Shit Gets Weird:
No Pretending – L7 Lives Again
L7 always stood out, for me. I first became aware of the band during the great ascent of Sub Pop Records, who issued their six-song EP Smell the Magic in 1990 (expanded with three additional songs upon its CD release the following year). With aggressive, swaggering, defiant outbursts like “Shove,” “Deathwish” and “(Right On) Thru,” that slab o’ wax scarred my tender soul, and maybe scared me a little, too. Aside from seeing Girlschool years earlier, and I guess Frightwig at some point, I don’t believe I’d previously encountered an all-female band that slayed with such ballsy ferocity (and L7 ultimately had better songs, anyway). So of course, I was intrigued, more than a little aroused, but also undeniably intimidated. I wanted to party with these chicks, but I was convinced that they’d obliterate me in that department and I’d come to in a bewildered, bleary daze, scratched, bruised and bloody, half-naked and covered in mud and leaves in a drainage ditch after what was presumably the best weekend of my life if only I could remember it.
Yeah, the grunge thing was largely a boys’ club, but the movement did foster its share of amp-abusing women-centric metal/grunge/punk bands, including but not limited to Babes in Toyland, Lunachicks, 7 Year Bitch, Scrawl, Red Aunts and, yes, Hole. L7 sorta fit in with all that, too, but again, they stood out for me, especially when their Slash Records debut, Bricks Are Heavy, delivered on the promise of Smell the Magic and upped the ante with tighter precision and just enough commercial-minded gloss in Butch Vig’s production. I mean, “Pretend We’re Dead” still gets my fists pumpin’ whenever I hear it. Try to listen to it without cranking the volume and banging your head. You can’t.
L7 had humor, personality and seemed like a gang. I could tell that they were enthusiastic and took their band seriously, but they were also subversive and unafraid to offend. They just seemed reckless and wild, and not so much in a contrived rock ‘n’ roll way but more because they were just having fun. Even when they took on abortion rights as a rallying cause with Rock for Choice, I don’t remember them getting all preachy and sanctimonious. But then again, maybe they did. By a certain point, like a lot of people, I had sorta moved on to other things and other bands. Looking back, I’m guessing this was sometime between 1994’s Hungry for Stink,, which wasn’t stellar but was better than its title, and 1997’s The Beauty Process: Triple Platinum, their last for Slash/Reprise, by which point founding bassist Jennifer Finch had herself moved on. The band limped across the finish line following one more indie album, Slap-Happy, and by 2001’s close, were no more.
But this is rock ‘n’ roll, and in rock ‘n’ roll, bands never really break up for good. L7 – that perfect, golden era lineup of Finch, guitarist/vocalist Donita Sparks, guitarist/vocalist Suzi Gardner and drummer Demetra “Dee” Plakas – are back. Have been for about a year and a half now, playing mostly festivals in the States and abroad (including headlining day one of the Masquerade’s upcoming Wrecking Ball blowout on Saturday, August 13th), and participating in the making of a forthcoming warts-and-all documentary on the band’s history. And you know what? I’m glad this here gang is back together. And not because I’m especially nostalgic for them. I just think it’d be fun to get jostled to-and-fro in the pit again while they’re blasting through “Shitlist” and “Shove” and “Pretend We’re Dead.” Well, OK, maybe not in the pit anymore. After all, as I’m sadly reminded daily, I’m older now. And so are they. But I bet our wildness, or lack thereof, is probably at about the same boring level now, at least.
Here’s a bit of a recent phone convo I had with Ms. Sparks, who was just as I remember her when I met her back in the ‘90s – refreshingly friendly, cool and not intimidating at all…
L7 always had a reputation for being one of the more reckless, harder living bands of that time. How much of that was accurate, and how much was exaggerated for image?
“I would say hard living – yes. But interestingly, both Suzi and Jennifer were sober, and had gotten sober very early on in the band’s life. And so, any of the reputation probably came from me and Dee at that point, hahaha! I think Suzi got sober in ’87, and Jennifer got sober in ’90. Which also added to some – as you can imagine – some problems with the band sometimes. You know, being on a bus, Dee and I are partying, and they are not – God bless ‘em, ‘cause they went through that sober.”
It seems like reunions are an integral part of every band’s lifespan nowadays. And there is kind of an unspoken strategy to the timing. Do it too quickly and no one’s realized you ever went away. Wait too long, and you’re kind of past the sell-by date. Did L7 consider any of that when deciding to start up again?
“It wasn’t even thought of until a couple years ago. We were not… I was not pining to get the band back together. Believe it or not, this all happened very organically. We were not strategizing anything for the last ten years, or 15 years. We were kind of estranged from each other. Jennifer was ill [thyroid cancer], so she was going through that. Suzi was taking care of her mother, her ill mother, for years.… You know, I was kind of noticing the social media aspects of our fans posting things, and starting Facebook pages, and posting YouTubes and all this stuff, and I thought, ‘Wow! This is interesting…’ So by the time our old booking agent called and said, ‘Hey, do you want me to submit you guys for festivals?’ I was like, ‘What? We’re not even a band!’ I didn’t know that there was that much demand for us to come back. And then I was like, ‘Eh, why not?’ You know, we’re getting older – if we’re gonna do it, we should do it now. But I really never thought it was gonna happen, nor did I even think I would want it to happen.”
Jennifer and Suzi’s situations are a reminder that people in bands have real lives. I don’t think most people consider that. They see you on stage, and they think it’s all rocking out and partying.
“Yeah. Exactly. And also, I think people think that we made more money than we did. And when you make more money, you can kind of have helpers to do these things, to take care of your parents. But if you don’t, then, you know, you’ve gotta take care of your mom!”
What was it that changed your mind about getting back together?
“Well, I think I saw a lot of our peers from back in the day doing it, and… our contribution to rock, I felt, had been buried. And I felt that younger people needed to see that. And then the social media demand, it was like, ‘Wow – we could actually maybe do this, and mend some fences with each other.’ We all live in L.A., but we all live in different parts of L.A. We never ran into each other in the 15 years that we were broken up. So, you know, you don’t want somebody to disappear off the face of the earth and you didn’t mend fences with that person who you had a band with! So that was important, too.”
Dee was in your solo band, but that seems crazy that after being in a band with the others for so many years, you went 15 years without keeping in touch at all.
“Yeah, me too, haha! I mean, shit gets weird when people divorce. Some of that will be more revealed in the documentary that’s coming out. But it’s like, listen – sometimes it’s just… people have different personalities, people are complex. Some people deal with stress and with pain differently than others. It’s just… everybody’s different.”
Also, everyone says this, but you’re not the same person in your mid-20s as you are in your mid-40s.
“Totally. I mean, we’re all 50, and it’s like, get over it! You know? I also think we’re just different people, and life is short, and I don’t think we have the pressures of… you know, we have a ‘status’ now, with this reunion. When the band broke up, you know, trying to keep a career going with people not paying attention to you anymore, it’s really hard! And money issues come up, and you’re hittin’ 40, and you’ve got no health insurance, and no savings! It’s scary shit. And some people blame other people for that. So… you know… turning 40 is really the wake-up call of, like, ‘Holy shit! What am I doing but just flogging this ailing horse?’ Which L7 sort of became at the end. We were in small clubs again, our records weren’t selling, we had been dropped by our major label and we tried to start our own label. I mean, we really tried to keep it going, and the fucking wheels fell off.”
Well, it wasn’t just you – that whole “alternative nation” thing completely transformed into an ugly beast by the end of the ‘90s. It became Limp Bizkit. That had to have been disheartening for you.
“You know, it was a disheartening time, because I kinda thought that L7, to me, as objectively as I can be, it’s sorta like a muscle car. If you’re around long enough, you’re going to be appreciated at some point. (laughs) You know what I mean? I just always felt like we were this island of a band. Like we were kind of associated with some other scenes, but we also stood on our own very solidly. And we weren’t too abstract. We were sort of meat-and-potatoes rock.”
You kept the band going for a few years after Jennifer left in 1996. Would you have considered moving forward with this reunion had she or any of the other core members not been on board?
“No, it was core or nothing for me. You know, to be honest, I’m not a big fan of reunion tours. However, I am so stoked I got to see The Sex Pistols, I’m stoked I got to see The Stooges. And so, if we were gonna do it, it had to be the four of us. And interestingly, it was all at that exact time that we were available. Suzi’s mother had passed away, Jennifer got better, and it was sort of at that moment when we could do it.
“It was horribly uncomfortable at first, because I’m the one that made the fucking phone calls. So I was like, shit –I don’t know if this person’s gonna hang up on me, I don’t know if this person’s gonna tell me to fuck off, I don’t know if they’re gonna start crying – I don’t know what this is gonna be. Jennifer said yes right away – she was like, ‘What took you so long?’ Suzi had a lot of apprehension. I had to give Suzi a year to think about it. And she did. Because I think if I’d said, ‘Are you in or out?’ in that initial phone call, she would’ve said ‘I’m out,’ for sure. Sometimes you have to massage things a little bit, because the first person I mentioned it to was Dee, and she was like, ‘Absolutely not!’ And I was like, ‘Dee, just think about it. It’s all of us or nothing.’ So, the first phone calls were totally weird, but then the more phone calls that happened, the more comfortable it got. And then, seeing everyone together was weird, but then we all just started laughing and switching back to our L7 vocabulary and vernacular… We laugh a lot, so that’s really good!”