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With L7 on the backburner, the guitarist-vocalist talks about the ’90s flashing controversy, Rock For Choice, and her forthcoming solo album, Transmiticate
By Bess Korey
Legendary Los Angeles band L7 had an amazing run from 1985 to 2000. During its 15 years, the quartet — cofounders and guitarist-vocalists Donita Sparks and Suzi Gardner, drummer Demetra “Dee” Plakas, and bassist Jennifer Finch (later replaced by Gail Greenwood, 1996–1999, and Janice Tanaka, 2000) — released six studio albums. A musical and political influence in the riot grrl movement, L7 also founded the critically acclaimed pro-choice organization, Rock for Choice in 1991.
Despite their immediate success among grunge and punk fans, it wasn’t until their heavily MTV-plugged 1992 album, Bricks Are Heavy, that L7 was launched to international stardom. Success brought familiar band-implosion results, with several sensationalist media encounters (particularly for Sparks, who is known for her exhibitionist streak) and members defecting. By 2001, two years after the release of their last studio album, Slap Happy, the band had stopped touring and announced an indefinite hiatus. They haven't been heard from since. But L7’s connection with the ’90s riot grrl and grunge movements is permanently etched into music history.
It may seem as if Sparks has also dropped out of the public eye since L7’s disbandment, yet nothing could be further from the truth. While still a member of L7, Sparks added the title of film composer to her lengthy résumé and continues to work in film, most recently scoring 2007’s The Life of Reilly. Sparks is also a weekly music columnist for the progressive political blog Firedoglake.com. And while Sparks claims activism is best left to others, she and fellow noted musician Kristin Hersh founded the Coalition of Artists and Stakeholders (CASH), an interactive resource for musicians and fans that aims to facilitate a sustainable livelihood for musicians.
For the past year, however, Sparks has been primarily focused on the launch of her solo material. In fall 2007, Sparks, joined by backing band the Stellar Moments (bassist Dat T. Ngo, guitarist Alan Santalessa, and drummer Dee Plakas), embarked on her first tour as a solo artist in support of her upcoming debut Transmiticate, which will be released January 22, 2008. This may be a new phase in Sparks’ life, but the fact that she’s chosen former L7 band mate Dee Plakas to be the Stellar Moments’ drummer proves that her musical past is never too far behind her.
On the October 2007 afternoon I was to interview Sparks, I was incredibly nervous. I had always found Sparks' tough, rocker chick image to be admirable. At the same time, it was a bit intimidating to speak to someone who had changed not only my life but has since become iconic of a certain sound and era for others as well. It turned out that the rocknroll vet who had paved the way for so many female musicians was about as modest and friendly as could be and spoke candidly about the old issues that separated her from L7 and the new issues related to her solo work.
Being in an all-female band for so many years, what has it been like for you to switch to a co-ed lineup with your new band?
I think it's been great. With L7, we were all equal partners. With this band, I'm in charge. It takes on extra responsibility when you have to be boss, and that's been interesting. As far as the co-ed thing, I've found that the guys in the band have been really respectful. It's been totally cool.
Do you see any major differences between playing with male and female musicians?
I don't think I've played with enough musicians to have an opinion on that. L7 were an all-women band for a very long time, even though our first drummer was a guy. He was problematic, because he was an alcoholic. Was he problematic because he was a guy or because he was an alcoholic? I don't know.
I just haven't jammed with enough people. I'm not a big jammer. I get a band together, and that's what I stick with. I can't really say, gender-wise, if there are issues or if there are just personality differences with each individual.
Do you see L7 as being permanently disbanded?
As John Lydon says about the Sex Pistols, I reserve the right to do L7 whenever I want to. That could be next year; that could be whenever. I'll do it when I want to, and hopefully it would be with the original people who were involved. Right now I don't want to do it. But you never know how you're going to feel in five years.
When you were in L7, there were some rather shocking incidents that led to you getting unwanted media attention, such as flashing your vagina on live TV in Europe as well as a separate incident where you threw a used tampon at the audience during an L7 show. Do you think these things were blown out of proportion?
Dropping my pants on live TV was part of the absurdity of the show. They had a buns contest going on with a bunch of guys, and I’ve always been an absurdist.
People are like, “Oh, what’s that supposed to mean?” But I just felt like doing it. It was absurd, and it amused me. And the tampon thing, too: We were having a bad show, and I wanted to amuse myself and do something completely absurd. I got a little performance art in me. They were throwing mud at us, and I went performance art on their ***.
As far as being blown out of proportion, I don’t know. I guess it is pretty shocking. I wouldn’t want my mother to know about it, and I don’t think she does.
Do you feel the need to have shock value onstage today?
Sometimes you just get in a zone and do weird **** onstage. It’s kind of an out of body experience. As far as something like that now, I don’t feel the need for it. I would purposely not throw a tampon. I had never done it before or since. It was a bad time. It’ll never happen again, and it certainly won’t be part of my act.
There has definitely been a lot of anticipation for the release of Transmiticate. Throughout this tour, you’ve sold a sampler EP that previews some of the songs. It shows off how much you can rock, but it also gives us a peek at your softer side and your great pop sensibilities. How much of this is reflected on the new album?
With the songs that we didn't put on the EP, that are going to be on the record, there’s a lot more pop. And there are some really slow, pretty songs. The rest of the record is a little bit of that and some other stuff too. We wanted this tour EP to pack an exciting punch.
How do you think you've changed the most, as a person and an artist, since you stopped working with L7?
I used to work out a lot of my aggravation with songwriting, and I haven't done that as much. I guess if I do it, it's always been in a humorous way. I think there's more spirituality on this record. There's more of a spiritual level to it than L7. L7 was about a lot of raw emotion, and this is a bit more about channeling some other strengths.
Do you still consider yourself a political person?
When L7 started Rock for Choice, a lot of the shift, interview-wise, started to go to politics. It got really frustrating for me, as an artist, because I wanted to talk about the music.
I have no problem with playing benefits, and I'm really glad we started Rock for Choice. I think activists are great. I'll vote, and I'll go to marches. But at this time, I don't feel like getting involved in any organizations.
I think it's a very heartbreaking industry to be in. You have to have a lot of strength to fight the power. It's really ****ing tough, and I'm going to leave that to the activists. I just want to be an artist and contribute in that way. http://www.venuszine.com/articles/mu.../Donita_Sparks