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Interview: Donita Sparks of L7

6 May 2020

L7 vocalist/guitarist Donita Sparks has never been shy, and she’s not about to go away quietly just because there’s a pandemic-enforced lockdown happening now. In fact, she and her bandmates (vocalist/guitarist Suzi Gardner, bassist Jennifer Finch and drummer Dee Plakas) are keeping a very high profile: on April 21, they released a blazing cover of the Joan Jett & the Blackhearts song “Fake Friends” (Jett guests on the vocals, alongside Sparks). The B-side, “Witchy Burn,” is a reworking of the song “Burn Baby” from their latest album, Scatter the Rats, which came out last year. That album proved that L7 remain as ferocious as they were when they first became acclaimed as one of the heaviest bands of the 1990s, thanks to stellar songs like “Pretend We’re Dead” (and “Shitlist.” Besides music, Sparks has also kept self-isolated fans entertained with “The Hi-Low Show,” the weekly online absurdist variety show that she hosts (with guests like Arrow de Wilde of Starcrawler and Lydia Lunch). Calling from her L.A. home, Sparks talks about what motivates her to do all of this work (and stay as defiant as ever as she does it).

How are you holding up in this pandemic?

DONITA SPARKS: I’m holding up okay because I’ve been doing this “Hi-Low Show” and it’s been so insanely busy. I’ve been busier now than since I was on tour last summer. For whatever strange reason, this opportunity fell in my lap and it’s pretty intense, the workload. It’s been kind of crazy doing this show.

How are you pulling the show together, considering the constraints we’re all under?

DONITA SPARKS: I’m asking some creative friends that maybe have some content that they created, like I had a magician friend of mine do a piece. Lydia Lunch contributed a piece of poetry that was great. I feel pretty free to do whatever I want to, so long as it falls within my taste. This has got a specific kind of trip going on. I’m writing it and acting it. I’m playing a version of myself but it’s not really me. So it’s this weird meta trip that I’m going for on it.

I’ve heard other artists say how awkward livestreams can be because there’s no audience there, so they feel like they’re playing into a void. How do you overcome that problem?

DONITA SPARKS: Well, my whole show is about awkwardness – I’m not trying to pull off a live performance or anything. That’s the antithesis of what I’m doing. That doesn’t really appeal to me very much, that approach. No, the whole thing about this is that it’s very DIY and a little bit of Public Access going on, you know?

And now you also have the “Fake Friends” single out.

DONITA SPARKS: That has been in the pipeline for a while. I think we finished that at the end of January, and it was supposed to kick off our Australian tour that got cancelled. We decided to release it anyway, to hopefully pick people’s spirits up a little bit. And then the B-side, “Witchy Burn,” is getting a lot of attention from fans, they’re really liking that, too. So that’s cool.

How did you decide to do a different take on “Burn Baby” to make “Witchy Burn”?

DONITA SPARKS: When we were first recording it, we started playing a slower version of it and Suzi started playing this little riff over that version, and she was really digging the reverb sound she got on her guitar. So we just put that on the back burner for a bit. I also wanted to do it because for some reason, sometimes somebody will write something in the press, or a fan will write something, and then it just gets repeated over and over again, even if it’s not true. People start saying, ‘Oh yeah, it’s about major label record companies!’ No, that’s not what that song is about – it’s about being an outsider and being burned at the stake, like they used to burn so-called witches, and they still stone people to death in weird places. So it’s about mending fences because we’re all on the same side. We should band together and get over old grudges because there’s a much bigger enemy out there right now than just stupid little ego arguments between people.

You’ve always been good at standing up for things, but how do you stop from getting fatigued from doing that? How do you persist?

DONITA SPARKS: The thing that inspires me the most to write is if I get angry about something or if my feelings get hurt, and I take something shitty and I turn limes into limeade, as we say on “The Hi-Low Show.” When the band was broken up [they went on hiatus from 2001-2014], I got on so many political mailing lists, it’s insane. My whole email is filled with animal rights stuff and environmental stuff because that’s what I did when I was feeling powerless and had the blues. I was calling Petco to stop selling tropical fish. You know what I mean? Anything you can do to just stir up some sand. I think that’s what you can do. And try to make it a performance art piece, even better. Call up Petco with a French accent and bitch about them selling tropical fish and how they shouldn’t be doing that. You can always make it kind of fun in some way if you are in the right headspace. I think that this whole corona shit is going to bring down some heavy right-wing bullshit, as well. I start to get conspiratorial about it. I was like, “God, do they want to put out all these mom and pop businesses just so big corporations can just completely take over?” There won’t be any more cool coffee shops, it will be all Starbucks or TGI Fridays. It’s a weird thing. I see all these businesses closed on Sunset Boulevard out here. Actually, everywhere out here in LA. And I’m like, “Oh man, that’s my favorite Chinese restaurant, I hope they stay in business and it doesn’t become a Panda Express!” Because that really could happen.

Fake Friends cover art

But it’s good that you’re still releasing new music now with “Fake Friends” and giving people something else to focus on, which seems very important now. But as you put your work out into the world, do you ever get nervous about people judging it?

DONITA SPARKS: I used to obsess about that stuff years ago. I think as I’ve gotten older, my expectations are not very high. I’m just kind of like, L7 hasn’t had a hit in 20 years. We’re not going to have a hit. We’ve always been a bit of a threat and we still are a threat, and we’re not going to get a hit. If it were to happen, that would be amazing. That would be so great. If we got our song in the closing credits for Orange is the New Black or whatever, that would be great. Why we haven’t kind of surprises me, because it seems like a lot of people who are fans of L7, some of them are actually in positions of power in the entertainment industry these days. You would think that they would be throwing us a bone a little bit more., do you know what that is? It’s all these celebrities doing shoutouts: “Hey, it’s your birthday, this is Donita Sparks.” Our tours got canceled; there are bills to pay. Now I’m on Cameo. You can even check out my Cameo profile. It’s a fascinating site, too. Andy Dick is there. David Yow from Jesus Lizard is on there. All the fucking Housewives of New Jersey are on there. It’s really fucking weird. The first time I checked it out a year ago, I was just tripping. I was watching all the Andy Dick ones because they post your shout outs. So you can actually see some of my shoutouts on there. It’s a fascinating site just to check out. You can burn some hours on that site, I’m telling you. You’ll be like, “Holy shit, this is amazing!” Check it out. But what I did was, I put it into the script in the last episode of “The Hi-Low Show” so it’s this meta thing because I actually did just start a Cameo account. But I put it into the story and so it’s kind of cool that way, I try to make things as cool as possible and I don’t really care if people like it or not. Sometimes if you don’t care if people get it or not, that has really good results. Like, I didn’t think anybody was going to like “Witchy Burn.” And yet people are like, “Oh my God, “Witchy Burn” is so cool!” So there you go.

L7’s sound is so distinctive. Did you know when you started that you wanted to sound like that?

DONITA SPARKS: It evolved over time. I think we started out wanting to be heavy and have a heavy sound, which we do. And then as time went on, more melody started coming in. I think melody is something that we were maybe a little bit shy to do because we felt that having less melody presented us as a tougher. But melody is important! [laughs] I mean, it’s important to me. So now we’ve got this heavy trip with catchiness to it, as well.

Clearly you’ve done something right because you’ve had a long career.

DONITA SPARKS: We broke up in 2000 because we had no more support, we had no more money. We fell apart. So it’s only been in the resurgence of the band that these other opportunities have popped up. By the time we broke up, we had been together for 15 years, so that is a long time. But we had a lot of years struggling, and then a few years of people paying attention to us, and then people stopped paying attention to us. But if you stick to your guns, eventually you’re going to be cool again. So that’s kind of where we’re at now. I’ve had guys at record companies play me current hits and say, “Would you guys maybe try to sound like this?” And I’m like, “Really? Would you say that to Neil Young?” I don’t think he would. I think he likes Neil Young just his he is and doesn’t want him to do a fucking EDM track. So it’s just kind of weird. We are now treated more like legends who they’re terrified of. I speak with people and they’re terrified to talk with me. Especially a lot of men because they think I’m going to slam dunk them if they say something stupid. But I let a lot of stupid shit go, actually. I’m actually not that confrontational with an idiot. Why waste your breath?

You’ve always kept your sound heavy – you’ve never done that thing where you do acoustic versions of your songs – not even now, when so many people are doing that in livestreams during this quarantine…

DONITA SPARKS: Yeah, I’m actually a little surprised about what’s out there during the quarantine. To be honest, I don’t see a whole lot of creativity going on. And listen, musicians are not necessarily big jokers – some of them are not very entertaining. They just happen to be really good at making music. So they don’t really know how to entertain in their home without stage lights and without amplification. Making music is a very personal thing and this is the only way that they know how to express it right now, but I just find it to be terribly dull. I’ll wait for some of these artists to be back on stage with stage lighting and people are cheering. That’s how I like to experience my music, not at a low volume with intimacy. It’s almost creepy. You start to go, “Oh, what does their house look like? What is that painting on the wall? That’s weird. It looks like your mom’s house!” There’s a lot of mystique that is disappearing with some of this stuff. Some of these people, I don’t want to know what their houses look like because it just looks like shit – bad taste. I don’t really care about the acoustic version of whatever. It’s so weird, too, because you just have all kinds of fantasies about what this person’s life was like or where they lived. And now we’re getting to see everything. That’s why, when [I was] asked to do a show, they were like, “Maybe you can play some songs?” I was like “No, that’s not happening. Nobody wants to hear L7 songs played acoustic. No.” Can you imagine “Shitlist” on a 12-string acoustic guitar? It’d be a nightmare! That’s why I wanted to do something different with “The Hi-Low Show.” I’m just glad it’s working out.

Have you thought about what you’re going to do when this lockdown is done? Another album? Tours?

DONITA SPARKS: Well, it’s weird because we were supposed to go to Australia and they have postponed it to May 2021. It’s on the schedule, but I don’t know. Also, once there’s a vaccine, there’s going to be a bottleneck of all these bands who put out records and were unable to tour them, and they need to get out there and promote their records. It’s going to be kind of a clusterfuck. It’s going to be weird. But – who knows?