L7: MAKE FUN OUT OF NOTHING
illustration by elza burkart
L7 were at the heart of the L.A. music scene of the late 80s and early 90s,a time when a thriving hair metal scene, the remnants of punk rock and a very underground art rock scene all collided. They might not have started up in Seattle back when it became the grunge capitol of the world, but they deserve a lot of credit for creating that sound—even though many people aren’t aware just how significant they were. But now there’s the new documentary L7: Pretend We’re Dead on the group, first started by singer/guitarist Donita Sparks and producer Robert Fagan simply as a way to preserve early L7 footage and now finished as a testament to the incredible journey of four fierce females as they created (and even took over) the sound of grunge. While making the documentary, the band reconciled and reunited—a true Spinal Tap ending—and will be performing and releasing new music later this fall. The band will do a meet-and-greet after the screening of L7: Pretend We’re Dead on Sat., Sept., 16, at the Regent, and will perform with Adam Ant at the Greek Theatre on Sat., Sept. 30. This interview by Tiffany Anders.
I want to know about the Nick Cave and L7 Lollapalooza relationship. Nick Cave is performing and you come out on stage on rollerskates! This is a side of Nick Cave I didn’t know about!
Donita Sparks (vocals/guitar): I know! I don’t think he knows he’s in the film! I met Nick the first day of Lollapalooza in Las Vegas. I was the only one in our dressing room and I was lying down on the couch. It was really hot. In walks Nick Cave who didn’t see me lying on the couch. He was like ‘I’m just looking for imported beer.’ They only had Budweiser or something like that. I was like, ‘Our dressing room is your dressing room.’ For that moment on, we were pals. They hated playing in the daytime, they hated the Lollapalooza crowd because it was a lot of high school kids. And they’re much funnier than they come off. They come off as very serious guys and they’re actually dry but funny. He would fuck with people too. He saw Adam Horowitz from the Beastie Boys: ‘Are you the caterer?’
The same year you were on Lollapalooza, Billy Corgan is doing an interview with Nick—
Robert Fagan (producer): And Nick was taking the piss out of him.
Donita Sparks: He could be brutal, but for some reason he took a liking to us. A lot of bands wouldn’t hang out—we would hang out. At night, we’d call each other and go out.
Who else was on that year?
Donita Sparks: Smashing Pumpkins, Beastie Boys, Breeders, A Tribe Called Quest, Nick Cave, us … the Boredoms started, then Green Day came halfway and played first. They played right before us and they were on fire. It was right through the heart. Following them was tough—that album Dookie was blowing up.
It’s a good observation you make in the film—Kurt had died. People were sick of the self-deprecating—
Donita Sparks: And the sadness and the heaviness and the angst … It’s cool that we have that footage because touring is so different now. I feel bad for these bands. They’ve got Netflix on their laptops and they’re not engaging with each other. There were times we couldn’t stand each other but guess what? We were all in the same van. We had to communicate. We had to listen to the same music coming out of the stereo and just fucking make fun out of nothing. Like [bassist/vocalist] Jennifer [Finch] says in the film—now there are so many distractions. You can sit there and be pissed off at your bandmate and not even have any conversation with them all day. You can have your headphones on and be doing your Instagram. We were forced to interact which made things playful out of boredom or whatever. It’s probably the last of its era, and we got it on tape. It’s pre-cell phones. And yet videotape was cheap. We couldn’t have done it if it had been film—it was just that particular time where you could get a camcorder and a videotape and you could tape it, and it was cheap. It’s that special time capsule moment. I had all these tapes from sort of the later years of L7 and Jennifer had these early tapes of L7. And Dee [Plakas]’s husband Kirk [Canning] had the middle years of L7. They had already been transferred from VHS, which I saw were degrading. I had the original Hi-8s or whatever, and so I started digitizing those. That’s kind of how I got a hold of Jennifer. The band had been estranged—
How long had it been since you talked?
Donita Sparks: Since she left the band, really. She left in 96. I think I ran into her a maybe couple times at a party that was like incredibly awkward. ‘Hi!’ ‘Hi!’ and it was weird. But then I had to get everybody’s emails because Robert and I had so much unique footage. We were like, ‘Maybe we should do something with this.’
Robert Fagan: The first step was really unintended—to archive L7 photographs so they didn’t disintegrate. Digitize them for keepsake reasons. Then between interviews and live performances and still photographs, we said, ‘Yeah, we really think we can do something with this. We don’t know what the story is …’ But I don’t think you ever do when you do a documentary. There were surprises and twists along they way but that was the beginning.
Donita Sparks: I would check YouTube now and again and, ‘Wow! There’s more shit on YouTube!’ Every time I’d go to YouTube, there was another show that somebody had posted about or another lost interview. So we not only had home movies, but there’s more interview content, more live footage—people who bootlegged us or whatever. It’s fascinating to see over the years that kind of build.
Robert Fagan: We were beginning to see the percolation of social media groups popping up, little L7 groups. We thought, ‘Let’s try to make this a case study.’ We had a very specific regimen for Donita. Every week, religiously—Monday Wednesday and Friday at a specific time, she’d post these photos. We’d watch the audience grow from like 8,000 to now over 152,000.
Donita Sparks: And a lot of times, with a film project like this, it later became a reunion, which we had no …
So the film idea came before a reunion.
Donita Sparks: Yes, but then we ended up with the most stock generic Spinal Tap ending. Which is: the reunion. Which is fucking hilarious, because we didn’t even intend … we had no ending. We just had, ‘We’re estranged, and that’s it.’ But I needed to contact everybody because we needed to do interviews for this documentary, and everybody was kind of into the legacy thing because we felt like we had been very swept under the rug as a band.
I felt that too.
Donita Sparks: Like our contribution to grunge, and our contribution to women in rock, and our contribution to politics in rock … There were maybe a couple people of that era—a couple women—who were the mouthpieces constantly of any commentary from that era, and it was sort of irritating all of us. We were like, ‘Yeah, let’s get our fucking story down because people should know about us.’ It was kind of an homage to our younger selves. As older people, we were like, ‘We owe it to our twenty-year-old selves to tell that story.’ I think some twenty-year-olds today need to fucking hear and see that story. So everybody was down and that’s how we got talking again. None of us wanted to be on camera, so that was a challenge. We just wanted audio, you know? We’re vain gals! Who were like, ‘We’re not going on fucking camera!’
Ironic since you guys didn’t give a fuck!
Donita Sparks: Ironic since we didn’t give a fuck, clearly!
Back in the day on MTV!
Donita Sparks: But it’s one thing being a political pioneer, and it’s another thing about being a vain artist. It has nothing to do with male and female—
Donita Sparks: —you’re a performer, and you’re vain, and that’s the way it is. Not everybody’s that way! But we are! So fuck you! So none of us wanted to be on camera. Probably Jennifer did—
Robert Fagan: We’d been watching Netflix and music docs and some of them from that era were starting to pop up and I turned to Donita and said, ‘If you don’t tell your story, no one’s going to.’ Then we started watching docs in a different way. How can we make this different? We were looking for documentaries that could inform the aesthetic. And one of the docs that we loved—not in the music genre, just a great doc—is The Kid Stays in the Picture. There’s a lot of photographs with a lot of voiceover. That became a foundation. One of the things we don’t like about docs is all these talking heads. And with the archival footage it felt right.
Donita Sparks: I don’t like seeing docs about really cool subject matter that have all these fucking boring talking heads. Or they’re like in the studio: ‘Oh, there’s Trent Reznor in front of the mixing board—’
—and the same people in every single documentary—
Donita Sparks: Yeah. And it’s not their fault. It’s the filmmaker or whoever not being creative. We were like, ‘Let’s get Exene in front of a car.’ Those were conscious choices. Let’s get a little bit of flair. I like flair. I don’t like square.
Robert Fagan: If we were home, I’d be writing that down. I love that.
There are some great lines in the movie that I was just writing down—they were so good. I actually liked everybody chosen to be interviewed. Shirley Manson being one of them—she was somebody that I equated with sort of a corporate kind of rock scene. She was almost the opposite of you because she was very put together, and she was the front woman for a kind of —
Donita Sparks: She’s so much more of a badass than she is perceived.
Yes—I could tell from the interview!
Donita Sparks: And she’s very feminist. And she’s a punk rocker. She’s kind of like Debbie Harry in the sense that she’s a total punk rocker and yet she loves going glam too. And it’s like … I would love to go glam, I just never had the fuckin’ army to make me look glam. Or the money! But I’d go glam. Why not?
All the females that you had in there and all the different perspectives—