Suicide Girls "Placebo", Sep'07

by Jay Hathaway
Sep 11, 2007

Brian Molko, the always-engaging frontman of Placebo, has been around the world twice since SuicideGirls last checked in with him. Although Placebo has had a successful decade-long career in the UK and Europe, they've never managed a full-on conquest of America. This summer's Projekt Revolution tour, headlined by Linkin Park, might be the Trojan Horse that finally gets them through the gate. Did Placebo take their new audience by surprise, or was it the other way around? I got a chance to talk to Brian as he was getting ready for one of the last shows of a year and a half of touring.

Jay Hathaway: How has the tour been going so far?

Brian Molko: It's been pretty exhausting. We've been touring for 18 months, and we've been touring for 18 months pretty much preaching to the choir. The first show on the Projekt Revolution tour was a bit of a shock for us. We swaggered out there with our bravado, which was immediately crushed by a few thousand disinterested Linkin Park and My Chemical Romance fans. Took us about three or four gigs and three or four set changes to realize that Linkin Park and My Chem fans at 5 o'clock in the afternoon do not want to be wooed by our particular brand of European melancholia. They want to be slapped across the face. So we rose to that challenge as well and pulled out some old songs. Songs which we hadn't even rehearsed, let alone played, in over three years. The more punky, straightforward, in-your-face fast side of Placebo. And once we did that, it really improved. It's a lesson that every band, no matter how long you've been in the business, has to learn. You have to be adaptable and have a kind of Darwinian attitude toward things, then you may not get certain opportunities. I think we're particularly good at that. We don't just have one style that we do. There isn't a blanket sound over an entire Placebo record. As for what's it been like backstage, there's a lot of cameraderie, a lot of bonhamie. There's no egos, everybody's very approachable and all the bands, especially Linkin Park, we've just kind of been getting to know each other bit by bit, day by day. It's like a big summer camp thing, in a way.

JH: Obviously they were familiar with your stuff when they asked you to be on the tour, but had you listened to any of the other bands? Were you previously fans of any of the other bands on the tour?

BM: Well, Linkin Park is kind of un-missable. You'd have to sort of live in Lebanon, maybe. Or not even live in Lebanon, but live under a rock to have missed Linkin Park. Every record they've put out has been everywhere. So, very familiar with Linkin Park, but we'd never met before. The band we had met before a few times and played with at festivals before was My Chemical Romance. So we kind of knew each other, and liked each other from before, and we were looking forward to seeing each other. They're very popular in the UK and we played Reading together and things like that. It's been good to spend more time with Gerard, just hanging out. We've become mates, you know, which has been great. I'd heard the Taking Back Sunday single. The other bands, though, I'm not really familiar with. I made a discovery this time, though. The band that headlined the Revolution Stage, the second stage, they're called Mindless Self Indulgence. And I have no idea what it sounds like on record, but their live show is an absolutely unique experience. It really is. I won't say that lightly, and I don't say that about very many bands. So I really recommend catching Mindless Self Indulgence live. They have a singer who has the greatest onstage banter. Very confrontational, arrogant. And an amazing female bass player who would make an excellent Suicide Girl. She did something the other day that I've only ever seen Iggy Pop do before, which is walk on the audience. Not crowd-surf, but walk on the audience, which I didn't think was possible, plus she did it in knee-high boots and a tartan miniskirt. Very exciting. So that's my recommendation from Projekt Revolution -- Mindless Self Indulgence.

JH: I think that what makes it possible for her to pull off something like that, and something you have in common with them, is that you both have extremely serious and intense fans. The level of fan devotion there is something that's pretty well known.

BM: It's true. We've done a lot of signings on this tour, and what we've noticed is a lot of people in line with Mindless Self Indulgence T-shirts. Which is really interesting -- the crossover of fans between a few bands, and the level of commitment, the level of obsession and devotion. That's quite interesting.

JH: Are you starting to get more of that in the US? With every album, you've picked up more and more American fans, so -- if you went out to a club in the US, would everybody recognize you at this point?

BM: No! No. (Laughter) Which is fine with me. I'm not somebody who needs to be recognized to feel a form of self-worth, you know? I take the subway in London, for example, sometimes, because it's the quickest way to get from A to B. When you see me on stage, that's the more flamboyant side of my personality, the more extroverted side of my personality. I need that time on stage in order to let that aspect of myself come out and flourish and blossom. But I don't carry that flamboyance through into my everyday life, so being recognized in the street is not necessarily something that I crave. We've got a cult following in the US. It's been quite a housewarming. Every time we come back, it's been slightly larger. It's cool for us too, being a band who have played for 12 years, you can get kind of complacent about success. It helps keep our hunger alive. It's kind of like the last frontier for us. Of course everybody wants to be huge and successful in America, because of the revenue that it generates, but I find it quite charming, the level that we're at right now. If it doesn't grow, we'll always come back and feel like a cult band in the US, and that's great for us too.

JH: I think there's a good chance that it will, because you're on a tour with audiences who might not have heard your stuff before. So they're now focusing on the music, after you've been through a time where there was so much focus on your personal lives, and so much baggage attached. These new fans can just focus on what you're playing out there.

BM: Which I think is fantastic! It's incredible how much excess baggage a band can carry around. To be free of that feels really cool.

JH: Is that still something that you're getting a lot of, or have people gotten over it at this point?

BM: I think people are starting to get over it and people are starting to focus a lot more on the music. I mean, a lot of the UK press doesn't really write about us anymore. We've kind of become part of the furniture. Like an old cracked-up leather sofa that's very comfortable, but that you don't really notice is there anymore. Our fan base in the UK has grown over the last decade, and continues to grow. We play Wembley whenever we play in the UK, for god's sake. It doesn't seem to have an effect on us. Well, to be honest with you, I don't really spend that much time thinking about it. (Laughs) I want to get on with my job and write songs, try and be as free as possible. Try to be baggage free every time you pick up an instrument to write. That's kind of what interests me, to keep improving as a songwriter, keep improving as a musician and as a lyricist. I feel that there's still so far to go and so much room for improvement. That's what keeps me here doing it.

JH: Do you feel like there's also musical baggage attached? You've been around for over a decade now -- are there expectations that people now have about the band that you're working to subvert, or that you have to live with when you're writing songs?

BM: You know, if all of a sudden we made an album of country songs, I think that would really confuse people. I think people expect Placebo to be a rock band, and we understand that. We're ok with that. We know that's who we are; we're comfortable with that. However, the definition of what a rock band is very, very fluid. As far as we're concerned, it's very, very open. We don't approach record-making with a calculated idea of exactly what we'd like to do this time, "That's too rock, that's not rock enough." We try our best not to self-censor, and I think that's really, really important. We're a band that makes a lot of noise with guitars most of the time, and that's part of our identity. I think my voice also is very much part of Placebo's identity. The way Stefan plays guitar, the way I sing, that really gives us our uniqueness. Every time we make a record, the difficult equilibrium to strike is how to renew yourself, and to not repeat yourself, and to challenge yourself, while at the same time not turning your back on what makes you uniquely you. And that is the challenge that we face as a band every time we find ourselves in the studio.

JH: I think that's what makes your cover songs so interesting. They're other people's songs, but you still manage to make them distinctly Placebo.

BM: Thank you. I think that a good cover should.

JH: Certainly. I was wondering how you chose your covers. What inspired you to do those particular songs?

BM: We're children of the ‘80s. We grew up with disco on the radio, and we grew up with mainstream ‘80s pop. But at the same time, we grew up with the birth of alternative and indie music labels. We grew up with the Smiths and the Cure, and the Pixies and Sonic Youth. What I find interesting about that decade as far as the mainstream music is concerned -- for example, take “Running Up That Hil” by Kate Bush, take “Babushka” by Kate Bush, take “Wuthering Heights” by Kate Bush. These are really fucking kooky, weird, pop songs. Take “Ashes to Ashes” by David Bowie. This is a really weird, avant-garde song. What I find interesting about that decade is that mainstream artists were trying to really push the boundaries of what pop was as far as they could, and had an avant-garde art approach to pop music. I think unfortunately, due to the proliferation of these popularity contests, which I believe to be the work of Satan -- and I'm talking about “American Idol” and all that nonsense -- which have no cultural value whatsoever. It should be called “Karaoke Idol.” Its sole reason for existence is to fill the pockets of the TV company and the record company that's going to get the winner. It's partly responsible for the cessation of an avant-garde approach to what pop music is. You go back even to something like “Rapture” by Blondie, my god! They almost invented rap music at that point. It was incredible that Debbie Harry would have a go at rapping about Fab Five Freddie. It's insane! I just don't think that the avant-garde spirit exists today. So when we cover songs, we have a tendency to go back to the ‘80s and cover songs which got us interested in pop music. That's why you've got “Johnny and Mary” by Robert Palmer, that's why you've got “Daddy Cool” by Boney M -- or “Running Up That Hill,” for that matter. These are songs which remind us of our childhood and make us feel nostalgic, which is why we try to do something modern with them.

JH: Do you get a lot of time to read on the tour? I really want to know what you're reading right now.

BM: What I'm reading right now? I was reading a psychology book, by a psychologist called Oliver James. It's called Affluenza. Which, as it explains on the cover, is a noun. It's a contagious middle-class virus causing depression, anxiety, addiction and ennui. A global tour of infected minds by a renowned psychologist in search of the secret of being successful and staying sane. So that's my heavy reading. My light reading is a book called Invisible Monsters by Chuck Pahlanuik, the guy who wrote Fight Club. It's about a supermodel who gets disfigured and becomes this mute monster on the inside. I find him an incredibly challenging author, I've read a lot of what he's done. Haven't actually read Fight Club, 'cause I've seen the movie so many times. Any book written by a man who doesn't own a TV sparks an interest in my imagination.

JH: I really enjoyed Choke, that's my favorite of his. Have you read that one?

BM: Ok, yes. I like Survivor as well. He's just a very challenging writer. Very, very wry. He's been out for a while, but he really does open his eyes. But yeah, so I do get time to read. There's a lot of downtime. There's only so many movies you can watch, and there's only so many times a day you can masturbate.

JH: Yep.

BM: So you have to fill your head with words. I'm a lyricist, I work with words. So I need to read, because I just need to be exposed to the guys in the business, for that to rub off on me, hopefully.

JH: Sure.

BM: Just like I need to consume a great deal of music in order to continue to have ideas. Not that I steal other people's -- well, maybe I do. What was it that Frank Zappa said? Bad artists borrow and great artists steal? I'm paraphrasing. I'm not going to pretend that we're not influenced by anybody; that would be kind of a ridiculous statement to make.

JH: All three of you have worked on music outside the band, solo projects. Stefan's got the DJ thing going. Is all that an outlet for things you can't do within the confines of Placebo?

BM: I DJ-ed for a while. I stopped for many reasons, but I may begin again sometime in the future. Stef DJs under the name of Hotel Persona, and has made a record as well. I think that's definitely an outlet for him, for an aspect of his musicality which he can't explore in Placebo, and which is much more gay disco. I guess that's why Hotel Persona exists, to satisfy that aspect of his musical taste and his desire to express himself in that way. I suppose when I collaborate with other artists, like Timo Maas, the German superstar DJ, or Jane Birkin, the legend -- at least she is in France and the UK -- to me, working on other people's songs, because it's not all Placebo, I feel a little less precious about it. I'm able to let go of it more. I find that aspect of working with other people collaboratively interesting. When you get into a collaboration, you have to relinquish control. The final product is up to other people. It's a good lesson for me, it teaches me to be less precious about it. I haven't necessarily been able to put that into practice when working on a Placebo record just yet. One never knows, perhaps maybe the next one.

JH: I know you've been on tour for quite a while -- have you been talking about the next one at all?

BM: Well, first we need to find a new record deal. Once that's out of the way, I think we'll start talking about it. (Laughs) It's been 18 months. Right now all we want to do is go home and hibernate until Christmas. It is possible to get sick of being in your own band.

JH: Do you guys prefer to be on tour versus in the studio?

BM: I think we're all very much aware of how different these experiences are. Touring is pure performance, it's the exploration of that flamboyant, exhibitionist aspect of your character. And when it works -- I think all great art, you have to take a step towards it as much as the art takes a step toward you, like a painting. You stand in front of a Willem De Kooning, you can just stand there and go "I don't get it." Or you can take a step towards it and start to see things and feel emotions. And I think the best gigs are when an audience takes a step towards you as much as you do as a band towards them, and there's this meeting in the middle, this synergy that is created. That's when sometimes being onstage is better than sex. It's a very, very different experience than being in the studio, where you're very contemplative and also very disciplined. It's a process of creation as opposed to performance, Performance with a big "P" that you do when you're in front of an audience. You feel like you're mad scientists, mixing different compounds together and seeing what colored smoke you're going to get. You can let your beard grow, you can get a studio tan, put on a few pounds, doesn't really matter. Unless you do one of these silly things like hook a webcam up in front of your studio. Which I think is quite silly, because (laughs) people watching these webcams don't realize how fucking boring it is sometimes…how much repetition there is! I've seen them before; you get a webcam of people reading the newspaper on the couch behind the mixing desk. It's a more private affair, and I like to keep it that way. It's a place of complete freedom. Whereas a live performance, if you do the kinds of tours that we do -- in Europe, we're accompanied by a lot of self-made visuals, it tends to be very, very structured. Whereas being in the studio is a very free experience. Particularly when you make mistakes, and you make beautiful mistakes and they become part of the song. You get surprised by something. You go in one direction expecting to end up somewhere - you get on the train, and instead of ending up in Camden, you end up in Borneo. And you think it's amazing.

JH: Talking about repetition, has it been kind of frustrating with the set list that you've gotten locked into now? Is there other stuff you'd rather be playing, but you know it's not going to work for the situation?

BM: Sure, but that's not necessarily a problem. It takes a certain amount of self-discipline and flexibility to play songs for people that you wouldn't necessarily choose to play for yourself. You have to find a connection to it, otherwise it's a lie. You don't want to go onstage and lie. So you're kind of put on the spot and put in a position where you have to find a connection to these songs. Otherwise you might as well not have even bothered to do so in the first place. You've buried these songs somewhere. You have to exhume the corpse, and you have to make it beautiful. And the only way you can make this corpse beautiful is by breathing new life into it. I think we are a band that thrives on challenges, so it's not really a problem for us.

JH: Is that a night-by-night process, or have you gotten in a groove now?

BM: I think we've gotten in a groove, but bear in mind that we are four shows away from the end of an 18-month world tour. We've been around the world twice already.

JH: You can see the light now!

BM: (Laughs) We're still going out on stage and giving 110% every time.

JH: Kind of a sprint to the finish.

BM: That's exactly what it is, a sprint to the finish. Actually, I'm going to have to leave you. It's been a very, very good interview, but there comes a time to go get ready. I'm going to go put my face on.

JH: Ok, have a good show.

BM: Thanks, man. Nice talking to you.

Source: suicidegirls