If you’re already a reader of BUST, then it’s very likely you’re an L7 fan as well, and co-founder, guitarist, and vocalist Donita Sparks needs no introduction. But I’ll give you one anyway, just because the band’s legacy deserves to be spread far and wide. After forming in 1985 and making waves with their grungy metal sound, L7 were also noted for their unapologetic feminism in a genre that was often incredibly misogynistic. With the help of the Feminist Majority Foundation, they formed Rock for Choice, a series of pro-choice benefit concerts in the '90s designed to raise awareness about abortion access. After a 16-year indefinite hiatus, the band returned with the song “Dispatch from Mar-a-Lago” in 2017. Now they’re back with a new album, Scatter the Rats, for which they are currently touring. Recently, I sat down with Donita to talk about today’s political climate, being on MTV, and cutting through the clutter of social media.
In 2017, you released the single “Dispatch from Mar-a-lago.” Now, you’re releasing your first album in 20 years. Why did the time finally feel right for new material?
Well, we did the reunion thing, and we just wanted to see how that went. We thought it was just gonna be a reunion and that’s it, but we really had been enjoying ourselves. We are show folk, we are entertainers, and being on stage is a really cool powerful feeling. And connecting with our fans and that interaction, it gets to be this really powerful thing. So we wanted to keep going, and in order to do that, we wanted to put out new material and not just play the old stuff. Which is cool and a lot of bands do it, but we felt like "Okay, we still have something to say, people think we’re relevant," and why not make an album?
Are you surprised that more bands haven’t been as vocally against Trump and everything that’s going on in politics? I remember so many discussions during the time of his election, where people were thinking “Oh yeah, Trump is in office, so we’re gonna get a lot of good punk protest music," and I’m not sure if that’s been the case. Is it even relevant anymore?
You know, I feel the same way, but my publicist Sarah says we work with a lot of bands that do protest songs, so I think it is out there. I don’t think it’s as visible as maybe we all thought it was gonna be. It’s not like “Dispatch at Mar-a-Lago” is getting played on the radio. I know of one station that did not want to play it because they didn’t want any trouble. Not that they didn’t agree with the sentiment, [but] they don’t want the crazies, they don't want to deal with the fucking crazies. But yeah, it’ll be interesting to see if some of these big pop stars are gonna make some kind of a statement. I’m sure Bruce Springsteen is writing about it. He’s always on the right side of things. I think a lot of the younger punk bands are doing it...you know Eminem did that, he stuck his neck out, that was cool. We choose to do it with a bit of humor, we’ve always done it that way. Eminem did it with pure anger. A couple people are, but I would think that there would be more.
I also sort of think that a lot of people aren’t explicitly talking about Trump or politics, but I do hear a lot of younger bands talking about things like white supremacy and misogyny. So I think people are doing it, just not as explicitly.
We wanted to put "Dispatch from Mar-a-Lago" out urgently because we thought he was gonna be impeached. And we knew it was topical, which is why we did not put it on the album, even though live it’s one of our favorite songs to play, and the crowd really responds to it. And we may do a live version of it down the line. We don’t like “topical” that much, so that’s why we put it out as a single.
How does it feel to be back on the road again, playing shows? Do the crowds have the same vibe as they did in the '90s?
The crowds are super appreciative. They’re very diverse in age. Lot of young people, lot of older people. The touring thing is much different because we can all escape into our phones. There’s WiFi on our bus. This shit was unheard of. Back in the day, we’d be in a van, and if we needed directions, we’d have to pull over, get change for a payphone, call the promoter. We were forced to be around each other and be in each other’s grills constantly. But that also made the experience amazing. And we were filming each other a lot, and that footage ended up in the documentary. But we feel very grateful when we get on stage. We’re not jaded, it’s like, “Fuck yeah, we’re gonna kill them!”
Now with platforms like Spotify and Bandcamp, people can release and distribute their own music, and the process has become more democratized. I know have you’ve been very active on Facebook and Kickstarter. I’m wondering what it’s like releasing music now as opposed to back in the day. Is there anything you miss about the old way of doing things?
Well, I think it’s great for new bands, but to cut through the clutter of social media has gotta be really challenging. We’re lucky because when we jumped onto social media, we had a plethora of fans from back in the day who were also jumping onto social media. So we had this built-in fanbase. So that’s really great. We can roll with a lot of different ways to release music, but if you want attention, you’ve gotta pay a publicist. You gotta go on tour, which costs money. Labels back in the day, the big labels, would help you pay for that shit. You would have to pay them back, but they’d front the money for that stuff. But now if you’re young, it’s super cool, 'cause you can be very proactive, but cutting through that clutter, I don’t know. I know personally, I wear a lot of different hats and it’s kind of a pain in the ass. Because I like the empowerment of social media, but my strength really is creating stuff as opposed to curating my pages. Which I enjoy, but it is work.
Recently, you were on a panel for Rolling Stone for the docuseries “Punk” which turned into a shouting match between John Lydon and Marky Ramone. Can you talk about that night? I just felt like it was so emblematic of the music industry as a whole, getting interrupted and having to say, “Let the broad speak for a second!”
I was on this panel with Marky Ramone, John Lydon, Duff McKagen, Henry Rollins, and John Varvatos. It’s just like “Okay, wow!” John Lydon was holding court, and I think he had a few to drink, and he was in a mood. And he was being John Lydon. And I thought it was amazing. I thought it was fabulous. It was totally punk rock. He got vicious with Marky, which I didn’t like, but then Marky got vicious right back at him. It was like this Irish smartass against this Queens smartass or wherever Marky is from (editor’s note: Marky Ramone is from Brooklyn) and it was just the two of them going at it, and I just thought it was a blast. I was just laughing the whole time. Other people on the panel were super uncomfortable because they got insulted. And John tried to insult me, but I stopped him in his tracks.
L7 has always been known as a very outspoken and feminist band. Do you ever feel the pressure of the kind of legacy you have?
We’re seeing that at our shows a lot. I’ve said it before, they’re screaming “Shitlist” with smiles on their face. It’s this cathartic release of hearing this horrible new shit everyday and then you’re at a concert, having fun with people who are pretty much like-minded. It’s weird, 'cause sometimes when we play "Dispatch from Mar-a-Lago," we have some creepy people in the back. We weren’t a huge selling band, but we got some airplay, and there’s a range of fans. So anytime I post something on Facebook, [like] I posted a photo of Suzy at the Women’s March, and all these trolls came out, and it’s like “What the fuck, she’s at a Women’s March, we’re L7!” But that was mostly when people share something on their own Facebook, and then their asshole Uncle Joe starts trolling. We started Rock for Choice, and that’s something we’re really proud of. It was very boots on the ground, raising money to defend abortion clinics. We were in constant litigation, with the fuckers trying to shut them down, and fuckers bombing them, and they needed money. That feels really good, I think a lot of people are expecting us to pick up that issue again, and I think some younger people should do it. I think it’s their time to do it.
Maybe some of these younger bands will be inspired.
Anybody interested, Rock for Choice still exists: it’s part of the Feminist Majority Foundation in Los Angeles. So you could just call up the foundation and get your own Rock for Choice show going. I think it would be really great if some younger people did it. Or start your own organization.
You’ve talked about enjoying being on MTV back in the day and being subversive and sort of bringing punk to the masses. Did you get any sort of pushback from that especially since, from my understanding of the '90s, there was a lot of emphasis on not “selling out” or being corporate?
A lot of bands were getting signed to majors at that time. A lot of bands did not want anything to do with majors. The Bikini Kill gals didn’t want anything to do with that. However, we wanted the kids in suburbs to see L7. We wanted that reach. It’s not the kids in the cities living in the hip neighborhoods who need this the most. It’s the kids who are out there, who are isolated in really square towns who fucking need you. That’s how we felt about it. What has changed the most is that back then, if you were involved in an advertisement of any kind...it was such a huge sell out thing. But now, it keeps your band alive if you get a commercial, if you get placement in a film or TV. We’re getting a lot of cultural nods from screenwriters and television shows, but they’re not putting our music in. Like, this Her Smell movie….we could have used that bread, we don’t sell records. The income stream is limited, and in order to keep a band going, you gotta make some bread. We would do a car commercial. We wouldn’t do that in the '90s, but now you gotta do what you gotta do.
Are there any brands or TV shows you’d like to be apart of?
Orange Is the New Black! A bunch of tough cookies in prison!
That seems like a very natural fit!
We were almost in the Captain Marvel soundtrack, but they cut us at the last minute. Brie Larson was training to us and everything, and we didn’t get the soundtrack. So we’re kind of trying to hope our catalog gets out there more. There’s a lot of really cool shows with modern liberated women.
Are there any newer musicians that you’ve been liking recently?
Le Butcherettes have been opening this whole tour, and they’re fucking great. I don’t follow the scene as much as I used to. Downtown Boys are cool. I like a lot of the bands who are really coming out and being very brave about their sexuality. 'Cause even in the ‘90s, very few bands were doing that. And they’re doing that in a kind of fun whimsical way, so I like those bands.
Since y’all have been so vocal and political for over 30 years, how do you keep fighting? How do you self care during these turbulent political times?
Good question. I don’t know. I don’t know if I’ve figured it out yet. We’ve been so intense this past year, working on the record, and doing shows, and Dee fucking broke her arm, and we had to get a replacement in 24 hours. I love being at home. I’m pretty domestic, I don’t cook or anything like that, but I love my cat, I love my place, I love my husband. I’m really just stoked about that. Kinda square, but that’s where it’s at for me.
Scatter the Rats is out now from Blackheart Records.
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Emma Davey is a blog editor for BUST. She recently earned a B.A. in politics and gender, sexuality, and feminist studies from Oberlin College. She is originally from Houston and worships Beyoncé accordingly. You can follow her on Twitter @navel_gazerr if you want to hear her rant about things.