Donna Matthews: A new Elastica band

Donna Matthews was a star of Britpop. Charlotte Cripps meets the songwriter as her new group release their first album
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Donna Matthews is in a bit of a rush. She had to dash to a drop-in centre for the homeless in King's Cross, London, where she volunteers once a week, to tell them that she can't make it this week. It isn't quite what you'd expect from the former guitarist with Elastica, the all-girl Britpop band who had such hits in the Nineties as "Stutter" and "Connection".

Donna Matthews is in a bit of a rush. She had to dash to a drop-in centre for the homeless in King's Cross, London, where she volunteers once a week, to tell them that she can't make it this week. It isn't quite what you'd expect from the former guitarist with Elastica, the all-girl Britpop band who had such hits in the Nineties as "Stutter" and "Connection".

"I'll tell you what. The things that mean something to me now are so different from the things that meant something to me before. In Elastica, it was all about hedonism and having a euphoric experience," Matthews says.

We meet in a café in north London to talk about Matthews' new band, Klang, with the bass player, Isabel Waidner, 30, and the drummer, Keisuke Hiratsuka, 28. Hiratsuka is a geeky-looking Japanese guy wearing glasses and a trilby who lives near this café (apparently, he finds it hard to get up early). It is 11am. The band are all sitting here in a most un-rock'n'roll style, eating heavily buttered white toast and feeling a little nervous about the photograph - strange when you consider that Matthews was once on the covers of magazines such as i-D and performed on Top of the Pops during the Britpop explosion of the 1990s, when Elastica made it big. Entering the charts at No 1, Elastica's self-titled first album became the fastest-selling debut in the UK, beating the record set by Oasis's Definitely Maybe only seven months earlier.

Matthews, now 32, is keen not to colour the band with her past. But it is inescapable that she was in Elastica, even if she wants to wipe the slate clean. Any mention that she once looked polished and rock-chic with her short peroxide-blonde bob and startled blue eyes, and Matthews tries to change the subject. "Then, I was off my head, and now I am conscious," she says.

Klang release their debut album, No Sound is Heard, later this month. The band are definitely understated. Matthews looks pretty with no make-up. She is not hung up on image. She has swapped the blond bob for her natural mousy colour, now long and tied back in a ponytail. She is wearing old lime-green corduroy jeans and a Nike short-sleeved T-shirt with trainers; Waidner wears a pair of khaki combat trousers and a grey sweatshirt.

"We had to play at Islington Academy last night, and rock venues are really not our thing," says Matthews. She isn't quite sure how to get round the difficulty of having to play in such places, preferring art venues such as the ICA. "The problem is those big speaker sounds and flashing lights - it is all an illusion," Waidner explains, looking at Matthews. "Rock'n'roll is all about making yourself into something you are not, and we are about being ourselves."

Klang's music is minimalist, with a DIY, made-in-the-bedroom feel to it. The album has nine songs, lasting a raw and unpolished 29 minutes. The music uses lots of strange percussion, a Wasp synthesiser and an African thumb piano, against the occasional restrained vocal from Matthews. "The music is sparse, experimental Japanese kraut-folk," says Waidner, who grew-up in the Black Forest in Germany and spent her youth in metal bands that changed their name every other week. "What about Wales?" says Matthews, who is from Newport. As if she could be overlooked.

When she was 20 years old, Matthews answered an advert in the back of Melody Maker and suddenly found herself in London and recruited by Justine Frischmann to be guitarist in the band Elastica. Frischmann had recently quit Suede, the band she had formed with her boyfriend at the time, Brett Anderson.

Matthews and Frischmann were the creative force behind Elastica, and Matthews wrote many of the jaunty post-punk pop songs for both albums, Elastica and The Menace.

"Everything happened so fast," she says about that time, including her sharp decline into a "my drugs hell" story. She left Elastica in the spring of 1999, by which point she had a heroin habit and her creativity was stifled. "None of the band had been doing much for years anyway, and they were all in a mess," says Matthews. "It must have been longer ago than that?" says Waidner, about Matthews' Elastica past. "I did make the second record with them - it includes my songs, but I left just before it came out," she says.

Since then Matthews has sat herself down and had a very long chat with herself. What has she been doing? "I took time out to see where my head was at. First of all, I had to get clean. Then I could reassess my life," she says.

After she got clean and sober, she began to find her feet musically again. She started up a band (with no name) with Waidner and Katrin Jones, who has now left to do her own music. "We did some experimental electronic music," says Matthews about the early days, post-drugs. Then - last May - the band as we now know them put out a single called "L.O.V.E." with For Us records - the Rough Trade shop's in-house label. "It was much more of a post-punk sound than what we are doing now," says Matthews. "We made a thousand copies of "L.O.V.E." and they all sold."

Klang is Matthews' first proper step back into the music world since her wake-up call. She met the other band members just over two years ago, in Reckless Records in Islington. Why did they call the band Klang? "We were trying to think of a simple, clear name," says Matthews. "And Klang means 'sound' in German." "The word 'sound' in Japanese is oto, " says Hiratsuka. "But in Germany oto sounds like a daft German boy's name," says Waidner. "It is like calling the band Boris," explains Matthews, who is now pouring a fizzy tangerine vitamin C powder into a glass of water because she has a sore throat. They are trying to work out what the difference between a satsuma and a tangerine is. Do they all get on? "We have the deepest arguments, but the best making-ups," says Matthews.

The album is full of flaws and mistakes, they say. "We are not trying to cover them up, but rather to accept them and like them," says Waidner. What mistakes? "There are cars driving past in the songs 'Teach Me' and 'In Division', from when we were recording in the rehearsal studios in east London, and occasionally in my bedroom," says Waidner. "Keisuke even sniffs on one track," she laughs. "We were trying to record the guitar, but miked up the bass amp by accident on 'Teach Me'," says Matthews.

Doesn't she miss the days of Elastica, ever? Even when she is playing in some grotty venue and has a flashback of performing with Elastica at Glastonbury. "No," Matthews says. "I'm not interested in showing off any more. I have finally come back to my roots. Although I am the sum of my past, the drugs were a detour, and now I am creating music, not for an end product, but because it is the process of creating that is cathartic and self-revelatory." She continues: "We have stripped down everything so that the bare essence can be revealed... and that is what interests us." It is as though, for Matthews, making music is a meditation, rather than about selling records.

Doesn't she think she has taken it all to the other extreme? The music is so raw it is almost not there. It is as though she has run as far away from the past as she possibly can. "It was about sex, drugs and rock'n'roll before," says Matthews. "But now it's about being honest - and more about being an artist than it is about being a performer."

Apart from doing Klang, they want to move into other art projects. First up is the 10 Minute Song Project. "People must write and record a song in 10 minutes (they are only allowed two takes per track) and send it to our Klang website. A few interesting entries we will hope to visit and talk to and film as part of a documentary," says Waidner.

Last Christmas, the band members went home (except for Hiratsuka, who stayed in London) armed with video cameras and filmed footage of their surroundings, which they used as a backdrop for their gigs earlier this year. "The film tries to represent the silent language underlying life. In the right-hand corner of the film there is a girl doing sign language. She is spelling out words spoken in a vision to Hildegard von Bingen [the 12th-century saint, musician and visionary] - it's just really beautiful," says Matthews.

Who do Klang admire? "There are a lot of great girl musicians we like, such as Jolie Holland and Scout Niblett, who we are going on tour with in May - she plays drums and sings - and Jenny Hoyston from Erase Errata," says Matthews.

"And Elizabeth Cotton, an old blues lady, and the women in The Carter Family [a Twenties US country collective]," says Waidner. "But we are quite innovative," says Matthews. "As we work together we grow as people, and what we make feels more satisfying to all of us - so we enjoy doing it - and the better we get at knowing each other, we connect on a deeper level," says Matthews.

Where is their music going? "Wherever it takes us," says Matthews. "Whatever we need to express, we will do. We just jam without trying to think too much - so that the subconscious can come through and the result is more like the blueprint of your soul through music. What we want to see is the raw, unperfected sound."

"The unfinished finished," says Hiratsuka, profoundly. He has ordered a plate of shepherd's pie, and waves his hand like a schoolboy might do at school, to let the waitress know it is his.

We walk out of the café. Are they pleased with the album? "Yes," says Matthews excitedly. "We wish we could have put out our new songs on it, but we had to call it a day at some point."

'No Sound is Heard' is out on Blast First on Monday. The 10 Minute Song Project is at Klang tour with Scout Niblett, playing the ICA, London SW1, on 26 May