L7's Donita Sparks on the Meaning of "Fierce" and How Missy Elliot Won the Super Bowl
"There other ways to be fierce without being scantily clad."
Photo by Mary Scanlon
When L7 broke up in 2001 after 16 years of groundbreaking punk rawk, it was a blow to the grunge-and grrrl dreams of the '90s. At the time, singer-guitarist Donita Sparks termed the break an "indefinite hiatus," saying now, "I'm kind of a superstitious person, and I didn't want to make that final announcement. I always said to myself, 'I will not do a reunion, it's not happening.' But I also intentionally left that open, because I thought, 'you never know.'"
Then on December 10, 2014, a statement appeared on the dormant band's Facebook page, reading in part, "What started as a simple band page for us to post some archival photos we had been sifting through for an upcoming L7 documentary has turned into a wellspring of enthusiasm for the band...Many of you have asked when we might return for a reunion. Well, it's been 14 years since our last show, longer if you consider our original line up. But we (Donita, Suzi [Gardner, guitar/vocals], Jennifer [Finch, bass], and Dee [Plakas, drums] are hearing you, we are talking about it, and we kinda agree. Why the hell not?"
The in-progress film, L7: Pretend We're Dead: The story of the fierce, funny and feminist pioneers of American grunge punk," helmed by documentarian Sarah Price (producer of the award-winning 1999 American Movie), was a great catalyst for reunification. L.A's favorite daughters are now confirmed for three European festivals in June, with U.S. dates on the horizon. As of this writing, L7 haven't yet been in a room together, but rehearsals are planned for March. Sparks wants the live shows to be "no stress" and affirms the band's personal issues are "water under the bridge. There were no apologies needed. It was like when a marriage breaks up over financial problems. When there's no money, people bicker. The band fell apart at the end because were absolutely broke, we had no management, no record label. Figuratively, the wheels fell off of the band."
All that and more will be laid bare in L7: Pretend We're Dead. Sparks, who cites the Stones' Gimme Shelter and This Is Spinal Tap as favorite rock docs, had a vision for the L7's documentary, which takes its name from their 1992 song of the same name off Bricks Are Heavy. "I said, 'I just don't want it to be a VH1 Behind the Music. That I cannot tolerate. Every band has out-drugged us, out-triumphed, out-failed us. It's all been fucking done before. Even though, as the Kickstarter campaign says—it is a 'rags to never-quite-riches story,' which is true—I didn't want it to become a formula, a stock thing. That's distasteful to me."
L7 were avid documenters of their own fun and foibles, though two early video cameras went MIA—first stolen by a junkie at a club, and then lost in an airplane's overhead bin. "So our personal footage starts right before our 1992 album, Bricks are Heavy. We had not hit the semi-big time yet," she laughs. "Right on the cusp. We were still in the van. I don't know if we were on tour with Helmet, but you still get the sense of that brutal driving-all-night feel. Then it's all through the very end of our career."
Of course, that career now might have a part two, and the world is ready, as are the band members, who have dealt with family and health issues, but are in good places now—as seem to be several kindred musical spirits. "I think it's ironic, that at the very moment that we are able to do this," observes Sparks, who turns 52 this year, "Sleater-Kinney are out there, Babes in Toyland are out there. It's just like, 'goddamnit, we're going to get lumped in again,' but at the same time, this really just kind of happened, and we weren't going to put the brakes on it because other bands are out there. It's cool, it's just kind of funny."
Photo by Charles Peterson
L7, who organized Rock For Choice concerts starting in 1991 (Nirvana and Hole were on the first bill), have always been part of the feminist and gender conversation. Watching the Super Bowl, says Sparks, gave her hope for L7 to address those issues again. "Missy Elliot was amazing on the half-time show. She was so confrontational; she in the camera's face, and threw down. It was such a great contrast to Katy Perry, who has a very different trip going on. From what I understand," Sparks says, "the Internet blew up with kids who didn't know who she was and thought she was a new artist. And how fierce she was. I think there's a lack of that in the media, in what young people have been seeing. So maybe this is a very good time to be out there doing shows. We had a lot of young fans, and also a lot of young people who have never heard of us could really use a dose of L7."
She continues, "The 'fierceness' word is going around with a lot of these pop stars. Which may be true. But there other ways to be fierce without being scantily clad. I think a lot of people have a real longing and nostalgia of the female presence of the 90s, which I don't think has been as present as it was then in such a confrontational way."
With the documentary and reunion gigs on tap, the next question is: can we look forward to new music from L7? "I don't really have the desire at this time to write a new L7 record," Sparks concludes. "Making a record is a major undertaking. It's a lot of pressure. Plus, a new L7 record? Does anybody really want to fucking hear that?" she wonders, laughing. "It's like, 'Nah, just play 'Shitlist.'
Katherine Turman is rioting on Twitter.