Q, October 1996

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Q magazine
Q Special Edition

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Elvis Costello & Justine Frischmann

Celebrating Q’s fine, 10-year tradition of generational “straddling”, Elastica’s savagely fringed, tangibly posh leadstress parked next door to this distinguished feller with a witness in Stuart Maconie.


Stuart Maconie

They may sound like a firm of luxury raincoat makers with discreet premises in Belgravia but McManus and Frischmann’s shared occupation is songwriting. They’re the products of different eras, but their words are similarly shrewd and acerbic, and Elastica have been tagged natural heirs to Costello’s brainy new wave mantle. When they emerged in 1992 this was angular, wired music – a victory of sneers and sharp tailoring over America’s lumpen grunge rump. Costello had been there 20 years earlier when, as pigeon-toed avenging nerd, he had tried in a series of three-minute salvos to lay waste the languid empire of The Eagles.

Mutual admirers, they were keen to meet and talk of lyric writing, our cousins across the pond, Dictaphones, computers, people who stick address labels to their correspondence, Wayne County, Oasis and the Frenchmen’s Motel, Fishguard. With a few of the more obscure avenues blocked off as unsafe for pedestrians, this is the route their conversation took…


This is Q’s tenth birthday issue. Are you the same people you were 10 years ago?

EC: I fucking hope not. I dunno. I’ll leave you to decide. Q’s not the same magazine it was ten years ago so if that’s changed it would be stupid if the people you write about hadn’t.

JF: I’m definitely not the same. I was doing my “O” levels ten years ago.

EC: Right, I’m leaving now. Actually I don’t think I changed all that much. I was the same from being fourteen till I was in my mid-twenties.

JF: A late developer.

EC: Oh yeah. I was extremely over-serious till I was about twenty-five and the drugs kicked in.

Success came to both of you at about the same age, didn’t it?

JF: You can’t compare the two of us. We’ve only had one album out. But, yeah, I was twenty-three when I had my face on the cover of a magazine.

EC: Ah, I can trump you there. I was in fact twenty-two. But I used to tell the truth then. Rolling Stone asked me how old I was and I said twenty-two rather than twenty-two and three-quarters like you to at school to appear more mature. My birthday was a few days afterwards. And so still in the biographies I’m a year younger than I actually am, which now at my age is handy. You still see things about me that say I was born in ’55 but it was ’54. Not that I give a shit.

How did you both take to all the inevitable media attention?

EC: I only did about five interviews actually and then I quit and didn’t do any more for about five years. They didn’t seem to write anything I said so I didn’t see the point. But I did one for the Daily Mirror and that was fantastic. They sent one of the hacks like out of Spitting Image and he was horrible and like, So what about the girls then? It was so clichéd. All he wanted was salacious stuff. So I packed it in. I realised after a while that if you got drunk with them you could make stuff up, so I made up a load of stuff and that sort of did me for the next four or five years.

Were you any more clued-up Justine?

JF: I was fairly clued-up but I was stupid enough to tell the truth. I fell into the trap of thinking I’m just talking to a mate rather than thousands of people, and that what you’re saying will be used selectively. It’s hard to come to terms with that.

EC: American magazines like Vanity Fair – if they profile you they shadow you for, like, six months so they can see you in every conceivable light. It’s ridiculous. I never like having journalists around on tour and stuff because they get bored and they start commenting on the fruit arrangements backstage as if it’s somehow revealing. I had this guy from the Washington Post on the last tour and he wrote this ridiculous melodramatic piece about what was basically just a bad gig. And he did it purely because he was bored. I don’t blame him for being bored. Hanging around with bands is boring by and large.

Were you both students of the music media?

EC: It was what I lived for. Seriously, I was working in an office until a week before my first record came out. Literally. I read the papers all day long because I was a computer operator and no-one realised that the computer did all the thinking. I wore a white coat and people thought I was a rocket scientist because I was the only person in the building who could work the machine. That’s how specialist it was. Now everyone’s got one at home. It was as big as this room, like the Billion Dollar Brain, flashing lights and everything. Everyone thought I was a genius. It was brilliant. I just skived all the time.

JF: What a great job.

EC: It was a great job. I took my guitar in. I used to work evenings when it was the end of the month and the payroll stuff was due. I’d stay late, sometimes work thirty-six hours just on coffee and write two or three songs and read the music press.

And then you became a star.

EC: Pretty much, but it wasn’t that glamorous. We went down to Davidstowe in Cornwall, which isn’t really Carnegie Hall, but we rehearsed in a village hall next to an army base and we made our glorious debut at St Austell, I think, opening for Wayne County And The Electric Chairs, before she became Jayne.

JF: Who’s Wayne County?

EC: He was a Max’s Kansas City sort of person. He had songs called things like "If You Don’t Want To Fuck Me, Baby, Fuck Off." Subtle stuff. Ah the good old days. But anyway, we played three gigs and then came to London. People in the office used to think I was a fantasist – “Oh yeah, you’re in a group.” I was in a day job for the first three singles. They all thought I’d pressed them myself like vanity publishing because they had these geeky covers and the name was Stiff Records. A week later I got arrested for busking outside the Hilton Park Lane trying to get an American record deal and then they realised I was serious. So after seven years I became an overnight success.

JF: It was very similar for me.

EC: You got arrested too.

JF: No, I didn’t get arrested unfortunately but I tried for ages in various bands and then when all the pieces were in the right places it all happened very suddenly. It felt like it was taking forever and then it felt like it was happening too soon. I mean it’s happened very, very soon for some people… Menswear – they formed in the Good Mixer and had a deal the next week or something.

EC: The Attractions formed in a week. We managed to con a major record label into flying Pete Thomas back from California on the pretext of joining another group. It just came together by chance and it was a great piece of luck. Then everyone was playing guitars so I was really lucky to find a keyboard player that good and a bassist that fluent to cover up the fact that I couldn’t really play the guitar at all.

JF: Oh, come now.

EC: I couldn’t, not like you did then. You either played like Steve Jones or you played like Jimmy Page. And I was neither.

Justine, what’s the first record you remember.

JF: Probably an Abba record. The one with the helicopter on the front – Arrival. Punk rock I only discovered four years ago. There’s a lot of groups now who sound like ‘70s groups… it’s not nostalgia. They really are just discovering it.

EC: That’s fantastic. I love it. It’s like me just discovering Dixieland jazz. I remember punk all sorts of ways. I remember after my day job I would go up to Stiff in Westbourne Park and actually put the fucking records in the sleeves. I was that keen to be in the business. I would go up after work and just hang around the office and do stuff that needed doing. The records would come from the factory in white sleeves and I would sit there putting them in the picture sleeves. It was great. I would never do it now.

JF: With me, I honestly don’t know what comes first. I quite often wonder nowadays when I hear something that is clearly just a pale imitation of something else whether people in ten years’ time will know which came first. You get confused over three or four years.

Does that really matter, though?

EC: It’s easy to become cynical and not hear the joy. I can hear an Oasis record that sounds like Mott and there’s that Shakespears Sister record which sounds exactly like Mott and is calculated to do so. But I really like it even though it’s designed by computer. I wouldn’t want to hear Oasis with a load of thugs at a football match but I heard them at a party at volume beyond comprehension and loved it. It didn’t matter then that I could spot all the references. The only people it matters to are people like you, who have to notice otherwise you wouldn’t have a job. I’m not having a go. I know some people want that kind of minute detail. Mainly men.

JF: Yes, I find the list business quite peculiar. It’s a guy thing. I will occasionally put my records into alphabetical order, but that’s as far as it goes. That’s a boy thing, isn’t it?

EC: That’s a librarian thing. It’s when you go to someone’s house and they’ve done it by genre. I went to the house of a well-known rock critic and he had sections like traditional African, triple-back-flip new wave… I thought it was ridiculous.

JF: I do that I must admit. It’s very difficult, actually. It causes me a lot of problems. I can’t remember where I’ve put them ‘cos there are so many records that belong to more than one category. Like PJ Harvey: should I put her in female singers or greatest bands of all time?

EC: The only thing I have separate is a bunch of vinyl singles that I always like to know where they are. And that is badly alphabetised and out of control. On a connected matter, my favourite record shops are the ones that are run by really opinionated people, where if you’re going to buy a record they don’t approve of, they let you know. Like Probe in Liverpool… if you went in in the ‘70s and tried to buy practically anything they would sneer at you and say, “What do you want this for?”

How long does it take for you to get blasé?

JF: I don’t think I’ve got there yet. There are things I feel cynical about but I think I felt cynical about them before. I’m still rubbing my hands with glee about the soundcheck.

EC: You get cynical about some stuff. I did this tour when I had this revolutionary idea of playing the places people never went to. So we didn’t play Newcastle, we played Sunderland, and we did all these end-of-pier shows in seaside towns. It was about half and half wonderful and terrible. In some towns it was, Great, someone finally came to Merthyr Tydfil or The Frenchman’s Motel in Fishguard or whatever. Then at other places the reaction was almost hostile; You’ve never been here before. Fuck off. That was when I noticed the power of TV. The only song anyone wanted to hear was the one we had just done on Top Of The Pops and it didn’t matter how well we played the rest as long as we did that song at a certain point. They’d react with complete indifference and then go mental. You wonder sometimes where the groups have gone that you grew up with. Well, they’ve gone to these towns. The Tremeloes are playing these towns.

JF: We’ve never really played off the beaten track. I’d like to play some unusual countries on the next tour – Albania and places like that.

EC: I’ve never played any further east than Vienna. I’m going to Greece for the first time this summer. Somewhere three hours away and I’ve never played there. There’s talk of going to South America, which amazes me because I thought they just liked Esperanto music: Bon Jovi and Queen. It’s better than being in the army, which is the only other job where you get to travel so much… but then we don’t get to water ski.

JF: It’s one of the few jobs where you can get a snapshot of the whole planet in a year. You could spend a year in Australia. I loved it. Although there aren’t many centres of population to play in.

EC: You could play outside the cities. You could play in the Shell Harbour Workers Club, Woolamaloo. I have. It’s great. It’s like a giant working men’s club. Didn’t you replace Sinead at Lollapalooza? What was that like?

JF: It was a bizarre experience, mainly because all the bands on the big stage were left-field bands and we were playing seated arenas. So it was like Pavement and Sonic Youth and Beck playing to all these people sitting down. And most of the front seats were vacant because they were reserved for record company people who didn’t show up. Lollapalooza is not a great idea. It would be fine if people could stand up; I mean, I thought it would be like Glastonbury. There is some life outside the stadium but inside the stadium you’re not allowed to smoke or drink and you have to sit in an allocated seat. The Americans are very confused about smoking and drinking. You can’t smoke inside and can drink outside. The first Lollapalooza was quite free and easy and people were chucking mud and stuff and I think they’ve got a bit nervous since. I quite enjoyed playing and we went down pretty well.

Rock 'n' roll's said to be a universal language, but there's a big difference in the way American and British groups operate.

JF: I quite liked the attitude of the American bands. Generally, they are supportive and don't attack each other in the press. There's too much of it in this country. The Americans don't just spout unbelievable venom for no good reason.

EC: Is it like that here, then? So if you turn up at Watford Gap services at three in the morning for a coffee, are there bands who if you met them it would be like Gunfight At The O.K. Corral?

JF: There are some bands who are like that. Not really with Elastica. It's bizarre and I think it's got something to do with the male ego. We managed to side-step that. But I'm on dangerous ground here. If you start talking about "women in rock" you marginalise your-self. I still think it's a shame that my gender is such an issue, although we've had it quite lucky compared to some.

EC: I got invited to do a concert in Sweden by the man who wrote Abba's lyrics — you know, their manager, Stig. He has a sort of music prize there. This year they gave it to Pierre Boulez and Joni Mitchell. And the Joni Mitchell citation said "one of the great female songwriters". Jesus! She's just one of the greatest song-writers that have ever lived ever.

JF: The kids, whoever they are, are quite open-minded and will judge on merit but journalists are still very aware of your gender. You still see discussions of girl singers in the weeklies that mainly concentrate on their nipples.

EC: And like anything successful, the A&R fraternity will just send out for another: "Alanis Morissette, I'll take five." You can see that what-ever the sincerity of the performers, the industry has become obsessed with that "I could be your kooky girlfriend" music.'That's how they are being sold. What they're actually about I have no idea.

JF: But that's not specifically female. That's how the industry works. There's an awful lot of new Oasises about at the moment.

EC: I know. Can you believe that Manchester is fashionable? I know I'm a little biased but this is the city that gave you Freddie & The Dreamers.

You're both lyricists and, Justine, you're writing the words to the new Elastica album right now. How do you go about the job?

JF: I sit there with the blank page. I was reading that interview you did with Billy Bragg where you talked about getting out of bed and stumbling to the typewriter. I've made the mistake of having some brilliant idea in bed and then thinking, Oh I'll remember tomorrow, and yesterday I spent two hours at the typewriter trying to do just that.

EC: Deadly. You have to get it right away. I can write in the dark now.

JF: It's amazing that it's often in bed you get great ideas. Your mind sort of races in a way it never does when you're sitting at the typewriter.

EC: I can't write on a typewriter.

JF: I like it because it clarifies it.Type takes it away from yourself and makes it more permanent.

EC: I don't even like to see my words written down. I put them on the sleeves because people write and say, "Can I get them?" I didn't put any lyrics out for my first five albums. Do you have your words on your records?

JF: Just the ones I think are any good.

EC: That's very honest. I wouldn't like to see the lyrics to my first album written down. Do you write all the words?

JF: I write most of them. But it takes me as long to write the lyric as arranging the tune. With me it's end-less envelopes and bits of paper, Dictaphones are good because you can use them in the car.

EC: Well I only learned to drive a few years ago so I wouldn't trust myself to do that. If you use them in the street you always feel like a secret agent. Worse is when you're at the airport and everything's packed away and you have to buy a new one and ask them to put the batteries in and you're standing there with your fingers in your ears trying to sing the tune while some terrible disco music is playing in the background. Mishearings are good. I like it when people come up with better lines than I wrote. Then there's the people who think you're writing about them. Do you get that? ... Oh it all lies ahead.

JF: People quite often do that but they tend generally to be insane. I do get some quite scary ones.

EC: A friend of mine said you used to know the weird ones.They wrote in green ink. Now it's the people with the little address stickers on ...

Justine, ever written lyrics with anyone else?

JF: I'd quite like to do that actually.

EC: Let's get the paper out.

JF: I hear Damon singing round the house and I can always think of lyrics for him to sing ...not that he'd use them.

EC: Why not? This is the burning question. Have you never considered writing together?

JF: No, to me it's the first step to Hello! magazine.

EC: Do you have His'n'Hers Dictaphones? Does his have a label saying "Damon's Dictaphone"?

JF: No, he's got this big clunky one.

EC: And you've got a dainty girly one in pink.

Do you ever lose that feeling of embarrassment at taking the songs to other band members and thinking they might say, This is rubbish?

JF: No, that never goes away because the band members still say to me, That's rubbish.

EC: My commercial fortunes are very erratic in this country. People say to me, What do you do now? People whose view of music is formed by tabloids or Top Of The Pops, they think you've retired. I started out with people thinking I was a fantasist and twenty years later they still do.

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Q, No. 121, October 1996


Stuart Maconie interviews Elvis Costello and Justine Frischmann.

Images

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Page scans.

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Photos by Ken Sharp.
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Photos by Ken Sharp.


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Cover, gatefold and contents page.

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