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ART / Show People: California screaming: L7

THERE'S a song called 'Shirley' on the new L7 album. It's an exhilarating drag-racing anthem in the spirit of Amelia Erhart, wherein the California quartet's characteristic scrawny vocals and brutal guitar riffs vie for supremacy with screaming engines and mangled dialogue from the film Heart Like a Wheel. 'What's a beautiful girl like you doing racing in a place like this?' a sports-track announcer asks the song's heroine with time-honoured condescension. Quick as a tyre blowout, the answer comes back: 'Winning.'

Summer soundtracks don't come more perfect than this. At its most infectious, L7's snarling, high-octane buzz-pop contains an echo of the Beach Boys - West-Coast lifestyle poets of an earlier generation. The band themselves are not so sure. 'I've always been a big surf-music fan,' admits singer and guitarist Donita Sparks, 'so that influence will be there in a lot of my songs or arrangements, but as far as comparing us to the Beach Boys goes . . .' Guitarist and singer Suzi Gardner joins in: 'That's stretchin' it.' But what about the harmonies on L7's first hit single, 1992's irresistible fin-de-siecle party mantra, 'Pretend We're Dead'? 'There was a melody,' Donita says firmly, 'but there were no harmonies.' Bassist Jennifer Finch adds: 'We couldn't harmonise our way out of a paper bag.'

The fourth member of the band, drummer Dee Plakas, is not present at this hotel breakfast table, indisposed after over-exerting herself at teen-idol label-mates E17's end-of-tour show ('Oh Donita,' says Jennifer ecstatically, 'no one there was taller than I'), but three-quarters of L7 in one place at the same time is quite enough to be going on with. Their almost Beatle-like delight in picking up each other's sentences and running with them is liable to leave interlocutors grasping at air as the band cross the touchline.

Do they see themselves as a group of individuals or as an organic whole? 'Both,' says Jennifer. 'We're a four-headed walking neurosis,' Suzi adds, cheerfully. The band's new album, Hungry for Stink (the title derives from an advert in Bear, a magazine L7 say is 'for and about big hairy men', and for which Jennifer sports a promotional baseball cap), strikes a similarly intriguing balance between lightness of heart and seriousness of subject.

The depressive exorcism of 'Questioning My Sanity', the visceral 'Baggage', and the authentically frightening 'Can I Run', which deals with a woman's feelings on being followed in the street, are about as heavy - in the musical as well as the encounter-group sense - as rock music gets, but L7 never lose their pop sensibility. Donita's voice boldly claims the middle ground between John Lydon and Stevie Nicks, and on the delightful 'Riding with a Movie Star' the band's hyperactive Ramone-like thrum is fleshed out with a jaunty xylophone.

The apparently seamless blend of punk and metal pleasures which L7 have now achieved did not happen overnight. 'When we started out in the mid-Eighties,' Jennifer remembers, 'the hardcore punk scene which inspired us was dying out, and speed and grindcore metal were coming up, but we couldn't play that stuff because we weren't good enough musicians.' Do they ever tire of the psychotically gruelling tour schedule upon which their success has been built? 'You miss your life,' Suzi admits. 'We tend to get off the road and write lots of songs about travel-size products,' Donita adds, breaking hoarsely into song: ' 'If I see another miniature soap I'm going to strangle my dog' .'

In response to the stereotyping that goes with being four women making a racket, L7 have taken to calling themselves 'a rock band from LA'. All but one (Jennifer) originate from elsewhere, but hearing Suzi recall her arrival in America's dream factory - 'I got off the bus on Hollywood Boulevard and there was all this trash on Marilyn's star. I was going to ring my friends and tell them 'Don't come here if you want to keep your dream' ' - it is hard to deny their adopted city some credit for L7's unique pile-up of hedonism and moral energy, openness and cynicism.

They have even made their mark on LA's primary industry, making an unforgettable big-screen debut in John Waters's new film Serial Mom, as the awesome crotch-bulge rockers Camel Lips. L7's sterling cameo efforts were rewarded by gifts from the star, Kathleen Turner: miniature pink Swiss Army knives inscribed 'Thanks, Kathleen'. 'She's never given those to anyone else ever,' Jennifer says. 'That's what we like to think, anyway.'

'Hungry for Stink' is out tomorrow (Slash/London, CD/LP/tape).

(Photograph omitted)