Donita Sparks on L7 Reunion: "Not Everybody Has Been in the Same Room Together Yet"
The Kickstarter campaign for the L7 documentary Pretend We’re Dead did more than surpass its goal — it helped bring the band back together. The film is close to being finished, but for members Donita Sparks, Suzi Gardner, Jennifer Precious Finch and Dee Plakas, the journey is just beginning.
Getting back together and primed to move forward, playing festivals and even some local shows, L7 are anything but dead. A week before the ladies are set to re-convene for rehearsals, lead singer Donita Sparks — with whom we've been acquaintances with since she worked at the original L.A. Weekly offices in Silver Lake — talks with us about the film, the reunion and upcoming shows, and how new media has helped her connect with fans in a whole new way.
L.A. Weekly: How did the documentary come about?
Donita Sparks: Well, I had a lot of footage and always thought I’d like it to come out. Some of it is really funny and some of it is cool live footage shot by our roadies from different perspectives. Some of it was historically important because it has sets from a lot of other bands from Helmet to The Melvins to Nirvana.
I was digitizing stuff and I got ahold of Jennifer because she had in her possession a lot of the earlier stuff. And I just wanted to get it digitized before it got fucked up and ruined in my apartment. I was also speaking with a doc filmmaker named Sarah Price, [who] took a look at what we had. She was very impressed and said she hadn’t seen anything like it. She hadn’t seen a band document their ascension and decline with their own camera in this way. It kind of begins on just the cusp of 1992. It's got us shooting videos, going to Europe, having a hit on the radio... and all that kind of stuff.
So you got all the important moments captured?
Yes, in fact it’s heavy stuff from the beginning. During our first video shoot, for “Pretend We're Dead,” a crane fell on Suzi's face. It almost killed her. It was edited out of the video, of course. And that was our first big mainstream hit.
You were documenting all this just for your archives or did you think it could be documentary even back then?
It was a very exciting time in music and frankly, if you're in a band or doing anything artistic, you should probably document it. I kept diaries and I think Jennifer kept journals. We shot video and photographs. I thought we were doing something kind of unique and I thought yeah, we should hold on to this stuff.
I remember my dad — who never approved of my career choice or the rock world — said I should write a book. That was the biggest compliment I ever got from him, because it meant what I was doing something kind of interesting and maybe important. So I’ve also kept short stories of stuff that’s happened to the band over the years.
What was and is the format for the movie?
Sarah is putting it together with an editor. First we just did audio interviews with the band. But now that it’s taken so long and we have shows coming up… we’re looking at different possibilities. But I don’t want it to be like VH1 Behind the Music. And I don't want it to be this stock, cliché thing. Even though now we are reuniting, which is kind of the ultimate cliché thing…
But it was the doc that brought you all back together right? That’s not so cliché.
Listen, we originally had no intention of getting back together. None of us longed to do that. Bands have their time and then it's over. At this time I don’t have the desire to create new music for L7. I think it had a particular time and place. However there are so many people that never got to see us and are into us, so it’s like, what the fuck, The Stooges reunited. The Sex Pistols reunited. I was happy I got to see those shows. And I never got to see Billy Zoom with X until I saw the reunion. I used to poo-poo reunions until I got to see those bands. And people want to see L7.
Was it the Kickstarter's success that clued you in to the interest level for a reunion?
It started more from the Facebook page. I’ve been curating our page for a couple of years now. Just scanning stuff. Fans would post some amazing things, but then I’d have better shots and I had just fliers and unique stuff. When people saw the Facebook getting active, they started getting very frothy about a reunion.
The Kickstarter went over its goal and that was another sign that OK, this is on. People do give a shit and they want to see this. We're getting media requests, but I feel very liberated from getting press because we're not promoting a record or anything. It's great to have the press but I don’t feel as dependent on it as I have in the past.
We posted a Facebook post teasing a reunion, because we had a booking agent, but weren’t getting a lot of bites. There wasn’t like a stampede to get us back on stage from promoters. I was like, that’s contrary to what people are saying on our Facebook. So we brought it to the fans and got them frothy for it. It generated a lot of press and now promoters are paying attention. So there was something very proactive about it.
You knew that the fan base was there.
And we were like OK, you don’t want us here in the U.S., then we're going to play there. And that’s whats happening. We're going to Europe first. And then we’re on a few of the biggest festivals in the U.S.
What about Coachella? It might not be too late. They should add you gals.
Well, yeah... we would love to play Coachella. It would be pleasurable.
So tell me why you decided to do a Kickstarter campaign.
The filmmaker wanted to do it. We were just like OK, we’ll sign a bunch of shit. Sarah needed money to complete the project. She said the Kickstarter would get attention for the film and it has. Distributors got interested. And it was exciting to see it go over its goal.
How much creative control do you all have?
I told everybody they all have veto control. If somebody brings up something the other doesn't want to talk to about, they have veto. We don’t want to cramp anybody’s style artistically. I told the members we are not here to air anybody's dirty laundry.
Will the documentary show how and why L7 broke up? Just what did happen to end it all?
Jennifer left the band a couple years before we broke up. I have my theories on why she left, but I don’t know specifically. She talks about that. She was interviewed but I haven’t heard it. That will be interesting for me to hear.
Basically the wheels just fell off for L7. We had no management, we were dropped from our label, we were struggling to put together our final record ourselves. We just had no money… our popularity was waning. It sort of petered out, and just like a marriage, when there’s money problems there’s bickering and there’s blaming. But now it's just water under the bridge…. But we didn’t speak — some of us — for like 14 years. It happens to a lot of bands.
So you’re all getting past the differences and moving forward?
Yeah, but not everybody has been in the same room together yet. I’ve seen everybody. But everybody hasn’t seen everybody. That might be interesting. I made the phone calls about gathering photos and then about doing a reunion and asked if that interested everyone.
Did it take time for everyone to come around?
Some were into it right away; others needed about nine months. You know this whole thing is happening in real time. We haven’t rehearsed yet. I jammed with Suzi and I’m gonna jam with Dee this week. Maybe everyone’s afraid to get in the same room together or like jump back into it right away. So we're baby stepping into it.
So is L7’s arc all highs and lows?
When Suzi and I started the band in 1985, it took years for us to get any popularity at all. Those years were really fucking hard. It wasn’t as clichéd as, oh we got signed and were thrown into this world. We struggled. It was hard. Nodody would jam with us. We had no drummer… not a lot of women were playing hard rock then and dudes didn’t want to play with us because we were chicks.
I read you never intended to even have an all female band.
Yeah. We were playing this meld between punk rock and metal and most who played that kind of music were dudes.
Did you consider yourselves a feminist band?
I believe we were a feminist band just by our sheer existence. I was raised a feminist. It was part of my upbringing. Suzi and I were in charge. We were going through bandmates who would get drunk and call us cunts. And we’d be like hey, you’re fired! Our songs were very androgynous and universal. Any outsider could relate.
A lot of our songs became anthemic for a lot of disenfranchised kids and that still rings true today. So many songs resonated with adolescents and teenage outcasts. I think that’s huge and an amazing compliment. When do kids need life-savers the most? When they’re that age. I don’t need anthems right now but when I was 15, I needed anthems. And that was what was so cool about us hitting the mainstream.
How did you feel about all the labels? Chick rock, riot grrls, grunge? Did you embrace them and do you now?
In the world of tagging, and social media, I’ll embrace anything. Because I felt the band was invisible digitally for so long. So now, it’s like fine, tag us #riotgrrrl, I don’t give a shit. Tag us #grunge, I don’t care. Tag us #PETA. It’s like OK, fine. We weren’t riot grrls, but I don’t care. It helps people find us and learn about us. I used to hate the “women in rock” thing and now I don’t care. We would not do women in rock issues or articles or anything like that. I always felt like lumping us all together was a big cop-out and lazy journalism, but now it’s whatever…
Time and age have changed your perspective then?
I’ve lightened up on a lot of shit. I used to be a big language nazi, and always politically correct in what I'd say, and now I’m just not as hung up. Also the years have humbled my ego. It’s very corny but I’m in place of gratitude. I’m grateful we have our fans and they kept our name alive during our absence, and our legacy alive.
OK, I have to ask you about the tampon incident. The day you took yours out and threw it into a concert crowd is, and may always be, part of an L7 conversation. Sick of it?
Ya know for a while, I was like god damn, again? But now I’m just like, tag me #tampon! Bring it on, I'm embracing all of it.
That’s the best quote ever.
I did performance art in L.A. People always think L7 were from the rock world, but we were actually from the art world and punk scene. We always loved outrageous absurdity and the underground spirit. If I break down the tampon thing, it was kind of that and maybe there was a little bit of John Waters in there.
I remember you worked in the art department at the L.A. Weekly when it was in Silver Lake. Late '80s/early '90s right?
Suzi worked there before me. We were very much from the Silver Lake/Echo Park artist/writer/musician world. We were not from the North Hollywood or West Hollywood hard rock scene as many assumed we were.
So what’s the L7 timeline from here?
The documentary will come out in September. We have some big festivals booked. And we will be playing a “secret” show in L.A. on May 28.
Hints? What size is the venue?
It’s tiny! But we will play a proper, bigger L.A. show later. We didn’t want to play a big one out of the gate because we’re going to Europe for some big festivals. We just need a warm-up gig.
When is the first real rehearsal with you all in the same room?
I think next week. And I think Sara would love nothing more than to film us all walking into a rehearsal space with our guitar cases and getting together for the first time for the documentary. It would be a moment for sure, but it’s like, were not fucking doing that. It’ll be awkward and weird but whatever, well get over it and then I think it will end up being fun for everyone.
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