Rag Magazine "Just Don’t Call Them Nirvana", Aug'07

Interview with Brian
by Joseph Vilane

Upon first impression, Brian Molko, the androgynous looking frontman of British electronic-rock band Placebo, just seems to be a bit of a lackadaisical communicator - withdrawn andreticent, as if I have the answers to my questions before our chat even begins. In fact, it’s almost as if he prides himself on being a complicated conversationalist. “I can imagine that I am sometimes a frustrating interviewee because I find it very difficult to think in terms of absolute. It’s kind of difficult to get a straight answer out of me some of the time, so I apologize for that,” the 34-year-old vocalist/guitarist announces at the get go of our talk. 

As our interview progresses, I realize that what appears to be an allusive, apprehensive demeanor, turns out to be more of an endearing quality rather than an offensive one. Like many artists, Molko is most comfortable discussing his art; its highlights and pitfalls, but take him outside that, and you’re likely to walk away emptyhanded and frustrated. 

Painstakingly working to find just the right words, Molko details his early musical inspirations: Sonic Youth and PJ Harvey. “I wanted to [make] a band that was a cross between Sonic Youth and PJ Harvey - to kind of have this no rules ethic that Sonic Youth has, the beauty you find in dissonance and atonality. How they are, to me, is being incredibly beautiful without being pretty all the time. They represent infinite possibilities, with quite the limited instruments of the guitar. And there’s the kind of unbelievably, almost, sometimes painfully professional quality of the first two records of Polly Harvey.” 

In 1994, Molko set up shop with Stefan Olsdal (bass) and Steve Hewitt (drums) to try to capture the aura of the artists he admired, while developing something original of his own. It wasn’t long before Placebo signed a recording contract with Caroline Records and issued a self-titled debut in 1996. The album was an unexpected success in the U.K., with the hit singles “Nancy Boy” and “Bruise Pristine.” The group garnered major ink from British music weeklies and opened for the Sex Pistols, U2 and Weezer. In 1997, David Bowie personally invited the band to perform at this 50th birthday celebration. The band continued to earn respect, and switched to Virgin for their next release. They appeared, performing a T. Rex cover, in the 1998 Todd Haynes film, Velvet Goldmine, based on Bowie’s Ziggy Stardust character. Placebo went on to release three more studio albums, the final one being Meds in 2006. Meds proves the band isn’t ready to be complacent in their sound, and continue to shift and surprise listeners without abandoning their trademark neo-glam punk-rock style. 

For Molko, pushing personal and artistic limits is the only option. “There’s no point in [making music] unless your ambition is to challenge the already established place,” he says. “Whether you achieve that or not is beyond your control, but there’s absolutely no point in doing it unless you feel like you’re getting better, unless you feel like you’re honing your craft. It is a craft, and it requires a certain amount of discipline and you really need to apply yourself to it.” 

In addition to having the courage to experiment and expand personal boundaries, Molko thinks art and artists have to meet in the middle to have a successful, symbiotic relationship. “I think that the best art, regardless of whether it’s cinema, or music, or a painting, or video art, [its quality depends on the] kind ofthe effort you make, the steps you take towards the art, as much as the steps it takes towards you - where you [both] meet is that magical place. As a band that tours all of the time, it’s kind of what you need from a rainy night in Germany. You need that [men-tality] from an audience, too. You need them to step up to the plate as much as you are.” 

Placebo’s sound, image and attitude are enigmatic and eccentric enough that they challenge conventional notions about art and music, while still appealing toa broad audience. Molko wants to take audiences where rules and boundaries don’t exist. “You know there’s got to be a place somewhere, where you don’t have to follow the rules, where you don’t even need to think about them. You don’t even need to think about who you are, what you represent, what your identity is, and what you mean to lots of people. There’s got to be a place where you’re free of all the drudgery of having to tie your shoes, and having to be a law abiding member of society. There’s got to be a place whereyou can escape the system, and a place - a world that’s unique for you, a place where you find freedom within yourself. I look for that a lot,” he says. “I like to feel around in the dark a lot and bump into things, and then kind of take Polaroids of the bruises, and ponder them for a while, and see if I still like them a week later.” 

Not surprising, Molko is sensitive about musical classifications and comparisons. Because Placebo’s brand of art rock can’t be easily defined, and is extensively compared to Nirvana, I asked Molko what he thought about being called a glam-rock version of Nirvana. OK, it was a bold statement, but who knew Molko would take such a hard stance on it? He virtually shut down. Only several minutes later did he apologize and revisit the subject. He blames the band’s appearance in Velvet Goldmine for the extensive Nirvana associations.” I think it’s a great movie, and I’m very proud to be in a Todd Haynes film. But since then, there are so many people after that movie came out where they go, ‘Oh, Placebo’s in a glam rock movie? You must be glam rock version of Nirvana,’ and it irritated us so much. And I guess that’s kind of what irritates me, when I hear the whole word glam or the word goth, which irritates me as well.” 

So how would Molko describe his sound – if he had to put himself in category? “If you’re asking me to sum [up] 13 years, it’s really difficult for me,” he adamantly states. “I just don’t think about it, because creative expression sort of represents a sort of freedom, and it’s tapping into an instinct with so many borders in the rest of the world, and so much significant meaning and questions and answers that … it’s kind of a place that I don’t really need to go, or think about, or even justify. I just follow my gut really.” 

If his past is hard for him to articulate, the future is even more so. He jokingly considers the band’s next direction: “The facetious answer to that question would be that we’re goingto make a record that’s a cross between Johnny Cash and the Village People, we feel that gay country hasn’t been fully explored yet. Like I said, that’s an extremely facetious answer to a difficult question. We’re songwriters, so it really depends on the song for me, and what this song tells you is the best way for you to present it, because you have to listen to the songs talking to you, telling you where to take them. You add that to an extremely low bordering threshold, where you want to try and do things that you haven’t done before, and because it’s a collaborative way of working, so many accidents happen that you end up going places that you don’t really set out to.” 

Molko hopes Placebo will make a lasting impression on the music world, but realizes the enormity of actually doing so: “As far flash-in-the-pan versus your Bob Dylan, we think that it happens a lot more today because we look back at musical history and we see all great wealth of music that’s endured, the reason that it’s endured is because that was the good stuff. There was as much shit in the ‘60s as there is today, it’s just different flavored shit, and in the year 2120, nobody will remember it. Just like we don’t remember all the shit that was there in the ‘60s. We remember Janis Joplin and we remember Dylan because what they did was of such quality. I think that’s kind of the mirror you have to judge it at.” 

As a successful artist, Molko takes periodic reality-checks: “It got to the point where we were really sort of filled with a lot of vibrato, and we took to the stage and we thought yeah, nobody can touch us. And then we did a good show and then the Queens of the Stone Age came out and Stefan and I wanted to retire, (laughs) because it was so perfect. So I guess I look forward to touring with them if they’re gonna do that to me, if they’re gonna make me feel humble.” 

As if defending his own art and ideas or perhaps on some kind of personal mission to save us from mediocrity Molko dismantles conservative notions of beauty and obscurity. “I think people have a tendency to believe that something is not beautiful if it’s not pretty, and that it is often purposely obscure if it takes an effort on your part to understand it, and I just completely disagree with that,” he says. After all these years, it seems Molko hasn’t abandoned the ideals of Sonic Youth and PJ Harvey that initially brought him to music: finding beauty in uncommon sources and challenging the world see it, too.