped-down aesthetics over the glam metal bombast of the ‘80s.
But as Nirvana and Pearl Jam led the crusade with their brooding agro-anthems, the all-female punk foursome L7 flexed irreverent with furious, tongue-in-cheek ragers like “Wargasm” and “Fast and Frightening” (which boasts the iconic lyric, “Got so much clit she don’t need no balls”).
The Los Angeles quartet -- Donita Sparks (vocals/guitar), Suzi Gardner (guitar/vocals), Jennifer Finch (bass/vocals) and Demetra Plakas (drums/vocals) -- often got lumped in with their grunge contemporaries, but their music bore more similarities to the unhinged punk-metal of Motörhead and the satirical, gory stage production of GWAR. L7 enjoyed minor commercial success with 1992’s Bricks Are Heavy, featuring the hit single “Pretend We’re Dead,” and founded Rock for Choice, a series of pro-choice benefit concerts that featured Nirvana, Red Hot Chili Peppers and Rage Against the Machine. But they also gained notoriety for their onstage antics -- particularly for their performance at the 1992 Reading Festival, where Sparks tossed her used tampon into the mud-slinging crowd and yelled, “Eat my used tampon, fuckers!”
The ensuing years were not as kind to L7, as lineup changes and dwindling label support led them go to on an “indefinite hiatus” in 2001. But in late 2014, Sparks began assembling archival footage for a documentary that eventually culminated in the crowd-funded L7: Pretend We’re Dead, which is out on DVD on Friday (Oct. 13). The band hit the road for a well-received reunion tour in 2015, and last month they released their first single in 18 years, the sardonic, Trump-skewering “Dispatch From Mar-a-Lago.” They currently have a new single in the works as well.
As she prepared to fly to Brooklyn for a film screening and Q&A, Sparks talked to Billboard about the new documentary, sexism in the music industry and L7’s enduring legacy.
When did you start doing interviews for this project?
God, it’s such a blur now. Probably three years ago or so. I think the footage and a lot of the photographs had been handed over the year before that, so the director, Sarah Price, had the visual content, but then the audio stuff was coming in about three years ago.
Did you all take part in the interview process separately?
Yes. At the time we hadn’t even spoken yet or seen each other in 17 years or whatever. It was just via email and stuff like that, arranging the interviews.
You said previously that working through all the archival footage originally prompted you to consider if it was the right time for a reunion.
There were friendly salutations and things in the email, so that was a good sign that nobody seems to hate each other here. But the initial thing was me posting stuff to a Facebook page that I had created, and I wanted to archive my photographs and band photographs that I thought were great that I wasn’t seeing on the Web. So I started posting those, and we were getting all these likes, and it was an unusually enthusiastic Facebook crowd. Every time I’d post something, it was like, “Reunion!” So then it was just kind of like, "Wow, I guess there is a demand."
Do you feel that with the documentary and reunion tour, there’s been a reappraisal of L7’s legacy?
I think so, because we were sort of forgotten about, a bit swept under the rug. We didn’t have a big digital footprint on the Web. We had no press agent, so we were not contactable to do pieces on the ‘90s or whatever, like maybe some other people were who had still press agents or things. So we were kind of forgotten about. This has definitely sort of reminded people that we were kind of an interesting band.
Journalists often connected you to the burgeoning riot grrrl movement of the ‘90s. Did the band actually identify with or feel connected to that movement?
Well, we were all punk rockers, but riot grrrl was formed on college campuses, and we were urban. And we were kind of from the nitty-gritty, impoverished city artist scene. We weren’t college kids. We were more from the underground in that way.
I think that riot grrrl was more of a political movement using rock as their delivery mechanism, where we were a rock band who happened to be feminist. So it’s a little bit different. We were not on a political platform. We formed Rock for Choice, but we were not riot grrrls. We were grown-ass women, not college kids. And riot grrrl was very serious, and we had a lot of fun.
It’s refreshing to see you were willing to straddle that line and have fun with your music.
For some people, we weren’t political enough. And I would read stuff over the years saying that we were not feminists. And it’s just like, “What the fuck are you talking about?” I’ve gotten so much shit my whole life for being a feminist, and to be called not a feminist is just so outrageous. So we either weren’t political enough or too political. We gave a shit but we wanted to have fun, too.
It’s kind of ironic how you’re sometimes perceived, and then you’ve got to try and set the record straight, which I think this documentary does. And actually, I think our new track also supports that sort of approach as well.
When did you start writing “Dispatch from Mar-a-Lago”?
We wrote it a couple months ago, but we felt it was very urgent to get it out. We thought, "He’s either gonna get impeached..." -- and then we thought Mar-a-Lago was gonna get wiped out by the hurricane. So it was just this urgency, like, "We gotta get this song out! Because it may be irrelevant in a very short amount of time." We’ve never felt such urgency to get a track out.
You’ve had so many crazy, buzz-worthy moments in your career—in particular, the Reading incident in 1992. How do you think those antics would be perceived differently in a quicker, Internet-based news cycle?
I don’t really know the answer to that question. I know that it is a shocking thing that I did, and it is still very shocking, but I find it funny that young gals are really embracing that, and they’re throwing tampons at us onstage. Not used tampons, but they’re homaging us by writing messages on tampons that say, “We love you L7!” and they’re throwing them at us.
You go through phases of, “Oh yeah, that was really cool that I did that!” and then, “Oh God, I hope my mother never finds out about that,” or, “Oh God, why did I do that?” And then, years later, it becomes this moment that the young gals are really digging. So as far as the Internet cycle, I really don’t know, but it certainly has lasted because I’m asked about it in every interview I do.
That must be a head-trip for you, that the incident has been co-opted as a gesture of empowerment by your fans.
Which it is, but it was also an absurdist moment, because I am an absurdist at times. So it wasn’t like this big, “I am woman, hear me roar” thing. It was kind of like, “Fuck you! You think you can throw mud at us? Well, we’re throwing blood at you.”
How have your reunion shows been different than your first go-round in L7?
Well, I think we’re all better musicians, even though we got really good. We started out as just having a cool thing going on, and then we got better as songwriters and better as musicians as time went on.
Is it more financially viable for L7 to tour now?
At our peak, I really don’t know where the money went. But right now it’s good. We’re not making huge bank, but we’re not [just] breaking even either. I don’t think we’re getting Misfits reunion money, but it’s just kind of interesting: We’ll play a festival and we’ll be fifth down the line on the bill, but we’ll get the article in the Chicago Tribune or whatever. It’s this weird thing where we’re not getting placed in a certain place on the bill, but we’ll get the press.
So I don’t know. What is that? I’m not sure. Is that sexism? It’s like, once again, here we are in the Tribune and we’re seventh on the bill. But whatever, we’ll take it. We’ve always been the underdogs of rock. That this has not changed much doesn’t really surprise us. As our manager says, “You’re getting skirted.” Isn’t that ironic? Skirted.
Do you still experience that sexism on a regular basis in the music industry?
We’re not dealing with that from our peers. We never have. We’re not dealing with that from the media. We used to, but we don’t anymore. Media are seeing us more as sort of legacy territory. They’re less gender-obsessed now than they used to be with us. But the people holding the power strings, you’re still at their mercy. And those suits, whether they be record label suits or concert promoter suits, they hold the power. Whether [sexism] is a factor, I am not sure. I don’t know. I’ve never known what goes on in the back rooms.
It seems like being in L7 could be kind of a thankless job when you were in the thick of it. Have the reunion shows and documentary changed your perception of L7’s career at all?
I can look back and see some mistakes that were made, but I would say for the most part, we were just a band of those times, in a way. For a band to last a long time and sustain a certain level is an incredibly difficult thing to do.
We lived the full experience of a rock band, I feel, which is: you climb, and then you plateau, and then you decline. That’s a very interesting life experience that not many people have experienced. So it’s all good. The fact that we did suffer those horrible, shitty times, it’s like, wow, that’s some character building stuff. That’s some humble lessons. So we’re very thankful for everything that we have right now.