L7: MAKE FUN OUT OF NOTHING
Robert Fagan: Donita very much had a strong influence and opinion on who ended up in the doc. As a producer, I’m throwing it in big, ‘Let’s get everybody under the sun! What about X Y Z and Elton John?’ And she’s like, ‘Absolutely not!’ And it got more narrow and more narrow and more narrow finally to the point that I had to reverse the question and say, ‘Who DO you want? What is the minimum requirement?’ She said, ‘I don’t want anyone in the doc that I don’t respect.’ And that was it.
Donita Sparks: It was also interesting because so many of these younger bands said, ‘We started a band because we saw you at the Metro in Chicago.’ Veruca Salt—they saw us, and they formed a band within weeks. That’s what I want in the doc. And I barely know Louise [Post of Veruca Salt] and she was gracious enough to be in the doc. Brody Dalle, same thing. I wanted to get people who we influenced and people who influenced us—Exene, Lydia Lunch—and a couple contemporaries. Krist Novaselic—in the greatest band of that era—is saying we had good songs. It’s like, ‘That’s all we need!’
That was so great! I totally felt him on that. Like, ‘That’s how I remember them.’
Donita Sparks: So that was cool! Who else do you need then? And we had [producer] Butch [Vig] because we worked with Butch. I thought it was cool that it was female-heavy on the interviews, too, even though you don’t really notice. They all had interesting perspectives. Joan Jett too. Allison Robertson from the Donnas.
I loved her! I thought she had great things to say. She was very specific about how it was inspiring to her.
Robert Fagan: Everyone had relevant and pointed things to say. We didn’t try to lead the witness. The other thing about that you should know … when the band interviews took place, the band had not heard anyone else’s voices. They did not have the privilege of knowing what [guitarist/vocalist] Suzi [Gardner]’s memory was of that incident. Or Jennifer’s. It was all a tapestry that came out later. The band didn’t see the film until it was done.
Donita Sparks: I will say this: I was seeing rough cuts and I was shocked at how personal Suzi got in her interview. I was much more guarded. I’ve always been guarded in interviews—it’s the way you have to be because people go for your vulnerable spots, especially the British press—at least they used to be that way. You showed vulnerability and you’re a goner. You really had to front a lot in interviews about how disaffected you were. So when Suzi went there—when I heard her talking about the vulnerabilities and feeling the way she felt towards the end of the band—I was like, ‘OK, I’m going there, too. I’m going to say how I felt with the band ending and how it was devastating for me because I had not revealed that before.’ So Suzi inspired me, and then we did like a second round of interviews.
Robert Fagan: We did a couple of feedback screenings with friends and family, and we discovered the need for higher highs and lower lows. For instance, the period between the end of the band and the reunion … people were like, ‘What happened then? I want to see more about this!’
I didn’t know what happened then! And I was a big fan!
Robert Fagan: We addressed it through Donita becoming more real and authentic and going more to a more emotional place, as Suzi did, saying … it’s fucking hard, you know.
Donita Sparks: A couple of the comments were like ‘What did you guys do in the years in between?’ I was like, ‘Look, we’re already showing the corpse. Let’s not do the autopsy.’ I’ve seen docs where they show my heroes raking leaves in their fucking backyard and it’s like … no one wants to fucking see that. That’s just so … no.
One of my favorite lines in the movie is when you say, ‘We were into more of the Motorhead rock—not the Poison rock.’
Robert Fagan: ‘We liked metal in the Motorhead way—we didn’t like it in the Poison way.’
Donita Sparks: The filmmaker, Sarah Price, isn’t really a punk rocker. So me being the creative consultant, I had to school her a little bit on why we are not from that scene. I think she assumed every rock band was from the Sunset Strip. I was like, ‘No, no no no no.’ She didn’t grow up here. She didn’t live here. There was a little bit of an education process going on.
It was interesting to me, being a punk fan at the time, and then a metal fan because I listened to a lot of metal too. And in [grunge documentary] Hype! there’s a scene where the guy is saying, ‘It’s punk and metal—that’s what grunge is.’ When I got to see L7, it was kind of the most amazing thing in the world—it was punk and metal, which did not have the name of ‘grunge’ back then, but it was grunge. You were definitely the pioneers of grunge as far as I’m concerned because this was 1988, 1987.
Donita Sparks: Also what separates us from other grunge bands is we were from the ‘art-punk’ scene. We played cabaret shows and poetry readings and drag shows. You know how it was back then. Nirvana were not from the art-punk scene. Soundgarden were not from the art punk scene. I don’t think Mudhoney were from the art-punk scene. We were this weird thing of crossing over, not only from punk into the metal scene, but also the art scene.
Robert Fagan: It was the combination of Donita’s love of punk and the Ramones and Suzi’s love of hard rock and metal. That created that mash-up, which was the prototype of grunge.
Donita Sparks: Nancy Sinatra on a little bit of speed with distorted guitar. Deadpan vocal. Sass. Not epic. Just some screaming and some deadpan.
You talk about being lumped in with the metal bands. What metal bands?
Donita Sparks: There used to be a lot of free metal newspapers—Rock City News, L.A. Rocks. They embraced us. But they thought that we were the same thing as Hardly Dangerous or Vixen. But we weren’t like Vixen. They were cool with us not being sexy. It’s very strange that they embraced us. We just looked like rag dolls that had been pulled out of the gutter—dirty and messy. But they liked us! I think it’s because we had distorted guitars, and we were playing heavy and fast. They covered us before Flipside or Maximum Rock’n’Roll.
Back then, L7, Redd Kross, and Guns N Roses was all one scene. Which I embraced.
Donita Sparks: Redd Kross and Celebrity Skin were two bands that were embraced by the metal scene and the punk scene—both those bands were not as much from the art punk scene. Suzi and I were drinking, on speed, going out all the time, hanging with writers and artists and it was great. It was almost like L7 was a concept band to begin with. ‘Let’s do a hard rock thing because no one is doing hard rock. Let’s be ironic biker looking chicks.’ I was always kind of an ironic biker. Suzi was more a legit biker.
I like in the movie when you say she came from a more emotional songwriting point of view and you were more political. This is why this band was so perfect for me when I was younger. It was empowering to me as a girl—it seemed really fucking fun and it had a lot of pure heart and joy in it, but with a little bit like, ‘Fuck you! We’re an all-girl band and we’re doing this!’ It had a feminist point but it wasn’t using it as the whole point. I wanted to talk about the political aspect of the band. There are interviews where you can see it in your face: ‘Fuck off, we’re so tired of talking about being girls.’ Is there anything that you look back on like, ‘I wish we’d taken this more seriously’—in terms of having that platform as a woman? Are you still pissed about something in terms of sexism?
Donita Sparks: It’s weird because our peers in the music industry in other bands were very supportive. We didn’t have much of a problem with dudes in bands. They were punk rockers. They were like, ‘You guys are cool!’ Even metal guys were like, ‘You guys are cool!’ The media got really silly or very gender-obsessed with us, which got really boring. But the way that we wanted to express ourselves in a feminist way was starting Rock For Choice. Instead of getting on a pulpit constantly about being women and women and women and women … we don’t want to harp on that. Let’s just harp on the rock. But we’ll start this organization because nobody’s doing anything for abortion rights in the music industry. That’s how we expressed it. A lot of our political songs involve just being pissed off in general—whether it’s ‘Wargasm’ or ‘Pretend We’re Dead’ about apathy … I think ‘Everglade’ is probably our most gender specific song, about a female. ‘Fast and Frightening’ is female empowering. Later, like some of the riot grrrl gals, I thought what they did was cool. It was not our approach—it was not our bag—to be so politicized. But there was a need for that. It was weird because they were coming from an academic place. They were college kids. We were living in the city and dealing with paying rent and doing drugs and just being urban. They were college town. There was a difference. We were a bit grittier, and we had to adapt in this urban thing with other bands, and we weren’t going to be passing out flyers about stuff like that. I think that’s cool they did get a lot of college gals who maybe never would have been into rock ’n’ roll—riot grrrls got them into rock ’n’ roll. So all of a sudden they’re going to punk shows. That is cool, but that wasn’t our scene. It’s interesting because I think we’re kind of the archetype for the name ‘Riot Grrrl.’ I think riot grrrl is a really great branded name, sort of. I think most people in the media think we’re the first riot grrrl band because they don’t know what riot grrrl is—riot grrrl was a political movement with music as the delivery mechanism. Our message was to be a good rock band. We just happened to be women. We didn’t want a gender specific name, and made sure we did not have a gender specific name—quite frankly I wanted people to question whether we were male or female if they just heard us. I really did. I think we succeeded like that.
Robert Fagan: Going back to the riot grrrl movement, you did experience first hand how when they would go back to a city six months later, they would see more girls who said, ‘I just started a band.’ There was that influence.
Donita Sparks: Very Pied Piper! We were the accidental Pied Pipers, I think. We played Seattle; next time we went up there, there was Dickless, Seven Year Bitch, all these bands.
I really do believe you’re the pioneers of grunge.
Donita Sparks: I will let you shout that from the mountaintops.
The sound, if it’s punk and metal mixed together—
Donita Sparks: —it’s more L7. And our style was better. Just our look. It was better!
I don’t know if Jennifer says this in the movie, she says ‘It was a time of being authentic. Authenticity was very important.’ To me, L7 embodied that. Especially for a female. It takes a lot of balls—or a lot of clit—to not give a shit about how you look, which I thought was interesting about what Suzi said. You didn’t want to look too sexy because then you weren’t taken seriously.
Donita Sparks: Personally I’ve never been a sexy dresser. Suzi’s always been a little more of a sexy dresser than I was. I’m just not comfortable dressing sexy. It was never my thing. I did hear from our manager, years later … This was a private dinner she took me to without the rest of the band, and she says, ‘We feel—along with the record label—that you try to make yourself look ugly and if you prettied it up a little bit you would be more of a front person.’ I was looking at her like, ‘Oh my God.’ She may have been right from a marketing standpoint. But that’s the reason people love us.
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