Call them grunge, riot grrrls, pants droppers, or tampon throwers. L7, the all-female rock band known for such raucous hits as “Pretend We’re Dead,” “Andres,” and “Shitlist,” are grateful to still be recognized.
For much of the ’90s, the quartet, consisting of vocalist-guitarists Donita Sparks and Suzi Gardner, drummer Dee Plakas, and bassist Jennifer Finch, once attracted as much attention for feminist anthems like “Fast and Frightening,” which contained the oft-quoted lyrics “Got so much clit she don’t need no balls,” as for dropping trow on the British music program The Word, flinging a feminine hygiene product at UK’s Reading Festival, donning plastic vulvas as fictional rock group Camel Lips in John Waters’ Serial Mom, and founding the monumental Rock for Choice festival — all decades before Tove Lo demanded that folks embrace the lady parts with her vajackets.
Unfortunately, since breaking up in 2001, L7’s lips have been sealed about their side of their story. But now they’re letting it all hang out in a new documentary, L7: Pretend We’re Dead, which features band interviews, concert footage, never-seen home video, and comments from fellow rockers like X’s Exene Cervenka, Garbage’s Shirley Manson, and Joan Jett. To promote the film, out Oct. 13 on VOD and Blu-ray/DVD, a reunited L7 will play a slew of West Coast dates, including a Sept. 27 stop at Slim’s.
SF Weekly caught up with L7’s singer-guitarist Donita Sparks about the music, the mayhem, and even some of their misgivings.
Why put out a documentary now?
The intention was to tell our story, which is different than some of the other bands that became the mouthpieces of the grunge era. I really felt like young people needed to see what L7 was all about, because we were kind of unique in that time space and also that we formed Rock for Choice when we got a bigger following. We did something proactive, we gave back, and that fucking matters. Young people could really stand a dose of L7 history, because we need more daringness and moxie today.
One of the first things that struck me when watching L7: Pretend We’re Dead is how women are still fighting for the same reproductive rights that they were fighting for in L7’s heyday, when you launched the Rock for Choice benefit concerts.
We’ve won the culture war, so the majority of this country is more progressive and open-minded, but for some reason the powers that be are making it seem otherwise. The lawmakers are being fuckers, and people who grab power can get an awful amount accomplished in a short amount of time, so everybody’s knees should be shaking right now.
Speaking of grabbing power, starting an all-woman rock band, back in 1985, was still pretty fucking daring. How did your male counterparts react?
We started in the art-punk performance scene, so there wasn’t a lot of misogyny there. We had so many more supporters than people being jerks. Certain crowds, if there were hecklers of any sort, we would shut them down, because we had the microphone and could be 10 times louder than they could. Some time, a guy was like, “Suck my dick,” so we made this amazing jam called, “Suck My Dick,” and it was really great. That was a way of grabbing the power back.
Once the ’90s hit and more female-forward bands like Babes in Toyland, Hole, The Breeders, Bikini Kill, 7 Year Bitch, and Veruca Salt, began gaining attention, you were all lumped together under the grunge and riot grrrl monikers. Are those good associations or bad?
I can’t speak for everybody, but it was a feeling of fucking finally there are some fucking role models out there. But as much as people might lump us in together, we’re all very different. Because we were a rock band, the grunge and riot grrrl terms used to really irritate me, but now hashtag me anything — because we were so fucking swept under the rug for so many years that I swear, hashtag me tampon, hashtag me tampon thrower, and hashtag me pants dropper. When you go obscure all of a sudden on the internet, it’s like, ugh…
I do our Instagram and I hashtag us grunge, rock, and punk. While the press views us as riot grrrl, I don’t hashtag us that. I think we were kind of a prototype of that, but we weren’t using music as a political agenda platform. But now it doesn’t matter. If young people think we’re riot grrrls, that’s fine. I think it’s a great name. I think grunge is a great word, so these things sound cool now in retrospect.
Speaking of tampon throwing and pants dropping, and let’s add flying antagonistic banners over festivals, L7: Pretend We’re Dead captures a lot of your infamous stunts. What was the intention behind them?
The pants dropping and the tampon throw were not preplanned. Coming from the art-punk performance scene, I like absurdity. When things get weird, I like to get a little weirder. If I’m feeling something, I’m not that afraid to do it, if i think it’s gonna crack me up or somebody’s got it coming.
The Warped Tour, in 1999, I don’t think they had a single woman on that whole tour, and so the plane said, “Warped needs more beaver … Love, L7.” And then the same day we flew it over the Lilith Fair, because they were calling it “Lilith Fair: A Celebration of Women in Music,” but we didn’t feel there was that broad of a range of women in music, and the banner read: “Bored? Tired? Try L7.” But I think their intentions were good, so would I do that again? No.
Let’s Pretend We’re Dead certainly captures the happy times among the band, with all this fun footage of the band goofing off on the road. Was an L7 tour one big slumber party?
People view us as these best friends like The Monkees, but we’re not. But there are some things that connect us and a similar sense of humor is one, so we really could have fun together. And sometimes we were very pissed off at each other, and there was certainly resentment when people left or things fell apart. So for as many great times as we had, we also had shitty times. But no one was filming those moments.
You also suffered a lot of painful losses, starting with Kurt Cobain’s death and ending with the things you sacrificed in your personal lives to keep L7 afloat. When band member Suzy Gardner said in the documentary that she left L7 because she was hitting 40 and had nothing to show for it, I started tearing up.
Anyone who’s going after a dream of any kind, and you hit 40, and shit doesn’t work out the way you planned can relate to that moment. Some people feel forced to choose family or a career, and maybe you wanted both? So that’s a heavy moment.
Why did L7 reunite, and did you have to work through certain issues first?
We had heard through our booking agent that there was demand for L7. But when we started talking about a reunion, there was no autopsy done on the band. I knew we had to just move forward. I didn’t even want to discuss it, because you’re going to disagree anyway, and then all the shit comes back up again.
But I think everybody was older and nicer and more appreciative of each other. I think we got what each one of us brought to the whole to make it what it was. But the coolest thing about reuniting was us just getting to joke around and be friendly again and make music. When you don’t have that in your life for a long time, it feels fantastic to do it again, like a shot in the arm.
One of the things that the documentary does not do, in my opinion, is show much of your lives outside of music.
Listen, nobody needs to know everything. I think it’s cool to have mystique. Like what do you want to know?
Aren’t fans curious about your relationships? Jennifer Finch, for example, dated Dave Grohl and Billy Corgan.
Well, we’ll save that for the tell-all book, won’t we? Hey, there’s still milk in this cow, baby, and that’ll be coming.
OK, so without giving it all away, what can you tell us about your life today?
I love playing in L7, I do visual art, and I do a lot of creative writing and think-tank kind of work. I’m a very proud cat lady, I live in Los Angeles, and I love L.A. I’m pissed off about gentrification in every fucking city in this country. I’m pissed off about how fucked the environment is. I know you’re looking for other things. … OK, how about this? None of us have any children. How do you like them apples?