by Angela Tornello
Photo courtesy of the band
L7, as front person Donita Sparks puts it, was and always will be a “kiss my grits” kind of band. Hitting that sweet spot between punk and metal, L7 was founded in Los Angeles in 1985 by Donita Sparks (guitar and vocals) and Suzi Gardner (guitar and vocals). Soon after, Jennifer Finch (bass) and the interminable Dee Plakas (drums) joined the band.
I sat down with Dee Plakas and Donita Sparks to talk about their first album after 20 years Scatter the Rats, the power behind their exhilarating live performances, and why the most important thing to remember as a musician is to “be bold, do what you want, and don’t give a fuck what anyone says.” We also discussed the inescapable politics of being an all-female band in the ‘90s vs present day and the punk ethos with which L7 still approaches their instruments and their relationship to music. Check out their new video, “Burn Baby,” from Scatter the Rats at the bottom of this post.
“Yeah, we’re women but we’re a rock band.”
Scatter the Rats came out on May 3 on Joan Jett’s Blackheart Records. Tell us about the writing and recording process for this album:
Dee Plakas [DP]: This was one of my favorite recordings I’ve ever had with a producer. He was chill and would give me tips in my headphones during the recording process. He was a drummer, so we had a special bond. It was also different because we were coming in with new songs and we’d explore getting different sounds.
Donita Sparks [DS]: A lot of bands, especially younger bands, they’ll write material, write songs, and you’ll play them live for years. Then you record them. We did not have that luxury. Since we’ve become a record making band we don’t try out new material on audiences. We write new material, hash it out in rehearsal, and then we record it. Untested on the public, only tested by ourselves. We bring a bunch of stuff to practice, riff off that. I write by myself and Suzi writes by herself as well. Sometimes we’ll collaborate. We all wrote the title track “Scatter the Rats” on the spot together in the studio.
DP: I tend to write drum parts in the studio or when I’m jamming at sound check, testing drums. Donita will like it and tape it and be like “Yeah, that. Do that!” Usually the parts just come to me. When we were in the studio, Donita came in and she’s like “I have a new song” and it was Burn Baby. And I was like “Wow, you wrote that last night?!”
L7 is known for their raucous energized live performances. Can you talk about how your relationship to the songs shift when you’re out of the studio and up on the stage.
DS: I think when we’re recording there is a lot of concentrating going on. You want to do a good performance, you wanna get the take, and you want the take to be played well, with technique and feeling. A live performance is different. A live performance is all about being entertaining, having a good time, getting the audience into a frothy bubble mass of people having a good time, because that is our fucking job. So, it’s two different things: one of concentration and recording and the other one is looser and all about the evening.
DP: That is true. But as a drummer even with live shows you still have to concentrate. Like, I get up on stage and I’m like “I’m gonna be free!”, but I am never really free because you gotta hold everything down.
DS: The person who can’t be free is Dee.
DP: Yeah, I can’t be free.
DS: But you still entertain!
DP: You know, have you ever been to a show where the drummer is having too much fun? You know what I’m talking about? If you’re a drummer, you know what I mean. But yeah, I do have fun and I do have the best seat in the house because I get to see all three of them all night long.
DS: Yeah, she gets to see all of our asses.
Scatter the Rats is your most recent album (seventh in total). Tell us about the title.
DS: The title of this album was due to where we were recording. There were a couple rats in the basement our producer discovered. And anytime we took too long of a coffee break he’d come in a say “Ok, come on let’s get rocking, we gotta scatter those rats.” So, I wrote that down on my phone. Scatter those rats…and then it turned into Scatter the rats.
And are there any rats you’d like to scatter specifically?
DS & DP in unison: Too many to list.
DS: From personal acquaintances, to political figures, to cultural squares.
DP: They’re all on that list.
What do you think about when you’re drumming?
DP: Sometimes I’m literally thinking, “Okay, how is this feeling.” And I’ll usually look at Donita and I can see if she’s rocking, then I’m like “Ok.” And sometimes your brain, you know you’re playing the 10th show and I’ll get focused on thinking about the next song and then the next. I hate when that happens because all of the sudden I’ll think we’re at the end of a song and we’re still in the middle.
DS: But you also connect with the fans a lot. You pick out the cutie pies in the audience.
DP: On yeah, I can’t see as far as Donita, Suzi, or Jennifer. But I can see the people in the front row. And if I’m gonna hand out sticks, I’m gonna find that one that knew all the words and was rocking. Because they deserve it.
Has the perception around being a female drummer changed since you began to play?
DP: Oh yes. To me it has. The only drummer that I knew of when I was young was Moe Tucker from the Velvet Underground. When I started playing drums in Chicago I got a lot of attention but then when I moved to LA it changed because I saw chicks playing drums all the time.
DS: There were chicks getting into metal and punk and we were somewhere in-between. And we found that sweet spot with Dee. That was a huge break for us. Because she was what we had been missing. She had the same sensibility as us: we’re punks but we’re doing hard rock.
DP: I remember when I auditioned for them I remember thinking, “Wow, this combo is everything I like. I like the Ramones but I also like Iggy.” I liked a lot of different things and it was all in there with them.
There is an inescapability to the politics of being a female band. How has that changed from when you were playing the ‘90s versus present day?”
DS: We’re an exception to this because we’ve been around so long and now when people write about us they are not lumping us in with other female bands. We’ve just been around too long; We’ve transcended our gender, unless you’re just a misogynist jag-off. Back in the ‘90s every article about us would group us in with other female bands. And we refused to be in women in rock issues. That was the only way to get into the regular addition of Rolling Stones. Don’t ghettoize yourself because if you ghettoize yourself you’ll also be in the fucking ghetto. Is Diane Arbus a great photographer or a great lady photographer? She’s the greatest photographer that ever lived.
DP: Yeah, any compliments are nice but hearing “you’re one of my favorite drummers” feels better than when I used to just get “you’re one of my favorite girl drummers.” Yeah, we’re women but we’re a rock band.
What are your goals moving forward professionally/artistically?
DS: We want to get through this tour in one piece. And then we’re gonna take it from there; if we’re gonna make new with music with L7. We’ll probably do a little more touring. Dee broke her arm last year on the eve of our Europe tour and we had to do it without her. She went through some mind-fuckery having to watch other people play L7. And we went through mind-fuckery without Dee. And we missed her drumming. A lot of people flourish. It’s like “Enough of the tribal, we got it, very good! But stop the flourish and play like Dee and just rock!” People sit in and think “maybe I can do this better”. And it’s like “No, you can’t!” We were able to get Jola from Adam Ants band in 24 hours. She is a fantastic drummer. She doesn’t play like Dee but what a trouper. Completely unrehearsed, got up in front of 40,000 people.
DP: There is something about drumming that if you play a great show, when you’re done, you feel like you just conquered the world. And always an hour and a half before I’m like “Where am I gonna pull this show out of?” And then you just do it. I’ve played with the flu, bronchitis, and I thought I could play with a broken arm, because the show has got to go on.
What are your favorite songs to play?
DP: I connect to all of our songs. Some I do love to play because they are easier on me: like “Andres” or “Deathwish”. And there are ones I love that are challenging like “Fuel My Fire.” When that one comes up I’m like “Alright Plakas, come on!” It’s fast and when I wrote it I put all these fills in.
DS: “Fuel My Fire” is one of my favorites to play. She’s doing drums and backup vocals. And she has great pitch and it comes out a little like Brenda Vaccaro, if you’re on tour for awhile.
Have your musical influences changed/what are you listening to now?
DP: I’m the type of person where I have the stuff I like and I’ll listen to it on heavy rotation, unless someone comes up to me and hands new music to me. Donita will tell me to check stuff out. She’s always onto the newest and coolest. Les Butcherettes are amazing. It’s a great combo having them open for us.
DS: They’re fucking great. They’re consistent. My influences haven’t really changed. I love all kinds of music and I feel the freedom to write any kind of song I feel like. I know L7 has certain ingredients that make up our band and I think they are all on this new album. I’m actually doing drums in a fun side project, Lou Man Group. It’s a performance hommage to Lou Reed and the Blue Man Group. Very tongue and cheek. I sound like the Flinstones version of Dee.
Tom Tom Magazine is turning ten this year. Looking back, what advice would you give yourself ten years ago? What do you feel has been the biggest lesson you’ve learned in the past decade?
DP: My first drum lesson I showed up and was like “I wanna try out to be a drummer for this band.” I sat behind the kit and just alternated the kick, the ride, the snare. It was all simple and then I learned by playing. Sometimes less is more, just feel whatever you’re feeling and rock it. It doesn’t make or break you if you were born with sticks in your hands or you learned later. I’ve seen professional drummers and I sometimes find them lackluster. And sometimes I see people that are raw and it’s exciting.
When you’re starting on drums, take care of your body. Someone said to me years after L7, maybe someone in our crew, “Ya know Dee, when you start the set, don’t give it all out in the first song. Eek it out. Conserve your energy.” Also, wear ear plugs. I’ve lost about 35% of my hearing. But have fun, play the way you want, rock out but take care of yourself.
DS: Drum classes are great but playing on your own and playing how you feel is really important. Technicals are great but also feeling. That is the punk rock way. Don’t ever get hung up that you can’t do a shit ton of technical shit because it doesn’t fucking matter at the end of the day. Sometimes your limitations become your assets because sometimes if you know too much you can’t reel it back in and deconstruct. Work with what you’ve got and it can be really cool.
Try not to give a shit what about people think of you and what other people think of your band. Because ultimately it’s your band and you’re not gonna please everyone, anyway. And usually the most negative creep people are the most insecure people and who gives a fuck what they say. I remember as a young person I used to give a shit what people thought and now as I get older it’s less and less. Everybody can kiss my grits.
DP: I agree with Donita. Be bold, do what you want, and don’t listen to what anyone says.