So Lilith Fair skipped Houston this year. Big deal. The way L7 lead babe Donita Sparks sees it, you didn't want to go anyway. It would have been a yawn. That's why she and her three bandmates, Suzi Gardner, Dee Plakas and Janis Tanaka, hired a small plane to fly over Lilith Fair's July stop outside Los Angeles with a banner that read, "Bored? Tired? Try L7." The following day Warped Tour fans in Asbury Park, New Jersey, were subjected to another high-flying but well-grounded message: "Warped Needs More Beaver, Love L7."
"It's not so much the artists, it's the packages that are fucking boring," says Sparks from her L.A. home. "There are some artists on both those tours that I really like, and it wasn't aimed at the artists, it was aimed at Lilith Fair and the Warped Tour, you know what I mean?.It was our war on mediocrity; we're just doing our part."
L7 will continue to do its part when the band rolls into the Engine Room this weekend in support of its new album, Slap-Happy. Known for its vicious live shows and humorous, irreverent lyrics, the group promises to keep your attention.
Slap-Happy, the band's sixth studio album, is another dose of the uncompromising, heavy-hitting, guitar-thick, mosh-pit-inducing ferocity that propelled its best-known track, "Pretend We're Dead," from the 1992 release Bricks Are Heavy. But Slap-Happy also offers a few surprises: touches of hip-hop and polka (yes, polka).
"I think we always stretch a bit. We're certainly not a one-trick pony," says Sparks. "There's a lot of stretching, a lot of yoga on this record."
Slap-Happy opens with the thudding "Crackpot Baby," which features unforgiving lyrics about plastic L.A. types as well as L7's first stab at three-part harmony. "That was kind of tongue-in-cheek, kind of a 'fuck you,' actually," Sparks, 36, says about the Crosby-Stills-and-Nashiness. "Yet it sounds great. A lot of our stuff is very double-sided. There's a lot of masking of fuck-you's going on."
Or, in the case of the country- and polka-inspired "Little One," a "fuck y'all." The beginning of "Freeway" mimics a club-grooving dance track, complete with hip-hopish, sampled voices peppering the dark lyrics with inane reminders to "push it" and "check it out" and for "peace." The melodic, slow-paced "Freezer Burn" juxtaposes harsh words delivered in mellow, floating vocals.
With the departure of bassist Gail Greenwood, the band recorded Slap-Happy as a trio, which comprised Sparks, founding member Gardner and drummer Plakas. Janis Tanaka of San Francisco joins them on the road, replacing Greenwood, whose East Coast home base made it difficult for the group to practice together.
Band personnel isn't L7's only headache, either. Record labels are another. After suffering through the usual starts and stops of a record deal, which can create lengthy delays even with small independent labels, L7 decided to form its own label, Wax Tadpole, named after the first song on its 1988 self-titled release. With the help of Bong Load records, where much of the album was mixed, the band reached its goal of getting the album out this year.
"Our last record had a major-label budget, and now that we're on our own label, we're cheap motherfuckers," Sparks says. "We made it for a fraction of the costs. We utilized a lot of home studios, did a lot of our tracking ourselves, used a lot of first takes. I think there's a lot of life in this record, and yet I think when we started our own label we were fearing having to take a major step down in production because of the financial aspects."
All that worrying was for naught because Slap-Happy is as sweaty, and even more diverse, than the group's previous release, The Beauty Process: Triple Platinum. "Basically this was done with smiles on our faces and middle fingers held proudly in the air," Sparks adds.
As always, co-founders Sparks and Gardner wrote all the songs, usually at Gardner's home. They know they've hit a good L7 song when it meets this stringent requirement: "It rocks us," Sparks says. But "arrangements are very important," she says.
"If you've got these good elements but they're not arranged correctly, it's like a 'So what?' kind of thing," she says. "I think we're actually old-fashioned in that we like strong structures with verses, chorus, bridge. I'm a sucker for a good pop arrangement."
Not to mention for the key of E. Sparks recalls the time when the band was recording its 1994 release, Hungry for Stink. L7 happened to be working in the same studio, and at the same time, as the Rolling Stones. Much to their awe and amusement, Mick Jagger offered to help the group sequence its songs. He asked what key the songs were in "because it's good to ascend in key," Sparks says in a clipped, vaguely British imitation of Jagger.
The band members didn't know, so they reviewed their songs and discovered that every single one was in E. "He couldn't believe it, that we were a band recording in this studio and all our songs were in E. It was pretty funny, but kind of embarrassing," Sparks says. "So then his advice was, he said, 'Go with the faster numbers up front, the more upbeat numbers,' which I don't think we followed."
Sparks says she never dreamed of putting out a record, much less sharing the same air with Mick Jagger himself. Starting an all-girl rock band was a revolutionary idea in the '80s. The group couldn't even find a female drummer at first. Audiences sometimes applauded, but mostly stared. Eventually concertgoers got over it and went nuts. Now the members of L7 are punk-rock veterans, a long way from the cheerleader that Sparks used to be.
The Chicago native sis-boom-ba-ed it up her first year of high school. But by sophomore year Sparks's desire to make the team was replaced by a new attitude and bright green hair. It was a defining moment: Punk rock had spoken to her.
"I was actually quite a jock and good student until sophomore year," Sparks says. "And then it went really south as far as academics and sports, but good in the long run for me. That was when punk rock came into the fold, which actually saved my life, but bummed out my parents a lot."
L7 performs Saturday, November 13, at the Engine Room, 1515 Pease. For more information, call (713)654-7846 or Ticketmaster at (713)629-3700.
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