One of the fiercest bands to come out of the grunge era, L7 combined punk-fueled anthems, razor-sharp wit, and feminist spirit into an imposing brew.
Early-’90s records like Smell The Magic, Bricks Are Heavy, and Hungry For Stink boasted chunky riffs along with bold lyrics that were a rallying cry for the disenfranchised.
Donita Sparks, Suzi Gardner, Jennifer Finch, and Dee Plakas set a male-dominated hard rock world on its ear, and almost certainly inspired legions of females to pick up an instrument.
With chip firmly planted on shoulder, L7 was never afraid to rail against things that pissed them off, and eventually maintained a routinely updated “shitlist” on its website.
L7 also helped found Rock For Choice, a series of benefit concerts that supported the pro-choice movement, which featured acts such as Nirvana, Pearl Jam, Iggy Pop, Joan Jett, and Rage Against The Machine.
But the road wasn’t always smooth for L7—Finch departed in 1996, the band was dropped from its major label, and the group’s final, self-released album received a tepid response.
By 2001, L7 had quietly faded into the sunset.
In the ensuing years, many of the band’s ’90s grunge contemporaries would continue to get accolades, while it frequently seemed as if time had forgotten L7.
Fast forward to 2015, and people are ready to remember L7 in a big way—spurred largely by online fan encouragement, the group’s essential lineup of Sparks, Gardner, Plakas, and Finch have reconvened for a full-on reunion tour, the quartet’s first shows together in 18 years.
L7 is also the subject of an upcoming documentary, Pretend We’re Dead, by award-winning director Sarah Price. A Kickstarter campaign to fund the documentary raised more than $130,000, surpassing the initial goal of $97,000. Pretend We’re Dead is culled from more than 100 hours of archived footage from Sparks’ and Finch’s personal collections.
The band spent much of June performing at European music festivals, and is now embarking on a run of North American shows. Prior to L7’s stopover in New York City, I chatted with vocalist/guitarist Sparks, who filled us in on the reunion, documentary, and the role that social media played in bringing the group back together.
How have the reunion shows been going this summer?
It’s been going great. We were in Europe first, then we came back and did a couple of hometown L.A. shows. The club shows have been sold out. It’s been really great.
The fan response has been good?
It has. It’s been very frothy in the crowd. We’ve been whipping them into a lather. (Laughs) It’s a fucking freak show out there, and we love every minute of it.
Do you find that the recent shows have drawn mostly older fans, or a lot of newer ones who discovered your music more recently?
It’s been both. There’s older people in the crowd, even older than us, and there’s been a lot of kids. We’ve been trying to play all-ages shows as much as we can. Because, you know, the best concerts you’ve ever seen were when you’re 16, right? And those kids are going wild—they’re usually the ones way up front. How they heard about us, I don’t know. But somehow I think our hardcore fans have kept us alive, posting stuff on YouTube. I’ve found that I have a lot of parents coming up to me too, who bring their kids, because they’re sick of all these lame female role models that their kids are really into. And they want them to see L7 as a palate-cleanser to all that shit.
How did the idea for the reunion first come about? Was it due to the Kickstarter campaign?
I think it grew from our fans on Facebook. I was sort of digitizing my archives of photos and things, and I figured I’d create a Facebook page for L7, and just started posting stuff. The response was really great. In addition to the photos and stuff, there were also a bunch of home movies, and I met this director [Sarah Price] at a dinner party. I told her about all the home movies, and after she saw them, she said she wanted to make a film. The producers made a Kickstarter, and we were a little nervous about that, because if it didn’t reach its goal, L7 would end up with egg on its face. But it did really well. So that helped, but we were actually already talking about a reunion because of the Facebook response.
In December, I had been getting frustrated because there weren’t a lot of bites in the United States [for L7 to play] festivals and stuff. So we did a little teaser on Facebook to our fans, and basically said, “If you want this to happen, make some noise.” And they did, and that got picked up by tons of press. That’s what really got things going. And then we started getting a lot of interest from Europe to play shows. But it really came down to the demand of the fans, who were responding so strongly to these Facebook posts.
Did it surprise you that the fan interest was still strong after all these years?
I knew our fans were out there, but I didn’t know that they were still so enthusiastic. I don’t feel like L7 has been mentioned that much in the press over the years. Other bands of that era are kind of the spokespeople of that era, and we have not been. So I felt like it wasn’t as strong as it actually turned out to be. I thought people had kind of forgotten about us, so the actual response is kind of cool.
I think it’s great that the reunion came about organically and really stemmed from the fans saying, “We want this.”
Yeah. We don’t have a manager; we don’t have a record label. We don’t have a merchandise deal. We’re doing all of this ourselves, with the help of some friends. The only thing we have is a booking agent. And that Facebook blast that we did got us that booking agent; they contacted us. So, it’s been very organic and pretty amazing.
During the time that L7 was inactive, how much contact did you have with the other band members?
We were estranged, I would say. Dee and I were in a band together—I put a solo album out in 2008, and she was my drummer. So, Dee and I were totally in touch. But we had not been in touch with Jennifer since 1996 and Suzi since 2001. So, there was some weirdness.
As you were reforming the group, was there any apprehension about everyone getting along, or of lingering tensions?
Well, I called everybody and I was nervous about it because I hadn’t talked to them in so long. And it was a little weird. But every band has a kind of vocabulary that they use—a very insider, in-joke kind of vernacular. And we clicked into that immediately. So, it was really cool. And our first rehearsal was weird, but we all ended up laughing and cracking up.
In looking at all the home movies, and stuff that fans posted on YouTube, there were some realizations in hindsight about everybody’s role. I think I appreciated my bandmates more than I ever did back in the day, from this kind of detached place of watching these videos. When you’re in it, you can bicker. When you step away from it, you’re like, “Wow, everybody is fucking nailing it.”
It’s like that old cliché, “You don’t realize what you’ve got until it’s gone.”
It seemed like after L7 released the Slap Happy record in 1999, the band just quietly fizzled out. At least from a fan’s standpoint, you went away without much fanfare. What were the reasons that the band dissolved?
I don’t think that anybody cared that we broke up, which is why we didn’t make a big deal of it. And we had no money, no label, and no management. We had made that Slap Happy record… a friend of ours, out of the kindness of his heart, let us record that thing for free. Literally, there was no money. So it’s like, how do you keep going with this? We didn’t have like $50,000 to invest in our next record. And when that happens, you start to bicker. It’s like a marriage; they say that couples bicker most about money, and that’s kind of what happened.
And without a label and all that shit, you’ve got to hire press people, marketing. And this was pre-Facebook. It was like the wheels fell off. So, we did fizzle out. I chose to say that we were on an “indefinite hiatus.” Because I always told myself we wouldn’t do a reunion, I didn’t want to say that we broke up. Now, people want to hear us again. But in 2001, we were over with.
Just like we were talking about how people don’t appreciate what they have until it’s gone, maybe the same holds true for fans and bands they like. It might have taken L7 going away for a while for some people to appreciate you again.
Yeah. I was a huge Ramones fan as a teenager and into my early 20s, but then I kind of stopped paying attention to them. I got other interests. And even though the Ramones are still my very favorite band ever, at the time it was like, even though they didn’t go anywhere, I left them for a while. It’s just one of those things. You become a little passé, and you might have the chance to hit the reboot.
I’m really excited to see the upcoming documentary. The footage that you provided to Sarah was mostly concert footage from early in your career, and personal movies that you filmed on the road?
Yeah. The footage starts in early 1992. It shows right before Bricks Are Heavy broke, through our demise. It’s pretty cool.
How much say did the band members have as to what went into the documentary?
We all did interviews, and we spoke very freely. We said that we didn’t want it to be like VH1 Behind The Music kind of shit. I don’t think anybody’s going to be the villain in this. This is more a documentation of our career. But if there’s something in there that we don’t like, it won’t end up in there. I don’t trust people enough to say, here’s all my archives, do with it what you will. That wouldn’t happen. We’ll have to see if anything ends up on the cutting room floor. (Laughs)
How much does the documentary include from this reunion?
She’s got no rehearsal footage. Like I said, we hadn’t seen each other in so many years, we wouldn’t put a camera in everybody’s face, so we said no to that. She did film our warm-up show in L.A. before we went to Europe, and then she filmed a little bit in Europe also. I don’t know how much of the reunion stuff will play into the film, because the film was getting made before there was even a reunion in the works. So, this whole reunion was just one of those things that happened, and documentary filmmakers love that kind of thing. I think it would be kind of a cliché ending, personally. It’s very Spinal Tap. But most of rock and roll is, I guess.
Not only is it a snapshot of your band’s history, it seems like the film would be a nice souvenir of that entire era, which was a great one for hard rock music.
Yeah, it starts out when we’re on tour with Helmet, so there’s a lot of cool footage.
When will fans be able to see the film?
I’ve heard talk of it being at South by Southwest, but I’m not sure. I think the director is about to hand in a rough cut, so I’d say it’s not coming out this year. It’ll be 2016, but probably early in 2016. It might be at film festival screenings and things like that. And look for it at the Secaucus multiplex. (Laughs)
L7 performs at Irving Plaza in Manhattan on Sept. 8, Warsaw in Brooklyn on Sept. 9, and at the Trocadero Theatre in Philadelphia on Sept. 11. For more info, visit L7theband.com.