L7’s Donita Sparks talks about controlling the creative process, punching up, and solving ‘pent-up frustration’ through rock and roll

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COLUMBUS, Ohio (WOUB) – Formed in 1985 and rising through the early ’90s, L7 quickly made a name for themselves as a group that refused to be pigeonholed.

While associated with subcultures like grunge – due to their image – or riot grrrl, due to their gender, L7 created a sound of their own, leaning harder into metal than their peers while retaining the rawness and DIY flavor of punk rock.

In 1992 L7 released Bricks are Heavy, via Slash Records. The album was produced by Butch Vig (just months after he served as producer for Nirvana’s Nevermind) and it catapulted L7 to new heights. The first single off the album, Pretend We’re Dead, peaked at number eight on the Billboard Alternative Charts, and the group’s music videos were getting frequent MTV airtime.

Their next record, 1994’s Hungry For Stink, was their most successful album on the charts, reaching the 117 spot on the Billboard 200. After their fifth album, The Beauty Process: Triple Platinum, L7 split from Slash Records. They released Slap Happy independently in 1999, before announcing their disbandment in 2001.

Despite their disbanding, the legacy of L7 persisted, and in 2014, with the encouragement of a rapidly growing fanbase via the Internet, L7 reunited. Since then, L7 has remained just as fiercely independent and cutting-edge as ever. Since their reunion, the band has released one studio album, 2019’s Scatter the Rats, a handful of singles (including 2023’s Cooler than Mars), as well as a documentary, L7: Pretend We’re Dead (2016).

All of this, along with consistent touring, has made two things very clear: L7 isn’t going anywhere, and we need their righteous fury and snarky edge now more than ever.

WOUB’s Nicholas Kobe spoke with L7’s Donita Sparks. Find a transcript of their conversation, edited for length and clarity, below. 

This interview is a part of WOUB’s Sonic Temple Art & Music Festival 2024 preview coverage. The festival happens May 16-19 at Historic Crew Stadium (1 Black and Gold Blvd.) 

Find all of WOUB’s Sonic Temple 2024 coverage – including interviews with artists like Bobo of Cypress Hill and Ian Hill of Judas Priest – at this link. 

A promotional photo of the band L7. All four members are leaning against a red wall.
L7 [Photo credit: Robert Fagan]
Nicholas Kobe: If you had to describe L7 in one sentence to anybody who’s not familiar, what would you say?

Donita Sparks: We’re rock. We’re not too tough to digest. We’ve got catchy songs, we’ve got some heavy songs, we’ve got some sweet songs, we’ve got some humor and some bite.

That’s a pretty apt description of it. I am talking to you before L7’s appearance at Sonic Temple. The band has been touring throughout the past few years. In general, what’s it been like for L7 since the band has come back over the past few years?

Sparks: Well, we’re a very small operation. We are not on a record label. We are not a big management company. It’s just us, our manager, our booking agent, and a press person as well that we hire independently. So basically we’re paying for everything. We have a very small team, and it’s been cool because we’ve kind of been doing this extended victory lap. We’ve put out new material, we’ve put out new videos, and such, but we realize our main pull is because of what we did back in the ’90s. We’re still putting out new music – it’s cool because we don’t have to, no one’s cracking the whip on us to do anything. We’re just doing it. There are no record company deadlines or anything like that. It’s only self-imposed deadlines that we have.

I’m sure it must be nice to have the freedom of being able to release whatever kind of music you want and tour how you want.

Sparks: Well, we’ve always had complete creative control. No one was telling us what kind of music to put out. We always put out the music that we wrote, recorded, and conceptualized. So it’s our baby, and it always has been.

Absolutely. Last year L7 released a single in the fall, Cooler Than Mars. Tell me a little bit about what was the writing process and just the creative process for that single.

Sparks: Well, I was watching all the news reports of the billionaires and their spaceships wanting to colonize Mars, and it just was painful to me. We’re cooler than Mars here. We’ve got the coolest here on Earth. We’re cooler than Mars. And I was like, “Man, I feel like I felt the need to do a swan song.” If I’m remembered, at least I’m stating as an Earthling that we’re cooler than Mars, and if this is found somewhere out in space in a billion years, there will be some kind of recording of someone saying, “We were cooler than Mars.” That’s what I felt. It was very passionate, and there’s some over-the-topness to it, which was intended in my vocal performance. I usually write the music first, but I think I was writing the music and the lyrics at the same time for that one.

It was kind of like a lyrical idea as well as a musical idea at the same time.

Sparks: It’s rare. I usually jot things down, but I usually start a song from the music and then I’ll go “Oh, that thing I wrote down, that’ll fit.” That’s kind of my process, but this one came together pretty much almost simultaneously.

So as you were saying, typically your process goes to write the music and then find what lyrics you’ve written that kind of match that energy?

Sparks: Many times, yes. Not all the time, but usually I’ll start with just jamming some chords and getting something that I like to hear first. I wrote a song called I Came Back Here to Bitch and with that song, the music was written around that, those lyrics. But other than that, I usually write the music first. Sometimes a lyrical idea will come to me during that process. So sometimes it’s very grabbing it from the heavens and sometimes you have to put a little more work into it.

In recent years, the band has done some some anniversary tours for records like Brick Are Heavy. I was just looking and we’re coming up on the 30th anniversary of Hungry for Stink. I guess reflecting a little bit on that album, what are your thoughts about that record all these years later?

Sparks: Well, I personally like all of our records, most of our records. We’re making music that we think rocks. So I like Hungry For Stink. We’re getting a lot of fans asking us if we’re going to do a 30th anniversary tour of that. I’m not sure. That album’s popularity was not as big as its previous one, Bricks are Heavy, so I don’t know if we could sustain a tour hanging our hat on Hungry for Stink. Maybe a show here or there in a big city, maybe a show in LA or New York City. Our fans are asking for it, but our fans are maniacs and devoted people. But as far as a broader audience, I don’t know. I’m not sure what the demand would be.

In L7: Let’s Pretend We’re Dead, the documentary released about the group a few years ago, the band talks about the way your fan base essentially was a big reason why you decided to come back and tour and release new music. What was it like discovering that fan base, and how has your relationship changed with the fans as you have moved along as a band?

Sparks: We were on an indefinite hiatus for 15 years, and in that time, MySpace happened, and then Facebook happened, and all this stuff. We were very absent from the internet, which dismayed me because we had reached a certain level of success, and popularity in the ’90s. I feel like we were a band that meant something to people, and it was dismaying not to see anything about us on the internet. Then slowly over the years, I started to see, “Oh, somebody posted something on YouTube. Wow, what is this? Oh, wow. There’s a fan page for L7 on Facebook.” So it was like our old fans keeping us alive, and it was new fans discovering us, just trying to spread the word.

When you came back from that indefinite hiatus, what was something that had kind of, I guess, changed that surprised you in the music industry or just rock in general?

Sparks: God, I’m so out of touch with the industry. It’s never really been my cup of tea. I’m not a mogul. I’m just not that keen on hanging with the suits very much personally. So I don’t know what’s going on in rock. I have no idea. I listen to NPR all day, so there you have it. It seems as though young people want some rock ‘n’ roll right now, and I don’t know if it’s because the scene’s maybe been a little precious for some years. I just feel like there’s this, it’s almost like there’s some pent-up frustration going on out there, and I think that the kids haven’t been able to express themselves musically at a live concert that way. I feel a sense of rebellion, and it’s not against their parents, per se. It’s a rebellion against current society, and I feel that very strongly. So rock ‘n’ roll is pretty good for that. We’re not an atmospheric band. We’re not an acoustic band. We play loud with distortion, pedals, and heavy drums, and so there’s a lot of fun, a lot of releasing pent-up frustration going on at our shows.

That makes sense.

Sparks: We don’t take ourselves too seriously either. You know what I mean? We’re very serious about what we do, but in the final product, there’s a little bit of self-deprecation in there. We know where we’re at in this hierarchy. We’re still punching upwards, as they say. So that’s still fun to punch upwards.

And as you were saying, with the frustration with current events, a lot of that frustration is built off of people who really want to punch up.

Sparks: Oh, for sure. If we do have a forte, it’s anger anthems, they’re anger anthems with a little smirk and a little nudge, nudge, wink, wink. It can be fun to flip the bird with a smile on your face at our shows.

Absolutely. That spirit I feel has endured in rock and probably will do so indefinitely.

Sparks: Well, let’s hope. I think some bands take themselves very, very seriously, and there’s room for that. There are some bands that are just jokesters, and there’s room for that too. We’re somewhere, in the middle. We sing about some serious things, like in Cooler than Mars. We like both. We like humor and we like sticking it to the man.

I’m talking to you before your performance at Sonic Temple. What’s something in particular that you enjoy or find unique about the festival setting?

Sparks: Well, I’ll tell you something that frustrates me a bit. Usually, it’s like Where’s Waldo trying to find our name on the poster [because it’s] usually pretty frigging small. It’s funny because when we play a festival, normally in the local press, we are mentioned, and so it’s like “We’ve got this weird cred, and yet we’re not getting the bread.” I get it that we’re not a huge band, but it seems like we bring a lot of press, and I feel that there’s value to that. So to me, it’s a little frustrating that maybe that is a little under-appreciated by some of these festivals. I’m not talking about this one that we’re talking about today. I’m saying in general, in the festival circuit. That seems to be kind of interesting to me. It’s probably because of sexism. Not sure, but let’s just throw it out there.

Yeah, probably a pretty good guess. 

Sparks: Possibly.

So one more question for you before we wrap up here. What’s next for L7? What’s your kind of long-term goal with the future of the band at this point?

Sparks: We’re going to keep milking this cow for as long as we can. I think we’re all relatively healthy and we’re having a good time doing this. So we’re going to do some touring this year. We’re going to Europe this year, doing the tours of the United States this year, and probably releasing some new material. Probably not an album. We frankly cannot afford that. Albums are expensive to make, even if you do half of it yourself on your Pro Tools rig, they’re still expensive to get mastered and get mixed and all that stuff. So we probably won’t be doing an album, but we’ll release some stuff hopefully in kind of a clever way, which we tend to do sometimes, or at least try to.