Phnom Penh Post "The possibility of redemption", Dec'08

08 December 2008

Known for their brooding lyrics and walls of aggressive sound, Placebo brought a 'gentler' sound to Angkor Wat's first-ever rock concert, performing to raise awareness of human trafficking

WHILE they may have dropped off the radar in the past couple of years, the British alt-rockers Placebo headlined a one-off live performance at historic Angkor Wat as part of the MTV EXIT campaign aimed to raise awareness of human trafficking in the region.

Notorious for the band members' unclear sexualities and excessive lifestyles (often referred to in their songs), one gets the sense that Placebo seem unable to shake their bad boy image even when they are trying to be squeaky clean and promote a humanitarian cause.

Dressed in trademark black and sporting traces of eye-shadow, front man Brian Molko remains androgynous and still oozes that certain combination of introspection and flamboyance.

The band's lanky and quiet bassist Stefan Olsdal seems content to remain in the background, while the new drummer, Steve Forrest, for whom Sunday's concert was his first live gig with the group, seems to have injected new energy into the trio.
With their sixth album due for release next year, Placebo appear ready to turn a new corner and finally maybe find "the possibility of redemption somewhere within all of this".

Sunday's first-ever rock concert at Angkor Wat will provide content for a series of MTV EXIT programs to be broadcast in Cambodia and on MTV channels. The Post's Anita Surewicz caught up with the band the day before they played to talk about their involvement with the MTV EXIT campaign.

"This isn't really about us.... we are trying to approach this entire thing with a great deal of humility."

What made you decide to come to Cambodia?
Brian Molko: We are musicians who care about the world that we live in. We are here to participate in the MTV EXIT campaign because it is something that has touched us on a basic human level. And I think that it is kind of appropriate for us to be here in terms that the music that we make is to a degree music for outsiders by outsiders.... People like that, because they are affected directly by the inequalities in this world, have perhaps more of a propensity towards social change.... If we can highlight this, if we can motivate people to engage within the societies that they live, then surely that can only be a positive thing. Not to say that the attraction of coming and performing in front of a world-famous Buddhist temple wasn't part of it. It is an absolute honour to be here to [perform].

Stefan Olsdal: We don't wake up feeling any more special than the person next to us, and I think that can translate to this purpose. We are not here as a self-promotion exercise. We are lending our support to this cause and this charity.

How will you measure whether you have been successful in helping to achieve the goal of the anti-human trafficking campaign?
Brian Molko: The majority of people around the world who are trafficked into sexual slavery or indentured servitude or into sweat shops are teenagers and young adults, which is exactly that audience that MTV has. That is why we think this is a very significant campaign to be involved in; because just simply through showing up in Cambodia and the interest that that may cause, we will get people to be aware of this issue that perhaps they didn't give much thought before. And if in the process we can highlight some of the traps that people can fall into by opening a debate, a discussion, about this issue, then we have achieved something.

You are not very well known in Cambodia. How do you think the Cambodian audience will react to you?
Brian Molko: I am expecting lots of confused faces. But we have a tendency to win people over. We have played in Korea, Hong Kong [and] Macau. We are planning to do a lot more touring in this area.

Have you been to the temples yet?
Brian Molko: I was here a few years ago, so I have done the tourist thing, but I am looking forward to going back. It is a wonderful place, very spiritual place, very serene place.

How much do you know about the issue of human trafficking?
Brian Molko: I think, like most people, I was aware that it existed, but I wasn't aware that it occurred on such a great scale, and I think this is one of the important things we need to highlight here. The absolute scale at which it happens, that 2.5 million people a year are trafficked, is absurd. In the same way that I can't believe that slavery existed in the US at a certain time in history, I can't believe that it still exists today on a world-wide level.

Are you concerned that people here will now know your music very well?
Brian Molko: It wasn't really a concern at all. It wasn't about presenting your most accessible work to an audience that doesn't know you very well. That kind of stinks a bit of commercialism, and that is not really the issue here. We had to choose songs that we thought were appropriate for the event, and of course we have a very tortured relationship with our back catalogue, so we had to find new ways of interpreting these songs in order to make them interesting to us, which is basically what we spent the past three weeks doing. Because the whole event is such a unique event for us, we want the performance itself to be unique, and so we kind of created a new sound for us specifically for this performance. It may not be repeated.

Stefan Olsdal: Because the situation and the cause are so unique for us - we have never done anything like this before - to choose the set was quite challenging. You want something that is fitting to the location.

Brian Molko: We love noise. We love massive walls of sound - three guitars going absolutely crazy. We love feedback and all of these things. We didn't really think that was going to be appropriate for this setting, so we were forced to look inside ourselves and to look inside the songs and extract elements and create new arrangements that we thought would fit within this incredible setting. So I think in general, what we are going to do is a little bit gentler than what we are necessarily famous for, but equally as valid. What is interesting about this is that it was very challenging for us to breathe new life into these songs.... But it's also reassuring to know that you can completely reconstruct a song and put it together in a different way and it still works.

Who do you expect the majority of the audience to be?
Brian Molko: I don't want to come 10,000 kilometres and play to a bunch of Europeans, so I hope that it is not an ex-pat crowd, and I hope that the majority of the audience will be Cambodian. That is kind of the whole point.... The tickets are free.

What message do you hope to communicate during the event?
Brian Molko: The audience themselves, the people who come to see the show, we just want them to leave with a smile on their faces, which is essentially what we try to do every time we perform at a concert. The 40 minutes that we will be on stage is about performance, and we want to create an atmosphere of communion and togetherness.

Are you going to have an opportunity to see organisations that work with victims of trafficking while you are in Cambodia?
Brian Molko: Absolutely. In fact, we are going to a women's shelter very close to here to meet some of the people who have been rescued from human trafficking. For us, it is an important thing to do because up until we go there [the problem] remains very abstract.

What sort of impressions do you think you will take away with you? Will you keep campaigning?
Stefan Olsdal: This experience is quite unique and I think that it will stay with us. Just to communicate what we see and experience, and our knowledge about this cause [is] hopefully going to basically raise awareness ... and something good will come out of this.

Brian Molko: I think it is important to stress that this whole situation and event needs to be approached with a great deal of humility. This isn't really about us.... We are trying to approach this entire thing with a great deal of humility. Not always the easiest thing for musicians to do.

You have been around for a while, what do you think the future holds?
Stefan Olsdal: We just finished recording a record which is going to come out next year.

Is it going to be different to the records you have produced before?
Brian Molko: Every record we have ever done has been a reaction to the previous one. The previous one was a very, very dark record. We couldn't, as people, have sunk any lower within ourselves, so the only way was kind of up. In this new record there is more hope, there is more optimism, there is finally the possibility of redemption somewhere within all of this.

So your music reflects what is going on in your lives at a particular moment?
Brian Molko: Absolutely. We write music about emotion. To remain the same person that you were two years ago ... when you have done your previous record would be quite tragic on a human level, to not grow, to not change.

We don't write vacuous pop music and insipid pop music that is just about complete escapism. What we want to do is that we want to communicate the emotions that people have by holding up a mirror to the human condition.