Music Festivals

Donita Sparks of L7 on Why the Band Reunited

L7 will play Riot Fest on Sunday, August 30, at 6:30 p.m. on the Rock Stage. Though often lumped in with the grunge and riot grrrl movements, L7 really predated both. Donita Sparks met Suzi Gardner while part of the L.A. punk scene in the early '80s. Gardner even sang on the Black Flag song “Slip It In" (she was dating the Flag's bassist, Chuck Dukowski, at the time). When putting together their own band, both women had a mutual interest in Hawkwind and Motorhead. Gardner, in particular, was a fan of Black Sabbath. And it was Gardner who first shared some of her own songwriting.

“When I met Suzi, she played me a tape of stuff she'd been working on, and it was exactly the kind of shit I wanted to work on,” recalls Sparks. “[Musically,] it was a complete blueprint for the early sound of L7.”

The combination of punk sensibilities and hard rock that L7 has developed was very different from the prevailing glam-metal sound on the ascent in L.A. in the '80s, even as other strands and underground scenes were coming together to yield bands later in the decade like the Hangmen, the Nymphs, Celebrity Skin and, a little later, Failure and Medicine. Though L7 didn't much sound like any of those first three bands, they all played shows together. And it was L7's core sound that made it stand out at a time when a lot of hard rock was steeped in cartoonishly hedonistic (and borderline misogynistic) lyrics and gaudy musical gymnastics.

“We were punk-rockers doing hard, heavy rock without all the super-indulgent lead playing like heavy metal had,” says Sparks. “We were playing heavy without the metal.”

By 1988, L7 had caught the attention of Epitaph Records head and Bad Religion member Brett Gurewitz, and the label released the band's self-titled debut. Gurewitz also invited L7 to open for Bad Religion on its tour the same year.

“Oh, they just stood there and watched us,” says Sparks about that tour. “People wouldn't really start moving at our shows until later. I think that we looked pretty unique, and I think that they thought we were just a freak show and they didn't quite know how to respond to us.”

But the band's regional and coastal tours and trips to Texas and New Orleans put it in contact with a national scene, including with Cat Butt, a band on the rising Sub Pop label. In 1990, Sub Pop issued L7's second album, Smell the Magic. From there, L7 became a far more well-known quantity. It was also one of the earliest of the bands not from the Northwest signed to Sub Pop, alongside the Fluid from Denver.

“I loved the Fluid,” says Sparks. “That's a totally underrated band. They never get the love, and they were so fucking good. It's ridiculous that they're not cited more.”

Throughout the '90s, L7 was able to ride the alternative-rock wave. The group became infamous for outrageous stunts, as when Sparks took out her tampon at the 1992 Reading Festival and threw it into the rowdy crowd. Sometimes the extreme is what the situation calls for when facing down potentially hostile people. In 1999, the band also raffled off a one-night stand with drummer Dee Plakas — and, says Sparks, there was a winner.

“Why do people climb Mount Everest?” offers Sparks. “Because it's there. She was there, the idea came into mind, and we made it happen.”

After 2001, the band's members went their separate ways, with Sparks starting Donita Sparks and the Stellar Moments.

In 2014, Sparks set up an L7 Facebook page to post some pictures she had recently digitized. The response was so overwhelmingly positive that she asked her bandmates about a possible reunion. It turned out everyone was available, and the lack of pressure to release new product and push an album made the idea even more appealing. L7 has always been a powerful live band, with meaningfully tender lyrics like those in “Non-Existent Patricia” and blisteringly defiant words and music like those in “Shitlist.”

“We don't have a manager,” concludes Sparks. “We don't have a record label. It's not like someone came up to us and said we can make some big money. It was just the fans and us responding to the fans. We realized we still had it in us, and if we just wanted to play the old shit, it couldn't be that hard. So it's been fun and has brought us together as friends. Some of us have been estranged. It's really been a hoot.”

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Tom Murphy is a writer, visual artist and musician from Aurora, Colorado. He was a prolific music writer for Westword and a documenter of the Denver music scene.