Morning Call "Rock Band Placebo Brings Emotion to Market", May'01

May 19, 2001
by Len Righi

Maybe it's just a reflection of the times, but it seems most successful contemporary rock, rap and pop stars set low expectations and then exult when they meet them. It's all about getting paid and getting laid, giving as little as possible and grabbing as much as you can. 

New York-born Brian Molko knows the drill. In the last half of the 1990s, the sexually ambiguous singer for London-based Placebo was synonymous with bacchanalian pop-star excess (small wonder he landed a role in the 1998 glam-rock film "Velvet Goldmine"). 

Although he wore make-up, Molko was as naked and profane in his (high-pitched) singing and songwriting as in his personal life, laying emotions on the line no matter how painful or potentially embarrassing, proving there is indeed more to Placebo than meets the eyeliner. 

Such skill and daring earned Placebo devoted fans such as David Bowie, who was bending genres and genders 30 years ago; R.E.M.'s Michael Stipe, and U2's Bono. And with the release of the daring "Black Market Music" (Virgin), Placebo's third disc, Molko and his band mates, Swedish-born guitarist-bassist-keyboardist Stefan Olsdal and British drummer Steve Hewitt, have a chance at breaking the logjam of faceless, soulless "modern rock" bands dominating this side of the Atlantic. 

"Emotion has always been very important to us," says Molko, 29, during a lively telephone conversation from Los Angeles to tout Placebo's show Friday night at Philadelphia's Theatre Of Living Arts. "You have to walk a fine line between communicating emotion and washing dirty underwear in public. But it's the only way I can write. 

"By externalizing difficult emotions inside yourself there can be a more objective discourse and the songs will have more of a carthartic quality," he continues. "Some songs can sound pretentious, but it's a way to be a better person in life, to wash yourself with these things that really bother you." 

Exhibit A: the thunderous "Taste in Men," "Black Market Music's" dark, surly and diseased lead-off track. It's only nine lines, yet Molko makes it speak volumes. 

"It's a "come-back-to-me-I-love-you' song," he says. "But the person who lives inside of it wants to know "What's wrong with me? Why has the person I love deserted me?' It's not a very healthy state of mind. The pain has to be reflected because the lyrics are so simple. It started out sounding quite a lot more dancey, but we made it more fierce and harsh because it needed to be." 

Exhibit B: "Special K," a melodic, punky, fuzz-drenched song about the beginning of a love affair and the possibility of "weeping wounds that never heal." "It's a nickname for a drug given to a newborn babies to prevent thrombosis," says Molko of the song's title. "It's also used to tranquilize horses, and in the 1950s, it was given to astronauts to create the feeling of anti-gravity. And that's the song's metaphor. What goes up must come down The same is true of drugs and love. Religion, drugs and love are what most people are addicted to in the world." 

Exhibit C: The pointed, provocative "Blue American." "It's the lowest point on the record, 3 minutes of self-disgust, American style," says Molko. "The person in the song is lashing out at his or her culture and the history that [shows] human beings willing to enslave a whole race to make our lives easier." 

Placebo also throws a few musical curves on "Black Market Music." "Spite & Malice," about the May Day riots in London, is co-written and features a terrific rap interlude by Justin Warfield. "Justin played with us last night in San Francisco," Molko notes. "We won't do the song without him." 

So, how did Warfield end up on the track? 

"Justin is a friend of mine; he's in a band called Tape," Molko says. "The song had a really big hole in it. It was lacking that uber- chorus. Out of nowhere the idea came to me to insert a rap. ... We love rap music. We never go on tour without a few Public Enemy CDs." 

The move did not sit well with some fans, according to Molko, but that pleases him. "Our collaborations are done out of necessity. We don't have any predesigned roles. We do a lot of instrument switching. We haven't sat down and decided what our sound is. The possibilities are endless. For example, "Peeping Tom' is a piano- driven ballad, and if we're vibing off it, then it is Placebo." 

Trying to write music with "universal" appeal, Molko asserts, "You fall into the realm of cliche if you do. The more personal it is, the more universal it is, because we're all made out of the same stuff." 

Molko identifies with iconoclasts such as Dylan, Leonard Cohen, Bjork, Radiohead and, especially, PJ Harvey ("a woman I worship"). 

"They represent the triumph of individual musicians who create their own universe," says Molko. "They have their own rules and follow them with total disregard for fashion and style. Bowie, U2 and R.E.M. have never been afraid of reinvention. Hopefully we'll hang around as long as they have," says Molko, pausing for effect, "like a bad smell." 

Speaking of ugly aromas, does Molko stand by his comments about Eminem, that the rapper (and fellow iconoclast) is homophobic? 

"I have been misquoted on that," Molko says. "Eminem has the [guts] to say only what mostly people will say in bars. Every negative thing I ever said about him I backed up with double the positivity." 

The final two listed tracks -- "Without You I'm Nothing," a duet with Bowie and a cover of Depeche Mode's "I Feel You" -- and a third "hidden track," "Black Market Blood," featuring strings by PJ Harvey's Rob Ellis -- were not part of the British version of "Black Market Music." Including them "was a calculated marketing ploy," admits Molke sheepishly. 

How did the Bowie duet come about? 

Molko explains that he has known Bowie since 1996, before Placebo was signed to a label. "He heard our demos and invited us to take Morrissey's place on tour after Morrissey had a hissy fit and went home to his mother," says Molko. "So we just called each other up. We were scheduled to do some performances at award ceremonies and we said, "Should we do this?' He told me, "Brian, I've written my own harmony part. I hope you don't mind.' I said, "David, write what you want!' So there I was in the studio with David Bowie and [producer] Tony Visconti. I said, "Pinch me, I'm dreaming."' 

Placebo will perform Friday night at the Theatre Of Living Arts, 334 South St., Philadelphia. Doors will open at 8 p.m. and Scottish pop Idlewild will open the show at 9 p.m. Tickets: $18 in advance, $20 day of show. The show is sold out. 215-922-1011.