DiS is off to Download this weekend (8-10 June) and in the second of our previews, we caught up with Donita Sparks from legendary grunge four-piece L7.
DiS: What are you up to at this moment in time?
Donita Sparks: We are so busy and I'm really busy because I'm actually moving my residence at the same time. I have all these deadlines going on. We're about to play Las Vegas then we head over to Europe in June. We have a new web store that we just launched yesterday at King's Road Merch. It looks like we may be doing a screening of the documentary L7: Pretend We're Dead in Camden along with a band Q&A the night before our London show, and we're also getting pre-orders in on our first new album in 19 years at Pledgemusic.com. We've self-funded the making of it so we're putting out some cool memorabilia and one of a kind items on there to go with the record. So there's a lot of moving parts going on and its all great stuff. It's all happening right now!
Was it a difficult process getting back into the habit of writing L7 songs again or did they just come naturally? Were they all written since getting back together or were some left over from before the band split?
No, they all came about in the last year. Suzi (Gardner, guitar) and I wrote the first single 'Dispatch From Mar-A-Lago' relatively quickly and then the band kind of arranged it. So we broke it down because it's really just one riff played over and over again. The whole band added a dynamic to it. The next single, 'I Came Back To Bitch', I wrote completely by myself. Then I brought it to the band and we all worked on the arrangement together as well.
A lot of bands that first started around the same time as L7 have since reformed, many of them just to tour on the nostalgia circuit. Was it always your intention to record new material if and when L7 got back together?
It was exactly the case of going back and playing old songs why we first got back together! When the band got back together a few years ago we all started talking again because of the documentary. Then the reunion idea came up but I thought new music would be too overwhelming of a request, and I didn't even know if I wanted to make new music with L7. Once we became congealed it just started happening naturally between our musical connection, our take on life, and the way we see the world so everything was kind of sympatico.
Once the seeds had been planted, was it difficult persuading any of the band members to reform L7?
Dee (Plakas, drums) wanted to think about it, Jennifer (Finch, bass) said yes right away and Suzi needed to go away and think about it for six months. So I said look, we need to know by a certain date and I'll call you in six months because the shows would have to be booked around nine months in advance. We needed to plant that seed and have it be in her brain for a while before she said yes. She hadn't played guitar in something like 16 years. She literally put it under the bed after we split and didn't touch it.
So many current bands have cited L7 as an influence. Did that play a part in getting the band back together?
I think it's amazing. It wasn't one of our goals when we started out. We had no idea that would be going on right now particularly as 10 years ago, we were completely absent from the internet. There was no L7 on the web at all, so the fact people know about us is really amazing. We were swept under the rug for quite a few years. It was only through fans posting stuff on YouTube and social media that kept our name out there. There was an L7 fan page on Facebook before we had any official ones, so we're grateful to those people for bringing us into the digital age.
Rock music was a lot more male dominated when you first started out, so how do you feel about The PRS Foundation's International Keychange body initiative whereby 45 international music events have pledged to achieve and maintain a 50/50 gender balance by 2022?
When we were around the first time and started playing festivals there were other female bands around too, like The Breeders for example. That early nineties period had a lot of women in rock bands. We were one of the pied pipers of that I believe. Actually, the grunge era is looked upon so fondly by a lot of people, particularly because it had a lot of women playing in bands. That's something I think gets ignored when grunge is discussed - the feminist aspect of grunge. It really was a golden era of women in rock. Times have changed musically, certainly. There are a lot of women in bands these days. It's a contentious issue. L7 get asked to play a lot of heavy rock and heavy metal festivals, which is great, but we seem to be one of only a couple of female bands on the bill. We're usually asked to play on the main stage, which is amazing to even be in the company of some of these legendary metal bands, that we're embraced by that scene.
Yet when it comes to the so-called "press darlings festivals" we don't get those invitations so much, which is quite perplexing to me. So I don't really know that much about the current state of male:female ratios because we don't get invited to those events that often. It's perplexing because we're an underground guitar band and always have been so I don't really have a comment on that. Also, to say you're going to have a 50/50 ratio? You know, who deserves to be on the bill? Maybe it should really be about that, and who's considered good enough will always be subjective. Just because you have a pussy doesn't mean you deserve to play every festival. Yes, there needs to be more women on the bills but that should not be your pass to play. We deserve to be on festivals and we don't even get asked!
If more females form bands or play music as a result of the Keychange initiative then I guess that has to be a good thing?
I know that every middle-aged punk rocker wants their daughter to be in a band, and that's great, but I don't know if its entirely fulfilling either. It's encouraged by a lot of parents and we have Rock and Roll Girls Camps over here in the United States. Everybody wants their kid to play in a band. Male or female. School of Rock. Whereas I think you should really let your kid pursue whatever they want to pursue. I think it's kind of weird that some parents are forcing it upon their kids. My parents did not force me to play clarinet or to be in a big band! It's almost like sanctioned rebellion. Yet the whole point of joining a band in the first place is to rebel against your parents. Rebellion should not be facilitated by your parents. I think it's fucking weird, personally.
You're playing the main stage at Download in a couple of weeks. Is that one festival you're particularly looking forward to?
Oh yeah! We love playing Download. Even though we're from the punk rock and art underground we love playing the hard rock and metal festivals. The audiences really get us, it's a very loyal fanbase. It's very tribal, and I think it's super cool we are invited to their party at these festivals. They need more pussy, and we are a rocking band. It's in their favour to invite us to these things as well as being a great time for us. It's beneficial to all parties.
How does Download compare with other festivals?
It's so massive. But then, most of these festivals are now, whereas back in the day - Reading for example - there was only one main stage and you got to see all of the bands who played that day. From the side of the stage if you wished. Backstage passes were very loose so if you were a band playing the main stage you could watch everyone else from the wings. Now there are at least two main stages and a couple of side stages and the site's massive so we have to ride on a golf cart to get everywhere. To me, it doesn't have the party aspect of a lot of the festivals back in the day. Bands aren't hanging out and partying together as much. But we do love Download, we love Hellfest, we just played Hell & Heaven in Mexico and that was amazing. So yeah, we dig it and we represent, and I think we're pretty well respected by the other bands and their crews. Even if they aren't crazy about our music they recognise we've paid our dues. Any band that's been out there this long, you've got to tip the hat of respect because it's not easy to do.
Do you tailor your live sets specifically for festival audiences?
It's so funny you ask that because for the past month we've had to exactly that! We only had a 45 minute set at Hell & Heaven in Mexico the other week which meant we had to really pick and choose what to play. Now there are certain songs we must play like 'Shitlist', 'Everglade', and 'Pretend We're Dead', but then because it was a metal festival meant we could also play some of our heavier stuff. The next week we played Punk Rock Music & Bowling in Las Vegas which is a punk rock festival where we also had a 45-minute set. Except this time we didn't play any of the heavier songs, but played a more punk skewed set alongside the standard tracks instead. It's great that we can work in both worlds where we have material that suits both audiences.
It's interesting you mention L7 crossing the metal and punk divide when many other bands probably wouldn't even admit to being influenced by both. Especially in the early nineties when it was really tribal.
I agree. We also crossed into the art world and we have a lot of fans who are very well respected art people, and poets. Some of the New York crowd for instance, Lydia Lunch and those people. So we jump around into a lot of different themes and embrace them all. We like all of it.
Are there any other bands on the Download bill you're looking forward to seeing?
I think we're off to Glasgow soon after we've played. I don't have the schedule with me so I'm not exactly clear who else is playing the same day as us. At Download Madrid we follow Ozzy Osbourne so that's going to be amazing. I think we're playing in the daytime in the UK but in Madrid, we're on late at night so that will be cool.
How do UK audiences compare with those elsewhere?
They're the same. They're amazing. Back in the day they were slightly less violent than US crowds. They would just politely get up on stage and dive off. It was almost like a conveyor belt whereby people would just get up on stage, dive off, get up on stage, dive off. It was actually quite cute and innocent. Whereas US audiences could get a little more violent at times. Now it's just great. I would say worldwide we have this mixture of original fans and young, new fans who heard about us on the internet or from their parents. It's about a 50/50 split age wise and it works so well.
What advice you give to new bands just starting out?
Don't cater to the current trends, because by the time you get there you're late. If you're jumping on a musical bandwagon, by the time you make it, chances are it will already be passe. Whereas if you're doing what you wanna do people will eventually come to you. When Suzi and I started L7 nobody else was doing hard rock in the punk scene, nobody. But we were very committed and dressed in our own style which eventually became grunge. So I guess you could say we were also trend setters. Then by the time we made it, we were the trend which was pretty wild. That was when we started noticing all these other metal bands in our rehearsal space trying to sound like Pearl Jam and Nirvana. Now they're just following when they should really stick to what they do, because this will soon be passe. And it did become passe. Grunge became really boring and bloated. Not necessarily us, but certainly a lot of the bands that came along in the wake of the architects of grunge. So it had to be overthrown which is why I would always tell a young band to do their own thing, and also get involved in some sort of a scene. Make some friends, even if you're not playing the same music. Go out to see other bands and get some peers because that's what makes it fun. You can bitch about them, you can party with them, and you can gossip with them. You can either make it or break it with peers. It's cool to have a theme.
Do you think a band like L7 would have achieved the same level of success and recognition if they were just starting out today in the current climate?
Probably not in the same way but then nobody has a recipe. There's one AC/DC and they sound like AC/DC. There's one L7 and we sound like L7. People may have some of the same ingredients but nobody has our secret recipe. I think we'd still be really unique because nobody has our recipe. There's only one Ramones. There's only one Stooges. For all the time they've been around, nobody comes close. There have been a lot of bands who've tried to sound like the Stooges but they don't have the recipe.
Are there any new bands you'd recommend for Drowned In Sound and its readers to check out?
You're probably aware of them but one band I think are really unique and cool are The Growlers. I like their art a lot, I like their videos as well, the whole gestalt. They're like The Doors with a sense of humour! I like the Allah Las too. I like a band called Bleached. They're two sisters from Los Angeles and they're really cool. I like a lot of stuff. I like a little bit of electronica, I like a little bit of singer/songwriter stuff. I like Courtney Barnett. She's just solid. A lot of times I hear a song then I buy it on iTunes. Sometimes I'll check out their album while I'm there but usually only end up buying a couple of tracks.
L7 play The Avalanche stage at 18:30 on Friday 8th June. For more information on the band, please visit their official website.