Former L7 hell-raiser Donita Sparks tones down the noise, piles on the tunes 

You don't want to play tic-tac-toe with Donita Sparks.
  • You don't want to play tic-tac-toe with Donita Sparks.

Donita Sparks isn't really as angry as she looks. She says she stopped rebelling against her parents long ago. She's not a pissed-off kid anymore — she's 45 years old. Still, "People expect me to be like, 'Yeaahhh, fuck you!,'" she says. "Like everybody deserves a fuck you or something. They'll hug me really hard, or they'll be like, 'C'mere!' and put me in a headlock. Or they'll want me to put them in a headlock."

These WWE-style moves probably have something to do with the fact that from 1985 to 2000, Sparks fronted L7, a fearsome all-grrrl punk-metal foursome that rose to prominence during the '90s grunge era. The Los Angeles group's raw, balls-out, pit-roiling riffage was full of rage, swagger, and confrontation. And so were the ladies.

Since they were never afraid to raise hell wherever they went, their attitude and antics became legendary: snarling their way through interviews, getting banned by airlines for unruly behavior, vehemently protesting the women-who-rock stereotype, raffling off sex with their drummer, and exposing themselves on live TV. Then there was the time Sparks extracted a tampon onstage and hurled it into the crowd, after audience members threw mud at the band during a festival performance in England.

Insisting that some of those incidents were overblown by the media, Sparks nonetheless cheerfully admits to a mischievous side. But she's mellower these days, as she digs into a singer-songwriter career with her three-piece backing band — the Stellar Moments, which includes former L7 drummer Dee Plakas. Sparks' recently released solo debut, Transmiticate, doesn't boast L7's vicious grind, but it isn't exactly Colbie Caillat either. Distorted guitars abound, but they mostly rough up the edges of old-fashioned pop songs with catchy chord progressions and choruses that support Sparks' husky voice — which is appealingly imperfect, but smoother and more melodic these days.

Album opener "Fly Feather Fly" and "Headcheck" both offer a kind of bar-band grit familiar to Replacements and Hold Steady fans. "Creampuff" slows things down to a sort of smoky blues and features a slight '50s-sock-hop vibe. And "He's Got the Honey" merges a dance-floor-friendly beat with a wall of guitars straight out of a Jesus & Mary Chain record. Sparks rarely unleashes anything resembling her old "Shitlist" growl (check out the album's "Need to Numb," if you want to hear it in action).

"At first, I just wanted to make a pretty pop record," says Sparks. "The first batch of songs I wrote were really slow and pretty, and then the rock just kept creeping in more and more. Dee and I would just start bashing something out instead of concentrating on playing this pretty, precious thing. We just needed to relax and jam loud for a second. The riffs started coming in. It's just part of us."

Plus, lines like "If I didn't have so much class/I'd whisper to you what you could shove up your ass" are delivered with smiles, not sneers — like they were back when L7 had a monster radio hit with "Pretend We're Dead." "I kept things on a positive note," she says. "I wanted the end result to be something positive, as opposed to L7, [where] the result was cool, but it was an anthem of anger. I didn't really want any of that this time. A lot of times, pain translated to heaviness with L7. On this record, pain translates to some pretty, weird pop."

Sparks is well aware that fans will hold Transmiticate's poppy tunes up to her old group's brutal roar. But if you go back and listen to L7's six albums, there's often a pop heart beating deep beneath all that noise and turmoil. It's just that Sparks downplayed it at the time. "I tried not to have backing vocals and stuff like that, because I wanted to prove we were a tough rock band," she says. "In doing so, I think we all denied certain things about ourselves.

"I'm [a big] pop fan," she continues. "So that's always been very much a part of me. And as time went on with L7, I put more pop in there. I love a good tune. But early on, I wanted people to listen to us and not be able to tell if we were guys or girls. I wanted to be a very good rock band, where gender did not enter the equation. I wanted to prove how tough we were. When you're young, you're stupid, and you take stands like that."

L7 is officially over. Yet Sparks doesn't dismiss a reunion at some point. For the time being, however, she's focusing on her solo career and trying to convince fans, old and new, that she isn't the angry grrrl she used to be back in the day.

"People are going to get you wrong all the time," she shrugs. "And that's OK, as long as they like the music."

More by Michael Alan Goldberg


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