Placebo’s days of leaving trails of blood and spunk across the globe are over. These days frontman Brian Molko is more interested in f**king with people’s minds.
“I think most people expect us to be lying in a gutter with needles hanging out of our arms, quoting Oscar Wilde to the stars,” smiles Brian Molko, taking sips from a glass of ice cold Pinot Noir. “But that hasn’t happened in years!”
Expectations precede any meeting with Placebo, the dark, sexually ambiguous misfits with exotic accents and renegade attitudes who first exploded into public consciousness singing about being f**ked with a bag over their heads on their brilliant ‘Nancy Boy’ single. Primarily those expectations hang upon Brian Molko, the son of a born-again Christian mother who wanted him to become a priest and a businessman father who expected him to follow in the family footsteps in finance. The last time we saw Mr Molko, he was upending Raging Speedhorn’s table at the Kerrang! Awards, smiling mischievously at the attendant TV cameras as he wreaked merry havoc. That was a very Molko moment.
Today, sitting in a bar within spitting distance of his smart, comfortable West London flat and flanked by bandmates Stefan Olsdal (bass) and Steve Hewitt (drums), Mr Molko looks not unlike ‘20s femme fatale Louise Brookes, and appears calm, healthy and happy. After an eight-month break following the completion of a lengthy world tour in support of 2000’s ‘Black Market Music’ album – which, Molko says, “was completely necessary for us to have a life and have something real to write about” – his band have just applied the finishing touches to a scorching new album ‘Sleeping With Ghosts’. As the title suggests, it’s an album about relationships; relationships that ended badly (‘The Bitter End’), relationships that leave you forever branded (‘This Picture’), power-struggle combos (‘Special Needs’) and the idea that soul mates go on forever (‘Sleeping With Ghosts’). And, as ever, Brian Molko, happily monogamous at present it should be noted, is being explicit with his own life to create songs with universal resonance.
“I’m looking back on what’s happened in my past emotional decade, trying to understand it, so I can move on,” he explains. “Trying to exorcise the ghosts and the demons of relationships past. It’s the old clichй of it being therapeutic, but it does work for me in that way.”
Placebo’s desire to move on artistically as well as emotionally is evident throughout ‘Sleeping With Ghosts’. As out afternoon together passes, Brian, Stefan and Steve will enthuse about electro music, particularly Kruder and Dorfmeister’s peculiarly affecting minimalist cover of indie heroes The Smiths’ ‘There Is A Light That Never Goes Out’, and their enthusiasm for this innovative underground strain of music is evident in their choice of producer. Jim Abbiss is best known for his work with DJ Shadow, UNKLE, and Massive Attack, and his methods have definitely imbued Placebo’s latest work with a very urban, tense, almost claustrophobic atmosphere, similar to Massive Attack’s ‘Mezzanine’. But whereas beat meets dub on that record, with Placebo the hi-tech studio sound elevates a base element that is sheer rock.
“The rest of the music scene’s caught up now, which is why it was time to do something that’s got a different flavour to it,” Molko notes. “’Nancy Boy’ had impact in ’97, but I’m not sure whether or not we should still be doing things like that. Probably to the great chagrin or a great subsection of our fans. But it’s just got to reflect your life.”
At a time when a lot of rock is going back to basics – from the Delta blues echoes of The White Stripes to the Ritchie Blackmore guitar-fest of The Datsuns – Placebo are embracing modern technology wholeheartedly. Yet they do seem wary that they may be attacked for preferring the sound of Cologne experimentalists to the classic template of ‘Back In Black’.
“It is quite unfashoinable at the moment,” the singer offers.
But as your hero Oscar Wilde once said, whatever is fashionable must be wrong.
“The thing about us is that we try and ignore what’s fashionable and get on with exploring the things that interest us in Placebo,” weighs in Stefan Olsdal, looking stern and almost menacing with his closely cropped hair and piercing grey eyes. “We started out with a bass guitar and a crappy keyboard and we couldn’t play our instruments. We kinda started our own art house. It’s just that our toys now are more expensive. And this album is the most successful fusion of rock with electronic beats.”
“It seems perfectly natural for us,” Brian nods in agreement. “We’ve always been awkward that way. Non-conformist. It’s in our personalities; it’s who we are as people. We’re not Luddites in any way when it comes to making music, quite the opposite in fact; we’re determined to use the tools of the age to make music that sounds like it’s made today. Similarly, the stories have to be placed in a very modern context; we live in a post-September 11 world. But I don’t think that should take over your entire songwriting, it should just be the backdrop in which your stories are told.”
In the months they had off before the making of ‘Sleeping With Ghosts’, Placebo had time to “digest and understand all the craziness that’s happened to us in the past 10 years” as Molko puts is. The singer put his spare time to good use by running a weekly fetish club, IntraVenus, at London’s Camden Underworld, appearing onstage as a mad surgeon, complete with fake blood, and encouraging others to join him up there – doing whatever they saw fit.
“I’ve got lots of blackmail material on quite a few people in the music business!” he laughs. “But that’s what putting on a mask and dressing up does to people, which is why I think it’s so fascinating. It just brings out so many things that you didn’t think that people had within them. It made me think an awful lot about what it’s like for us when we step onto a stage. But the main difference is that it’s definitely not about playing a character when we do it. I think the flamboyant, exhibitionist side of us does come out then to a certain degree, and in many ways it’s necessary that is stays there. There’s nothing more irritating than someone who’s performing constantly in everyday life. I think for many years I was guilty of that myself, and it was out of insecurity more than anything else.”
Time off also gave the band the opportunity to fully reacquaint themselves with British popular culture. In it, they found a great darkness. This was not, they reckon, coming from the underground, but screaming out from every section of the mainstream media.
“A whole generation of psychological problems is being bred in front of our very eyes right now, which will effect the next generation and the generations after that,” predicts Steve Hewitt, currently sporting a very Nick Cave-esque mane of glossy black hair and a similarly hued sense of humour.
“People are being told that being a celebrity is actually worthwhile thing to achieve in life, and that it’s a life goal, an occupation,” Molko says, picking up the thread. “You can imagine at schools, guidance counsellors going around and saying. “’So you want to be a celebrity? What would you like to be? A presenter? A singer? A footballer’s wife? Because you can be now. And this will fill you up spiritually, give you a reason for living’.
“Then people reach a certain age and they realise it’s not going to happen, because they haven’t been told that you have to work for it, or that you have to have something special in you to give to the world. Then depression sets in.”
But haven’t Placebo found themselves distorted in the fish-eye mirror of fame? Haven’t their pronouncements, their lyrics, their sexuality and the clothes that they wear scrutinised and analysed intently? And what effect has that had on their own psyches?
“To be honest, obviously I enjoy the glamorous aspect of it,” Molko considers. “Being placed so much under the microscope can do your head in, but you can’t have one without the other. I’m just stupidly thankful that I’ve never had to do a job. I’ve had pretty much of a charmed life with all the things that have happened to me.”
“I suppose it’s that nature of the music as well,” Steve considers, “people automatically look deeper into it.”
“You are lucky enough to have a creative outlet to express yourself to the world, which allows you to be able to understand yourself better,” Molko points out. “So in a way, all the heavy stuff that you find on the records, it’s stuff that we’re processing in order for there to be laughter in our world. In order to get out of bed, to be able to leave the house, for me not to have to medicate myself. It’s a really big part of your psyche that you need to do in order to keep living.”
One song on ‘Sleeping With Ghosts’ is bound to attract a major amount of scrutiny. With lyrics such as ‘Face down, face down, I see something rotten’ the track, ‘Something Rotten’, deals with child abuse, on both physical and mental levels. With the music industry having been rocked recently by rancid revelations about the shielding and supporting of paedophiles, it seems pertinent to ask whether Placebo themselves have ever been approached by dodgy figures with deviant intentions. There is a very long pause, during which all three band members trade looks over their drinks.
“I never wanted to bring a great deal of attention towards ‘Something Rotten’,” Brian finally says. “Because it was never written for that purpose, to comment on what was going on at all. It was totally instinctual, I just walked up to the mike and sang something, I didn’t really know what it was about. And I still don’t really. Having never suffered from sexual abuse, I don’t think it’s my place to talk about it.”
Do you think you may have subconsciously tapped into the idea, like you said earlier, of commenting on what is going on at this moment in time?
“I don’t know,” the singer admits, shaking his head and pulling hard on a cigarette. “It was a bit worrying for a time, I was envisioning the front cover of Kerrang! – ‘Placebo slam child abuse’ – and I was like, do we? It’s just a song.”
“It’s wide open for interpretation,” Hewitt adds.
“As it should remain,” Molko continues. “I suppose it doesn’t have to be about a family either, it could be about a marriage, because physical and mental abuse occur within those moral constructs, too.”
These are interest times for Placebo. If the rock landscape has changed since they were last with us, then it’s clear that there’s been similarly emphatic changes in the band’s DNA. No longer the band who infamously left “a trail of blood and spunk” across the globe, the trio’s days of decadence are, they say, behind them. You can sense their hunger to reclaim their place at the head of the UK rock pack is at least as developed and their desire to keep pushing boundaries, on artistic and intellectual levels. And like their own personal heroes – Nick Cave, Davie Bowie, Depeche Mode – they appear to have become less a band and more a lifestyle choice for anyone who feels similar emotions of not belonging or not being understood.
“Hopefully,” Molko says with that trademark impish smile and a final swig of wine. “And if that’s the main difference that we can make then we’ve had more of an effect than we’d ever imagined we could have on people’s lives, and more of an importance that we ever set out to have.”
PARTY MONSTERS: Placebo’s guide to history’s most decadent icons…
JOHN MCENROE – Infamously bratty, prodigiously talented ‘80’s tennis icon.
Brian Molko: “Within the very boring, posh, staid world of tennis, McEnroe was quite decadent, running around screaming. He was prepared to make an arse of himself and get such criticism because of his passion.”
BRUCE LEE – The undisputed king of martial arts. Quite handy in post-pub fisticuffs. Not now obviously.
Brian: “My heroes aren’t really decadent, they’re quite masculine. Bruce Lee was beautiful. I probably fancied him and didn’t even realise it.”
NICK CAVE – Former Birthday Party frontman and Antipodean master of the noir. Used to like heroin, now likes The Bible.
Steve Hewitt: “He took it to the f**king edge. His heroin phases were extensive, but he’s been through it all and survived, and he always held it together to write phenomenal shit.”
DAVE GAHAN – Essex-born Depeche Mode front-man. Not averse to walks on the wild side. Or drug overdoses.
Stefan Olsdal: “He was into his smack and his decadent lifestyle. I remember seeing Depeche Mode on the ‘Songs Of Faith And Devotion’ tour and that was when he was at his worst. And his best. Standing there in his crucifix pose, it just amazed me.”
OLIVER REED – Legendary English actor and hell-raiser. Quite fond of alcohol.
Steve: “Oliver Reed was just class, my ultimate English decadent. And guys like Richard Burton and Richard Harris. It’s like, ‘I’ll have a whiskey, whiskey and a whiskey chaser!’.”