Perfect Sound Forever

Donita Sparks

interview by Robin Cook
(April 2008)

It's the mid-1990's, and L7 has taken a detour from Lollapalooza to play at the Academy in New York City. Fans raise their fingers and thumbs to form L's and 7's as guitarists/vocalists Donita Sparks and Suzi Gardner, bassist Jennifer Finch, and drummer Dee Plakas emerge onstage. The band lunges into "Deathwish" from 1991's Smell the Magic. From then on, the band delivers everything their fans love--tight buzz-saw riffs, pissed-off attitude, sardonic humor, and pop sensibility. These are the pre-nu-metal years, when hard rock bands have smarts and political consciousness to go along with the riffs.

Okay, before everyone sighs, "those were the days," let's fast forward to late 2007 and the inexplicable, very welcome re-emergence of indie rock. Donita Sparks is opening for the Donnas with a new band, the Stellar Moments. Sparks has been blogging at Firedoglake and working on a solo album, Transmiticate. Dee Plakas is back behind the drum kit. It's as if the interregnum between L7's last album (1999's Slap-Happy) and tonight's show never happened.

Along with a new album, Sparks is involved in a new business venture--CASH Music (Coalition of Artists and Shareholders), which she co-founded with ex-Throwing Muse Kristen Hersh. This is the happy sequel to the alt-rock explosion of the 1990s, one where the artists continue find a niche for themselves, and the fans still know where to find them.

PSF: I remember reading on L7's Web site several years ago that you were working on a solo project. Could you tell me about it and tell me how work began for it?

DS: I started working on it a few years ago and I had many, many songs and I just kind of narrowed it down. Last year, I sort of narrowed it down to the ones that I want on the record for sure. I had a bunch of songs and none of them were finished in the recording process. I recorded a bit here, at my place, and then I recorded a bit at my studio, and then at other people's studios, just kind of all over the place. And then last year, I was like, "I've got to get this record done." So I picked the ones I thought would make a nice story and a nice listen from beginning to end and I just kind of bulldozed through and finished them. And I got a co-producer, Ethan Allen, to kind of pull in the reigns on me and we got together every day and just finished the record. We re-tracked a few of them from scratch and then a lot of them we just kind of built upon and remixed.

PSF: Were these songs you'd written recently or songs you'd written beforehand that may not have fit in on an L7 record?

DS: There's one that I wrote when I was in L7, but I didn't want to put it on an L7 record.

PSF: Which one would that be?

DS: I'm not telling ya. Try and guess!

PSF: I did notice some of them are definitely reminiscent of L7, but some of them sort of have a New Wave feel. I'm thinking "Dare Dare." It kind of sounded kind of like synth pop without the synthesizers. And I noticed some of L7's songs sounded kind of like that too. You could hear that in the music.

DS: When I first started writing the record and L7 was first sort of on hiatus as we say... I was very confused and I was kind of... I did feel kind of vulnerable, you know, "What am I going to do?" I wrote a lot of very pretty, slow songs. And then, about a year after that, the rock started creeping in, and Dee and I would play in our studio and all of a sudden we'd start rocking out, you know? I didn't want it to get heavy and angry and dark with the rock. I wanted to keep it fun and joyous.

PSF: I do notice, actually, there's always been a sense of humor in your music from L7 on forward, and I can hear that here. Basically, with all of your songs, you always seem to have this wry sense of humor. I think L7 and Mudhoney both had that in common- they were among the few indie bands that could make you smile.

DS: Well, thank you. And you know, Nirvana could do that too. A lot of their music got very, very dark, but they were quite the pranksters. But we probably too often took our prankster-ness on stage. I don't know if it served us very well.

PSF: Well, I think there's a place for that. Certainly, I would agree some early Nirvana songs like "Floyd the Barber" had that sense of humor. On the other hand, L7 was also lumped in with, I hate to use this term, "grunge." How did you feel about that? Because to my mind, you didn't really sound like a lot of those bands.

DS: When the term first appeared, and I believe my friend David [David Emmanuel Duet, vocalist for the Sub Pop band Cat Butt] came up with the term "grunge." On their stickers, they put "Moto-Grunge." And I think that just kind of stuck with the Sub Pop people. Like, "Oh, it's grungy! Oh, it's grunge!" 'Cause it had distortion, and it sounded kind of biker, but kind of fun, too. It had a grunginess to it, like covered in grease, you know what I mean? We kind of had the distorted guitars too. I think we had maybe more pop than some of the other bands. We could throw down with the heaviness, too, with any of them, really. We kind of had the heavy and the kind of more pop stuff, more sing-able stuff.

PSF: I do notice you play all the instruments on this album except drums on this album, yes?

DS: Some of the bass was played a guy named Dat Ngo and some of the guitars were played by Alan Santalesa. But I would say I played everything on half the record.

PSF: Who handled the lead guitar parts?

DS: I did some of 'em and Alan Santalesa played some of them.

PSF: Was this the first time you've actually played lead guitar on record?

DS: No. You know, I played about half the leads on L7. Suzi was kind of a bit more blues derivative, what you would think of as a classic guitar solo or something. And I was either playing complete chaos or very simplistic melodic ditties, I call 'em. So certainly a lot of the signature riffs that are a lead guitar part are mine and some of the chaos was mine and Suzi would throw down a really tasty lead.

PSF: With this record, was it a little intimidating to be putting it out as a solo project? Did it feel like you were starting from scratch?

DS: It did and then it got to be so long that I don't care anymore. (laughs) I'm not intimidated anymore. We toured with the Donnas, and it went great. Our shows have been stellar since we started playing about a year and half ago, I think. And then this tour just totally solidified it because I put down the guitar for half a set. So I'm like a real front-person fronting a band.

PSF: I saw you when you opened for the Donnas as a matter of fact and I noticed you were playing. And I noticed you put the guitar aside and I thought, "This is different."

DS: And I come out without it on, to really hit 'em over the head with it. (Laughs) It's fun, it's fun. Like entertaining and worrying about your guitar going out of town and unplugging yourself and all that stuff... it's difficult. With L7, there were four of us. People liked us like the Beatles. People had a favorite L7 member. You know what I mean? I was sort of the front-person but Suzi was some people's favorite, Jennifer, Janice [Tanaka, L7's last bassist], Dee were other people's favorites. In fronting this band, I've gotta work the crowd.

PSF: I think you're actually a really expressive singer and I noticed you use your voice as a sound effect, especially like on "Take a Few Steps." How did you develop that vocal style?

DS: I actually think the way that I can actually do a lot of vocal stuff is not even really touched on on this record.

PSF: Really?

DS: Yeah. I dunno. It's difficult to say, but when my sisters and I get together, we go off and we have a lot of fun with each other and do crazy stuff singing and comedic stuff. I think I can go further with that without making it trite.

PSF: Because I think you're a very versatile singer and I notice you use the voice in different ways on this record. I'm thinking a song like "Cream Puff," with the girl group vocals and the slow, heavy riffs and drums.

DS: Right, right. When L7 first started out, we were very anti-backing vocals. If we had backing vocals, they were very "shout" and anthemic kind of stuff. I think we so wanted to prove we could rock and then as time went on and we were hearing bands like the Breeders and stuff like that, I remember, "God, we gotta throw in some!" 'Cause I've always loved pop since I was a kid. It's very much better been a part of my life, and yet with L7, we really at first carved out this kind of narrow thing that we did. But as time went on, we threw more and more of that in there. I don't think anything's been as layered as "Cream Puff" with the vocals. I mean, there's a lot of layers of backing vocals going on there.

PSF: One song I'm curious about is "Curtains for Cathy." What's the story behind that song?

DS: The story behind that song is a conversation that I had with an acquaintance who literally just found out that a friend of his had died and he was telling me about it. But because we were acquaintances... the way I was hearing it and the way he was telling me it was just very flat in emotion. There was emotion there but it was more like a curiosity. Like, "Oh, how sad. What happened?" kind of thing. And it's pretty much our conversation.

PSF: I noticed the lyrics about "dying around Thanksgiving" and "turning thirty" and I thought, "This sounds interesting."

DS: Yeah. Out of respect, I don't want to say details about somebody else's passing, but it's a true story, and actually most of the stuff in the lyrics is true.

PSF: One of the songs I've always been curious about is "Scrap" from Bricks are Heavy. I think that song's hilarious. Was it based on anyone you knew?

DS: Yes, it was. It was a guy named Scrap, and at the time we were recording our very first record and Brett Guerwitz of Epitaph was our producer and it was our first record and we were on Epitaph and it was before Epitaph got huge. He was working out of a very small house. And he was letting this skinhead named Scrap live in the garage. And he [Scrap] always had paint residue on his mouth. And then we got to fear that maybe he'd burn down the garage. There was always like a little drama going on around (laughs), around this guy Scrap. Brett and I wrote that song.

PSF: One thing you have in common with the Donnas is you both released your records on your own labels. Is that something you'll continue to do in the future? And do you see other bands doing the same?

DS: Yeah, you know, it's interesting because this record, I had physical distribution through Red Eye and also through my Web Site. But probably on the next record, there will be physical product, but just out of my Web site, because I'm going with CASH music, a coalition that Kristen and I and some other people started. That's really cool and very interesting. And I think it's for us right now a new business model. But I did want the physical in the stores. And that's why I have Red Eye handling the physical distribution.

PSF: Tell me a bit more about CASH and how that came about.

DS: Well, our managers and we all met at a concert. And first, our managers-slash-husbands met, and they were very close at hand to what was going on with Kristen and I and also very in tune to what was going on in the marketplace, record companies just like completely crumbling and the indies struggling. We all just kind of came up with this whole new way of sustenance, and we're hoping to open it up to all artists soon. And it's gonna be kind of cutting out the middle man, which would be the labels. So yes, we are asking for fans to contribute to our careers to get the money going, but they're gonna get a lot more. They're going to get lossless audio for free, Kristen's offering up her mix stems and every artist can kind of figure out what they want to present their fans.

PSF: You've been on two indie labels--Epitaph and Sub Pop--and then you went to one that was major-affiliated, Slash. What was your experience with those labels?

DS: Epitaph was so small and powerless at the time that it was a very easy decision for us to leave to go to Sub Pop. Even though we loved Brett and we supported what he was doing, he had very crappy distribution and Sub Pop had pretty good distribution. So we jumped on to Sub Pop and then all of a sudden we were sort of underground international. And also, when we were on Epitaph, because there weren't very many other bands on Epitaph, people still kind of looked at us like a freak show.

Then, when we got on Sub Pop, people knew what to do. "Oh, okay, this is this kind of band!" They had this whole scene going on up there and the fact that we got in on that was actually very fortunate for us. And we got over to Europe because of our single, and then we did an EP, and that went really well. And then we hit a wall. So we did an EP, we hit a wall with distribution, we would be on the road, it's like "Okay, where's our record?" Sub Pop, of course, has amazing distribution now, but at the time, it was blowing up with them so fast that they were doing the best they could.

Then we went to Slash/Warner Brothers, and we were everywhere. So, I would say we felt good with the people at Slash, because they were punk rockers at heart. And when we kicked into gear with Warner Brothers, because we sold a certain amount, their distribution system was amazing. We were everywhere. We were in Japan; we were in Brazil. And we would tour those countries and there would be a shitload of kids there and our record in the stores and we'd be on MTV there. It was covered. So that, I think, was probably the biggest loss that bands are going to suffer with the crumbling.

PSF: But on the other hand, L7 put out its last record Slap Happy on its own label.

DS: Yes, we did.

PSF: What made you decide to go that route?

DS: Well, because we were dropped from Warner Brothers and none of us had a good business sense. If I had good business sense, I wouldn't be a musician. I'd be a CEO somewhere. So we hooked up with a company called Bongload in L.A. So they kind of did the heavy lifting on the side of getting the record out and stuff. We made the record, then we kind of licensed it to them. It was our label--we own it. That's the only record we own. And their distribution was terrible. So, it's like, they folded on us. So it's like, "There we go again!"

And now, the Internet! It's a whole new ballgame! It's pretty crazy, 'cause now you can be all over the world again. Our record, Slap Happy, it went nowhere. I don't even know if it was in Europe. It was a good record. So, I'm going to re-release that on the Internet. iTunes and all that stuff.

PSF: Tell me a bit about your background as a musician. Did you have any role models? How did you start playing?

DS: I've always loved music, but I was not a musician. I sang a lot and played clarinet in sixth grade, or whatever. Completely insignificant stuff. But I've always liked music. I listened to records and the radio constantly. And then when punk rock came round and my sister got a guitar and she was playing guitar and learning it, I was like, "Wow, that looks really cool, wow! My sister playing guitar, that looks pretty great!"

And then I started playing guitar. My sister gave it up, and I started playing. But I still had no idea that I would be in a band.

PSF: Did you grow up in Los Angeles?

DS: No, I grew up in a south suburb of Chicago.

PSF: And when did you move to L.A.?

DS: '83.

PSF: What made you decide to make that move out West?

DS: I was obsessed with surf music and I wanted to be a surfer. And I haven't been on a board. (laughter) Been to the beach many times, haven't been on a board... I totally thought I'd move out here and live at the beach. Instead, I ended up in the seedy underbelly of Hollywood, you know? (Laughs) And I went down this road and it's worked out.

PSF: You've been active in pro-choice causes; you're openly feminist. Were you politically active before you ever picked up a guitar?

DS: Yes. My parents, thank God, were liberals, and I went to a lot of ERA marches in Illinois, and I went to No Nukes stuff and stuff like that with my mom. When I moved out here, didn't do too much. We played some benefits, then we formed Rock for Choice.

PSF: Speaking of politics, I remember one song, "Mr. Integrity" [from Bricks are Heavy], about a doctrinaire punk. Did you know a lot people like that? Is it based on anyone you knew?

DS: It was based on someone I know. I can't tell you who it was. There's a couple out there, a couple who I truly respect, but... their ethics, some of it's a bit, what's the word, stringent? And I think rock and roll should be really fun. And sex and drugs in there, too. Some people don't like that. They like rock and roll, but they pooh-poohed and frowned upon the other stuff

PSF: You've been contributing to Firedoglake. How did that come about?

DS: That came about because the woman who runs Firedoglake, who started it is named Jane Hamsher, and she was the producer of Natural Born Killers. And she kind of got fed up with bullshit politics going on and she moved from Hollywood to Oregon and started blogging. And it just picked up steam, and it got to be a huge site. And then she wanted a playlist every week, so she called me up. I hadn't heard from her in years, probably ten years, and she got hold of me through my Web site.

PSF: Recording-wise, what are your plans for the future? More solo work?

DS: What's next is I'm going to put out a song a month on CASH The first couple of months are going to be songs from my record, Transmiticate, and then I'm going to start releasing new material. Pretty much, maybe a month after the record comes out, I'm going to be putting out new songs on So I kind of wanna put out a record by this time next year, 'cause it's been so long and I've been doing other stuff; I've been very busy with other stuff. Now I really feel like I wanna get stuff out there in a timely fashion, and with the Internet, you can. You don't have to wait three months because maybe Vogue magazine will write about you.

PSF: Do you think L7 might put out another record someday?

DS: I highly doubt that.

PSF: I know Dee Plakas is on your record. But do you keep in touch with Suzi Gardner or any other L7 bandmates?

DS: I haven't seen Suzy in a while. I saw Jennifer at a show I did, maybe six months ago. L.A.'s a weird place. You don't run into people. New York, you run into people. (In) L.A,, even though I go to a lot of rock shows and stuff, I don't see those guys much. I don't know if Janis lives here. I'm not sure.

PSF: Are there any musicians you'd really love to collaborate with in the future?

DS: I think any ones I'd want to collaborate with I'd probably be intimidated by.

Donita Sparks' favorite music:
The Ramones Rocket to Russia
Brian Wilson Smile
The B-52's
Beck Mutations
Jim Noir Tower of Love

For more information:
Donita Sparks' official Web page
Donita Sparks' CASH Music site.

Check out the rest of PERFECT SOUND FOREVER