L7 Talk Reunion Tour & New “Pretend We’re Dead” Documentary

It had been nearly 20 years since the original members of L7, the L.A.-based grunge rock group comprised of founding members Donita Sparks and Suzi Gardner, along with Jennifer Finch, and Demetra Plakas, last toured together. But that all changed after a Kickstarter campaign to fund a band documentary (L7: Pretend We’re Dead) exceeded its goal, all the while raking in countless calls from fans around the world to reunite and tour (the group officially called it quits in 2001). The band did just that, and last month culminated a six-month-long string of dates in Europe and the U.S. at the San Diego Music Thing.

ARTISTdirect’s Gwendolyn Elliott recently chatted with L7 forming member Sparks via phone from L.A. about the experience, the band’s iconic catalog of punk songs, and her reflections of Paris club The Bataclan, where the group played in June.

Gwendolyn Elliott: You recently wrapped your reunion tour; what have you been up to since then?

Donita Sparks: I was thinking I would be taking a break but I’m actually delivering all this stuff for people, which is great. There’s a guy in England who’s been putting out live CDs and he’s putting out an L7 covers record, covers that we’ve done over our whole career. And just getting writer’s credits for him and approving photos and layouts, and contacting him with photographers and stuff. He’s doing the legwork but I’ve still got to oversee it. And still delivering photos and stuff for our director of the documentary, so that’s been stressful.

GE: What can you tell us about the documentary?

DS: Well, the Kickstarter was in January, I think, and the director [Sarah Price], she’s been editing away with the editor, and the producers have received several rough cuts. I’ve seen it a couple times and it still needs some work, but I think the director and producers are hoping to get it into South by Southwest this year. Hopefully that will happen and we can wrap the whole thing up. That would be great for me.

GE: You’re balancing a lot of things at the moment. There’s the documentary, L7, and I know you have a solo project [Donita Sparks and the Stellar Moments] as well.

DS: I’ve been knee deep in L7 for the last couple years actually, so it’s been really cool. Back in the day I just put everything in plastic tubs and stored it away, and just going through it has been cool, but it’s also weird. Going down memory lane is great, and it’s depressing at the same time. So, it’s like, it’s perfect for my personality. It’s just a weird thing. But I am looking forward to this old stuff wrapping up and either L7 is going to do some new stuff, or if I’m going to do new stuff, I don’t know, that has yet to be seen. But L7 still has unreleased stuff that I still may throw together at some point, once these other deadlines are taken care of.

GE: I’m sure it will make a lot of people excited to hear that. Has the band been working on any new material?

DS: No, no. The rehearsals we’ve done have just been playing our old songs just for the shows. There’s been no talk about doing anything new. You know, that could change. We have some shows lining up for next year. It looks like we’re going to Australia in January and some shows over the summer in Europe and the U.S. and hopefully South America at some point too. So we will be doing shows and mixing up the set. We’ve been kind of playing the same set at every show, so we’re working on a different set to throw in different old songs.

GE: Do you have a song you always enjoy playing live?

DS: I enjoy playing “One More Thing,” because Jennifer  [Finch, bass] sings it and I can just sort of sit back, and it rocks. I like that one a lot and we never used to play that one back in the day. This is the first tour we’ve ever played that song, so it’s been very enjoyable. And I like when Suzi [Gardner, guitar] sings “Monster,” ‘cause that’s a really great song and I play lead on that one. And, I like doing “Shitlist,” ‘cause I do that one and people really go apeshit on that one. You know what I mean? I have to hit this octave for the final verse which is always like, ‘Am I gonna hit it?’ I have to scream it in a higher octave and it’s always interesting. So that’s fun.

GE: How long has it been since you all last toured together?

DS: Well, Jennifer left the band in ‘96, so I think her last show with us would have been ‘95? I’m not sure, but the band officially broke up in 2000. Actually 2001. Shit! So, the rest of the band hadn’t been together since then, so it’s been a long time. 20 years for Jennifer. It’s really wild, when you think about it.

GE: Did you have any apprehension about the haul, after so many years off the road?

DS: I think there was apprehension from all of us. I knew we would deliver musically, it was just sort of the interpersonal stuff that I was just like, ‘I hope none of that stuff pops up again, from any of us.’ And it didn’t. We’re kind of a kinder, gentler L7, with each other. And also, I told everybody, ‘We’re not getting in a bus for two months. I’m not doing that, I’m sure you’re not doing that.’ And we’ve just been dipping in. A week here, two weeks there. We’re not promoting a new record, and that’s when stuff gets very grueling. When your manager puts you out on the road, for a long period of time. That’s when shit, when you can really get on each other’s nerves. But this is like this joyous, amazing, connecting with fans again that’s just been smiles on everybody’s faces. That’s just been really amazing.  

GE: It seems like you have more control over how you want to tour, this time around.

DS: For sure. There’s no agenda, other than making our fans happy and having a good time. If we weren’t having a good time, we’d be like, ‘Ah, OK, fuck it.’ But we are having a good time, and it’s making people really happy.

GE: You sold out a lot of shows.

DS: Yeah, it’s this really great combo. I think our music, in a way, has stood the test of time. I don’t want to sound arrogant over it, but I can see it in the makeup of the audience. There’s people from back in the day, older, and there’s a lot of teenagers, people in their twenties, male and female, and it’s really cool. And, you know, I was recently at a show of an older band, and it was all older people in the audience. Ours is somehow, just through social media hitting young people, and hitting a void that is there, that it’s still connecting with people. Young people in particular; I think our music and lyrics have always been for the disenfranchised, sometimes isolated teenagers. And that still strikes a chord. I mean, a person of any age can sing “Shitlist” with all their f***ing heart and soul because it’s an angst anthem of frustration, so that speaks to people of all ages.

GE: Do you find it easy to tap into the person who wrote that song years ago?

DS: Yeah, even more so now than I think when the band was sort of in our later years. Those songs for me hold up, just revisiting them. Listen, we’re not playing any stuff that we are just like, ‘I don’t like that one anymore.’ There are some things in our catalog that we just don’t play, or don’t hold up, but the ones that we are playing either crack us up or still hit an emotional note that we can tap into as our younger person 25 years ago. And also, “Shitlist,” you can still sing that about current day politics.

GE: Any moment of this tour that’s particularly memorable?

DS: Oh God, so many shows were so great. We were first playing some festivals, which was cool, and our first club show was in Prague, and there was no barricade. It was mayhem, and it was like, kids putting their beers on stage and them quickly getting knocked over. And then there was beer everywhere. It was very punk rock, in a way. We haven’t played without a barricade since 1990 probably. So, that was fun. All the shows have been great. Personally, I prefer the club ones to the festivals, just because usually at festivals we’re playing during the day or at sunset. In the clubs, you’ve got the lights, the darkness, that sort of intimacy of a theater performance, as well as the rock.

GE: Did you have a favorite venue you enjoyed playing?

DS: I enjoyed a lot of them. I loved the Fonda in L.A., the Showbox in Seattle was really fun. You know, the Garage in London, the Bataclan in Paris. The club ones.

GE: You played the Bataclan on the European leg of this tour. What did you think when you heard about the attacks there? Had you ever played there before?

DS: Horror, you know. I was concerned, too, because we had just played with Eagles of Death Metal in Europe, and they came to our show in Glasgow, and I’ve known Dave Catching for years, and we had just seen that particular lineup. You know, their lineup up changes sometimes, but we had just seen those guys. I thought it was a joke at first. It was so bizarre, really, really, intense.

I don’t remember [if we ever played there before], I think we may have. It’s so weird because I found this box of old itineraries of ours and I was thumbing through them and thought, ‘Shit, I should get someone to archive this.’ All the dates we’ve ever played should be logged in somewhere. And I was thumbing through it, you know? I’m sure we’d played there before, there were a lot of repeats of venues on this tour.

GE: Going through all this L7 ephemera, does that make you the defacto group historian?

DS: I think Jennifer has a lot of stuff too. But I’ve been the one who’s been delivering for the filmmaker. I kind of put it out to everybody, ‘Do you have anything to contribute?,’ and some stuff has come in, but I think everybody’s shit is in storage, and I’ve been the one digging through shit. Everyone has had ample opportunity to go through their storage and get shit out. But I’ve got a lot of stuff because I co-formed the band and I was there through the bitter end, so I do have the more extensive collection of stuff.

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IMAGES: Stefan Goldby at San Diego Music Thing 2015

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