Artist Spotlight: L7 (or; We’re Not Changing Our Panties Until San Diego) [Part 2 of 2]

Read Part One Here.

The Beauty Process: Triple Platinum (1996)

After the touring cycle for Hungry For Stink, bassist Jennifer Finch quit to go back to college (but turned up in Other Star People a year later). Instead of finding a replacement right away, the band went into the studio as a three-piece, with Donita Sparks doubling on guitar and bass. “I found out that calluses appear on different places on your fingers when you’re playing guitar than when you’re playing bass,” Sparks said, “I had to have my fingers taped up every day.”

The band recorded 22 new songs for The Beauty Process: Triple Platinum, but picked the ones that were the most different than their previous output. Some songs were recorded live in the studio, like “Lorenza, Gaida, Allesandra”, which was captured in one take. It was originally improvised on stage in Italy when three fans came on stage. “It was the only way I could remember their names,” Sparks said.

Also, Lionel Richie does the “1-2-3-4” countdown on “Moonshine”. I can’t find any reason for why this happened, but it has to be mentioned.

L7 found new bassist Gail Greenwood from Belly, but Sparks wasn’t sure at first, as she wasn’t a fan of that band.  After talking on the phone, their personalities clicked well together, and she was offered the position without even having to audition. L7 needed to be in full force, as they were called to go on tour opening for Marilyn Manson.  The band embarked on the tour before the album was even released, but they had an opportunity to play “big cement places” they had never had the chance to play before, and that was important to them.

However, all was not rosy at Slash / Reprise Records. Even though the album was getting great reviews, the label opted not to spend any money on making any videos, which of course was the most important promotional tool in 1996. The band knew that the label declining to make a video was the sure sign that they were done putting any effort into the band.

I can remember buying this on the day it was released. I was working college radio at the time, and I had come in about a week after buying the album, and we had received a promo single for “Off the Wagon”. Greg was the guy who had the time slot before me, and I would chat with him a little bit before it was time for me to take over. I didn’t really like Greg all that much, he was pretty cocky, and considered himself an indisputable gatekeeper of true taste. “Their new single is kinda funny, I guess.” Well, fuck you, Greg. It should be said that Greg also was in my Creative Writing II class, and would monopolize large sections of the class to ramble on about bullshit that was not relevant to anything at all. See, you hate him now, too.

Anyway, I want to point out that L7 contributed a lot of songs to compilation and tribute albums, but they rarely put non-album B-sides on singles. However, on the single to “Off the Wagon”, they included “Guera”, a slow dirge-y piece, and “Punk Broke My Heart” which fucking rips.

Slap Happy (1999)

After releasing Live: Omaha to Osaka with Greenwood, she left the band, leaving the bass slot open again. Greenwood was based in Rhode Island, and everyone else in Los Angeles, so coordinating schedules was a problem.

After being dropped by Slash / Reprise, and being left more or less penniless, L7 was interested in keeping their next endeavor independent of labels. The band started recording, again as a three-piece, using any studio they could get for cheap.  They utilized a lot of first takes, resulting in an album that is remarkably loose and low-fi. The entire thing was recorded as a “Fuck You” to Slash / Reprise, to indicate that they were not going away.

Musically, it sounds like a rushed affair, but there are some good things in it. “Human” is a heavy, stomping song, “Livin’ Large” is a borderline country tune, and “Little One” is an upbeat number that is as close as L7 will ever be to Skiffle music.

Before the album’s release, the band “pranked” the Pasadena date of Lilith Fair and Asbury Park’s date for The Warped Tour. They rented a plane for each to circle overhead with banners, Lilith Fair’s banner read “Tired? Bored? Try L7!” and Warped Tour’s banner read “Warped Needs More Beaver” (after “Warped Needs More Pussy” was rejected by the advertising company). Sparks went on the record to say that the focus of both tours was narrow and mediocre. She stated that Lilith does not fulfil its slogan as “a celebration of women”, and Warped almost entirely neglects female artists.

For the upcoming concerts, the band hired Janis Tanaka, who had also previously been in Pagan Babies (although not at the same time) with Jennifer Finch.

Break up

Eventually, with no fanfare, the band dissolved. 

Although Sparks maintained up until 2001 that the band was not over, L7 was quietly put to rest with no statement. Sparks put out a solo album (with Dee Plakas on drums). Finch performed lead vocals in The Shocker. Tanaka went on to be a highly sought-after session musician and has worked with Pink, Bif Naked, and Fireball Ministry among many others. Greenwood went back to performing with Belly when they reunited in 2016.

After the breakup, Sparks confirmed that her and Gardner had not spoken in nearly two decades, despite living three blocks from each other.  She said, “I didn’t quit the band. Jennifer quit the band. Suzi quit the band. When Jennifer quit, we were able to go on. When Suzi quit, the wheels had already fallen off the band financially. It’s like a marriage. When there’s no bread, shit gets contentious. When you’re working really hard and you don’t have much to show for it, except for a lot of cool stuff that you’ve done, things get weird.” She continued, “You don’t always get answers to why people quit a band. You don’t always get the truth”

Pretend That We’re Dead Documentary (2016), Reunion, and Scatter the Rats (2019)

The reunion didn’t start as a reunion.  Realizing that L7 had been largely forgotten, or at best relegated to a footnote, Sparks set out to make something of the hours of footage the band had accumulated during their original run. Sparks reached out to director Sarah Price, and they began putting together a narrative. Unfortunately, one of the cameras had gone missing, so the years that have no video are cobbled together with photos and press clippings from that era.

“Hey, we’ve accomplished some amazing shit for people who never studied music, for people who weren’t musical virtuosos who didn’t have a lot of money.” Sparks said, “We did a lot on our own. We also had this amazing footage that we shot ourselves and we happened to be one of the architects of grunge. We were there and had a camera. This footage is a time capsule, it’s important.”

Because L7: Pretend We’re Dead required the involvement of all the band members, Sparks was able to acquire everyone’s email addresses. The band re-established contact, with no clear goal or plan to reunite. “Everybody talking, hanging out, and laughing together has been amazing,” Sparks said. “It’s just like when divorced people can become friends again. I think everybody’s older and less rigid in their stance on things. It’s a sort of ‘life is short’ kind of thing. It’s a maturity.”

Before long, the offers to officially reunite started to roll in. In December 2014, the band announced their reunion with the lineup of Sparks, Gardner, Plakas, and Finch. Their first show was Rock am Ring Festival in Germany in June 2015, followed by some big city U.S. dates and more festivals. As the reunion rolled on, 2016 saw the release of the L7: Pretend We’re Dead (currently viewable on Hulu and Amazon Prime).

2016 also saw the release of the compilation Fast and Frightening. The first disc collects most of the group’s compilation appearances and B-sides (but not the two from the “Off the Wagon” single, or “Lopsided Head” from the UK “Pretend We’re Dead” single), and the second disc collects two shows. The first is a radio show for Radio Brisbane from 1992, and the second is the Clutch Cargo show from Detroit 1990, that coincided with the release of Smell the Magic.

Documentary: Check.  Reunion Shows: Check. So, what’s left? New music, or course. On September 29, 2017 the group released their first new music in nearly 20 years (more than 20 years for this lineup), “Dispatch From Mar-A-Lago”, and I don’t have to tell you what it’s about. In February 2018, they released their second stand alone single, “I Came Back To B*tch”. Of the two, I like the second one best.

L7 then went through PledgeMusic to fund their full length, Scatter the Rats. Because L7 is kind of like Charlie Brown, just perpetually down on their luck, PledgeMusic went insolvent. Luckily, Joan Jett’s Blackheart Records stepped up and not only released the record, but worked with the band to honor the PledgeMusic donors who got ripped off.

Scatter the Rats is classic L7. It sounds like they’ve been frozen in carbonite in 1993, and released just now. Other than Sparks’ vocals being a touch rougher (she is pushing 60, after all), they sound exactly as they ever did, just solid heavy rock music. The album radiates fuzz, drone, punk, and all points in between.

Earlier this year, the band released another stand alone single. A cover of Joan Jett’s “Fake Friends”, with Jett herself, and “Witchy Burn” as the B-side.

“The other press darling festivals we’re not asked to participate in which is kind of weird. [Laughs.] We always thought we were musically independent,” Sparks told Alternative Press. “We’ve never done anything but be L7. Now, we play punk festivals and metal festivals. What’s interesting is that we don’t play many alternative-rock festivals, which is sort of where we’re from. It’s funny how the traditional tribes of metal and punk embrace us, and that’s where we’re welcomed.”