NME "Rocky Mountain Horror Show", Jan'99

16th Jan 99
by Roger Morton

You wait three days at the bus stop of humdum and then two pop orgasms come along at once.

In front of a heaving crowd at downtown Chicago's House Of Blues, a big black woman is abandoning herself to the glitzy euphoria of a solid-gold pop-funk classic. Her hair curls in the heat. Her cleavage beams sexual semaphore at the bobbing glitterati. And Stefan Osdal and Steve Hewitt from Placebo grin until they crack their angst masks.

"This is fuckin' intense!" shouts Steve. "Chaka Khan! Intense!"

Amazingly it really is Queen Khan, the grand ol' lady of '80s soul disco rapture. The 'I'm Every Woman' diva is right there in front of the Placebo rhythm section, steamrolling through 'Ain't Nobody' and Steve and Stef are so liberated by the eroctic charge of Chaka's in-the-flesh ram-raid cleavage, that they scamble to the floor and dance like bastards until they're thrown out on to the streets.

Two hours earlier, before the aftershow revelry leads us to Chaka's bosom, an alternative orgasm ripples throuh the jostling goth-grunge crowd at Chicago's Clubland. A small white man is onstage, sinking himself into the gooey existentialism of a sublime spunk rock classic. His make-up melts. His exposed milk-chocolate chest transmits sassy homoeroctic sublimianals at the moshing alt-rock Molkoids. It really is Brian Of Placebo in the teasing flesh and a third of the way into the show, as the threesome riff into 'Bionic', there is a sexy surge that lets the first-timer Chicagoans know that Placebo are more than just a 'girl'-fronted band they saw on MTV who do the 'weed song'.

Midway through a hard-working, America-breaking beginner tour of the US, it's a good thing that Brian, Steve and Stefan and the Molkoids (and Chaka) get their endorphins lubricated by the magic of music. Otherwise everyone concerned might wonder what all the waiting, travelling, in-fighting, cancelled gigs, laundry problems, interview tussles, status games, gender-twisting, bitchiness, misunderstanding and bad dreams were for.

When Brian is on tour he has dreams. A month into a trek he starts waking up on the bus thinking his bunk's a coffin. Sometimes he has to run to the back of the bus and sleep in the lounge. There's a dream where the audience comes on to the bus and screams 'C---!' at his naked form. And there's the hotel dream about his room being the complaints office, and he imagines he wakes up, moans that the porn channel doesn't work and goes back to sleep.

Turning yourself into a buzzing Marshall-stack sex toy for the mopey masses is clearly not good for peaceful slumber. But bad dreams are a treat compared with Denver. Three days beofre they achieve release in Chicago, Placebo are holed up in a hotel in the main town of the 'Rocky Mountain empire', Colorado.

"This place is derelict," says a petite man in a grey pencil skirt. With his nose pressed against the window, Brian eyes the Sunday snowscape and decides Denver is a shed. "People think America is rich but you come to somewhere like this and you relise it's not true," he muses.

Things to do in Denver when you're Placebo? If you're Steve, you argue about your laundry, sigh and tell the world, "I just wanna go 'ome" If you're Stefan, you shave the ski-jump line of your beard a little thinner and pull on your 'Watch More Porn' T-shirt. If you're Brian, you sigh and try to keep your mind on the hidden riches of the big American rock pie.

"The shock was coming from Paris, playing to 2,000 people, smashing guitars and crowd-surfing and then getting on a plane to Boston and playing Aerosmith's club in front of 40 people," says Brian. "And that's with jet lag and feeling like a zombie."

Placebo are in the States for a run of modest, radio station-supported shows prior to a more serious push later in '99. Compare with their Euro notoriety they are amerely buskers at the drawbridge of Marilyn Manson's castle, but all three declare their determination to slog on and 'break' America. Their debut eponymous album sold nish is the US. Recent single 'Pure Morning', however, seduced MTV, making the Billboard Top 20 and thanks to its "A friend with weed is better" line, gave them a handy reputation for being pot heads.

"When we turn up at radio stations the DJ's go, 'You guys must be really big pot smokers, here you go...'" laughs Brian. But his head is clear enough to be able to recall that 'Pure Morning;' is getting "2,500" airplays a week.

In the sober light of day off in Denver, the trio seem (for tour-lagged zombies) oddly motivated and cohesive. "We're getting on better than we've ever gotten on with each other," says Brian. "I think the Americans can get their heads around our music and get into it big time," declares Stefan. "We're definately up for global domination," adds Steve.

Putting on a convincing display of unity and resilience in the face of having just woken up, the three 'Bo's make themselves at home in the hotel bar.

"Me and Stef have been nomads all our lives so being here doesn't really seem that weird for us to leave Huddersfield. I think you know who I'm talking about."

The bizarre Gothenburg-Manchester-Luxembourg roots od the 'Bo are unlikely to affect their chances in the States. In the mind of Molks (born NY, but shipped out as a babe) they are at any rate spiritual Noo Yorkers. What might throw a dildo into the works, however, is their conspicuously blurry sexuality. As a pet horror freak, Marilyn Manson has become braodly acceptable. But the pressence in Placebo of one gay bassist and one 'real' Brit-style camp singer in a dress might be less easy for Rock America to swallow.

"We'll be avoiding places like Salt Lake City with all the straight-edge punks, who like to beat up drinkers and pot smokers and abstain from sex," says Brian. "We won't be playing Utah. But if anything it's going to work in our favour. It might isolate all the jock homophobes from our shows and bring the right kind of audience to us. The ones for who Marilyn Manson is a fake and not sexual and mopre image-based. But I try not to think about it. Surely if it causes any kind of uproar that's a real positive thing."

However much Placebo consider themselves to be different from their freakbiz Manson phenomenon, their presences in the US makes comparisions inevitable. As far as the Controv Eyeliner Rock goes they're on Manson's turf. So how can they compete with a ten-million-selling beanpole behemoth who pops round to David Lynch's for tea and whose bass player is mates with Courtney?

Brian: "That's an American rock dream come true, that's not what we're buying into. I don't really want to compete with that, I just want the band to have its own identity and to hopefully be more about the music. That's a very LA thing we feel more comfortable in New York, where there's more of a healthy punk scene. There's more grime, grit and dirt and less plastic."

Steve: "We're definately not doing this to get into Hole."

You're saying that Stefan wouldn't cop off with Courtney, even to help further your careers?

Brian: "I don't think Stefan would be prepared to shag any woman to further his career."

Stefan: "No."

Brian: "Would you shag Billy Pumpkin, Stefan?"

Stefan: "He doesn't like me, anyway. I've insulted him enough."

Brian: "It was after the Brixton show and I hadn't drunk for a while and I blacked out and come to in the lobby of this hotel with the Pumpkins and found Stefan running round with two 'Access All Areas" passes on his nipples..."

Stefan: "...On my nipples. And I was having a chat with Billy Pumpkin in this surreal situation and - it came from nowhere - I said, 'So Billy (pause), the way you write music (longer pause), has it changed since you shaved all your head?' Nd he just walked off with this disgusted look on his face and took his whole entourage with him."

According to this week's Politcal Broadcast from the Placebo Part, that kind of behaviour (nipples, blacking out, big mouthing) is rare.

It belongs with to Old Placebo. And where Old Placebo would have made such of a night with Manson, New Molko gives a restrained account of the London night he went with the taller Brian.

"He's a friend of mine," he says. "I find him a very fasinating individual. He's very manipulative and very in control and very, very ruthless. But if you treat him as an equal then you're fine. If you're not scared by him then there's a way in. And I find the whole concept of Marilyn Manson quite fasinating and I wanted to understand what was going on on a more personal level.

"He said, 'Let's go to the Electric Ballroom (in Camden) and freak out some goths'. So we went for 15 minutes and everybody freaked out, and we went, 'OK, let's leave'. We ended up at Met Bar and just drank and chatting. It wasn't that horribly hedonistic or decandent."

Britain's most notorious sex pixie and America's most wanted perv rocker going out for a quiet bevvy might sound sadly tame, but it's entirely in keeping with New Molk's desire to present himself as your serious artist. Halfway through last year Old Placebo appear to have decided that they weren't comfortable with being splashed over mag covers as spunk-splattering deviants. They changed their PR company in mid - '98. The shift from lubricated parterner - swapping punk songs on the first album to 'Without You I'm Nothing''s more considered tales of lost love was matched by an increasingly guarded attitude to journalists.

"It feels like we have grown up a little bit,"says Brian. "Or just the priorites have changed. We got a lot out of our systems over the past couple of years. We didn't do anything that any young man in his early-20s with money,success and attention would do would do, except that we did it in public. And in some ways we got a bit crucified for it, but je ne regrette rein."

Does it piss you off being made into a kind of media cartoon?

"Yeah it did. But I don't think that can exist any more if you listen to this album. If you're a sensative, intelligent, sophistacated listener then you'll recognise the emotianol depth, the complexity and the sophistacation. You can't fuck with the band any more because we've made a very, very strong piece of work. What's happening now is they know people can't fuck with Steve and Stef because they're incredible musicians, so all the negativity is directed to me on a very, very personal level."

Surely it's good for your kind of rock band to gain a reputation as a budle of drugs and fucking?

"There's nothing wrong with it and that's why I don't regret anything. It contributes to the myth - making process which is surely what rock'n'roll is all about. But it just became too hard to deal with emotionally. People really think that I'm ruthless, insensative and a Machiavellian megalomaniac and the truth is actually quite the oppisate. So it did start to do my brain in.

"It got to the point of being impossible for people to meet you and take you for what you actually were. Because even at that time we weren't like that every day of our lives. You don't roll out of bed, crack open a beer, do a line, fuck your maid and then go ti rehearsals. It's not like that really."

If Placebo were heading off on a highway to KY Gel Hell in their first phase, clearly they're still in the middle of a course correction. But sympathy for their spin doctoring doesn't come easily. The Molko mouth was extremely active courting degenerate chic around the first album. For the author of 'Evil Dildo' to complain that's he's typecast as a Gnome Of Nasty looks very much like trying to have it both ways.

"Absolutely!" spurts Brian. "We want it both ways! It's our God-given right to have it both ways. And if you don't like that then fuck you. That's why we're musicians, so that we can have it both ways."

What's odd about Placebo's apparent determination to veer away from The Cult Of Brian (they currently discourage solo photos of Molks) is that the myth they'd built up was a good one. Why would someone who in the space of two short years manage to present himself as the nation's premier gutter-rock androgyne want to destroy it all by talking-about-the-music and telling us how vunerable he is.

Are you turning into The Lighthouse Family?

Stefan: "That's a bloody silly question."

Brian: "No. Hardly. We're still the same people with the same predilections for excess. It's just kind of coming to terms with it a bit better.

The new music that's coming out, I find more sleazy than 'Without You...'. So if anything you may find a return to sleaze on album three."

Steve: "Are you saying this album sounds like The Lighthouse Family?"

I'm saying it has a more sensative, thoughtful tone.

Brian: " The first album was a snapshot of where we were, a young band that didn't have a lot of experience freaking out and diving into every rock'n'roll clichÎ possible. And this album was a snapshot of our emotional states at the time. Now, the songs that we're writing have themes of teenage sex, group sex, fried brains, erm, 'This is your brain, this is your brain on drugs...' The stories are more licentious than the second record and it put's a smile on my face."

Excellent. Because it looked like you were becoming...

Brian: "Incredibly earnest..."

And huggable. As if you wanted to be seen as Huggable Placebo...

Stefan: "If you thought we were huggable then we're going to kick you in the ass."

Midnight in the one and only baseball-cap free, alt-rock bar in Denver and Molks is demonstrating that the campagaign to present Placebo as a decent, round, muso trio has not robbed him of kick-ass tendencies. At least not after a few margaritas. As Steve digs around under the pinball machine Brian's boot lands a solid kick on his drummer's right buttock senind him sprawling. The drums are miffed. He crawls back to his feet, relieves Brian of his cocktail, pulls back hist fist and lines the singer up for a cowboy saloon exit from the bar.

Molks, however, is quick on his feet, dancing back and smilingly mollifying his Mancunian bandmate. He's already lost one drummer. Two would be careless and he's not drunk enough to not care. The band have just driven back from DJing on a local KTCC radio, spinning Blondie, Nick Cave and Einsturzende Neubauten, and forgetting not to say the f-word live on air. Briefly they're on a mood upswing. Their flinty-eyed female radio uber-plugger is bouying them up with tales of how she "broke Blur on American radio". She is, she swears, gonna do the same with "these guys" (How do you know? "Because I'm an animal.")

The party mood survives any tiffs and the Placebo posse get on down to the jukebox, Brian demonstrating his disco moves to the tranvestite-friendly sounds of Dead Or Alive.

"These days we're on a disco trip man," he says. "We have supreme disco parties on the bus after each gig. It's normally a Barry White thing. Sometimes The Gap Band, or The Bee Gees. It's a better way of winding down than drinking a whole bottle of vodka, which is something I appreciate more now."

There's more of a dance sheen to Placebo's complexion these days thanks to the presence of ex-K-Klass man Steve.

"We headlined the Hacienda on New Year's Eve, 1990, he fondly recalls. "It was me on congas, a black girl called Bobby singing, and four fucking ugly guys miming keyboards with their eyes rolling, absolutely spannered. That was the night I learned I should stay in techno bands."

The collective disco enthusiasm is unlikely to affect the next Placebo emissions any further than a bit of looping (as on 'Pure Morning').

There will be no 'Oops Up Side Your Angst'. As the margaritas go down, however, some intriguing information about the lyrical content of one of Brian's new songs spills out. Off the record, he says it concerns the sexual predilections of a specific type of gay man. How far Brian is qualified to write these kind of songs in an issue that merits a spot of sober discussion. The next day however, the band are nowhere to be seen.

They've skipped town.

Offically, the story is that the equipment for their Monday night show in Denver has been accidently flown to Chicago. The band leave in a hurry, tailing their gear. NME finds out late in the day and sits in Denver wondering if Placebo's publicity neurosis helped them forget to get round to telling us.

Twenty-four hours later Brian sits in the dressing room of Chicago's Clubland gritting his teeth. He can run but he cannot hide. NME has caught up, and there are more questions to answer. How about Brian's terminated relationship with Lisa Walker?

"I don't want to talk about that," says Brian. "But it's important to stress the Lisa had nothing to do with this album. We can set the record straight there, and it'll probably piss her off."

Since some of the new songs are specifically about gay sex can you clarify what your interest in the subject is?

"I've always written songs from both a heterosexual and a homosexual standpoint. I write about them because it's part of me, and it's a part of the band. It's out there. Rock'n'roll can be a very, very laddish and straight medium, and it's just part of who we are. I don't see why it shouldn't be expressed."

"I'm a practising bisexual man. I know a lot of people don't believe it and think I've claimed to be bisexual and think I've claimed to be bisexual just to pussy, but that's their problem. I outed myself a long time ago but there seems to be selective memory. Everybody remembers that Stefan's gay, but people still think that I'm trying to do a Brett Anderson. Which is not true, at all. I started having physical homosexual relationships with people when I was 16 so it's been around for a long time."

Having secured the promise of an aftershow snog from Brian (purely research) it's time to get closer to Steve and Stefan. For 20 minutes we discuss whether Kate Moss would look better with an elephant's trunk, the repressive nature of British sexuality, Abba, "big busty black girls" (Steve) and the alleged slowing down of the speed of light ("Is it our fault?"). For two-thirds of a bastard paranoid freak-trio they appear strangely co-operative, funny and gentle. Until, that is, we get on to the subject of their controversial frontman.

"I've know Brian for a long time and his behaviour's never changed since I knew him" says Steve. "He's always got pissed, and when he's pissed he's a fucking asshole sometimes. When he gets pissed it's just 'me' and 'my band'. And I'm like, 'I will fucking kill you!' When he's up there and he's drunk it's all like that then when he's down, he's all 'whimper, whimper'. But, you know, 'I am not your mother, and I've got my own shit to deal with here. I'm not babysitting you. Grow up, you little c---.'"

Cheers Steve, have a good gig.

"Put crudely, the way it is with Placebo is that I am the mum, Steve's the dad and Brian can be the baby sometimes," concludes Stefan.

With the air still wincing from the drummer and the bassist's candour, Placebo gather themselves up into a harmonius musical unit and spring into Sonic Youth gone Buzzcocks ation. Chicago, of course, cares not in the slightest whether the girl fronting band is a 'bastard' or a poor, well-intentioned, put-upon, creative soul. Chicago just moshes along, digs the transgressive sexy frission, and waits to sing all the words to the encore of 'Pure Morning'

For the moment, that's quite enough fluid exchange for America. But the bonding puts NME in mind of an interchange from two days before. We'd asked Brian what he thinks people in the crowd see when the look at him.

"Something they think they can never have," says his uber-ego. And then his baby twin ego adds. "Something which is far bigger than me... than who I really am."

We don't get snog Brian that night at the Chaka Khan aftershow. While we're being refused entry to the VIP room he suddenly spins round on his heels and dashes to his hotel. It's the last we see of him. But a little cockroach tells us there are two newly purchased books in Brian's room. One is a Led Zep biog Hammer Of The Gods. The other is Marilyn Manson's autobiography. Bet he did a little research, fell alseep and dreamed of being buried alive in the big American rock'n'roll pie.