With New Songs and a Doc on the Way, L7 Make Their Hard-Rocking Return
Photo by Rob Sheridan
The last time L7 singer-guitarist Donita Sparks was at Brooklyn’s Warsaw, she was being shoved out of it by security at a Joan Jett show for lighting up a cigarette. “I feigned ignorance,” the 52-year-old firebrand laughs on the phone from her Los Angeles home.
This week, Sparks will return to New York City's Irving Plaza and to the Warsaw with her L7 bandmates — singer-guitarist Suzi Gardner, singer-bassist Jennifer Finch, and drummer Dee Plakas — for a massive reunion tour nobody thought would happen. "Suzi and I lived a couple blocks away from each other and we hadn't seen or spoken since 2001," says Sparks. "We thought everyone forgot about us."
The group's Facebook page told a different story with its 100,000 (and counting) likes. In 2013, L7 tested the waters with a Kickstarter campaign to raise money for a documentary. The undertaking was a success, earning $130,480 — $33K over the asking amount — and proving that L7 were not only remembered, but that their fans were hungry, thanks to the discoverability factor of music-streaming and L7 songs in popular video games like Rock Band 2 and Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas.
Formed on the arty outskirts of Los Angeles in 1985, L7 came up during a time when metal ruled, punk was dichotomizing, and grunge was on its way. Their sound combined it all. Sparks played guitar with Johnny Ramone's downstroke style and borrowed pop hooks from the B-52s. At L7's live shows, fans like Kurt Cobain and Courtney Love leaned against their speakers. L7 were "everything the Runaways were supposed to be," wrote Voice critic Robert Christgau in 1990. They were crass, clever, impulsive, and down-to-earth all at once. "I play their music in my car when I want to hear some aggression," director John Waters told Spin for their 1993 cover story. That year, Waters cast the band in his film Serial Mom as the headbanging, vulva-costume-wearing band Camel Lips.
L7 played with rock acts like Nirvana, Jett, and the Smashing Pumpkins. They were also a lightning rod and model for riot grrrl bands like Veruca Salt, which formed after catching an L7 show in Chicago, Sparks says. L7 had an infectious effect on young women in particular. "We'd play a town and the next time we'd play there, we'd meet another all-girl band. It was like a weird Pied Piper thing."
Renewed demand for L7 has caused Sparks to reassess the band's place in the music canon, which was also the impetus for the forthcoming documentary. "Our story, our influence on women picking up guitars, hasn't been told in a long time" says Sparks. "I feel that some have become spokespeople for our era and I don't necessarily agree with them. Sitting back the last ten years, it's kind of like, 'Hold on, give me a fucking break.' "
When L7 disbanded in 2001, Sparks never made an official announcement because she didn’t want the negative attention. She continued writing and playing with Plakas in her solo band through the Aughts, opening for the Donnas, a band that worshipped L7. Years later, Donnas guitarist Allison Robertson attended L7's first reunited gig in L.A. and said in an email: “L7 literally blew my face off. Even though I know Donita and Dee, I still found myself hoping that my idols onstage could see me pumping my fist to every song and losing my shit in the crowd" — which then included Garbage’s Shirley Manson, Hole’s Patty Schemel, and Bratmobile’s Allison Wolfe.
The gigs so far have been ladling on the fan favorites, from pulverizing hits like "Shit List" and "Everglade" to MTV standbys "Andres" and "Pretend We're Dead." Sparks's new favorite is "One More Thing," a song that Finch wrote for the Butch Vig–produced album Bricks Are Heavy. The band had never performed that track live until now. "It's always been an album favorite of mine, and now it's a live favorite of mine. Plus I can kind of kick back from the microphone and take in the ambiance."
These days, Sparks says she has a "shitload" of new material but no idea whether anyone wants to hear it (we do!). "I really like characters on the fringe," says Sparks, talking about another song, "Scrap," that will get some wear on the road. "I actually have a photograph of Scrap that I will publish someday," she says, chuckling while describing the song's muse. "He is wearing a red beret and he's got spray paint residue on his mouth, because he was huffing paint in the garage when we were recording our first record with Epitaph." "Diet Pill" also originates from a troubled soul, albeit a more famous one named Willie Nelson. Sparks says she heard a rumor that Nelson abused his wife, who proceeded to sew him to his bed once he was passed out drunk and beat him with a frying pan. "I have no idea if that's true," says Sparks, "but I thought it was funny."
The first time Sparks went to New York City in 1988 — driving the L7 van on "some fast road in Brooklyn" — it was her love of characters that endeared her to this tough city. "The hip-hop DJs had accents," she says. "I'd heard hip-hop, but this was a culture shock in a really great way." The next time the band came through town, L7 became part of the noise. A DJ at the Lower East Side club King Tut's Wah-Wah Hut starting spinning one of their early hits, "Shove," Sparks remembers. "We were like, 'Fuck yes! We are making a mark on New York City.' " It may have been the first time, but it certainly wasn't the last — and it sounds like these upcoming shows won't be, either.
L7 play Irving Plaza on September 8 and Warsaw September 9. Both shows have sold out, but tickets are available on secondary markets.
Get the Music Newsletter
Keep your thumb on the local music scene each week with music news, trends, artist interviews and concert listings. We'll also send you special ticket offers and music deals.