Donita Sparks of L7 on Her New Web Series “The Hi-Low Show” - The Bizarre Journey | Under the Radar - Music Magazine
Saturday, October 31st, 2020  

Donita Sparks of L7 on Her New Web Series “The Hi-Low Show”

The Bizarre Journey

Jul 28, 2020 Web Exclusive
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Donita Sparks always catches your eye. Whether she’s on stage playing her smirking brand of rock ‘n’ roll in her notorious group, L7, or if she’s creating her beloved new web series, The Hi-Low Show, Sparks is often bright, flashy and oddly memorable. Her new series is a blender-mixed collection of rock videos, skits, found footage, and whatever else Sparks can slice up and slide into the recipe. L7, which was often grouped into the grunge gaggle in the ’90s and was signed for a time to the infamous Sub Pop record label, released a new record in 2019, Scatter the Rats, which hits as hard as any in the band’s collection. We caught up with Sparks to talk about her origins in music, what it’s like to produce her bizarre new web show and why she likes to infuse a subversive quality into much of what she creates. 

Jake Uitti (Under the Radar): Can you describe the inspiration and then the actualization of your new web series, The Hi-Low Show?

Donita Sparks: Well, we were talking with Linda Perry and her partner, Kerry Brown, over at their company, We Are Hear, and we were talking about some various projects that we could possibly work on together. The pandemic hit and they said, “Look, we’re in talks with YouTube Live. We’re going to do a live stream every Friday. Would you be interested in doing a show?” And they probably thought that I would do some kind of Q&A interview-type show. But I don’t really think that’s my forté and I don’t think that—it wasn’t holding my interest at that time. So, I thought, I’ll do something but it’s going to be something more peculiar. More of an art vibe meets late night public access.

What creative itch does the show scratch for you, especially during this quarantine era when maybe things are more limited?

Well, number one, I’ve always been a ham. Number two, I’ve always loved being on stage. Number three, I did performance art in the ’80s. Number four, L7 is always up to some kind of shenanigans, as far as playing little pranks or, you know—I think I enjoy this kind of weird stuff and I also think I’ve been influenced by people when I was growing up who were very, you know, I loved SCTV. I loved Andy Kauffman. I loved people taking the piss out of things that were very, you know, back in those days you only had a few channels and you had to watch what everybody else was watching. And I liked the people who were lampooning that shit. I’ve always just been that person, you know, I was always in choir. Well, not always in choir, not when punk rock hit. But I’ve always liked to perform.

The show is you in this often bizarre light with quirky cuts, but the show also involves a great deal of rock ‘n’ roll music, which is something you’re obviously known for. What first drew you to rock?

What didn’t draw me to rock ‘n’ roll, you know? I’ve got siblings, it was in the household. My parents listened to jazz and stuff, so there was a very healthy generational wedge, which I’m not sure if that exists anymore. I mean, I guess it sort of does. But, you know, there was much more of a generational gap that meant you were going with the youth and that’s the way you went. So, probably the fast beats of it I liked. I think probably at the earliest I was dancing to rock ‘n’ roll beats that were fun and danceable.

When did you first pick up a guitar and start writing?

I convinced my mother to get me a used electric guitar when I was 16. My sister had come home from college and she was playing a little bit of guitar and I saw her practicing scales and I was very mesmerized. So, I convinced my mother to get me an electric guitar, called a Norma, when I was 16 and I did not have an amplifier. But I liked the look of it better than an acoustic guitar. I fucked around a little bit but I don’t think I really wrote songs until I got to L.A. and I was, like, thrown into some bands. My first songs were pretty fucking god-awful. It takes a while. They were bad [Laughs].

L7 was so good live. What did you love about being on stage live in front of people - similar with the show and putting yourself in front of people?

I think we got better with time, too. At first it was fun to just blow some minds. Going out on stage and there were so few punks playing hard rock, number one. So that was fun, to blow minds doing that. No punks or art punks—you know, we were from the art punk scene. Nobody was doing hard rock. So, it was fun just to be like, “God, they’re bringing hard rock back. Jesus Christ!” The fact that we were good enough at it, yet we were playing, like, Flintstones Metal. But it worked. So, very stripped down, deconstructed hard rock is what we were doing. With a punk attitude and a punk foundation. So, I think that was just really fun and nobody looked like us, either. We had this mash-up of, like, biker with flannel with long hair. We were just weirdos in this mash-up way, you know?

I love that power you exhibited on stage, it was super cool. And part in parcel with that is a sense of humor. Certainly taking parts of yourself and the work and effort seriously, but not taking everything on earth super seriously. Listening to the latest L7 record, there’s a song “Garbage Truck,” which is so great. Can you talk about your own instinct to be subversive or humorous?

Well, there’s levity, but not always, you know? We reserve the right to have levity whenever we want to but that’s not always [the case]. So, sometimes we’re very serious. Sometimes, you know, I think that a lot of times singing about something in a very sincere way doesn’t really suit us. I think that we like to kind of throw more curveballs. Maybe it’s because we’re not that great at writing out of sincerity. I don’t think I am. I don’t think I’m a great sincerity writer. I think I’m a bit more of a wisecracking writer, but still with some bite. I like a little bit of humor with my political statements. I also like sincerity, but I think that is maybe better suited for other bands. But we do have our serious moments and our strange moments, too, that are neither funny nor serious. You can’t really figure out what we’re doing and I think that also translates to some things about The Hi-Low Show.

It’s like, ‘Am I being for real, is this for real? Or is this not for real?’ And I like the crossing of those lines a lot. [Laughs] I think it’s interesting for me as a creator. I think it’s interesting to our public, too. And I think that if you think that you get us, then you actually don’t. I think some of our fans get certain sides of us and very, very few of them get the whole kit-n-caboodle. Some people think that we’re just a very ferocious hard rock band. Some people think that we’re these court jesters. And we’re everything and more in between! At least that’s what I like to think of us because we’ve got a lot going on and most people don’t realize it.

There’s a moment in, I think, the second episode where you had what looked like found footage of this guy with a belt buckle knife. He was like, “You can move your hand this way and conceal your knife. You can stab this way!” And watching it, half the time I was wondering, “Is the kind of stuff she likes? Or is this the kind of stuff that she’s poking fun at? Or is she just shining a light on this?” There was this interesting convergence of not knowing what the hell was going on. I thought that was a really great moment.

Did you enjoy it? Was it entertaining?

I was captivated. I’ll probably remember it for the rest of my life, watching that guy with his knife!

There you go! So, yeah, you know, personally, I don’t like things that are—just my aesthetic, I don’t like things that are very macabre or grotesque. That’s not my bag. And I don’t like, you know—I just like things that are sort of subversive yet still family-friendly. It’s kind of like, whoa what’s going on here?

I think subversively family-friendly is very close to David Lynch. How did you create this aesthetic, part-rocker, part-Lynchian? Is he someone you look to or specifically appreciate? 

I love that David Lynch exists. Am I a massive fan of David Lynch? I am not. But I liked Mulholland Dr. I like how Anne Miller is the landlady in that movie. I love Anne Miller the tap dancer. I grew up on Hollywood movies, Hollywood musicals. I love that she’s the landlady in that film! But there are some things about David Lynch that are maddening, too. But I think that they’re supposed to be maddening. So, am I student of David Lynch? I am not. But I’m totally glad that he exists. I think that he’s a very slow burn and sometimes I don’t have the patience for that slow of a burn. Sometimes, I’m just like, “Okay get on with it!” But it’s a weird thing. I love that he exists and I think that he’s fucking amazing and that he’s great. I love that people worship him. I think that’s super cool.

L7 put out a record last year. What did you appreciate most about working with co-founder Suzi Gardner again? What was that chemistry like coming back to it after some years away?

When we get together, it’s weird. We have similar backgrounds, but not. Our family situations were very different and yet we’re all from the suburbs and we all are kind of the same age. So, we all have a lot of the same references. And yet we didn’t grow up together. So, it’s like we’ve all got these different and yet similar backgrounds and points of reference musically. Suzi and I connect a lot through music, that’s our big connection. I trust her taste and she trusts my taste. We’re very good collaborators and I love to bounce things off of Suzi and get her take on things.

It must be something of a happy place when you two connect through music?

Yeah! We both write on our own and at times we collaborate. When we collaborate, those are usually great times. Because, you know, here’s the thing: we love hard rock. She loves it more than I do, but I love a good, slow heavy riff and so does she. Yet, we both think it’s funny! So, it’s like, whenever a song rocks us, we’re laughing because it fucking rocks! And we get a kick out of it. It’s like, “Fuck yeah! We can fucking do it!” It’s like we’re writing shit we love to hear, you know? Which very few people do that because they get very busy. We keep things pretty simple. We like that simplicity. You don’t need to throw a gazillion notes on it. If it’s four notes and it rocks, just repeat it, repeat it, repeat it. So, we get a kick out of it.

I love the idea of being moved by something but also incorporating a smile or laughter with it. I think it’s this great dual-pronged experience. What do you love most about being creative?

Oh man. I bitch when I’m bored and I bitch when I’m slammed. I just have to take the time and appreciate when I am creatively busy because I’ve been through incredibly long stretches of not having anything to do creatively. And I’ve gone through very low times creatively. So this time right now where I’m, like—I’ve got to fucking finish this edit for The Hi-Low Show this week because it’s going live on Friday. So, I think it gives me energy to be creatively busy. It does stress me out. But then, I don’t know. I’ve got a love-hate relationship with it. And yet, I always love the outcome. The journey sometimes drives me crazy! I know that you’re supposed to “enjoy the journey” but I have to constantly remind myself of that. Enjoy the journey!


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