The first time I met the women of L7, it was the height of the grunge Nineties, and the country was gripped with shock and horror over what was about to unfold on an ice skating rink in Lillehammer, Norway. I was interviewing the band at A&M Studios in Hollywood, where L7 were finishing up Hungry for Stink, their latest slab of snarling metal, punk and bad attitude. Down the hall was Mick Jagger, working up the next Rolling Stones album, but all these hard rockers really cared about that night in 1994 was the Winter Olympics soap opera unfolding on the TV: Tonya Harding vs. Nancy Kerrigan.
It's ancient history now (and the subject of 2017's Oscar-winning I, Tonya, starring Margot Robbie), but at the time the planet was obsessing over a physical attack on Kerrigan a month before, orchestrated by Harding's thug husband. This was reality TV before anyone had ever heard of it. As entertainment, L7 were happily eating it up, making jokes while consuming cigarettes and leftover Halloween candy.
L7 had other reasons to be having a good time: The band was at a hard-rock peak, in the middle of a multi-album winning streak of creativity that would inspire rockers, female and otherwise, for a generation. L7 had enjoyed a modest hit in '92 with "Pretend We're Dead," but that was just one, more accessible example of the relentless, grinding, crushing tuneage created by the quartet before it broke up in 2001.
"We were this weird Pied Piper during the pre-grunge era — we would play Seattle and a year later there'd be 7 Year Bitch and then after that Dickless. It felt very exciting because a lot of young women would watch us play and we were not playing the sex card at all," remembers L7 singer-guitarist Donita Sparks. "I'm not saying we were the first ones to do it. I'm just saying we spread, like, a disease out there."
Once L7 disbanded, they were deeply missed by those who understood, but then there were unexpected signs of life in the form of an L7 documentary initiated by Sparks. The crowd-funded film, L7: Pretend We're Dead, would ultimately reignite wide interest in the band, and by the end of 2014 came the announcement that L7 was reuniting its classic quartet: Sparks, singer-guitarist Suzi Gardner, singer-bassist Jennifer Finch and drummer Demetra Plakas.
In 2017, the band released their first new song in 18 years, the self-explanatory "Dispatch from Mar-a-Lago," followed four months later with "I Came Back to Bitch." They've been mostly back in action ever since. With a just-released new album, Scatter the Rats (recorded in Los Angeles), L7 are about to kick off a 24-date North American tour on May 10th at the Glasshouse in Pomona, California. We caught up with Donita beforehand.
FROM THE BEGINNING, L7 HAD A VERY DISTINCTIVE ATTITUDE AND PERSONALITY — SORT OF TOUGH, BUT WITH A BITING SENSE OF HUMOR.
DONITA SPARKS That's just the way we are as people. And the toughness is aided by the fact that there are four of us. If you're just out there on your own, you're taking the hits by yourself, you're taking the glory by yourself, but with four of you, it's a band. When we would walk in a room, some people were terrified of us, because there were four of us and we were kind of intimidating looking, but actually we're not that scary. I guess if you catch us on a wrong day and we could be scary. Four is better than one, so it just amplifies everything.
DID YOU FIND THAT MEN OR WOMEN WERE MORE INTIMIDATED BY THE BAND?
I would say both. Dudes were scared of us. Women wanted to be us, but they didn't really know how to begin.
I WOULD THINK THAT MEN AND WOMEN WERE INTIMIDATED FOR DIFFERENT REASONS.
I'll tell you who were not that intimidated — well, maybe they were intimidated, but they had no qualms about approaching us: lesbians. They were very brazen about wanting to get in our pants. Lesbians had none of the fears or trepidations that straight dudes had about approaching us for romantic endeavors.
WAS A LARGE CONTINGENT OF YOUR ORIGINAL FAN BASE LESBIANS?
It depends on what city. If we were in San Francisco, half the audience were dykes. It was massive.
WHAT WERE THE EXPECTATIONS FOR L7 DURING YOUR ORIGINAL RUN WHEN YOU WERE ON A MAJOR LABEL, SLASH/WARNER BROS.?
On our first major label release, Nirvana had just broke and we were using the same producer [Butch Vig]. And I think some people expected us to break through — maybe not as big as Nirvana, but get to a gold record, which we never did. Certainly there were some expectations for a bigger success.
I'M GUESSING THAT SOME OF YOUR FAVORITE BANDS NEVER GOT A GOLD RECORD EITHER.
No, I don't think the Ramones ever got a gold record. The Stooges never got a gold record.
SO THE APPEAL OF THIS KIND OF MUSIC WAS BASED ON SOMETHING OTHER THAN FORTUNE AND FAME FOR YOU.
Suzi and I were sort of art punks wanting to do metal but had very limited skills to do so. But that created our sound. It's sort of the punk way of working with what you've got and spinning gold out of it — not wealth, but something valuable.
WHEN L7 REUNITED, YOUR SOUND AND ATTITUDE SEEMED TO COME BACK VERY EASILY AND INTACT.
Once we dial in our tones on our guitars and once we have Dee playing drums — Dee is the glue. She broke her arm last year and she was not with us for a few of our shows, and we could really tell. It was very challenging because she's so much a part of our sound. As soon as we got back together for the reunion, at our first rehearsals Dee was just slamming and she sounded great. If the drummer sounds good, you're going to sound pretty good. Even if you fuck up, she'll hold it down.
YOU WERE BASICALLY THE ONE WHO GOT THE REUNION BALL ROLLING.
I approached everybody with it. I wasn't sold on it yet. I wanted the original members. I was just throwing it out there like, "Hey, if we were to ever to do this, now would be the time to do it or forever hold your peace." We were getting some offers. The documentary was coming out. We were in communication again, so it was like, we better do it now because in 10 years we're gonna be too old for this shit.
DURING THE HIATUS, DID YOU OFTEN HEAR FROM FANS ABOUT WHAT L7 HAD MEANT TO THEM?
I heard it from other musicians and younger bands like, "Hey, I saw you guys and you changed my life." "Hey, I saw you on David Letterman and blah, blah, blah." It wasn't until social media where people could post their memories and what we meant to them. Then we were very much aware of it.
AT WHAT POINT DID YOU DECIDE IT WAS TIME TO MAKE NEW MUSIC AGAIN?
We did a couple singles. We did "Dispatch from Mar-a-Lago" because we thought Trump was going to get impeached right away: "We got the song, let's put it out!" And people really wanted us to make some kind of statement on Trump. And we thought it would be almost negligent not to since we had just reformed and the election just happened. And then we did another [song], "I Came Back to Bitch," so clearly we still had something to say. We figured if we want to keep doing this, we've got to put out a new record because otherwise we're a nostalgia band and none of us want it to be that.
WHERE DID THE SCATTER THE RATS ALBUM TITLE COME FROM?
Scatter the Rats came up from rats being in the basement of where we were recording and the amplifier heads were in the living room and the cabinets were in the basement. And our producer said, "Let's get rocking. We've got to scatter the rats."
IS THERE ANYTHING IN THE AIR TODAY THAT INSPIRES THE BAND THAT DIDN'T EXIST IN THE NINETIES?
It's the same stuff. As a journalist pointed out to me, we were sticking our necks out politically and socially a bit more than our contemporaries with songs like "Wargasm." We're pranksters but we also have something to say. There are many ingredients in our recipe and social commentary every once in a while comes into our repertoire. Certainly, political things have taken a very bizarre turn. But we've always been fighting the power in one way or another because there's always power to fight against.
BACK IN THE NINETIES, HARD ROCK DOMINATED THE CHARTS FOR A LONG TIME, BUT POP AND HIP-HOP ARE CURRENTLY THE FLAVORS OF CHOICE FOR MANY. HOW DO YOU FEEL ABOUT THAT?
It doesn't really have any impact on my life. When electronic music came out and all that stuff, it was like, "Rock & roll is dead. You guys will never survive in this business anymore." And it's kinda true. I feel bad for younger kids who don't get to see female role models who are not wearing bikinis. I think that sucks. A lot of young people really view the grunge era as a golden era of women in rock, from the Breeders to L7 to Babes in Toyland and all these bands that were fucking aggressive and with clothes on. Some parents are bringing their kids to our shows just to give them a glimpse of a band that's women onstage who aren't just twerking: "Honey, you don't have to twerk. You can grow up to be a doctor or be L7!"