Musikexpress "Placebo", Mar'06

Placebo are not yet old enough to blow kisses or give advice as ‘elder statesmen’. And we still have to wait a little for their personal Kid A. First of all they’re a 3 piece rock band like never before. Which when drunk only know one thing: HipHop. It’s a shame.

Placebo are not an actual rock band. But an element we already had the pleasure to encounter in all possible states. After this concert in Munich for example, at the end of the 90s. ‘Without You I’m Nothing’ had just overcome gravity and they physical effect this journey had on the musicians couls easily be recognised. In this cold backstage room, painted white and lit by neon light they had to face our questions. The pale Brian Molko whose make up had smeared all over his face appeared like an advertisement for oxygen tents. Stefan Olsdal was bouncing up and down, still with his guitar and too hyper to answer any question. Only Steve Hewitt seemed open to conversation, hanging in his armchair awake and constantly grinning.

We discovered the immensely dynamic noise those 3 guys are able to make during the BMM-tour. The stroboscope thundered, the high-pitched sounds cut your ears, your trousers fluttered with the speed of sound of the bass, and even a ballad like WYIN crashed into the audience like a racing car veered off the road.

They played ‘Sleeping With Ghosts’ to us in their London studio. Loudly. Olsdal played with the controls, Hewitt was once more sunk into a sofa smiling, Molko was sitting next to him smoking and asked: “And? How do you like it?”
We saw the three of them on stage with David Bowie, with Robert Smith from The Cure and this bald guy in the Pixies. We saw them at the cinema, in Velvet Goldmine, and read, quite pleased, that they declined an offer to play the metal band Judas Priest in another film. We saw them on beautiful women’s t-shirts, posters on site fences and once – by chance – above the channel in a plane. Olsdal and Hewitt were sitting with an empty seat between them, Molko a few seats behind them, on his own. He asked the stewardess if he could join his friends. And after he’d given her an autograph on his ticket she allowed him. That was before the delighted co-pilot burst into the cabin to take a photo of his favourite band, as they sat there neatly with their seatbelts on next to one another and asked sheepishly to not make such a fuss about them…

No matter where, when or how we met them, Placebo always appeared as one element. Extremely stable, consisting of three molecules which cannot be separated and together not just make a compact whole, but in a magical kind of way more than the sum of their pieces. And Molko has always been the spokesman, Hewitt his sidekick and Olsdal… well, a good listener.

When Placebo invite us to a hotel in Berlin to talk about their new, fifth album, Meds, all hell has broken loose in the lobby already. We first thought of an optical illusion when we saw who the many sobbing teenagers with their digital cameras were waiting for: a small skinny guy with a stupid haircut, too much eyeliner and black nailpolish. The singer in Tokio Hotel appears like a very bad caricature, like a very distant, very bizarre echo to the early, wild, androgynous Molko.
The original is waiting for us in his suite and appears nearly serious with his new short haircut. Steven Hewitt is sitting in an armchair and trying to work out the tv remote control. BBC World is on, without sound. Before we can ask ourselves where Stefan Olsdal maybe he asks us from behind: “Tea? Coffee? Do you like our album?”

I’m surprised…
S: Yeah that’s what we thought. First our album was meant to sound like our latest single, Twenty Years, more spheric, modern with HipHop beats and so on…
B: … but then we went into the studio with our material and played it to Dimitri Tikovoi, curious about what he’d say. What we hadn’t known back then was his completely different base.

Which is?
B: He wanted to lure us out of our comfort zone from the beginning, to put the band in the foreground. Now there’s a lot less keyboard and a lot more guitars on the album than on Sleeping With Ghosts. Resisting the electronic tempations has made it possible to let the songwriting shine through. Performance is our strength after all.

And you didn’t know that?
S: Yes we did.
B: Only in Chile did we realise that we’d conquered South America so to say, without being aware of it. And it was there we noticed that we at our best when delivering our material live, in-your-face. Back home again we weren’t so sure anymore we had to do our Kid A now. Maybe the studio played a role in that as well…

The RAK in Kensington, London – what’s so special about it?
B: We recorded ‘Sleeping With Ghosts’ in a church that had been made into a studio by Sir George Martin – a studio that has everything a musician could ask for.
S: Unlike the RAK, which hasn’t been renovated since the late 70s.
St: There are lots of things to play around with, but nothing is new, not even remotely…
B: That scared us first because we thought: hey, where are the toys? But then we realised that this place would reduce us to ourselves and what this band is capable of doing without hiding behind brilliant equipment.

The dominant drums are remarkable…
St: That was Flood. It’s him to stress the percussional elements in the mixing.
B: When listening to the Smashing Pumpkins you hear those drums which set the tone everywhere. The drums are the heartbeat of every good rock band.
St: Erm…
B: Please! What would Led Zeppelin be without John Bonham?
St: Just another blues rock band, yeah. But I usually don’t pay much attention on the drums and what they sound like. The only important thing is what the rhythm does to the song. And this is what Flood did perfectly: to have me as a drummer as much at the front as possible and undress me at the same time, so to say. That’s a very exposing, exciting position, brutal in a way, nearly like at the front of the stage.

That means the ideal conditions for the next tour? Placebo record those songs in the studio which Placebo likes best to play live.
B: Absolutely! We’ve engaged a new guitarist who can also play the keyboard which is especially interesting as he broadens the spectrum of our sound and supports us with some older songs as well. Which means at some points we’ll be on stage with three guitars!

Placebo goes ZZ TOP!
B: Exactly!

You played “Boys Don’t Cry” and “Without You I’m Nothing” with Robert Smith in Wembley, you released a concert in Paris on DVD and a singles compilation – some thought it was the end of your career…
B: But that’s what nearly all bands do after 10 years: to put their most successful pieces of work on one album. Ours were 17 successful singles. 17! That’s not just a few. For me it’s a guideline, no farewell letter.
St: We wanted to remind people that we’re not only a pretty good live band but also… yeah well, a pretty good singles band.
S: Let alone our b-sides!
St: Yeah, we also like experimenting. That’s how we came across Dimitri.

You produced BMM yourselves, for SWG you had at least some help from Jim Abiss who works with people like Björk, DJ Shadow and Massive Attack. Why Tikovoi of all people now – a producer hardly known outside France?
B: The main reason was probably our collaboration for “Running Up That Hill” for our covers album. This went so well that we kept Dimitri in mind. And when we came to him with our avantgarde ambitions he bluntly told us “guys, I don’t think it’s the time for you to make an album like that yet,” and we believed him.

Other bands like to exhaust the possibilities and make albums a lot longer than one hour. What speaks against granting the fans all 16 songs for their money in the times of the CD?
S: We speak against it.
B: It’s people’s ability to take something in. I think an album shouldn’t wear out the ‘mental hospitality’ of the listener. Just take ‘Tago Mago’ from Can. Great music! But after the first track you tell yourself ‘ right, time for a cup of tea.’
St: Those who only know mp3 players anymore and downloads the raisins sometimes doesn’t realise that there is such a thing as an album – a collection of songs that belong together and has to be listened to together.
S: Exactly, the medium disappears.

But the music becomes more accessible.
St: Yeah sure, you have the access to a gigantic rubbish dump.

Why so critical? The british pop scene is looking quite good at the moment, and even hip hop…
B: Hip hop? Fuck off with hiphop!

50 Cent? Kanye West?
St: Oh dear, now it starts…
B: When we’re drunk we keep arguing about this, there’s hardly any other topic than the value or quality of today’s hiphop. What I’ve heard from Kanye West so far might be neat pop but it’s totally meaningless.
S: But 50 Cent…
B: I don’t wanna be shot now. But I can’t remember ever having heard anything this… unmusical.
S: When Dr. Dre produces…
B: …then it sounds very fluent and perfect and polished and everything of course, you can’t say anything against that. But *what* they produce, that’s just incredibly… stupid, yes. Unharmonious, unmelodic…
St: one-dimensional…
B: … and flat. It’s a shame! Especially when you go back to the roots of hip hop and listen to Africa Bambaataa for example, who worked with James Brown and John Lydon, such things! I think hip hop used to be a really transgressive medium back then. A style which went back to early funk albums and tried to drive this rebellious moment on. There were bands like Public Enemy who in their rage established a whole new hip hop sound. Who with their guerilla music showed up an unknown way to radically political tonal terrorism which nowadays only bands like the Asian Dub Foundation still go. Hip hop used to be such an exciting, basically new radically alternative musical medium. It’s so sad: nowadays it only deals with sex and money.
St: And designer clothes.

Which is probably explained in the black US pop culture…
B: Of course. I’m not that familiar with the German hip hop scene, I only know Seeed… But the most successful releases come from the USA. There you have Pharell Williams, who made “Drop It Like It’s Hot” with Snoop Dogg and you think: no thanks, I don’t need to see another gold necklace, another white Rolls-Royce. It’s so incredibly booooring. Snoop, tell me something about yourself for a change! What are you afraid of, what makes you angry – although you have a bag full of money?
St: This attitude makes it so ridiculous, it’s only your attitude. It destroys hip hop. But I do listen to the latest Danger Mouse record a lot…
B: Yeah, Danger Mouse are cool. And Dälek, the crew who made an album together with Faust. But things like things only happen in the periphery. Kanye West is popular, but an interesting case: sure everything is polished, but at least he raps about something…

He has a message?
B: The first big hip hop hit was called ‘The Message’, for god’s sake, yes! But still. What I’m talking about is: listen to something like ‘Evil Heat’ by Primal Scream nowadays. There is one single song more hip hop in its attitude than everything that comes over from the USA these days.

If, as you said, good music only is a peripheral phenomenon in the USA, where is its centre then? In England? And what goes on there?
B: Hm. No, it rather depends on which side effects you allow to sink into the general conscience. It happens from time to time. I was totally beside myself with joy when Antony & the Johnsons won the Mercury Music Prize. Both his albums have touched me very much. But I didn’t think this would happen, although I’d have given him my vote. And I was glad how this decision caused a fuss in England – because Antony emigrated to the USA when he was 10, which is why he’s somehow considered an american despite his British passport.

And suddenly the allegedly liberal British music business had a fit of racism…
B: Which makes it even better that the Kaiser Chiefs didn’t win. The more I think about it the more I realise that I don’t listen to British music.

B: Apart from Antony I listen to Sigur Rós, Rufus Wainwright…

You honestly want to make me believe that you’re not interested in Bloc Party, Maximo Park or Art Brut at all?
B: I like having fun, but the ‘New wave of British cool’ still hasn’t touched me. Which is maybe because you constantly hear the new Kaiser Chiefs single on English radio.

Between the new Madonna and the new Robbie Williams…
B: Ha! Do you happen to have read english newspapers yesterday?

No, why?
B: Because Robbie Williams was quoted with ‘ I’m not gay but I’d like to kiss Brian Molko from Placebo.’ I only read this today and nearly went crazy!

You sound… pleasantly excited.
B: I’ll call him first thing when we’re back in London!

Maybe you’re more likely to meet him in LA…
B: Doesn’t matter, I’m sure he’d pay my flight.
S: Everything Robbie talks about has to do with sex or some groupies. That’s how he stays considered.
St: He’s not dangerous, he only wants to play. And he’s been in the business for quite a long time this way.
S: That’s what we are as well.

Even Placebo were once new, young, hungry and hard – like the many exciting bands from England lately. I’m surprised that you’re so distanced instead of…
St: … instead of taking them under our wing you mean?

David Bowie is a dinosaur. But he snogs all the young artists he considers cool, as if this kiss would make his own life longer.
B: I know what you mean. But we’re feeling a bit too young to behave like the ‘elder statesmen of indie rock.’

But do you never compare yourself to all the upcoming young successful bands?
B: In quiet hours, we do. When we started releasing songs like Nancy Boy in 1996 we were ages from everything modern. Today, ten years later, our aesthetics have become part of the language of alternative rock music. That’s okay. We don’t stand on the street and call ‘Hey, it was us who did it first!’, because today it’s everywhere. And because we’ve done so ten years ago we cannot still do it today. It’s a completely normal development.

Stefan, it’s similar with Swedish bands. Or would you have thought a hype like around bands like Mando Diao possible ten years ago?
S: No, but Sweden is a welfare state. You only have to prove you have rehearsed for three weeks and you get money from the state, which you can buy even more beer with.

That’s the whole secret?
S: There are also lots of empty buildings, potentional rehearsal rooms. But the secret? I think it’s something in the water there…

If you had to be precise, how would you explain to a deaf and dumb person that Placebo have moved on artistically?
S: We use alternative guitar tunings. There are more guitars on the new album and a lot more alternative guitar tunings, sometimes a new one for each song…
B: We learned that from Sonic Youth, the masters of alternative guitar tuning. As the guitars have to be tuned differently that often we even wrote it down so we won’t forget it. So we could at least show the paper to the deaf and dumb person. It just brings a new colour to our range.

You said the same about the electronic elements on ‘Sleeping With Ghosts’
S: Yeah, but we didn’t use them this time.
St: No, more like bicycles and fire extinguishers…
B: We looked around in the studio ‘right, what can we beat up today?’
St: The producer!
S: One another.

Be honest: do you listen to your own records sometimes?
S: No.
St: Never.
B: Rarely. When I hear an old song in the car it happens that I say ‘I haven’t heard this years, leave it on’.

And how does it feel?
B: Funny.