Reading Festival in 1994 was full of big-time bands you can see this coming summer, too — acts who considered burning out rather than fading away, then thought about their second homes. But another famous group from that list, Elastica, haven’t played in 17 years. They were on fire back then, effortlessly outwitting even Blur and Oasis as Britpop gripped a country desperate for homegrown heroes.
“It was an incredible high,” remembers their lead singer, Justine Frischmann, 47, of that Reading show, just before Elastica released their first album. “It was like I was flying — like nothing could go wrong.” Fast-forward to today and Frischmann’s pop-star friend MIA asked if the band would re-form for her Meltdown festival line-up in June. Elastica’s original foursome exchanged emails.
“But we said no,” Frischmann says. “For a start, Donna [Matthews, guitar] is now a Christian missionary and can’t stand behind what Elastica stood for in terms of the rock’n’roll thing, but also, we’ve moved on. It’d be interesting to try that thing on again, but…” She slows a little. “I was actually surprised I was even tempted.” Slight pause. “I’ve never felt tempted before.” That sound? The promoters of the vast Hyde Park gigs totting up an offer for 2018.
For now, though, Elastica fans have to settle for a re-reissue of the band’s self-titled breakthrough on vinyl. When it hit shops in 1995, it became the UK’s fastest-selling debut album since Oasis’s Definitely Maybe, and this new print is the reason the reclusive Frischmann is at the other end of a video call from California, filling the parts of the screen her wriggling cat can’t reach. “This is the first face-to-face interview I’ve done in 20 years,” she says, so there is plenty to cover.
She thinks of herself like Zelig, stumbling around with bizarre things happening in front of her, but that downplays her band hugely. At the end of March, the tastemaker music site Pitchfork named their eponymous record the sixth best album of the Britpop era.
“It was the most exciting, bizarre and, in the end, worst time of my life,” she admits. “I just burnt out.” Why did you agree to this interview? “Because that [first] album deserves to be heard,” she says, less arrogantly than it reads. “I find myself thinking, ‘Oh, we were pretty good.’”
Her husband, Ian, thinks so. He has their songs on his iPod, and from time to time they pop up — filling the couple’s home north of San Francisco with memories from a cluttered time in Frischmann’s life, in London. “Sometimes I can’t stand it and have to fast-forward,” she says, but in a funny way, shrugged — insouciant as ever.
Elastica simply isn’t a big part of her life any more, and hasn’t been since a patchy second record in 2000, The Menace, led her to vanish and become an artist. To California, then, and her new life — one in which she spends time in her studio, or cycling, or at 12-step meetings that are a hangover from the heroin that took over her band. She says she isn’t recognised much, but, despite her black hair being stragglier than before, that angular face, photographed often, is hard to forget — the withering pout especially. She wouldn’t make it far in this country without being hassled. Walking away from a huge pop career made her mysterious. It put roots down on her cool.
These days, though, she goes out carolling at Christmas. “I love singing those carols,” she says, smiling, a woman who, in Stutter, about failed erections, sang: “Is there something you lack/When I’m flat on my back?”
It is clear, though, talking to the female face of British pop’s last great unifying movement as she juggles a cat, that Elastica was informed by a brief window in Frischmann’s life, one that let a lot of light in quickly, then shut more slowly than it should. Born in 1969, she went to the elite St Paul’s Girls’ School, in London; then became an architecture student; then was in Suede; then founded her own group because none of the women in bands “represented my friends and me — our style, humour, the energy of being in London at that moment”.
That energy, bottled, exploded like popped champagne with the album Elastica, its sound taut and punchy — the rushed feeling of life the band were living. “A very love and peace thing. A lot of MDMA and raving,” Frischmann recalls. Only four of the 15 tracks are more than three minutes long. “There is a claustrophobia living in London, and you can hear that,” she says. “Making music that is noisy and clanging was a way of letting off steam, because it’s hard to live in a city, it really is.”
The band — Frischmann, Matthews, Annie Holland and Justin Welch — played 102 gigs in less than a year between 1995 and 1996, all over the world, and, the singer says, it simply, sadly, became less about the music. “It becomes about endless interviews,” she explains. “Hours of talking about yourself until you just don’t care. It’s so hard to hold onto the initial energy. Everything is designed to wring it out of you. When I look at the people who carried on, I think, as you get older, you realise you can say no. You can protect yourself. In your early twenties, you have no idea you can say no.”
In 1999, Blur released their masterpiece, 13, which finished Britpop. There had been hints in previous years, with various mood-killing records, but for seven years Frischmann had been in a relationship with Damon Albarn, of Blur — and his 13 documented their break-up. It’s hard to keep a party going when the hosts have left the house, and the couple were the prototype Posh and Becks: a tabloid fixture too intrinsically linked with each other’s careers to be dismissed as gossip. Blur’s song No Distance Left to Run became a news story, while My Sex — on The Menace — seemed a retort of sorts: a devastating spoken-word fever dream with the lyric “When you were poor and I just liked you more”.
I asked, over email before we spoke, how Albarn helped Frischmann, or if he had been written into the narrative more than he deserved. Her reply was sweet. “Damon was a huge part of that first album,” she wrote. “He was smart, creative, energetic and extremely supportive of my efforts in the early days. I honestly don’t think Elastica would have happened without his support.”
Next day, I ask how their relationship went from such generosity to public animosity in the space of a few years. Frischmann takes her time, but not too much. “Let me see. I think it’s hard for anyone to survive tabloid attention, and we were kids. We were just kids and we didn’t know what we were doing.
“We were under a lot of pressure and we didn’t see a great deal of each other once everything started up. And he was drinking a lot. It was chaotic and, looking back, we just couldn’t have survived it. We weren’t mature enough.”
Or maybe Albarn needed her — to help him grow up. Watch Elastica playing the terrific Waking Up on Top of the Pops. The Blur man is a guest on keyboards, and, while the foursome stare variously at the ground or into the middle distance, he plays up, grinning for attention because he hates not being the centre of it. He leaves before the song finishes.
Frischmann admits that the key discussions about Englishness that thrived during the Britpop era stemmed from Albarn — the couple used to talk about it in reaction to the cultural dominance of American grunge — but that he became “quite obsessed” with it. “There was a definite anti-American sentiment among my peers that I really didn’t have,” she says. “I went on a press visit with Damon and Alex [James] for a Blur thing in New York. I came along as the girlfriend, and they were so rude to everyone. I couldn’t believe how rude they were.
“It was an attitude that worked at home, but didn’t translate well, and it came from feeling a chip on their shoulder about being somewhere new. But I just didn’t feel like that.”
Instead, Frischmann loved the open landscape and sunrises when on tour in the States. Her band did well out there, and it felt like freedom from a country where she was suffocated by attention, playing music that offered escape, but only briefly. “There was also, in England, the whole thing that I was too posh,” she says. “People judging you by your accent. In America, nobody cared and I didn’t have to defend myself for who I was.”
It’s little surprise, with her slightly transatlantic drawl, that she lives there now, with her scientist husband, in a semi-rural town. We end on a question about the probably unlikely live comeback, and how many songs they would play from the second record. She has no idea, suggesting she really hasn’t thought about her music for years. That chapter has closed.
“As a culture, we’re so obsessed with success — there’s always the myth that if you get famous, you’ll feel happy and validated,” she emails the night before we speak. “Of course, it’s a total lie. Happiness doesn’t come from material success. For me, that was a fantastic lesson to learn early in life.” It would be a huge surprise if any of us were to hear from her again.