Music

Donita Sparks on L7’s ‘Pretend We’re Dead’ Documentary and Doing What You Want with Little Approval

L7 is known for their gut punching guitar riffs and crazy punk antics, but they’ve never shyed away from controversy — centering their songs around the political issues and women’s rights issues of the time. These songs are still very relevant to the horrors we face today. The ass-kicking punk/grunge band is made up of Donita Sparks on guitar and vocals, Suzi Gardner on the same, Jennifer Finch on bass and vocals, and Dee Plakas on drums.

Recently, the ladies of L7 premiered a documentary of the rise and fall of the band. It is all self-filmed by the band themselves, chronicling the good and bad times with video and photography. You are navigated through the under belly of the ’90s grunge movement with first hand accounts. From touring with Nirvana, creating Rock for Choice (a benefit concert for women’s reproductive rights), to losing close friends to drugs and alcohol. The film takes you on the roller coaster that was punk music in the ’90s.

We had a chance to speak with Donita Sparks about the film, their career, and what she would tell her young punk self.

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What lead you to form L7?

You know, I’m not sure I’ve been asked that question before. What made us form L7? I really don’t know. I think Suzi and I started playing guitar around the same age, probably 16 or 17. I never thought I’d be in a band, it just sort of happened. Suzi, I know, wanted to be in a band and taking the steps towards that. I just sort of flopped in. I liked some songs Suzi had on a demo, so her and I were thinking of doing a cross between punk and hard rock. Which wasn’t really being done on the punk art scene where we are from. There was a lot of new-wave going on — rockabilly and cow punk, but not really hard rock. At the time, it was sort of fresh. We didn’t know about the bands in Seattle at the time doing sort of the same thing, being we were from LA. I think being in a band for both of us, at least for me, it was a weird thing to do because there weren’t many women playing. I just thought it would be really fun. It started out with very humble goals. Like maybe we would get to play out of town once in awhile.

Was it tough being a band of women on the scene?

When we started, we had a male drummer. But, no, we were playing punk clubs. We weren’t playing the sunset strip, we weren’t playing metal clubs. I don’t think we’ve ever played metal clubs, actually. We were playing the punk dives and people just stared at us in wonder. It got better as it went on.

You all are a powerhouse of a band, for sure.

Yeah, we definitely got better as it went on. I think we had the sound at first, but we got tighter and wrote better songs. It all kind of progressed as it should have.

L7’s songs have always been outspoken on social injustices and women’s rights — still very relevant to what’s going on in the world today. 

We stuck our necks out politically more than other bands of the time. Lyrically and also forming Rock for Choice. Our peers weren’t really singing about the same stuff we were. We were covering a lot of bases. The political stuff is still relevant, for sure.

You ladies just premiered your documentary, “Pretend We’re Dead.” What made you decide to venture into that project? 

Well, I was digitizing a bunch of stuff. I had VHS tapes and a lot of Hi8 footage of home movies and live shows. Jennifer also had a lot of footage and pictures from over the years. So I called her up and told her that I was digitizing it all before it disintegrates, because that’s what happens over time. I showed all of it to a director and she thought it was compelling footage. It was a band, shooting itself during its rise and tough times. It’s a first person account of what was happening with us. As opposed to a film maker coming in and filming, it was all us. Our first big purchase was a camera. It cost $1,000 and it was all the money we had. It was a huge amount of money, but we thought this might be interesting to someone someday.

You and Jennifer are very active on social media, staying connected to fans. Isn’t that what sparked the interest of putting L7 back together after 15 years? 

Well, when we broke up, our popularity had waned. But I had noticed through the years that our digital imprint was zero. Like we aren’t being remembered at all, at least on the internet. All the articles we had done were in print and that shit wasn’t digitized. If you Googled “L7” there was jack shit about us. Images of a phone would come up. So I started a Facebook page, again to archive and post photos. People really started responding to it. And one thing led to another. After a few years of posting the numbers started growing. So we threw it out there, “Hey are you just ‘liking’ these things or would you really come to see us play?” They said “Yeah.” It just kicked off from there.

Do you think the music business is different from when you all started?

I have no idea what’s happening in the music business now. I barely had an idea back in the day. It’s a fucking hot mess and always has been. Especially for the artist. The artist always gets paid last, after the managers and everyone. I’m not a business person and it’s always confused me. Now it’s really fucking confusing. I pay as much attention as necessary.

What does the future look like for L7? 

I don’t really know. I think if we want to keep doing any kind of shows, we are going to have to put out some new music. We just finished up two years of touring, so we are taking a few months off. We will reconvene then to see where to go from here, if anywhere.

If you could go back and tell 20-year-old Donita something, what would it be?

My 20-year-old self? Oh my god, so many things. In a way, part of me at 20 was braver than me now and me now is braver in ways than I was then. I mean, I moved out of Chicago at 19 to LA, where I didn’t know anyone. Doing that now would be terrifying. I would say, “Be brave and do some cool shit.” Whatever you want to do, just do it without of a lot of approval. Shit doesn’t pay off for a long time, so just do it to do it. Whether it’s art, or volunteering, or being an activist, just fucking do it. The people that don’t do it are the ones who have the most regrets.

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To keep up to date with L7 visit their official Facebook at facebook.com/L7theband

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Ashley McFaul
Ashley is a social media community manager and artist, who splits her time between Houston, Tx and Los Angeles, CA. With a degree in Mass Media Communications, Ashley likes to use videos, photos, and essays to connect people with what’s happening in the world.
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