L7: Whatever Happened To The Band Behind “Pretend We’re Dead”

Whatever Happened to LA Rockers L7?

Today on Rock N’ Roll True Stories they take a look at the all-female group L7 and their history. Check it out below!

The LA Times perfectly summarized L7’s image saying L7 causes nightclub ceilings to rain sweat, small women to dive off stages and entire crowds to shake their heads rhythmically, violently to the beat. Its sound is characterized by howls and throbbing waves of distorted fuzz guitar, its image by torn jeans, wild hair and whatever shirts its members happen to have been wearing that day.

The members of L7 were all LA Transplants with the exception of bassist Jennifer Finch who grew up near the City. 

The band’s origins began with guitarists and vocalists Suzi Gardner & Donita Sparks who met in the mid 80’s. Up until this point the pair were playing in separate pop acts around LA with Gardner telling Spin “Donita and I met each other in 1985,”. “We’d been floating around the same town, kind of following each other in jobs, and bands, and even with dudes, kind of, and we had a lot of people telling us that we ought to meet.”  

 

After finally meeting, Sparks would play Gardner some of the material she was working on and they seemed to gel pretty quickly.

 

Sparks was a native of Chicago who was a rebel from the getgo learning to question everything. This attitude was instilled by her parents who would bring her to political rallies. .The music scene in chicago never really spoke to Sparks so she moved out west to LA and got a writing job at LA weekly while also playing in bands. 

 

The classic lineup of the L7 didn’t come together over night as Gardner and Sparks had what they called and i quote “the psycho rhythm section” before bassist Jennifer Finch joined in 1987. The band at this point had a male drummer but the following year Dee Plakas came on board.  The classic lineup of L7 would be born. The group’s name would be derived from a mid-century slang for square.

 

The band soon developed a name for themselves through their live shows, which saw them blow away the headliners. They became staples  of popular hollywood spots including Raji’s, Club Lingerie and the Gaslight. The band would draw comparisons to punk pioneers The Ramones with Joey Ramone taking it  as a compliment teling Spin magazine 

 

“They’re fun, they’re exciting, and they’re spirited,”  “That’s how I feel we played a major role in inspiring them, and we’re proud of it.” “ In addition to the Ramones the members would cite a female band from San Francisco called Frightwig as being huge influences on them  as well.

 

From the beginning L7 had two goals in mind One was to tour the United States and the other was to tour Europe. In order to facilitate their first dream, they had to release a record, which they did in 1988 with indie label Epitaph. Sadly Epitaph would fold several months after their debut LP came out. Without a label, L7 would hook up with Seattle band Cat Butt who happened to have one member who worked for subpop. It was that connection that led them to signing with Subpop becoming the only LA band on their roster Donita Sparks would reveal in the book Grunge is Dead “L7 had toured the country in 1988, but we had never played Seattle. We were fortunate enough to hook up with Catt Butt and headed up to Seattle. My first impression of the town was flyers everywhere. It just seemed very alive, very youthful. The music community seemed really connected from my eyes. ”

 

Subpop was the perfect partner for the band to reach their second goal of touring Europe. Jennifer Finch would tell the Orlando Sentinel that Subpop was and i quote “’the Gateway to Europe,’   While on Subpop L7 would release a 7 inch single on their collectors subscription series and it would be followed up with an EP in 1990. L7 soon became regulars at clubs around Seattle and.It got to the point that a lot of people started to think L7 was from Seatle. 

While the band had a lot to celebrate, being an all-girl group also came with a lot of sxism and hardships as industry people  and some music fans lumped them incorrectly as part of the Riot Grrl movement or just another female rock band.  In an interview with Spin  Magazine the article would state What L7 doesn’t want to be is a women’s band, either in “genre,” or in audience. “There was the girl band thing, there was the fox core farce, there was the Seattle band farce, there was the grunge-rock thing,” Sparks says. “We’ve been around longer than all that stuff. Basically we’re a rock band from Los Angeles.”“When we formed, we just wanted people to play with,” Gardner says. “We didn’t care what set of organs they had. We just wanted to f***rock.”

The band members also weren’t immune from misbehaving music business types as one promoter seually harrased one of hte members resulting in the band going to the bathroom in his hat. The band also crossed paths with glam rock band Motley Cruein 1993whose drummer Tommy Lee invited them to hang out. Upon entering the room they saw pictures of certerfolds everywhere so they returned the favour by plastering nu de men everywhere when they hung out the next time. 

In the book Grunge is Dead L7 would take a shot at the Riot Grrl movement with Sparks saying ““We’re not a Riot Grrl band. I remember once seeing one of the bands passing out flyers, but not passing out any of the flyers to men in the room. Other than that I don’t really know completely what their agenda was. It was never really my bag.

Given their rising popuarltiy around Seattle and the fact that they were on Subpop, the band soon made friends with Nirvana & even open for them in 1990. This was during the time when Kurt Cobain and company were being wined and dined by record labels while they were road-testing songs including “Smells Like Teen Spirit”. Nirvana Drummer Dave Grohl would tell Rolling Stone  “One of the first people to say they thought [Nevermind] was going to be huge was Donita Sparks of L7,”. “And I didn’t believe her. I was going, ‘There’s absolutely no way.’” 

 

While the band was no stranger to major record labels, and entertained their fair share of offers there were several problems. One was that labels had no clue how to market them, and the other was that by signing to a major label they may lose their credibility, creativity and identity. Following their stint with Subpop, they would sign with Slash/Reprise Records with Finch telling the Orland o Sentinel “At the top of our agenda was distribution, and we’ve run into problems with both of our previous indie releases. Slash acts as an indie although they have major distribution.” 

The band would relocate to Madison Wisconcin and record with Nirvana/Smashing Pumpkins producer Butch Vig for their first release with Slash/Repreise Records. Madison was chosen to get away from the distractions of big cities.

The resulting album would be 1992’s Bricks Are Heavy which would be a career high for the band and produce their biggest single with Pretend We’re Dead. The album would peak at number 160 on the billboard charts.

Donita Sparks would tell Spin the origins of the song revealing “I was in my apartment in Echo Park listening to the cassette I’d made, trying to write some lyrics. I was heartbroken at the time. I was actually devastated. And the first thing that came to my mind was, “I just pretend that you’re dead.” And I didn’t mean it in a malicious way, not like I wanted him dead or anything, but I truly felt that the only way I could get through this was to pretend this guy was dead…And then it became kind of a commentary on Reagan/Bush–era apathy. :

Sparks would tell Loudersound looking back at the band’s big break with bricks are heavy 

 “We were just, like, sluggin’ it out in the underground in LA for many years,”. “By the time it hit, it was just like: ‘About time.’ We had peers that were getting signed and stuff too. So it felt like we were sort of pranksters from the underground. The underdog band.”

Not everyone was celebrating L7’s jump to a bigger label with Finch recalling to the Orlando Sentinel “We’ve been around for so long that we have a strong fan base that’s really on our side,” “But there has been some problems with Maximum Rock ‘N’ Roll (an alternative scene magazine). They really have the idea that there should be fanzines, record companies, distributors and bands such as ours all working together to create this beautiful independent scene. We gave that six years of our lives and tried to make it work, and we felt that going to Slash was really a compromise. It was really difficult for us. I think we’ve become a better band, and a little more diverse, but I certainly don’t think that we’re churning out upper-echelon, mainstream hits.”

Slash/Reprise records offered L7 big time touring opportunities opening for the likes of the Beastie Boys, whose crowds were sometimes less than receptive with Finch telling the Orlando Sentinel It was a lot of fun,”. “There were occasional people yelling at us, ridiculous stuff, or yelling for the Beasties, but we can shut them up pretty fast.”

Finch said favorit put-downs for hecklers are “Save your breath, you’ll need it when you get home to bluw up your inflatable girlfriend” and “Here’s a quarter – call someone who cares.” (Finch had been thinking of using the latter as a tune title and was chagrined to learn someone had already used it for a country song.)

The promotion for Bricks are Heavy landed the band in hot water across the pond in the UK. During an appearance on the UK variety television show “The Word’ Sparks dropped her pants on television. The day L7 appeared on the program the show presented a bare butt competition and secretly recorded guest Oliver Reed who was drunk in the green room Sparks was angry at the show’s treatment of Reed and dropped her pants on teleivison telling Loudersound “That was a really long day,” “The other artists on the show were cool, but I thought it was a bit mean-spirited that they had a hidden camera in Oliver Reed’s dressing room. I don’t know, parts of the show seemed slightly mean spirited and I wanted to, um, up.” 

Almost 30 years ago the punk band l7 performed at the redding festival in 1992 and sparked no pun intended one of the most memorable moments in the festival and grunge’s history l7 would perform on a sunday afternoon at the festival a day that was dominated by a who’s who of alternative rock including the melvins, screaming trees, mud honey and nirvana. The news surrounding the festival was heavily dominated by the birth of kurt cobain’s daughter and the health of nirvana’s front man who memorably was brought on stage in a wheelchair according to the guardian newspaper there were conflicting reports over exactly what happened. According to one review by the independent it claimed l7 was pelted with mud for and i quote apparently for the crime of not being men but the story doesn’t check out as mudhoney. who played the same day were also hit with mud most of the other stories claim that the band was having technical difficulties with their audio and onstage equipment and the members of l7 complained about not having a sound check and problems with their monitors that day. The group’s set had to be stopped while the problems were worked out and it appears the restless crowd began hurling mud on stage some of which hit the band members and knocked their instruments out of tune. As a sign of protest front woman donita sparks removed her tampon on stage here’s a clip of what happened the rowdy fans started slinging mud at the stage the solution

 

sparks would look back at the incident telling rolling stone 25 years later i went performance art on their while bassist jennifer finch would add they were throwing mud we threw blood the band would release a documentary titled pretend we’re dead in 27 and sparks reflected more on the situation saying i wanted to do something that would amuse me because i wasn’t having a good time she would admit the removal was difficult because she had duct taped her shorts that day because she didn’t have a belt with her at the time she would recall “it was not smooth at all” it would turn out someone from the crowd chucked the item back on stage and it sat on the edge of one of the monitors where it stayed during nick cave’s and the bad seed sets later that day. As soon as the band headed back to their trailer they were met by their publicist who frantically tried to put together a press release. Sparks would be unapologetic about the instant and what should have garnered an enormous amount of press coverage and a higher profile really just represented the band’s peak. Sparks would tell rolling stone we were expecting to keep going up that show started the plateau in just a few short years Nirvana was done a new wave of music was ushered in led by brit pop the Offspring and Green day L7 for their part managed to stay together until 20 when they broke up and reformed almost a decade later in 23. that event that happened that day at reading still resonates with some of the band’s fans as finch would tell rolling stone that some fans throw their own clean tampons on stage with the words i love you written on them in red markers

 

 

It was during the early 90’s that L7 started championing a number of political causes including reproductive rights and protecting the environment. The later of which earned the band a lot of death threats. Sparks would tell Spin Magazine that their activism soon fell by the wayside later on in their career as a lot of their press interviews focused on their political opinions instead of music. 

Two years after Bricks are Heavy was released the music scene had changed. Kurt Cobain was dead, and a new era of bands were taking over including Green Day, The Offspring and Brirpop acts. The years on the road promoting bricks are heavy took a heavy toll on L7 with drugs and alcohol taking over the lives of the band members. In 1994 the band would release the much darker Hungry For Stink

Sparks would look back telling Loudersound revealing 

Hungry For Stink is darker. I think I was in a bit of a mood at that point,” “I was just in a dark place. That is reflected in songs like Baggage and My Sanity. It’s not a super-joyous album. We’ve always been a band that’s had going down even when things are on the upswing. We were dealing with being impoverished and also paying our rent and having jobs. We weren’t like college kids, we had bills to pay and we had drugs to do, and there was a lot going on.”

By 1996 Bassist Jennifer Finch would leave the group. Finch attributed her leaving to financial disagreements, concerns with her health in addition to dealing with the loss of her father. By 1997 they would be dropped by their label. The band would once again went the indie root forming their own label called Wax Tadpole. They would put out the album Slap Happy in 1999 and partnered up a label called Bong Load Records that was supposed ot help with licensing marketing and distributing the record. Billboard magazine in 1999 would interview several record retailers who admitted that the buzz around the band had died down with one retailer Rocks in Your Head New York tleling the magazine “L7 peaked 6 or 7 years ago. They were part of hte promising waves of all-female bands including babes in toyland and bikini kill it seems like L7’s audience has gotten smaller.”

 Sadly L7’s distributor would close its doors and offered to sell copies of Slap Happy back to the band but they couldn’t afford it, so the leftover copies ended up in a landfill. Gardner soon quit the band by 2001 the band was finished. In the years that followed the members would pursue other musical projects, but in 2014 things were set in motion for a full reunion of the classic lineup.

The roots of the reunion began in 2011 when bassist  Jennifer Finch was diagnosed with thyroid cancer. Sparks would reach out to her former bandmate. Sparks and . Gardner meanwhile only lived several blocks from sparks but the pair hadn’t spoken in nearly a decade. For Gardner Music had taken a backseat in her life as she was caring for her mother.  Soon enough the band was back together with drummer Dee Plakas.

They would tour extensively in addition to releasing a documentary in 26 titled Pretend We’re Dead 

The band would release their latest album in 2019 titled Scatter the Rats.