Rank Your Records: Donita Sparks Rates L7’s Six Studio Albums
"Pretend That We're Dead" is only one of many great grunge anthems that the Los Angeles band wrote over their career.
Image: L7 website
L7 have become part of the 90s grunge canon. Walk into Alternative Night at any pub, club, or student union, from Los Angeles to London, and there’s a good chance that along with Nirvana’s “Smells Like Teen Spirit” and Rage Against the Machine’s “Killing in the Name,” you will hear “Pretend That We’re Dead” from L7's classic 1992 album Bricks Are Heavy.
The all-gal band started in Los Angeles in 1985, when Hollywood’s Sunset Strip was overrun by hair metal dude bands and sleazy starmakers. But over their career L7 recorded six studio albums of punchy anthems and helped break ground for women in punk and alternative rock.
Songs such as “Shove” and “Andre” mixed hooky hard rock with humor and nobullshit—and often confrontational—punk snarl. The band self-released their final album Slap Happy in 1999 after being dropped by Slash records.
Last year the band announced that the original lineup of Suzi Gardner, Donita Sparks, Demetra “Dee” Plakas, and Jennifer Finch were reuniting for shows.
We caught up with vocalist and guitarist Donita Sparks to find out how she ranked the band's catalog.
6. L7 (1990)
Noisey: How did you end up on Epitaph?
Donita Sparks: Jennifer is from LA, and she knew Brett, the owner of Epitaph, since she was probably 13 or 14. He was getting Epitaph off the ground at the time, had done a NOFX record and maybe a Bad Religion record, but we were really one of the earliest bands on Epitaph. He was not a multimillionaire like he is now, he was struggling—his studio was in an old house in Hollywood.
He produced the record too, right?
He did, under the name Starbolt.
Did it feel like you were still finding your feet?
I would say I consider it our "training wheels" record. I don’t think I was ready as a writer to be making a record at that time. Musically, it’s in the wheelhouse of what we’ve done—sludgy stuff mixed with fast stuff—but lyrically it’s more of clichéd. We weren’t really writing from personal experience yet, we were writing how we thought a rock band should write. For many bands, their first record is something special. I am a big Ramones fan, and I love all their records, but that first one was just such a revolution. I wish I could say that about L7.
5. Hungry For Stink (1994)
By 1994, your notoriety was skyrocketing and you were moving on from small clubs to shows with the Smashing Pumpkins and playing Lollapalooza.
Hungry For Stink came out just before we were on Lollapalooza. There are some songs that are kind of dark on that record. Personally, I was becoming more paranoid, staying in the house more. LA seemed like it was getting kind of scary at the time, so I think that’s kind of reflected in the record. But at the same time there’s some really fun stuff on that record like “Riding With a Movie Stuff.” So I guess there was this contradiction going on.
"Andre" is one of my favorite L7 songs. Suzie wrote the bulk of that song and the sentiment of it. It's hilarious and it rocks. The the video is great, it’s a true story and it’s just a real time stamp on it for me.
There was a real sense of humor running through your music.
There still a sense of humor, baby! Some people think we’re just an angry band, some people think we’re just goofballs, and then there’s our fans who see both sides of that. Sometime’s it’s really tongue in cheek, and sometimes it’s really serious.
4. Bricks Are Heavy (Slash, 1992)
When people mention grunge, they usually mention Bricks Are Heavy. Did you feel a buzz when recording it?
We were friends with Nirvana, and when we were recording it their first major label record hit through the roof. We were using their producer as well, Butch Vig. We were getting bigger —certainly never a fraction as big as Nirvana—but there was a lot of excitement in the air at the time. A lot of underground acts were getting signed with big labels, there was a big land grab for underground bands.
There’s a lot of pop on that album too, what influenced that?
I’ve always liked pop. I’ve always liked bubble gum too. I kind of have an aversion to heavier stuff, and really like catchy stuff, and Butch Vig was encouraging us to embrace that. When starting out, we felt that we had to be a very tough band, and that had an absence of melody going on. As we got more confident in our writing and in ourselves as a band, we started to add catchier stuff. We just got our songwriting chops melodically and lyrically as time went on, while still keeping the essence of the band—the distortion, the heaviness—mixed in with these poppier elements.
Are you sick of “Pretend That We’re Dead?"
For years I was embarrassment with that track because it became a hit. As a punk rocker, you get stupidly embarrassed by that stuff, and so I would shit on the hit by having wacky performance art come out during the breakdown—stuff like our roadie would start ironing and shit on stage.
Now I appreciate it, and I deliver it very straight with a lot of conviction just like when I wrote it before it was ever a hit. Now, I’m not messing around with inside jokes to amuse myself, I’m there for the fans and to deliver those songs with sincerity.
3. Slap Happy (1999)
Was this kind of a "fuck you" to Slash Records for dropping you?
Well, we got dropped, but we were determined to not let that end the band. We almost made Slap Happy as a defiant "F you" to any label that would drop us, because we existed before we had labels. We were very defiant in wanting to make that record. We didn’t know it would be our last, but we started our own label to put that out and our distributor went bankrupt distributing the record. So that was the last straw and the last financial hardship that ended the band.
We had a lot of fun making that record, but there was a lot of anger towards the major label system on that record.
Looking back, would you do anything differently with your labels?
No. When we signed to Slash, we got worldwide big time. I wouldn’t trade that to stay underground, I always wanted to infiltrate the masses. That to me was very subversive, to get on TV, to get on MTV and in the mainstream media. I found that incredibly subversive in punk rock. Other people in punk are very anti-corporate and want to stay in the underground, not me. I say get in their faces, I wanted to get in their living rooms and into suburbia.
Well you did that well, now whenever you go into any club anywhere having a 90s night "Pretend That We’re Dead" is going to be played.
I think it’s cool. Now, if you go into a lot of punk rock clubs, the song they play is "Shitless". Any time you go to a punk club in New York City, they’re playing that song. So there’s the 90s nights, but I think we’ve made it into the eternal punk rock nights too, alongside the Stooges.
2. Smell the Magic (1990)
This came out on Sup Pop just when the label was getting big. What was that like?
We met them in '89, they came to a show and asked us if we’d do a Sub Pop Single of the Month Club for January 1990. That’s when we put out "Shove" and they liked it and that was how we got international distribution. Our first record was not distributed well, but Sub Pop started to get good distribution in Europe, so we actually went to Europe on that single. Then they asked us to do an EP.
"Shove" is such a big song. Is that kind of stuff still part of your live set?
It is. It was our first minor hit and we still do it. Suzie and I wrote all those lyrics, and it’s all true stuff. It was the first song that really connected with people in a bigger way, because we were writing true stuff—my landlord did hate my dog, my dad did think I was going nowhere. It’s kind of an adolescent anthemic song, but adults really relate to that song. There’s a kind of humor related to that adolescent angst and I think a lot of adults really get a kick out of it. We still get a lot of people, whether they’re 50 or 20, who still scream and shout at the top of their lungs.
I would say our second album was a bit of a revolution. It turned a lot of people on to us and they couldn’t tell if we were male or female, they just liked it. We weren’t selling sex, they just loved the music. I think that was a bit of a revolution in the punk scene and a lot of people really love it, especially women.
1. The Beauty Process: Triple Platinum (1997)
Speaking of tongue in cheek, the next record in '97 was The Beauty Process: Triple Platinum. What did that name mean?
The beauty process was what I would call putting my fright makeup on before a show. And then triple platinum was just a joke about where we were in our career, we hadn’t even made gold yet. We thought calling it “Triple Platinum” would be funny, but also that, hey—it might actually work, through the power of suggestion into the universe. It was a record that got really good reviews, but didn’t sell very well. It was the album that got us dropped, our label didn’t even make a video for anything on that label.
Back then, making a video was the main form of promotion for a record.
And they were not cheap to make. These days kids are making them themselves. Back then, unless you were an art student with access to an editing bay, you were dependent on these video editors. So when your label says no, it’s sort of writing on the wall that they’re not gonna promote your record.
So in ranking your top three records, would you say Bricks are Heavy is number one for what it did for your band?
That’s so hard, man, that’s so hard. I kind of think that The Beauty Process is my favorite record, because Suzie wrote some brilliant songs on that record. That’s the record that she really stepped up on. Suzie’s got three songs on that record—“Me, Myself & I,” “Bitter Wine,” and “Must Have More”—that are totally quirky, would never get air time, but completely stand up to any underground punk song ever. Those are really cool, strong songs, and I can say that objectively because I didn’t write them.
Well in the rankings, where would you put Bricks are Heavy?
[Laughs] I think you’re so funny that you want these rankings. Just tell everyone to skip the first record, and that the rest are tied for first place.
But if I must, just for your sake, and this is not necessarily absolute truth because we don’t sit around and rank our records, I’m gonna say number one is The Beauty Process, two is Smell the Magic, and number three is Slap Happy.