Rock Sound "Placebo interview", Apr'03


Seven years non-stop in the spotlight had left Placebo wondering whether to pack it all in. Now, back with a new album and a new outlook, they’re ready for another stab at superstardom, as Rock Sound discovers.

“We’ve made real twats of ourselves,” begins a candid Brian Molko, “but I’d like to think that’s quite charming.” A France-bound rock sound is accompanying two-thirds of Placebo as they head to Europe for another week fo intense promotion prior to the release of new album ‘Sleeping With Ghosts’.

The restrictions of the band’s schedule ensure that the three-hour journey is the only opportunity they’ll have for UK interview time, while bassist Stefan Olsdal is currently fulfilling press duties in Madrid as Placebo’s Spanish-speaking member. They’ve been plunged back in after eight months of well-deserved rest and already drummer Steve Hewitt is nursing a case of ‘flu, while Molko is recovering after the removal of an abscess the previous day.

Yet as our train speeds towards Paris for more of the same, the pair are in good spirits. Indeed, the period of reflection and reassessment that’s responsible for Molko’s opening comment has also left a band who are as comfortable with their past mistakes as they are with their place in the here and now.

“You need to be told to shut up, that you’re full of shit,” he continues. “After seven years of being in a bubble you wind up spiritually, physically and emotionally spent. We were conscious of the fact that to write anything decent again we had to reacquaint ourselves with everyday human contact – take the tube, go to the supermarket. It was as if the choice to take a break was already made for us.”

Coming off tour in October 01 at the tail end of 00’s ‘Black Market Music’, Molko in particular had a fundamental problem to attend to. Having held no fixed address since the band began recording their third album, the nature of Placebo’s success meant that he was still living in a studio when they returned to British soil over two years later – he simply hadn’t had time to find a home. “I came back down to earth really quickly because of that. I could have done with it a lot sooner,” admits the singer.

As the band’s family man, Steve had an equally pressing dilemma. “I spent a lot of time with my daughter, which was necessary,” he says. “I’d had lots of issues over the 18 month tour – her growing up, me growing up.” Indeed, as Brian puts it, “it was the first time since everything went mad around Placebo that we were able to have anything resembling a settled life.” Even the singer’s appearance on Alpinestars’ ‘Carbon Kid’ single “only took an hour” – “I wouldn’t have done anything in that period that required work,” he stresses. And if they had learnt anything from past experiences, it was to quit while they were ahead.

“So many bands in rock history have failed because they’ve come off tour and the next album is already being promoted. We couldn’t have got away with repeating ourselves,” reflects Steve.

“It would have spelt our demise,” agrees Brian, “without putting some distance between us and the music it would have been the end.” What’s more they were determined not to emerge with ‘Black Market Music – The Sequel’. “When you live in that closed band environment for so long you run out of things to talk about,” he considers. “We were already doing that on ‘Black Market Music’, which is why CNN was probably our main inspiration. It became this angry, political record and we knew we’d sound hollow if we didn’t get a life.” That accomplished, the next step was to lighten up.

“I do think we were trying a little too hard to be taken seriously back then,” he allows. “I’m not sure it worked though – the material wasn’t there. ‘Black Market Music’ was a record we were proud of at the time but it definitely sounded self-produced – it has that one-dimensional, blanket sound.” In retrospect, it’s also a record that apparently “wouldn’t have looked out of place with a Motorhead cover.” “Yeah,” laughs Brian. “we’ve definitely got more of a sense of humour these days.”

LAYING THE GHOSTS

Taking its title from the idea that each song is a short story about the past relationships that haunt a person, Placebo’s fourth album marks a departure from band tradition in more ways that one. Initially recorded on three separate home mini-studios, the trio complied material by circulating demos onto which they would each copy their various parts.

Existing as a “virtual band” granted them a new creative freedom and also means that much of what you hear on the finished product comes unchanged from the member’s individual front rooms. In the producer’s seat was Jim Abbiss, a man more famed for his work with the DJ Shadows and Massive Attacks of the music world than with its guitar-slinging rock icons. However, it was a risk that Molko and co were eager to take.

Says Brian: “We don’t want to be Luddites, even though that’s quite cool right now. We’ve always tried to push ourselves to a place where we think we might be doing something new but we’re not quite sure. We imagined this record would end up sounding more electronic but I’m proud of the fact that it’s turned our as a rock record – it means we haven’t allowed ourselves to be swallowed by a producer. We certainly haven’t turned into Kraftwerk overnight – it’s good to be Kraftwerk for a weekend but not for the rest of your life.”

“Though we did turn up the electronica this time so we could hear it,” interjects Steve. And while ‘Sleeping With Ghosts’ “was never going to be a calculated fork in the road ‘Kid A’-style”, lyrically at least the band took some important decisions.

“We had to ask ourselves a lot of questions with this album. Were we still relevant? Did we still deserve to sell records? It meant we had to strike a very fine balance between not turning our backs on eveything that had made us Placebo and still pushing our sound,” Brian continues. “This time I did that without having to give reference to the contents of my medicine cabinet or a whole series of ‘fucks’ and ‘shits’. I’ve reached a point where I don’t need that as much, which must mean the writing’s getting better.”

In fact, to the all-new, expletive-free Placebo, even the suggestion of having a penned a collection of love songs is perfectly acceptable. “I’m not embarrassed to say that,” defends the singer, “because in Placebo world it’s never been as simple as boy meets girl. The people who exist in these songs still aren’t particularly healthy,” he smiles. “I’ve used this album to look back on relationships I’ve had over the past 10 years and whatever masochism is going on in the song is nearly always directed towards myself – ‘you’ actually means ‘me’.

“At the end of ‘Black Market Music’ I was going through the closest thing to divorce I’d ever experienced. I had to ask myself about what’s happened and digest it to be able to look to the future as a viable option. I’m not sure that I’ve got any answers yet but I am a couple of steps closer.”

However, as much as ‘Sleeping With Ghosts’ is a self-confessed work of catharsis (or what Brian calls “total instinctual writing”), it’s also inadvertently the product of the burgeoning rock climate Placebo find themselves in upon their return.

“My favourite record of last year was ‘Yoshimi Battles The Pink Robots’ by The Flaming Lips. For a band that’s been around so long they’ve really found a niche for themselves. If they can do that it makes me think we can do anything,” enthuses Brian. “When you see a band like Queens Of The Stone Age you believe in rock ‘n’ roll again – you know you should still be doing it because this is what happens when the right band comes along. When Grohl played with the Queens it set the benchmark against which every rock band will be judged from now on. For that to happen when you’re in the studio is incredibly useful. It doesn’t mean you start changing your whole sound but you know how fucking good you’ll have to be when you finally get back out there.”

A LEARNING PROCESS

Articulate, personable and in possession of a healthy sense of humour, the Brian Molko encountered in 03 isn’t quite the difficult character that a controversial media past would have us believe. But is that attributable to a backlog of tabloid sensationalism or a self-provoked personality overhaul? Probably, it’s a bit of both.

“I’m not the person you walk over when you’re leaving the showbiz party anymore, passed out on the front doorstep,” he concedes. “When you’re releasing your first couple of records you do think that you’re invincible. As a young artist there’s always this voice in the back of your head telling you you’re shit, that you’re not as good as the next guy. By the time you get to your fourth album that voice has changed. You know you can’t be shit because you’ve just sold X amount of records, but now it’s telling you you’re a has-been. As an artist that’s been on my mind and that’s why it’s crept into songs like ‘Centrefolds’ and ‘Special Needs’, this idea of washed-up celebrity.”

Aptly enough, many of the acts Placebo started out with have fallen by the wayside over recent years, yet Molko is hesitant to pinpoint exactly why his has survived this far (“right now we’re just quietly confident about the album, we hope it won’t be a flop”). However he does admit to feeling “a need to reapply for your own job”.

“So many great bands and records have come out since the birth of our own. As we were preparing to come back we realised that once you get passed Radiohead, Blur, Supergrass and Placebo you start struggling because everyone’s gone. I’m quite proud of our survival instinct.” With the two members present both having entered their 30s, that’s surely something to so with the comparatively mellow band we see here today.

“I had the biggest party of my life when I turned 30,” contradicts Molko. “But seriously, I do look upon my 20s as a second adolescence for me – it was very chaotic, very excessive and very public. If there’s anything I’d say to myself at 22 it would be one, drink more water, and two, hang on in there because it does get better. At 30 you feel slightly less at odds with everyone, you’ve got rid of that complex that they’re trying to fuck with you. I’m not worried though, I still feel completely immature.”

Not however in his attitude to the public eye, something the frontman is keen to keep at bay after years of having his private life openly probed.

“This record is the most emotional and honest we’ve made,” he explains.

“When you take that step it becomes extremely important to preserve something, to draw a line somewhere. That’s made me a stupidly more private person so no, I’m not going to talk about my love life.” As for Brian Molko the icon, he still harbours a hope that people will look beyond the popular image of ‘Brian and his band Placebo’, though just how realistic that is remains to be seen.

“I don’t want to be the one who carries the whole band, the responsibility’s too big,” he emphasises. “I’ve made a lot of mistakes and learnt a lot very quickly. My job is to talk a lot of bullshit and keep the media happy or unhappy – delete as applicable. Thankfully, we know the reality so well now that we’ve stopped caring about the outside world – we know that we’re a band.”

And so, with Molko confirming a fifth album as “not just a possibility, a definite”, could it be a more humble Placebo that greet us from now on?

“Humble on the surface, perhaps,” he grins.

‘Sleeping With Ghosts’

Placebo present their guide to the new album’s “exorcism songs”.

‘Bulletproof Cupid’

Steve: The closest thing to metal we’ve ever done! Brian: A reaction to that Jim had done to our songs – we needed to reassert our identity but all the lyrics I tried to write sounded like Napalm Death. Also a hint to what the live shows will be like.

‘English Summer Rain’

Brian: The first track I’ve ever started writing on a drum kit. I was on a real DJ Shadow trip with this one.

‘This Picture’

Brian: Someone walking away from a self-destructive relationship. It recalls James Dean’s fetish of having cigarettes stubbed out on his chest during sex, only here they’re being stubbed out on mine.

‘Sleeping With Ghosts’

Brian: Inspired by a crazy American psychologist who believes in the cliché of eternal love. He thought two of his patients were soulmates who’d been reincarnated through many previous lives.

‘The Bitter End’

Brian: The back-to-basics rock song, written in two days. Two people trying to come out of a relationship with the least scars. Very fuck you.

‘Something Rotten’

Brian: A dub reggae jam we gave to Jim as a challenge and he rose to it. An abstract song about something sinister that’s close to home.

‘Plasticine’

Brian: The one song that doesn’t fit into the relationships theme. A classic Placebo song with a classic Placebo theme – individuality.

‘Special Needs’

Brian: The tale of a celebrity has-been told from a wheelchair. Someone reminiscing how the shoe is on the other foot and worrying that they’ll be written out of their ex’s biography.

‘I’ll Be Yours’

Brian: A disturbing track. Someone who wants to engulf another person completely in the name of love. Something I’ve been on the receiving end of and it’s scary.

‘Second Sight’

Brian: A one-night-stand song saying walk away for your own self-respect.

‘Protect Me From What I Want’

Brian: Written when I was hurting deeply and coming out of a very self-destructive relationship, hence the creepy atmosphere.

‘Centrefolds’

Brian: Someone telling a washed-up celebrity “I’m the best you can get now so you’d better be mine.” It’s about obsession, questions of status and self-degradation.

Following Placebo’s recent cover of Boney M’s ‘Daddy Cool’, Brian Molko explains why they’re “disco babies” at heart.

“We’ve wanted to do it for years as a birthday present for Steve’s daughter Emily and we finally got round to it, though she’s eight now. We all grew up with disco so it has a special place in our hearts. Also, in was important after ‘The Bitter End’ to show fans that we have a sense of humour.”

What does it sound like?
“It’s got Steve on vocals for the first time and myself and a member of Reprazent singing the female parts. We did it in a very punky, trashy way.”

Any plans for more disco?

“Well I was singing ‘Yes Sir I Can Boogie’ in the bath the other day…”

And finally Rock Sound's review of the album:

Many songwriters can’t remember whether their fucked-up relationships are the result of their peripatetic lifestyle of a deliberate bid to fuel their inspiration. Of course, Placebo mainman Brian Molko comes up with an unexpected twist on the rock star predicament since he swings both ways and delves deeper than most. ‘Sleeping With Ghosts’, the trio’s fourth album, is ostensibly about the past relationships that linger in the memory. The huge riff or the instrumental opener ‘Bulletproof Cupid’ and the lyrics of ‘English Summer Rain’ – “always been the same, nothing ever changes2 bleats the singer – don’t bode too well but, by the heady and angsty ‘This Picture’, the listener is falling under the spell. The sublime title track and the haunting ‘Special Needs’ confirm that Placebo made the right decision in hiring producer Jim Abbiss (UNKLE, DJ Shadow) to further explore the hypnotic direction already latent in some of their remixes, while the kick-ass romp of ‘The Bitter End’ and ‘Second Sight’ reinforce their status as purveyors of pure indie pop in the vein of The Smiths. Molko could have become the gender-bender Kurt Cobain but, rather than feeling sorry for himself, he draws on past mistakes – the utter devotion of ‘I’ll Be Yours’ – to provide advice – “Don’t forget to be the way you are” he sings in ‘Plasticine’ – and inspiration. Positively searing.