L7 declares an all-out assault on Warped boys and Lilith Fairies with slap-happy

"The reason why a lot of bands went to majors in the first place -- for example, us -- was because distribution was so shitty. When you're on a major label, even if you're a tiny band, you get outstanding distribution. So that's the trade off," says Sparks. "There's pros and cons to each thing. I mean, indies will rip you off even more so than major labels because their accounting practices are just, well, forget about it. It's not about saying, 'Indies are so great just because they're not major labels.' There are a lot of unscrupulous people heading independent record labels, too. Sometimes they're the same guys."

Business considerations aside, the group began writing and recording its first album of new material (a live album, Live: Omaha to Osaka, came out in 1998) in more than two years. Co-produced with Brian Haught (Newlydeads, AC Black) and recorded earlier this year, critics have tagged slap-happy as a stylistic stretch, arguably the band's most diverse effort to date. It's an assessment that Sparks only half agrees with.

"Actually, we always stretch on all our records. Each record stretches a little more in our history. We're fortunate that we've always felt the freedom and the security in ourselves to put out whatever we want to. The people who think the new album is a stretch, I question how familiar they are with our records, especially the last two."

Riding with the rock stars: Clockwise from top left, Suzi Gardner, Janis Tanaka, Dee Plakas and Donita Sparks
William Howard
Riding with the rock stars: Clockwise from top left, Suzi Gardner, Janis Tanaka, Dee Plakas and Donita Sparks

Even given that, it's hard to argue with the sheer experimentalism on display throughout slap-happy. From the cut-and-paste textures of "Freeway" to the minimalism of "Freezer Burn," the record's distinct charm owes much to the group's evolving sense of its own sound -- one that adheres to an aesthetic that comes from the head as much as it does from the crotch.

Though slap-happy contains a handful of tracks that recalls the guitar scuzz and bass rumble of Bricks and Smell, most of the record veers off into uncharted territory. Take the Devo-vocals-meet-AC/DC stomp of "Happy" or the French lyrical tease of "Livin Large."

For evidence of L7's stylistic departure, one needs to look no further than the polka-tinged "Little One." Could it be that Sparks and Plakas, both Windy City natives, have finally let their geographical and cultural influences come to the fore? "No, no, no. That has nothing to do with it, but I like that idea," laughs Sparks. "That's really funny, actually. I guess since Dee and I are both from Chicago, the polka is in us inherently. But that beat, the polka beat, is considered like the forbidden beat in punk rock. But there's a lot of polka-sounding punk rock out there if you think about it, so we figured, 'Why not?'"

Almost equally surprising as the band's foray into polka are the three-part harmonies found on the furious disc opener, "Crackpot Baby." Sparks says the harmony was done tongue-in-cheek, at least initially. "But then we listened to it and it sounded so great we were like, 'Yeah, this is cool, let's use it,'" remembers Sparks. "It was also kind of a 'fuck you' to people, you know. Like, 'Yes, we can do three-part harmony, too -- so fuck you.'"

Nearly 15 years after starting, L7 shows have become a strange mishmash of old punks, grunge vets and rock 'n' roll newbies -- a segment of the audience that comes to the band by virtue of its frequent all-ages performances. "We get the people who are longtime fans and then we get the people who are complete greenhorns. We get the longhorns and the greenhorns," quips Sparks.

After finishing its current U.S. tour, the band will travel to Australia and Japan in the New Year before returning to the States for another round of dates this spring. The band's world-travel plans also include stops in South America, where the group has long been received with the acclaim and zealousness worthy of its dominating, rock-goddess image.

"We're huuuge in Brazil," intones Sparks, only half-kiddingly. "We were there in '93, but we haven't been back since. Their economy's been such shit, and the promoters down there are not all that stable. But judging by the e-mail and the press, we're very big down in South America. So there I would say there we're huge rock stars. Everywhere else we're kind of medium-sized rock stars."

L7 is scheduled to perform on Saturday, November 6, at the Green Room in Tempe, with the Backyard Babies, and Slugworth. Showtime is 9 p.m.

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