The Menace Returns: An Interview with Justine Frischmann of
It may surprise you to hear it, but singer/guitarist Justine Frischmann considers Elastica a punk rock band. “I think we’re modern sounding, I think we’re edgy-sounding,” says Frischmann via phone from the UK. “I’ve always been interested in just getting up and doing your own thing. I think we very, very much started out with that kind of punk rock ideology — you know, we only signed in [the U.K.] to an independent label to do two seven-inch singles. I didn’t even think we were going to do an album. We were just going to chuck out seven-inches as we made them up. Just that thing, as well, of getting hold of other people’s songs and fucking with them. It’s just something that people kind of mistook as plagiarism, but to me it was just like, ‘well, how else do you go about doing this?’ There was a brilliant thing in The Filth & the Fury where John Lydon [and the Sex Pistols] were doing a version of ‘Roadrunner’ by Jonathan Richman, and at the end of it, he goes, ‘do we know any other fucking people’s songs?’ That’s how I am. I’m not writing songs to get on the radio, I’m not writing them to the audience, I’m not writing them for the record company or the journalists, I’m writing them to make the rest of the band have something to fucking play. I don’t care if it’s my song, someone else’s song, or someone’s song that I fucked with, I just want us to have something to play together.”
That kind of attitude has brought about more than a fair share of criticism for the band. Elastica in general, and Frischmann in particular, has often been accused of “borrowing heavily” from their influences (if not outright stealing), and at one point, was even sued by legal representatives for Wire and the Stranglers (the suits were settled out of court). Frischmann doesn’t understand why people have a problem with that. “I’m living on this planet, I have information coming towards me, and I’m using that,” she reveals. And I think that’s completely fine, you know? The annoying thing is, in dance music, samples are fine, it’s fine that people use samples, it’s great that ‘Can I Kick It?’ uses Lou Reed, or whatever. What’s the problem with that? There’s loads of great music around. I’m a music lover first and a music maker second. Music is about communication, it’s not about keeping things to yourself. Making music has a lot to do with respecting the music that you love, to me. The other musicians or the bands that inspired me to get off my ass and actually do it. I’m definitely still paying homage to them, I don’t think that should be a problem. I think it totally denies everything that post-modernism is about, which is about being a magpie, and being a Xerox machine, and being a pickpocket, you know? Mixing up styles, mixing up ideas, and just expressing what it is that you love.” Surprisingly, though, the criticism doesn’t bother Frischmann, who adds, “I just think it’s hypocritical and kind of dumb.”
Now resurfacing (finally) after a five-year absence that had most believing the band had broken up (and they had, though not publicly), Elastica are back with a new album, The Menace, a new attitude, and a new lineup, drummer Justin Welch, keyboardists Mew and Dave Bush, guitarist Paul Jones, and (returning after leaving in the middle of the Lollapalooza Tour, at the height of the band’s popularity) bassist Annie Holland. I spoke with Frischmann about the new album, the problems that the band experienced after their near-overnight success, and her well-publicized breakup with Blur lead singer Damon Albarn.
Let’s just get this out of the way right from the start. How sick are you of being asked about Damon Albarn?
I can understand why people want to know about Damon [and me, but I’ve always been] interested in playing and making music, and for me, I was really hurt by what I see as kind of rampant sexism on the part of the English press. You know, seeing as I was a girl going out with a musician, I had to be A) not writing my own songs, B) getting somewhere because of who I’ve slept with, you know? I want to concentrate on people’s similarities rather than their differences, so when I feel that kind of sexism at work, I find it kind of, a bit depressing.
I was going to ask if you feel you only get that kind of thing because you’re a woman, or if you thought Damon got the same thing in return.
I’m not sure exactly what Damon gets, because I’m not there when he does interviews, but I know in the British press how it came across, and I felt it was quite[sigma] that I was presented in a sexist way. And it also frustrates me, the whole kind of concentration on the “celebrity couple,” I just find it kind of pathetic.
You mentioned that you understand why people want to know about these things. Are you uncomfortable talking about it, or do you really feel like it’s none of their business?
I always felt comfortable about it, because I always felt that there was an understanding there, that people realized that we were together because we inspired each other, and we both love music, and I felt like we brought music to the relationship equally. I’m a music lover first and a music maker second; I think Damon’s a music maker first and a music lover second, so I was the one that was always playing records, and I was the one teaching him about taste, and all the bands, and he was the one teaching me about spirituality in music, and arrangements and writing. I felt that it was a pretty symbiotic kind of set up, but I think because he was a bloke, people make weird assumptions, or because I’m a girl, they make weird assumptions. I know that I felt it was kind of treated in a slightly different way to the way I thought of it.
Do you find the same reaction from US press and the US audience?
No, I don’t, actually. I think that’s kind of due to the fact that Elastica actually went over and did a whole lot of touring in America, and [people] got interested in my band before they got interested in my personal life, which I think is really healthy.
After dating both Damon and Brett Anderson [of Suede], does it make you think twice about dating other musicians or other people in the music business?
Well, it did, for a long time, and at this point, I’m thinking, well, I like being around other musicians, because they inspire me, and they write different music, and they like making music, and they like watching documentaries about other music makers. They have an interest in music, and I think it’s really important to have people like that around, that inspire you. I hate that thing of “starfucker” or whatever, because when I met Damon, it was at college. When I met Damon, he hadn’t even had a single out, he was playing to one man and his dog in the local pub. So I think all that side of it is kind of horrible and frustrating and ugly, but I’m not going to give up my musician friends because of it.
OK, no more romantic questions, I promise.
How did you get Annie Holland back into the band?
Basically, I bumped into her quite a long time after Donna and I decided Elastica was going to be no more. I was still writing songs, but it didn’t seem like there was ever going to be another Elastica album. I bumped into her at a gig, and she said to me, “I miss playing so much.” So we decided to book a rehearsal — not for any reason, just for a laugh, to see each other and play music together and have a laugh, and then go to the pub and play some pool. That’s kind of how Elastica ended up getting back together, to be honest.
Can you talk about Donna Matthews [ex-guitarist and co-songwriter] leaving, and how that affected you, and what your relationship is like now?
Well, basically, with Elastica Mark I, we never really had any idea that we were going to cross over to the extent that we did. I was a bit uncomfortable when we did, you know? I’d seen John Lydon and Joe Strummer both talking about how they always wanted their bands to be huge and communicate to lots of people, [and] I don’t think there’s anything wrong with being punk and communicating to a lot of people, but I felt very uncomfortable with the press and the fame and the kind of conventional ideas of success. I think that was something I needed to rebel against, and I think the only way I could really rebel against that was by not making another record for a few years [laughs].
I think Donna and I were kind of in a similar head state, but I don’t think we’d really known each other for long enough before the band started taking off to actually really be able to rely on each other as friends. I think basically, we all just got increasingly isolated from one another, and things just got weirder and weirder. It was just too much pressure on us, the second album. In the end, Donna and I just started blaming each other for it, and neither of us really knew what the fuck was going on in our lives. We’d both been through this incredibly damaging experience, touring all around the world, and the band started breaking up, and the record label breaking up, and falling out and everything.
I saw her for the first time again this year, and we’re friends again now, but we needed a couple of years off from each other.
One of the most punk rock things you did recently was to walk off the stage at the Reading Festival after playing only one song. Did you get a lot of flak about that?
No, and I don’t think we could, really. I think people were so glad to just see someone try and do something. Everything’s just got so dull, really. We’ve got a new song called “The Bitch Don’t Work,” and I just love the idea of going on to “Roadrunner,” and going like Lydon does, “do we know any other fucking people’s songs, and going into “The Bitch Don’t Work,” which is a minute and a half song, and walking off, and letting everyone get really fucked off, to the point that the audience is actually chucking stuff at us, and then go back on and do a brand new set.
The interesting thing was, we did that, and the stage manager at Reading freaked, absolutely freaked. He’s going, “you’ve got to go back on now, ’cause you’re going to ruin it for all the other bands. People are going to start throwing mud.” I was like, “good! Let them throw some fucking mud!” That’s what I want to do. I want to have some mud thrown at me. I don’t want to be stifled by journalists sitting in their bedrooms wanking over their record collections, I want the kids to be out there fucking chucking mud at me.
I think, in the end, he sort of understood, because he was part of the right age group, and he was like, “OK, I’m with you,” but it’s amazing if you try and do anything a little bit different, there’s always some cunt that’s going to tell you not to. I think it’s just important to sort of just do what you’ve gotta do, really.
In Melody Maker, you were quoted as saying, “I just feel like at the moment, there are no rules”…
Yeah, I mean, for me, I feel like it’s an open road at the moment. I’ve got this album behind me, and the whole way through the writing of this album, I knew, I was thinking, “what are the papers going to say about me? What are the journalists going to say when I break up with Damon? What do the kids want to be like the first album? What is radio gonna play?” And that’s so wrong a kind of headspace to be writing in.
I feel at the moment that I’m back at that stage that I’m just writing for the band, so that we’ve got something to play and we’re having a laugh. You know, fuck everybody, really [laughs]. Not in a horrible way, not in a kind of negative way, but in a positive way. The Sex Pistols’ message was “no future,” and I want our message to be “no rules.”
That’s probably a better message than “no future.”
I think it’s a more positive message, and I don’t feel like I can exist from hate. I want to exist for positive reasons, and I’ve always wanted the Elastica message to be positive. I’ve always felt that. I think, as well, with The Menace, that’s why it took so long, because my head wasn’t in a good way, and I didn’t feel like I had anything to say when I was feeling really negative about everything. My get up and go to do things comes from wanting to spread a positive message, really, and it always has done.
A lot of people are aghast that it took you so long to make a follow-up record…
Well, I think it was the most rebellious thing we could actually do, at that point.
What was going on? I know you went in and did some demos that you felt didn’t work out…
Basically, we went on tour for about two years, which is totally inappropriate for a new band to do, and it was a real mistake. As a result of that, Annie left the band, and the whole sort of dynamic of the band changed. Donna and I were just both damaged, really, by such extensive touring. None of us knew each other that well when the band started doing very well, and we just weren’t communicating properly.
Then there was kind of like a year and a half where it didn’t seem to me that Elastica was going to continue, and I carried on writing in my basement, but not for an Elastica album, at all, really. I bumped into Annie, and she was like, “let’s rehearse,” and it was kind of fun again. So, in the end, I actually thought, “well, fuck it, we’ve left this long, we got to the point where no one believes the band still exists, no one even expects a record to come out, we’ve got like 10,000 pounds left in the bank, let’s go in, spend the last of our money.”
We went into a really punk little studio, and recorded my favorite songs from each period of writing, and we re-recorded them as one band in one place, in six weeks. I thought that was the only way that the album was going to have any kind of cohesion, because at that point, I was like, “how the fuck am I going to chose from all this music which has been made by all these different people?” We’d had so many different people in the band. I’d got to the point where I was just like, “I can’t handle being in the music business anymore.” And then I think I came out the other side of it, and I was just like, “well, fuck it, I love making music, and it’s in me to make music, and it makes me really happy making music with my friends, and I’m not going to let anyone stop me doing that.”
When I listen to the album, I know what songs we left off, and I know how good they are, and I know what other versions we had of everything, and I can hear the faults in it, but for me, it was just so important to just get the record out, and move on from that point.
Do you feel like the band lost momentum, and more importantly, do you care?
I think we went through all sorts of shit. The band lost momentum, completely lost momentum, but you know, I had to step back and become a human being again, and not “Justine Frischmann of Elastica,” because it was doing my fucking head in. I had to do it to survive. The only thing I feel genuinely sorry about is actually making the fans wait that long, but I really had to do it to survive, and if I hadn’t done that, I would’ve gone insane, so it’s not really something I can apologize about. It was just something I had to do.
You shouldn’t have to apologize. Your first responsibility should be to yourself.
Well, in the end, you know, I realized that when Annie left the band during the Lollapalooza, we should have just stopped. We should have just gone, “OK, this is a sign, we all have to take some time off, at this point,” but it was to have suspected at that point, and at that point, I was just in the headspace of, “I’ve just gotta keep on keeping on.” You know, I had a record company on my back, I had the management on my back, I had the press on my back, and I was just[sigma] I really believed in what we were doing, and I just wanted to see it through.
What’s the significance of the album title?
The Menace? Well, there’s a lot of different levels. In one way, I think that a good band should be a menace. In another way, I think this album was a menace to make, it did my fucking head in trying to make this album after the success of the first one and what I saw in the music industry and the way I thought that I was presented.
Having said that, being on the other side of it, I actually feel that people did really read in between the lines. I actually meet so many people who don’t really fall for the bullshit and actually kind of get me on a much deeper level, and I’m always really impressed when that happens. I think there’s a lot more people out there with a lot more intelligence than probably given credit for, and sometimes, you’re your own worst critic, whereas other people just get through thinking, “oh yeah, that’s just the bullshit the journalists are printing.” It really hurts you sometimes.
I think there were a lot of people around me that were menaces, and without even intending to be, there were a lot of people that put me in a very bad headspace, and were quite cruel. I think the drugs and the rock n’ roll mythology were a menace, as well, because I think they did nothing but lead us up the garden path, and cause bad things to happen.
Is that something you think really had an effect on the band, the whole drugs and rock n’ roll menace?
Just the whole rock n’ roll mythology, you know, the whole thing of being a “celebrity couple,” living a “rock n’ roll lifestyle,” it’s just dumb. I actually just so got to this point where I just thought, “I want to be a human being first and a pop star second,” and it saved my life. It saved my life, and it carried on saving my life.
The new album has a lot darker tone than the first one. Is that something you were consciously looking for?
I wasn’t consciously. This album is incredibly organic. The first one was, too. The darkness comes out of a real sense of misery and isolation that I think Donna and I both experienced after what we went through. In one way, we were reacting against the first album — we wanted to do something different, and I think we reacting against the kind of chirpiness of the first album. Most of those songs date back to the period where Annie had left the band, we felt that there was a lot of pressure on us, people were treating us like pop stars, and we felt very isolated. We got back to England after being away from home for nearly two years, and at that point, your family and your friends haven’t seen you and don’t know who the fuck you are, you don’t know who the fuck you are, and it’s a dark place to be writing songs from, it really is.
I can see how that would color the songs that you were writing,
Yeah. I didn’t feel like singing about Vaseline, I felt like singing about having doubts about whether or not you’re human.
Is the new material you’re working on now going in the same direction?
I’ve actually decided I’m not going to talk about the new material, because at this point, I’m only writing songs for the rest of the band, I’m not even writing them for a new record, so I’m not gonna hype up what we’re doing next at all, ’cause that’s the only way I can survive. So, I’m not going to talk about a new record until it’s out, and at this point, all I’m saying is, I don’t even know if we’re going to have a new record, I’m not going to make any promises.
Well, The Menacejust came out in the last two weeks, so it’s probably premature to talk about a new album, anyway.
Well, it’s not, actually, because we’re obviously writing, and we’re having fun again, but I just think that talking about music is like dancing about architecture. Just listen to it when it comes out.
How did you end up working with Mark E. Smith of the Fall on this album?
Because Dave Bush, our programmer, was in the Fall, and he knows Mark Smith. He bumped into him in a pub when he was in the studio around the corner. I think Mark Smith knows that I’m a huge Fall fan, and I’d never met him before, so he came ’round the studio to meet me, and decided to have a little romp, luckily for us.
What are you listening to at the moment?
My favorite thing at the moment is the new Peaches album. Do you know her?
No, actually, I don’t.
She’s like this Jewish Canadian chick whose moved to Berlin and she’s making music like Lil’ Kim. I’m really into Lil’ Kim, I’m into Le Tigre, I think what they’re doing is absolutely brilliant at the moment. I’ve been listening to ESG a lot, who are like an early ’80s, all-girl, black chicks working out of New York, it’s kind of got a disco feel to it, but it’s also got a sort of sexy punk feel to it. I’ve been listening to a lot of music made by women, I guess, but with a sort of message, and people who are telling the truth. I just want to hear the truth.
Elastica are currently on a US tour, and will appear on NBC’s Late Night with Conan O’Brien on October 7. The Menace is in stores now.