L7 Singer Donita Sparks Discusses Forthcoming Documentary, Possible Reunion + the Absence of Women In Rock
Remember L7, the all-girl rock band from Los Angeles that made its way into the ’90s grunge scene and spearheaded Rock For Choice? Surely you recall some of their hookiest hits: ‘S—list,’ ‘Pretend We’re Dead’ and ‘Stuck Here Again.’
Fifteen years after L7’s breakup, frontwoman Donita Sparks — infamous for throwing her tampon into the mud-slinging crowd at the Reading Festival and dropping trou on live British television — is working on a documentary she hopes to release in the next year. There are many pieces of L7 history to dig up, and several months ago, while rifling through photos, Sparks snapped to attention while listening to a “women of grunge” feature on public radio.
“I’m listening to NPR — I’m going through f—ing photographs, doing this memory-lane bullshit — when on the radio they announce, ‘The women of the grunge scene were often overlooked. Our report is on some women in the grunge scene who are changing that,” Sparks tells Diffuser.fm. “It was all about female grunge bands and women in grunge. I was like, ‘Hey! We were women in grunge.’”
Yet the NPR piece highlighting Gretta Harley’s ‘These Streets,’ an oral history of the women in grunge, did not mention L7.
“We’ve always been this weird island,” Sparks says. “We were considered grunge but somehow, in history, we’re not in that gang. We’re not Riot Grrrl. We’re not that gang. It’s weird. We were always our own thing. And all the stuff going down in the academic record, we’re not in there. That’s a big part of why we’re putting this documentary together.”
There was a time in music history when a slew of all-female bands hit the scene and played loud and hard. But just as fast as they sprang up, they all vanished, and now, most are footnotes in the history of grunge or Riot Grrrl political movement.
L7 both pre-dated and inspired Riot Grrrl. Not only did the band — originally consisting of Sparks on guitar and vocals, Dee Plakas on drums, Suzi Gardner on guitar and Jennifer Finch on bass — serve as an impetus of the all-girl hard rock/grunge movement in the early ’90s, but they also blazed a trail for indie and pop bands today, particularly those that casually feature guys and girls on instruments.
“Ultimately, the goal would be that the player is viewed for their individuality, not their gender,” says Sparks, who still resides in Los Angeles and produces scores for indie films, occasionally jamming with Plakas. “We all had to prove we’re worthy of being musicians. Then suddenly there were so many female bands. I guess everything is co-ed now. That was kind of the ultimate goal in the first place. I don’t like all-girl anything … or all-boy anything. We did not start out to be an all-girl band. I like it when it’s all mixed up, black, white, female — unless you were wanting to make an aesthetic comment, which we actually weren’t.”
No, L7 were just a bunch of girls who liked to rock out. And they — unlike several all-girl bands that sprang up in their wake — were really pretty good at it, writing clever, catchy, angry but humorous tunes that continue to transcend the mood and pretentiousness of their era. But like so many other all-female bands, L7 struggled to make a name for themselves.
“I tell you, it was so hard in the ’80s to be a chick playing hard rock,” Sparks says. “Back in the early days — we formed in ’85 — nobody would play with Suzi and I. Dudes wouldn’t play with us.”
“For us, it was out of necessity that we found other females,” she adds. “The suits never really got us. DJs didn’t play us. They would play Soundgarden, but they wouldn’t play us because we were chicks. For Lunachicks, Babes in Toyland, all of us, it was tough. Things are a lot more integrated now. It’s not as much of a freak show to have a girl in a band. When we started in the ’80s, chicks playing hard rock, we were a freak show. Then people started to get us. Then it was mayhem in the audience, which was funny.”
The energy that L7 generated eventually caught on, snowballing to the point where they were playing massive summer festivals. They were also making headlines, as they did at the 1992 Reading Festival, when Sparks — frustrated by bad sound, borrowed instruments and a British crowd slinging mud on stage — whipped out her tampon and flung it into the audience.
“I went performance art on their asses,” Sparks says of the incident. “I needed to amuse myself. I announced that I was throwing it, and I remember a silence afterward. A lot of people reached for it … I guess they didn’t hear what I said. Then it came back on stage. It landed on the monitor ledge. I didn’t see it again until I saw Nick Cave’s set after ours. My tampon was stuck on his monitor ledge. A roadie eventually got rid of it.”
During this same time period in the early ‘90s, Sparks dropped her pants on a live British TV show, and L7 smashed their instruments after a performance on David Letterman. Of course, these sorts of antics will make the highlight reel of the upcoming documentary. But more memorable for Sparks are the ruckuses that happened offstage.
“The shocking stuff like me throwing my tampon and dropping my pants, that was just absurdity. Our outrageousness paled in comparison to what we were seeing from the stage,” she says. “People bloodied, something flying off the bar, or five people heading toward the stage with their boots coming at us. Someone over there is taking his shirt off and making eyes at us. Some of the women were really aggressive, coming up and grabbing my tits. Some people would come try to steal the instruments out of our hands. One guy started pulling my guitar. The bouncers completely dog-piled him.
“When we hit the next tier of popularity, then a little bit of a jock element came into play,” she adds. “We would stop the show all the time. All of a sudden, you’d see these jock boys beating the s— out of someone, or bouncers at corporate clubs showing brutality. But it was a fantastic kind of power — being able to stop it.”
Suddenly, however, the mayhem, along with the grunge music and just about every all-girl tributary band that came with it, came to a grinding halt.
“Let’s see … what happened to all the gals? All of us got signed to majors, then toward the end of the 90s we all got dropped,” Sparks says. “The rock scene was petering out at the end of the ’90s. The industry got weird. They were all waiting for the next Nirvana. They signed a bunch of s— bands. Then electronic music came in. Everyone thought it would take over … and it kind of did.”
Thankfully, the mayhem in the audience — mosh pits, crowd surfing and slam dancing — disappeared along with the grunge movement. But for Sparks, the wear and tear of touring – especially now that she’s two decades older – doesn’t hold much appeal. Even if the documentary rekindles an interest in L7 and spurs demand for a reunion, she says it’s not something the band has seriously considered. But you never know.
“All of us together have never talked about a reunion,” Sparks says. “I’ve been approached about it. I won’t say it’s out of the question for me, but my concerns mostly are the physical thing.”
“I think we could all get along for the sake of the reunion thing, if we played some festivals in the U.S. or Europe,” she adds. “But our show is physically demanding. We were one of the more physical bands. As far as making another record, I haven’t even thought about that. I can make hard rock music any time I want to. Artistically I’m not out to get my yah-yahs out anymore. But … it is fun.”