In the mid 90s, Justine Frischmann and Damon Albarn were the First Couple of Britpop. Then he used a Blur album to rake over their break-up, while she languished in obscurity amid rumours of heroin addiction. Now she’s back with a new album, and it’s her turn to exorcise her demons.
Friday March 24, 2000
As Alison Moyet once said, it’s hard to write a decent song when you’re happy. Rock bands thrive on romantic turmoil in their private lives, without which they would be reduced to padding out lyrics with football scores and the weather.
Thus it was for Blur’s Damon Albarn in mid-1998 when he sat down to write what would become the 13 album. His eight-year relationship with Justine Frischmann of the chart-topping Elastica, whom he once described as “the only person who’s ever been completely necessary to me” had just ended, at her instigation. Pained and humiliated, he decided to exact revenge by exposing their most intimate details to public scrutiny.
The outcome? Embarrassment for Frischmann, a number one album for Blur and a bit of a result for Albarn.
Break-up albums are by definition both embittered and yearning – in the case of Marvin Gaye’s vindictive Here, My Dear, they’re just plain nasty – but 13 got more up-close and personal than could be considered gentlemanly. Albarn portrayed his former partner as neurotic, even slipping apparent drug references into the single Tender: “Tender is the ghost, the ghost I love the most/Hiding from the sun, waiting for the night to come”. Frischmann was the ghost, supposedly, who was on the verge of being consumed by what one music paper euphemistically called “the darkness at the heart of Elastica”.
Frischmann’s response can be found on a song called The Way I Like It, which appears on Elastica’s first album in five years, The Menace (out next month): “Well, I’m living all right and I’m doing okay/Had a lover who was made of sand, and the wind blew him away”.
This is unlikely to be her last word on the subject. As she ambivalently begins her first round of interviews since 1996, she’s finding that everyone has the same three questions. Why did Elastica nearly sabotage a promising career by taking so long to follow up their million-selling debut? Had Frischmann taken leave of her senses when she walked out on Mr Britpop? And what about the drug rumours?
“One journalist said to me, ‘Dahling, I heard you were on heroin – Mahvelous!’ ” she says with some amusement. “Drugs are around, but I’m not that interested and never have been, although there have been elements of party animal in my band. The rumours are a lot to do with rock’n’roll mythology, where people want to believe you’re having a more exciting time than you are.”
The only drugs on her person today, as she perches on the edge of an armchair in her publicist’s north London living room, are Marlboro Lights. Her other indulgences are two cups of herbal tea and a Cadbury’s Flake cupcake, which she nibbles with well-bred pleasure. Her dark eyes are clear, and her long, tanned body is a testament to the virtues of a daily swim in a pool near her Notting Hill home. Only Elastica know whether they really succumbed to heroin and hedonism after their self-titled debut made them more famous than they’d ever expected to be, but if they did, Frischmann, 30, seems little the worse for it.
Given the current predominance of damnable boy bands, the Britpop mid-90s are beginning to seem like a halcyon period for English music. It was a time when the underground went overground, and a self-described “little punk band” like Elastica could sell 80,000 albums in a week.
More than a few loser guitar groups saw Britpop as a licence to print money, but Elastica, led with cool elan by the androgynous Frischmann, were one of its gems. The Blur connection was a marketing godsend (Frischmann and Albarn met on the London indie circuit, she as guitarist in an early line-up of Suede and girlfriend of frontman Brett Anderson, he as a cherubic baggy hopeful), yet the spiky-haired Elastica LP embodied that euphoric time like nothing else.
Frischmann, guitarist Donna Matthews, drummer Justin Welch and bassist Annie Holland were unprepared for the album soaring to number one in its first week. When they signed their record deal, Frischmann, whose great-grandfather was a conductor of the Tsar’s orchestra at the Summer Palace in Byelorussia, was five years into an architecture degree at London University. A liberal north London Jewish upbringing – her engineer father built the Oxford Street landmark Centrepoint – had instilled expectations of success, but the reality of being photographed in the supermarket and having her rubbish stolen was a shock. Fiercely independent, she also resented her unsought role as half of Britpop’s First Couple.
There was more. Two of Frischmann’s musical heroes, The Stranglers and Wire, decided that two Elastica songs were suspiciously similar to two of their own tracks, and won royalties. Meanwhile, there were malicious rumours that Albarn had done much of the work on the record. He hadn’t, but he did find Justine’s success in America, where she was substantially out-selling Blur, hard to endure.
“It was very hard for him to deal with and he’s very confrontational,” she says, with the flattering openness of someone who prefers interviews to be more like conversations. She admits she often says too much, but in an era of image control and spin, her honesty makes her a one-off. Not that she’s likely to land herself in it too badly – she possesses the intellectual ammunition to look after herself, which must have been instrumental in attracting two of rock’s more articulate stars, Albarn and Anderson.
She’s been accused of being a professional rock girlfriend, though it was probably they who were lucky to get her. She spent the cab ride over reading the Sylvia Plath letters in Monday’s Guardian, and muses on the irony of the poet’s subjugating herself to Ted Hughes when she was the more gifted. (Her new boyfriend, by the way, is an unknown photographer, “though that’ll probably change, because men seem to get famous when I go out with them”.)
“I reacted the way a lot of women do, by being passive,” she continues. “He put a lot of pressure on me to give up Elastica. He said, ‘You don’t want to be in a band, you want to settle down and have kids.’ ” In so many words? “In so many words. He kept putting on pressure till I started to believe him.” She adds bemusedly: “I’ve met his new girlfriend, and one of the first things she said was that he wanted her to give up travelling with her work to stay home with the baby [Missy, born last autumn]. I’m surprised he’s got away with being thought of as a nice person for so long.”
After 18 months, during which they did seven American and three Japanese tours, Elastica came off the road to record company demands for an immediate second album. Annie Holland’s response was to quit the group, while Donna Matthews became renowned for hard partying on the nocturnal west London scene. They lethargically recorded some demos, but their heart wasn’t in it. By 1997, when a second album should have been ready to go, Frischmann and Matthews were barely speaking, and there was nothing useable down on tape.
Holland’s replacement, Sheila Chipperfield (of the circus Chipperfields), was deemed not good enough and left by mutual consent. By 1998, their continued lack of productivity was being likened to the Stone Roses’ lengthy and ultimately self-destructive holiday between their first and second LPs.
“I didn’t think Elastica were going to continue at that point, and we did kinda split up,” she says, absently stroking her publicist’s cat. Frischmann is a cat person; she’s owned a tabby called Benjamin since she was 10. “Unconditional love,” she coos. The pet’s place in her life is so assured that prospective boyfriends are subjected to his feline scrutiny before she’ll go out with them.
On top of everything else, in early 1998 her relationship with Albarn was in trouble. Frischmann retains enough of the indie ethic to detest the phenomenon of celebrity couples, and was dismayed when they became one. “I really hated the tabloid interest, and I went out of my way not to be photographed with him. Only about three pictures of us together exist, I think. In many ways, I think the media interest broke us up, because it made me feel the relationship was quite ugly, and I had to get away from it. There were other factors, too, obviously, because we were together for eight years, and I finally felt it was better the devil you didn’t know, really.”
Albarn’s ego seems to have been severely undermined by having a girlfriend who was nearly as successful as he was, and something of a sex symbol to boot. Despite adopting a resolutely boyish T-shirt-and-jeans uniform, she’s thoroughly feminine, a mix that got her voted fifth most fanciable woman in a lesbian magazine.
“I’m completely heterosexual, so I didn’t know how to take that. It scares the shit out of me, the idea of being with a girl. I’m glad I’ve narrowed it down to half the people in the world.”
She seems to view Albarn with indulgent exasperation these days, simultaneously praising his intelligence (“The Gallaghers just couldn’t compete”) and ticking off his flaws. “Damon adores being in the press, and sees all press as good press. He orchestrated that rivalry thing with Oasis. He really wanted kids, and I didn’t feel our relationship was stable enough. He was a naughty boy, and he wasn’t the right person to have kids with. I had this cathartic moment…”
At which point they split up. Albarn wrote 13 and then met Suzi Winstanley, an artist. “She was pregnant within three months,” Justine observes wickedly.
Of the acclaimed 13, she’s tactful, describing several songs as “really lovely”. She studies her cigarette for a while before adding, “but I’m cynical about selling a record on the back of our relationship”. But you’re doing the same now. “It’s true, but at the time I had no right of reply.”
Elastica finally pulled themselves together last year, just as the music industry was about to write them off (their American label had already “very kindly let us go”, as she puts it). Holland rejoined, Matthews went to Wales to sort out her life and the band banged out an EP and played the Reading Festival. Things came together quickly after that. They spent the last £10,000 of the recording budget on re-recording a dozen tracks, finishing the album, after years of procrastinating, in six weeks. They’ve called it The Menace “because that’s what it was like to make”.
It’s dark and resolutely uncommercial – all wrong for 2000’s pop-oriented climate. It’s unlikely to match the success of the first one, which is fine with them. Call it (though Justine doesn’t) their White Album. Its 70s punk aesthetic brings to mind angry girls such as the Slits and the Au Pairs, although the defining mood isn’t anger so much as catharsis. None of the songs is specifically about Albarn, she claims.
“The dark feeling is due to the sense of isolation, tasting success and getting frightened by it. I was questioning whether I wanted to be in a band any more, and there was no one I could ask for advice. Getting success and everything you ever dreamed about is hard to handle, and makes you question everything.”
She’s better prepared for success, if it comes again, this time. Already the privacy-preserving barriers are in place. The next interview of the day is with Time Out magazine, which wants a list of her favourite restaurants. “I’m not telling them where I eat,” she says reflexively. “I’m gonna lie.”