25 YEARS OF TINY LITTLE GOALS
AN INTERVIEW WITH DONITA SPARKS OF L7
L7 was a successful band in the Grunge-dominated musical climate of the late ’80s.After the band’s dissolution in 2001, its members mainly took a back seat from the music industry until it re-formed in 2014. On the first night of a new UK tour – and its first in many years – I had the opportunity to have a chat with Donita Sparks from the band, ahead of their sold-out show in Manchester.
After several years of inactivity on the L7 band front I opened the conversation by asking Donita what had prompted the band’s return to the music scene. “I saw a lot of activity on our Facebook page that I had just for archiving stuff.The page grew very quickly which was pretty crazy. I kind of just thought that everybody had forgotten about us because we were getting no coverage in the media. I thought that we had been swept under the rug.” From that fan-based initial growth on social media, I wondered how that had transferred to the band going out, getting back on the road again, and touring. Donita responded that the band’s booking agent in the U.S. had wanted to submit the band for festivals when at that point they still were not actually a working and operating band. “I said, ‘let me run it by everybody,’ and I gave everybody nine months to think about it. I just planted the seed.”
I informed Donita that I had read a recent interview in Classic Rock where she had been quoted as saying that the band had “a shit-load of new songs.” I wondered if there had been any further plans in regard to those perhaps making their creative debut on a new L7 album. “I dont know, we havnt discussed it. I have been asked all summer about that in interviews. I have sort of mentioned it to the girls. We will see if we want to continue; I dont know if we will.”
I had also read that the band had spent the last couple years doing a fan-funded documentary. I asked Donita regarding the progress of that, and was it nearing a release date? She updated me on the current situation: “It’s nearly finished; it’s still in the editing process. The rough cut has been accepted to two festivals in the United States in November.” That must prove to the band that there is still sufficient interest in L7, I observed. “It will be out in November and probably the physical discs by December.”
L7 in the UK has unfortunately been known more for two incidents that occurred way back in ’92, rather than its music. Everybody knows what I am referring to.. one at a festival, and one on a television show. I had often wondered over the years if these had negatively impacted on the band’s musical career, both in the UK and other musical markets. I put this question to Donita.Her reply was, “I really dont know; could have hindered it, could have helped it. I know that some of our fans who were friends of ours in America felt that it hindered. That it was the only coverage that we got.” I shared my view from living in the UK myself at that time as I believed it seemed to generate more press coverage than the band’s musical output.Donita partially agreed before adding, “yes that may be true but we never sold as many records in the UK as our peers did.” Laughing, she said,”all those guys are really wealthy dudes (Soundgarden, Nirvana). She mused, “why we didn’t sell as many records, I dont know – but it’s not because I dropped my pants on TV. There are other factors why our label did not sell more records.”
Despite more coverage in some parts of the world for controversial incidents, actually L7’s music has become a part of culture in others. The band made appearances in the 1993 film Point of No Return starring Bridget Fonda, and in 1994’s John Waters’ film Serial Mom. The band’s songs have been featured on at least 20 compilation albums; most notably, the song “Shitlist” appeared on the soundtracks of the movies Natural Born Killers and Pet Sematary Two. The Prodigy covered the Hungry for Stink track “Fuel My Fire” on their 1997 album Fat of the Land. “Shirley” appears on the Foxfire soundtrack. “Shove” appears on the soundtrack of the movie Tank Girl, and “Pretend We’re Dead” appears on the soundtrack of the video game Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas and can be heard on an in-game radio station and on the music video game Rock Band 2. “Andres” is available as downloadable content for the Rock Band series. The band was also the subject of a concert film made by former Nirvana bassist Krist Novoselic and a rockumentary “Not Bad for a Girl.” Jennifer Finch and Demetra Plakas performed several times with Japanese artist Hide, in 1994.I asked Donita what was personally her favourite movie that the band’s music had been featured in. “I dont have one; I like Natural Born Killers but for me it is very violent. I don’t dig violence at all. It is actually for me a tough film to watch. Our fans love that our song “Shitlist” is associated with that really violent scene. I dont like that.”
This surprised me as I had believed that prior to approving their songs for a movie’s use I had thought that the band would have been given the opportunity to have a screening of the movie .Donita filled me in on how the process actually works. “No but we read the script; I think that I was actually very loaded when I read the script. I thought that an Oliver Stone film is likely to be pretty big so we should just….” I interjected that it would obviously prove good exposure for the band in a global marketplace, and she agreed.
When researching for my interview I found out that Donita had a quite unusual pastime: playing in a Lou Reed tribute band.I was curious to understand how Donita’s personal introduction to the musical enigma of Lou Reed came about. She shared with me that, “I had some older sisters that were into the music of Lou Reed. Around our household we heard Bowie, Patti Smith, Lou Reed and Bob Marley. For a family living out in the Chicago suburbs there was pretty hip music going on in our household.”
Donita had witnessed a lot both professionally and personally since L7 had first started out back in 1985. The music business itself has seen widespread changes and significant restructuring. I wondered if in a completely new era her goals and ambitions had been altered and reshaped, or did she have the same burning drive, ambition and passion that she had obtained in her youth? She thought for a few moments before responding, “I don’t think that I do. When L7 started our goals were very small. When Suzi )Gardner) and I started the band we never thought that we were going to be a big Rock band. Never did that come out of our mouths. We wanted to be a very good Rock band.We just wanted to headline the local place and we thought that would be huge. Then it would be huge to go out of town.” Obviously as L7 grew, I assume that her goals for the band subsequently were re-accessed and re-evaluated. Donita agreed with me, saying that, “tiny little goals got us to where we were, you know.”
There have been huge changes in the whole music industry since the band’s early days. How has that impacted on yourself as a working musician? Is it considerably more difficult to make a living and exist as a full-time musician these days? Donita mused, “I dont know because I am not that involved in the music business. We are like this weird island, very self-contained .We don’t have big money behind us or a big machine. It’s just us so we are not really in the music business. I know that social media has been great for us but that was tapping into a fan base that we had built 25 years ago. We are different – we are in a different situation than a lot of young bands; I dont know how it is for them.”
The music business is certainly a difficult path to choose as a career – the path to stardom is littered with both temptations and casualties on the road. I tried to gain some insight into the particular difficulties that a touring musician may encounter along the way. Asking Donita how she survived through the dark times brought this quite honest and direct response: “Personally? Medication.That is pretty personal but I will just say that modern medicine can be very helpful for people that suffer from and through tough times. I am all for it.”
Stylistically what L7 does is well known. I asked Donita if she ever stepped outside that style and would she perhaps confess to having any guilty musical pleasures. After a little prompting I was very surprised to receive this confession: “that is a tough one because I don’t listen to very much Rock ‘n’ Roll. I have always had very diverse taste in music so I don’t consider many things ‘closet skeletons’.” Laughing, she added, “I am not saying that this is a skeleton, but I like the band Boston. I think they have got excellent riffs and they are not considered hip at all.”
A musician’s life is not a quiet one – they have to be industrious and creative as the industry has evolved to make them more self-sufficient and more hands-on. I am always curious to find out what they do in the time they haveoff and just theirs. Donita, when asked what she spent her spare time doing, responded, “I do a lot of writing; I had a Pop culture blog for quite a few years called ‘The spin I am in.’ I started a non-profit called Cash Music, which is an aid to musicians.That was sort of pre-Kickstarter but because it was non-profit….It was basically what Kickstarter is. I just do a lot of artistic things – not really necessarily to do anything professional but I am always thinking of something cool to do.”
Asking Donita to look back on the L7 musical career history what were the standout high and low points? Did anything immediately spring to mind? “God…..so many steps along the way. Even when we got our first article written on us, when we got our first fan letter, was a huge high. Certainly when we played really good festivals, in Brazil, in the UK. Finsbury park was really fun. Lows were just at the very beginning of the band when it was just me and Suzi and just trying to find people to play with. That was really tough and then the end of our career was really tough.” I assume that having L7 and the fellow bandmates in your life full time for so many years and….for all that to have suddenly stopped. I am sure that it left a huge void in your life. That must have been very tough, I mused…..
L7, I was sure, had many stories of how its music has had a positive impact on individuals’ lives. Donita highlighted, quite surprisingly, a group that seemed to have a personal connection with the band. “We get a lot of comments from transgendered kids and adults. I think that they identify with our play with gender. I think that we were always fucking around with that – I know that I was. Also that our music helps to get teenagers through tough times because I think that probably when you are a teenager that is probably one of the toughest times of life. Some of our songs tap into this teenage anthem kind of thing. The catharsis has been very touching to hear that. I certainly know that I had those songs when I was a kid.”
I revamped the age-old question by asking Donita if she could choose only two albums – one by L7 and one by another artist – as her chosen musical listening pleasures, what would those choices be. “Oh man. . . that’s so tough. One by L7…I dont know..I am going to say The Beauty Process.Also Frank Sinatra – The Capitol Years. Although that would be incredibly depressing to be on a desert island listening to that.” I counteracted with the fact that the L7 album would then have the opposite effect and pick her back up. “That’s true,” Donita agreed.
I concluded our conversation with my regular question that usually creates bewilderment and silence. If the roles were reversed, Donita, who would you actually like to sit down with and interview. Following the expected period of silence, Donita replied with, “oh my god….shit. Well Lou Reed was great to talk to – we met him a couple of times. Bowie would be great. Debbie Harry . We know her but I have never actually grilled her for information but I think that she kind of knows everybody. She was such a huge Pop star and also an underground Punk star. She has lived in a life of grit and glamour. Therefore she would have some really great stories of everything and extremes.”
In conclusion I was eager to find out what the future held for L7 as a band – or indeed if there even was a future for L7. “We are going to Australia, and then the film comes out. We will probably be promoting that a little bit and then we are going to I guess talk about doing some new music. Then I definitely want to play South America before we wrap this up. . . If we do wrap it up. If we do make new music I would like to tour next summer and promote it. If not, maybe we can still squeeze out a few shows next summer in Europe and go to South America.”