NME "No More Charlie Angels", Aug'98

08.08.1998


That’s right - Placebo, the band who recently boasted of having left a trail of blood and spunk all over the country, have ditched the rock’n’roll madness in order to get, like, spiritual and sensitive on us…man. Why?! Read on - you’ll be shocked. Morning Glory: Victoria Segal (words) Adrian Green (photos)


Is this the most evil pop star in Britain? “I want to be a better person. I want to be a stronger person. I want to be someone who hurts less.”

Amen, brother. Brian Molko, all frosted lipstick and icy sincerity, takes another sip from his unholy Bloody Mary and widens his eyes. Welcome to the group meeting for Pop Stars Who Say Too Much. Pop Stars Are From Mars, Women Are From Venus, and Placebo’s singer is, in any case anyone was confused fir a minute back there, only human after all.

It was an easy mistake to make, one the band certainly made. At the peak of their Top Ten success with ‘Nancy Boy’ they were feeling, as Brian puts it, “like a bit of a god for an hour a day”. Given that they were developing a prodigious appetite for destruction, led by a man who could write a lyric as casually cruel as, “Slacker bitch, fag hag whore/always knocking at my door”, who cheerily described himself as a slut who wasn’t afraid to start a fight with anyone that took exception to his make-up, you might be forgiven for thinking that the next stage in the Placebo story would match Marilyn Manson’s autobiography, The Long Road Out Of Hell, wasted groupie for wasted groupie.

“I don’t think that we were ever that disgusting,” says Brian, slightly indignant. He should know. He’s hung out with Manson himself. Yet with a new single and album ready to go, this is the time to capitalise on their previous success, for Caligula-like antics, horse-marrying, rival-slaying. Instead, they’ve surprisingly opted for the alternative pop star path, following wild rock’n’roll rebellion with rock redemption, swapping shamelessness, scoring and swagger for soul-searching and spirituality. Brian has had enough of being portrayed as the “junkie misogynist”. He wants you to know he’s fragile, kind, vulnerable, and he’s made an album of heart-broken love songs to prove it.

“I don’t want to be an evil person and I don’t want to project an evil image and hide behind that. It wouldn’t be honest and it would probably make me more disturbed than I am already.”

Suddenly the most evil pop star in Britain isn’t sounding very evil anymore.

However, if this wholesome new approach is to convince the nations’ high-minded youth, they might have to work harder at not looking like a bunch of rock degenerates. In the grey, decidedly unglamorous confines of a North London pub, they seem like they were created in the imaginations of the most disturbed clientele. There’s Brian, a tiny capsule of rock attitude with his satin trousers and velvet shirt, eyes you could drive a Rolls-Royce into and voice somewhere between Courtney Love and Mick Jagger. Bassist Stefan Olsdal is still an almost comedic counterpart to the singer - tall, blond, apparently guileless and, according to the surprisingly Star-Trek obsessed Molko, know as “the Viking from Vulcan - he keeps us logical”. Yet it’s drummer Steve Hewitt who seems to have caused the major shift in the Placebo dynamic.

Joining in 1997 after the departure of Robert Schultzburg, he’s bluffy ebullient, father to a small daughter, with a hard-living past on the Mancunian dance scene. It’s Steve who takes exception to the headline in the last Placebo story in the NME.

“’We left a trail of blood and skunk all over the country?’ I’ve never heard anything so disgusting in my life,” he shudders. “Trust you two boys to come up with something like that.”

He is, according to Brian, the controller of egos and instigator of the new gang mentality. As the singer talks, he constantly watches Stefan and Steve, and unless inescapable, he’ll be doing no interviews alone in future. It might just be another clichО of the rock redemption - immature pin-up replaced by mature band - but there’s no doubting the strength of this new order.

“It’s daddy, mummy and baby,” says Brian as Stefan pulls his shirt into comedy breasts. “Or you’re my two husbands.”

If that’s the typically dysfunctional take on the concept of family values, it’s not the only thin Steve has brought to the band. There’s the groove too. Placebo are very fond of the groove. You’ll first notice it on the gloriously glossy power-loop of ‘Pure Morning,’ lunging there beneath Brian’s rhyming frenzy, a single that nearly never was.

With album sessions leaving them, “freaked out - we were so unbelievably precious - actually quite anal about the recording,” it was only when they got in a studio with ‘Nancy Boy’ producer Phil Vinali to work on b-sides, screaming into a toy parrot and writing songs about a cartoon character called Needledick The Bugfucker that they relaxed and the ‘Pure Morning’ loop resurfaced as a valid proposition. What about those lyrics though?

“They were off the top of my head, a first take thing, so I wasn’t even thinking about the significance of them. After that I realised it’s a song about friendship - celebrating friendship with women. It’s about that point in the evening when the sun’s coming up and the rest of the world is waking up and you can’t go to sleep, basically, and you feel like a complete asshole because you’re coming down. And it’s at that point you feel like your life is the least sorted ever and all you really crave is for a friend to put their arms around you and make you feel better. That’s the pure morning, when that happens.”

And that’s a female role? He looks slightly suspicious. “Yeah, I think so. It’s about two friends of mine from two different continents who’ve meant a lot to me.”

“One of them you’re still in contact with,” points out Stefan.

“Yeah, well, she lives in London not Tokyo.”

It’s not really going to help you shake off that, ‘junkie misogynist’ charge though is it? “A friend with breasts and all the rest…” - honestly….

“It’s just meant to be a bit cheerful,” stresses Brian, exasperated. “It’s a bit up for a change. It’s definitely the most digestible song on the record, it fucks with your head the least. It’s light compared with what we’ve done before.”

Brian describes the as-yet untitled new album as “a 12-headed monster. It’s got 12 different personalities. And no, they’re not all mine.”

This split personality makes perfect sense - on the one hand, the guarded moderation of their new persona, on the other, the boyish revelling in the good times of the past. They happily admit it wasn’t all a cocaine nightmare of self loathing and insecurity, that the lived out their pop star fantasies to the full. In between handing out with David Bowie and Marilyn Manson, they also supported U2 on their last tour.

“Bono’s rolling around on the floor screaming ‘Placebo’ down he microphone. It was cool,” smiles Brian. “Then we went onto the Lemon jet - I’m afraid of flying, and they offered us the chance to turn a 17-hour journey to Lisbon into a one-and-a-half hour one. So we got very drunk on the plane - I tend to drink a lot on planes just to calm my nerves - and we got this really bad turbulence and I was like ‘Oh shit, we’re going to die’. Then I realised, ‘Oh, no, we’re on a plane with U2 and they’re never going to die, they’re going to be here forever. I’m going to be alright’.”

They’re also making an appearance in Todd Haynes’ hyped-to-hell film Velvet Goldmine putting themselves at a Method-acting stretch by playing glam-rockers. Clearly, it was a big case of wish fulfilment all round.

“It won an award at Cannes, which we’re very happy about because Todd is a very talented director and he is also an absolute hugbubble and a lovebunch of a person. “

Brian, in case you needed reminding, darling, was once a drama student.

“When I was at college watching Poison by Todd Haynes I never thought I’d be in his movie and he’d be coming round to my house for beers. We played him the album before most people heard it. But there were lots of lovely little moments during filming - when you’re in the make-up trailer next to Ewan McGregor who’s got his Iggy wig on and you go, ‘So what are you doing today, Ewan?’ and he goes, ‘I’m doing ‘Gimme Danger’ and I’m scared shitless’. And you can turn around and go, ‘Don’t worry, Ewan, you’ll be fine’.”

Did you get to wear good clothes?

“Oh, TOTALLY!” they all chorus. Even Steve.

“HE had hair extensions!” crows Brian.

“I had big hair and red suede shoes and Jimmy Page pants and, er, a weird red nightie,” gushes the drummer, his fashion vocabulary deserting him at the last moment.

“The first time we did ‘20th Century Boy’ the audience was Ewan McGregor and Michael Stipe. You know you’re in a movie. We hadn’t even played Brixton yet ourselves and we were onstage there in front of them.”


How did you get on with Michael Stipe?

“He’s the closest thing to Buddha I’ve met,” sighs Stefan. “He’s a very peaceful individual. He has a lovely body.”

Everyone turns to look at Stefan, who raises an eyebrow, glances away, throws a peanut in his mouth and chews with studied innocence.

“I’m sure that he’ll be very flattered when he reads that,” laughs Brian, utterly upstaged. But only for a moment. “We had a good time. We went to the Groucho and smelt each other’s armpits for a while, Me, Michael and Steve. To see who smelt best after a day in the trailer. It’s what pop stars get up to.”

What else pop stars get up to has been well-documented. Brian has spoken about not taking heroin because he felt as if it would ‘disappoint’ people. All the same, as the rumours began to circulate, there was a sense that a force for good - an intelligent, pansexual alternative to alt-rock - was being railroaded into the siding marked Rock Oblivion. Their adoption by the rock legends just seemed to confirm their descent into clichО. Did they feel like they were following some script for excess in their heads?

“No, quite the opposite,” explains Brian. “It was reacting to the situations in a very short-term fashion, doing things for the hell of it, because you’ve never done them before. You’ve not gleaned anything of substance from it - it’s like relationships - you should learn something, but once you’ve had the hangover, there’s nothing left to learn. And we’re getting older and the hangovers are getting worse.”

Steve: “Ah, lightweights.”

“Well, not for you, of course, Mr Bowels-Of-Steel. But it’s like Pilgrim’s Progress - your burden gets heavier and heavier and sooner of later it’s going to break you’re back. You don’t have to get lost in rock’n’roll - you’ve got to find that trail of bread crumbs,” says Brian, spinning away in metaphors before hitting the one he needs. “You don’t have to go through the Zeppelin curtain. When you touch it, it’s nice and velvety, but you don’t want to get on the other side of it.”

They’ve had more than a glimpse though. They admit to abusing their position,, feeling ashamed of the way they behaved, Friends took Brian to one side, told him he was behaving “like a prima donna”, making him feel like an idiot. Celebrity acquaintances who might have offered warning’s didn’t. David Bowies advice was “never lose your spontaneity” - great in theory, yet maybe not the bet thing to tell a bunch of 25-year old men who already have a deity complex. It’s a time they describe as ‘The Days Of Jack’. They don’t drink bourbon any more.

Brian looks up from his scarlet drink, speaks very deliberately, “When you realise how you’ve behaved like an asshole, you take your pillow, hold it over your face and try to smother yourself.”

He sighs. “I used to be quite a nice person, but rock’n’roll eroded it.”

Why not just give it up then?

“You get sick of touring after a while, but then you don’t go to a gig for two weeks and when you do, you just want to be up there again. You get jealous, It happened to me when we stopped touring last time and I went to see the Bunnymen. I was like, ‘I wanna be where Mac is now’.”

Last tune out, Placebo were, let’s say, passably famous. A black bob and a slash of lipstick - it didn’t take much to make them instantly recognisable. But compared to Bono or Bowie, this was a pretty low-grade fame. They were not stalked by Julia Roberts. They did not duet with the Dalai Lama, or guests star in Friends. If the adoration of the massed forces of Britain’s indie kids sent them spinning into crazed oblivion, the new record hitting a stratospheric level of success might be catastrophic. What are you going to do if it all gets more than too much?

“Leave the country probably. Go into exile. Take my Napoleonic complex with me all the way to Elba and hide,” grins Brian. “I think we’re a lot wiser - we’ve learnt to beware the trappings of rock’n’roll - and we’re not stupid, so it was always at the back of our minds. But you learn through experience, really, and no matter what your mother tells you, you’re always going to do it. The things about fame which didn’t agree with us were self-inflicted, so you have to learn a but of willpower, learn what’s good for you and what’s bad for you.”

“Stay away from situations where you get beaten up,” says Stefan, with the world-weary gravity of one who knows.

“Stop provoking people,” adds Brian, sensibly.

Look at you - are you sure you want to stop provoking people?

“Well, face-to-face at 3am, yes,” says Brian archly. “If people are hassling you and you tell them to fuck off and you’re nobody, they usually do. But if they think they can take a pot shot at a pop star, that’ll make their month, You just have to be careful about where you go and what state you get into when you’re there.”

“And make sure Steve’s around,” says Stefan.

“But I never am!” says Steve, cheerily

Is that because you’re flying out of the door at the first sign of trouble?

“I’ve just missed out, unfortunately. Unfortunately for Brian and Stef, I suppose. What gives people the right to do that? If anyone starts having a go at them, I’ll kill ‘em all,” he laughs.

“I don’t understand a lot of the aggression I get from people,” Brian says disingenuously.

“It’s because you’re gorgeous,” explains Steve.

“Shaaatup.”

Stefan tries to help. “You get drunk.,” he points out.

“I get drunk and mouthy, that’s true,” nods Brian.

“You say, ‘What’s your problem?’ and have a go at them in the pub,” continues Stefan.

“Yeaaaah…”

“And they go, ‘It’s not my problem, it’s your problem.’.” the bassist goes on, warming to his subject.

Brian suppresses a glower. “Yeah, well, I feel like I’ve been handed a dodgy hand of cards. I’m responsible for quite a part of it, but when you’re the focus for both adoration and hostility, it’s not an easy thing to live with.”

Do you find that you hate people easily?

“No, not easily. I really need to be pushed. You really need to fuck with my life for me really to hate you.. I am a forgiving person,” he says, every inch a 1974 Miss World contestant.

Not vengeful at all?

“Definitely not vengeful. There’s no point in vengeance. It just bounce straight back at you. It’s too easy.”

“I am,” says the increasingly endearing Stefan, merrily unconcerned with the state of his soul. “It was an unrequited love affair and I couldn’t believe my love wasn’t being returned.” He punches the air. “It never got physical though.”

“I got beaten up by a cab driver recently,” says Brian, “And the instant reaction was, shall we get the cops involved? No. Shall we get the boys round? Yes. And then, a week later, you think, that shit’s just going to come straight back at you. Spiritually, more than anything else. Karma.” He pauses.

“You’re looking at me like you don’t believe me.”

There are a lot of things difficult to believe - a lot of things about this newly reflective Placebo. Given that their rampant, wide-eyed debut saw Molko coming on like he had a vibrator rather than a valentine for a heart, the idea of a heartbroken collection of love songs isn’t an easy concept to grasp. Do you think now that you rather overplayed the sex thing?

“Maybe. It definitely got out of hand and I almost became a caricature of myself. It was who I was at certain points, but not all the time. And I try not to be like that at all these days, but it just keeps creeping up on me sometimes.”

Heard any good rumours about yourself?

He bursts out laughing

“NO! No! None! No!” he giggles. “Just horror stories.”

Like?

“Oh,” he says airily, “nothing…”

So what would your idea of decadence involve these days then?

“Oh, it would have to involve a chaise longue and, er whipped cream,” he says unconvincingly.

“But sex was very much what the first record was about - it was full of the vigour of youth. It wasn’t very cynical. Not that this one is, but the people on the record are a bit more crushed by the ways of the world, they’ve been hurt more times.”

When it come to discussing heartbreak “there’s been a lot of it about,” is all he’ll say.

“Since becoming successful, I’ve spent a lot of time with people in self-destructive relationships - often with people seeing you as something you really are not, as Brian Placebo rather than Brian Molko.”

Do you secretly crave domestic bliss?

“I think it would be really nice not to have to go through this bullshit ad infinitum y’know. Cut out a lot of the insecurity in one go. It seems to me that whenever you think you’ve got your teeth into something that’s working, it’s taken away from you. It’s like our lives are extreme highs and extreme lows, which is the nature of being in a band and I prefer that to a stable plateau. At least you know you’re alive. It’s the same thing when someone breaks your heart. You can reassure yourself that at least you are human and you really meant it.”

A lot of people would find it hard to believe you could ever have a heart, let alone one that could be broken. He looks up from under those mascara’d eyes.

“ People see me as self-assured and very confident but I’m often falling apart. I’m very fragile. It’s through songs that I manage to keep it together. Arrogance is not something I’m interested in, but vulnerability is.” He blinks. “’Scared of Girls’ from the new album is a self-disgust song with an ‘I’m-ashamed-of-who-I-am’ kinda vibe. One of the lyrics is, “I’m a man and I’m a liar” - spoken from the point of view of someone who doesn’t feel very happy about themselves. ‘You Don’t Care About Us’ is directed towards me, written from the point of view of someone who I used to be in a relationship with. There’s a line in it which says, ‘You’re in the wrong place/ You’re in the back page’ which is often what I used to do - I used to imagine the end of these things just as the were starting. When you do that you’re fucked from day one basically, but that’s often the way I used to conduct my relationships. I think I’m quite a misunderstood songwriter - all the bile and vitriol and wickedness people believe is directed by me towards other people, but they’re often directed from other people towards me and I’m being extremely self critical. “

Yet there has to be some reason why people persist in seeing you as a Bad Man.

He sighs. “it’s part of my own creation. I live by my own rules, I guess. People find it very difficult to put me in a box, therefore I must be a wanker.”

“You’re a great bloke,” says Steve loyally.

“Thank you, Steve.”

“You’re a generous, top bloke.”

“I am generous and I am kind and I am sensitive and I am very, very loving. But people really think I’m made out of steel.”

Earlier, Brian had sighed, “What I’m discovering more and more is you have to lie, you have to hide yourself. If you try too be honest, everything gets misconstrued and held against you. We should lie like the Beastie Boys, only we’re not that quick.”

It’s a strange road Placebo travel, but one thing’s certain - it’s paved with good intentions. And of course, as road music they have all the best tunes.