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Interview: Donita Sparks on the return of L7

Zach Long
Written by
Zach Long

Like any modern music festival worth its salt, this year's edition of Riot Fest hosts its fair share of reunited bands, from No Doubt to Drive Like Jehu. Among those reconvened bands from yesteryear is L7, a metal-turned-punk outfit formed in the mid-'80s that found success in the early '90s, during the height of grunge and the riot grrrl movement. Ahead of L7's set at Riot Fest on Sunday, we spoke with frontwoman Donita Sparks about her decision to reunite the band and her legacy as a politically conscientious musician. 

What made you decide it was time for L7 to reunite?
I don’t think any of us thought we would get back together. I had been posting stuff on our Facebook page when I was archiving my stuff and delivering it to a filmmaker who is now making a documentary about the band—we were getting this really frothy response! When you’re away for awhile, you think everyone has forgotten about you. When our booking agent contacted me to see if we might be interested in doing some festivals, I called everyone up—we had been estranged for years and I really didn’t know how it would go. [Guitarist] Suzi [Gardner] needed some time to think about it, but she said yes after six months.

What has it been like revisiting songs you wrote more than two decades ago?
When we decided to do this I said, “Hey, let’s not make a new record. Let’s just revisit the old stuff, because that’s what people want to hear anyway." It wasn’t our desire to make a new record, that would have put this crazy pressure on us to deliver a good record. Revisiting the songs has been a process of elimination, because we happen to like all of our songs and they rock us.

L7 is often lumped in in with early '90s riot grrrl bands. At the time, did it feel as if the band was part of some larger movement?
Riot grrrl was sort of insular, it just got a lot of press. We crossed over into metal magazines, hard rock magazines, art magazines, The New Yorker and MTV. We differed from the riot grrrl scene because we wanted to get into mainstream press, we wanted to get on MTV and we wanted to reach the disenfranchised kid in the suburbs who only got turned onto cool things by MTV. I think the riot grrrl movement was very anti-corporate, but we didn’t care. Whatever got us the most exposure, that was where we wanted to be. We were lumped into that scene, but I think we were political before riot grrrl even existed—we started Rock for Choice [a series of pro-choice benefit concerts]. In a strange way, I think we were kind of an archetype for the riot grrrl movement. But we didn’t go to meetings and discuss the agenda—our agenda was to be a good rock band.

Did you view your music as a potential vehicle to support causes you felt strongly about?
We wrote about what we were experiencing, but the political involvement we had was something we decided to do when we reached a certain level of popularity. We knew other bands that were big and could actually bring in some money—like Nirvana, they played the first Rock for Choice show—so, we started pulling in our friends to do benefits. It was sort of a side project, it wasn’t our main thing.

As part of an industry that is (still) dominated by men, did you feel pressure to be a role model for young women?
We didn’t feel any pressure to be that because we were that. We were a living, breathing example—our existence was a feminist statement. It wasn’t our agenda, but I was certainly aware that it was a byproduct of what we were doing. When I was growing up, I didn’t have that kind of a role model. We got a lot of support from the metal scene and the hard rock scene. When we finally said yes to a reunion, we were contacted by metal festivals in Europe, so that’s why we went there first. Riot Fest was the only festival in the U.S. that wanted us—they were one of the first offers we got, period. Hats off to them, because they were ahead of the curve on wanting an L7 reunion.

L7 plays at Riot Fest (Rebel Stage at 6:40pm) on September 13.

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