Guitar Player "Brian Molko's Glam-Bam Guitars", Sep'01

by Michael Molenda

"I'm a big believer in ineptitude," says Placebo's Brian Molko. "You have to make a great deal of mistakes to develop a personal style--you play the wrong notes, and they turn out to be the right notes."

Although he tags himself as the "complete opposite" of technically obsessed guitarists such as Yngwie Malmsteen, Molko is not simply posturing to rationalize shoddy chops. Formed in London with an Englishman (Molko), an American (drummer Steve Hewitt), and a Swede (bassist/multi-instrumentalist Stefan Olsdal), Placebo has always challenged musical formulas, gender politics, and cultural stereotypes. (Molko has been known to exploit his androgenous look by walking onstage in drag.) True to form, the band's new album, Black Market Music [Virgin], was not forged from a cohesive creative concept.

"We have a very instinctual approach," says Molko. "There isn't a great deal of calculation involved. We experiment until we find something that feels right, and then the emotion of the song will be dictated by the emotion of the music. It's quite simple. We don't even have defined roles within the band. We haven't decided that I can only play guitar, or Stefan can only play bass--anybody can play anything. And we don't consciously pick the songs that are the best selections for the album, either. They pick themselves--they kind of put themselves together like pieces in a jigsaw puzzle."

Placebo's commitment to freedom and anarchy is rare in a pop field that expects proven performers to churn out stylistically recognizable--and commercially seductive--fare until the market for a particular sound and/or look crumbles. And the building blocks of the Placebo sound are vastly more diverse than the glam genre into which many critics pigeonhole the band.

"We haven't even decided what we sound like," counters Molko. "As far as we're concerned, if we respond emotionally, instinctually, and positively to music, we'll keep it--regardless of whether it's a piano-driven ballad, a fierce punk song, a melancholy ambient feel, or a hip-hop tune. If we get off on it, then it's the Placebo sound. You see, we have a very nonjudgmental approach to what music is. We're lovers of music with a capital `M.' But what we learned is, while it's important to digest your influences, it's not necessary to wear them on your sleeve."

Although the band hasn't helped its stylistic case by being cast in the 1998 film Velvet Goldmine--which was a valentine to Britain's '70s glam scene--or its close relationship to David Bowie, Molko's early influences include defiantly uncommercial, aural troublemakers such as Sonic Youth, Glenn Branca, and Rhys Chatham.

"Sonic Youth changed my life when I was 16," says Molko. "They gave me a love for dissonance--which can be quite beautiful--and that's the sound that pulled me into the guitar. I'd ask myself, `How the hell did they get those sounds?' And, of course, I tried to copy them, and I did it so badly that I ended up sounding like me."

In addition to picking up alternate tunings from listening to Sonic Youth, Molko has developed a few "secret" tunings of his own, and even learned a few riffs from Chatham himself when he joined the New York composer's 100-guitar symphony. "For one of his pieces, we'd tune every string to the same note," says Molko.

Even though Placebo abhors formulas, there is one tenet the band always follows--that every creative decision must be unanimous. "The end product is the most important thing," says Molko. "Your pathetic little rock star ego is completely insignificant. You should only aspire to the honest communication of emotion--not to be a technical virtuoso and show off. I don't need my guitar to masturbate, thank you!"

Black Market Gear: 
Guitars: Gibson SG, and Fender Telecaster, Jaguar, Jazzmaster, and Bass VI. 
Amps: Mesa/Boogie combo, Marshall 4x12 cabinet, Fender Twin. ("The Fender delivers the bite," says Molko, "and the Boogie/ Marshall combination adds depth. It's the fattest sound possible--the biggest chunk.") 
Effects: Boss delay, Electro-Harmonix Micro Synth.