Rock Magazine "Steve Hewitt interview", Jan'06

London Calling.

As the weeks go by, the new Placebo album is taking on a more definitive shape. 3 months before its release, set for March 13th, Rock Mag was invited into the trio’s London studio to discover 9 exclusive tracks.

Monday 28th November. We pass the customs officials, past the security doors and finally through to the 11:43 Eurostar train. The train starts up, passes the ‘Stade de France’, ‘Gare de Lille’ and through the channel tunnel. An hour later, the London suburbs appear, followed by the image of the electric power station from Pink Floyd’s ‘Animals’ album. The closer we get, the more the excitement mounts.

As we arrive at Waterloo station, we jump into your typical London taxi. The driver takes us across London, driving like a madman through the streets, past the last buses condemned to disuse and past the red phone boxes. We arrive, finally, in front of the RAK studios, a stone’s throw away from Regent’s Park, an hour in advance. To kill the remaining time, we pop into a local pub for a quick pint.

Back on time, we’re welcomed in by the staff at EMI, who seat us in a lounge on the first floor. The corridors are packed with Placebo’s equipment, along with Gomez’s material, who is recording in studio 1. 15 minutes later, we enter studio 3. They’re all here: Brian, Stefan, Steve and Dimitri Tikovoi, along with a few technicians. The only party missing is Flood, currently mixing next door. Brian explains that we’re the first lucky ones to listen to the album, but specifies that the mix isn’t quite yet finalised. We will be able to hear 9 of their 16 new tracks, 11-13 of which will feature on the latest album. Even though the excitement at the prospect of presenting their work to us is evident on the faces of the four men, it is clear that they’re confident and seem very sure of themselves. Brian Molko offers us red wine and beer, then shows us to our seats. Then, the sound technician finally unveils what we travelled 3476 km to see.

TRACK 1 - Untitled
The piece begins with immediately, combining rapid rhythms with driving guitar sounds based on a single chord, repeated with fervour. The catchy melody is instantly likeable. The drums are pounding, and behind the guitars, pushed to a sonic edge, some additional background arrangements are discernible. Molko repeats, “don’t give up, ’cause I want you.” Then comes a light bridge, suspended in a short pause before a return to the heavier rock sound for an end as sudden as the beginning. Next to us, Dimitri taps out the beat with his foot.

TRACK 2 - Meds
The intro is very close to that of ‘Every You Every Me.’ A feminine voice - VV from the Kills - begins to sing, soon to be joined by Molko’s voice. The two vocals mingle with harmonies over an urgent guitar sound. The pressure mounts, the 6-strings become saturated - it’s a climb to a climax, until the end falls suddenly back on the same distinctive chords as the intro.

TRACK 3 - Infrared
As the piece starts up, your mind falls, for a half-second, on ‘Taste in Men’for the atmosphere, but with a darker tone. The chorus is extremely engaging - you’re into it from the first time it plays. The verses have a voice/keyboard/drum-kit structure, while the bridge uses a voice/drum-kit one. So far, any of the three tracks we’ve heard could potentially be a single.

TRACK 4 - One of a Kind
The intro (a xylophone or marimba) is quickly overtaken by a dark verse, recalling the type of sounds found on ‘Sleeping With Ghosts’. The next part is a deluge of guitars putting us back under pressure. What we’re hearing is more industrial, more ‘Black Market Music’. The guitars are placed in a prominent position while Brian sings a very pertinent “I am the one,” as the atmosphere is reminiscent of ‘I am the One’ from the Smashing Pumpkins’ first album. The track finishes with Molko, a solo voice, repeating the phrase “On top of the world you get nothing done.”

TRACK - Space Monkey
The drum-kit introduces this piece accompanied by scattered metallic sounds. The vocals are very sombre and the guitars very low. The voice does, however, come out of the shadows to take on a clearer tone for the continuation of the song. The metallic noises move into the background, as the verses become grandiloquent, with epic keyboards fronting the strings. A short pause with a piano intervenes, accompanied by Brian’s murmurs, then the song sets out again with an heroic turn, before an outro without a keyboard, using reverberating chords for the last few seconds.

TRACK 6 - Follow the Cops Back Home
The intro uses an echo, the rhythms follow rapidly but are accompanied by calming vocals. The melody is constructed around the middle of the piece, with the contribution of keyboards. The guitars sounds are whirling and lucid, saturated but peaceful - the most shining track yet.

TRACK 7 - Post Blue
Guitars drowned in a glass of water seem to mimic a childish melody. The vocals are slightly rapped and interspersed with pauses preceding some epic keyboard sounds. Feedback from the guitars are strewn across the verses, while Molko sings “It’s in the water, baby.” During the bridge, it seems that Moko even puts his head in the bowl before the song finishes on some industrial type rhythms.

TRACK 8 - In the Cold Light of Morning
From the moment the intro begins, your mind wanders to Tim Burton. Molko seems to be recounting a gruesome fairytale. We hear a dry guitar sound, detached from the stagnant swamp-like quality of the music, as the piece moves into a dark waltz before a solo on an organ. The idea behind the song becomes clearer - it’s like an sombre adaptation of‘Amelie’, under the snow, filmed by Tim Burton. It’s the calmest piece so far, and finishes like a nightmare scene of puppets dressed in black and white.

TRACK 9 - Song to Say Goodbye
We move directly back up to speed. Molko lets out phrases one by one, and you can feel the guitars waiting anxiously for their turn to really let go. However, the following moment isn’t the storm of sound we expected, even though the guitars are quite frenetic. The second chorus begins with a guitar trip into rhythms recalling ‘Without You I’m Nothing,’covered by a layer of frenzied keyboards. The track finishes with a continuous repetition of ‘Goodbye’s from Molko.

Altogether, the nine tracks evoke a far less polished sound, far more rock ‘n’ roll than ‘Sleeping With Ghosts’, but the mixing wasn’t quite finished when we visited the studios, so we’re unaware whether the album will maintain this dark, raw sound. Steve Hewitt did, however, confirm that it would, several days later when we spoke to him on the phone.

Close Encounter of the Third Kind

Drummer Steve Hewitt brings to a close our three-part ‘making of’ series, begun in November. It’s now his turn to speak about the new Placebo and the imminent arrival of the single, ‘Song to Say Goodbye’.

Rock Mag: Where are you? [The interview takes place via I telephone conversation.]

Steve Hewitt: I’m in Chiswick, east of London, at the Metropolis Studios. Stefan, Brian and Dimitri are with me. We’re in the middle of mastering with Tim Young. It’s a big day for us – the tracks are going to be fixed in place forever!

What’s been happening since our conversation with Stefan last month?

We finished mixing everything with speed. It was only completed last Saturday [N.B 3rd December] at 7 o’clock in the morning because Flood needed to leave for Las Vegas. We stayed at the RAK studios to finalise some details, then took everything home. In the meantime we were able to finish the photography for the album cover. Yesterday we were in Germany doing some interviews, today it’s the mastering, and following that we’ll have a quiet week-end, then some more promo next week.

Everything seems to be happening very quickly…

The album’s starting to take a good shape. We just received the possible photos for the album cover and booklet, and we’re pretty satisfied with it. We’re working hard to get everything done before Christmas. With the release due for March, we get a bit of time in front of us from January 2006. Barely enough time to rehearse before going on tour for a very long time…

Do you have your tour plan now?

Yeah, we’re starting in Bangkok, then the rest of Asia in February. We’re warming ourselves up with a couple of festivals, then we’re arriving in Europe in March.

We get to see you live here at last!

In the end, you’re going to be completely fed up with us! [laughs]

Let’s get back to the album. Is the tracklisting finalised?

Almost. We started with 11 songs, but it seems we’re possibly leaning towards 13 instead. For the mastering, we follow the provisional order we’ve established. Next, we’ll make a decision by re-listening to the whole thing. We’ll see whether we leave it as it is, or whether we rearrange it.

Do you have all the titles for the tracks?

In a manner of speaking. We’ve got several possible titles for the album, and most of the pieces are named. We’ve got Meds, Space Monkey, Dragand a few others. What’s strange for this album is that all the sound is almost ready, but nothing’s really sure for the titles. Everyone keeps asking us questions about it. Give us five minutes, we should be able to manage. Besides, we like deadlines!

You’ve decided on a single?

Yes. It’s going to be ‘Song to Say Goodbye’.

How did it go with VV, the singer featured on Meds?

We’ve known The Kills for a long time. Jamie [Hotel] played in Scarfo, a trio we went on tour with a few years back. Brian was also at Goldsmith’s College with him, so they’ve known each other since back then. They’re a really good group and we’ve become great friends. At the end of the recording session, we figured that a couple of tracks would sound really good with another singer, and Dimitri thought of Alison [VV]. We rang up The Kills and it turned out they were staying in town for two days. Alison said yes right away, she was available within the second. She came by to record her vocals… and that was it, she was already gone! The result is perfect. It’s as if this track was made for her, and vice-versa. She’s got a beautiful voice, very sexy, which goes well with Brian’s vocals on this track.

And there’ll be a second duet on this CD?

Yes. [Laughs] But I’m not saying anything! It’s a surprise…

How has life at the studio been?

It’s been the best recording session of my life. Everyone was the same age and we were just a bunch of young adults making an album. We had loads of fun, we all really connected. We’re all really confident in this album, and especially very proud. It’s a big step forward. The album’s very different to the last – our sound has evolved thanks to Dimitri and Flood. You know, we wanted to work with Flood for all our past albums, but he never had the time. It was finally possible for this one, and he did a damn good job on it. He’s thrown the group forward, made us sound how we’ve wanted to for four albums. The fans will be happy, they’ll feel as if they’re inside the music. We really tried to put tension and excitement into the pieces. It’s a very ‘rock’ album, much more so than ‘Sleeping with Ghosts’ and I think the tracks will work really well onstage.

Have you been able to maintain a normal family life?

More or less. It’s difficult to talk about normal family life when you go into the studio at 12 noon and come out of it again at 2 in the morning. Rock ‘n’ roll means a bitch of a schedule! That being said, being close to home has meant being able to go home to see girlfriends and families, which did us a lot of good. It enabled us to rest our heads a bit.

What is your strongest memory of this recording session?

The most marking thing has really been the participation of Flood. Dimitri will also leave me some good memories, it’s been a pleasure working with him – he’s brought out the best in all of us on this album. The fifth album… the last album with Virgin… it’s a very important moment for us. Making albums should not be this easy! [Laughs] Well, I’m not saying it was that simple, but comparatively, it’s been great.

The pieces we were able to hear ten days ago in London are very dark…

Yeah, totally. It’s a very dark album, but with a few things a bit nearer to stuff we’ve done in the past. There are a few happier melodies, but on the whole, it’s lyrically very dark.

When listening to it, there’s a real feeling of being under pressure.

Exactly. We tried to capture that tension. The lyrics are obscure and we didn’t want to lay them on calm or lazy riffs. We preferred to use rapid rhythms that put you under pressure, in accordance with the words. The rock tracks are better than the ones we’ve done previously. The lyric writing on those has been really good.

Do you intend to preserve that raw sound for these tracks?

Yes, on this album we replaced a lot of things we only did on keyboard with guitars. It gives us a big sound, built-up like a live performance without any superfluous embellishments. In fact, the production hasn’t been very complicated on this album. We wanted to get something organic, something simple. Flood’s contribution is totally in this direction, giving us a very direct sound. We wanted a raw album, that gives you the impression that the group is in the room.

Well, I can’t tell you. Last time I heard the tracks in London, the group was in the room.

[Laughs] We’ll be there next time too, you’ll see.