Evening Standard "Mackenzie Crook feature", Feb'99

05 Feb 1999

Placebo's wild days are over - for now. And when MAX BELL meets possibly the best band in Britain, he finds Brian Molko and the boys in reflective mood

WALK into the foyer of Coalition, Britain's most successful music and media spin tank, and you notice the walls festooned with front covers. Among campaign medals for the Verve, Gomez and Gay Dad are several items devoted to Placebo's Brian Molko. According to thecover lines, Brian gives Marilyn Manson a run for his mascara as pop's most wicked man. Here is a debauched rogue who'd just as soon set fire to his mother's boudoir as offer Neil Hannon of the Divine Comedy a quick bunk-up; or, punch a cab driver on the nose; or simply don a corny T-shirt proclaiming "I'm Evil".

When you meet this very naughty boy, plus Placebo accomplices Stefan Olsdal and Steve Hewitt, they turn out to be a charming trio of fellows in matching black turtleneck sweaters. Apart from spilling a glass of water over my tape recorder, it's hard to believe they ever lived up to Brian's charming boast that they "left a trail of blood and spunk all over Britain" during their last tour.

Molko is recently back from Barbados and sporting a tan that compliments his Urban Decay Uzi nail varnish. Today we're getting him sunny side up. "I've been jet-skiing, lying on a beach, following the flying fish and: laying off the booze, I feel extremely healthy." He is also full of his image. Brian doesn't regret writing spite-fuelled songs like Nancy Boy, Slackerbitch and Bruise Pristine, but the new mature Molko has torn up his cartoon caricature. "In every good story about me there was a grain of truth," sighs the softly spoken, American-accented singer. "But there was always exaggeration fed by a pathological desire for attention and a need to be extreme for itsown sake. It was easy to wind up the press, but I also became a wanker in their eyes. I slipped into all the obvious channels."

Maybe that's why Swedish Stefan and Cheshire Steve are here as well. They talk but not as much as Brian, so you figure they're acting as his safety net. In any case Placebo haven't got much to complain about. Their current album, Without You I'm Nothing, is full of confessional love songs and is selling like hot cakes. In a few days they perform Marc Bolan's Twentieth Century Boy with David Bowie at the annual Brits Awards (they were guest of honour at the old glam Nethead's 50th birthday bash at Madison Square garden last summer) and they've 'made good friends of Michael Stipe and, Bono, two of rock's most slippery customers.
Molko disputes the accusation at- they've joined the Establishment. "We're - too in awe, of these people. We liked them before; we weren't just adopted by them. Bowie's said he'd love to produce us and that would be fine, by me. Michael is a huge influence. He's a soulful singer, and I wanted to explore my range on the new album. I was tired of being helium bloke. I wanted less shriek and more warmth. Playing that date with Bowie at his birthday party was probably the most fantastic event in the band's life. He introduced us to Lou Reed and I babbled like an idiot in front of Sonic Youth. It was like being in a parallel universe."

BOWIE might have warned Placebo how fame and fashion would take a toll. The new album is littered with the debris of doomed relationships , its title inspired by Molko's break-up with the actress Lisa Walker. "All our personal lives were falling apart last year everything degenerated. The record is the hangover. It's waking up in the morning and jumping on reality express. Everything we'd embraced in the past, our whole hedonistic vibe, had a disastrous knock on effect on people we cared about. That's why we pulled towards a sentimental, romantic direction. I'm racked with guilt on every level so I'm eating vitriol-free humble pie."
Songs like the folky mantra Pure Morning, with its chirpy references to marijuana and menstruation, and the bleak Summer's Gone, have obvious resonance for Placebo's army of girl fans, but they've also turned the group into a global proposition who know the meaning of "crossover quality". According to Hut Records boss, Dave Boyd, "this album is- much more suited to the US market", a demographic where buyers find no contradiction between liking Depeche Mode, Smashing Pumpkins and Perry Farrell.

Molko's heard the one about deliberately concocting a "Placebo-lite" album but insists there was no directive other than "take it to the edge. We've always wanted to make emotion music with a naive, lustful energy and if we're getting more success we're not falling on deaf ears. We've done a lot of research into our fans (their fan club boasts more than 60,000 members) and we've found that we do appeal to teenagers trying to deal with personal freedom. Not everyone is sitting at home making cyber love to Lara Croft."

IBERIA, Luxembourg, the Lebanon and now Ladbroke Grove - Molko's lived in all of them and thanks his banker father for instilling him with a worldly shrewdness. Placebo might prefer to be Clubbing it at Pop Stars ("Where they always play our singles"), but they'll don their gold lame and troop off for their Best Video nomination at the Brits anyway. "It's all a corporate jerk-off, the lowest common denominator. Of course we'd have liked a more prestigious category, best album or whatever, but since it'll just be the Robbie Awards who cares?"
And afterwards? "Probably just go home,',' says Brian. "I've done my bit of falling over in clubs. I'm becoming less of a social animal. If I go out now I travel without makeup. I'm learning how to be incognito." And does that work? "Sometimes," he smiles, with just a hint of the old wicked gleam in his eyes.