By LA Weekly
By Henry Rollins
By Weekly Photographers
By Shea Serrano
By Nate "Igor" Smith
By Dan Weiss
By Erica E. Phillips
By Kai Flanders
The band hit pay dirt with 1992’s hit "Pretend We’re Dead" from Bricks Are Heavy, by far their best-selling album to date. That was the end of day jobs and the beginning of the salad days. Shortly after their fifth album, ’97’s The Beauty Process, Sparks got a call from their manager, which she describes as "darn decent of him." The fellow told them, "Well, it’s been great working with you," which, translated, meant they were officially dropped from Time Warner–owned Slash Records.
So it’s back to the DIY with Slap-Happy, which finds the band’s trademark tongue firmly in cheek on typical ã L7 smarty-pantsisms like "Long Green" and "Crackpot Baby," as well as sweet moments like "Little One" and "Freezer Burn." Comparing the album’s diversity with the urgent chaos of ’91’s Smell the Magic, though, some are asking, Who took the thrash out? Yet unlike the Ramones, who locked onto — and never strayed from — a winning formula of skillful fast-simple-funny, L7 can’t help but explore new territory. Blame it on learning to play better, or just learning to live better; there are songs on Slap-Happy that hint the band is ready to rock a little bit softer now.
The album shows a few growing pains, as evidenced in the overuse of clichés and worn-out catch phrases (this has long been a criticism — remember "Wake up and smell the coffee" from "Pretend We’re Dead"? And The Beauty Process has "Enough talk about me/Let’s talk about you/What do you think of me?" and "Off the wagon and on the town"). "Livin’ Large" actually has the lyric "Get some lemons, make some kick-ass lemonade," though they also give us "Got so much clit, she don’t need no balls," so all is forgiven.Slap-Happy’s experimentation mostly works, like the forbidding "Freeway" with its electronic blips and rapping. (Sparks dubs it "the feel-bad dance hit of the year.") Though they write separately as well as together, the songwriting team of Sparks-Gardner can still stir up nightmares like "Stick to the Plan," and boy can they pull out the burn, here especially on the manic "Mantra Down."
"We have a healthy competition with each other," says Gardner of their collaborations. "Sometimes it’s like Ishtar, where the guys get together and write these really god-awful songs, and it’s hysterical. And sometimes we watch TV. And some days we get together with really good intentions and we snack."Slap-Happy’s cover image, a black-and-white photo of people wearing Frankenstein’s Monster masks roaming a street lined with palm trees, was chosen because, says Gardner, "That’s how we feel in L.A. We feel like outcasts in this city of perfect people." After a few slaps in recent years, including the departure of bassist Jennifer Finch following Hungry for Stink, it must be hard not to brood about what this business we call music takes out of you.
"Yeah, it’s a cruel business," says Sparks, "’cuz it’s at the mercy of bottom-line people. There are so many obstacles that if you kept trying to figure out why things aren’t happening, it could become a self-fulfilling prophecy of defeat. If you get caught in that quagmire, you’re fucked.
"It’s always been a combination of pleasure and pain. But I think there’s a masochistic streak in all of us."
Thank God rock’s "year of the woman" is over and L7 no longer have to face that old news. In a way they’ve gotten what they’ve always wanted: to be judged on their music alone. To Sparks, success means "longevity and credibility." Gardner concurs: "I’m not incredibly rich, but I feel extremely successful." The subject of going back to day jobs in the future hasn’t gotten past them, either — Gardner makes the sign of the cross and says, "I’ll cross that bridge when I come to it."
They’re obviously in it for the long haul, bumps and all: Someday, L7 will be known as the Matrons of Rock. Meanwhile . . .
"There was this review in Spin that was putting down The Beauty Process," says Gardner. "It said, ‘This album sounds like you’re in the parking lot smoking pot’ — like that was a putdown. That’s a compliment."