The feisty, fiery photographer and bass player for L7 has stayed true to the punk spirit since the formative days on the LA punk scene. As the band reunites for a new album and tour, Finch spoke with PKM about her wide-ranging career.
The first time I heard Jennifer Precious Finch was at a riot grrrl meeting in Silver Lake, Los Angeles in the late 1980s. Finch was talking about music and someone there whisper/shouted to me, “L7!” L7!”
L7’s beauty parlor madness sounded and looked like thrash. But, with their kickass boots, beauty pageant gowns, multi-colored hair, smeared make-up, flannels and shorts, and painted stripes on their skin, they seemed messy and fun, wild and energetic, and sort of scary. They joked around with interviewers, playful like the Beatles, only dirtier and female. This can be seen in a cameo role in John Waters’ 1994 film Serial Mom. Wearing codpieces that look like vaginal lips, L7 performed as “Camel Lips.”
L7 formed in 1985 in Los Angeles, when Suzi Gardner and Donita Sparks met, both playing guitar and sharing vocals. Bassist Jennifer Precious Finch joined the band the following year, and drummer Demetra Plakas joined in 1988. A short, seductive, and tough-mouthed bass-playing photographer with a raspy voice and a quick wit, Finch had previously played in Sugar Baby Doll with kinder-whore powerhouses Kat Bjelland and Courtney Love.
“I didn’t want to be a musician,” Finch tells me. “I wanted the lifestyle of being a musician. I wanted to do drugs, I wanted the boys, I wanted to travel. Those were the three things that I wanted. The unfortunate part was I would have to learn how to play an instrument.”
And she did: she plays a Fender P bass; a Lightning Bolt West Tone bass; and a Gibson bass. She also plays a GuildS100 guitar, with a double cutaway that “fits nice and sounds good.”
In Sarah Price’s 2016 documentary, L7: Pretend We’re Dead, Sparks says that Finch was a “persistent chick” who “almost challenged me to let her in” the band, and Gardner said, “She rocked head-banging crazy.” Finch adds, “I knew I’d have to make up for my inability to play” by playing with attitude. Her networking skills helped the band, and Finch booked gigs, too. When a promoter sexually harassed Sparks, the band collectively peed in his hat.
In 1991, L7 created Rock For Choice, a pro-choice benefit concert funded by the Feminist Majority Foundation. Nirvana, Hole, Iggy Pop, Babes in Toyland, and Joan Jett played at the concert during its ten-year run.
“Fast and Frightening,” from L7’s second album, Smell the Magic (1990), dares the obvious: that women are as cool and strong as men, and might actually like each other. “Popping wheelies on her motorbike/Straight girls wish they were dykes…Got so much clit she don’t need no balls.”
“I wanted the lifestyle of being a musician. I wanted to do drugs, I wanted the boys, I wanted to travel. Those were the three things that I wanted. The unfortunate part was I would have to learn how to play an instrument.”
When their guy musician friends made the covers of music magazines, L7 were in the pit and body-surfing at shows, writing their own music and working on their third album, Bricks Are Heavy (1992), which yielded their hit song, “Pretend We’re Dead.”
L7 ultimately made the magazine covers, too, and toured Europe. Male fans stripped, and roadies volunteered to dance nude onstage. Sparks and Finch leaped off the drum riser with their guitar and bass in hand, all head-whipping hair and noise, rock & roll sheroes. When the band recorded in the same studio as Mötley Crüe, who plastered the walls with pictures of naked women, L7 plastered their walls with pictures of naked men. When they weren’t asked to play the long-running festival, Lollapalooza, L7 wrote the concert bookers a letter asking, “Who do we have to blow to serve beer at Lollapalooza?” And after the band was pelted with mud at a 1992 show in Reading, lead singer Sparks removed her red-stained tampon and threw it at the audience.
Finch left L7 in 1996. The death of a friend who was their roadie, the death of her beloved father, money worries, and her own control issues compelled her to write a goodbye note on a piece of torn notebook paper while they were recording their next album. But social media archived and resurrected the band, and they reunited in 2014, playing to sold out shows in 2015. They toured for their current album, Scatter the Rats.
Today, Finch lives in a well-tended house she owns on LA’s West side. Splashily sunlit rooms, an art studio, a pool, and her bedroom with its thick satiny bedding feel glamorous. She remembers that riot grrrl meeting but does not consider herself a riot grrrl. Riot grrrl emerged from academic exploration, and Finch says it played upon a victimization model, which made riot grrrl look infantile, at least as portrayed in the media.
Finch says, “A feminist…wants to see an old patriarchy break down and a new system come where people can be equal.” She also says #MeToo is the “exposure of the power structure.” Abuse of power can be subtle, she says, as with humor, and the “is it going to turn into something else?” undercurrent. For example, in the early days of L7, an attorney asked the band members their ages; after telling him they were all in their early 20’s, the lawyer said, “You’ve got a few years left in you.”
In another incident, a guy who ran an independent punk rock record label manipulated Finch, keeping her hostage at his house. Later, when L7 played a show in Reading, he happened to be backstage. She said, “Remember me?’ He turned pale and turned away. He was ousted. “I’ve never talked about this stuff,” she told me.
“Sometimes women have ended up being shadow artists,” Finch tells me. She went to shows, and had sex with musicians, because she liked them. When she was 16, she dated Cliff Martinez from Red Hot Chili Peppers, at the time a great local band.
“Publicists were starting to walk them through the crowds so that there was hysteria, or girls screaming,” Finch recalls. “I had this moment where Cliff was holding my hand” as the band was being shepherded through the crowd, with publicists building the hype, and as “we were running through the crowd, I just remember letting go of his hand. I remember thinking, ‘fuck this, I’m getting my own band’.”
She also dated Dave Grohl. Was she a…groupie?
“Precious is my groupie name,” she tells me, with a laugh. Her father actually gave her the name.
A groupie is like a manager or crusader, Finch explains. “Men aren’t raised to be women-pleasers, but women are raised to be men-pleasers,” she said. Groupies “go on the road and go to every fucking show. Groupies make sure your shit is together, groupies make sure you have emotional support every fucking day.” She says that when L7 toured in the early 1990s, their experienced road crew was still talking about Sweet Connie, the groupie from Arkansas who claims to have slept with over 1,000 musicians (as well as Bill Clinton). Sweet Connie was name-dropped in Grand Funk Railroad’s anthemic “We’re An American Band” (1973). “She made an impression,” observes Finch. Guys on the crew talked admirably about Sweet Connie. Finch says if you’re still talking about a groupie 25 years later, then “they weren’t just about sex to you. ”
Growing up, Finch listened to DJ Rodney Bingenheimer, who played Cherry Vanilla, the Warhol Superstar and Supergroupie. “When I was little, Cherry Vanilla’s record was one of my favorite records. ‘I Know How to Hook’ was brilliant.” She still has Cherry’s vinyl. Supergroupie artist, Cynthia Plaster Caster, casted L7’s Suzi Gardner.
At the Lisa Derrick Fine Art Gallery, Finch arrived with Ron Athey, the extreme performance artist, who’d included some of her photos in the art exhibition. She had a different color on each fingernail for L7’s upcoming promo at a faux Tower Records for the Captain Marvel movie. Finch tells me that when she was a punk rock kid during the 1980s, she shot photos. It was a way to get into shows for free and be part of what was going on.
“I wanted to be part of the scene and be recognized as more than just a fan,” she said. “I wanted to be a contributor.”
I ask her, “How are you so free onstage with your body and the bass, so unself-conscious?”
She answers, “Here’s how I do it: Anytime I have to use a machine, or something that’s an extension to create, I put it on my body, and I go do something that’s not music, that’s not on the stage. So I wear my guitar or bass around my house to go do dishes, or to go make food, or to just experience normal life, so it really becomes an extension, so that when I walk onstage it doesn’t feel like an extra appendage, it feels very natural.”
You can do it with a camera or your paintbrushes, Finch suggests. She says we create these holy sacred spaces to create and meditate but “sometimes we just need to pick that stuff up and go to the market with it. We need to be in the world and not in a private space…Fuckin’ do it with two kids, a fulltime job, and a boss that doesn’t appreciate you, and living in Los Angeles with no way to get around so you’re sitting in traffic for three hours. That’s when meditation and art happens.”
Her ability to be curious, agile, playful, and philosophical helps her thrive. Having her own band built her confidence, and so did a steady father.
“One consistent male figure is really important, and that was the difference,” she says. Her mother was schizophrenic, her upbringing unstable, but, she says, “My father told me I could do anything I wanted to do.” Plus, she separates the story from the feelings. “I have to be very diligent to make sure I’m not processing something from the past that’s not even mine anymore….”
Finch will see old pictures and “all of a sudden my stomach will hurt,” but then she realizes, “Oh that’s just a ghost of a feeling from a photo.” She’ll ask herself, what am I, still 23 years old? No! “I’m who I am now, today.”
She’s been rejected, depressed, and vulnerable. She is divorced from an inventor who also was a stock car race driver. Her boyfriend broke up with her when she had thyroid cancer. But: “Nothing is good or bad…it’s just what it is.”
I wear my guitar or bass around my house to go do dishes, or to go make food, or to just experience normal life, so it really becomes an extension, so that when I walk onstage it doesn’t feel like an extra appendage, it feels very natural.”
Finch explains that making music, videos, and going on tour cost money—and that being in a band doesn’t always mean making money. I’m astounded. She chides me, “Didn’t you learn anything from those Behind the Music episodes?”
“So how can you be a punk rock feminist and earn money?” I ask her. She advises all of the following: affirmations; product; clear boundaries; knowing values; offering services; being an entrepreneur.
“I hustle…It’s figuring out where that money flow is.”
I thought punk rockers weren’t supposed to have money. She says, “I think you misunderstood punk rock.”
“What’s your daily punk rock feminist practice?” I ask.
“I’m pretty sure I’m punk rock every day,” she replies. She does daily meditation on Instagram; mentors women transitioning from prison and halfway houses; makes art and music. Finch recognized her destructive self-centeredness, and stopped taking any drugs, including alcohol, 29 years ago. But what about when you’re with partiers? “I let myself know that I could do drugs if I wanted, just not…the minute that I wanted them…I just told myself, If I really want to do heroin or coke, or drink a brandy, I can do it tomorrow.”
When I went to the L7 show at the Fonda Theater in 2015, I tell her that I realized “This is what we’ve always needed. Women rocking out hard, sweaty and wild.”
Finch tells me L7 were criticized for that very badassery! Especially by riot grrrls. Because they weren’t breaking down the industry but moving into it. Feminist tropes critique imitating masculinity. But she wasn’t imitating masculinity.