Reax "Placebo: Interview with Brian Molko", Jul'07

Interview with Brian Molko
Words: Scott Harrell

Appearing:August 10, 2007
Sound Advice Amphitheatre, West Palm Beach

August 11, 2007
Ford Amphitheatre, Tampa

Over the course of a decade-plus career that's included flirtations with everything from Bowie-channeling androgynous glam to hip-hop beats, maverick UK rock trio Placebo has attained superstar status practically everywhere except America, where they're still an acquired taste phenomenon. This summer, the group will be exposed to its largest stateside audiences to date, as part of metallic angst-merchants Linkin Park's roving eleven-band Projekt Revolution mini-festival.

I had the distinct pleasure of speaking with iconoclastic front man/songwriter Brian Molko via telephone about last year's marvelous full-length Meds, Placebo's U.S. fan base, and the restless nature of their sound. A few niceties (and Molko's conversation with a hotel chambermaid in fluent French) aside, what follows is our conversation in its entirety.

REAX: For some recent tours, you've had extra musicians onstage. Was the more stripped-down recording experience for Meds an attempt to get back to the essence of the three of you just playing together?

Brian Molko: After the first album, we felt that the drums, bass, guitar format was quite limiting. So that was the beginning of our romance with technology. And, we started discovering all these vintage synths and electronics, ProTools, the industry standards, up to the point where album four Sleeping with Ghosts was pretty much constructed on computer. Which isn't necessarily a bad thing.

When it came time to do Meds, we'd already recorded a couple of tracks for the singles compilation '04's Once More with Feeling, and we kind of felt that we were going to go in that big, full, space-rock direction. But under the guidance of our producer Dimitri Tikovoi, he rightfully felt that it was important for us to make an album as if it was our first record, as if our entire lives depended upon it. He felt that technology was kind of a comfort zone for us, and it would take us out of that zone, and it would create more risk-taking, and put us back in touch with the soul and the essence of the band.

We recorded almost as live as possible. We weren't too scared of that, because we've spent a lot of time doing what we call cabaret shows, which is where we take our songs and play them on piano and with brushes and stuff. We'd gotten used to the skeletal aspects of things. It's something you can only really do if you feel you have the songs to back it up.

REAX: There are certain sonic elements of Placebo that are indelible, that are recognizable wherever the band decides to go in a stylistic sense. Are they things the band tries to keep as trademarks, or are they just natural characteristics of the band's identity?

BM: No, we don't really think about it too much, to be honest. We just try not to repeat ourselves.

REAX: As a Florida boy, I have to ask, what led to Alison Mosshart, of The Kills being on the song "Meds"? Is she a friend?

BM: Yeah, Alison's a friend… and quite a recent friend. It's actually Jamie Hince, her partner in crime, that I've known for almost seventeen years. We went to university together. I've watched him create and tear apart several bands, until he found Alison and started The Kills.

REAX: I can remember being nineteen and watching her punk band, Discount, from Daytona Note – actually, they were from Vero Beach – SH.

BM: I bet she had a lot of stage presence even back then.

REAX: Speaking of presence, there's been a lot of talk about you being more mature, or being less visually and lyrically provocative with regard to “Meds”. But it seems to me that in a lyrical sense, you still enjoy peeling back those layers to get to what might be called the ugly beauty of contemporary human nature.

BM: That's a very good way of putting it. I hate the word mature; it sounds like a cheese to me. In England we get mature cheddar, and it's cheese. I think it's one of the most overused words by journalists.

I don't particularly think that I was trying to be provocative in the beginning. I just think I wasn't as good a songwriter as I am now. The songwriting was a lot more gimmicky; we were kids crying out for attention. This record, I sort of really wanted to throw away whatever gimmicks I've used in the past, and use everyday words. What happened is, it's just quite a dark record; it's not a particularly happy record. But neither is it a teenage kind of record, I don't think, just railing at the world without a focus. It's a very human record, about abuse and addiction and anesthesia. It's not really a party record, and I don't think it's an emo record either.

REAX: But musically speaking, songs like "Infra-Red" and "Because I Want You" are among the most upbeat you've ever done.

BM: Yeah, but we've always kind of done that, like “Teenage Angst” from the first record, which was musically quite cheerful and lyrically quite the opposite. We've always enjoyed playing with that dichotomy, confusing emotions. Maybe we naturally veer toward that because that's how life feels… to me, anyway.

REAX: Do you think you're moving into more sort of archetypal stories, or are a lot of things still very autobiographical?

BM: I tell stories. They're small fictions, they're like little short stories. But in any creative writing class, they say write what you know, so I write about the situations and society, with a small “s,” that I experience or see around me… about the problems, the emotional difficulties. These are all things which I have, the subject matter and stories, are things that I've experienced. But they're not so much pages ripped out of my diary, inasmuch as they are stories with characters, you know? It's what they go through, it's what they're experiencing, and it’s the conflict that's important to me. I think it's the most important thing to get across.

REAX: Has quote-unquote "cracking the States" ever been a big part of the Placebo agenda?

BM: As much as breaking through in any country, really.

REAX: Have you found that being somewhat less accessible than bigger bands in the States has made your U.S. fans more loyal, like it's this little secret community?

BM: Yeah, I guess so, and I guess it's something I haven't experienced in Europe for some time, and I quite like that. Even if enormous success doesn't come in America, it's kind of OK, because we have a really strong, passionate cult following, you know? Which is kind of more directly accessible to us, and it has a kind of a family feel.