Saturday, July 17, 1999: A sold-out crowd of 70,000-plus crammed inside Pasadena's Rose Bowl to watch one of the final performances of Sarah McLachlan's three-year-old fem-festival, the Lilith Fair. At 6:30 p.m., a plane buzzed over the stadium. Trailing the aircraft was a banner bearing a message intended to be part publicity stunt, part commentary: BORED? TIRED? TRY L7.
The next day, at the male-dominated Van's Warped Tour at the Stone Pony in Asbury Park, New Jersey, another airplane flew over the show, this time with a banner declaring: WARPED NEEDS MORE BEAVER . . . LOVE, L7.
"We actually referred to it as our 'blitzkrieg weekend,'" says L7 front woman Donita Sparks. The outspoken, blond-coifed Sparks is recalling the twin slag missions from a tour stop in Reno, Nevada.
"The banners behind each of the planes are pretty self-explanatory," chuckles Sparks. "The Lilith Fair is boring and the Warped Tour does have a lack of women on the bill."
That type of full-frontal assault has been L7's musical and philosophical m.o. since the all-female Los Angeles punk band came to semiprominence in the early '90s, first on indies like Epitaph and Sub Pop and later with a trio of Warner Bros. releases.
Like a number of other groups, L7 recently left the major-label rat race to return to the indie fold with its latest release, slap-happy.
Though the group -- Sparks, guitarist Suzi Gardner and drummer Dee Plakas -- has been together since 1985, it has endured the departure of bassist and founding member Jennifer Finch (as well as that of her touring replacement Gail Greenwood, since replaced by Janis Tanaka). L7's slash-and-burn ethos has not diminished since the days when it first captured the attention of the rock world with its mix of the Ramones, Motörhead and Joan Jett on albums like Smell the Magic and Bricks Are Heavy.
Check the group's Web site (www.smelll7.com) and you'll find a section dedicated to those who have made the band's official "Shit List." The site features hilarious verbal rants directed at sacrificial lambs ranging from presidential hopeful George W. Bush ("We put up with 12 years of listening to his father, the condescending asshole and now we're supposed to welcome the son of the condescending asshole?") to actors like Woody Harrelson ("a misogynist nerd who promotes ugly hemp fashions") and Charlie Sheen who makes the list, well, "just because."
It's just that sort of attitude that spurred the band to mark the end of McLachlan's festival with the aerial missive. "Our problem with the Lilith Fair -- it wasn't directed at any artist specifically, because I actually like some of the artists on the tour, this year in particular. But it was the fact that they bill it and advertise it as a 'Celebration of Women in Music,'" says Sparks. "I think a more accurate description is 'A Celebration of Middle-of-the-Road Women on the Radio.' If it's a celebration of women in music, then where's Diamanda Galás? Where's the Boredoms? Where's the Lunachicks? Their definition of female-made music is very narrow, and it's insulting."
Sparks knows all too well that the contributions of female rockers -- the ones that actually rock, in more than name only -- have been marginalized, swept up in the rush of promotional and mainstream press hype that has proclaimed and celebrated the rise of women in music over the past few years. But this so-called female rock revolution is a false conceit that has foisted the mantle of stardom on the shoulders of effete folkists like Jewel or shrill divas like Celine Dion -- artists whose musical daring and rock pedigrees are closer to Anne Murray than Suzi Quatro.
For a brief period in the early and mid-'90s, the most visible female musicians were rock 'n' rollers in the truest sense. The grunge, post-punk and riot grrl sounds of bands like L7, the Muffs, Bikini Kill and others proved that women had a distinct and important place in a traditionally male-dominated field. Those bands didn't want or need to be sequestered in a quiet corner, but rather wanted to rock on equal terms with the boys.
Having helped spearhead the movement, L7 found itself in the unenviable position of being on a record label that no longer seemed to care about it by the late '90s. The group parted ways with Warner Bros. in 1997, just six months after releasing The Beauty Process: Triple Platinum.
With the massive shifts going on in the music industry, Sparks was leery of being bound to an ironclad contract with yet another corporate monolith. "I was investigating other labels. But major labels appear to me to be on very shaky ground. The idea of signing a seven-album deal didn't sound very appealing. So then we were looking into indies, but then the collective light bulb turned on over our heads, and we said, 'Hey, we could do this ourselves.'"
The group decided to start its own label, Wax Tadpole, and partnered with L.A.-based indie, Bong Load, to help cement distribution. For Sparks and the band, the decision to stake out their own piece of the record biz was a practical one, not one born of an unrealistic, though common, indier-than-thou attitude.
"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."
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.