Metro Music "The big interview", Jan'99

METRO Music (The Times)
Jan 23rd 1999

They've made it big in Britain and Europe, selling nearly a million albums and playing to massive crowds with their dark brand of rock. But, Paul Connolly asks, can they   conquer America?

The big interview - Placebo effect

  A jock with a permed mullet and frizzy moustache shakes  his head as he waits at the bar for another glass of beer.  "Man, did you see that band Placebo?" he asks his companion. "Man, they sucked. You couldn't understand a word they were saying, and the singer, man. Was that a guy or a girl? I didn't know whether I wanted to fight him or f*** him."

  We're in a bar in Albany, New York's state capital, and Placebo, a band big enough in the UK that they can easily sell out a 4,000-capacity venue such as Brixton Academy, have just played a show in front of 100 or so disinterested American youths.

Third band on for a gig being recorded for a local radio station, Placebo were initially eyed suspiciously by the fans who had just been dancing manically to an appalling local funk-metal band called Monkey Belly. From the back of the small venue you could see small clumps of acne-scarred redneck youths turn to each other as Placebo's sexually
ambiguous lead singer, Brian Molko, took to the stage, beautifully made up and preening. The prevailing opinion was "cool-looking chick". Until Molko opened his mouth to sing and out came an odd amalgam of a punk rock Geddy
Lee from Rush and David Bowie. Whatever he sounded like, he was clearly male and several of the bum-fluffed beer-chuggers looked very uncomfortable as the brief object of their collective desire finished the song with "Thanks, we're Placebo and that was Brick Shithouse". It was a priceless moment.

Interest turned to apathy until Placebo played Pure Morning, an enormous, roiling monster of a song that has been picked up by radio stations across America, generating 2,500 plays per week nationwide. The crowd suddenly went mental with joyful abandon as they realised who this odd lot on stage were. "What a great song," one of the few trendy girls present said, "and he's pretty cute, too."

In an odd English-themed Albany motel the next day, Molko, 26, who is part American and speaks with an American accent, is bemused; "It's such a weird place, America. We came straight in from playing in front of 2,000 Parisians, with crowd-surfing and total mayhem, to playing in front of 40 people in Aerosmith's club in Boston. I mean, not only can a band be pretty big in the UK and Europe and come here and be totally unknown but they can be huge on the east coast of America and be nothing on the west coast. Or huge on both coasts but mean f*** all in Oklahoma, Kansas or Iowa. It's just such a huge country. Breaking it could take forever." 

Success in America is the holy grail for most British acts. It is the place where serious money can be made. But there are only a handful of bands from the British Isles who can legitimately claim to have "broken" America: the Beatles, the Rolling Stones, Led Zeppelin, Pink Floyd, U2, Bush, and arguably, Depeche Mode. In recent years both The Prodigy and the Spice Girls have enjoyed No 1 albums but the jury is out on whether their success will last. After all, The Cult enjoyed huge success in 1989 with their album Sonic Temple but their subsequent career Stateside went into freefall and they split a few years later.

Dave Boyd, managing director of Placebo's label, the Virgin-affiliated Hut, is under no illusions about the challenge facing his charges; "There are four main differences between the UK and American music scenes," he says. "First you have the total polarity of what sells in the respective markets. R&B and hip-hop are huge in the States and not nearly so massive in the UK. Then there is the fundamental cultural difference within the music industry; in America when you're a musician, whether it be a successful musician or an aspiring musician, you're in the entertainment business - you're not a musician. When you're a musician in the UK, again whether a successful musician or an aspiring one and you want to retain a certain amount of credibility, there's no real pressure to do all the mainstream promotional stuff. You don't have to do kids' TV or The National Lottery Show, unless, of course, you're mainstream, when those outlets are very important."

Boyd continues, "In America, there is no choice; you're fair game for everyone - because you play a guitar and write songs, you're an entertainer and you'll be told to go on The David Letterman Show, turn up at the Grammy Awards, basically do anything you're asked. It's the  entertainment business and they don't see a difference between Lucille Ball and Liam Gallagher."

Then there are the basic cultural disparities. The Manic Street Preachers, a band recently voted "Best Band on the Planet" by the UK's biggest selling music magazine, Q, have had no impact thus far on America. Boyd, an affable man, who has seen another band on his label, The Verve, come very close to breaking America (they sold 1.2 million albums on the strength of Bittersweet Symphony being featured on a Nike advertisement but went no further - three-four million albums is the real breakthrough point) is emphatic on the reasons why the Manics had their recent album, This is My Truth; Tell Me Yours turned down by a rumoured eight American majors, before finally being signed by Virgin. "On the surface they're a band that should appeal to the States - a lot of big anthemic rock songs. But beneath the surface, they're subversive, ironic, have a sense of humour and are very aware of the class system. You couldn't find a band more culturally opposed to most American people - it just doesn't translate, the Americans just don't get it. They wouldn't play the UK No 1 single If You Tolerate This, Your Children Will Be Next on American radio because DJs said the title was too long."

The biggest difference, of course, is the sheer size of the country. Touring America, even on a relatively short five-week promotional basis, is getting to Placebo's drummer, Steve Hewitt, 27. "I really miss my daughter, Emily. I phoned her yesterday and she said, 'When are you coming home, daddy?' That really broke me up. I mean, I'm not just doing this for a laugh, I really want to do well in America; for me this is where you prove yourself. You can't say you're a really big band unless you can sell millions of albums here." His face darkens slightly and he continues, "but you have to spend months here, you can't just pop home like you can when you're touring the UK, and I would find being away from Emily for that long really hard," He brightens, "but I'm still really up for it. Being in a band is fantastic. You're not stuck in an office   or a factory and you get to see the world. How great is that? And you collect great memories wherever you go." 

His face breaks into a massive grin as he recalls his 'moment of the tour'. "The worst place we've stayed in so far was this motel in New Hampshire or Connecticut, I can't remember which. It was one of those places you could rent rooms by the hour and when we turned up it was singles' night. Anyway, I went to open the door of my room and it just fell off - it was like the ultimate rock'n'roll motel - a pre-wrecked room; perfect."

Maybe the idea of Placebo succeeding in America isn't so fanciful. After all they're hardly a stereotypical British band. In fact, of the three members, only Hewitt is English. Molko (born in Belgium) and bassist, the ludicrously tall Stefan Olsdal, 24, (Swedish by birth) are of pan-European upbringing and met in a private school in Luxembourg, where their fathers were working. 

"I was the weird little misfit," Molko grins. "And although Stefan kind of hung round with the jocks and played basketball we did speak occasionally." Eight years later they bumped into each other at South Kensington Tube and decided that night to form a band. An old friend of Olsdal's, Robert Schultzberg, became their drummer. They recorded a demo that caused a huge stir in the music industry and after a bidding war they signed to Dave Boyd's Hut. Their debut single, the magnificent Nancy Boy, was released in the summer of 1997 and went straight to No 4 in the UK charts.  The madness did not stop there, though. Schultzberg left after a series of bitter rows with Molko - "you can only put up with such animosity for so long," says Molko now - and old friend Hewitt, who had been in bands with Molko before, joined. And a few days after Nancy Boy's chart entry, Placebo were on stage at New York's Madison  Square Garden, playing to 20,000 people as guests of their hero, David Bowie, whose 50th birthday party it was. "It was just incredible. Lou Reed, Sonic Youth, The Cure and us," says Molko.

Such an amazing start couldn't be maintained, though, and their eponymous debut album was a disappointment. It was brittle, charmless and utterly devoid of emotion. Dave Boyd concurs; "It was a little rushed; Brian only had two days to record his vocals and as a result they sounded robotic and cold." He smiles, "But it sold well enough - 300,000 in fact." Then followed a promotional whirlwind amidst rumours of extreme rock'n'roll excess involving  drugs and orgies. The British music press fell upon the stories with glee and were aided by Molko's naive honesty. "Yeah, I was stupid, I played into their hands, a lot of the stories were true but I should have protected myself and the band. We were in danger of becoming a cartoon rock'n'roll band and that was mostly my fault."  But their second album released last autumn, Without You I'm Nothing, was a shock. An intoxicating cocktail of adrenalised melodic punk and searingly emotional ballads, its centrepiece is the monumental title track, a quite astonishingly naked declaration of loss; "Every time you vent your spleen/ I seem to lose the power of speech/ You're slipping slowly from my reach/ you grew me like an evergreen/ you've never seen the lonely me at all/ without you I'm nothing." How can he be so candid?   How could he sing that to thousands of people? The diminutive Molko shifts in his seat; "I'd always kept things bottled up. As a result I used to blow up. Things had to get out somehow." Indeed before I left to interview Placebo a number of people had suggested I "give the nasty little twat a slap from me". "But," Molko continues, "being so honest in my writing is cathartic. I think I'm easier to be around now because of that." Olsdal agrees, "Brian's definitely more easy-going now." 

Whether Molko will remain so easy-going in the face of the effort required to sell records in America is another thing, though. During my time with the band I'd heard at least one of his entourage complaining about "the little f***ing prima donna". But the non-stop travelling and the constant pressing of the flesh would test the patience of anyone.

Boyd is sympathetic; "You need to set aside a lot of time for America. But for a British band the UK promo treadmill is two singles and then an album. This cycle, involving talking to print media from fanzines to broadsheets and TV and radio interviews can take up five or six months and then, inevitably, it will either be Christmas or the European festival season. Then suddenly the year's gone, and it's 'oh, s*** there's that other place across the water, 3,000 miles away. Better go.' So, off they troop to CMJ (a music business showcase in New York). After playing to thousands of adoring fans in venues such as the Astoria, suddenly they're playing to 200 music industry people who couldn't give a toss. 'Come on then, impress us - we've already seen three or four gigs tonight.' "

Boyd continues, "I've been over there with young bands before. They have to be prepared to stick their tongues firmly up the record company's bottom. They have to do everything. They have to shake everyone's hand, go round all the college radio stations, turn up to the weenie roasts, do the record company meet-and-greets at the end of the show, meet the sales reps from Dallas, the west coast promotional man, they've got to do the lot; it is Spinal Tap. And a lot of UK bands just don't have that stamina. For a lot of them it's also a matter of integrity.  "Look at Noel and Liam from Oasis; they'll do so much but then they'll go back to the UK, and they'll go back with a 'f*** you'. Richard Ashcroft from The Verve is the same to a lesser extent. But Americans hate that attitude. A band is there to entertain. I've yet to meet a band who will toe the line. And to be honest,I don't blame them. They tour America for eight to nine weeks and they're on a tour bus - they just don't get any sleep - the sleeping compartments are like coffins - their driver from Texas has got a gun and he's spitting into a glass jar on the dashboard every five minutes and chewing tobacco - it's just hideous."

"Yeah, the meet-and-greets can be pretty wearing," says Hewitt. "But the feeling we get is that everyone is totally behind us here. The support we're getting from the American arm of Virgin is brilliant. They really seem to care about us, they seem really up for it. I think we're really lucky."  Steve Chapman is Placebo's tour manager in America and he agrees that the back-up from the American label is first-class. "I think it helps that two guys from the British label, Ray Cooper and Ashley Newton, are now over here as joint presidents of Virgin America. There's a real sense of support," he says, "and boy do you need it on a big American tour.
There's nothing worse than spending weeks on buses and planes, and knowing that the American label couldn't give a s***. It just seems so pointless. But this tour has a real sense of purpose. I really think it could happen for this bunch."

For Dave Boyd, U2 are something of an object lesson when it comes to establishing a firm American base. "Island were apparently about to drop them on the eve of the release of their second album, October. But Paul McGuinness, their manager, went in to see the management and said 'give me a million quid and we'll break America. The band are going to go and live in America and tour the s*** out of it, they're going to become an American band and tour constantly. The perception will be they're an American band.'
"And it worked. U2 have sold 35 million albums in America so far.

Relaxing in a Denver bar after another gig, Molko takes a slightly different tack; "It definitely helps to play the game their way over here; that's not questioned. But where we score heavily is that we're different; we can't be categorised. Look at the success of Marilyn Manson; people want something different, something they can call their own, be part of.
You get on two or three million people's wavelengths and you've cracked it." Molko, impishly fierce, is adamant; "I think we'll do it. We're damn tenacious. We just won't let them not love us. They really have no choice." With that the little teaser of beer-sodden good old boys goes to the bar and asks the barmaid why she hasn't got Pure Morning on the jukebox. It probably won't be long before the question is academic.

Placebo's new single, Every Me, Every You, is released on Monday.