I’ve seen L7 at arguably their peak, and I’ve seen L7 when things weren’t quite so rosy. The first time was in 1993 on a bill with Nirvana, the Breeders and Disposable Heroes of Hiphoprisy (featuring a young Michael Franti); the second came six years later on a smaller stage as the band supported what would be their final record, Slap-Happy. Both performances were fiery and loose. And in both cases L7 blew the other bands off the stage.
It’s no surprise that 16 years later it’s business as usual for the band. By all accounts, L7 is still playing with the same piss and fire they did two decades ago. The fact is there aren’t many bands that stack up to L7 live.
The band’s semi-surprising return this year didn’t come after years of speculation. It came simply came after their Facebook page—used essentially to house L7’s digital content—started getting inundated with fans begging for their return, often accompanied by their own photos and videos. Hints were being dropped in the weeks prior to the announcement that the original lineup—guitarist-vocalist Donita Sparks, guitarist-vocalist Suzi Gardner, bassist-vocalist Jennifer Finch and drummer Dee Plakas—would indeed be reforming for selected shows. Those few shows turned into a full tour, including festivals like Download earlier this year, and it was also announced that a documentary, L7: Pretend We’re Dead, was also in the works.
Formed in Los Angeles in 1985, the band gained steam during the grunge and Riot Grrrl eras, unfairly being lumped into both genres and, even worse, looked at, listened to and compartmentalized for their gender (along with bands like Bratmobile and Babes In Toyland). L7 embraced their feminism while also ignoring the politics that painted them into a corner on excellent records like Bricks Are Heavy, Hungry For Stink and the unsung Slap-Happy, which fused punk attitude and metal riffing into a cement mixer.
The world has changed (a little) since then. L7 has not. Paste caught up with Donita Sparks recently to talk about the band’s legacy, revisiting those classic songs and getting in with the metal crowd.
: I’ve been saying for years that if there’s one band I want to reunite, it’s L7. And you finally did it.
Donita Sparks: Aww, thank you, Mark. That’s cool.
: So, let me ask you the question I’m sure you’ve been asked a million times—why did L7 finally get back together?
Sparks: Why did we do it? Because I think it was sort of now or never. I also saw that there was a big demand just from viewing our Facebook activity. Which is really cool, because it was really just there for a time capsule archive of stuff I was digitizing for a potential documentary, which is now actually happening. We also had a booking agent that said, “Do you want me to pitch you for festivals?” And I said, “We’re not a band…but I’ll check in with everybody, and see what they say.” I didn’t care either way. And then it turned out that everybody was like, “Yeah, what the hell?”
: Was it awkward making those calls?
Sparks: Yes. It was really awkward. But sometimes you have to do what you have to do [laughs]. Here’s the thing, we have no manager…well, we have an acting manager. At the time that this all happened, we did not have a manager, we did not have a record label, we don’t have an accountant, we don’t have a business manager, we don’t have a big team behind us. It was very much just us, our fans, and our booking agent. So that’s what kinda made this whole thing happen.
: How were those first rehearsals? I mean, Jennifer hadn’t been in the band since Hungry For Stink, so it’d been even longer for her.
Sparks: Yeah, but Jennifer had been in other bands since; she wasn’t that rusty, you know what I mean? Suzi hadn’t picked up her guitar since 2001. It had been under her bed, and she hadn’t touched it. So that was…I think she was a little frazzled, and felt a bit overwhelmed. But I got together with her a few times before the whole band got together. She kinda wanted to just go one-on-one with me a few times to shake the rust off. And then she was playing amazingly right away. That first rehearsal when we were together we actually sounded pretty powerful. I was not worried, but that just made me feel very good, because Dee was playing like a motherfucker. If the drummer is hittin’ hard and playing really well, that helps a lot.
: Was it a trip to revisit those songs?
Sparks: Yeah, it was a trip! We’re playing “One More Thing” off of Bricks Are Heavy, and we’d never played that live.
: That’s my favorite song from that record.
Sparks: We never did that back in the day because Jennifer sings that song, and she sings it soft and whispery, and it didn’t lend itself to live situations because of monitors and such. But now we’re just like, “Fuck it, let’s just do it.”
: How did you view L7 in the scheme of music history, prior to getting back together?
Sparks: I felt very Etch A Sketched, just sort of watching revisionist history happen before my eyes and ears, and being right in the thick of it, you know what I mean? I totally get how that happens. Some people have the means to have a presence in the media, and some people don’t. And that’s kinda what can happen over time. So, this feels really good that it was our fans speaking out, and they certainly were archiving us before I was—they were posting shit on YouTube since YouTube started. We really have to hand it to our fans for keeping our legacy alive, because the media certainly did not. And that was sort of frustrating at times, not because I wanted to get the band back together, but just like, “Wait a minute, did we exist? Am I just a brain in a jar?” Like why are we being left out of some of these lists, and some of these articles—like, what the fuck?
: To me that’s surprising, because L7 is hugely important.
Sparks: Well, I think because the band broke up, and we had fired our manger, we had been dropped by a major label—even though we put out a record after that—and with no presence, and there was really no way to get ahold of us. But I’m surprised that the media forgot so quickly about what transpired in the late ’80s and early ’90s; that was kind of interesting to experience.
: It boggles my mind. Is there a particular period in the band or an album that you personally hold dear?
Sparks: That’s a good question. God. Oh, shit…you know, they were all equally a pleasure, and equally challenging. I think our very first record on Epitaph, I don’t think we were ready as a band to be making a record, so I’m not very fond of that one. I think it’s got some spirit and some spunk to it, but we don’t do any songs off of that record. I wasn’t ready as a writer. I was way too insecure. I didn’t have that experience. I hadn’t been writing songs since high school or anything, I started writing songs at 23 [laughs]. So I just wasn’t fucking ready until I was like 28, you know? Smell the Magic certainly was cool, and that first single “Shove” was cool, because that was the first single of the ’90s on Sub Pop—that was January of 1990, with their Singles Club—so that was really exciting. People in the underground really liked that song, so that meant a lot that our peers in bands dug it.
: I definitely think the songwriting got better with each record, even if it wasn’t matched by a particular record’s popularity. I think Slap-Happy is a great record.
Sparks: You’re one of the few [laughs]. I like that record, too. And that was so difficult to make, and we made it for zero money. A friend produced that for us, and he let us use his studio just out of the kindness of his heart—his name is Brian Haught, and he’s a sound guy now. So that one, just out of stubbornness we made that fucking record. It was almost a spit in the eye of our label, who had dropped us. It was like, “Fuck you, we’re going to make another record anyway, so fuck off!” Some of the writing on that record is very angry, because we were pissed. We had no more gas in the tank—we made that record, and we did a tour, and that was fucking it.
: While we’re on the topic of that record, can I ask you about the song Freeway? It’s such a weird song…I love it.
Sparks: People either love that song, or they hate it. You either get it, or you don’t—some people don’t get the humor or the weirdness in that song.
: How did it come about? I mean, it uses a drum machine and has a tongue-in-cheek old-school hip-hop feel. And those lyrics…
Sparks: What’s funny is the lyrics for that song came from a newspaper article in the LA Times about a man who stopped his truck on the freeway, clogged up traffic on the Los Angeles freeway for an afternoon. And he shot his dog, shot himself, lit the truck on fire. And it was all being filmed from a helicopter, and I was watching going, “What the fuck…like, what’s this guy going to do?” So that was sort of in the news, and Suzi and I had both bought these Casios at Guitar Center, and if you pushed some of the keys it had these hip-hop samples like “Check it out!” and stuff like that. And we were just cracking up. It was just this mashup of the news and these Casios. We had a lot of fun making that.
: By all accounts, L7 has been destroying it live. And gender is brought up less and less in reviews.
Sparks: We’re just kind of seen as a rock band that’s delivering, and that’s really fucking satisfying and great. Because that’s how we view ourselves. It’s strange to be inside yourself, and not really feel like you’re male or female when you’re performing, and then to have people view you and picking that female thing out.
: L7 was usually lumped in with other female bands, even though I always thought of you as being heavier than a lot of the others—almost verging on metal.
Sparks: Suzi and I started the band in ’85. We were punk rockers who were playing hard rock—that’s what we wanted to do. We liked Hawkwind, we liked Motörhead, we liked the Ramones. Suzi liked even more metal, like Sabbath and stuff. But we were always punk rockers at heart, but we were punk rock girls doing hard rock, which was sort of unusual. Some people weren’t able to wrap their head around that. The two camps were very different culturally, in LA in particular—there was the punk rock side, and then there was the hard rock/metal side. So we were kinda crossing enemy lines, but we were embraced. It’s super great that the metal community has embraced us, and actually some of the biggest festivals we’ve played in Europe have been metal festivals. And once you have those people as your fans, they’re diehard.
: Speaking of riffs, I’ve read that you have some written, but you’re not sure if they’ll end up on a new L7 record.
Sparks: Well, personally I will probably put out music in the future because I have so much shit in various stages of completion. L7, I don’t know, we’ll just have to see. Sometimes bands have a time and place that’s very relevant to their writing. And I think our stuff is still very anthemic and meaningful for people, which is really great—especially to the teenager in people. We’ll see if we’re inspired to break from that kind of place. I don’t know, sometimes when bands come out with new material 20 years later it’s a good thing, and sometimes it’s like, “Meh, play the old shit.” We’re really into just delivering for the fans. They’ve waited a long time, and some of them have never seen us before. We just want to meat-and-potatoes L7.