L7’s Donita Sparks Wants the Entertainment Industry to “Fucking Throw Us a Bone”

L7's Donita Sparks Talks the Band's Comeback

L7 co-founder Donita Sparks is the first person to admit that she turns into a giant ham the minute she steps on stage. Of course, she doesn’t have to say as much because the grunge-adjacent, all-female punk band’s stage show speaks for itself. During a sold out two-night run at the Brooklyn venue Elsewhere this summer, Sparks was damn near feral, thrusting her flying V guitar into clamoring fans, and joining bassist Jennifer Finch in synchronized head-banging, resulting in their glorious hair fanning out and whipping through the air. Jonathan Poneman, founder of the band’s onetime label Sub Pop, described the group as “a real primal rock machine” in SPIN’s July 1993 cover story on L7, comparing them to Motorhead and the Ramones. The description still feels apt.

Both onstage and on record, L7 are fierce and funny. Sparks and fellow vocalist/guitar player Suzi Gardner like to launch into impromptu comedy routines in between songs. Finch has a tendency to showboat with Pete Townshend-style guitar windmill moves when she’s not tossing her formidable red mane around. Although Dee Plakas is usually tucked away behind the drum kit, she always makes her presence known by pounding away with surgical precision. 

L7 are also a band of contradictions. Their music and overall persona are varying degrees of raunchy, intellectual, goofy, and earnest, depending on their mood. After all, they were activists who launched the Rock for Choice concerts benefiting organizations that protect reproductive freedom, but they weren’t above baser GG Allin-style antics, like when Sparks famously removed a bloody tampon onstage and threw it at an unruly crowd of mudslingers at Reading Festival in 1992.  

The ladies always knew how to grab an audience’s attention, which is ironic, given how the band went out with a whimper instead of a bang in the late ‘90s, when they were quietly dropped from their label after the music industry turned its attention from grunge bands to nu-metal and pop-punk acts. The band dissolved at the turn of the century and were essentially resigned to becoming a footnote in rock history before getting back together for some reunion shows in 2015 and putting out two new singles, “Dispatch From Mar-a-Lago” and “I Came Back to Bitch” in 2017

L7 Donita Sparks Interview

The band’s most recent album, 2019’s Scatter the Rats, feels as fresh and urgent as anything from their early ‘90s oeuvre, and it almost never saw the light of day thanks to the crowdfunding site PledgeMusic going bankrupt before it paid out the money it raised from the band’s fans. L7 announced in July that they intend to honor all the orders made via PledgeMusic, and as an added thank you, will be placing one Willy Wonka-style golden ticket in a random shipment, which entitles the fan to receive the autographed golden Gibson flying V guitar Sparks played on the most recent tour. The band is also recouping the crowdfunding losses by selling limited edition T-shirts

SPIN caught up with Sparks to discuss the band’s legacy, getting screwed over by the music industry, and what it’s like to be the owner of the most famous feminine hygiene product in rock ‘n’ roll. 

This interview has been condensed and edited for clarity. 

The new album, Scatter the Rats, had a difficult journey seeing the light of day, with the whole Pledge Music debacle. Was there ever a point where you thought, “Oh no, this is never going to come out?”

Donita Sparks: No. We got a little chunk of change from Pledge. They didn’t pay the whole thing owed us, but we got enough to record the record, and then they stiffed us on the rest. It didn’t really affect the recording. We’re very thankful that Blackheart [Records, Joan Jett’s label] stepped in to manufacture and distribute the record, so that worked out well. If not for Blackheart, we would’ve been really screwed and our fans would’ve been screwed.

Plus, we found a loophole. If you contest it with Visa, Visa takes the hit. They launched their investigation against the fraudulent party. You can just claim with Visa, “We never got our shit.” You know what I’m saying? In addition to that, we’re doing meet-and-greets for free to anybody who pledged who want to meet us after the show. They can meet us, take a photo, get something signed. We’re honoring them that way too.

There’s a song on the new album I love called “Garbage Truck.” I find the lyrics so hilarious—“My love’s like a garbage truck / get wasted and I pick you up.” Did you write that one?

Jennifer wrote that song, yes. That’s [about a] dysfunctional relationship. Sometimes we sing about very serious things, other times it’s just like we are a menace. Suzi sings a lot about dysfunctional relationships, I sing a lot about fucked up cultural things, and usually there’s humora little bit of humorto it.We all crack each other up too. We are not a very serious band, but we take the band very seriously. 

At the meet-and-greets, has anyone ever told you a story about getting in trouble at school because they were wearing the Smell the Magic shirt [featuring an illustration of a man whose head is buried in a woman’s crotch]?

The person who told us that first was Sean Lennon, when we played The Academy, I think it was called—one of the shows in New York City in 1992. It  was the first night we met Joan Jett, too, but Sean Lennon was there and he had been kicked out of his French class for wearing the Smell the Magic shirt. Now, I told that story in the press, and now many, many people claim that they were thrown out of school for wearing that shirt. Whether that’s true or not—it probably is true, but I think a lot of people own that story—but that was originally Sean Lennon’s story.

Did he tell you how he got into L7?

He did not, but on that record [Bricks Are Heavy], we sampled his mother on “Wargasmwe sampled Yoko [Ono]. So maybe that’s how or maybe he knew of us from our Sub Pop record or something like that. I don’t know.

I read that the title of the movie Her Smell, where Elisabeth Moss plays a ‘90s grunge icon, was inspired by some of L7’s early record titles. How did you react to that?

I read an article on the guy who wrote it.

Alex Ross Perry.

Yes, who said that we were an inspiration for that film, not just the title, but also the character, I guess. I think it’s great. I haven’t seen the film. I would love to say this, we’re getting a lot of cultural nods from people in the movie business, in television and such, but if you really want to give us a nod, put some of our music in your project. We are so appreciative of that because we’re a band that never made money.

Even when you were on a major label?

Correct. So anytime we get a “Shitlist” in something or we get this, it’s great for us because we get some publishing money in that. I love that, that we were mentioned in the Her Smell inspiration and all that stuff. For example, we just had this thing with Captain Marvel, and Brie Larson was training for her fight scenes listening to L7 and Bikini Kill. Captain Marvel approached us to put “Fast and Frightening in the film. We gave them permission and it got cut. Nine Inch Nails got in or somebody else got in during her fight scenes, but she’s a big fan of L7. It’s just like, “Goddamn, it would have been really great payday for us.”

Maybe they needed something darker for the scene, I don’t know, but it sure would help out L7 if you put our music in your project, whether that’s Orange Is the New Black [or whatever]. There’s a lot of female-driven projects right now. It’s like, fucking throw us a bone. Captain Marvel takes place in 1990 Los Angeles. [If you’re looking for] the quintessential female empowerment band of 1990 Los Angeles, that’s fucking L7.

Speaking of Los Angeles, that’s where L7 formed in the mid ’80s. When I think of the L.A. music scene in the mid ’80s, I typically think of the hair metal bands on the Sunset Strip. What scene did you guys come out of?

We were not from the metal scene, we were not from the hardcore punk scene, we were from the art punk scene. Suzi and I at different times both worked at the LA Weekly. It was a cultural hub of all kinds of artists working therewriters, musicians, performance artists.

Were there any other notable people you worked with at the LA Weekly office? 

Vaginal Davis, do you know who she is?

Yup, I know Vaginal Davis. 

Yes, she was around quite a bit. Oh, and Jonathan Gold. I don’t know if you know who he is, he’s a very famous food critic who recently passed away. Probably Suzi and I are probably the most famous alumni of the LA Weekly, I would say, which is pretty cool. 

How does it feel to be the owner of the most famous feminine hygiene product in rock history? 

How does it feel? For a long time, I downplayed it because I didn’t want my mom to find out. My mom is a feminist and everything, but she’s also a lady. 

And L7 is a very unladylike band. 

Well, listen, we’re chameleons. I can behave myself in any situation. I’ve got Republican neighbors who I shoot the shit with. People think we’re very feral, and we’re actually not. We’re middle-class girls who grew up in the suburbs.

So I downplayed the tampon thing for a long time, and now I’m just very embracing of it. I even hashtag myself “tampon thrower” on my Instagram.I know that there’s a scene from Sense8, it’s a show on Netflix. There’s a scene where she throws her tampon on a guy, and it’s an L7 song playing in the background, or there’s a poster of L7.  No, I think it was a poster they used. There was an L7 poster in a scene with a tampon throw. It is for sure an homage, and we were told by the filmmaker that it was indeed an homage.

I think that female comics are getting more and more brave talking about that stuff too, and just young women are going to school with blood on them. You know what I mean?

Perhaps your bloody tampon throw was the first step in de-stigmatizing menstruation in the culture.

I think that and also Slymenstra Hymen from Gwar. She used to have the blood in her costume too. She was also kind of adding humor to the bodily function of that.

Something like that is more accessible than, like, a conceptual artist painting with menstrual blood. 

For me, the tampon-throw thing was, like, it’s partially feminist, it’s partially absurdist, it’s partially performance art. I used to be a performance artist, and it’s a little bit of John Waters. It’s all those things at the same time, so there’s humor to it. There’s a statement, but there’s humor.

L7 broke up for a bit in the early aughts. What was it like watching the bottom fall out of the music industry at that time?

That was a weird time. We broke up in 2001, but we were dropped in ’97. We were dropped from Warner Brothers in ’97. We had a really strong album [The Beauty Process: Triple Platinum], and all of a sudden, they didn’t want to do a video. I was like, “That’s weird. Why don’t they want to do a video for this?” We got four, five stars in Rolling Stone or so. It was getting good reviews and it’s like, “Why don’t they want to make a video?” Then we got dropped.

I think that grunge was dying and bloated and needed to go away, even though we never considered ourselves a grunge band. I suppose grunge was bloated and on its way out, and pop punk was taking over the airwaves and so was electronic music. It was just the times and then whatever. The whole Napster thing didn’t really affect us because we were broken up by that time. We never made money off record sales anyway.

The only money that ever came in was publishing money. That’s why, like I said, the licensing is important because we never sold records. A lot of our contemporaries sold a lot, and we did not. That had a lot to do with a lot of things. Some of it sexism, some of it just the luck of the draw.

I read somewhere that a lot bands comprised of women were getting dropped from labels in the late ‘90s. 

Everybody was getting dropped. In the early ’90s, everybody got signed. Bands that probably shouldn’t have gotten signed, got signed. It’s like, I love the Melvins, but what would be a Melvins single, you know what I mean? Labels wanted the next Nirvana and they were signing all kinds of cool underground bands that didn’t have a chance in hell of getting on the radio.

I was reading Jennifer’s Lollapalooza ‘94 tour diary and it sounds like you guys really hit it off with Nick Cave. 

Dee and I were hanging out with Nick Cave a lot. Suzi and Jennifer are sober and they have been for many, many years but Dee and I were partying with the Bad Seeds night and day, so we got close with those guys.

I wasn’t that familiar with his music, but first day of the tour, he came into our dressing room looking for beer. I was laying on the couch and I was like, “Hey, Nick. How’s it going?” We hit it off. They’re Australian and they actually have a very good sense of humor.

He was pretty miserable on that tour, though, because they were playing in the daytime and they were just in their suits and it was sweaty. He hated it. Plus, it was a bunch of kids slam dancing. They did not have a good timeexcept for hanging out with us.

Something I was always curious about was if Calgon ever gave you any grief for using their slogan “Calgon, take me away” in the song “Diet Pill.”

 No, but we may sell Calgon, L7 Calgon, at our merchant stand at some point.So we’re thinking about that but no, they did not. We’ve always said we wanted a tour sponsored by Calgon or

Tampax?

Tampax. They’re too square, they’re not going to do that. Maybe they would at some point.

Maybe a company like DivaCup would be more on brand for L7.

What is DivaCup?

DivaCup is the cup you put inside yourself that just collects the blood and then you can periodically take it out, empty it, and stick it back in. They’re a little more punk rock. 

See, I don’t even know what a DivaCup is, that’s how punk rock is. So it’s not a contraceptive?

No.

It collects the blood?

Yes, but then you just kind of take it out and

Throw it at somebody. Eat my DivaCup, you fuckers.

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