In three years, Elastica's Justine Frischmann went from Top Of The Pops to Narcotics Anonymous. Now in an NME exclusive, she reveals the whole sorry tale
"I went to see The Strokes at that NME thing in January and funnily enough Donna was there - I hadn't seen her for a while. Their press is being done by a guy who did our press in America, Jim Merlis, and we wnded up in their dressing room. They were all really young, fresh-faced, excitable... children, and you know, chopping out these huuuge, fat lines and me and Donna were just looking at Jim saying, 'How can you do this to another load of kids?'"
The 'NME thing' was The Strokes' Carling Awards show, the Donna is Donna Matthews, the speaker is Justine Frischmann and the original 'load of kids' was Elastica. Formed by Donna and Justine in 1992, the band's split was finally announced this September - though they actually disbanded last Christmas, after an American tour to promote their second and final album, 'The Menace'. In between, Elastica pinged to prominence as the coolest kids on the Britpop block. Like The Strokes today, they both looked and sounded fantastic. Three quarters female, they had an androgynous hipness their male peers just couldn't touch and a two-minute buzzbomb punk sensibility heavily influenced by Wire (who later sued for plagiarism). The Notting Hill house Justine shared with then-boyfriend Damon Albarnbecame Britpop HQ. In 1995, their heyday, Elastica's self-titled debut album - replete with hits like 'Line Up', 'Waking Up' and 'Connection' - went straight to Number One in Britain and sold a million worldwide. Thanks to seven US tours, they also made serious inroads into America.
Then, in the parlance of the times, it all went a bit Pete Tong. Annie Holland, the band's elegantly craggy bassist, decided she was fed up of "the poncey side of being in a band" and left. Justine, knackered by touring, beset by self-doubt and spooked by fame so tacky and intense that the Daily Star's Linda Duff opined that she should "take her top off" to become "Madonna-style massive", found it impossible to embark on a follow-up to 'Elastica'. So the band, en masse did what they most enjoyed - partied ferociously.
Being part of the trendy London set, they soon encountered the trendy London set's mid-'90s drug of choice - smack. By the end of 1997, the once-babyfaced Donna Matthews' alarmingly gaunt appearanceseemed to confirm what had been rumoured for some time - that some Elastica members had gone past the cheery hedonism stage and were now cultivating serious heroin problems.
For years, outrageous rumours circulated, involving madness, failed rehab and sexual abandon with a cast of pop stars including everyone from Loz from Kingmaker to Bobby Gillespie (more of whom later). Back in the real world, Donna finally left in August 1998 after an argument with Justine about, of all things, Missy Elliott. She was replaced by two people - keyboard player Mew and guitarist Paul Jones. Annie rejoined, having been briefly replaced by Sheila Chipperfield. Still there was no new music.
Then, in 1999, Blur released the album '13', the lyrics of which dwelt on Damon's break-up with Justine the year before (he had wanted her to settle down and have children, she emphatically did not). Frischmann, having sped through the archetypes of androgynous indie pin-up, rock trophy wife, poor little rich girl, femme fatale and, latterly, a cross between Sister Morphine and Typhoid Mary, was now described by Damon as "the ghost I love the most/Hiding from the sun, waiting for the night to come... when you're coming down, think of me".
Elastica finally resurfaced that August, when they played Reading and released the baldly titled '6-track EP'. Considering the inordinate length of time and traumasince their last release, most people expected something epic. What they got were songs ranging from scratchy indie to inconsequential mood music which collectively sounded like they could have been dashed off in a tea break.
'The Menace', which followed six months later, was barely more polished. Rather than riding back to the pop prominence they'd enjoyed in the mid-'90s to save the charts from the likes of Steps, it seemed Elastica had decided to duck the challenge by making something only a Fall fan could love. In fact, had 'The Menace' been released this year, it would have chimed in perfectly with the scuzzy, insouciant DIY ethic of everyone from The Strokes to ARE Weapons. But the timing was wrong, the critics were brutal and the album only made it to Number 27.
Now Mew and drummer Justin Welch are "doing the Good Life thing" in Devon, Annie's "gone back to Brighton", Paul Jones is in LA and Justine Frischmann is living in the same elegant terraced house, the red light from the window like a beacon of hedonism to the rest of Bohemian west London. Inside, there's eclectic decor (a Space Invaders machine, a huge, circular mirror) and Justine's cat, a 22-year-old tabby called Benjamin Frischmann. If the cat and the walls could talk, their tales would probably make your hair curl.
Yet despite the "horror years" - and today Justine freely admits to having been a "sad junkie" from 1996 to 1998 - she looks healthy and clear-skinned, backing up her claim that she's long off the smack (she said last year that she's been attending Narcotics Anonymous meetings with Donna). Unusually intelligent for a pop star, she's also impressively self-aware. Justine may have fucked up in her time, but these days she knows exactly what she's doing. She's wearing a grey suit jacket, a half-undone black blouse, a skirt made out of an old pair of jeans and knee-high, thight denim leggings poking over a pair of black boots. Justine has always been a stylish dresser - let us not forget that the only item she ever shoplifted as a teenager was a Christian Dior bra. In return the fash pack has always been loyal to Elastica. Her one-time flatmate, British designer Luella Bartley (yes, her again), graffittied the band's name on a denim jacket she designed, while the lyrics to 'Car Song' inspired a recent style magazine fashion shoot, five years after the event. Truly, they were The Strokes of their day.
Elastica's musical epitaph is released later this month. First of all, there's an album of sessions they did for Radio 1.
"They make me really happy actually," says Justine in her famously languorous drawl, haing now repaired to the pub round the corner (she's on black coffees; we're sitting outside, even though it's a November afternoon). "I think Elastica's always been a really good live band, particularly Mk 1, and I think we did a lot of our best work under that kind of pressure, not being over-perfectionist or anal and not having time to argue." There's also a farewell single, the bratty, 104-second 'The Bitch Don't Work'. The cover shows Justine naked in bed; the title is a pointed in-joke ("The drugs do work, the bitch don't work," she smiles). Both prove that, rather than being a drug-fucked spent force, Elastica still had plenty of mileage. So why split up?
Justine complains that "there was so much weir history" and "so many journalists bearing me grudges" that she didn't feel that anything Elastica ever did could be judged fairly. Certainly it's hard, she concurs, to turn into ARE Weapons ("that's what we were going for in the end") when you've had a Number One album. But the true reason seems to be that the second line-up "never gelled as well as the first band", Frischmann particularly missing Donna Matthews' songwriting input. Already bruised by criticism that she was a dilettante rich kid who could afford to piss about (her father is a highly respected, and paid, civil engineer), Justine also felt pressure from within her own band to write hits - understandably, since they were all on the dole.
"What makes an album strong," she says, "is the fact that the band is more than the sum of it's parts so it's bound not to be as strong if one person's writing everything. I didn't think that creatively people were, um, offering me enough for me to carry on working with them."
Justine also had her head turned by Peaches, their support on the final US tour. "She had this machine and her and a mic and a car," she remembers, "and I had 14 people on the road, six tons of gear, a huge tourbus and an articulated lorry and I just thought, 'I' doing this the wrong way.' I watched Peaches every night and I thought she was better (than Elastica) and I've never done that with a support band before. And I just thought, you know, 'I don't want to be in this band unless I think it's the best band ever.' I just felt it was time to walk away and be brave enough to try something completely different."
The rest of the band, she claims, weren't surprised - they knew she was pissed off. Justine had also been alarmed at the state of Bobby Gillespie, whom she got to know when touring with Primal Scream last year.
"I was blown away by what they were doing musically and, um, when we got back from touring and everything, Bobby had broken up with his girlfriend and had nowhere to stay," she says. "We'd made friends over the summer and, you know, he came to stay at mine for a few weeks - nothing romantic, just a mate with nowhere to go. And there's someone who's consistently put out quite interesting music and done a hell of a lot of touring and always been in with the fashion crowd and it just terrified me to see... he couldn't really cope as a human being. He couldn't feed himself and he was to paranoid to answer the door and to jumpy to have normal relationships with people in the street - it was kind of beyond him. And I think that's a really frightening reality."
"That was the last straw," she continues. "I thought, 'I don't want to be in my late 30s going on 40 and just be some little wind-up fashion victim spouting slogans and incapable of behaving like a human being'. It's too much to give up, really."
What the hell had got him into that state?
"Just from too much touring. And, you know, having to behave like a pop star for 20 years through thick and thin with all the neurosis that goes with it and all the paranoia that goes with it and all the drugs that go with it."
Touring, particularly trying to break America, says Justine, "nearly broke me".
"I think touring's really, really hard, actually," she elaborates. "I think success generally is hard to take but I think the touring can really wreck your band, especially young bands that haven't really had a chance to get to know each other and form bonds and stuff."
If The Strokes become successful in the States, she adds grimly, "they will fuck up pretty soon".
It was in New Orleans that Justine Frischmann first thought she had met the devil, an anecdote she told to The Face in 1996. He was a man she met in the street - at a crossroads - in a rainstorm, who sheltered under her umbrella and gave her a drag of his spliff. On walking into a branch of Tower Records, she discovered that he was horribly scarred.
It did all go rather wrong after that, didn't it?
"I know, I know," says Justine, igniting a Marlboro Light, knowing immediately what we're reffering to.
Does that freak you out at all?
"What, that I might have met the devil? Well, I know for a fact that I've met the devil at some point, whether it was him or not, yeah. I think he's out of my life, I'm happy to say. I think anyone with an interest in the whole rock'n'roll myth is going to end up meeting the devil at some stage and having to deal with it." And she laughs very sinisterly indeed.
When you say the devil, what do you mean? Just a nebulous force of evil?
"Yeah, just a general darkness, just being a bit too interested in living in an unhealthy way - whether it's cos you've got too cought up with fame or drugs or success, you've lost the plot a bit."
Those years - were they really that horrible? Or do you have some sneaky good memories?
"Yeah, definitely!" exclaims Justine, the most animated she's been all afternoon. "I mean," she adds with a throaty laugh, "some of it was really enjoyable. I'm not going to pretend that doing loads of drugs isn't fun at first, because it is, and obviously being self-indulgent and hedonistic is really fun."
At what point did it start being a problem?
"I think when you start doing it every day," she says. "If you can confine those kind of times to the weekends you can probably get away with it for longer. It's the old cliché - if it starts being something you need to do, it's a problem."
Did it make work impossible? You couldn't have been a creative junkie.
"I was quite a creative junkie," muses Justine, unfazed. "'My Sex' was written as a junkie, 'Human' was written with all of us as junkies... Quite a lot of that album ('The Menace') was written under the influence. But it's impossible to get anything finished as a junkie. You have lots of great ideas but you don't have the capacity to actually finish them off."
These days, Justine's reconciled with Donna and is even on good terms with Damon Albarn, despite being convinced that he put round the widespread rumour that he wrote the 'Elastica' album ("I don't think he took to competition very well," she glowers). She "really likes" Gorillaz and recently saw them live, "although it was a bit unfortunate that my first words to him were, 'The show doesn't work, you'll have to do it differently.' But he loves a bit of argy bargy."
Having spent three months this year travelling in Venezuela and a lot of time in New York, Justine's now got enoughdistance from Elastica to have fond memories of the very best times - which she says were the radio sessions and the first Reading Festival ("like having an out-of-body experience"), rather than drugs and mayhem.
"Even when I go to see The Strokes or whatever, I don't think they're up to Elastica at our height," she declares. "And you know, I think we inspired quite a lot of people to pick up guitars and especially a lot of girls to do their thing."
Which is precisely why some people think she pissed it away, never capitalising on the opportunity she had to take 'our' music to the masses in the way that seemed inevitable in Britpop's heyday. Justine doesn't see it that way.
"I really know I couldn't have picked up the opportunity - it would have killed me," she says immediately. "I think you're either the kind of person that can handle being under the scrutiny that fame brings or you can't - and I just could't deal with the lack of privacy."
Nevertheless, she and Donna both recently agreed that the whole thing was worth it.
"I think if I was still in the throes of real unhappiness or depression and doing a lot of drugs, then I would say that the toll was too great," reckons Justine. "But, you know, that went on for a couple of years and I actually feel it's something I'm glad I went through because it gives you a lot more humility. I'm glad that I've had different kinds of perspective. It can only be good, really."
Now Justine spends some of her time trying to write "out-and-out pop songs" for a publishing deal she has with EMI. She's started working on a 505 - a recording/synthesizer box of tricks she first saw Peaches using and which she says revolutionised her songwriting. She wants to get other people to sing over the twisted, electronic results ("The body-poppers in the 'Mad Dog' video are actually really good singers and there's an Indian girl called Bishu who I'm hopefully going to be working with.") But she's adamant that she no longer wants to be famous.
"I don't want to sing," she says firmly. "I don't want to front anything ever again. I don't want to be the person who does the press for things and I don't want to go on tour."
So why's she doing this interview? The answer is to put her side of the story, probably settle some scores and, above all, underline how good Elastica could be. Now she's ready "to get on with what makes me happy, and if the money runs out I'll get a job as a milkman".
As we walk back up the hill to the house we discuss that at 32, she seems young to be retiring.
"I think that's old enough, to be honest," she shrugs. "I don't want to be kind of 40 and doing it."
Most people don't seem to feel that way.
"But they should!" retorts Justine, turning in at the gate. "They should get a fucking life!"