If anyone in the music industry would know a thing or two about fake friends, it would be Donita Sparks of L7. Having been a constant presence on the music scene for 35 years, Sparks has managed to become an adored figure of punk, rock, and grunge, with her inimitable attitude and musical skills turning her into an icon for countless musicians everywhere.
While L7 reformed in 2014 following a 13-year hiatus, it took until 2019 for their first new album in two decades to be released. Titled Scatter the Rats, the album was an instant classic, released on Joan Jett’s Blackheart Records label, and served as a rare example of a band’s long-awaited comeback living up to expectations.
Though an Australian tour had been planned for May, some well-publicised global events put this local visit onto the backburner, with new dates being announced for the same time in 2021 instead.
A bit of a double-blow for fans, these shows were set to coincide with the release of a brand new single from L7; a cover of Jett’s “Fake Friends” (featuring Jett herself on guitar and vocals), backed with a swampy version of 2019 track “Burn Baby”, dubbed “Witchy Burn”.
With the track being released earlier than planned, and a new music video featuring contributions from fans also being shared, Sparks has spent the last couple of months broadcasting her own online variety show, The Hi-Low Show, turning her time spent in quarantine into one of her most productive periods yet.
Though the Australian return of L7 might be a year away, Sparks spoke to Rolling Stone Australia to chat about the new track, time spent in quarantine, and her immersive new online program.
I guess we should kick things off with me asking how you’re coping with everything going on in the world right now?
I am a bit stressed [laughs]. Y’know, there’s sirens going off in LA all the time, I actually live near a police academy, and [there’s] just a lot of activity going on. But I’m staying very busy actually, the time in quarantine is kind of flying by, so I’m grateful for that.
In a perfect world, we would have just seen L7 wrap up their Australian tour. It must have been a pretty devastating thing to have to cancel shows like that.
Yeah, we also had some shows in Europe as well, so everything has just sort of been pushed back a year, which is bizarre; a year to the day [laughs]. 2020 is just kind of a weird year.
With everything going on, are you feeling confident that the shows will even be able to go ahead by 2021?
I’m hoping that they come up with a vaccine soon. I mean, if we can send guys into orbit, again, y’know maybe our scientists are… Who knows? It’s all very strange and there’s no guarantees, but most people I know are still self-quarantining if they can and if they’re able.
The shows were also going to be a little special since L7 had planned to release their latest single alongside the tour. What made you decide to just release it earlier to get it out in the world?
Blackheart wanted to do that, I kind of wanted to wait, but Blackheart thought it would be a good idea, thinking it might pick up the spirits of some fans to have some new L7 material, even though the dates had been postponed.
So I was like, ‘Okay, that’s cool, I can agree with that.’ So that’s what we did. And in addition, we did a fan video to go with the song, “Fake Friends”. So it was stuff that fans turned in to possibly be in the video. It’s photos, artwork, and ticket stubs, and things like that, all submitted by fans.
I guess that’s also helped keep fans engaged while there’s been no content or shows happening?
Yeah, y’know it’s weird because I’m doing this show out of my living room, called The Hi-Low Show.
I just think that every little bit helps, and we all need to be contributing the way that we can, whether it’s me doing a show out of my living room, or releasing a single, or whatever, just to keep fans [realising] “Hey, life goes on and life will go on”, and that we’ll all get through this together. It’s all we can do.
The A-side is a pretty special cover of Joan Jett’s ‘Fake Friends’, with Joan herself contributing to the track. L7 have played with Joan in the past, and you’re on Blackheart Records, but what made you decide to cover this song in particular?
We hadn’t actually played with Joan a lot. We met Joan many years when we were doing a Rock For Choice show, and she agreed to do the benefit show, but The Blackhearts were not in LA. So L7 were The Blackhearts for that benefit show, which is an organisation that started 30 years ago. So that’s how we got to know Joan.
We’ve been in loose contact over the years, always a friendly relationship, and I went to see her a couple of years ago, and I love that song “Fake Friends”, I have that album, and I was just like, “Man, I love this song, we should cover this song”.
Then when we were on Blackheart, that totally made sense, like “Yeah, let’s do ‘Fake Friends’.” And Joan was cool enough to contribute some vocals and guitar, and yeah, we were very happy with how it turned out. All of us; the band and Joan. So that’s a win-win.
Do you have any specific memories of the first time you heard this track?
I like a good beat, personally. I like that swing kind of groove. I just thought it was a really well-crafted song. I liked the sentiment of the song, and I think it’s a sentiment that L7 can relate to, because we know what it’s like to be box office poison, and to be dropped, kicked to the curb, and all that stuff.
So you see who your real friends are, and it turns out that Joan is one of our real friends and wanted to work with us. So the sentiment and the groove, even though we totally changed that swing beat. We completely rearranged it, but we like the way it turned out.
The B-side to the single is also rather cool, offering up a different take on ‘Burn Baby’. What inspired the decision to record the different version of this song?
We were kind of jamming on a slow version of it when we first recorded the song. We were just fucking around late at night in the studio and we had it on tape, and I thought “Maybe we should a real slow, trippy version of this, finish this, and have it as a B-side.”
The song actually has a heavy sort of lyrical content to it, but the original version of “Burn Baby” is rockin’ and kind of bouncy, but I thought [we should] do the creepy version of it because it is kind of a… It’s a lyric about how women were burned at the stake, how anybody out of the ordinary was burned at the stake, and how we should all sort of mend fences if we are indeed on the same side with each other, because things are getting so scary these days.
It’s not outside of reality, y’know, people still get stoned for being gay in certain parts of the world. So it’s sort of figuring out which side you’re on and sticking with the people who are on your side, backing them up and having them back you up.
Given everything that’s happening lately, that song also becomes a little more relevant, too.
Yeah, it’s kind of a call to action of sticking together in these times.
I think it’s rather fitting to back “Fake Friends” with a track which features the lyric “And I think you’re a fraud/And you know I’m a fake”. It feels like it all sort of comes full circle.
Yeah, strangely, it does work out quite well, the single, now that you mention it. I think it’s a good match.
You mentioned before you’ve also been rather busy during these last couple of months, with The Hi-Low Show. I think the biggest question really is, what inspired this production? It’s so off the wall and different to what anyone would really expect a project like this to be.
Well, [laughs] I was having some meetings with Linda Perry and we were talking about maybe doing some projects together, and then the quarantine hit, and she said “Hey, I’ve got this YouTube Live channel happening, would you want to do a show?”
And I said, “Well, I don’t want to do a performance show, and I don’t want to do acoustic versions of my songs, and I don’t want to interview people, can I do something weird?” And she said, ‘Absolutely!” [laughs].
So I decided to do something a little more performance art-based. I used to do performance art back in the Eighties in LA, so I’ve always sort of enjoyed stuff like this. I enjoy things that are sort of meta and work on different levels, and things that are unexpected of me as a performer. Yeah, I like doing weird shit.
It’s kind of inspired by late-night public access television, it’s a littler bit inspired by the character of Rupert Pupkin from The King of Comedy, a film by Martin Scorcese. It’s got a lot of different influences. Also there’s some heavy-hitting art in it as well. I mean, we’re art punks Suzi [Gardner] and I part of that punk scene, so y’know, to people that know me, this is not outside of my realm.
My friends kind of know this side of me, so some fans like it, some fans don’t respond to it, but it’s not really for L7 fans, per se, it’s really just for the sake of doing some weird art during this time.
I think most people would assume a show by Donita Sparks would be a performance-based show, but it’s been so refreshing to see something so different and so purely you appear.
I’m in the house band as well, incognito, I’m in Lou Man Group and I’m the drummer. A lot of people don’t know that, but I’ll tell you. So that’s what I mean by it being kind of meta, where I’m in my own house band and it’s sort of weird levels of shit.
Yeah, it’s cool, I enjoy doing it. It’s kind of stressful, but I can’t think of a better project to be doing right now for me, other than making an album, which will come next. But for now, it’s just sort of a weird thing.
You’ve had a few guests contribute to the program so far (including Lydia Lunch in the first episode). Is there anything that goes into choosing these guests, or is it just you utilising an opportunity to catch up with musical friends?
Strangely, most people who have been on my show are not people who I’m close friends with, but I know them a little bit, or I know them through someone else. David Yow from The Jesus Lizard is someone I’ve known for many years, but we’ve never been close friends or anything.
I just had Siobhan Fahey from Bananarama and Shakespears Sister, and I don’t know her very well, but we’ve now become friends because she just liked the show. She wrote something on Instagram and I contacted her and asked if she’d like to be a guest, and she said “absolutely”. So it’s just kind of weird, I’m connecting with people that I don’t know that well to be on the show, which is cool.
You said before that the next step in your creativity would be working on an album. Have you been working on any new music during this downtime, or have you mainly been focused on The Hi-Low Show?
I’ve just been focusing on The Hi-Low Show, I really don’t have any time for anything else. For example, I normally work very heavily on our videos, but I did not have time to do that, and that was also one of the reasons why we did the fan video, because I just didn’t have time to put together a video for “Fake Friends”, of the kind that we’d normally do.
So this was a good way to engage the fans and also cut me a break, because I didn’t have time to do that. Once this season – we’re on episode six and we’re going to do eight episodes – is kind of wrapped up, I’ll be working on some music.
L7’s “Fake Friends”/”Witchy Burn” single is out now on streaming services, with physical copies available via the band’s website.