Dispatch From L7's Donita Sparks: 'Smell The Magic' Gets A 30th Anniversary Release From Sub Pop And More

On September 18th, we'll all be able to pick up a copy of L7's seminal Sub Pop-released album, Smell the Magic, newly remastered and available in its entirety on vinyl for the first time, since only the EP version ever appeared on vinyl previously. The success of the single "Shove" had led Sub Pop to extend EP and then full-album offers to the all-female band who rose out of the Punk scene in LA, but were "outsiders", developing their own brand of Hard Rock between Punk and Metal. Smell the Magic turns 30 years old this year, making the release even more appropriate to commemorate its unique impact on music.

The band L7 reunited in 2015, started touring to plenty of fan support, and after releasing a couple of incisive singles, rolled out the full album Scatter the Rats in 2019, which we highly recommend checking out. Donita Sparks has also been keeping very busy during lockdown by creating a Youtube show benefiting the musician-aid charity MusicCares, called The Hi-Low Show. However, having wrapped a full season, she took the time to talk to Tower's PULSE! about L7's history with Tower Records, the whole scene and climate surrounding the recording and release of Smell the Magic in 1990, the band's recent work, and how they plan to stay relevant as turmoil continues to be part of our national experience. 

Hannah Means-Shannon: Do you remember Tower’s print magazine, PULSE?

Donita Sparks: I do indeed, and that’s where I read that Kirk Hammett of Metallica was inspired by L7.

HMS: Oh cool!

DS: Yes, Metallica was on the cover of PULSE! They said that before the Black album, they felt they were getting too busy and complicated with their music and they decided to take a look at some of the bands that were happening at the time, one of which was us. They kind of stripped themselves down and deconstructed themselves a bit. That turned out to be my favorite Metallica album! So there you go.

HMS: That’s a great story.

DS: It was exciting for me.

HMS: It’s great when there are venues and avenues where aspects of the music industry can have a dialog in some way.

Congratulations on this awesome release from Sub Pop!

DS: Right on.

HMS: It's coming out in digital, CD, and super wonderful vinyl formats. How long ago did you all start thinking towards this new release and start putting it together?

DS: We had been thinking about it for a while because the band reunited in 2015 and Smell the Magic had been out of print. We were waiting around wondering, “When are they going to reissue it?” We both realized that this year was the 30th anniversary, and we were originally supposed to tour in support of it this year, but then there was a global pandemic. We were going to do the whole album up in Seattle, but we’ll do that next year. We’ll figure something out.

HMS: I think the fans will hold you to that! Were there particular things that needed to happen in term of remastering the album? Did you have to make any changes or updates for these formats?

DS: We had to remaster the vinyl because there are three songs that were only on the CD version. Back in the day, the way that Sub Pop operated was that first, you got a single. And we were the single of the month club for January of 1990. Then, they would offer you to do an EP. After that, they’d offer you to elongate that EP into a full LP, since that’s when CDs were brand new.

First it was a vinyl EP, and they said, “Can you add some more songs to that so we can have a CD?” Which we did. So those extra songs for the CD version were never on the vinyl, so we had to recut the vinyl to include those songs. We listened to the masters, too, and they all sounded great.

HMS: Thank you for explaining that process. When you went back and heard the masters, did anything jump out at you that you didn’t expect to find?

DS: I would say that overall, I was cringing at my own vocals, and I was really proud of Suzy [Gardner] and Jennifer [Finch’s] vocals. That’s probably par for the course, though.

HMS: I think most people can relate to that kind of reaction. I’m so glad the masters were in good condition and everything came off okay for this new version.

DS: They had it all in the vaults. Sub Pop has always seemed to have their shit together.

HMS: I’m just so glad that they are still around, too. I recently ordered some stuff from them.

DS: Yes, and all those guys have been there a long time.

HMS: During this early period for the band, what kind of band did you think you were around the time of creating Smell the Magic?

DS: I would say that we were Punk-Rockers doing a stripped-down version of Metal.

HMS: Wow! That's awesome.

DS: Because we didn’t have the chops to be wankers, but sometimes the assets that you don’t have are what make you good. Suzy and I were from the Art-Punk scene in LA, so we were doing something that we thought was really fresh and weird. We had no idea what was going on in Seattle. We were Punk kids dressing kind of Biker and playing Heavy Flintstones Metal.

HMS: That’s amazing. I don’t know that much about what the Art-Punk scene entailed, but were you outsiders even in that scene? Or did you feel that it was inclusive for you?

DS: I think that we were a little bit outsiders. I think a lot of the Art-Punk kids had college degrees. We all kind of met at the LA Weekly. Suzy didn’t work there the same time that I did, but it was the whole scene. A lot of those kids had graduated from UCLA and were writers. Then there were the drag queens, and the poets, and the freaks. I think they were a little bit older than us, too. They dug what we were doing, and some of them were confused by it, of course, because New Wave was still very big.

There were a lot of drugs, an there were a lot of transients. It had the danger, too. But not in the sense of Hard Core Punk Rock danger of riots and things. There would be weirdos knocking on the door looking for drug money. We were very much a city band as opposed to kids who formed bands on college campuses or safer environments.

HMS: Were you playing gigs on that scene?

DS: Oh, yes. I think our first gig was a Christmas party for the Recycler, a free thing in LA. We were playing weird galleries and stuff and started getting shows at clubs on shitty nights, opening for nobody. We did our first record with Epitaph, but that didn’t really go anywhere, but our fanbase grew. When we met up with Sub Pop, our fanbase grew even more through the association with Sub Pop.

HMS: When you did the show in Seattle, and you knew Sub Pop was going to be there, did you think of that in a casual way or were you wanting to record a single, or maybe an album?

DS: We’ve never thought of whole album compositions. We never have concept albums. We write songs, pick the best ones, and put them on the records. We’re just not that organized, to make a plan! [Laughs] Nor have we ever had the money to go to the Bahamas and record. We’re just not that band. For Smell the Magic, half of it was done in Seattle with Jack and Dino, and half was done in Los Angeles. It’s kind of half LA and half Seattle.

HMS: That’s interesting and I didn’t know that. Did you have to find studio space in LA to the other half?

DS: It was kind of friends of friends. I think it was called Radio Tokyo in Venice.

HMS: I’m guessing the success of the single, EP, and then album was fairly surprising to you since you were doing things more for fun. Did that change the way that you saw the band?

DS: When we did the single, it was very popular. “Shove” was very well received in the underground. It was catchy and it was about things that people were living. It was not abstract. We had a recipe that was unique, even among other Sub Pop bands. We went to Europe on that single, then came back to do the EP. Just getting over to Europe on that single, we had enthusiastic crowds. These were not huge venues, but small clubs, but we had enthusiasm.

I think people were digging that we rocked hard, that we were Sub Pop, and maybe that we were all female. I don’t think people had seen that so much, a Hard Rock band that was all female, and we were kind of androgynous, too. We weren’t putting on the makeup or the bustiers that were the fashion in Metal at the time. We were just scruffy gals playing Hard Rock.

HMS: Did that experience with fans make you think, “What’s our next step?”

DS: We were hoping Sub Pop was asking that we would continue with them, which they did. That was a time in the 90s when there were regional labels that had a lot of heat and Sub Pop was one of them. It was a hot time for independent venues and independent Rock. We just went with the flow.

HMS: There were a lot of independent venues opening during that time.

DS: I think that the Punk scene kind of kicked in that door, so that by the time L7 came along, there were independent venues. Kind of on the backs of the Punks came the Grunge and the bands of the later 80s and 90s.

HMS: I meant to ask, back then were you all self-aware as feminists, or was it all part and parcel of being who you were and operating in a space without many women?

DS: I grew up feminist, so I was always aware of battles everywhere, in school, in my neighborhood, selling candy bars. My mother was a feminist, so I grew up in that. My bandmates did not, but we were always a band that led by example. The fact that there were not many women playing instruments at all back then, especially in Hard Rock. Just by nature, we were feminists, but as far as whether the band was a political platform, it was not. Instead we chose to lead by example.

HMS: Thank you. I totally get that. Sometimes just existing rocks the status quo and I can definitely see that even being there was a challenge.

DS: There were challenges. Later, after Sub Pop, we did not have a bidding war with major labels the way that many contemporaries did. They just did not know what to do with us. We were still oddballs.

I wanted a band name that had nothing to do with gender. And I wanted to sound like you couldn’t tell if we were chicks or dudes. Even in our vocals, that came off. It was, “I want to be so good that no one can even tell what we are.” I think we accomplished that.

HMS: I think you did, too. Do you think labels would do better these days handling something unusual?

DS: I don’t know. I think labels are into freshness and weirdness, a lot of them. As far as major labels, I have no fucking idea. I’ve never been a person who had my finger on the pulse of the music industry, per se. I don’t follow it very closely.

HMS: To talk about recent things, I saw that you had a full album in 2019, Scatter the Rats.

DS: It all fits together. Smell the Magic coming out this year is appropriate, Scatter the Rats coming out in 2019 is appropriate. Now we have a new single coming out that’s actually on Joan Jett’s label, Blackheart. In celebration of that relationship, we did a cover of “Fake Friends” and she did some guitar work on it and some vocals on it. That’s just come out as well.

HMS: To jump around a little, I saw that you’ve been doing a web show to benefit the charity MusicCares, which is awesome. How is it “absurdist”?

DS: You’ll have to watch it to find out! It’s like an adult Peewee’s Playhouse for Punks, but it’s not as prop-heavy. It’s very meta. I do “Karaoke Remote” with Fred Armisen and Moon Unit Zappa. They are very unexpected songs that we do. It’s colorful and cool, and I did it out of my living room. We did a whole season of eight twenty-minute episodes.

HMS: That’s amazing.

DS: You’ll know what “absurdist” means if you check it out.

HMS: Was that logistically difficult to record?

DS: For the karaoke, yes. We had assistants for tech, and also we have an editor for the show who lives a couple blocks away. We were handing off hard drives in plastic bags with masks, saying, “Here, edit this!”

HMS: [Laughs] That’s so great.

DS: Time flew by. Time was not dragging on for me. I was slammed. They want me to do another season, but I’m not sure. I’d like to get back to making some music.

HMS: I want to applaud you for getting anything done during this time.

DS: It was a production, but it was really cool and I’m proud of it. If you think it’s like L7, it’s not. It’s like a late-night public access show from the 90s. It’s Art-Punk, what can I say?

HMS: It must be tapping into your other creative aspects, like the DIY and the visual.

DS: Totally. When L7 was first starting out, I did performance art in LA, and I was doing both at the same time. When L7 started picking up steam, I let that go. People like separations and they like to compartmentalize performers, so it was a conscious decision that I made. We always “get weird” in interviews and music videos, though. It would come out in that aspect as well.

HMS: That’s wonderful.

To go back to Scatter the Rats, I know you had been touring as a band again before you started writing new songs. How do you get back to something like that after a long break? How do you find your way into new stuff?

DS: For me, it wasn’t that difficult, but maybe for the other guys, it was more difficult. When we first reunited, I didn’t put that pressure on anybody. I didn’t say, “Let’s write a new record.” I said, “Let’s reunite now because we probably won’t have the opportunity again.”

After we were doing the old songs for a while, we started jamming at sound checks. We thought that if we wanted to keep going, we should have some fresh materials. We came out with a couple of singles, “Dispatch from Mar-a-Lago” and “I Came Back to Bitch”. I think that they were lyrically relevant, and that gave me confidence to say, “Let’s do an EP or an album.” And it turned out to be an album.

HMS: I’m so happy that you are all working to create a dialog with our times. I think those songs are very relevant.

DS: When we wrote “Dispatch from Mar-a-Lago”, that came out right after Trump was elected. We thought we had to get it out quickly because we thought he would be impeached within a couple of months. And here we are. I think we are going to do a live version from one of our concerts and mix it and put it out before the election. As I’ve described it before, just like Mel Brooks had “Springtime For Hitler”, we have “Dispatch From Mar-a-Lago”. The idea is to battle things with humor as well as ferociousness. This is our microphone that is the sword.

HMS: Please do release that.

DS: Scatter the Rats has reference to that administration and creepy administrations everywhere. We actually physically had rats in that basement when we were recording and had to scatter them. But we need to scatter the rats everywhere that have encroached upon us.

HMS: You must be so relieved that the band managed to record and release that album before 2020.

DS: Good point! Yes. I feel terrible for young bands who really had some momentum going and they’ve been sidelined. We’ll be okay because we’ve already built our audience. Hopefully the younger bands can get back to it and there will be clubs for them to play at. We just have to hope. That’s who’s really getting hit in the music world.

HMS: I totally agree.

I meant to ask you about the documentary that came out in 2017. Did it make you see the band’s history any differently?

DS: I was pretty happy with it. I was involved in the edit. I had final approval with the director. I had final cut. The reason for that was because we shot most of it ourselves. L7 are not the kind of band that would just hand over our story to a stranger. We shot that footage.

HMS: That is totally amazing.

DS: Yes, we were telling our story. I was as happy with it as I could be. We didn’t want to do a VH1 “Behind the Music” type of thing. We didn’t want to go into our big tragedies as far as personal stuff too much. But we told our story as a band. It’s also the story of being an artist. You don’t always make it, and sometimes you make it to a certain level, then you don’t anymore. A lot of people when they’d see it, who were artists, would be very quiet at the end of the film. Then they’d say, “That was really honest. That was cool.” It was cool that we were the voice for it.

HMS: I’m a big proponent of people telling their own stories. It brings a level of reality that can’t really be achieved in any other way.

DS: In L7, we’ve always been pretty garded. Being in L7, we had to be tough cookies all the time. You could never see us cry. We were perceived by a lot of young oddball kids as superheroes and crusaders. But in an early cut, I saw that Suzy was talking about a lot of unguarded, personal stuff. Then I thought, “If she’s going to go there, I’m going to go there, too.” So I let my guard down, too, but it got more honest after that.

HMS: And you’re doing that from the position that you can now, at this point in time. I can definitely see that at the time, it could have felt like the whole world was waiting for you to show some sign of weakness, because that’s what they would expect from young people, and from women, possibly.

DS: Exactly. We were never a band that would air our dirty laundry or shit-talk our peers. It was part of our defensive mechanism and we still have that. I think it’s important, and quite frankly, I think it’s cool, to be slightly guarded. But in the documentary, that was the one place where we could. Why do a documentary if you’re going to be guarded?

HMS: You probably remember if you were around Tower Records much back in the day, but the Tower motto is “No Music, No Life” and it’s also written, “Know Music, Know Life”. Which of those do you prefer, and what does it mean to you?

DS: I would say, “Know Music, Know Life”. I’m not a musicologists, but I know my eras of music and different kinds of music. I think some people have tunnel vision about Rock ‘n Roll and I think if so, you’re really cheating yourself. I listen to the radio, I listen to NPR, I listen to college radio. I dip in. Then I actually go and buy if I dig it. Some people think I’m naïve for doing that, but I buy it because then I can rock it whenever I want. I don’t know the streaming platforms at all. I’m still the cave woman who buys stuff online.

HMS: That’s directly, financially supporting musicians, so it’s great that you do that.

DS: Supposedly. I hope that’s true.

I do want to say that back in the day, we did an autograph signing at Tower Records in Sherman Oaks, California, and we did it with Barry-fucking-Manilow!

HMS: That is so crazy!

DS: It was L7, and I think a band called Enough’s Enough, and Barry Manilow. I think it was for an AIDS organization. There are clips of it in our documentary since I think we had our cameras there. When we arrived, there were all the L7 fans in front of Tower Records with their t-shirts on, and I was thinking, “Poor Barry Manilow”. But we went in there, and we go through our fans in an hour. His fans kept coming, and coming, and coming. He had fans in there for hours while we were just sitting there. That is in our documentary!

HMS: I’ll go look for it!

DS: Last year, we actually played a Captain Marvel event at the location of Tower Records on Sunset Boulevard. You know how they rent it out for events? We were one of the bands.

HMS: Oh my god, that’s so awesome!

DS: So we played at Tower just a year or so ago for Captain Marvel.

HMS: Which was a great film. Thank you for all your stories and I look forward to seeing some more challenging and interesting music coming out from L7.

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