At the 1995 installment of Bumbershoot, Seattle's sprawling outdoor Labor Day music festival, headliners L7 were subjected, like many other bands that week, to an onslaught of hurled lemons. Undaunted by the persistent and unprovoked pelting, lead singer Donita Sparks dangled a cassette of No Jacket Required ominously at the madding crowd and threatened to storm Axl-like off the stage and pop Phil into the arena tape deck. "One more lemon," she growled, "and it's Su-su-fucking-sudio for the rest of the night."
Cut to 1999. All your alt-rock faves are hawked for $19.95 on Who Sucked Out the Feeling? The Post-Grunge Years, Volume 3 during commercial breaks of Family Matters reruns. Women in Rock are thriving nicely as long as they keep properly groomed and don't, you know, actually rock. And L7, jettisoned into the void by Reprise Records, have released their first album in two years, Slap-Happy, on their own fledgling Wax Tadpole imprint. But Sparks remains undaunted. "Got some lemons," she shrugs on the sarcastically jaunty "Livin' Large," "Make some kick-ass lemonade."
The song is a statement of purposeful resignation akin to, say, John Lennon's "Watching the Wheels," but L7 aren't recollecting past megastardom from a state of recliner tranquillity. Phoning from her home in L.A., Sparks sounds both relieved to be free of the major-label grind and energized by the labor of managing her own affairs. To a timid interviewer who has heard her extend vowels into dry heaves of contempt in concert, she also sounds relaxed and rational. "There's a lot of shit to do," she says of Wax Tadpole, emphasis on the "lot." "I had friends with their own labels warning me, but you never listen." An outfit called Bongload manages the day-to-day business of promotion, and another company, Proper, handles distribution. But L7 themselves--Sparks, Suzi Gardner, and Dee Platkis--pay the bills and own the masters.
As for the results, Slap-Happy's lyrical sloganeering ranges from rudimentary to nigh on postverbal, from the expedient "I need a lackey," to the oblique "I got my mantra down," to the generic "Place your bet on my rockin' machine." But like their leather godmother Joan Jett, L7 excel at the generic. The band has always radiated a feminist commitment as palpable as Jett's, and though theirs is both nastier and funnier, they avoid toppling over into camp. And drummer Platkis, who prefers a thrashy double-time or sludgy stomp to a Tommy Ramone brat beating, punctuates songs with some of the most melodically communicative tom fills west of Ghana.
The notion of L7 learning subtlety might seem as dubious as the idea of L7 evolving at all. Still, Sparks and Gardner occasionally chime together for surprisingly sweet, almost girlish harmonies, and their guitars chatter playfully on the edges. Sparks credits the more aurally daring tracks (the tinny-yet-tender "Little One," the sampling hi-fi of "Freeway") to the mixing prowess of Bongload's Tom Rothrock and Rob Schnapf (Beck, Foo Fighters, Elliott Smith). "We thought we were going to have to take a step down in production because it was so low-budget," she explains. "We went for attitude more than perfection. But the mixing boosted it up about ten notches."
The band has spent the summer taunting festivalgoers from the skies with airplane banners. "Bored? Tired?" they asked the soporific sisters at Lilith Fair. "Try L7." Another banner informed the boys at Warped that the tour "needs more beaver." Seemingly, gender segregation is the norm once again. Did L7 fling their used tampons at male hecklers in vain? The chin-up Sparks, who doesn't see history as such a zero-sum equation, brokers a long-term optimism. "Musical trends kind of go in waves," she says. "I don't think that underground music is over. We've just hit a lull. Something's gonna happen really soon that's gonna make things really exciting again."
Get the Music Newsletter
Keep your thumb on the local music scene each week with music news, trends, artist interviews and concert listings. We'll also send you special ticket offers and music deals.