“This place,” observes L7 guitarist-singer Donita Sparks, scanning the Manhattan club on arrival, “doesn’t exactly say ‘rock.’” The interior of Bleeker Street’s Life disco looks more like something out of Miami Vice, with chrome-ish columns and sleek bars at every turn. She pronounces rock quickly, and without the italics, as if it’s a word she’s gnawed on and spat out billions of times. The club’s on-duty model greets her with a secretarial fake-nice “And who are you with?” to which Sparks politely and curtly replies, “El Se-ven,” and strolls through to catch up with her bandmates, drummer Dee Plakas, new-recruit bassist Janis Tanaka and co-guitarist-singer Suzi Gardner, who’s busily taping up posters and T-shirts at the band’s merchandise booth.
L7 have pulled their van into New York on the skirts of Hurricane Floyd, after bad weather cut into the turnout for shows in Philadelphia and Waterbury, Connecticut. The gals can only look forward, but the fact that tonight’s show is part of the CMJ music conference and promises loads of conventioneers with laminated badges and presidential-candidate-like tight schedules has them a little leery.
Come showtime, L7 hits the stage, pummeling every hidden corner of the icy building with dexterous, full-throttle and, yes, dangerous hard rock. It could almost be Raji’s 1988, except with a bigger stage and $6 Amstel Lights. Gardner wears a funny leather hat, and the set kicks off with “Andres,” a hit from 1994’s Hungry for Stink, which leads to “I Need,” a song from ’97’s The Beauty Process: Triple Platinum, which juxtaposes droll Sparks lines like “Come on and validate me” with Gardner’s backing “ayayayayayayayay”s. It’s classic L7 — sarcastic, immediate, extreme — not to mention a criminally overlooked shoulda-hit (more on that later).
At one point, Sparks adopts a German dominatrix accent and deadpans to the audience, “We play da musik dat makes you dance, ahnd you’re naht dahncing, ahnd it’s a bummah.” Then they lunge into “Lackey,” a new Sparks-penned tune that seemingly parodies a covetous never-quite rock star demanding the spoils of fame too late. It’s one of L7’s funniest and most self-deprecating moments (“Light my smokes, fill my glass/Pucker up and kiss my big white ass”) in a lineage of songs that fold cynicism and real hurt into blisteringly hard rock, a scheme few bands have successfully pulled off (even the band L7 are often aligned with, the Ramones).
“Are the badges a little weighty this year?” chides Sparks, though most of the non-CMJ crowd is made up of girls and guys the same age, or even younger, as Donita, Suzi and Dee were when they started L7 in 1985. Then drummer Plakas elevates the new “War With You,” Gardner’s simmering midtempo sneer about the remains of some good lovin’ gone bad, into far more hazardous territory. Watching this arm-flailing gymnast pound her kit disproves entire theories taught us by scientists and athletes about mass and power. While Sparks urges the crowd to be more responsive, and Gardner doles out eye contact like it’s endangered goods, and probationary bassist Tanaka, if she wants to keep the job, knows she damn well better act like she’s playing Madison Square Garden, Dee Plakas just fucking rocks. Even the badges in the house break a sweat.
Okay, so maybe it’s not Raji’s 1988, when an L7 show was an explosion of controlled thunder, like the first time you experienced Iggy or Black Sabbath or Motorhead or whoever going to extremes to make you believe in life ’n’ things. That’s not a feeling you can count on with your favorite bands these days, so, in late ’99, you want to give L7 a big tip, or maybe send them a fruit-of-the-month basket, for all the flat-out joy they’ve brought you.
In case you were wondering, yes indeed, L7 still rock like our lives depend on it.
The Lighter Side of L7
Gathering for a pre-show sit-down in New York, all four members of L7 are so darn cute and nice, they’re naturals for a sitcom on Fox. (Fox executive: “I see it as The Monkees meet Josie and the Pussycats, with menstrual jokes.”) They laugh at each other’s quips, drink each other’s coffee and know just when to interrupt each other. Plakas is right on cue with a “budumpump” following Sparks’ punch lines. The previous night’s show in Waterbury was either “sucky” (Sparks) or “like work” (Plakas), but the gals know they have to get down to a workman’s attitude to promote the hell out of their new album, Slap-Happy, on their own label. Fired from their old employer, Slash/Warner Bros., after the release of The Beauty Process, the band decided to “rip themselves off” and put out their next record themselves. They copped the name of a song on their debut EP (which was lifted from a Weekly World News headline) and got into business under the moniker Wax Tadpole Records. They made a deal with Bongload Records for distribution, which lets that company, as Sparks puts it, “deal with the day-to-day stuff, so we get to use their staff and their office.” “And their fax machine,” adds Plakas.
After major-label success, with all its accompanying hanging out with Kurt, semiregular Rolling Stone mentions of onstage shenanigans, a role in a John Waters movie, appearing on Letterman (who could forget football fogy Art Donovan plopping down with Dave after L7 ripped through “Pretend We’re Dead” and barking, “I haven’t heard such a racket since the Japs were bombing me in World War II”?), L7 are now back to running their own show. Considering the band’s gung-ho attitude, it seems appropriate to keep the first round of questions on the Teen Beat level.
WEEKLY: So, how’s the tour?
DONITA: Well, we started out with Ministry for the first six dates, and that was really fun and very cush because we were the opening act and there’s not all the pressure of being the headliner. Now we’ve intentionally been playing a lot of small clubs, and [adopting a clenched-jaw Lovey Howell accent] the accommodations have sometimes been subpar.
DEE: After we left Ministry, we had to drive 15 hours to get to the next show. We get there and it’s, like, basement dressing rooms with leaks and drips. And this huge cockroach.
DONITA: It’s all part of our rock & roll fantasy.
WEEKLY: What are your pre-show rituals?
DONITA: Suzi drinks coffee and smokes 10 cigarettes to get her voice all primed.
DEE: I do a little bit of stretching and drink coffee.
WEEKLY: What vices do you only indulge while touring?
DEE: A lot of junk food and candy on my part. It’s like a stress reliever or something.
SUZI: Taco Bell.
WEEKLY: What’s the best thing a fan’s thrown onstage?
DONITA: Certainly not the many Birkenstocks that come up at those festivals.
SUZI: I recently got a miniature barrel of monkeys with a phone number taped inside. There’s better stage shopping in Europe.
DEE: That’s true, ’cause I remember getting a sweater thrown up, and it was this really cool cashmere green meshed with silver, and it was really unusual. It fit me perfectly, and I wore it for years.
DONITA: We get bras, panties.
WEEKLY: What do you like to imagine your fans are doing when they listen to your albums?
DONITA: Masturbating. This acquaintance of mine said she and her boyfriend had sex to “Lorenza, Giada, Allesandra,” and that she came at the very end of it when it slows down and it’s going, “I love you I love you I love you” . . . I can’t imagine fucking to our own music; the thought is a complete cum-blocker.
SUZI: I always hope that people are listening to us stuck in traffic on the way to work and hopefully getting out some of their anxieties. And I hope they’re partying on Friday and Saturday nights, cranking it.
Suzi Gardner is the soft-spoken member of the group, and when she’s on a roll, her mates provide her with space. When asked if she’d be an L7 fan if she wasn’t in the band, she thoughtfully considers the question like it’s not even absurd.
SUZI: There’s a lack of just rock going on, a lack of regular rock & roll bands, and I would have to be an L7 fan. A kid told me last night that he was grateful to us because there aren’t that many bands for him to listen to.
DONITA: There’s really hard rock, but it’s got a lack of melody.
SUZI: There’s a lack of hook-iness going on. Where’s the damn chorus? is what I’m always saying.
WEEKLY: Any good partying stories?
DONITA: We recently fired our manager, and we have our own record label, and it’s been work, work, work on this tour.
WEEKLY: When you’re performing, do you differentiate between getting yourself off and getting the crowd off?
DONITA: Well, I’ll tell you, our last two shows — in Philly and Connecticut — were complete duds. The crowd was just not happening, and I wasn’t even putting it back. I like to be energetic onstage, but if the crowd’s not going off and you’re moving around like that, it becomes a pose, and then I can’t do it anymore.
Everyone agrees that Floyd’s to blame.
The Serious Part
The history of L7 reads like the fable of a billion other bands: Donita Sparks comes to Hollywood from Illinois, gets a job at a local alternative rag (this one, where Suzi Gardner also once worked). Sparks joins a few bands, including the Shrews, who are remembered by about seven people as having sucked. Gardner plays with the Debbies. Sparks, recalled fondly as a Weekly art-department prankster, could also make co-workers cry (“She was like the mean girl on the school playground,” recalls one). The two met and joined forces in 1985, hooked up with bassist Jennifer Finch and, after their Brett Gurewitz–produced debut, with drummer Roy Koutsky, found their “goddess of thunder” in Dee Plakas.
In 1988, there weren’t many chick hard-rockers. Locally, X, Alice Bag and the Go-Go’s had already made their marks. But L7 was too melodic and too married to the riffage of Motorhead and AC/DC to be part of the punk scene. If you were lucky enough to squeeze into Raji’s for an L7 show and remember hearing “Shove” played at arena decibels, you remember fiercely unifying, cathartic exercises in maximus minimus rockus.
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.”