Hungry and Heavy

L7 gets slap happy; just don't call it slow.

L7 with Ink & Dagger. Grog Shop, 1765 Coventry Road, Cleveland Heights. 10 p.m., September 23 and 24, $10, Ticketmaster 216-241-5555/330-945-9400.
L7: Don't get on their shitlist.
L7: Don't get on their shitlist.
L7 singer-guitarist Donita Sparks is pleasant enough, joking about "stress neck" from talking on the phone too much and needing a "hooker and cocaine diversion" to help calm her nerves, which have been frazzled ever since L7 started its own record label earlier this year. Sparks is cordial as long as you don't mention that L7's seventh album, Slap Happy, has a few more slow songs than normal.

"Even "Pretend We're Dead' is not a fast song," she argues and proceeds to run through a list of all the "slow" songs L7 has recorded over the course of its career. "We've always been diverse songwriters. The angst isn't wearing off. There's just more humor in it. The media pigeonhole us because it makes their job easier. We've never pigeonholed ourselves."

To its credit, L7 has never been easy to categorize. While bassist Jennifer Finch played in the proto-riot grrrl Sugar Baby Doll (a band that featured Courtney Love and Babes in Toyland's Kat Bjelland) before joining Sparks in L7, the group has always been more interested in playing hard rock than feminist punk. When it formed in Los Angeles in 1988, an era when hair bands were quickly becoming extinct, L7 was there to drive in the final stake and show the male-dominated Sunset Strip rock jocks who really had balls.

"Those were really tough times — I don't miss much about 1988," Sparks recalls. "I think we're a much better band now."

But even if things got better when 1992's Bricks Are Heavy took off (filmmaker Oliver Stone even used the track "Shitlist" as Mallory Knox's theme song in the hyper-violent Natural Born Killers), time has still taken its toll. In 1996, original bassist Jennifer Finch left the group while it was in the midst of recording The Beauty Process: Triple Platinum. Sparks won't say exactly why Finch left or on what terms, though the current rumor is that the break was amicable. Yet considering Finch, who ostensibly left the band to return to school, has now started another group (Other Star People), there's reason to suspect that creative differences were at the root of her departure. She did earn her associate's degree, but has also reportedly said that she likes Other Star People for its truly collaborative attitude.

"Some bands break up if they get dropped from a major," Sparks says, possibly as a veiled reference to some of the problems. "That's completely unacceptable. That's never been what it's about for us; it's about making music."

Gail Greenwood of Belly filled in for Finch on the road, but she, too, has since left the group (Janis Tanaka of San Francisco's Stone Fox has been added to fill out the touring roster). In fact, The Beauty Process: Triple Platinum and Slap Happy, which L7 co-produced, were both recorded as a trio.

"With [Greenwood] on the East Coast and us on the West, it just didn't work," Sparks says, adding that the group hasn't lost any of its chemistry. "We get along really well, and our fans are still with us, and we still enjoy writing and playing music."

Ultimately, L7 has more important things to consider than lineup changes. Sparks seems most proud — though suffering from stress neck — of the group's future as it ventures into self-publishing. Now on its own Wax Tadpole label, with Bong Load handling distribution, it has gotten a much-needed second wind. Not that the band was slowing down, of course.

"There were pluses and minuses with every situation," Sparks recalls of the band's ten-year journey through various labels that began with Epitaph and Sub Pop, included a three-album run with Slash/Reprise in the '90s, and ended last year with a live album on Man's Ruin Records. "If anything, it got to a point where the major label wanted us to clean up our image, which we did not do. I don't think they were very happy about it."

Sparks says that rather than try to change its image, L7 was better off starting its own label. Before last month's release of Slap Happy, it had been two years since the last studio release, and the only way the band could get a new album out before the turn of the century was to do it the old fashioned way — on its own.

"Every band has a different story to tell," Sparks says. "That's just the way it's been for us. I like having our own label. It's a lot of work, but that's OK. We're up for the challenge."

A return to the indies has also enabled the band to pursue another desire. In support of Slap Happy, L7 has decided to play small clubs and even book multiple shows in some cities (including Cleveland).

"We'll tour again in March and play bigger gigs," assures Sparks, who has played her share of arenas. "We just felt that a lot of people have not seen us in a really small club, and we wanted to do it this time."

But just remember, the intimate club setting for L7's shows here means the band, which often likes to confront its audience, will be more in your face more than normal. L7 doesn't take kindly to any accusations that it has slowed down, either; so if you plan to heckle, be careful — you don't want to make the band's shitlist.

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