Punk Diva: Dee Plakas of L7
From The Archive: Dee Plakas of L7
By Andy Doerschuk Originally published in DRUM! Magazine’s March ’95 Issue
Dee Plakas - the hard-grooving timekeeper with L7 - isn’t overtly superstitious, though something happened to her back in the early ’80s that, in retrospect, just might have been an omen of sorts. She was a basic young rocker, hanging out with a cadre of punk pals in bars and concert halls around Chicago, the city where she was born and raised. One fateful night she found herself gyrating at a Cheap Trick concert with some buds, when drummer Bun E. Carlos flung a broken stick way out into the crowd and right into Plakas’ unsuspecting hands.
With 20/20 hindsight we can say that it was like the passing of a torch, though, at the time, she hardly registered a second thought about it. Instead she was drifting at the University of Illinois at Chicago Circle, unsure of what to do with the rest of her life, yet having her share of fun in the meantime. Plakas loved music - that much was sure - but after only barely enduring the requisite teenage piano lessons her parents foisted upon her, she didn’t feel that she had a particular knack for the performance side of things. Instead she halfheartedly planned to pursue a career as a radio disc jockey, even though she knew that road could be just as treacherous as any artistic pursuit.
Then it happened. Six months after the stick-catching episode, Plakas was partying with some friends from a punk band called Problem Dog who were looking for a drummer, when out of the blue, the guitarist told Plakas that she might be a good candidate, since she was such a tireless, physical dancer. “I took that challenge very seriously,” she says. “I knew a guy who was a drummer and asked him to show me how to alternate the kick, snare and ride cymbal. He taught me the most basic beat and I sat there for half an hour playing it over and over again. I eventually threw a roll in and decided, ‘Yeah, I could do this.’” Piece of cake, right?
And that, basically, was that. Indeed, Plakas did join the band, and to her parents’ utmost dismay, in one swift metamorphosis, left home and quit school in order to hammer drums full time. “I don’t think the band was really all that good,” she admits, “but live, it was a thrill to be up there playing the drums. It’s such a powerful feeling. Punk rock was the kind of thing where you didn’t have to be a virtuoso. I had been playing the drums for two weeks and played our first gig, and I was fine.”
Fine enough, apparently, for Problem Dog to gig around Chicago for a few more years, while Plakas honed her chops beyond basic cavewoman proportions. But the Chicago music scene had become stagnant, and Plakas, who was growing increasingly bored with it all, suggested that Problem Dog move its base of operations to Los Angeles, where they might find more opportunities and escape the brutal midwestern winters. So with very little planning, the band jammed its gear into a Ryder truck and wheeled to L.A., where Plakas and her boyfriend - the guitarist who had originally challenged her to become a drummer - settled into an apartment in Venice with their dog, looked at each other and wondered what the hell to do next.
So began the long process of elimination that every green band in L.A. must endure: rehearsing and booking any gigs they could find, gradually discovering which clubs were cool and which were lame, which managers were real and which were phonies, making local connections however and wherever they could. It wasn’t exactly a cinch. “We were playing whatever kind of gigs we could get,” Plakas remembers. “Most of them were pretty bad, like the first band on a Monday night, playing for your friends and five other people.”
Raji’s turned out to be one of the clubs that Plakas and crew particularly liked, and it was there where she met an L.A. Weekly stringer who informed her that a band called L7 was searching for a drummer, and that she might fit tighter than O.J.’s glove into their straight-forward crunch rock. And bless his heart, the writer followed up after this chance encounter and called Donita Sparks, one of L7’s guitarist/vocalists, to recommended Plakas for the gig.
Problem was that Plakas didn’t really want to leave Problem Dog. At least not yet. They were all old friends who had been through thick and thin (mostly thin), and were, after all, responsible for introducing her to the beloved drum set and subsequent calluses. So when Sparks called the flattered Plakas to inquire about her availability, she was politely turned down, and L7 soon lined up another drummer to fill the position for an opening slot on a Bad Religion tour.
Now, Plakas’ loyalty wasn’t blind. She recognized that things had begun to deteriorate within Problem Dog’s ranks, due to musical differences and other such age-old reasons. However, just two months after Sparks’ phone call, the other Problem Dogs had also seen the writing on the wall, and collectively decided to call it quits. “I was ready to start something new and get into a band where we were all on the same page musically,” Plakas says. “And I was telling this friend of mine how unhappy I was and that I was going to leave this band, and he said, ‘You know, you really ought to be in L7.’ And he didn’t even know that I had already spoken to Donita about it.”
You see, Plakas wasn’t intimately familiar with L7, and wasn’t exactly alone in that distinction either, since the band had only just started to gain recognition in L.A.’s punk underground. But after two different people told her that she was virtually born to pose in L7 publicity photos, well, she really had no choice but to dig up Sparks’ number and make the call. Luckily, she soon discovered that the band had fired the dude who had done the Bad Religion tour, and was once again scouting for a new drummer.
Timing is everything. By November of 1988, Plakas was a card-carrying member of L7, which is just about when things began to go through the roof. “It was so exciting,” she remembers. “Not very long after I joined, we started packing in the clubs. Within a year there was a line around Raji’s whenever we played there on a Friday or a Saturday night. I was so happy. The music was exactly what I wanted to play, and we all clicked.”
Then, blah, blah, blah … L7 releases the “Shove” single on Sub Pop to positive critical acclaim, closely followed by the EP Smell The Magic ... blah, blah, blah ... Europe embraces the wild women like they were four of their own ... blah, blah, blah ... the album Bricks Are Heavy becomes an international smash ... blah, blah, blah ... Hungry For Stink makes a big splash too ... blah, blah, blah ... Lollapalooza and Warped tours solidify L7’s weird-ass reputation ... and, what do you know? It’s 1997 already, and L7 is a household name (at least in houses that have residents with spiky green hair).
What Up Now? After touring the world several times over to support Hungry For Stink, L7 took some well-deserved time off, and Plakas just plain settled down like a normal citizen might - visiting friends, renting movies, ordering pizzas, the whole domestic bit; not quite Ozzie and Harriet, but hardly the rock-and-roll nutcase lifestyle that one might picture. Believe it or not, she even went camping. “It’s not really one of my favorite things,” she says, adding, “but my husband likes to do that.”
Turns out, during that time she hardly shook a stick in any direction. “I don’t practice when I’m off,” she confides. “But when I know that we’re going to start rehearsing and learning new songs, I begin to practice then. I’ll get into the rehearsal room, let’s say, two hours before anyone else and warm up and practice. I’ll play to a tape, or do exercises that I’ve learned, that I know help me. Or I’ll just play any old thing that comes to me.”
It was a little more than a year ago when L7 began working on new tunes for their loud new release, The Beauty Process. As usual, Plakas focused on her drum parts and let her guitar-slinging band mates agonize over the notes, chords and lyrics. “Besides the piano, which I haven’t touched in years, I don’t really play a musical instrument,” she explains. “I can pick out a few songs on bass, and that’s my new goal, to learn how to play bass. But I don’t really play something that I can work out a melody on. So, Suzi and Donita will either write together, or will write separately, depending, and then they’ll come in and say, ‘Okay, what do you guys think of this?’ And they’ll play the riff and we’ll start jamming to it. And sometimes, one of them will have a particular thing in their head like, ‘Hey Dee, can you throw in a roll right after the chorus?’ or whatever. Or they’ll say, ‘I want the drums to be really simple and primitive in this song.’”
For the most part, though, L7’s drum parts are Plakas’ territory, and she finds that she usually goes with her first instinct. “It’s very rare that I’ll go back and go, ‘Oh my God! I want to change that totally.’ Sometimes as we’re playing it, I’ll fine-tune it and say, ‘Oh, a cool roll like that would work there.’ But usually, what I initially play at the first rehearsal of a song is what I’m going to stick with - sometimes to my dismay. There are times when I’ll think, ‘Why did I write that part?’ Like when we’re learning a song, I’ll put in an overly ambitious part that’s a real pain in the ass to play every night, over and over again. I’m not thinking of that when I put it in, but later I’ll kick myself as we’re playing that song and my calf is ready to fall off. Not that I have really complicated drum parts, but sometimes less is more, because I do have a very basic style of playing, which I like and that fits L7. The groove is so important to me.”
But before she could eke out a single groove for The Beauty Process, Plakas had to dial in her drum sounds in the studio. She admits that knob twiddling is not her expertise, and instead she depends on the ears of her engineers to capture her big, booming drum sounds on tape. “Their job is to make me sound like the goddess of thunder,” she laughs. “Otherwise, I have no clue what they do. We usually record a take of a song, and then I’ll go into the control room to check it out, and I can go, ‘That snare doesn’t sound fat enough,’ or ‘I want the toms to sound more down and dirty.’ But as far as going, ‘I think you need to put more 10K on that,’ I don’t get that far into it, and actually, most of the time, I dig it. I’m mostly concerned with the kick and snare, of course. The way I describe what I want with the kick is hilarious. I’ll say, ‘The kick needs to sound more ...’ and I’ll thump my chest. And they’ll go, ‘Okay, Dee.’ They know what I’m talking about.”
While Plakas must resort to grunting guttural sounds to communicate ideas in the studio, she recalls even more primitive practices during early recording sessions for “Shove” and Smell The Magic. “I don’t even remember changing my drumheads,” she says. “Like, literally, we played a few gigs in Seattle, then we went down to the studio. I set up my drums, we did the songs a couple times and that was it. It was so punk rock. Sometimes I think of those days when we’re in the recording studio and someone’s running out to tune my drums after every take. But that’s all in the growing process and that’s cool.”
Yes, it is astonishing how much things can change. For instance, Plakas actually used two drum sets during The Beauty Process sessions: her trusty five-piece miked to the max (which she used for most of the songs) as well as a scaled-down three-piece (bass, snare and one mounted tom with some trashed-up department store cymbals) that was recorded with only a couple overhead microphones. “It was great,” she says. “It blew my mind what awesome sounds you can get by doing it that way. The engineers at first were a bit resistant to that. But we were like, ‘Hey, old-school can be cool, come on!’ And then they slowly started getting into it, and when they heard how cool it sounded, they were way into it.”
Once her various sounds were sorted out, Plakas dug into the basic tracks with a vengeance, which, in the end, took a little less than two weeks to nail. On her first day, Plakas finished three tracks, but says, “That was kind of a bad thing, because then I felt like I had to do that every day. And then when I wouldn’t get three I felt like such a loser. Like one day, we were working on this one song and at the end of the night, I was in a fetal position on the floor of the room. We wanted the song to be just full-on mechanical, so that the groove would never vary at all. And I said, ‘Let’s put it to a click.’ So, we began working on this song and listening to it back. And every time I went to the chorus, I sped up ever so slightly, which, for most songs, is natural, because you elevate to the chorus and then you settle back. But we didn’t want the tempo to vary by one butt hair. So we decided we wanted to get this weird effect where I was supposed to play under the click. So I would hit slightly delayed to the click. I’m not that much of a click master. I can play to a click, but playing under the click was a new thing for me.”
Does it sound like Plakas gets a bit nervous in the studio? You betcha. “That’s the hardest part for me,” she confides. “I start beating myself up a lot like, ‘Oh my God, I suck, I suck,’ because I feel like I’m under this microscope in the studio. I have to be perfect, like a human metronome, because this is a recording. When I play live, I still feel that way, but I’m not nervous. I go up there and I rock and it’s all natural and it’s adrenaline and I feel like I’m a great drummer. I have to work on loosening up in the studio. When you’re that nervous, it can screw up the flow. Over the last few records, I’ve learned to not be so uptight in the studio. I just tell myself, ‘It’s going to be cool. Just play the song, relax, enjoy it.’ I’m getting closer to it, but I still get pretty uptight when I’m in the studio.”
Even after she had wrapped up her drum tracks, Plakas still had reason to be nervous, due to the untimely departure of veteran L7 bassist Jennifer Finch - who left to attend school - with whom the drummer had grooved for ten years. “It’s always weird when someone has to leave, but she had to do her own thing,” Plakas says, diplomatically. “The way I look at it, I would rather her leave and be happy and go do the thing that she needs to do, than force herself to stay where she wasn’t happy. But I think things happen for a reason.”
Still, the remaining members of L7 faced a dilemma. They were in the midst of an important recording session after taking a fairly long break, and suddenly had no bass player. Naturally, the first step was to finish the album, so the band continued working, and in the end, all of the bass parts were overdubbed by Sparks and Greta Brinkman, a friend of L7’s from New York. However, once the album was mixed, there was still the matter of finding a new bass player. Rather than hold open auditions, the band decided to discreetly put out the word to a few selected friends to see who might pop up. Lo and behold, one of their friends suggested that they check out Gail Greenwood, formerly of Belly. Needless to say, it was a very good tip.
With little fanfare, L7 rehearsed with Greenwood, then did a low-key series of club dates on the West Coast to work the bugs out of the new line-up. Plakas was more than happy with her new rhythm section partner, although she had a new predicament to contend with - her chops had become chopped liver. Months had gone by since she had finished laying down drum tracks, and she had hardly banged a gong in the interim.
“I was sitting on my ass during the overdubs, the mixing, all that kind of stuff,” she says. “I wasn’t playing. So, when we did this little warm-up tour, I was telling Gail, ‘Oh my God. I feel like I need a massage every night after the show.’ It got better with every show, but still, I need about a month of playing to totally feel like the well-oiled rock machine that I can be. Even if you go to your rehearsal room and practice every day before you go on tour, it’s not the same. Because I’ve been going to the gym five days a week all summer long, but none of that working out helped me when it came to playing. The only way you’re really going to work in that gig muscle is by doing it. So for me, I just know that I am going to feel some discomfort during that first two or three weeks, until it all settles in.”
Plakas had good reason to be concerned with how her arms and legs felt during gigs. A couple years ago, while L7 was on tour with the Melvins, she discovered that she had developed Carpal Tunnel Syndrome and had to undergo an operation. “All of a sudden my hands started going numb as we were playing,” she says. “It never failed, by the end of the third song in the set I’d have to have my drum tech rub my hands in-between songs. I had to go to two doctors on the road so I could continue the tour and I had to get a steroid shot into my wrist. Then as soon as that tour was over, I got the operation. So I now have to do certain stretching exercises before I play. Even if you don’t have Carpal Tunnel, I would recommend any player to stretch - guitarist or drummer. It’s insane, too, because I used to just go up there cold. And then my body would be in shock for the first half of the set, from all the banging. You got to take care of yourself because if you don’t, how are you going to continue to play the rock?”
Such sage words of wisdom come easily to Plakas these days, who, after years of sweating through the rock and roll circuit, has become something of a role model for young drummers - especially female ones. “It feels great,” she says. “I had an instance just recently, actually, where I was sitting backstage with our soundman after the show, and this girl came up to me. She had gotten a drum stick of mine and wanted me to sign it. She told me that she was taking drum lessons, and said, ‘You’re my biggest influence.’ And I said, ‘Really?!’ And she goes, ‘I play to your records all the time.’ So I made a joke. I go, ‘I’ll bet it’s not too hard to play to me.’ And she said, ‘No, not really.’ [laughs] And then she goes, ‘I take your records to my drum teacher and ask him to show me what you’re doing.’ So then I made another joke and I said, ‘I’ll bet he can figure it out right away.’ And she goes, ‘Oh yeah.’ I don’t think she meant it the way it came out, but me and the soundman just started laughing.
“Then she says, ‘But you know what? You play so fast, I have a hard time keeping up.’ And I said, ‘Well, the more you play, the more you’re going to get your speed up. Just concentrate on playing really even and steady, that’s the most important thing. But don’t worry about being fancy, that’ll come later. Just worry about playing really steady.’ And she said, ‘Yeah, like you do.’ And I said, ‘Well, thank you.’ But it was just funny how I couldn’t just take the compliment, I had to keep making jokes about myself.”