LAM "21st Century Poised", Mar'99

Living Abroad Magazine
02 Mar 1999

Providing the recent highlight of this year's Brit awards which featured them quite appropriately putting hot-wire needles into viewers heads with their blitzkreiging version of '20th Century Boy', Placebo rounded off a year which will simply have to go down as their annus favorablis in their by now, inimitable style. Quite fittingly, David Bowie helped them out and why not? All three members of Placebo were present for this interview:
this being, Brian Molko who raptures on about the merits of Bonnie Tyler's 'Total Eclipse Of The Heart', Stefan who first appeared on TV at the age of 8 in a barn-dancing segment and Steve Hewitt who finds the very mention of TJ Hooker and The Fall Guy possibly the funniest thing in the entire world.

GARETH GORMAN decides not to mention the A-Team...

It's rare these days to meet up with an entire band. Possibly due to this, there's been conjecture that the Placebo three-prong interview set-up was some form of damage control due to Brian - who incidentally isn't looking so 'ladyboyish' as Alan Partridge may put it, but rather, positively glowing from a holiday in Barbados, losing it somewhat in earlier scenarios. After all he has shown he can handle himself - very well in fact on the likes of TV such as Jo Whiley and Never Mind The Buzzcocks.

BRIAN: No, it's not that much of a big deal at all really and nothing to do with damage control. All it is, is to make sure that people don't just see the band as me with two other guys. The music is written in a totally democratic way - we split everything three ways. We are three songwriters and one band and all have equally as much to say as the other.
"Previously though, before Steve joined the band, Stef wasn't very comfortable with interviews. And myself and Robert (pre-Steve drummer) weren't getting on very well. We could hardly be in the same room as each other, so we weren't going to be conducting interviews together.
"So basically, I ended up doing all the press and it was a bit of a cross to bear, I suppose. It got a bit heavy after a while and when it got a bit heavy, I started...

STEVE: Calling in reinforcements.

BRIAN: Yeah. The effect of having too much press to do, meant that I ended up saying too much sensationalist, overblown statements, because I was bored and tired, getting blase' with it all. I just attempted to shock in interviews. It's far more natural this way and far easier.

STEFAN: It's a band.

STEVE: (makes to leave) Yeah, so see ya'. (The first bout of 'group' laughter rings out).

BRIAN: One day I won't be here. One day I'll get too big for my boots.

GLAMORAMA
Released back in November, 'Without You I'm Nothing' was quite a standout in a rather lacklustre year. Punters and critics were also genuinely surprised that Placebo had progressed to such a degree.
One thing to add to Placebo's place in people's affection is that beyond all this... Beyond being a powerful live experience, they've injected a bit of glamour into a music world populated by drab track-suited bands.

BRIAN: We like showbiz and we like flamboyance and we like glamour -- we're not huge fans of glam rock, so we make the delineation between them, but that's by the by.
"We think we should make and effort and I think particularly in this country, they wanted more flamboyant, more verbose rock stars and then they got a few and then they just didn't know what to do with them. It's part of who we are.

STEVE: It's not like we go around consciously with the challenge in our heads to rid the world of track-suited bands. We don't even thing about it, we just get on with it."

But it is though something they realise that they've taken on board as all that they hail true and right about exciting, passionate and powerful music. It pays off to spend a bit of time on all manner of things.

BRIAN: We wouldn't feel right if we just went on stage in a T-shirt and jeans -- the same clothes we wore the rest of the day -- the same clothes that we wore when we went to Tescos. It's not what we're about and it's not what the best rock and roll has been about."

THE LADYBOY WITH THE  THORN IN HIS SIDE
While the music comes from the band, Brian does all the lyrical duties. He at times writes from both a heterosexual and homosexual point of view. Did someone like say, Morrissey's ambivalent stance on sexual matters have some effect on Brian's song writing development which he then turned on its head for his own personae?

BRIAN: It's never been really conscious. I definitely listened to the Smiths... (they also covered 'Bigmouth Strikes Again' for 'The Smiths Is Dead' tribute album). I haven't thought about it, but these things manifest themselves in quite sub-conscious ways. I did listen to the Smiths a great deal when I was a teenager. We said the other day that the Smiths and the Cure were the soundtrack for every teenager's rainy afternoon. Also, New Order, Joy Division, that sort of stuff was what I spent my weepy teenage years listening to, "I think these things never really leave you. I think if they manifest themselves in your music in a way that's not obvious, then that means you can digest your influences well. You've chewed them up well, before you swallow them.

BRIAN: When we got the offer from France, wer were surprised that no one had taken 'Bigmouth Strikes Again', so we decided that people must have been scared. We took the challenge because it's such a vitriolic song, we just tried to up the ante sonically to match. We wanted to balance the hatefulness lyrically with hatefulness, sonically. I think the Supergrass one is about the only other good one on there. The rest of it's pretty dire. Bis did 'The Boy With The Thorn In His Side' which is just atrocious.

WEIRD SCENES INSIDE THE GOLDMINE
While they quite obviously rate their version of the epochal Smiths song, a cover they've done which they justifiably hold in even higher esteem is their head-clearing version of '20th Century Boy' used prominently in Velvet Goldmine.

BRIAN: It probably means more to us, because it was the first time we recorded something in a recording studio with Steve and the first time we worked with backing vocalists and stuff like that. The scope was opening a bit"

It may be a stand-out of the soundtrack, but it's also actually, a stand-out moment of the film itself.

STEVE: It's a great dramatic entrance.

BRIAN: It lifts it, it really does. We've reached a point where the story is collapsing inward and that pulls you out of the complicated miasma of storylines.

A NEW HOPE
1998 then proved itself to be a year of highs after almost reaching the point of total implosion close to the start of their career. It all started to go right once Steve and Brian met up at Phoenix Festival with Robert Schultzberg being ousted to make way for Steve.

BRIAN: Steve joined when Nancy Boy was released, so we were still touring the first album. So that changed the dynamic, gave us a new band hope. It was uphill from the beginning of 1997 and it feels like a bit of a wave, that we're still riding.

STEFAN: The pressure was on from day one really, because we got signed really quickly and the album was rushed. So it was a whirlwind time and for us not to get along as three people was not enjoyable. Really, it should be at least somewhat enjoyable, so when Steve saw us and thought that we were the most miserable humans he'd ever seen...

BRIAN: I think his exact words were: 'You miserable c**ts. You're in a successful band, selling loads of records and look at you. Look at the fucking state of you'.

THIN LINE BETWEEN LOVE AND HATE
Placebo are quite clearly a band who attract extreme reactions. Listening to the extreme phone messages in the dystopic final, unlisted track being just some examples of this point. Has this type of thing escalated or diminished since the album was recorded?

BRIAN: I haven't received any death threats or anything like that. So it's still about the same - either really adoring reactions or very hateful reactions from people. I guess that we're probably a little bit more protected now, so in a way it doesn't affect us as much:-   It's harder to get to us, both emotionally and probably physically. "I look upon that though, as a sign of music that really works or art that really works - that it inspires extreme reactions in the soul of the viewer or listener. It's either love or hate and indifference is the killer."

The triumvirate have already worked up a number of songs for album number three.

BRIAN: We write a lot at soundchecks and we went in and did some B-side stuff and saved it, because it was too good. So there is stuff that is there. 'Pure Morning' was the last thing that we did for the album - which also came out of the B-side sessions where we were working off loops and stuff. We'd go into the studio with a loop and built it from there - not knowing exactly where it was going to. We enjoyed that spontaneous attitude and it would be nice to do more work like that.
"We are writing fiery, emotionally-charged music at the moment and maybe it will be rawer in a lot more places than the second album. It's feeling very powerful and we definitely haven't run out of ideas."

WILLIAM SHATNER'S PANTS
Possibly, a little known fact (until now) about Brian is that he's a Star Trek fan. Which particular flavour though?

BRIAN: What is it Mike Myers says in Wayne's World? Even though the kitsch value of the first series cannot be surmounted. Storyline and scientific nature of STNG is far superior. I like the NG, basically, because it's more Stephew Hawking."

I interject that the only thing that I like out of any of them is 7 of 9's outfit, which sends Steve especially into hysterics. We are also about to enter TJ Hooker territory, folks.

STEVE: Have you got one?

BRIAN: (Still actually attempting to keep it serious) I think Deep Space Nine gets a bit into soap opera territory, so I get bored during that one."

But surely Deep Space Nine is the porn version (I think you know what happens next). I still also can't get over the fact that they allowed William Shatner to direct a Star Trek film. How could you possibly allow such a bad actor to direct a multi-million dollar film?

BRIAN: You shouldn't trust a guy who presents Rescue 911."

Or stars in TJ Hooker.

STEVE: (almost bursting a blood-vessel cackling.) Fucking Hell, I remember that. Oh God"

As the interview ends any chance of seriousness long gone, especially after Stefan's line-dancing admission coming straight after the Star Trek shenanigans and well... time's up, basically. But there's one more jape to come, we're waiting for the next journalist to take over, somehow the new Blondie single comes up. Brian takes a bit of a shine to the topic and acts out how he believes Deborah Harry has ballooned out somewhat.

"It looks to me that someone actually started blowing air up her arse into her body - like this.." (some huff and puff action.)

Stefan meanwhile looks non-plussed while myself and Steve are giggling away. "Leave her alone, she doesn't look that bad..."

No one else agrees, unfortunately.