Interview with Elastica
The last gang in town just got back from their holidays and, as "The Menace" shows, the break has done Elastica the world of good. Leagues meets the most famous ex-girlfriend in the world, Justine Frischmann.
Fame - It's not as cushy as it looks. Just ask Justine Frischmann. She just wanted to be in a band with her girlfriends. To make a nice spiky post-punk noise. Jump up and down. Nothing fancy. Just a good night out with the Doc Martens set in Camden. Some sexy all-girl rocker poses. A fine line in quivering sneers and black t-shirts. But sometimes you just fall in with the wrong crowd and KABOOM! you're famous. Or at least famous for being the girlfriend of someone famous.
First there was Brett, a lanky middle-class suburbanite loaded with post-college pretension, a well dodgy wardrobe and a hearty Bowie fixation. Those guys are always trouble, haunting you years after you've split up. Then came Damon, a blue-eyed boy clumsily juggling credibility with pop stardom, not to mention a suspiciously wavering accent. Bad news, that guy. The little blighter becomes very famous and ropes you into the old celebrity couple stranglehold. You break up and he writes some critically acclaimed songs about the whole affair. Meanwhile, you, or at least Justine, is left floundering naked in a sea of flash-bulb tabloid sensationalism with her band falling apart, as everyone whispers behind her back about her drug habits and how she's just a washed-up starfucker. Fame, it's a bitch.
The thing is Justine Frischmann probably would've been famous anyway. Back when britpop ruled the world, or at least the pages of the British music press, Justine and her band Elastica were showing the posing androgynists and muso lads a thing or two about short, sharp, no frills punk thrills. In 1995, Elastica were all over the charts, the glossy pullouts and the fantasies of acne-ridden indiekids. An eponymous debut album, crammed with riff-laden two minute eruptions such as "Connection", "Stutter", "Line Up" and "Waking Up", hit number one in Britain and went gold in America. Rolling Stone proclaimed them Best New Band and guitarist Donna Matthews was declared a living rock and roll goddess.
But as the years slowly rolled by, the industry grumbled for a new record, until it gradually dawned on everyone that Elastica had taken a step too far. "We fell apart basically," recalls Frischmann. "We toured way too long. America, Japan, Europe. We got really burnt out. We were young and didn't know how to deal with any of this."
As Justine's relationship with Damon Albarn diminished, so did her band. They were attacked by the press for lifting key hooks from their biggest influences, Wire and The Stranglers. Bassist Annie Holland left. Justine was portrayed more as celebrity groupie than an artist in her own right. And their "difficult second album" looked more and more like an "impossible second album". Eventually, after several attempts to make another record, guitarist and songwriter Donna Matthews left. It seemed like the final nail in Elastica's coffin. But it wasn't. "It all happened too quickly. We never expected Elastica to be as much of a mainstream thing as it became. And I think this time around it's not going to be. I'm quite comfortable with that."
Yes, Elastica have somehow dragged themselves back from the britop scrapheap. Frischmann is wiser, warier, and more in control. Annie is back on board. Donna's doing her own thing know, but she's patched up her differences with Justine. Newbies Paul Jones and Dave Bush (ex-Fall) are signed up as is the wonderful Mew, the most energetic woman in rock. Where once all the doe-eyed boys lusted over Donna, now they're fixated by Mew's animated antics. "Mew is amazing. I went to see her play in her old band and she was totally wild onstage, loads of energy. And we needed another girl really. Mew is great for morale generally. She's a good girl."
That "impossible second album" is now known as "The Menace". It sounds like the Elastica of yore - lean, mean, snarling new wave punk - but augmented by the additional members into a busier, messier glam racket. The Fall's Mark E Smith blares out the vocals on the self-ironic "How He Wrote Elastica, Man" - a personal high for adoring fan Justine. "I couldn't speak. I was almost too afraid to say hello to him because I'm such a massive Fall fan. But he was very charming." Well, when the grumpy man of rock and roll is nice to you, you know your luck has changed for the better.
"The album has obviously been written over a really long period of time. There's some really dark stuff on the record that comes from the early part of '96 through '97, some stuff that Donna wrote and some stuff I wrote in my basement which I never really intended for Elastica because it was at a time when I thought Elastica was no more. I got really into Eno for a while. Around '97, the stuff that was coming out of my basement was quite Eno-esque, quite soundtracky. Paul got me really into ESG, who are a black girl-group who played in New York in the early Eighties. It's very simple, honed-down stuff. Very odd rhythms with a ska and almost disco edge to it. I've been really inspired by that. Creatively, since this album's been finished it's really felt like there's a weight been lifted. I just feel like we can do whatever we want now. I think I'd like to go back to much simpler sound again. If anything, this album is too busy."
Minor gripes aside, the moral of the story is to never go out with a famous boy. "I don't think I'm someone who has ever been comfortable in the celebrity spotlight, so to speak. I can sense the dread every time I do an interview. And something I'd like to really get across is that I'm not someone who is really into famous men."
And having witnessed two Elastica shows in Dublin in the space of 24 hours, there is definitely a new vitality to the band. "I really feel like the audience is rooting for us, that they really want it to work out, which is amazing. I feel like whatever baggage we have and whatever shit has gone on, there are actual fans - not writers or whatever - that really want it to work."