Gay Times "The Rise and Rise Of Brian Molko...", Dec'98

The Rise And Rise Of Brian Molko And The Flaming Creatures From Luxembourg
by Richard Smith

Placebo are one of the biggest and best-loved rock bands of the nineties.
The singer's bi. The bassist's gay. But until recently both of their sexualities were rather ambiguous. RICHARD SMITH loves Placebo, as he thinks they're the last great gasp of Glam Rock.

I first interviewed Placebo in June 1996 -- the week before they released their eponymous debut album. Placebo were right on the cusp of their big breakthrough and there was a real buzz going around about the boys. There was also a lot of talk. Mainly about their tiny androgyne singer, Brian Molko. At some of their early live shows, people stared at the make-up on his face, laughed at his long black hair and just weren't sure if he was a boy or a girl ("It's a boy!" joked the headline on their first NME front cover). Then the picture shifted and the really big question on the world's puckered lips became "Does he like girls or boys?" Few guessed that the answer was "both". I wasn't sure and wrote one of my 'Give 'em enough rope' pieces. Very little me -- just lots and lots of Brian Molko tongue-tying himself up into ambiguous knots.

In retrospect, that first interview with Placebo was hilarious. But for another reason. No one had suspected, then, that the band's gangling bleached-bomb bombshell bassist Stefan Olsdal was gay. And when he came out in Melody Maker last summer it sent out one of those gentle shockwaves that made me remember just why I love this thing called pop.
I've written before about how all this reminded me of what happened with Suede's drummer, Simon Gilbert, a few years earlier -- with all the press attention focused on an alluringly ambiguous front man, no one bothers to ask about the rest of the group.
Except I did.
I recently played back the tape of our first encounter and was shocked to discover that I actually asked Stefan a few queer questions. Fuck knows why. Maybe it was just because I love seeing straight boys squirm. With hindsight, his halted answers are kind of fascinating. Stefan was dropping some pretty big hints and I was just too plain dumb to pick up on them. "I think you grow up learning to play the game," Stefan stuttered, "Some things are too personal and too precious to give away... sometimes I just want the music to say more about what we're like as people. This whole thing of being in a band and getting attention put me on a crash course in finding out who I am. It put me on a bit of a downer a few months ago. I thought 'I don't even know if I'm secure enough to be what I want to be'."

But anyway -- back to school. Brian and Stefan went to the same one, a place for American expats' brats in Luxembourg. An they never said a word to each other the whole time. Everyone thought that Brian was a queer junkie weirdo and that Stefan was straight, straight, straight. But, as they say in Luxembourg, plus ca change. I loved his inversion of people's assumptions about inversion. Mine own included. It's like Brian sang in Nancy Boy. "it all break down to role reversal..." "I was just hanging out with a friend of mine, actually," Brian tells me this time round. "The only friend that I'm still mates with, Nick, who's straight. But we were both thought to be the school queens. If you imagine The Breakfast Club in Luxembourg, that was what our school was like. Or Heathers. We had long hair and we were into drama, so we were definitely poofs. And we were definitely on drugs as well, naturally. That was our reputation."

And what did the young Stefan Olsdal make of that flaming Molko creature? Was he quite scary? Like, 'Oh my God! I'm going to turn into that!' "Well, I could never see myself with long hair. At that point I was just trying to fit in. You wanna be liked and you wanna be part of a group, and I was good at sports and basketball so that's what I put my effort into. I really didn't feel comfortable in the locker room with all that 'Woargh! Let's go kick their arses!' I was playing music all the time, so I saw
myself as becoming some sort of performing musician. I didn't necessarily see myself as turning into Brian."

Oh, you know what I mean. Except he doesn't. Thankfully, Brian does.
"He means, did you think 'Oh no, if I'm gay I'm going to end up like that guy'?" "I never really thought that you were gay."

"All the parents did," Brian counters, with what sounds like wounded pride.
S'funny -- I often ask stars about their school days. You can tell a lot about people from how they describe them. Not just because they're their "formative years" but also because they're great opportunity to do some self-mythologising.

Whatever. Brian says he was a freak and a rebel. And Stefan was shy and sporty -- only coming out when he moved to London five years ago. "This was when I was, like, nineteen. And I went out by myself to begin with because I didn't know anyone here, I didn't know any gay people. My first visit to a gay club was the first time I met my boyfriend as well, who I'm still with. Which I find quite strange. And a week before that I'd met Brian again. So those two things happened within a week of my life and they're
still going on and they're still both wonderful."

Ah yes, that fabled chance reunion. At some point in rock and roll future they'll put a plaque up in South Kensington tube station. For it was there, in 1993, that Brian accidentally bumped into Stefan. And Placebo -- ace band of the Nineties -- was born.
"Brian just screamed my name and I turned around..." "It was like, 'That's Stefan Olsdal!' The two of us were like, 'fucking hell -- it can't be.. it is!' It was very uncomfortable. Very weird."
"I was trying to avoid you and talk to the girl you were with -- and I got her number before I actually got yours. It was so quick..."

Stefan had a guitar strapped to his back, so they both got talking about music. Brian asked him to a gig he was playing that week-end and, to his surprise, Stefan came. "And after the gig Stefan came up to me and said 'I really like what you're doing -- let's make some music together and see what happens.' And two people who thought they would have absolutely nothing in common whatsoever found we had a really common bond between us. Because five minutes into our drink, Stefan turns round to me and says, 'I think I'm gay.' And I said, 'That's cool because I'm bisexual.' And then BANG we hit it off like that. Finally we'd find something tangible that we had in common."

When I first interviewed you I got the impression you didn't know Stef was gay. Or that maybe even Stefan didn't know he was gay. "Stefan wasn't out at that point. But we all knew. Robert -- our old drummer -- knew. He didn't like it very much, I don't think... he's a bit homophobic. It wasn't a sensitive issue, it was about letting Stefan do what he wanted. Let him come out when he felt ready."

It must have been a bit strange for you, Stefan, listening to people ask Brian all these questions about sexuality and staying shtum. "I was just trying to find myself in the whole band. It's taken me a while to get comfortable with what I feel and with what I want to say to the world, because I've never felt comfortable talking about myself in public or to friends. I don't know if that comes from my Swedish upbringing.
Swedes in general are quite repressed. I never really felt I wanted to
bring attention to myself, either." So why and when did you decide to come out? "About a year ago. It just felt comfortable then. I don't think I wanted, before that, to put another label on myself -- to be 'the gay bass player'. And I didn't think it was really important. You know, 'just let the music speak for itself'. But then, being gay influences the way you work and they way you are. And I just felt... I guess I felt stronger at that point.

Publicly, I was quite scared. The attention all came quite quick. I wasn't sure I was going to be comfortable defending myself being gay. But I also now feel better about myself if I talk about what I feel. In some ways it's therapy just letting it all out. I can find myself biting my tongue sometimes, but I'd rather now just say it and bring it out into the open.
Instead of just sitting on it and going 'wahuhuhuh' and becoming a nervous wreck."
Are you quite tortured?

"No, it's just I have quite low self-esteem. 'Cause I didn't really feel I had the right to put my troubles on to anyone else. But I'm finding that that's not the way to do it, really. I'm opening my mouth a bit more. Feels better." Like the old saying goes -- size does matter. And no, I'm not just saying that because I've got a massive cock. But because you couldn't find two differently sized queens than Brian and Stefan. Brian's tiny. Like Kylie tiny. Sits down the second he walks in the room. And Stefan is tall. Or, as I prefer to phrase it, Stefan's very, very long. And, as Brian is the first to admit, he's got "a very big mouth for such a little guy". He's a bit of a rock and rolling bitch. Stefan, though, is quiet and self-conscious, twisting his spindly arms when he speaks like a drunk man vogue-ing. I've a feeling that their size was as formative for each of them as their sexuality was. Would Stefan have been the school basketball star if he wasn't six foot whatever? Moreover, would Brian have felt he needed to make
such a big impression if he wasn't five foot one?

Whatever. When Placebo first appeared, several journalists weren't quite convinced by Brian. Myself included. He was cold and he felt like an actor -- more former drama student than drama queen. This time round, though, I think he's awful nice. Which either means he's a better actor or that he's just being himself. Brian was also a victim of The Ambisexuality Paradox -- the more ambiguous or evasive a star is about their sexuality, the more desperate people become to know who they're really fucking.
"I was very much into ambiguity and mystery at that point, and I wanted to keep people guessing for ages. If you really fancy someone and you're not sure if your feelings are reciprocated, you just end up wanting them more. And I wanted to create that kind of dynamic with our audience and with our fans. To keep them wondering for a time."

When I ask why he came out, Brian says, "It just came out. I didn't really think about it. I didn't have any problems or any fears about it. It was just in conversation with Victoria (Segal -- quite good music journalist) for Melody Maker. We were talking about being mistaken for a woman all the time, being treated like a woman by men. And I was saying sometimes when I hang out with girls we get treated very badly by men on the streets and it actually makes me ashamed to be a man. And I just went on to say 'and as someone who is bisexual...' I didn't plan it. It was like saying 'well, I had eggs for breakfast' for me, really. And I guess at the back of my mind I've always wanted people to know."
Bizarrely, Brian's big coming-out failed to register with some critics. Maybe they just wanted to hold onto the more thrilling myth? Or maybe -- like Brian says -- they just wanted to hold on to a handy stick to beat him with? "Everybody reacted to me as a sort of Brett Anderson Number Two.

Nobody really actually did believe me, basically. And people still think that it's this little ploy I invented in order to get girls. And that's just such complete bullshit. And maybe one of the reasons why it hasn't registered with people is they didn't want it to be true. They want me to be a person who's using ambiguous sexuality or bisexuality as an excuse to get pussy. They want me to be that person." But bisexuality also has a troubled history in pop. It's something that rock stars do. So twenty-five years after Ziggy Stardust fell to Earth, sexual ambiguity doesn't cause confusion, it causes doubt.
'Yeah, definitely! Which is why whenever the subject is approached now in interviews it's one of the first things that I lay down on the table -- this is the way it is. I'm bi. Like it or leave it."
How bi?
"How bi???"

Are you always equally attracted to men and women, or do you go through periods when you're straight and ones when you're gay?
"When I was younger I used to be a bit more like that. I used to feel more straight for certain months and then just think about boys all the time. But at the moment things are very evenly balanced within me. But my thing is, me and Stefan never get into arguments about boys because we have completely different types. The only thing is that I don't seem to meet very many men that I find attractive. And usually when I meet them and develop crushes on them they're usually straight. So I end up having more relationships with women because I have a tendency to not meet very many men I fancy and when I do, I jump in and go 'I want it and I want you NOW!'
And people have a tendency to shy away from that. Or they give in and then they run away. Isn't that what Boy George used to say -- the most fun is when you get straight boys into bed?"
Are you attracted to the same things in a woman as you are in a man?
"No, I'm attracted to women who are very, very boyish. I'm not very big on big mammaries. I have a tendency to be attracted to very, very boyish girls. And usually very feminine men."
And what about you, Stef?
"La-ti-no!" Brian barks out helpfully.
"We could talk about this for a long time -- the narcissistic qualities you look for in someone. You're looking for something that you like in yourself. I like... I don't like effeminate men..."
Damn...
"Or men with long hair..."
Yowsah!

"Which rules out both my band members, which is quite a good thing. I still find them sexy but they're just not my types. I just like them a bit more hunkier and chunkier."
Do you ever feel all this talk about sex overshadows the band?
"It has done in the past," Brian concedes. "It became, for a while, the most important thing about the band, and nobody was talking about the music -- which is what we're trying to redress now. I don't do interviews on my own anymore because people focus on me and my psychology and my sexuality and my image and I'm like, 'hold on, excuse me -- there's two other people in this band. Let's talk about some fucking music for a change'."
Oh, alright then. Let's talk about some fucking music for a change. Your new album... more songs of darkness and disgrace... I was intrigued by the title, Without You I'm Nothing. It's the great statement from the diva to her audience. Am I right?
"You're right. It's also a Sandra Bernhard movie. It came from there. But it was also like the working title of the album because it seemed to reflect and project the scheme. This album is a real exploration of the emotions that we've been through in the last one and a half years. It's been complete heartbreak, really. So it's not surprising that you have a whole album that is practically filled with love songs. And that works on several levels -- there's one person in my past who it is kind of about.
But also it's a message to each other. And it's a message to our fans -- which is that old Judy Garland thing."

Like I said -- size does matter. And yes, I was lying when I said I had a massive cock. But Placebo are a massive band. They've got one of the biggest fan bases in the country. As big as the Verve and as big as Boyzone -- fact. Other bands may have bigger sales, but few have an audience with such a huge emotional attachment. Placebo's fans adore them. One or two even stalk them. Two of their best known fans go by the names of Todd Haynes and David Bowie. Haynes got Placebo to appear as Flaming Creatures in Velvet Goldmine. Dame David got them to open for him at his fiftieth birthday bash at Madison Square Gardens.
Over the next few months you're going to be hearing much talk about Glam Rock -- thanks to Velvet Goldmine and Bowie's pointless Ziggy Stardust resurrection project. And part of the real reason why is that so much of Glam's spirit is so achingly absent from pop in the present. Which, I guess, is why I love Placebo -- I'm so wiped out with things as they are. And which, I guess, is why Placebo's fans love Placebo. Who else right now dares to play the rock and roll star as such a weird/queer mutation? Where are all the other leper messiahs for all the young outsiders to adore? What other band could I have had this conversation with? And who else is screaming out to all those freaky children pop's most thrilling line; "Oh no love -- you're not alone!"?
Oh Placebo. Give us your hand. 'Cause you're wonderful.