Interview with Justine Frischmann
(Jessica Berens) By Jessica Berens.
So Justine Frischmann is an hour late and we are all waiting in a brown hotel foyer in Liverpool Street. Her publicist, Mick, nice, getting on, very few teeth, is reading Carl Hiassen. There is another publicist and a lot of girls wearing jeans. Mick says she will not be doing too much press; there was a lot when the first album came out. Elastica were over-exposed and it wasn’t good for the band. He goes on to tell a story about the gig in which one of the Stranglers hit him on the head with a guitar. Then it is three o clock and a slightly worried mobile phone call. The car has been outside her house in Nottinghill Gate since 1.30 and of course I cannot help thinking that she is on heroin because that is what everyone in west London has told me. Her boyfriend Damon Albarn (the beauty from Blur) left her for an eskimo and now Justine is on drugs. That is what ‘they’ all said.
Suddenly she is here in a flurry of revolving doors and black hair, a medium-sized person (about five foot six) in a Clash tee shirt, jeans and sneakers. Marlboro Lites fire up. ‘First impressions are important’. She sings that on her new album, and she is right. First impression? She has that ineffable charisma that you would expect her to have, and that strange androgyne beauty that once appeared as Patti Smith and then kd lang and is nowhere near the ultra-femme Unawoman currently traversing the newsstands.
"I have never dressed like a girl,’ she says.’ People have called me Sir in shops and stuff."
The last five years have not been easy. There were drugs around her but no she was not a heroin addict. "I’ve tried everything, but I’ve never been that interested really."
We slump about upstairs somewhere. Justine asks for a man for a cup of coffee who replies that he is not a waiter, actually, he is waiting for a friend.
"I am quite relieved to be 30," she says. "You can be who you wanna be a bit more."
She is a rock chick through and through, but there is nothing overtly tough about her. She has soft brown eyes and seems to be a very gentle person.
"When Elastica were successful I found that men were absolutely terrified of me. There was this myth that Damon and I had this open relationship, but I was never approached...."
After the first album in l995 Elastica seemed to disappear, though, in fact, they were touring America. "The record went gold," she points out." One year we outsold every other British band but when we got back no-one had noticed. All they said was, ‘where’s the new album?’"
"At the same point Damon was saying to me, ’Well you’ve proved to me that you’re as good as I am, now settle down and have a baby.’ He was very keen to start a family. I didn’t feel ready and I didn’t feel the circumstances were right. He told me that the reason I was unhappy was because I wanted to have children but I was just not admitting it to myself and bla bla bla playing that terrible male card. I think looking back on it I came quite close to a breakdown. I lost a sense of myself and I couldn’t really remember why I had got myself into a band in the first place."
There were squabbles and drugs, drugs and squabbles. Elastica’s lead guitarist Donna Matthews left the group. Justine was tired and very miserable.
She dumped the prince of Britpop and everyone around her thought she was mad but life as Pop Royalty is not the heaven of poster and pin-up. There might have been adulation and attention and hanging out with Damien Hirst or the Chapman brothers, but there were also the times that the Prince of Pop was so drunk that he had to be carried home, not to mention the stress of being apart for long periods of time, and the basic competition that existed between them, two bands, two musicians, both young, both wanting success.
Damon was, "very competitive, very confrontational and also very famous. The circumstances were impossible to deal with really. Something had to give...."
Where once they supported each other, they began to undermine each other. They have both accused each other of failing to provide emotional support. While he has said that he helped her and that she was ungrateful, she was determined to fight the perception that her work was merely an extension of Blur.
"When I met first met Damon he was about to get a record deal. Parklife had not come out. Elastica were a little punk band. A year later people were looking through my rubbish and taking pictures of me in Tescoes. Damon and I were big news and I wasn’t prepared for that. How could you be? But I had never wanted popular success in that sense. I don’t think Elastica was ever designed to be a tabloid friendly band."
Damon, who fought to save the relationship, was devestated. In l998 he moved into a flat in the Golborne Road and wrote an album, 13, (released last year) whose songs were about their break-up. Frischmann found this embarassing and said so to Uncut magazine.
She might have fallen to pieces completely if it had not been for her friend Loz Hardy, a pale individual with big specs who was in a band called Kingmaker. She gave him a spare room in her house and they became close, though there was no romance.
Loz and Justine sat in the basement at the bottom of her house where there is an eight track studio. They jammed and wrote and set down drum beats, spending the nights fiddling about with all those complicated buttons and cheering each other up.
She cried in front of him though, "I cry in front of anyone," she points out.
"Anything can set me off.." He told her again and again that it did not matter if she was not seen as a success, and this was exactly what she needed to hear.
"Sometimes when you get everything that you think you want it is a shock to find that you are the most lonely you have ever been. It’s a lot to deal with."
Now there is a new album, The Menace, and everyone will wonder if there are songs about Damon and all that, because there is always something interesting about the soap operatics of starry love. But Damon has a six month old daughter, Missy by his girlfriend (name?). Time has gone by and Justine does not appear to be dwelling on the past. ‘ My Sex’ is her most reflective and personal song, but it is not specific. She does not wish to be accused of cashing in on Blur.
She has a new boyfriend, a photographer named Neil Stewart. He is a skate punk type, works for Dazed and Confused, hangs out with Grant Fear and that mob, all west eleven ultra-cool, snowboarding and street rather than tapas and trust-funds. And that’s another thing.
"When the first album came out and started doing well people came down on me like a ton of bricks about having a rich upbringing, which was ironic. I had gone to private school (St Pauls) but I wasn’t quite the ticket there because my family were Jewish and we were seen as nouveau riche."
"Then , when I was in a band, there was inverted snobbery, because the British still want their rock heroes to be working class. In a way I felt there was a touch of anti-semitism about it because my background is not something I can change. It is like having a go at someone because of the colour of their skin. It’s too easy to say all Jews have got loads of money and bla bla bla."
"My Dad came to this country as a refugee from Hungary. He worked really hard and was very bright. I was lucky. I had a good education and I very rarely meet people who I feel intimidated by intellectually, but I was always aware that neither of my parents had had the oppurtunities that I had been given. As a result I wanted to do something with my life. I was quite ambitious."
Her father is a successful architect and her mother calls herself ‘the oldest swinger in town,’ though neither of them have ever been to an Elastica gig. "I think they would find it too noisy to deal with actually. My uncle came, he is a jazz pianist. He wore ear-plugs, but it was still too loud."
She is happier now. "My life makes more sense to me now than it did," she says. The band has a new line-up and there are plans to tour. The Menace makes one think of Jesus and Mary Chain, Sonic Youth and X Ray Specs. She was seven when Anarchy in the UK was banned in l976 so punk is a retro celebration of cool - a genre that exists as a resonant attitude and a way of thrashing out chords rather than as any real memory.
She drives a white Mini about the place, buys the occasional Paolozzi print or old Pirelli calendar, and once owned a piece by the Chapman brothers, but they took it back for a show. "I was too ashamed to ring up and ask for it." This was probably for the best. The figure was worth a lot of money and, anyway, "It looked like Jarvis with a clitoris."
Nowadays she is reading Don Delillo’s Americana and listening to ESG, an 80’s girl band from New York who, "are a cross between the Slits and Grace Jones, if you can imagine it." She is not really interested in clothes which brings us neatly to all the matters of role modelling and iconography and the context of girl rock stars , that witchy pantheon in which, one hopes, she is destined to find a place.
She is taking care with her choices now, and has learned to say no, though it is very difficult to avoid ending up looking like a Brittany Spears bimbo-boobie. There have been stylists who said they would not get paid if she did not wear the frock and there have been photographers who insisted that she looked fabulous when she knew she did not. She will never forget the time that Select magazine made them all wear ball dresses. The bassist, Annie Holland, nearly left the band when she saw the photographs. So no, she won’t be appearing in Loaded or FHM and she will not be wearing any idiotic garments. She will be herself, and, nowadays, she has a better idea of who that is.
"I have always tried to create my own agenda," she says. "I have lived by my own rules and I sort of try to stick with what I believe in. If I was to be a role model (thought it is difficult to think of oneself in those terms) I would hope that it was only in the sense that I would encourage people do their own thing."
Interview by Jessica Berens for ES Magazine (Evening Standard). Her novel The Highwayman appears in paperback on Arrow this week (5 March 2000).