Slap Happy (Wax Tadpole)
An interview with vocalist/guitarist Donita Sparks
by Scott Hefflon
I hear you’re originally from Chicago, when did you move out to L.A.?
I think it was about ’83.
Were you in bands at the time? Did you move out to be in a band?
I moved out to learn how to surf, but I never did learn how. I ended up in Hollywood instead of at the beach, but that turned out to be a blessing. I could’ve been a surfer girl, hanging out with all those smart guys.
You’ve been doing the rock thing since, like, ’85…
Suzi (Gardner, guitarist/vocalist) and I started the band, and Dee (Plakas, drummer) has been with us since our second record, Smell the Magic. But we have a new bass player.
Tell me about that.
Our most recent bass player, Gail (Greenwood), left in March, and now we have a gal from San Francisco, Janice. She played in Exene Cervenka’s band, Auntie Christ, and she was in Stone Fox.
I remember Stone Fox… Did you like the band, or just the bass player of the band?
I liked the bass player of the band.
Why’d your change bass players?
She lived on the East Coast, and we needed her on the West Coast more often. Geographically, it just wasn’t working out.
How’d you hook up with an East Coast-bassist in the first place?
She was in Belly. I was never really a fan of them, but we saw some videos of her, and we thought she looked really good and she played really well, so she hopped on in like ’96.
When you’re on tour nationally, it probably doesn’t make much difference, but there’re always those “between tour” things.
We couldn’t do a couple of the smaller, scattered shows because she wasn’t out here, and we needed more time to rehearse for the record; it just didn’t work.
There’re also the simple differences of lingo, lifestyle, reference points – growing up on either coast is just a very particular experience.
That’s for sure. That was definitely the case.
Was there any one moment when you knew right then that Janice was the right bass player?
We had mutual friends, even though we didn’t know each other, and when Gail quit, Janice was the first person I thought of. Janice also had rad long, black hair that she swings quite freely on stage. She was just the one.
In the studio, you wrote and played the bass lines, right?
I played them, yeah. I guess you could say I wrote them, too. I did that on the last record, The Beauty Process, as well. I split the bass playing duties with a gal from New York named Greta Brinkman. We met her in Richmond, Virginia, through Gwar, and I think she’s playing bass for Moby.
Your records seem to come out steadily, every two years. Have there been any long gaps?
The only delay we really had was when we were done with The Beauty Process, the label made us sit on it for six months because they didn’t want it to come out at Christmas. We were done with it in September, and we had to wait until February to release it. People would ask us what we were doing, and we’d have to say we were waiting for the record company to put out our record. That’s one of the many reasons we started our own label. We didn’t want to be dependent on other people’s scheduling. Now we release whenever we want to.
You’ve been on a number of labels…
Slap-Happy, our new record, is on our label, Wax Tadpole, which has a partnership with Bong Load. Before that, we did The Beauty Process: Triple Platinum, Hungry for Stink, and Bricks are Heavy on Slash/Reprise, Smell the Magic was on SubPop, and our first record was on Epitaph.
Are there going to be other bands on Wax Tadpole?
No, it’s all about us. But we do enjoy listening to bands’ demos, telling them we don’t hear a single, then hiring dominatrixes to beat the crap out of us. We’re very much enjoying our record company mogul status. We break little bands’ hearts, and hire dominatrixes to beat us, that’s how we spend our afternoons.
How long were you together before your first record came out on Epitaph?
We started in ’85, we recorded our first record in ’87, and it was released in ’88. So we’d been together for about three years.
That’s about right, three years sweatin’ in the trenches…
Yeah, well, we were sweatin’ the trenches after that too, cuz that record went absolutely nowhere. We’re still sweating in the trenches.
But, to be honest, would you really want it any other way? I mean, would you really want to be so big you could release complete shit and no one’d tell you because the only people you talk to are the one’s you’ve hired?
Well, yes. I think a combination of humbleness and little bit of success is the answer.
What was a benchmark you passed where you knew you’d “made it”?
Our whole career has been filled with those. When we started out, all we really wanted was a show at Raji’s, a club in L.A.. After we got that, we wanted a weekend show at Raji’s. Then, we wanted to play out of town, then we wanted to cut an album, then we wanted to go to Europe… And we’ve done all those things.
You set your sights on attainable goals, and then set to work on achieving them.
Yeah, and we never thought we’d get this far. Every step of the way, everything was an accomplishment, and it kept us going to try to get to the next step.
Is starting your own label a recent benchmark?
Yeah, and getting this record made. We’ve always done things our way, but we fired our manager last year, and we’ve been on our own ever since. Just getting this record made was a huge accomplishment.
I hear you have a remix album in the works?
Yeah, but there’s so much work to do on the road that we haven’t sunk our teeth into the project.
But it’s only going to include songs from Slap-Happy?
I think so. See, we own the masters, and we don’t own the masters of anything else we’ve recorded. In order to remix something from our past, we’d either have to re-record the song, or partner up with people we really don’t feel like partnering up with right now. We’re enjoying the freedom of doing our own thing, and I just don’t want to deal with suits.
They’ll probably keep your records in print though, seeing as there’s still money to be made and they already own the things.
Hopefully, I’d hate to disappear… But I heard from a friend of mine in The Go-Go’s that their records are out of print. If The Go-Go’s are out of print, what’s going to happen to L7?
I have kind of a touchy question: In the early ’90s, you really defined a sound and style, do you think you’ve peaked?
People probably think Bonnie Raitt peaked in the ’70s, but here in the ’90s, she busted out all over the place. So I think it’s foolish when journalists say that an artist has peaked, because it can end up biting them in the ass. I think we’re better songwriters, and if people aren’t paying attention, that’s not really my problem. We didn’t start this band to get on the radio. While I’d like to be on the radio with a smash hit single, that’s not the motivation for keeping this band together. We really enjoy writing, recording, and performing music. Some people start bands because they want to be famous and rich, and they’ll cater their writing style to whatever’s on the radio to achieve their objective. That’s not our objective. We want to be a rock band. A good rock band.
You also have something many rich and famous bands never get – you have longevity.
We have a career. There are always outside factors that come into play. I certainly don’t think our biggest album is our best album. I’m glad people embraced it, but I don’t think it’s our best work. Bricks are Heavy (’92) sold the best, but I think each album has been better than the previous one. I think our first album is God-awful, a total dog. But some people really like it.
But you could’ve never put out your second album had you not put out your first.
Yeah, but I sure wish our first album sounded like the Ramones’ first album.
It’s kinda good that it got buried then, huh?
It still haunts us. People still shout out requests from it, and we haven’t played anything off the first album since it came out. We retired that thing years ago.
Your self-titled record was one of the first, if not the first non-Bad Religion record on Epitaph, right?
The first NOFX came out at about the same time, I’m not really sure which was first. Back then, they had terrible distribution, and now they have excellent distribution, and they’re very successful.
Who’re you on tour with?
The Backyard Babies, from Sweden. They’re on Scooch Pooch, I think, distributed by SubPop. They’re really good, really rock’n’roll. We just got off tour with The Black Halos. I think they’re on SubPop, too.
Seeing as real rock needs to be called real rock to differentiate it from all the weak strains we’ve becoming grudgingly become accustom to over the years, what do you consider L7?
We’ve always considered ourselves a rock’n’roll band, but we’ve been tagged as many different things over the years: grunge, punk, and that sorta thing. We’ve played with K-Mart punk rock bands, but they just aren’t nearly the same thing as punk of the mid-to-late ’70s. My older sister used to bring home the albums, and I rocked out to them. The stuff now just isn’t edgy, it’s very conformist. It’s K-Mart safe, wanna-be punk rock. But there are still bands, like the ones I mentioned… and Zeke… that really live rock’n’roll.