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L7: To Hell and Back

Inside the heady rise, hard fall and unlikely rebirth of the band that inspired Nirvana, founded Rock for Choice and redefined punk feminism

L7 reunited

The members of Nineties punk-metal outfit L7 discuss their heady rise, hard fall and unlikely reunion – as chronicled in new doc 'Pretend We're Dead.'

Marina Chavez

It’s Reading Festival, 1992, and L7 singer Donita Sparks has just whipped her bloody tampon into the unruly crowd. “Let’s rock the sisters in the house tonight!” she yells as drummer Dee Plakas kicks into “Fast and Frightening” – a glorious headbanger with the prescient lyric “She’s got so much clit/She don’t need no balls.”  

“I went performance art on their ass,” Sparks says, looking back on the moment 25 years later. “They were throwing mud, we threw blood,” adds bassist Jennifer Finch. These days, fans toss tampons (clean ones) onstage at the reunited punk-metal pioneers’ shows with “I love you” scrawled in red marker. 

“Can you imagine Kathleen Hanna [throwing her tampon]?” says John Norris, the former MTV VJ who interviewed L7 in ’92. “I’m sorry, but no. Carrie Brownstein? No, I don’t think so.” 

But to Sparks, the moment didn’t feel as triumphant as it looked. “We were expecting to keep going up,” she says. “That show started the plateau.”

From 1985 to 2001, Sparks, Finch, Plakas and guitarist Suzi Gardner made a serious racket, drawing from disparate musical currents. “Hard rock music with a punk sensibility,” Sparks likes to say. Watching footage of L7 in their prime – shredding with Nirvana, ruling MTV’s video rotation, smashing David Letterman’s set – as featured in the new documentary L7: Pretend We’re Dead, it’s hard to imagine how the rambunctious foursome ever managed to slink away.

“I was amazed because they were strong, kickass women. Now all the women in punk rock are kickass, so maybe they were a little ahead of their time,” the director John Waters tells Rolling Stone. He famously cast L7 as the prosthetic-vulva-wearing band Camel Lips in his 1994 dark comedy Serial Mom

“They were radical feminists, but they were also pros,” Waters continues. “I’m just surprised they vanished so quickly.” 

Coming up in Los Angeles’ bohemian Silver Lake/Echo Park scene, L7 drew from a diverse set of influences: Motörhead, Ramones, feminist Bay Area punks Frightwig. They made fun of the Sunset Strip’s bouffants and machismo while playing the same kinds of garish flying-V guitars. They also had no patience for grunge’s gloom, even though their friends were in bands like Nirvana, Mudhoney and Soundgarden. 

Pretend We’re Dead demonstrates just how far removed L7 were from their peers. Mostly taped by the band members themselves, the film has a home-movie feel. “It’s the ultimate cinema verite,” says director Sarah Price. “Early on, Donita gave me a hair color guide – by the year – for every band member, so I could identify the year by the hair color and vice versa. And I just thought, ‘Holy shit, she’s been through all the footage’ – that’s, like, 145 hours of tape.”

The film is rife with pranks like the one they played on Mötley Crüe in 1993 upon discovering their studio was plastered with pictures of naked women. “Walking into a room and seeing all those centerfolds – it’s just a bummer,” Sparks says. “So [when] Tommy Lee came in to listen to ‘Baggage,’ we had so many penises in that room – erect penises on the spinning tape machines. It was amazing.” Aesthetics aside, L7’s sex anthem “Freak Magnet,” recorded during that time, could have easily come from either band’s room.

During a Pretend We’re Dead screening at a Brooklyn theater in October, Sparks, now 54, sat before a small, polite crowd. She sported cotton-candy–blue hair and a svelte blazer. Near the end of the Q&A portion, a young woman in glasses raised her hand. 

l7 1992

“What do you make of feminism today?” she asked. The usually intimidating Sparks shifted uncomfortably, as if she’d almost made it out without fielding the question she’s perennially punted. The band has always maintained that while they’re fiercely liberal – after all, they invented the Rock for Choice concerts – their music relates to everyone. That the band even wound up all-female was a fluke. (“This band transcends the conversation of gender, sexuality and genre,” Finch tells RS. “We’re just that way as people.”)

This time, Sparks didn’t deflect. She acknowledged that L7’s resonance among feminists hit home for her during the film’s New York premiere in 2016, just four days after the election. What should have been a joyous event for the band (even Joan Jett was there to welcome them) was eclipsed by Trump-induced grief. “Young women were literally hanging on to me, asking me to ‘save them,'” Sparks says incredulously. 

Fittingly, in September, L7 released “Dispatch From Mar-a-Lago,” a hysterical caricature of life inside the president’s palm tree-lined cave (“S.O.S. from the golden throne/Mogul’s in deep shit, he’s all alone”) and their first new song in 18 years. Sparks says they were wary they’d look a tad cheap – worse, desperate – for coming back only to pile on the Trump bashing.

“But then we were like, who cares?” she says, her gold tooth winking through her curled lips. “Let’s take the low road!”

L7 began in 1985, a year after Sparks met Gardner, a California native and reluctant poet who spoke softly but hung out with bikers. Sparks grew up in Chicago going to political protests with her parents. She revered all things Americana, so moved cross-country to surf rock’s babylon: Los Angeles. Gardner became her creative partner and they named their band after bebop shorthand for “square.”

In 1987, the duo became a trio with Finch – an ill-behaved and untrained bassist who added instant verve to their live act. A year later, a petite, chatty punk named Dee Plakas became their drummer. With the highly skilled Plakas on board, the band had a reason to figure out their instruments just to keep up with her. “When I play, I feel like my arms are going to fall off,” Plakas says with a laugh.

L7 opened for Nirvana when the latter were road-testing songs like “Smells Like Teen Spirit” in the U.K. in the summer of 1990. “One of the first people to say they thought [Nevermind] was going to be huge was Donita Sparks of L7,” Dave Grohl told Rolling Stone in 2001. “And I didn’t believe her. I was going, ‘There’s absolutely no way.'” L7 watched Cobain & Co. get wined and dined by label executives with dollar signs in their eyes. (“The closest thing [we got] was listening to Geto Boys in the parking lot of an In-N-Out with a Warner Bros. rep,” Gardner jokes.)

With a little finesse from Nevermind producer Butch Vig, L7’s 1992 record Bricks Are Heavy broke the band on MTV. Their big music video from that album, “Pretend We’re Dead,” aired alongside clips from mainstream stalwarts like Metallica, Guns N’ Roses and Red Hot Chili Peppers. 

“As much as people like to think grunge was a corrective to the Sunset Strip, let’s not kid ourselves – Nineties rock and alt-rock was still very much a dude’s world,” says Norris, whose 1992 MTV conversation with L7 appears in the doc. “L7’s approach was to embrace the kind of leather-dude, ‘we can party as hard as you, rock as hard as you’ mentality, which was so different from other bands.”

L7 did take a feminist stance, but it wasn’t exactly academic. When a promoter touched Sparks inappropriately on the road, the band members took turns peeing in his hat. (“Sometimes there’s a method to our madness,” Sparks says with a laugh.) They embraced politics in other ways. In 1991, they created the Rock for Choice festivals with the Feminist Majority Foundation to raise money and awareness for women’s reproductive rights issues, which drew huge acts including Rage Against the Machine and Neil Young. 

But by the time of the tampon incident, the grunge wave that L7 rode was waning. Upbeat acts like Green Day and Blink-182 became the new alternative. After L7 opened for Kiss at a festival in 1997, they learned that their label dropped them.

L7 rock for choice

Finch had already left the band. Plakas, Sparks and Gardner self-released what would be the band’s final album, Slap-Happy, in 1999 on their independent label, Wax Tadpole. When copies of the record were too expensive for them to buy back, most wound up in a landfill. Gardner parted ways with Sparks and Plakas in 2001. The band was over, along with their friendship.

“It was a very painful breakup,” Sparks says. “I felt betrayed. And we’re not family, so it’s not like we had to be in touch. There’s no Thanksgiving at Grandma’s house.”

“I was surprised that [L7] felt they didn’t make it, because we looked up to them,” says Gina Volpe, guitarist of the Lunachicks, who frequently opened for L7 in the Nineties. As unique as they sounded, L7 suffered more than their peers from the “all-girl band” trope, says Volpe. “It’s maddening. And we lived it too.”

Sparks isn’t one to dwell. But over the years, between social media and renewed interest in Nineties nostalgia, she found it increasingly tough to ignore that her band seemed in danger of being forgotten. One evening, Sparks sat down to watch HBO’s 2013 documentary, Sound City, about the historic recording studio where L7 recorded portions of four of their LPs. They spent a lot of money there, she says. The documentary was even produced and directed by her old friend, Dave Grohl. Sparks waited for a mention that never came.

Not long after that, Sparks made the two phone calls she’d avoided for 13 years. She wasn’t asking for a reunion, she says vehemently. She simply wanted to see if her old bandmates would participate in a documentary on the band. She began with Finch, who left the band at age 30 with just a handwritten note. The bassist was newly sober at the time and grappling with her father’s death. “When you’re younger, there’s so much pressure riding on everything,” says Finch. “I know I caved under that specific pressure – of not being able to be everything [I felt] was expected.” 

L7 reunited

In the summer of 2011, Finch revealed that she was diagnosed with thyroid cancer. Sparks was aware of Finch’s illness, she says, but felt reaching out might have been awkward, or worse, unwanted. Could they really be a band again? Finch put her doubts to rest with a typical L7 response: “Duh.

Next was Gardner, who lived just three blocks from Sparks for more a decade without a single exchange between the two. In the film, Gardner says she worried she’d wasted her life being in L7 for so long. In the years after her departure, she devoted her time to caring for her mother. She missed music, but her guitars remained under her bed gathering dust.

Sparks says she emailed Gardner asking permission to call, since “if you give people time for things to sink in, their response is a little bit better.” Gardner says,”I picked up and said, [mimicking Dracula‘Goooood evening.'”

“She answered the phone that way like she did back in the day,” Sparks says with a smile. “She was filling me in about her mother for the last seven years. She talked about her life and her job. I just let it roll. I wanted to let her talk.” L7 weren’t reunited yet, but getting back on speaking terms was a victory in itself.

“Life is a succession of hell and backs,” Gardner says quietly. “Your partner gets cancer. You go to hell. And you come back.”

In January 2015, Blue Hats Creative, the production company run by Sparks’ husband Robert Fagan and Maria Aceves, launched a Kickstarter campaign to gauge interest in an L7 documentary. “I honestly thought no one would remember us,” Sparks says. On the other hand, she’d seen some promising signs. The L7 Facebook page she casually curated was buzzing more than usual with fans posting old concert clips, posters and interviews. 

The Kickstarter changed everything. Within one month, fans pledged more than $130,000. One of the highest donations came from Ross Mangun, a 45-year-old manufacturing plant manager from Indianapolis, Indiana. He’s not rich and never knew the band personally, but he felt like he owed them. “As a gay teenage kid in the Midwest, my life got 100 times bigger when I discovered L7,” he says. “If Vixen was like four Lita Fords, L7 was like four Joan Jetts.” Mangun gave $3,000 to the campaign. For his prize, he was flown out to Hollywood for a seance with the band.

L7 reunited

Since L7 reunited, quasi-officially, at a hometown gig in 2015, they’ve had considerable success. They’ve embarked on sold-out tours, headlining music festivals around the world and playing to a whole swathe of new fans that might’ve found their song “Pretend We’re Dead” playing Rock Band 2.

“People ask, ‘Why didn’t this happen sooner?'” Sparks says. “Well, heavy shit goes on in life. One day things are rolling along and then life hits you again.” 

“Plus,” Finch adds, “I started seeing documentaries and lists – 100 great drummers or whatever – where Dee Plakas would not be mentioned. And that’s some bullshit.” Snickering ensues among the members. L7 might have drifted into obscurity, but when they’re together, onstage or off, it feels like nothing’s changed.

But then, some things have.

“All this time I thought I was the toughest cookie in the group.” Sparks pauses, searching for the right words. “Well, I am fucking not.” 

In This Article: L7

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