'My sanity is more important than success'
(The Observer) By Andrew Smith.
We meet at her handsome four-storey Victorian house in Notting Hill. 'I always feel embarrassed to say I live in Notting Hill these days,' Justine Frischmann says, smiling her Mona Lisa with a naughty secret smile. 'It seems like such a cliché.'
And I suppose it does. The interior is hardly Withnail & I, but comfortably bohemian and ungrown-up. A flatmate lounges on a sofa and a coal-effect gas fire pretends to burn in the hearth. Beyond the neat, open-plan kitchen, a Defender arcade game - the likes of which I haven't seen since I was a student - lords it over a small dining area. She searched everywhere for one before finding it in Canada and having it shipped over. I find myself wondering whether it was here when her old boyfriend Damon Albarn was.
Now, you might not think this matters, but it does. Last September, Frischmann's group, Elastica, released a statement to the effect that, after nearly 10 years' troubled existence, they had decided to call it a day. In 1995, their eponymous first album had gone straight to number one, becoming the fastest-selling British debut ever. They were the most celebrated British act in America (trouncing Oasis, Pulp, Blur and Suede) and had been the subject of a bidding war among US labels, which resulted in a jackpot deal with the David Geffen organisation. She had everything. Everything. And now she is walking away. From it all. We need to know why.
Frischmann was part of a strange ménage à trois that elided into Britpop - itself one of the most peculiar cultural episodes of recent times. One of its seminal albums was made by her, but significant chunks of two others (Suede and Blur's 13) were written about her. But the adventure didn't turn out as expected. In the end, Britpop was a chimera, and so, for Frischmann, was stardom. The one led pop culture to Pop Idol and a ruinous place where the only recognised indicator of success, and thus survival, is sales and media profile. The other - and this is not unrelated - led Frischmann to celebrity and Narcotics Anonymous. What follows is the story of how both of these things happened.
Tall, tomboyishly elegant, and intelligent, Frischmann has the kind of languid insouciance that is only acquired through dedicated effort or an expensive education: she went to St Paul's School in London. Her father is a highly successful structural engineer who has worked on some famous buildings. As a kid, she remembers him keeping termite farms in the house, to study.
He is also a Hungarian refugee and Holocaust survivor who was at Auschwitz when the Russians came at the end of the Second World War. He has only ever talked about his experiences once and was angry with Frischmann for revealing this in a moment of weakness as she was being goaded about her 'privileged' upbringing. Her mother is Russian and, like many children of displaced people, the youngest Frischmann is prone to lament her lack of a distinctive, fixed accent, and therefore identity. Now, she doesn't talk about her family, except to acknowledge that 'my background is quite, quite different to anyone else I know,' and that 'my father is an incredibly positive, ambitious, world-embracing person, and seeing that has been really important to me - which is why I try not to drag him into the pathetic little world of the music business'.
If anyone was going to bring a different attitude to pop's top table, it was going to be her, and this is perhaps why her involvement with it reads like a version of the film This Is Spinal Tap as scripted by François Truffaut.
I reckon she looks, well, healthy. We've crossed paths intermittently since meeting for the first interview she ever did, in 1993, for Melody Maker. It was an exciting time for British music, because after years of subjugation to dour American grunge, Suede had come along to reclaim Britishness, and more particularly Englishness, as a source of inspiration. She seemed remarkably level-headed and self-aware for a musician (my view on this hasn't changed) and later, when the stories about drug problems and heroin addiction in her band began to circulate, I would find them hard to believe. The thing was that she had been a founder member of Suede, having met and become lovers with singer Brett Anderson while studying architecture at London University. He had been enrolled on a planning course, she explained with a smirk, but she'd persuaded him to switch to hers. In the end, though, she thought their songs were too long and indulgent - no fun - and, in any case, met and fell for a different singer, Damon Albarn, from a then unknown and poorly regarded band called Blur. For a while, she was still living with Anderson while seeing Albarn. The feral shriek that was 'Animal Lover', from Suede's first album, is about this time. She was funny on the subject of her departure from Suede.
'I just thought it was better to be Pete Best than Linda McCartney,' she explained with the hint of a grin, as she raised a cup of tea to her lips in a Camden caff. 'Apart from anything, I couldn't deal with being the second guitarist and having this strange, Lady Macbeth role in it, along with being general mother to four blokes.'
She'd been studying music and writing songs since she was 11 and went on to lament the fact that 'as soon as a bloke gets a guitar in his hands, he's unbearable,' which is something that even most men will struggle to argue with. The punky songs she was now offering with Elastica were never more than four minutes long, sometimes less than two, mostly very fast and often pretty rude. A personal favourite was the 60-second 'Vaseline' (' When you're stuck like glue - Vaseline!/ If you'd like to woo - Vaseline!'), in regard to which she said:
'I have a low boredom threshold. I want the best bits - verse-chorus, verse-chorus, that's it. The whole thing of playing middle eights and triple choruses to finish isn't music, it's brainwashing. If you want to hear the chorus again, rewind it. Also, I don't feel any kind of need to bare myself in public. I'm not into angst. Someone like Brett has a lot of ghosts to exorcise. I don't. I've always liked humour in music.'
There was also a song called 'Rock And Roll is Dead'. 'Was it?' I asked, now reading back the answer with incredulity.
'I think the myth is dying, yeah. I have a friend who's manic-depressive and when she's in one of her manic "up" phases, she seems to be drawn to all those old rock clichés. People get trapped within rock'n'roll. It doesn't have the power it had for me when I was growing up, though. There's that line from Ziggy Stardust which runs, " I can go to sleep as a rock'n'roll star _" That whole idea of being safe because you're a rock'n'roll star is bogus. I can sleep at night without all that stuff clouding my mind.'
What on earth happened, then?
1995 was Britpop year zero. Oasis and Blur got involved in the now infamous 'Battle of the Bands' over which one of two very ordinary singles ('Roll With It' and 'Country House' respectively) would reach number one first. Blur won that particular battle, but lost the war badly when their rivals' treacly 'Wonderwall' shot them through the roof. Now pop music was everywhere - on the News at Ten, in the national papers, spearheading Cool Britannia and a smug new conceit that British arts ruled the waves once more took hold. The ultra-competitive Albarn, whose 1994 Parklife set the whole thing in motion - and who many think instigated the 'Battle of the Bands' wheeze - later came to believe that he'd created a monster, saying:
'Parklife sold over a million and that seemed to bring about a sea change. There hadn't been a record which had been so widely accepted critically and commercially for many years, and what seems to have happened is that, ever since then, things have been judged on how many copies they sell, rather than on their quality. In a way, we've done a lot of harm.'
Frischmann became indirectly involved in the skirmish when Oasis singer Liam Gallagher used her to wind Albarn up. She was none too pleased.
'Next time I see Liam Gallagher he's for it,' she raged. 'Did you see what he said in Smash Hits? He said: "I wouldn't kick that Justine out of bed." What a sad cunt. I mean, I'd think he was being ironic if he wasn't so fucking thick!'
While Blur and Oasis were skirmishing noisily on the home front in 1995, however, Elastica were touring incessantly, largely in the US, where Frischmann and her three-quarters female group had made a substantial impact. She liked it there, she told me that year, because she wasn't seen as 'that bloke from Blur's girlfriend'. In fact, she was much better known and far more respected than him. At the same time, things were starting to unravel.
The quartet were exhausted. Frischmann drove them on and on, until bassist Annie Holland accused her of being 'not human'. When a second album eventually appeared five painful years after the first, it would contain a song Holland had written at the time, called 'Human', which Frischmann believes to be about the obsessive drive she developed. Then impossibly cute guitarist Donna Matthews (Frischmann's professed best chat-up line: 'I can introduce you to Donna...') and drummer Justin Welch recklessly flouted rule one of the Spinal Tap Code of Band Conduct and became romantically involved, then fell out badly. Frischmann had to sort the mess out.
'It was sad. I felt like a mother seeing two children ripping each other apart.'
She also carried anxiety about her acceptance by the public, saying: 'I do feel slightly like I'm having sex with the world at the moment, and I'm not sure if it's going to like me in the morning.'
At least she felt like she was having sex with someone. The worst thing about 1995 was that she and Albarn, who had by then moved into the Notting Hill house with her, only saw each other for three weeks. She returned at the end of the year to find that, despite their enforced separation, they had become the celebrity couple of the day and couldn't so much as pop out to buy some cigarettes without it appearing in the tabloid pop pages. She also claims to have noted that Albarn hadn't managed to buy any furniture or lightbulbs and that one of her cats was acting strangely, which she attributed to her continual absence. She felt disorientated and could barely manage to hold a conversation even with her friends and family.
'I was definitely the most miserable I've ever been in my whole life,' Frischmann says in retrospect.
It was a big comedown, in personal and creative terms.
'In a musical sense, it seemed like all the good intentions had gone awry, very quickly. I mean, we got back from America and Blur had made The Great Escape, which I thought was a really, truly awful album - so cheesy, like a parody of Parklife, but without the balls or the intellect. And Oasis were enormous and I always found them incredibly dreary. There was this uncritical reverence surrounding the whole thing... it had seemed to me that maybe I was part of some force that was going to make music edgier and more interesting and then suddenly Blur were playing Wembley stadium and it was gone. And it was nothing to do with me again. While you feel that what you do has meaning, it's easy to put up with the inconveniences of fame, but as soon as you feel that hasn't, it's a lot harder to make those sacrifices. I think we all felt isolated and under pressure.'
How inconvenient was fame, exactly?
'Well, you know, for a while I found myself being Posh Spice, basically.'
Which must have its upside.
'Well, it was really exciting for a while. It was like a mad surreal experience. The first gig we played in New York, Iggy Pop and Debbie Harry turned up to it. So I got to meet a lot of my heroes, and they were interested in me. And that was fantastic.'
They didn't disappoint you?
'Well, actually, some of them did, but it doesn't matter. It's just the experience of meeting someone and having them want to speak to you. And travelling and seeing a lot of the world was amazing... but I don't think I ever handled seeing the reflection of myself in the press very well. Plus, my private life had become not a stable place I could escape to.'
Did celebrity exacerbate that?
In what ways? Do you mean that if you had an argument in a restaurant, it would make the papers?
'Oh, it's so much more intrusive than that. So much more.'
How do you mean?
'Well, it's not just a matter of if you're caught having an argument out. It invades every area of your life and makes you paranoid in a really peculiar way. It takes the spontaneity away. I always thought being famous would bring me freedoms and I suddenly realised that the opposite was true, that when you have people peering into your life, you have to really, really watch your step. And live in a very closed way. You have to be very careful of voicing any opinions or doing anything that people might disapprove of - and I've always been someone who says really awful things.'
'I mean, I think that maybe, if you keep going, you get through that. I watched Damon go through it and come out the other side and just be able to deal with it. He had a sort of nervous breakdown earlier than me...'
'Yeah, around Parklife. He actually had a proper breakdown, then. And he was different after that.
In what way?
'His personality seemed to change slightly and he just got thicker skinned or something. He seemed really, genuinely beyond caring what people thought of him. And, you know, much as I admired it and tried to do the same, I found it difficult.'
Presumably, something is gained in the process, but something else lost. A layer of sensitivity, perhaps?
'Absolutely. And I think for Damon it was about becoming a yob. Finding his football friends and becoming quite playful about it. Just starting to assume the character of the insensitive yob and letting that get you through. Which is fine.'
But probably not what attracted you to him in the beginning.
Her voice drops.
'No. But for me... I didn't find it easy to assume a character which I could happily send out in to the world as a doppelgänger. I think there probably was a time when it was possible to survive fame, but I think now you have to be a very unusual kind of person to deal with it. And there are undoubtedly people who can - look at the Beckhams, who've done an amazing job. I mean, he bought her a piano for Christmas. She's famous for being a Spice Girl; she can't sing, dance or write songs. And if that was me, I'd be looking at the piano and weeping and thinking how sad the whole thing was and how pathetic my life was. And she thought it was a lovely romantic gesture. And good on her. I'm not sure what it is in my personal history or make-up that made things so difficult for me. In that way, I would say that being smart or cynical or knowing or any of the things that I might think about myself in a snobby way and think Victoria Beck- ham isn't - are entirely useless. She's a much more adaptable human being than I am. She's much more capable of just enjoying what she's getting.'
1996 began on a low, but Frischmann and Elastica still had everything to play for. They tried recording, but it wasn't working. She and guitarist Matthews began to compete and mistrust each other and ultimately refused to appear in the studio on the same days. Soon, level-headed bassist Holland would leave, believing that they'd lost the plot. The singer responded to this turmoil by getting lost in the minutiae of the music - the classic response to creative paralysis. Meanwhile, Matthews was being snapped looking gaunt and drawn at 3am outside the showy Met Bar in Mayfair with increasing frequency. Drummer Welch would later comment that part of the deal with celebrity is that 'you get the keys to London; you can go anywhere and do anything you want,' adding the rueful rejoinder, 'So we did, really.'
By the end of the year, there were strong rumours that some, or all, of Elastica had got mixed up with heroin. Now, asked whether there was truth in those tales of a band slumped in the studio unable to play, all revving at different rates on different drugs, she will say simply, 'There was a fair bit of truth in that, yeah.' She estimates that in the five years that passed between Elastica and its follow-up, The Menace, they blew £350,000 on recording sessions that went nowhere and wages that went everywhere. 'Quite a lot of money down the drain, really,' she states with the resigned simplicity of a nun caught gorging on chocolate in the order broom cupboard.
In a conversation we had that year, she also seemed angry about the fact that her partner, Albarn, was trying to persuade her to give up the band, settle down and start a family. According to her, he told her that she'd demonstrated herself to be his equal and had nothing further to prove, and that she was unhappy because she wanted to have children, but wasn't acknowledging it. She was angry about this, suspecting him of trying to reassert control rather than addressing her real problems. So she withdrew into a hermetic existence, sealing herself away with old friends like Brett Anderson and new ones like Bobby Gillespie of Primal Scream, both of whom were renowned for being surrounded by drugs and drug people. There were rumours of affairs with them and others, but these continue to be denied by all concerned. Then, in early 1997, Blur had a hit with a single called 'Beetlebum', which, after being pressed in these very pages, Albarn reluctantly admitted to be about heroin. Frischmann would later confess to having lived the life of a 'sad junkie' between 1996 and 1998. This still surprises me.
In explanation, she has expressed empathy with Marianne Faithfull's account of her own dissolution, saying:
'I don't know if you've read her book, but I could relate to her thing about having the very successful boyfriend and slightly giving up on life, thinking: "I'm not even going to try and compete." I think that's quite a female thing, that if you're around men who are very competitive, you just end up thinking: "Fuck it, I'm just not even going to go there."'
She still grows uncomfortable when discussing this period, and heroin in particular. At one point, she tells me that her parents are Observer readers and she doesn't want them to be confronted with all this stuff again. She has never directly answered questions about her own involvement with the drug, though she has discussed Donna Matthews's very public battle with it, and her own dalliances with other substances. What follows may be drawn from direct experience, or observation. She begins by describing why she considers the topic so dangerous.
'The problem with heroin is that the connotations are so strong that you do tend to generalise. There's a stigma attached to it, which is in some ways irrational.'
It's considered evil in a way that most other drugs aren't any more. It's not about recreation. And recreation is OK.
'Well, that's because it does actually remove your spirit. It really does take your life force away. And it takes your fight away.'
It's usually an anaesthetic, isn't it? To do with pain management?
'Well, a lot of the people I've known who had problems with that drug, it has been about pain management. If people need to just... take time out from their life, it can seem better to just quietly knock yourself out and not face it or bother anyone else with it. Or kill yourself, basically. Anyway, I do think it's too shallow to blame the whole thing on a drug problem. The irony is that, when we toured that first album, I never really did lots of drugs, despite the fact that my band were. I couldn't have functioned at that level if I had.
'I think the problem with hard drugs is that they get you when you're most vulnerable. They hadn't really been a problem until we were at rock bottom and we were all very unclear about who we were, what the fuck we were doing with our lives. You get home and you don't really feel like it's home. At that point, doing hard drugs is very dangerous. I've never been that into drugs, that's the joke.'
She now has a lot more time for people who've been down that road. If you're lost and don't know how to move forward, she explains, the drugs can take you away from yourself, to a place where time and its horrible imperatives can't reach you. So she better understands people who, in Irvine Welsh's famous phrase, 'don't choose life'. She also recognises that there was more to it than this in her case, that the rock'n'roll clichés she airily dismissed in our first interview have become part of our collective folk memory. They're just there. And we have a fondness for them.
'Yeah, there was a lot of excessive behaviour in my band. Absolutely. But I do think it's part of the whole rock myth, and we plugged into it in lots of ways and this was another way we could plug nicely into it. You know: "Part two, they all become junkies and die." It took myself and Donna several years before we felt like we were in a position to be in touch with anything that mattered again.'
It's almost comforting, isn't it? Known. Did the reports at the time bother you?
'They bothered me for my parents, really. I didn't want them to have to read any of that.'
Interestingly, not all of the rock'n'roll clichés hold equally for both sexes. It's amusing to hear Frischmann dismiss the idea of male 'groupies'.
'Oh no, I think that's different for women. Ironically, when Elastica was doing really well, I found that men used to run a million miles from me. It was the most dry time in terms of getting offers, or people seeming interested. It just seemed to absolutely terrify them. I think the opposite is true for boys on tour.'
In early 1998, Frischmann and Albarn went on holiday to Bali in an unsuccessful attempt to rekindle their relationship. Back in the UK, things went on as before until August, when the Elastica singer parted company with him and Donna Matthews in the space of a single traumatic weekend. People thought she'd gone mad, but in retrospect it's clear that this was precisely what she needed in order to move forward. And once the prospect of moving forward seemed real, the drugs were no longer necessary. Blur's next album, 13 (released in 1999), would contain many poignant lyrics about the split. The oft-quoted ' The ghost I love the most/hiding from the sun, waiting for the night to come... when you're coming down, think of me' tended to suggest that the break could be directly attributed to the drugs, but those close to the pair will insist that her refusal to have children at that point was more central to their problems.
The object of the hit single 'Tender' will confess that she cried the first time she heard it, then became irritated and embarrassed, although her attitude has now softened. She realises that she was in a bind; financial success was overshadowed by her background, while musical success was eclipsed by the status of her partner and Blur. Those who didn't know her thought she'd flipped, as she acknowledges when she says:
'It was very difficult. It's actually very taboo to stop and say, "OK, I'm in a band and I'm really successful and my boyfriend's a pop star and he's really handsome and lots of girls fancy him, but I don't want to be with him." I was just thinking: "This just isn't the life I want." I felt like going back to basics, living life on a much smaller scale. There's something very unromantic about being with someone that hundreds of thousands of teenage girls fancy. There really is.'
At this point, things began to pick up. She resolved to finish the second LP, which was recorded by a reconfigured band (in a fortnight, on a budget of £10,000) and released in 2000, accompanied by a tour that was received with rare warmth. She smiles when I tell her how much I enjoyed the Astoria show.
'Yeah. It was a very healing thing. It almost healed all the wounds from the first line-up. I think that helped me to make peace with it all and feel that I could move on.'
And then it was over, the group disbanding over Christmas 2000, though delaying any announcement until September last year, just in time for a valedictory single, 'The Bitch Don't Work' - the title of which was a sardonic joke ('The bitch don't work - the drugs do,' she smirks).
I ask what she's learnt. From the drugs, she's learnt humility, she says. She also watched Primal Scream's Bobby Gillespie coming off tour and being unable to feed himself or have normal relationships with people in the street - the result of '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'. At this point, she knew that she 'had never been cut out to be a pop star'.
'I've learnt that success can interfere with creativity. In a big way. And on a personal level, I've learnt that my sanity's more important than success. And that I actually get a great deal more pleasure out of small things in life than big things.'
Isn't that what your twenties is about, I wonder. In pop years, Frischmann is now said to be 33.
'Yeah, it almost seems like your twenties is about having everything you ever thought was true proved wrong. And I think that's why so many people kill themselves at 27. You just can't take any more of finding out how wrong you were! And then, by the time you reach your early thirties, you find out that it doesn't really matter, because it all keeps going on and what you think about it is not really that important. It's just a matter of trying to make some sense of the small things. Stop trying to control everything and let it happen. Also, your ambitions change, become less to do with trophies, I think. That said, I don't feel that anyone could have survived what we went through. I went into it with a really good head on my shoulders, very stable, quite smart, quite aware of the pitfalls because I'd seen them around me... there was no way of keeping people mentally healthy. It was impossible.'
To be fair to Frischmann here, she did complain about this along the way.
'Oh yeah! I did complain about it,' she says, her eyes widening. 'And there's an awful lot of people it annoyed. I mean, you're supposed to want it completely and uncritically and then suddenly you're jumping up and down going: "It's a myth!" People don't want to hear that.'
She stops and looks at me strangely.
'Funnily enough, one of the things I remember from the first interview I did with you for Melody Maker was that you misunderstood something I said.'
'Yeah. We were talking about the idea of fame, and you said that I said that the furniture of fame hadn't changed, that fame had become tired and boring. What I actually meant was that, when fame comes, the furniture of your life doesn't change: you feel the same, have the same problems... the things that matter all stay the same. Which is so true. It doesn't change anything, really. There are still things that I'm incredibly thankful for, though - the people I've met, places I've been, the feeling of playing a great gig. If I'd never had a chance to do that, I think I'd be eternally curious.'
Has she thought about what to do with... well, how to put this...
'What to do with my life - haha?'
Yes. She's just spent some time in New York and living simply in a Caribbean village. In the first place, she was largely on her own and didn't know many musicians, so she took to just turning up places and playing with people she didn't know. It was frightening at first, but she preferred it to being in a band, where 'You're not going to do anything unless you're onstage with your specific people and your lights and your songs and... blah .' In the second place, she did a little teaching, which was 'one of the most rewarding things I've ever done'. She's still writing songs, but says she won't front a band again and being a musician 'may be more dignified if it becomes more of a hobby... I'm over it, in terms of needing recognition.'
Just like that? You really think so?
'Yeah, I genuinely feel that.'
And how does that feel?
'A bit worrying. I sometimes wonder whether maybe I'm getting old before my years or something, whether I should be more... whether I should still have that need. It feels good, though. A lot better. I do feel that I sort of did my bit. So you may very well never hear from me again - doing anything. I mean, maybe this is the point where I suddenly start having babies.'
Strangely, I remember her saying exactly the same thing in 1993. She gets up to buy some Marlboro Lights, which she's trying to give up. But she turns back with her brow furrowed.
'Is that what you thought you'd find me saying?' she asks.
'It's what I hoped I might find you saying,' I reply.
'So I'm entirely predictable.'
No, I wouldn't say that. She returns and we spend the next couple of hours talking about anything other than Elastica and her, and she seems very comfortable with that. Frischmann does seem to have 'moved on' from Britpop and all that. For British pop culture, it may not be so easy.