Melody Maker, March 25th 1995
by Simon Reynolds
One man's Bright New Dawn for British guitar-pop is another's Last Gasp--the
morbid vitality of a genre flying in the face of its historical obsolesence.Have we really reached the point--the nadir, frankly--where all that's left to celebrate is "adrenalin", attitude and catchy choruses? Record-collection-rock is the name of the game for guitar-based songcraft in the '90s, to be sure, but
does the collection really have to be so constricted, so lame--the same tired old
litany of Beatles/Who/Stones/Pistols/Smiths, Brit-rock's equivalent of the Dead
White Males that make up the Canon of Literary Greats? From Dodgy to Supergrass,
Shed Seven to Gene, Oasis to These Animal Men, the plague of four-man guitar
combos are runnin' scared of all the things that make '90s pop life
interesting--technology, the multiracial reality of UK society, and women-in-rock.
And what about Elastica? Surely they're not just Noo Wave revivalists but
outright recyclists (having only just paid off Wire and Stranglers for borrowing
hefty chunks from the latter's songs). Why exempt them? Because, just by being
75 percent female they stand out in a field overcrowded with jack-the-lads and
pseudo-hooligans. Because their impeccable taste led them to the few morsels of
late '70's pop-punk minimalism worth scavenging, i.e. Buzzcocks and Wire.
Because they managed to make the Stranglers a hip reference point. And because
their hooks catch more cruelly in the listener's flesh than the rest of their peers.
Hungover the morning after the Brit Awards, Elastica--or at least 50 percent of
them, Annie being otherwise occupied and Donna comatose on a couch in the band's
press office--have decided that what their battered constitutions need is lunch
at the Camden caff they call School Dinners (on account of its hearty English
grub). It's a favourite Elastica haunt, frequented with "horrible regularity",
says Justin, because it's open 'til 2AM and handy for post-rehearsal nourishment.
Copious amounts of steaming stodge having arrived, and Justine having put in a
request for Horseradish and Brown Sauce to accompany her vegetarian fare, we kick
off by talking about the Old Wave of New Wave.
I used to be a bit of a Stranglers fan (a definite post-punk no-no), and
when their entire United Artists output was reissued as a CD box set, I seized
the opportunity to drag that particular skeleton out of the closet. Reviewing it
in MM, I claimed, plausibly, that the Stranglers were one of the most
uninfluential groups ever, a band without legacy. A few weeks later, I heard
"Line Up"--the nice'n'sleazy throb of Annie's J.J. Burnel bass, Justine's deadpan
Hugh Cornwell sneer--on Top Of the Pops. Ooops! One of the things that intrigues
me about Elastica is the idea of Justine, a young woman of the Nineties, looking
into her soul and deciding that her truest voice was Hugh Cornwell!
"Rattus Norvegicus was one of the records my brother left behind when he
moved out of home," remembers Justine. "He used to play Stranglers' records when
I was 12 or 13. I didn't really understand a lot of the language, and the image
went over my head, but the sheer pop-ness of it got me. That sort of thing sits
festering at the back of your collection for years. Then suddenly I found myself
getting it out again, about four years ago, and thinking it sounded fresh."
So you weren't bothered by the band's misogynist streak?
"I think it just went over my head, being young. But looking back, I think
they could probably have got away with it more today. In the late '70s everybody
was incredibly PC. There was a lot of humour in what they did, which is a
massive get-out clause.
"The Stranglers actually rehearse at the same studio as us, and we went out
for a drink with Jean-Jacques Burnel a couple of weeks ago. Annie's a massive
fan, and he told her she was a really good bassist, and later he showed her how
he gets certain sounds. She was dead chuffed."
So what does he look like now, is he still the punk heart-throb?
"He's quite stocky now, he does martial arts and kickboxing, and teaches,"
says Justin. "He goes round the world doing karate competitions."
"But he's still pretty handsome, basically," adds Justine.
So four years ago, when you were first rediscovering the Stranglers, Wire,
Buzzcocks, Blondie -- was part of the appeal that it was all so out-of-synch and
against the grain vis-a-vis what was then the indie state-of-art?
"Definitely. We were totally conscious that what we were doing didn't sound
like anyone else. Because of that I didn't really expect us to get any press or
get anywhere. Everything was pretty rocky, to do with 'feel'. There was Primal
Scream, which was all about getting high and having a good vibe, and then a bit
later there was Suede, which had a kind of self-indulgence to it, too, which
people really related to."
And Elastica are emphatically opposed to musical self-indulgence?
"To be honest, I'm not really against anything, I think that whole concept is
ridiculous. There's room for lots of different kinds of music. What the music
press write about is just a tiny area of music, and it's ridiculous to start
separating stuff within that area and get all tribal about things. I don't
understand why people feel the need to put other bands or styles of music down.
Being a musician is just a great thing to wanna be; you can't really blame anyone
for wanting to be a musician."
Actually, I tend to feel there's way too many bands on the planet, and that
people should really hesitate before picking up an instrument, have a long hard
think about whether they really have anything to contribute. 'Cos 97 per cent
"Yeah, but every band thinks they're the best band in the world! What
frustrates me is when people constantly say it. Cos it's obvious--if you didn't
think your band was the best you wouldn't bother!"
Well, that kind of arrogance has become a highly marketable shtick. It was
refreshing when the Stone Roses started it, that whole 'we're the band the
world's been waiting for' thing. Then it became a cliche, what with the Manics
"You Love Us", then Suede and Adorable, and now Oasis and a legion of cocky,
mouthy gits. Oasis's whole raison d'etre is to be BIG, half their songs are about
how they're gonna be superstars.
"It works very well for Oasis, though, they do it in a very charming way,
almost cartoon. It's this sort of Northern lads thing, 'we're the best gang in
I reckon it's actually a Northern mothers' thing, mums bringing up their
sons to think they're God's gift.
"More than anything, it basically springs from male adolescence, just a
school age mentality. I'm not having a go at them or anything, cos I think it
works, but that's where it comes from--having gangs at school, wanting to control
You've said that you too really enjoy the gang element to being in a band,
that sense of Us Against the World.
"There's always going to be an element of that in any band. That's the primary
motive, going out and doing it and having a laugh. Being on tour is a bit like
going on a school skiing trip, messing about at the back of the coach. We don't
have a particularly professional relationship, it's more social. If I've got
nothing to do of an evening I'm very likely to go round and see Justin and Donna
and sit in and watch TV. They're just my mates, not people I'm trying to have a
The cover of Elastica has that gang aura down pat, a B/W shot of the band
as sullen, leather clad yoof, backs against the (brick) wall. The iconography is
pure 1978, positively oozes tower block chic and 'street cred'. Inside, the
music's just as stark and monochrome. One of the things I like about Elastica is
that far more than any of their Noo Wave of Noo Wave peers, their music has that
Wire/Buzzcocks angularity and geometry. And we haven't had that for the longest
while in guitar-pop, it's either been feedbacky'n'fuzzed up, or dreampop hazey,
or slack'n'grungey. Elastica songs are in-elastic, stiff but in a good way.
"It's logical music, it's got a logic to it," concurs Justine. "The others
always take the piss out of me, 'cos I think there's a bit of an Eastern
European, Germanic thing coming through there."
"In rehearsals, Justine'll always say 'keep it straight'", says Justin. "And
it always ends up like..."--he mimes strict-time, rigorous movements--"You start
marching round the room!".
"I prefer simple music," says Justine, primly. "Donna and Annie, they're
into 'feel'. Annie can jam away on the acoustic guitar, and people are amazed,
they didn't know she could do that. And Donna grew up surrounded by musicians
who played the blues."
Well, there's not a single trace of da blooze in Elastica, thank the Lord.
"It just doesn't do it for me. I think it's really lazy in the worst way,
playing blues riffs."
All Elastica's influences stem from that immediate post-punk era when
British rock had severed itself from the blues roots of rock'n'roll, but had yet
to discover funk. The point at which Bobby Gillespie thinks it all went wrong, in
other words: when bands ceased playing from the hips, drummers stopped
syncopating and white rock lost touch with black music. Revealingly, the only
black music that Justine likes is ska--the speediest, jerkiest, most un-swinging
form of black pop ever. On some Elastica songs, the beats actually seem closer to
disco than raunch'n'roll, or at least the metronomic European brand of disco
(more grid than groove).
"I don't think we are very disco," giggles Justine. "But we'd quite like to be."
"I'd like to be disco, satin trousers and all that," adds Justin.
One of my fave Elastica songs, "Connection", starts with this geometric,
processed, utterly artificial-sounding guitar riff that sounds like a techno riff.
"That was actually done on a keyboard," says Justine. "But the sound is
called 'distorted guitar', so there you go."
"It is quite drum machiney, that track," adds Justin. "There's quite a few
drum machine orientated, hard-on-the-beat tracks on the LP". And it turns out
he's actually done a techno remix of 'Connection' and is quite into messing
around with a sampler.
So presumably Elastica don't approve of where the likes of Stone Roses and
Primal Scream are at these days, i.e. retreating from rave in search of the
rockist's grail of 'feel', jamming 'til the cows come home.
"Well I try not to pitch battles with particular bands but it's definitely
not my cup of tea," admits Justine, sounding at her most well-brought-up and
tactful. "Backstage at an Oasis gig last year, Liam and Bobby Gillespie started
ganging up on Donna, saying 'our music's all to do with feel and roots, and
you're just shallow'. But for me, when you start relying on that traditional
bluesy thing you're actually being more shallow. You're just sticking to a
formula--a much stricter formula, in a way."
Apart from the odd jagged Beefheart-via-Cornwell guitar-fill, there's not a
single solo on the LP--which is doubtless why most Elastica songs clock in under
two-and-a-half minutes, and why the album's 16 songs are over within 41 minutes.
Elastica's is an anorexic aesthetic, purged of the flab of 'self-expression';
their music is as severe and self-constricting as a pair of drainpipes.
"Donna was in the studio trying to work out a guitar-line, and she just
started jamming and getting well f***ing muso, and we all looked at each other
and started giggling but kept on playing. And she looked up and went totally red,
'cos she realised she'd been Pink Floyding it. In a way, we've probably got an
odd perspective, in so far as any overt musicianship is totally frowned upon. At
the start, if I left the room I'd come back and find Donna and Annie jamming away
like two 80 year old black blind people from New Orleans--just the most
unbelievable blues jam going on!"
So you had to step in and put your foot down, reassert the Elastica
Aesthetic: this is NOT what we're about!
"See, I don't think they really want to play like that, it's just hard to get
out of that routine, once you've learned that way of playing. Annie's a diehard
punk, but she does love old stuff like the Stones and bluesy, 'feely' stuff.
That's why she decided to play the bass, cos she felt that what she'd learned on
the guitar was totally restricting her, she was so used to going into blues
scales. With Donna too, there was a massive process of unlearning, of trying to
play things that were really simple and angular."
So now you've got the less-is-more thing down tight, what next? How do you
evolve minimalism, without losing that streamlined haiku-like cogency? Album #3
proved a bit of stumbling block for the Buzzcocks...
"And with Wire too. One of the most brilliant things about Wire is the jump
between Pink Flag and Chairs Missing. But I can't get into 154--I don't get it, everything I love about them just isn't there anymore."
While we're still talking about late '70s post-punk, which phase of Adam and
the Ants are you into--when it was Ants with an 'S' or Antz with a 'Z'?
"It's circa Dirk Wears White Sox. As a kid, I did like the Kings of the
Wild Frontier stuff at the time, then I moved onto Duran Duran. But quite
recently I discovered the early Peels Sessions they did, before Malcolm McLaren
nicked the Antz to form Bow Wow Wow. Brilliant. I really like the way Peel
Sessions sound; some of my favourite stuff of ours is Peel Session, cos there's
an energy that get captured in those BBC studios, you do live vocals and don't
have time to bland things out pursuing perfection."
Do you like early Adam's pervy obsessions, all those fetish songs like "Whip
In My Valise"?
"I like it a lot actually. Also, for a while, Adam was just the coolest
person on the planet. He epitomised the brilliantly elegant side of punk, using
all that Allan Jones type imagery"--Justine is referring to the Sixties artist,
readers, not Melody Maker's skipper--"like that table which was a woman on all fours with a glass top on her back. All his paintings were developed from Fifties porn--lots of airbrushed women in black leather. The Antz used a lot of that imagery. On one level, it's very titillating, but it's also very pop. So we're gonna make the next album S & M, with us all in black leather. Actually, I think Madonna's ruined that for everyone, ruined the concept of pervy sex forever."
It's pretty clear now that the Menfolk have precious little left to say, when it
comes to song-oriented, guitar-based music. The same old scenarios, personae and
obsessions are getting reiterated with diminishing returns. Personally,--given
the sonic mindscapes being studio-spun by the techno-fluent, from Tricky to
Dillinja to Paul Shutze--I'm only prepared to take such traditionalism when it
comes re-freshed with a female twist. And this is what the Womenfolk are up to:
they're not cooking up aural hallucino-genres in the sound-laboratory, they're
taking on played-out male traditions, tweaking and reinventing them. It's a form
of stylistic transvestism. Drag kings rule: Polly Jean Harvey with her hoary
blues-man posturings; Courtney Love as Henry Rollins if he'd only remove his
'Iron Man' emotional armature and let his 'feminine side' splurge'n'splatter; Liz
Phair and her feminised/feminist take on the geeky garage punk of Paul Westerberg
of the Replacements. And there's Justine Frischmann, who's somehow miraculously
found imaginative space for herself in the Stranglers' gruff, fake-prole
belligerence and 'who wants the world?' cynicism.
That said, Justine's pretty phazed when I ask if she ever feels like her
she's in drag onstage.
"Well, I sometimes feel like Meatloaf, when I've got hair all over my face
and I'm really sweaty. Which is a bit depressing. But no, I don't ever feel like
a woman in drag, to be honest".
So there's no sense in which you play-act a tough-guy?
"I think lots of women do that these days. And there's always been girly girls and non-girly girls. There's girls who have really high voices and like wearing dresses, and others who don't. I don't think I'm exceptional, it's just that most of my mates haven't been very girly. There's lots of young women in London who look and dress like I do."
As a kid, were you a tomboy?
"More so now than then, actually. When you're in your twenties you feel more
confident about what you are, you don't feel like you necessarily have to dress
up for boys. When I was a teenager I had really long hair and felt like I had to
wear make-up. But now I feel a lot more comfortable with short hair. It's
something I discovered with leaving home and going to college. In a way, it's
Nineties urban camoflage. It came about when I was coming back from college
really late, getting on the last tube. If you're wearing long hair and make-up,
you're gonna feel a lot more vulnerable than if you've got short hair and big
boots. That was definitely an undercurrent to dressing the way I do. I remember
at school we had self-defence lessons and the teacher said that anyone with long
hair should really wear a hat and cover it up, 'cos if someone wants to grab you,
you're incredibly vulnerable. There's nothing you can do if someone gets hold of
So there's a sense that you sartorially avoid the things that signify
vulnerability or 'availability'?
"It's just expecting to be treated as one of the lads. You don't want to
deliberately remove yourself from being able to be a good bloke".
Justine's not an icon 'cos she's 'one of the lads', though; she's an indie
sex symbol 'cos there's a certain kind of British male who's really into the girl
who looks like a boy. It's almost a form of displaced homo-eroticism, I reckon.
Justine, though, thinks it's more "an anti-bimbo thing".
"The girl who looks a bit boyish, it's the intelligent boy's choice, in a
way. But there's loads of boys who love girls with long hair. Damon was so gutted
when I cut all my hair off, although he can get into it 'cos he knows it makes me
really happy. It's probably just a Nineties unisex thing, you know. I think women
probably do look more androgynous now than they ever have, 'cos even in the
Sixties when girls were very thin and short-haired, there was always loads of
really heavy make-up. It's genuinely a lot harder to tell boys from girls these
days. Just going into shops, I often get called 'sir', and so does Donna. It
tends to be older people, or in Asian shops, that get confused."
Do you like the idea of 'passing' as male?
"I actually get pissed off when people call me 'sir' in shops, and occasionally I
say 'what do you mean, 'sir'?'. And then they get really embarassed."
Another thing that makes me think of Elastica as drag kings is the sarky
tone and deadpan detachment of the lyrics; Justine's talked before of how she
doesn't like sentimentality in songs, but prefers a certain coldness and dryness.
"Things that are really gushy and open tend to lose their power," she argues.
"It's like how it's a lot sexier to see someone half-clothed than naked.
Lyrically, if you leave yourself really naked there's something quite
uninteresting about it. Whereas if you write something that's got a sort of
negligee on, it's more intriguing... I do tend to write about things around me,
observational stuff. Usually it's 'cos I'm frustrated about a situation but
can't say it to the person, so I end up writing a song about it. Donna's lyrics
are more abstract; on the lyric sheet, my stuff looked better laid out as
limericks, whereas hers were less punctuated, more a stream of consciousness."
After a platter of no-meat-and-three-veg, two mugs of coffee and several of my
Camels, Justine's right as rain; Justin, however, never went to bed after the
post-Brits shindig, clearly has yet to detoxify from the alchohol intake, and so
looks decidely green about the gills (the fried egg was an error). It seems that
at the Awards, all the New Wave of Brit-Pop bands' tables were clustered
together, almost as if to say: behold the Next Generation, let's see if they can
contribute as much to rectifying the Balance of Trade Deficit as Elton.
So do you actually feel like members of a New Brit-Pop aristocracy?
"We did last night, definitely. There was a gang of us there, and we were
all having conversations about America, about battle plans. Obviously Blur and
Suede, we know well; Pulp, we know very well. Oasis, we're very friendly."
Do you feel 'stellar' when you're surrounded by faces that you've seen in
"Not at all. It's all a bit surreal, you find yourself reading the music
papers almost as if it's a school mag or something. Obviously, at first it's an
amazing feeling. I used to think that if my face was ever in a magazine my life
would feel completley different. But of course you get used to it, it becomes
very normal to read your friends' reviews and see their pictures in the papers
and read the gossip. Even though what the music press writes is often so wildly
innacurate and quite tabloid really."
Have you been in the real tabloids?
"Yeah, 'cos Blur have got quite big this year, so Damon and I have had a fair
bit of tabloid action."
With you cast as Marianne Faithfull to his Jagger?
"Some wild innacuracies have been printed about the way we live, but you hope
that anyone with half a brain will realise they're not true. It's someone's
little fantasy world and if you make a fuss about it, you kind of justify it, so
it's better just to ignore it. Sometimes it can be quite invasive, but it just
goes with the territory. I had a strange day on Saturday, shopping for the tour
and buying things like Imac and knickers and stuff--not the kind of things you
want people to see you buy. And because we'd been on Top of the Pops, it was very
noticeable that people were giving me funny looks--grinning at me, or at each
other. Damon gets incredibly paranoid, he hates it. Sometimes it's really nice,
you feel really up for it, chatting to people you don't know. Other times you
feel like a total greaseball and you just wanna be totally anonymous. But to get
into a band, you have to want it, really."
We were talking of Adam Ant, and he's suffered probably the most intense
form of 'celebrity stalking' imaginable.
"Yes, he had this girl living in his air conditioning unit for nearly a year.
He kept having this feeling that he was being watched! She could scamper around
the air-conditioning system and watch him through the grilles, throughout the
house--bathroom, bedroom, everywhere! That's probably the most frightening thing
imaginable. And he kept finding sandwich wrappers, crisp packets and Coke cans
outside the vent at the back of the house. He kept phoning the police and they
said: 'we can't do anything until you have a flesh-wound'. It's like, 'oh,
great!' But Adam was seriously famous for a while, wasn't he?"
So far the worst Justine has suffered is the over-zealous attention of the
occasional pair of Japanese girl-fans, a few peculiar letters, and some pesky
"I've been getting loads of weird calls from people on the Continent.
Yesterday the phone rang about 15 times, and some prat started giggling, and I
got really pissed off, started yelling 'get a life'."
Do you own a wok?
Justine gives me a blank look.
If you put it next to the receiver, it's like a bell--hit it with, say, a rolling pin, and you can deafen someone temporarily.
"Well, I was thinking of getting a whistle, which is what you're supposed to
do with heavy breathers," she says, adding, absurdly, "but it's easier to just
change phone numbers."
So do you ever crave a return to anonymity?
"Well, we're not so far down the line we couldn't return to anonymity tomorrow, actually. I think it's probably premature to talk of it in those terms. I'd certainly like to be a quite a bit more famous than I am now."