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L7 are back to bitch

Donita Sparks, lead vocalist of the raging 90s grunge band, talks to Dazed about bringing the same fervent energy to their first album in 20 years

When I get mad, and I get pissed, I grab my pen, and I write out a list, of all the people that won’t be missed – you’ve made my shitlist,” Donita Sparks spat on the revolutionary anger anthem, L7’s “Shitlist”. 20 years since the inestimable grunge band’s last album, L7’s shitlist has surely lengthened. In 2017, they stormed back with “Dispatch From Mar-A-Lago”, a Trump-skewering wild rager, while 2018 brought “I Came Back to Bitch”, a rousing clapback against the ills of capitalist society. Their new album Scatter the Rats wants to galvanise their prickly aggression and revolutionary spark once more. It’s an 11-track LP with bulldozing hooks and jab-jab-hook riffs, taking on society’s biggest dickheads, the fakers and liars, and everyone who doubted them.

When L7 first tore up LA dive bars, European festivals, and MTV broadcasts in the 1990s, they were shockingly political and loads of fun, characterising a new wave of artists that didn’t take themselves too seriously, but cared a lot about the shitty systems they worked within. In 1991, the band launched Rock for Choice, a series of pro-choice benefit concerts that saw Nirvana, Rage Against the Machine, and Hole headline. “Eat my used tampon, fuckers!” Sparks told the crowd at Reading that year, throwing her bloody sanitary item into a baying audience.

Scatter the Rats builds upon the elements that made the LA band’s Donita Sparks, Suzi Gardner, Jennifer Finch, and Dee Plakas enduring pillars of rock music. It growls with kinetic guitar lines, heady distortion, and pummeling drums, and Sparks’ and Gardners’ acerbic lyrics burn with anger, energy, and glorious humour. “Don’t need your Venn diagram / We’ve always known how to slam,” Gardner sings spiritedly on album highlight “Proto Prototype”. The band then seizes a rare moment to get more raw and personal than they ever have before with “Holding Pattern”, a vulnerable song that briefly ducks out of their breakneck momentum to prod at Sparks’ choking depression. L7 are back, and they’re throwing gasoline on their raging fires.

Below, we catch up with vocalist and guitarist Donita Sparks, to talk about protest music, dirty humour, and snorkelling.

What are you guys back to bitch about?

Donita Sparks: We reunited a few years ago and put out a couple singles to see if we enjoyed recording together, and to see if we had something to say – and we did. That became this album. We’re back to bitch about all kinds of things – but we’re not only back to bitch, we’re writing about all different kinds of things we’re ready to explore.

Did working together creatively feel different?

Donita Sparks: I think our headspace has always had an element of alchemy to it, taking a shitty situation and making art out of it. With “Burn Baby”, I was at a party with people I hadn’t seen in a long time, and I felt really icky when I left – but then I just thought, we’re all older, past the shit, those grudges were probably all one-sided. Our music takes those shitty nights to make cool lyrics, give ourselves a whole new life form, with an empowering anthem, or an anger anthem, for our fans. We’re all coming from struggles we’ve had over the years with depression and isolation, which still resonate with young people today. We still have those teenage emotions at heart.

“We’re all coming from struggles we’ve had over the years with depression and isolation, which still resonate with young people today. We still have those teenage emotions at heart” – Donita Sparks, L7

Has music been, and is it still, a cathartic experience?

Donita Sparks: Writing, recording, and getting on stage is very spiritual for me. Seeing audiences respond, how much the songs mean to them. The very best moment still is when people are singing it back with as much passion as we are. That never gets old.

Did you dig into your archives for material?

Donita Sparks: The song “Ouija Board Lies” is the last song I wrote for L7, 20 years ago. We never got to record it before breaking up. I’m really glad it saw the light of day – it’s very ‘us’, and fits in with the ‘us’ we are now.

Did making this new record see you guys approach any themes your original work never did, or was able to do?

Donita Sparks: I wrote “Holding Pattern” before the reunion, when I was solo. I was really depressed, and you hear things in it you may not have gotten from me in the original L7. I had always been an emotionally guarded writer, Susie’s more of an emotionally revealing writer. “Holding Pattern” is my truth. I was hoping the future would come soon and get me out of shit, because I was stuck. It was a plea to the universe to get me unstuck.

What was it like picking up again with Susie and songwriting?

Donita Sparks: Susie and I see in each other what we can bring, and if it’s not good enough, we can tell each other that. We do a lot of laughing when we write – we get a real kick out of heavy songs, finding those heavy riffs and doing a slow mosh.

Where’s your magic slow mosh moment?

Donita Sparks: “Proto Prototype”. It’s dirty, metal without the wanking – the kind of stuff we like.

When you started out, your music was fearlessly picking apart taboo issues – sexual assault, feminism. Now these issues are being explored my mainstream and pop. What do you make of that?

Donita Sparks: I feel I don’t need to be a pied piper about it, but we had to be the ones to say things back in the day that troubled people. But we’ve always just wrote about what we write about, no deep thought process or mission. I don’t think we ever had a feminist cause, I think we were just feminism in action by just being. Sure, we had “Can I Run”, a sexual assault song, “Everglade”, about not getting pushed around at a show, but we were just being us and what we cared about.

“I’m not hearing a lot of music that’s the soundtrack for this new wave of protest – what’s going on there? That’s weird. Where are the anger anthems right now?” – Donita Sparks, L7

I always found the Rock for Choice benefits you ran really inspiring – proper guerrilla, DIY direct action powered by music.

Donita Sparks: Yep. See, we did that, as opposed to singing a song about abortion. We were about giving back, and that was what we chose to give back with. We brought the rock, a feminist organisation brought structure.

There’s always been a humorous edge to whatever you broach. How do you keep that?

Donita Sparks: Our song “Dispatch from Mar-a-Lago” is funny. It’s about a riot at Trump’s vacation home. It’s like Mel Brooks does The Producers and Springtime for Hitler. Coming from humour works for us. Other artists are good at pleas for action, but it’s not necessarily our forte. We like lampooning people. In “Wargasm”, we sing, “Tie a yellow ribbon around the amputee.” It’s funny, but it’s also visual.

And confronting.

Donita Sparks: And absurd. Confronting the absurdity of it all is where we’re strong, adding humour to things that aren’t funny at all. We don’t think any of this shit is funny, but that’s the way we do it.

It’s a fucking absurd time to be living in.

Donita Sparks: It’s so much more demented now than it was in 92. We thought it was bad then because of the conservative guys in office, now we’ve got a guy who’s just batshit crazy, a new dimension of weirdness. It’s pretty freaky.

It was really subversive but vital for L7 to be on MTV, streaming into people’s living rooms, in the press, infiltrating the masses. Is that so important now?

Donita Sparks: It’s always been important to me. When I was a kid, I saw Bowie and John and Yoko on afternoon talk shows, these really square shows with fascinating people, that brought a little bit of the subversive to suburbia. I’ve been told over the years that people seeing us on MTV from their living rooms inspired them to play guitar or start a band. Some artists want nothing to do with that, they want to be underground, they want to not be that kind of a machine, but what isn’t a part of a machine? Everything is part of a machine – if you’re buying cotton socks that aren’t organic, you’re part of the machine.

Politics and social issues are a part of the zeitgeist in a way they haven’t been since the 60s and 70s. Is music reflecting that?

Donita Sparks: I’m not hearing a lot of music that’s the soundtrack for this new wave of protest – what’s going on there? That’s weird. Where are the anger anthems right now? L7 was pretty good at anger anthems, when youth weren’t marching in the streets. Sometimes mainstream artists step up to the plate, and sometimes underground rock does – I would be interested to see it.

“Grunge’s greatest legacy was how many women were playing in bands. People don’t really think about that enough” – Donita Sparks, L7

I think major labels allow artists to be political with a small ‘p’ but no more, nothing that would perturb brands, the press, or sponsorships. What do you make of the DIY scene right now? It feels with the advent of social media and Bandcamp, there’s more scope to being indie.

Donita Sparks: I think it’s amazing, but you have to wear a lot of different hats and you have to cut through the clutter. L7 are very fortunate that when we finally got a Facebook page going, we still had a large fanbase. We’ve gone with Joan Jett’s label Blackheart for this release – Joan is our friend and it’s a good place to be. We built ourselves the old way luckily. Now, if you’ve got computer chops, you can do anything. But how can you push through the avalanche of content?

Sleater-Kinney are back, and Bikini Kill are touring. Do you think it’s a more nostalgic or urgent need for 90s punk?

Donita Sparks: From speaking with younger people, they view that era of the early 90s as a golden era of women in rock. Grunge’s greatest legacy was how many women were playing in bands. People don’t really think about that enough. These bands weren’t conforming to mainstream beauty ideals or stereotypes. We didn’t even intend to be an all-female band, it was just by happenstance. After a while, it does get tiring talking about that. Things got more co-ed, but I think that some of the aggressiveness of that era has not been replicated. It got a little less in your face. But that’s okay – grunge got very depressing and loaded, and then in your face, and then boring.

Now, again, people want music that’s more confrontational, that’s what these bands bring. I think about young people who have to look at some of these fucking pop stars and it’s their only view of feminine in rock or in pop. Young people should get to see women on stage who aren’t pulling any bullshit.

You’re going to be touring, so there’s an opportunity.

Donita Sparks: We are. We’re all adults, semi-mature people, and we want to get home to our cats and our dogs and our significant others. It’s great being on the road, but three weeks is going to be a long one. Whatever, though – it’ll be fun. We’re on lineups with Rancid, Suicidal Tendencies, and Le Butcherettes, which is cool.

What’s your release when you’re at home?

Donita Sparks: I’m doing L7 a lot, but I also write other kinds of music too. I’ll go see a friend’s band playing. I live in one of the best neighbourhoods in the world – Echo Park, LA. I do love escaping to a tropical island once a year or so. I love snorkelling, I love getting on the beach, seeing the fish.

Where do you go snorkelling?

Donita Sparks: Hawaii, Belize – I just love it. Have you ever snorkelled?

I did, in Nassau, the Bahamas. The water is so clear.

Donita Sparks: I like that very much. That’s my zenning-out world.