A short stretch in the cooler

So, Elastica borrowed the odd riff. But who's counting when you're the UK's most significant cult sex symbol?
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The Independent Culture
Justine Frischmann can explain a point through a mouthful of dripping toast and still look cryogenically cool. Decked out in dog-eared hipsters, leather bomber and natty Phil Oakey crop, the same skewed pop-punk minimalism she brings to her music, Frischmann is the UK's most significant female cult sex symbol, and is frequently called "Sir" in shops. She is also half of the rock world's latest royal couple - she lives with Blur's Damon "Babe" Albarn - and it's lately become hard to get an audience, she's that busy. Still, she shares her mug of coffee with me (service is relaxed), even though I get lipstick on the rim, and lippy is a thing she can't stand, for reasons we'll come to. Impeccably polite, she's something of an agitator, and likes to shake things up: "I'd rather be unstable than bored".

Frischmann fronts Elastica who - along with Blur, Oasis and Suede - constitute the frisky new wave of British guitar pop, the difference being that Elastica is 75 per cent female. Last week, the band returned from a tour of the States to find their self-titled debut album had knocked Annie Lennox and Bruce Springsteen off the top perch of the UK album charts.

Frischmann also found herself in a bit of controversy as Elastica experienced that intriguing British phenomenon of simultaneous acclaim and backlash. There were catcalls about her "useful" connections with indie pop's belle monde (she has dated Suede's Brett Anderson), about her wealthy dad buying a pad for herself and Albarn and, most notoriously, over similarities between two Elastica tunes and Wire and Stranglers riffs. Though you'd look hard for an area of creativity entirely free of borrowings, and though Frischmann was the first to admit the source of her inspiration, this latter problem had to be resolved with out-of-court publishers' settlements. Amid the shake-up, she is unstirred, presumably because, despite the hoo- ha, Elastica's louche, witty, two-minute assaults of angular guitar and sardonic vocals remain uniquely themselves. It's new wave, but not as we know it.

There's a Powerball bounce to Elastica's story. An architecture student at the University of London alongside Anderson, Frischmann was Suede's rhythm guitarist until she got frustrated at the lack of opportunity for creative input - "I was just a back-seat driver, and I didn't believe in what they were doing" - drove her out. She got her degree and found work in a large architecture firm, but the song remained the same. "It was a very low point. You spend four or five years designing these insane buildings hanging over the edge of cliffs and then you end up working out a car park layout for a building you think's the most horrible thing you've ever seen. I couldn't deal with it. Plus you have to be so patient to be an architect, and I'm not at all patient."

Thus she assembled her rubber band, and wrote songs so they had something to play. Short ones. "As a band, we have a low boredom threshold. It's always better to think, `I'd like to hear that again' than, `Oh, for Christ's sake...' Sometimes, I hear records and I think, that was really great, but I wish it ended a minute ago. It's a trauma to have to sit through the whole thing."

Elastica tracks are nothing if not snappy. The band's first demo, "Vaseline", vicious at a minute 10 seconds, changed hands on the A&R circuit faster than a packet of "madman" in a Tarantino flick. Things accelerated, and the team - babyfaced Donna Matthews and the cadaverous Annie Holland complete a confrontational distaff guitar rank, Justin Welch bashes drums - went into overdrive, though political correctness put on brakes.

A video for the single "Waking Up", featuring a strew of naked male models as a take on Hendrix's Electric Ladyland, was vetoed by a prudish Chart Show. Plans to play Reading surrounded by male strippers were scrapped because "it seemed such a huge feminist statement, so we thought, let's have one male and one female, then we thought, this is ridiculous, we're getting PC about something totally non-PC, let's just forget it."

This brings us to Elastica's androgyny, and what informs it. The Nineties have inflicted sexual complications everywhere, and there's no doubt Frischmann would find the "sex symbol" slur troubling. The band's very ethic seems to be to look groovy but not overtly female.

"I think, really, what we're saying is, you can be a girl but you can be a lad. I buy Loaded and I think it's a superb magazine just 'cos it's quite funny about sex, and sex is funny and it should be funny, and there's loads of humour in the whole thing of tits and bums." Which may be so, but there's a fine line between what's humorous and what's laughable. "I think around the time of Debbie Harry, women were less frightened of their sexuality. There was a point where you could look glamorous and people wouldn't think you were a bimbo."

Before the word was coined, maybe? "In the late Seventies, it was just quite cool and punk to look very alluring, and that's something Courtney Love's doing in a more kind of dishevelled way. But it does have to be done that way now. Certainly in Britain, it works against you if you appear to be too attractive."

This seems a shame, particularly since Damon flirts and pouts his hour across the media stage, and wears more jewellery. Still, despite some pointed lyrics ("Damon just laughs; he says, `Is that about me?' ") the partnership seems a stimulating and consoling one. "When I was on tour I'd call and say, y'know, `I'm in Moose Droppings, Oklahoma and I'm having a bad time' and he'd go, `I've been there, I stayed in that hotel, I know what it's like...' "

Frischmann recently compared notes with Love on the "his girlfriend" syndrome. "I don't think I've ever been daunted by it, though there's a level at which I felt, to be good enough for him, I had to do what he did, and do it well. It's complicated being in a relationship and getting a balance of equal power. Otherwise you either feel left out, or that you're being too much."

And is there any competition between Elastica and Blur? "There's always a touch of that, but Blur are so far ahead of us." She stubs out her Marlboro Light, smiles charmingly through the smoke. "Not really competition, at all."

n Elastica play Cardiff University, Sat; Portsmouth Pyramids, Tues; Ipswich Exchange, Wed; Shepherd's Bush Empire, 6 April. They appear on Channel 4's `The White Room' tomorrow night