It's us against the world again
They're back! We join a revived and revitalised Elastica on the road in Leeds and Manchester for tales of on-tour madness
You drain the bath, wrap yourself in a fluffy robe, rub yourself down, drip back into the hotel bedroom, into bed and off to sleep. But there's a noise. A scuffling outside your window, creeping nearer, the odd giggle, noises from below. And then there's a crash as a body you've never seen before climbs into your room from the balcony, waves hello, runs across the room and buggers off through the door. A naked body. Maybe you shouldn't have had that final drink, you muse, before disbelief and exhaustion knock you cold.
"Donna in America," smiles Justine Frischmann, several years later, "now that was wild. We were all having a skinny-dip after this gig at two in the morning, and Donna decided to scale the building naked! She climbed the outside of a hotel, then let herself into someone else's room from their balcony. Naked! That's probably the most mental thing I've ever seen anyone do. It was amazing. I was really proud of her!"
But that, of course, was then... and this? This is the first date of Elastica's comeback tour of the UK. This is now. And you have to wonder: after nearly five absent years of f***ing about, f***ing up and getting well and truly f***ed, are Elastica even remotely as rock'n'roll as they used to be? By now, we've all heard the smack stories, and we've all heard the split stories, as both guitarist Donna Matthews and Justine's then-boyfriend Damon Albarn left the picture with varying degrees of acrimony. The luckiest among us have even heard Elastica's terrifyingly animated new album, "The Menace", and worried that it might be too malevolently anti-pop to reposition these Britpop queens and kings upon their former throne. But what we haven't heard is any kind of reassurance that Elastica - once the most exciting band in the country - have still got what it takes as full-on rock'n'roll heroes.
So, Justine, any chance of you matching Donna's excesses tonight?
"Ummmm," she smirks, coyly, "I'm not a great climber! But, yeah, being on tour's always fairly mental. We haven't found a way of touring in a peaceful fashion yet!"
Bolt your balcony windows, Britain. This party just got going...
Leeds, of course, is a fair old distance from America. And no one's been skinny-dipping in Leeds since little Danny Fishton from class 3C forgot his swimming trunks and was forced to do PE in the nuddy. But Elastica are hardly the band they were back then, either. Since Donna's departure, they've recruited two new members, guitarist Paul Jones and the keyboard-playing, thang-shaking, daftly named Mew. Paul's out back in the car park of tonight's low-key venue, The Cockpit, risking life, limb and the remainder of this tour on a ridiculously oversized skateboard. And Mew? Mew's bragging to programmer Dave Bush (who joined Elastica from The Fall in 1996) about her namesake in the new Pokemon movie. Dave, unimpressed, tootles off to the venue's decks to play techno so hardcore you could build motorways with it, Mew's sisterly "I f***ing hate you" still ringing in his ears. None of which is especially rock'n'roll, but it is all incredibly endearing.
There is no heroin to be seen.
Which really isn't a surprise, considering the enormous grief both that drug, and the resultant gossip, press and backbiting its consumption caused, once had on this band. Still you can't help thinking, as everyone carefully shuns the rider before tonight's gig, that there's nothing worse than a reformed hedonist. Except a whole band full of them.
"Drinking is good," says Justine later, embracing the bleeding obvious in Elastica's dressing room, after an interminable soundcheck. "We haven't all become teetotal abstainers, no way. Having said that, if someone in the band quit drink and stuff overnight, I'd be proud of them. I'd think it's really good. Sorry, I know that's really boring, but there's nothing exciting about being out of it."
Last time around (and we were barely out of short trousers) Elastica took being out of it to an entirely new level. Is there any kind of a safety net to stop someone going right off the rails again this time?
"No," she smiles, "not in this band. There ain't no rules! Does anyone still do drugs? You'd have to ask them. Me? I'm a reformed character... or am I? Hahaha! I have the odd spliff, but there's nothing wrong with that. As for the others, the thing that makes people get off their faces is not being happy in their surroundings - otherwise they moderate it themselves. If someone was getting really out of it, I'd want to make sure they were happy. If they were, then I could live with it. I'm not some kind of militant reformist, I still smoke and drink and... um, that's all I'm going to say!"
And off she pops, leaving Dave and Mew to shed a little more light on the matter. "I've had the best partying time ever since I've been with this lot," nods Mew, picking at a plate of pasta. "In a positive way, of course. Rock'n'roll antics? Too f***ing right! We don't want cheese and pasta, we want booze and fags."
"I've been caned all week!" cackles Dave, adopting the older-brother-from-hell role and lobbing a tangerine at Mew. Just for kicks. "The dark days are over? Nah, they've only just begun! After being in The Fall - and The Fall are rock'n'roll - you think 'Great, be in a band with a load of girls. That should be nice and calm.' Bollocks it is! It's like, 'Stop! You're too f***ing hardcore!'"
Damn right. Tonight's gig feels like putting on a pair of glasses after a lifetime of wearing wine gums for contacts. It's crisp, it's sharp and it's a f***ing revelation. And a total event to boat, Leeds fully aware that the lasttime Elastica played here, "Ground Force" was a military term and the Internet was something a careless mackerel did.. Leeds screams, jumps and does its damnedest to muster 100th of the energy Mew flings out with every twisting, yelping leap. And 1.000th of the cool Justine summons by simply being Justine, with five years' more experience of being Justine under her belt since last we met.
What really amazes is the way all Elastica's energy is put into the performance and none into trotting over whether people will actually like what they've become, the filthy sneer of "How He Wrote Elastica Man" and the frantic, EMF-with-switchblades swagger of "Mad Dog" every bit as vital and devil-may-care as oldies like the irresistably surging "Line UP" or the leather-and-ice broodness of "2:1".
Essentially, it boils down to attitude. Shitloads of it. And enough star quality to make the Big Dipper look like a fairy light. Not least when Justine opens up a book and begins reading out the shopping list of romance that is "My Sex" over a wall of sound Hadrian would've marvelled at: as if pop music still has the right to be art, as if lyrics still nuzzle up against poetry without looking daft and inadequate. Someone next to me starts a new band with a total stranger. It's that kind of night.
So Leeds loves it, but will Leeds buy it? With one day to go, "The Menace"'s midweeks sales look set to send it to Number 18 in the album charts. Elastica's debut album, on the other hand, was a Number One. Onstage, Justine looks totally comfortable with that surprisingly sizable gulf... but offstage?
"F*** it," she says, having signed rather more debut LP sleeves than new ones for the fans who've raided the dressing room after the show. "If Embrace is what's doing well these days, I'd rather be out of it! It's weird, cos I never really hated other bands before, but I honestly think Embrace are properly toss! Anyway, there's nothing you can do about chart positions. It's a differenttime now, and I feel like this is a new band in a lot of ways. The Top 30 is a result for a band who haven't done anything for five years."
Don't you owe it to your fans to be big again?
"I don't think so."
But it felt great when "our" bands did really well during Britpop. Surely you remember that?
"Yeah," she admits, "it did. And it felt great to us as well, cos we were doing exactly what we wanted and people were getting it. It amazed me that as many people did get it! But what we're doing is only gonna be mainstream in very unusual circumstances. A lot of my heroes never got big, and getting big can distract you from what you're doing."
But you remember when Blur went all bollocks and lo-fi?
And you remember how much that pissed off the fans?
"What do you mean by 'bollocks and lo-fi'?" she frowns. "The fifth album? That was a brilliant record, their best by a long way. I was much more f***ed off when they put 'The Great Escape' out - that made me actually want to kill myself. It was horrible, really mainstream. Blur lo-fi's a lot better than that. It's not as if our album's all about the art and nothing to do with selling records. It's just that it so nearly didn't get made. The fact that it got made - and made in a way I was happy with - is the main thing for me. We can move on now, because it's a full-stop on a difficult time. It's a milestone, a rebirth."
If this album doesn't sell, will the other members of Elastica be skint?
"Good question!" she cringes. "We've all got bills to pay, even me. I've run out of cash too! Lend us a fiver! We're not on wages at the moment, and we need to sell records to make another record. But we're in the process of signing an American deal, which will hopefully get us out of trouble."
No one's signing on, then?
"They are, yeah," she blushes, heading downstairs for a quick, post-gig indie-disco bounce to "Rock The Casbah" and a whole lot of booze. "Annie [Holland, bass] was in the dole office and she said: 'I'm a bass player.' The guy asked what band she was in and, when she told him, he was like: 'Oh, right! You're in a band, then!' He was nice to her after that!"
"But no one's on a wage," she adds, as, behind her, Annie trades a tour T-shirt for a packet of fags with a fan, "so they've got a right to sign on. It's us against the world again, I suppose. It feels like everyone's doing it for the right reasons again. Does being skint keep you hungry? Yeah, I think it helps. Leaving a massive gap and getting yourself in a position where you're not sure if anyone likes you any more bloody helps too! But, yeah, maybe I did need to feel hungry again."
A brief aside. Considering that Elastica are to music what "Waiting For Godot" is to theatre, it's not surprising that they have to wait for hours on their bus before setting off for the next date in Manchester. They're all onboard - Dave and drummer Justin Welch ever-so-slightly wasted, Annie ditsily drunken, Mew ridiculously perky, Paul cheekly casual and Justine in control, but, you know, out of control. It's just that someone's decided to park their car right in front of the tourbus, obstructing it's exit. By the time we realise the bus driver still hasn't set off after nearly two hours of revved-engine stasis, it's 5am. Of course, just like we waited five bloody years for this second album, only for it to come along in the flashiest of flashes, all it takes is the combined strength of Dave, Paul, Justin and some crew members, before the car is lifted, shunted and ditched on the kerb. And that's Elastica to a T: everything takes forever but, when something finally gets done, it gets done quick. They celebrate with a picnic. At dawn. Paul steps in some houmous. Justine desperately tries to stop Mew from jabbering on and on and on. Annie thinks about another drink. Justin thinks about being sick. Dave wishes he'd brought his didgeridoo. Mew's glad he didn't. Everyone passes out and wakes up on Day Two of the rest of their lives...
Elastica look great hungover. Their faces suit Sunday lunchtime coffee binges and Sunday sfternoon hair-of-the-dog remedies, so that's exactly what they do in Manchester's Krobar until their early-evening soundcheck. Justine looks sublime first thing. Mew just looks divine.
"I love the way she looks," whispers Justine, as Mew Anna Friels her way towards the upstairs bar. "I'm proud that she's my mate and she's in my band."
But she's really foxy...
"Yeah, she is! Every boy I know has a thing for her. I'm not that confident about myself, but I've always thought my band are really cool - that's what gives me the confidence to get onstage. I've got a crush on them. I see pictures and think, 'Wow!' I'm quite into icons, and the people in my band look like I could worship them. I would cry if anyone put up a poster of me next to one of Debbie Harry, but Mew would look fantastic. Do I fancy her? No, I'm not remotely bisexual. Sorry? Can I just say that I do? No! I don't want to freak her out! How dare you?"
Girl-on-girl action looking increasingly unlikely, it's worth pointing out that Justine met her new boyfriend Neil through his photographer colleague, Mew's 11-year beau, David. "She set me up!" grins Justine. "Do we go on double dates? Yeah, we do a lot. Cute, innit?"
Indeed. Of course, back when Justine was seeing Damon, a lot was made of hoe theirs was an "open relationship". So, is this an open relationship, too?
"No," she insists. "I'm not that keen on open relationships! I'm quite a romantic person and open relationships might be exciting, but they're not romantic. Have I gone off sex? No, I thought I had, but then I met Neil. At times I've thought I'm not into sex any more, but you do meet the right person, that indefinable whiff of something you always want."
What if there's a lovely, whiffy boy in the crowd later? Would you be tempted?
"Ha! I've never fancied a fan. I've thought they're cute and cool, but I've never actively fancied a fan. There's too much weird stuff going on with how they see me. It was quite good when I met Neil cos he didn't even know I was in a band, and that's probably why it's worked out. He'd never even heard of Elastica."
Does he take photos of you?
"Of course he does."
Has he taken any pictures of you...
"Ahahahaha! I'm not telling you! That's so desperately poor!"
Isn't it? And it's entirely unnecessary, trying to spice up possibly our spiciest star. Even without the three Ds (Donna, drugs and Damon), Justine's fascinating enough in her own right. "I think I'm clever and good company," she admits under extreme duress, "and that's as far as I'm gonna blow my own trumpet!"
Upstairs, though, Mew's more than happy to do it for her. No, not like that. Calm down. "Is Justine exciting?" she wonders aloud. "She is. She's beautiful and f***ing talented. This album's proved that - there's rumours that Damon wrote the first album, which is completely untrue. But this is totally her. Justine f***ing cuts the mustard."
Tonight's mustard is cut so decisively of Manchester's Students' Union Main Debating Hall that you almost expect the barstaff to give away jars of Colman's with every pint. "Connection" wraps everything up, every morsel of apathy munched away with a surprise airing of "Vaseline" ("We're a bit grown-up for that now" - a fibbing Justine, pre-gig), every bone of contention gnawed away by the mutant panic of "Love Like Ours" and undefeatable champion, "Waking Up". Behind me, a girl bounces barfoot after her shoe loses a heel. Like that's gonna stop her after waiting five years for this.
"This band's got attitude," gloats Paul, handing out beers backstage afterwards, before wondering where he fits into the mods/rockers feud that's kicked of between Justin and Mew. "Our have broadened since the first album. For f***s sake, we're not boring. We're not f***ing earnest!"
Justine glances at her watch - just fixed after years of inoperative redundancy, natch - and leads the others back to the bus. "Twenty-four," she says to us, as if she's guessing our age or our IQ or both.
"Twenty-four," she repeats. "That's our chart position today. That's not bad is it?"
It's impossible to tell who she's trying to kid - us or herself - but, yeah, it is bad. Still, after years of wall-to-wall f*** ups, it's a start. This year's Travis-style sleeper, anybody? But there's plenty of time for that: first, there's an entire nation to blaze through, a single soon to follow, Glastonbury, Reading and Leeds to blast into submission and a quick follow-up album to nail ("Five more years? I couldn't do that again. I couldn't be bothered"). Plus tonight's most pressing mission: where to find enough booze for a bus full of rock'n'roll idols who're right back where they belong? At 1am. In Manchester. On a Sunday. But they'll find something, they always do. No more f*** ups, eh, Justine?
"Oh, I dunno," she smiles, carfree and caustic as ever, "f***ing up's kinda fun!"
'NO SPUNK, BLOOD OR SWEAT IN THE SANDWICHES'
"It's kinda poor. White bread sandwiches, beer, red wine, brandy and vodka. What's in the sandwiches? Oooh, cheese and pickle, egg mayonnaise, assorted cheeses. No Sex Pistols spunk sandwiches... No spunk, blood or sweat in the sandwiches... we hope! My mother always says skin and ash add to the flavour of every meal - skin from grating things and ash from smoking over the pot. Do we have caterers? Yeah, right! When you start getting caterers you've probably got too big. That's a sign to bugger off again!"
MUSIC SOUNDS BETTER WITH MEW
"It's actually Sharon Mew. When I moved to London, I started modelling and they went: 'What's your name?' So I said Sharon and they said: 'We can't call you "Sharon"! What's your surname? Mew? Great, we'll call you that!' I went: 'No! You can't! My school years were ruined by that!' All that horrible, moo-cow stuff!"
"Even my mum and daddon't call me Sharon now - they call me Frank or Hymie! Apparently, when they brought me home from the hospital, there was a really ugly person called Frank on TV. And God knows why Hymie, cos I'm not Jewish! Shit! Maybe that's why Justine let me join the band!"