Interview: L7’s Donita Sparks on 30 years of ‘Smell The Magic’ and recording with Joan Jett

On last year’s album Scatter The Rats it seemed like nothing had changed for L7. Outside of the record’s vinyl grooves, much clearly has. During a thirteen year hiatus each of the members has passed though different phases in their creativity with new projects and solo-releases. But after all that Scatter The Rats still sounds like an ideal continuation of their creativity. They got older. Of course. As we all do. But at the same time, L7 could bring all of these elements that we all know and love them for to the record. You won’t hear the dissonance. And just like with their most recent ‘Fake Friends’ single, it’s amazing how four musicians could keep the same level of musical energetics, the same level of attraction over more then 3 decades of their career.

In this interview for Joyzine, we spoke with co-founder of L7, singer, songwriter Donita Sparks. About the musical climate in L.A. and ‘Fake Friends’, about relations with Blackheart Records and the process of writing, about Bowie and Ramones, about 30 years of Smell The Magic and Scatter The Rats.

‘Fake Friends’ recorded alongside Joan Jett became your first release in 2020. What can you say about this particular experience especially recording alongside someone who’s been incredibly influential on you?

Well, I’ve always loved that song – ‘Fake Friends’. Lyrically it kind of spoke to me about L7, sort of down-and-out – Friends are hard to find! In the music industry and just in showbusiness in general (laughs) – really hard to find! Joan Jett and her manager Kenny proved to be our friends once again. And we thought, going with Blackheart Records would be a really good match for us. We trusted them and we still trust them! So that’s a really good thing.

I was thinking: “We should cover Joan Jett song!”. And I just always loved ‘Fake Friends’. We decided to change the arrangement of it. Take a swing out of it. And make it a little bit harder. As opposed to… I mean, I love their version. We just took the swing out of it. Dee [Plakas], our drummer doesn’t play swing beat very well. We just decided: “What if Motorhead were doing this song ?! It would sound like L7!” (laughs). That’s what we did!

The release came out on Blackheart Records – also founded by Joan Jett. It’s notable that L7 has always been maximally independent. Working with Slash Records and Sub Pop. In the mid 90’s you went through a major-label-phase. But you successfully passed it. How does it feel to be independent in a sense of being in a band signed to an independent label like Blackheart and how important is this for you these days? 

The way we feel, whether it’s independent or a major-label, the main thing for us is that we’re allowed to choose our own material, write our own material, choose our own producer. We have complete creative control. We’ve had that for every record we’ve ever made. EVEN when Slash had a deal with Warner Brothers and were under Warner Brothers’ umbrella. But even then, we made our own decisions. And we were very lucky in that sense. I think, we were very careful as well. And paying attention to what was going on in that sense.

Scatter The Rats came out in 2019. But listening to it now, and comparing it with selected works of L7, I’d say that it sounds pretty much like nothing has changed! How did it feel for the four of you to connect through music again?

It felt very good! I love playing with L7. We have a certain recipe that no-one else has. We’re unique… If we were a cookie – yes, there are other cookies out there. But no-one has our exact recipe. So it feels very good to play as L7. And we love the producer on this album – Norm Block. It feels really great! When L7 were on sort-of-hiatus, I had a solo-band, Jennifer [Finch] had a solo-band. I was still making music but it wasn’t getting too much attention payed. Which was disheartening for me. So it’s nice that with L7 people actually are paying attention again (laughs). And it feels very good playing together.

You toured for a year before recording Scatter The Rats – and for quite a while before playing shows and your old material. What brought you back to writing songs together?

We started jamming at soundcheck. Just screwing around. And we liked what we were jamming on. Until we figured it out: “Let’s put a couple of singles!”. And that’s what we did! We put out ‘Dispatch From Mar-A-Lago’ in 2018. And we put out ‘I Came Back To Bitch’. We put out two singles and we really liked the way it turned out. And we really felt like we had something to say, lyrically. So we thought we’re either gonna make an EP or LP and we decided to go for a full LP. Because, I think that people really wanted us to make music. After the election of Trump things got incredibly desperate on the musical landscape… I think we all wanted to continue playing shows but we didn’t want to completely play an old repertoire. We wanted to play something fresh.

You started playing electric guitar at the age of 16. But when did you start writing your own songs and how long did it take for you to find your inner-voice?

It took me a very long time. I started playing when I was 16 but it was a very-very casual hobby. I did not have intentions to be the guitarist in a rock-n-roll band. I just thought it’s ‘dream too big’. Like I wouldn’t even know where to begin. So it was a very casual hobby. I didn’t really start writing until I was about 20-21. And my first songs were terrible. It took me time to get better (laughs). I wasn’t really writing from my own voice. I was trying to write like others. So it took quite a while. I actually think, that the song Suzie and I wrote called ‘Shove’ which came out on Sub Pop in January 1990, I think it was our first lyrically-good song. And people responded to it. But there was something going for that. It took me A LONG time… It takes a while, you know.

The lyrics you write have always been very expressive and to a point, provocative. But at the same time, you put in lots of poetic images, as well as touching upon different important topics, even with a certain degree of satire on tracks like ‘Questioning My Sanity’. Do you think it’s important to have this provocative element within your songwriting?

I think for me, personally, when I write… I don’t think I’m great. I’ve been very sincere in my writing. As you just said – I have some satire, I have some humor in there, when I’m talking about very serious topics. I just think I’m better at that than writing an incredibly heart-felt song. I mean, I’ve written a couple of those too! Some slower songs. I think, I shine as a writer as somebody who makes some commentary on culture or society. I do it with the little bit of smart-ass and some satire.

There are lots of aspects within songwriting: arrangements, presentation, concept, speed, tempo among others. What comes first for you when you’re writing something?

I write the music first. Sometimes I write things down, whenever I think about something cool or catchy in my head. Lyrical. I write it down. But it’s not paired for the song for quite sometime. So I usually start with the chords and then I might start singing the melody. Just syllables. “Ta-ra-ra! Ta-ra-ra!” – it sounds ridiculous. Because I’m not really singing words. Just singing syllables to the music. And then, eventually I write the lyrics. 

After you moved to L.A. and founded L7, you became a part of this new musical movement. A bit radical. A bit provocative. Getting all the best qualities of L.A. punk-scene – with such artists as the Germs or The Go-Go’s and X. What did you feel getting to L.A. and started making music with Suzie and Jennifer slowly becoming a part of this musical micro-climate?

I moved to L.A. just to move to L.A. And I actually thought I might be a surfer. ‘Cause, I was into surf-music. I had some wierd fantasies about becoming a surfer. But I think I was stuck in the 1960’s (laughs). I ended up in Hollywood and met people when I was living there. Getting a job at L.A. Weekly, I met a lot of artists and a lot of musicians. That was probably the best thing happened to me when I moved there – was getting a job there. And I met Suzi through that. A bit later, Jennifer came around. A bit later, Dee came around. But it felt really good. I think, at that time, a lot of the bands you mentioned were no longer on the scene. Like, The Germs had broken up, X were on tour all the time… The only time you saw X was when they were playing in a big place, they were on tour all the time. There’s a certain point in the band’s life – you’re in the scene, you’re on the scene, you are the scene. And then, if you’re lucky enough – you start going on tour. And if you tour a lot, you’re no longer on the scene in your hometown. So I think that’s what happened to some of the bands you’re mentioning and eventually, it happened to us too. We became part of the bigger scene. A national scene. An international scene. But we were no longer a part of that L.A. scene anymore. It’s kind of interesting thing ‘cause, when you’re on scene – you go out every night. And you’re on that scene every night. It was different. I loved those bands. But I felt no scene connection to those bands you just mentioned. 

Commenting on your career at that point, many people noticed that your live-shows became one of the key factors that made L7 a really successful band. At least, Bruce Pavitt noticed it when speaking to me. What was the main component that made your live shows special?

I think, audio-wise we’re more powerful live. I don’t think any recording in the studio has captured our power live. Which is very unfortunate! I think we’re better live band than on record. Even though I like our records. But live we’re just more powerful. I think there’s a power there. And I think we were also women playing with a lot of abandon, we were just going for it. Without caring about “looking pretty” per se. We preferred to look a little scary and threatening than sexy and pretty.

After the breakthrough of Bricks Are Heavy you, got a mass-following. You have always said that it was important for you to get to the mainstream in a sense that getting a certain recognition in the press, you could also become a guiding light for people and women musicians who were sharing your values. How did it feel when Bricks Are Heavy started to get a certain degree of recognition?

I thought we were a very cool, demented role-model for people (laughs). Because, a lot of kids who watched MTV saw us on there and they were…Maybe kids that were kind of misfits of weirdos in their own neighborhoods or whatever. And I think a lot of them saw us on some of these mainstream programs. They thought: “Oh, my God!” they kind of liked our messiness. “Oh, my God! Look at those people! They’re unconventional in their physicality and what we were saying!” – it meant a lot to me. Because, when I was a kid, I would see Bowie on TV or I would see The Ramones on Midnight Special. Those bands were not been played on the radio. But I got to see them LATE AT NIGHT on The LATE AT NIGHT Show. I would stay up, I was watching. That was cool. That was my life-line. So when we became a life-line, I thought it was cool. ‘Cause, you’re not just playing for the cool kids. You’re playing for kids that just got turned on to rock-n-roll. They like what they saw, they like what they heard. So that was the cool part of going into the mainstream.   

With the first self-titled L7 record, your sound was based on your punk-rock roots. Two years after it, you released Smell The Magic – after Dee joined L7 – and your sound changed quite a lot. This year the record celebrates 30 years since it was released. How can you characterise the transitional phase between these two albums?

I think we got better as songwriters. We got better as lyricists. And we were writing about stuff people could relate to. Especially in the underground at that time. Just the lyrics to show. If you’d read them – “Landlord doesn’t like my dog”, “America thinks I should be proud” they were the stuff we really felt! “My father thinks that I’m nowhere.” – my father was not happy with me being in a rock-n-roll band. He wanted me in college. And I didn’t go to college. And it really upset him. Understandably so. But that’s just the way it is. I just think we became better, more confident writers. And we were writing about the stuff people cared about.

Over the years you used to play a lot whether these were underground shows in L.A. or big European festivals like Hellfest or others. And you never wanted to be categorized in any way. But in what way do the energetics of your show depends on the audience? Whether these are metal-kids or hardcore-punk guys or the fans of grunge…

I like them all! And they’re all different! I like the metal communities and the punk-rock communities. [They] are both now very tribalised. And even though we’re not the part of those scenes, I like that we are embraced by those scenes. And the grunge scene… Is there a grunge scene anymore? I don’t know (laughs). I know there’s lot of people that like grunge. I don’t think we’ve ever played a grunge-festival. I don’t know if they exist. They probably do! We just haven’t been invited (laughs). But yeah, I think that we’re punk-rockers at heart who do hard rock-n-roll music that also has some catchy elements to it. And therefore, we don’t fit in one particular scene. And a lot of people from those different scenes like us.

The remastered version of Smell The Magic is released on 18th September through Sub Pop Records.

Interview by Dan Volohov
Photographs provided by Blackheart Records

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