The Advocate "The Placebo Effect", Dec'98

Dec 22, 1998
by Barry Walters


They've toured with Bowie and strutted on-screen for Todd Haynes. But on the eve of Placebo's second CD release, bassist Stefan Olsdal tells The Advocate they're not as glam as you think 

"Placebo is international-intersexual," declares 24-year-old Stefan Olsdal, bassist for the London-based rock trio Placebo. "Steve [Hewitt, the drummer] is straight and English, Brian [Moloko, the leader singer] is bi and American, and I'm gay and Swedish, so there's something for everyone." 

And more. With songs like "Nancy Boy" (an English smash), the sulky ballad "My Sweet Prince," and the worldwide hit "Pure Morning," this sensuously aggressive ensemble has brought sexuality--whatever the flavor--back to alternative rock. Alongside the lustful ostentation that enlivens the band's second album, Without You I'm Nothing, comes an ambiguity that's even more challenging than the band's mix of guitar blare and high drama. 

"People often think Brian's a girl and fancy him," Olsdal says of the long-haired, makeup-wearing front man. "But when they find out he's a guy and he's bi, it's quite a different thing. They have to ask themselves questions, and that disturbs a lot of people. We just heard from our record company that a radio station took a survey and 60% of their callers thought Brian was a girl." 

In the best bad-boy fashion, Placebo has stirred up more than its share of controversy. Near-instant overseas popularity created enemies, and when the travails of fellow rockers Oasis grew tedious for the media, Placebo became the preferred source of scandal. This the band generated with hotel-room trashing, confrontational lyrics, and stories of sexual conquest and chemical excess. 

"The drug references have been more of a thorn in the side than the sexual ambiguity," Olsdal explains. "We got this despicable headline, PLACEBO: THE FILTHIEST BAND IN BRITAIN, describing our 700 [pounds sterling]-a-week drug use. As soon as we leave Britain, we feel a big weight lifted off our shoulders. It's a tabloid nation." 

Success for the band began in January 1996, when David Bowie invited Placebo to tour Europe with him, even before the group's first album had been recorded that spring. Soon after, "Nancy Boy" caught the attention of filmmaker Todd Haynes, who invited the band to play glam rockers in his new movie Velvet Goldmine. 

"We look ridiculous," Olsdal admits of their period customers, adding that glam was never an influence on the band. "We're too young for that," he says. "But it's a very gay film, and we're proud to be a part of it." 

Although openly gay and bi Anglo rockers have been few and far between since the glory days of New Wave, Olsdal knows Placebo is helping keep a long tradition alive. "There's been a thread of homosexuality in rock and roll, from Little Richard onward," he points out. "I don't know if it just comes with the territory or it's a yearning in homosexual people to strut that stage and flaunt it. But there's a certain sensibility that comes with being gay." And if Placebo's quick rise to notoriety is any indication, that sensibility thrives in the spotlight.