Punk rockers L7 from Los Angeles, USA, achieved commercial and critical success in the early 1990s with albums like Smell the Magic and Bricks Are Heavy. Band Members (f.l.t.r.) Donita Sparks (vocals/guitar), Dee Plakas (drums), Jennifer Finch (vocals/bass) and Suzi Gardner (vocals/guitar) reunited in late 2014 and have since toured extensively. Ahead of L7’s show at Dynamo Saal on June 27th, Milo Schärer of Radio Radius spoke to Donita Sparks about L7’s origins, the band’s new singles and more.
Milo Schärer: Hi, thank you so much for doing this with Radio Radius, it’s really great to have a band like L7 do an interview with us!
Donita Sparks: Thank you very much for having me!
I believe this is your third European tour since your Reunion, so how has it been for you so far?
It’s been amazing, but this tour has been a challenge because our drummer Dee broke her arm right before the flight coming over to Europe, so there’s been a crazy trip this time trying to break in a new drummer. It’s been kind of stressful, so it was really nice to jump into the water here in Zurich.
Well, I hope Dee feels better soon. Is different playing without her?
Dee has a very unique style, which is very straight ahead and she just fits us. She’s very in the pocket with us, and we miss her a lot. The other drummers we’ve played with are great, but they’re not Dee’s style completely, they’ve got their own style. They’re playing their style with L7, so it’s been kind of challenging.
Ok, you’ve played a lot of festivals this year. Which one of those has been your favorite and why?
Oh god. We played a couple of festivals in Scandinavia that were really great. One was called Copenhell and the other was called… I can’t remember. But we’ve been playing a lot of metal festivals, which is kind of strange for us, but we like it. We don’t really consider ourselves a metal band. We have metal influences, but at heart we’re punk rockers.
Alright, if you don’t consider yourselves a metal band, then how would you describe your band in five words?
Heavy, catchy, humorous, angry and melodic.
Alright. You’re from Los Angeles, could you tell us a bit about what kind of music scenes there were in LA when you started out as band and how you personally experienced them?
L7 started in 1985 and there wasn’t a whole lot going on in Los Angeles at the time. Punk rock was kind of fizzling out, and it was sort of in between punk and grunge when we started. So, it was all different kinds of scenes: there was rockabilly, there was new wave, there was roots rock, punk rockers were doing country all of a sudden. It was just a strange scene in LA. Suzi and I were from the art punk underground and we thought it would be interesting to do a band that was heavy, and that’s what we did.
How did you meet Suzi and the others and decide to form L7 together?
Suzi and I met through mutual friends in the art punk underground. We had both worked at the LA Weekly at different times, we had both worked at the same restaurant as waitresses at different times, so we just had a lot of similar friends. We both played guitar, and that was kind of rare, for women to be playing guitar, back then. So, our friends were like: “Why don’t you two get together and see if you like each other’s music?” Suzi played me a tape of hers, and I really liked it a lot, so that’s how we started the band.
And how did Jennifer and Dee get on board?
Jennifer was coming to L7 shows, we had a different bass player and a different drummer. Jennifer is from LA, but she had lived in San Francisco for a while, so she was recently back in LA. She was going to our shows and said: “I want to be your bass player.” And I said: “Do you play bass?”, then she said: “Kind of.” I was like: “Well, you can’t be our bass player.” Then finally, she convinced me to be our bass player. So, she did with pure determination, she got into our band. We weren’t a big band or anything, she was a nuisance who finally talked her way into the band and she worked out to be fucking fabulous. It worked out well. And then Dee we found a year after we got Jennifer in the band, that also came through a mutual friend.
And why the name L7?
I did not want a name that had any gender identification to it, like the something Girls or whatever. I wanted our name to be non-gender-specific and I wanted our music to be also kind of androgynous, so if you listened to us you wouldn’t really be able to tell if we were guys or girls, and I think we kind of achieved that too.
Yes. As you mentioned before, you came from the underground art punk scene originally, so did your commercial success in the early 90s come as a surprise to you, coming from there? How did you feel about commercial success at the time?
We wanted more of it, because we always felt that infiltrating the masses with our message and showing young people that you can be a freak and make it, was… We liked that. We liked getting on TV, we liked getting on the radio. I know that we influenced a younger generation because they were exposed to us. So, we had no problem, and I don’t think any of our peers did either. Some were maybe a little jealous, but we also had peers that were Nirvana, that were huge. I think most of our art punk friends from the 80s were happy for us, because it was just so unbelievable, that we, Suzi and Donita, of all people, were getting success. It was just kind of mind blowing, you know?
Alright, now that you mention your peers, you did tour with a lot of other bands that were successful at the same time, from different scenes. You mentioned Nirvana, but also Bad Religion or Faith No More. Who was your favorite band to tour with and why?
God, we loved all those bands. We also toured with the Beastie Boys, The Breeders and Nick Cave. Touring with Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds on Lollapalooza was really fun, because they were so miserable on Lollapalooza and we just did a lot of drinking and dancing with them. Nirvana was great, because they were kind of exploding, they were getting huge, and we bore witness to that right up front. We saw them getting bigger, and bigger, and bigger. It was like witnessing Beatlemania or something, in real time. It was just really super exciting. That was cool.
During the course of your initial career, you moved from a punk sound on your earlier albums to a bit more of a metallic sound on your later albums. What led to that transition?
I would say that that’s not accurate, I think as time went on we actually incorporated more pop as well as heaviness. We got more poppy too. I think early on, because of our level of musicianship, we were only able to do one thing. We also had to prove ourselves to be a tough band and withheld melody a lot. I listen to our early stuff and I’m like: “Wow, where are the hooks?” Not on Smell the Magic so much, but on our first album. We got better as time went on, and freer to do whatever the hell we wanted. We had pretty vulnerable songs towards the end of our career, in addition to heavy songs, in addition to introducing some whacky instruments, like a Casio. We just kind of felt the freedom to write about whatever we wanted to, but early on we felt we had to be tough all the time and we kind of were, to prove ourselves, you know?
In retrospect, which of the albums you’ve released is your favorite and why?
Ugh. I can’t really answer that, that’s like asking someone to pick their favorite child. I like all of our albums.
I do too. You decided to reunite in 2014, is that correct?
What changes have you noticed in the time between your initial run as band and your reunion?
Are you talking about the environment that we’re in or are you talking about the band personally? Because the band personally, I would say we’re all a lot more responsible. We are on time for rehearsals, we don’t keep each other waiting. We’re not messing around, you know? We’re older, we’re more mature, we’re more professional. I think we’re more courteous to each other. I think, years ago, we were less considerate of each other, and I think we’re also more tolerant, now, of each other’s idiosyncrasies and personality types. I think, early on, we sometimes couldn’t understand when we didn’t get along, and I think now we understand that we all have different personality types. That takes a long time to get in your head, you know? And as far as the music scene goes, I will say the only thing I’ve really noticed is that, at these festivals, the backstage is very tame and nobody is partying, nobody is getting loud. It’s very well run, it’s very organized and it’s a little boring backstage. Everybody’s separated, the bands are not hanging out together. I think that’s maybe because the bands are older or something, but I remember when we would play festivals 25 years ago, all the bands we’re hanging out together and drinking, laughing and having fun, you know? So, things have changed in that way.
How do you feel about the response you’ve had from fans or other people since your reunion?
The fan response has been amazing. Our old fans are coming out, they’re actually making it out on a Tuesday night to go see a band that they used to love in their teenage years. And then we have a whole bunch of new fans that discovered us due to YouTube and online stuff. The internet, even though we were absent from it for many years, when they finally started to rediscover us, the internet was really helpful. Facebook, and all the social media platforms, have been really helpful in building the L7 army.
In September, you released Dispatch from Mar-a-Lago, which was your first new music in 18 years. Why did you choose to come back with a song like that, which very specifically references current events?
Well, that song is about a fantasy of a riot happening at Donald Trump’s vacation home called Mar-a-Lago, and he spends a lot of time there. We were just thinking about what the Secret Service thinks about his tweeting and how ridiculous his tweeting is. And we were like: “God, how would those guys respond to a riot going on in real time and Donald Trump is tweeting about it?” We had that song idea, and we thought we had to get it out immediately, because we thought Trump was going to be impeached, right away, and he hasn’t been impeached. It’s still topical, and we felt we had to get it out. So, we did that, and we wanted to take a fun look at it, instead of a very angry look at Trump. I don’t know if you’re familiar with the song Springtime for Hitler, which is a song from the Broadway musical The Producers. So, it’s our Springtime for Hitler.
You also released a second Single recently, I Came Back to Bitch. About what?
We have everything to bitch about. That song is mainly against greed and Wall Street people, who are really just about money. So, we came back to bitch about that. We came back to bitch about greed and money ruling the world, you know? Because it fucks up everything.
Ok. I’m guessing you’re going to play these new songs tonight, but how do you select songs for your setlist in general?
Well, interestingly, when we play festivals, we have to cut our set. At a club, we’ll play an hour and a half, but at these festivals we have to play from 40 minutes to maybe an hour. And it kind of depends on what the festival is. If we’re playing a punk rock festival, we play more fast songs. If we’re playing a metal festival, we’ll throw in some slow, heavy ones. At our club dates, we’re playing a good mixture of stuff. But we are playing both of our new songs in our set.
I do have a few questions about some older songs. The first one is about Andres off of Hungry for Stink. Who is this Andres and where did the idea for that cool music video come from?
Oh god. Well, first of all, I’ll have you know that all the songs that we write are from personal experience. So, there is a guy named Andres, there is a guy named Scrap, we have a song called Scrap off Bricks Are Heavy. All of these people actually exist, and Andres is a friend of ours who ran our rehearsal studio in North Hollywood and we had a friend who stole from him. We felt responsible, so that’s why we’re saying “I’m sorry”, because we brought this friend around and he ended up ripping off Andres, which we were furious about and humiliated by, and so that’s where “Andres, I’m sorry” came from. The video… I co-directed the video, we just wanted to do something kind of guerrilla and out on the street and do something very quickly with no crew. Our crew was a camera guy, my co-director, a PA and that was it. So, it was really fun to shoot, we did it really quickly. It was cool.
Now that you bring up Scrap, could you tell us the story behind that as well?
When we were recording our first album for Epitaph Records, Brett Gurewitz of Epitaph Records was producing it and had this guy living in his garage named Scrap. That’s where we also recorded the record, and this guy, Scrap, was always huffing paint to get high in his garage, and Brett didn’t know how to get rid of him. Brett let him stay for a couple days and this guy just was not leaving and he was getting high in his garage every day, so that’s who Scrap is.
Alright, cool story. There’s a song on The Beauty Process: Triple Platinum called Off the Wagon. So, my question is: do you have any really good stories where you were on tour and completely off the wagon?
Oh, there are many stories of being on tour and being off the wagon. You know, what’s funny, what most people don’t know, is that Suzi and Jennifer have been sober for many, many years, I think Suzi got sober in ’87. L7’s reputation of being big partiers is only because of me and Dee. Suzi and Jennifer are innocent, they got sober really early because they were fucking up. Dee and I kept the partying going, so that’s always been a weird dynamic with the band, two of us are sober and two of us are not. There’s friction sometimes over that. Yeah, I can’t think of any specific stories but there have been plenty, and I don’t want to incriminate any other artists in telling these stories.
Ok, well then, last question: who’s on your Shitlist right now?
Oh god, so many people. You know, all the people in Washington, Trump and all of his creeps, just all the creeps. I can’t even mention all of them. My old landlord is on my shit list for sure.
Is this the same landlord mentioned in Shove?
No, different landlord. But that landlord was an asshole too, because he truly did not like my dog. Yeah, it’s tough to find a good landlord.
Ok, thank you so much! I’m looking forward to seeing you play tonight.
Right on! Glad you could be here.
Interview: Milo Schärer / Photo: Maria Chavez