Classic Rock "The Life of Brian", Jan'05

Androgynous trio Placebo continue to enjoy major success in the UK. Ian Frontman discovers their secret

Over the past eight years Placebo have become huge. Not merely “hugely respected within their genre”, they’ve attained the proper, pop star level of hugeness that all aspiring rock ‘n’ roll foot soldiers secretly crave.

Placebo’s recent sell-out show at Wembley Arena saw astonishing scenes of abject adulation (unseen in the rock firmament for decades) that simply cannot pass without comment.

Not since David Bowie’s Ziggy heyday have quite so many genuinely teenaged female fans been so irresistiby compelled to sport such wholly unflattering hairstyles in mimicry of a guitar-toting androgynous idol, or to scraem so vociferously in the general direction of a band that truly rock.

So what rare commodity do Placebo boast that’s eluded so many of their progenitors and peers? Two words: Brian Molko.

Placebo’s frontman postively oozes charisma: his slight frame; lounge lizard demeanour of libertine licentiousness; exotic good looks; quick gregarious wit and pan-cultural amalgamation of American grit and European style combine into a marketing man’s fantasy made flesh. Add to this a singular talent for crafting concise, hook-heavy examples of post-Pixies angular rock perfection, the water-tight rhythmic complement of brooding, statuesque bassist Stefan Olsdal and bluf, rock-solid drum leviathan Steve Hewitt, and you have the five million album-selling international phenomenon that is Placebo.

Today, Placebo casually pack arenas, their last album –2003’s Sleeping With Ghosts- went Top 10 in 20 countries and, to celebrate their pop-slaying chart ubiquity, they’ve just released “Once More With Feeling Singles 1996-2004” in tandem with a DVD collection of their always compelling promotional videos. But it wasn’t always thus. This writer first made the acquaintance of Placebo in 1996, at the very beginning of their assault on the mainstream. With Britpop’s singularly parochial, anorak-wearing hordes firmly grasping the zeitgeist by its Ben Sherman scruff, Placebo, and especially Brian’s Kohl-slapped allure and languid quotability (“I don’t believe in the categorisation of desire”), represented a much-needed breath of Absinthe-tainted air. But the world at large took a lot more convincing; in spite of Brian’s bullish assertions of Placebo’s limitless potential for greatness during our initial conversation, that selfsame evening Placebo’s New York debut (as support to Weezer) was muted somewhat by a rain of coins from the hostile moshpit – “We made about five dollars and a couple of trainers that night”, laughs Steve in retrospect.

Oh yes, Placebo’s road to Wembley has been rocky in every sense.

The Placebo story begins, somewhat unexpectedly, at The American School of Luxembourg. The Principality – as Brian explains it – is: “Like Switzerland, a mercantile heaven with about 200 banks. My father’s a banker so that’s how I ended up there.”

It was while studying at The American School that Brian first hooked up with Stefan Olsdal and Robert Schultzberg, a pair of similarly displaced Swedes. Upon leaving the school, Brian decamped to London in order to study drama (“I needed to get the fuck out of Luxembourg because it was so boring, sterile and antiseptic”). Following a stint at Goldsmith’s College, Brian bumped into Stefan on South Kensington tube station and the pair decided to form a band that initially delighted in the name of Ashtray Heart. Shortly afterwards, Robert completed this embryonic Placebo line-up on drums.

At this stage of the game however, glamour was in decidely short supply.

“We lived in glamorous Deptford,” sudders Brian today over a chilled glass of Premier Cru Chablis, “I was on income support and housing benefit which I considered to be my artistic grant from the government, and so the whole first album was written under the dark cloud of dole, daily violence on Deptford High Street, cheap beer and scraping up enough money to get a teenth of hash”.

Steve, meanwhile, already safely ensconced in the extended Placebo family, also enjoyed every perk of this insalubrious Deptford apprenticeship. “Me and Brian used to go to parties together”, volunteers the token Englishman, “So I was always there. Our earliest incarnation was probably in the hallway of a flat, me on bongos, him on guitar, drunk on fucking Thunderbird or something.”

“Diamond White”, specifies Brian before admitting, “It wasn’t even Diamond White to be honest, it was White Lightning; the Happy Shopper version that came in two-litre bottles”.

Prior to Classic Rock’s inaugural Greenwich Village encounter in the winter of ’96 (in an appropriately camp 14th Street cocktail joint called The Beauty Bar that offered a manicure service alongside its Olympic standard Sea Breezes) Placebo had already excited the inky press with a brace of independently released singles (“Bruise Pristine”, “Come Home”) and swiftly followed their major label debut (“36 Degrees”) with a modest Top 30 chart appearance (“Teenage Angst”).

But even as their eponymous first album was soaking up the critical plaudits while infiltrating the bedrooms of an ever-growing mascara-ed minority, internal strife was already threatening to rip the band asunder.

It was a topic that Brian was extremely loath to broach at The Beauty Bar, but the passage of time invariably loosens the tightest of lips.

“Even at the beginning, Robert and I couldn’t be in the same room with each other without wanting to be violent,” says Brian before turning to Stefan, who brought Robert into the band. “From an objective point of view would you like to describe what it was like? After all, you were in the middle, he was your mate.”

“I remember getting phone calls from my friends,” remembers Stefan, “Going: Cool, man, you’re getting pretty famous. Are you having fun?” And I was, like: “No”. I guess that made us realise that, no, it’s not fun, so one of us had to go. And one did”.

Having polished his percussive chops with Breed, The Boo Radleys and upon the legendary house party bongos of darkest Deptford, Steve was the perfect choice to fill the Placebo drum-stool.

The ability to dodge dimes was probably not included in his job.

Sit down to a Placebo interview today and you get all three of them laughing like drains and smoking like chimneys, but back in the day you just got Brian.

A combination of Stefan’s shyness and Robert’s incompatibility served to thrust young Molko into the limelight, and was he downhearted?. Hell, no.

“I just lapped it up”, he grins almost maniacally, “I loved the attention”.

His face cracks from grimace, to smirk, to grin as he casts an indulgent eye over his singularly cocksure quotes of 1996 (“If you walk into a room and you think to yourself, “Everybody wants to fuck me”, then everybody will want to fuck you” strikes a significant chord: “I’ve discovered that that’s not true”, he sighs).

“In those days I was incredibly naïve,” Brian admits. “Very green, filled with bravado, very mouthy, spoke a lot before I thought –which I’m still working on- but yeah, I had a great deal of ambition at the time and felt that as a band we deserved everything and more.”

Brian certainly appears to have honed his interview technique in tandem with his musical chops. Where did he learn the importance of, for want of a better term, media manipulation?

“I just figured that if the media is going to manipulate you, then the intelligent thing to do is to manipulate it back. A lot of those quotes where practised, to be honest, I had them ready… Could you tell?”

So, eight years down the line from spewing seemingly insupportable rhetoric at a succession of gullible hacks, Placebo are staggering under the weight of a greatest hits collection that could just as easily be called “We Told You So”. But isn’t looking at the track list a little like reading their own obituary?

“Not at all”, Brian drawls in a unique combination of world-weary mid-Atlantic intellectual and fractious jackdraw. “It’s like looking at embarrassing teenage poetry, family snapshots or art that you made in your senior year of high school or college. I think we get progressively more comfortable with the body of work as the album goes on”.

“Yeah”, Stefan concurs, “At the beginning of the album it sounds like we can’t wait to get to the end of the song, and as we get towards the end we sound a lot more like we know what we’re doing.”

Placebo truly hit their stride with the desperately hook-laden “Nancy Boy” (“I’m not sure what the hell that song is about,” Brian shrugs, “but something about it worked. I’d like to think it was the frenetic riffage rather than the lyrics, which I’m not particularly proud of”) before unleashing what many see as their finest achievement to date, “Pure Morning”.

However, on the last occasion that we spoke –around the release of 2000’s “Black Market Music” album- the band were already in the habit of referring to “Pure Morning” as their “Smoke On The Water”. They felt, and we quote: “Cursed by it forever”. So, have they mellowed to its charms any?

“We actually call it “Pure Boring”,” reveals Stefan. “It’s actually even more of a pain to play than “Nancy Boy”, because ever since we wrote that song we’ve had to play it at every single gig.”

“Yeah,” Brian nods wearily. “It gets to that point in the set and you think: “I’ve just got one more to knock out.” It’s a bit like that. It is quite slow and, dare I say, laborious. And there’s not really much scope in there to take it to another place… I mean, a jazz odyssey is most certainly out of the question.”

“And God knows we’ve tried” Steve laughs “We’ve gone as far as starting it on the wrong side of the guitar lick to get a sort of reggae version going, but that’s the best that we could come up with.”

“We try to finish it in under four minutes now.” Stefan chortles. “It used to go on for over six, but we’ve managed to snip it down a bit.”

Ah yes, nothing beats the sound of a cash cow being publicly slaughtered.

But not everything in their back catalogue causes such embarrasment and chagrin for Placebo. Skimming their singles collection’s track-list Stefan looks favourably upon the relatively down-tempo vibe of “Special Needs” and “The Bitter End”, a spiky high-octane plummet that he claims “captures sonically in three punchy minutes what Placebo do”.

Steve concurs, but aside from the newer material recorded specifically for “Once More With Feeling” –the polished-up “potential B-side” “Twenty Years” and guitar-free “unashamed love song” “I Do” –admits to a rekindled fondness for “Nancy Boy”: “We’ve finally nailed it. It’s taken us eight years, but we can finally play it.”

Brian, meanwhile, takes greatest pride in “Without You I’m Nothing”, “Not just for the fact that David Bowie liked it so much that he had to sing on it,” he stresses, just in case we’d forgotten. “Song-writing wise, I think that it’s quite interesting because it doesn’t have any repeating parts, and I also like the lyrics. I’m not so sure about the lyrics of “Pure Morning” but sound-wise it’s the most adventurous thing that we’ve done. It was the first time we showed that we were going to do our best not to repeat ourselves. It was the first real manifestation of our contrariness.”

With the resounding clang of the Dame’s name being dropped so wantonly still ringing in our ears, it would be rude not to ask Brian for futher details of the stratospheric circles in which he’s so notorious for moving. Not only did The Pixies’ Frank Black duet with the band in Paris on “Where Is My Mind?”, but The Cure’s Robert Smith shuffled up to the Wembley microphone to take the Bowie part on “Without You I’m Nothing” before slaying all present with a spirited romp through “Boys Don’t Cry”. Predictably, there wasn’t a dry eye of un-smudged mascara in the house.

So, how did Placebo go about reeling in a collaborative fish as big as Bowie?

“Morrissey unexpectedly walked out of the support slot on Bowie’s “Outside” tour of 1996,” Brian explains, “Bowie had heard our demo and liked “Nancy Boy” –he apparently thought it was “a great name for a bunch of chaps to give a song”, or words to that effect –and so we ended up supporting Bowie even before our first album had been released. We went from playing Camden’s Dublin Castle one night to playing an 8.000-seater stadium in Milan the next”.

“We toured with him again on the “Earthling” tour and got to know him quite well. Well enough for him to call me up on holiday in Barbados and say: “I’d really like to sing on “Without You I’m Nothing”. “We’d already agreed to do “20th Century Boy” together at the Brits, but when he calls up and asks to sing on something you don’t say no”.

The Molko name is also often mentioned in the same breath as rock’s other Brian, Marilyn Manson: “I haven’t seen the God of Fuck for a while”, laughs Brian. “Partying with Manson is always entertaining”.

Speaking of which, Brian, your reputation as a cavalier over-indulger procedes you. So are you, or have you ever been, a hopeless shag monster?

“Not any more”, sighs the gender-blending poster boy. “But due to low self-esteem, a lack of pure love when I was a kid and because I was a serious attention seeker, I did once try to find meaning thorugh being a bit of a slag. But after a while you realise that it doesn’t really bring that much. As you approach 30 the fantasy world takes over a lot more. It’s never as good when you get there – it’s always a bit of a disappointment, and it’s never guilt-free and without complications either. I gues after a while the complications and guilt overweigh the pure carnal rush of the act itself.”

As Brian gives a final wistful glance at the self-styled “tart with a broken heart” that gazes back at him from 1996, one obvious question remains: If able to travel back in time, what would today’s Brian Molko say to his former self? “Keep talking like that and you’re going to alienate a lot of people, you pretentious bastard.”