Justine Frischmann, the lead vocalist and guitarist for England's Elastica, has been hearing the comments since her quartet came to public attention in 1993: You sound like this band, you sound like that band. She insists that these gibes don't bother her a bit. "In one way, it's kind of irritating," she says, "because in my opinion, bands are good because they're different from other bands, not because they're the same. But in another way, it doesn't really matter that much. It's only words, really.
"To me, we have quite a wide spectrum of inspirations, so I don't think we resemble one group or two groups. Ultimately, we're just us. But on the other hand, I think it's absolutely fine to be very obvious about your influences if you can make a good song out of them. That's the bottom line. If you're being truthful with yourself about the music you're playing, then who cares where certain parts of it come from?"
In large part, it's this attitude--honest, saucy, self-aware--that makes Frischmann and Elastica such a quandary for listeners. The act's self-titled debut album, released in this country by the hit-makers at the David Geffen Company, seems custom-made for the same brand of criticism that's been leveled at Green Day and the mob of pop-punk outfits that have stormed the sales charts of late. Like those acts, Elastica borrows liberally from the punk and postpunk eras; even the disc's cover art (a black-and-white photograph of Frischmann, guitarist Donna Matthews, bassist Annie Holland and drummer Justin Welch standing against a brick wall) makes it look like an LP put out in 1980, not 1995. At times the sixteen songs on the album suggest exercises in nostalgia, pure and simple. But--this is the tricky part--even the cuts that have flashback written all over them are pretty damn catchy. In fact, the platter as a whole is a little pop orgasm, a whoosh of hooks and melodies and big beats and riffs packed tight and solid, with minimum filigree resulting in maximum impact. It is, in short, a very guilty pleasure that may cause you to question your reasons for enjoying it even as you're pogoing around the room.
Does Elastica succeed where other masters of deja vu fail because its source material isn't quite as overworked as that used by its peers? Are the players so skillful as thieves that they're capable of getting away with musical murder? Or is it a waste of time to puzzle over these issues at all when the tunes are strong and the sound is seductive? Frischmann answers a resounding "yes" to the last question. "If you like our music, that's the most important thing," she claims. "We really tried to please ourselves, go with our own whims, so it's nice that people have been able to see where we're coming from. That's excellent, isn't it?"
Frischmann's rise to prominence has not been a long, drawn-out process. A native of the modest community of Twickenham, she grew up in a musical family. While studying architecture at London University, she moved through several bands before winding up as a guitarist in Suede (now London Suede), a soon-to-be flavor of the week throughout Britain. However, she split before fame visited the group and subsequently formed Elastica toward the end of 1992. Welch, who'd met Frischmann while she was still in Suede, was the first to come aboard, followed by Holland, once a part of the percussion act Stomp!, and Matthews, who responded to an ad in Melody Maker looking for a guitarist who was into the Fall, the Stranglers and Wire.
This list is instructive. All three acts emerged from England in the last half of the Seventies but couldn't be classified as straight punk bands. Rather, they used punk as a jumping-off point for their sometimes fragmentary, often artsy musical expressions. Elastica is more accessible than these combos, but its members share with them the belief that intriguing things can come in small packages. As Frischmann explains it, "We have very low boredom thresholds, and we've got lots of ideas for songs, so there doesn't seem to be any reason to drag them out with a lot of solos or whatever. Whenever I go to gigs, I like the songs where you can hear the intro, you go to the verse, you hear the chorus a couple of times and then you get on to the next one. I find it really dull when bands play five- or six-minute songs. You can always jam around the chords, but why bother?"
After a brief period of woodshedding, Elastica began practicing this theory in nearby clubs--and almost immediately became a cause celebre. "The press picked up on us really, really early," Frischmann acknowledges. "We did our first gig in May of '93, and by the time it was '94, we were on the cover of NME. We had covers like you wouldn't believe, and we were like, `What the fuck is going on? We only have ten songs. We've only played twenty gigs.' And then it got to the point where every conversation we had with a journalist was about hype--like it was all our fault, when it totally wasn't our choice at all. It got ridiculous."
The wall-to-wall articles in influential music mags had their benefits, of course: Line Up, an EP that included the title song (which kicks off the Elastica album) and live numbers from a John Peel radio show, zoomed onto the indie charts and stuck around for a couple of months--an eternity by flighty, trendy English standards. A second EP, Connection, did just as well, thanks mainly to the single of the same name, which has now been listed in the Billboard Hot 100 for twelve consecutive weeks. But Frischmann recognized that all the attention being lavished on the four-piece could backfire. As a result, Elastica's members agreed upon an impressively cheeky course of action: They decided to stop talking to the media for a while. They held to this vow of silence for eight months. "It was a really big risk," Frischmann says. "People were saying to me, `You can't do that.' But luckily, we have a really cool record company in Britain. They're about as indie as they come, and they were like, `If you want to do this, do it. Don't let the fuckers force you to put out records unless you want to. And don't be hyped if you don't want to be hyped.' That made a big impression on us."
If so, why did Elastica choose to sign with Geffen, the U.S. label currently most adept at riding a horse until it's dead and then beating it until it's dust? Frischmann is concerned about creating an impression of hypocrisy, but she feels that Geffen has been relatively circumspect thus far. "I don't live here, so it's really hard for me to tell whether we're being hyped or not," she says. "But so far, it feels very natural. The people there seemed to understand us, which is why we went with them. But I really hope we're not being hyped too hard."
In the meantime, Frischmann is doing her best to deflect comparisons to groups from the past. When asked about Romeo Void, an early Eighties San Francisco band whose lead singer, Debora Iyall, has a lot in common with her, sound-wise, she replies, "A couple of people have said that to me, but I've actually never heard Romeo Void. Every time I'm in a record shop, I look for Romeo Void records so I can find out what they sound like. And in England, all of these papers came out with reviewers saying we reminded them of `My Sharona' [by the Knack], which I've never heard, either.
"One of the problems about being a music writer is that you have to describe music. Which is kind of a weird thing. It's like that Elvis Costello line: `Writing about music is like dancing about architecture.' So it's kind of an obstacle--but it's also a necessary evil. If you want people to hear your records or come see you play, they have to have heard of you. That's why you've got to do a balancing act to try to get yourself across to people accurately. And that's not an easy thing to do."
Elastica, with Baby Chaos. 9:30 p.m. Wednesday, June 14, Mercury Cafe, 2199 California Street, $10, 830-2525 or 444-
Get the Music Newsletter
Keep your thumb on the local music scene each week with music news, trends, artist interviews and concert listings. We'll also send you special ticket offers and music deals.