Visions "Placebo", Mar'06

Placebo are on a roll. With “Meds” they return to where they started out from: a brilliant, perfectly attuned live band without unnecessary flourishes that can capture the feeling of spontaneous community on record, too. Or, as Brian Molko calls it: “You can really hear us playing again, not just fiddling with buttons.” Responsible for this are time, self-confidence and a young blond man, who so far hardly anyone except for them knows: Dimitri Tikovoi.

Travelling, Playing, World Domination 
Late summer 2004, Côte d’Azur. About 20 kilometers above the coast between Cannes and Fréjus, slapped to the mountain side, is one of those sweet, southern french villages that used to be inhabited by farmers and is now inhabited by the rich. Behind massive, oak opening gates, opening electronically with a hum, in an orchard the size of a soccer field, is the estate Pepiniere de la Rouviere, which Placebo have rented for several months. It’s time for recovery from two an a half years of perpetual work - or, in other words: from the consequences of mutating from a moderately successful rock band to superstars in a way that borders on wet dreams.
An about 18 months long world tour for “Sleeping With Ghosts” is behind them; from the phenomenal Parisian concert in front of 16.00 0 almost insane fans, they made a live DVD that set new standards in optic aesthetics and aural precision - and, after David Bowie, presented them with the chance to perform on stage with another of their personal heroes: Frank Black. Additionally, “Once More With Feeling” was released at the time, the Best Of of the first four albums. Just hits, hits, hits. Personal, generally applicable, turning into evergreens.
A caesura, like such a review of a work always is. And a logical reaction to the previous studio album, that started so much, gave momentum and changed - the people, the musicians, the band. About this, they said on this day in southern France: “It’s the summary of all that Placebo have done in the first ten years. It includes everything that we liked about the first three records, it cuts everything we didn’t consider optimal. It is the final result. Dealing with history and pointing at a new direction all at once.

Time, sun, efforts to find one’s self
Brian Molko is standing in the generous living room of their solid, but not too showy villa in southern France, framed on three sides in glass: pool terracce flooded with light, a couch to relax on that could serve whole soccer teams with cosiness, pompous high-tech-entertainment electronics integrated into a natural stone wall from which atmospheric progressive-house is pooling. He is beaming. Flip flops on his feet, generously ripped designer jeans, impish mullet. His carefully cultivated paleness is fighting against the saturated teint of a long-time holiday maker. And yet: next to Stefan Olsdal and Steve Hewitt, those wiry men with chests the colour of burnt almonds, he still looks a bit like the nerd he used to be.
Yes, things are good. No pressure, no obligations, no nagging pains - and why should there be? After all, they diligently worked for a decade to get to the top, now it’s time to enjoy the fruits of their labour. Every evening they go out for an outstanding dinner, which is easy to do here: eating your way through all the temples of gluttony in the area can take months. During the day, they read, swim, sleep, explore the area protected by limos with darkened windows (they really need those heare- in relation to its overall population, France is by far the most Placebo-mad country). Or, if things are getting too nice for once, they jet back home to rainy London for a weekend and are back again on Monday to recline with a glass of good Rosé in a chair with a blockbuster-view.
And anyway: They’re still working. A whole batch of songs have already been written or at least thought about. And also realized. For on the second floor of the house, next to the bedroom, there is the studio. Small, but with expensive equipment. Lots of MIDI: screens, frequency parameters, blinking apparatures. Of course there are also two or three guitars leaning in the corner, but apart from that, all you see is keys and buttons. “I Do”, one of the two new songs on the Best Of record and therefore their youngest sound sample, sounds exactly the way it looks here: all weird sounds, tricky, driving beat and Molko’s voice.
The future? Stefan Olsdal, the band’s passionate technic and sound researcher, muses: “What comes next will certainly be experimental. Working with Jim Abiss on “Sleeping With Ghosts” put this side of us to the focus. Even on the album there were songs like “Something’s Rotten” [sic], that before would never have ended up on one of our records. It’s possible now. And maybe we’ll take it much further still.”

Wembley, Chile, doubts.
On that day, they were looking forward - concerning the band as a unit, a classic rock set up - to only one more thing: the so far last concert at Wembley Arena at the end of the year, shortly before it was meant to be broken down. “Of course we never wanted to go there”, Molko jokes. “Only people who are at the top, who are mainstream, play there. We’re not one of them. We’re not Blur or Oasis. We were always on the outside, we were an alternative. We were unfashionable with our sound. We always were - only it happened to become fashionalbe at one point. That’s why it amused us to give everyone the finger for once and say: ‘Nyah, us, too!’ Somehow we stayed that way until today - we’ve never been hip or trendy. It just appeals to us not to fit into the clichee or the current pattern.”
Of course, the concert turned out to be a triumph. It must have been an incredible evening, judging by what Molko reported later, on stage with another hero - Robert Smith, this time - and a legendary excessive aftershow party, naturally. And that was it: the Arena became a victim of the explosives team, Placebo scattered in all directions. And returned, somewhat unwillingly, to their manager’s office during the middle of last year. The Best-Of record had been released, everywhere; and a whole, so far ignored continent demanded the fullfillment of a so far ignored promise that had been given in interviews a few times: a South American tour. “Crazy, but that’s the first time it really occured to us”, drummer Steve Hewitt says: “We’d really never been there. Especially since we were sure that no one would be interested in us there anywhere. It you’d asked me how many records we’d sold in Brazil, I’d have said: a few thousands, maybe. In reality, it was probably about a hundred times more.”
The tour, organized on short notice, became the biggest surprise within the band. They started in Chile - “a country I hardly knew anything about” (Hewitt) - where they sould out the biggest concert hall in Santiago with 9.000 spectators easily on two evenings in a row. And it continued like that: Two times Buenos Aires, eight shows in Brazil, about 100 000 sold tickets in about two weeks.
They had conquered South America without even knowing or guessing it. Only when they came there they realized that “Morrissey, for example, is cult in Mexico, whereas The Cure are among the most successful artists in Brazil”, Molko says. “For all their joy in life, they apparently seem to feel a deep connection to the dark romanticism that connects us to such artists.” They played, as Steve describes it, the shows with so much fire and such a pleasure in performing that they hadn’t experienced for a long time. And they were rewarded: the wave of euphoria and madness coming back from the audience was “pretty much the stronges thing we’ve ever experienced. Must be part of that Latino-feeling”, says Stefan, the outwardly cool Swede who must have been truly moved by this tour.
The result: The band played some of their best gigs so far. “We were - with all due modesty - really brillian”, Steve laughs. “And even though we didn’t feel like going on that tour at all in the beginning.” For all their joy about conquering the continent practically in passing, there were also drawbacks, as Brian reports: “This tour was - along with “Once More With Feeling” - of course intended as a Greatest Hits tour. And seriously: For your musical ambitions, your own inner satisfaction, there is nothing more depression and disillusioning than a tour like that. Despite this massive enthusiasm, there were evenings when I was standing on stage being bored with myself.” And: he lost his enthusiasm and love for his instrument more than ever. “This only made it more clear for me: The next album will be electronic, experimental and totally different.”

Brian Molko and the guitar
They do have a special relationship: the ingenious melancholic, this composing scientist without technology, and his guitar. They love and hate each other. He needs her, but isn’t really interested in her - at least not in the way professional guitarist usually are. Thanks to “Meds” he has learned to love his instrument, which had almost become an office appliance for him, again. The story behind it - in his own words:
“I’ve always regarded the guitar as my tool and used it to write songs. I’m neither obsessed with amps, pedals, sounds or technique. It’s not important to be to do any mad things with it to impress others. In our band, that part is taken by Stef. (laughs) I feel more comfortalbe viewing the guitar as a kind of means that enables me to create a larger composition, a song - something that is beautiful and, in the best case, unique again. This is very important for me, everything else is only an afterthought in the end. And there’d be several things that I should be practising, but usually I lack the motivation. I play so much guitar on stage anyway that I very much like separating myself from it during my free moments. During the last year, that increasingly happened, which is not a nice feeling. Before the recording of the new album I spent some time in India. I had a feeling that it would be a good, inspiring place. So I bought a normal Telecaster - I wanted to avoid having one of my irreplaceable vintage guitars stolen from me down there that I usually prefer to play. I thought it would be a good time and place because I wanted to rediscover the feeling of regarding the guitar as an instrument of joy and pleasure.
It sounds harsh, but that’s the way it is: because of the countless tours, the guitar has become a kind of office appliance to me, no different than what a computer is to a bank accountant. I’ve been moving further and further away from the guitar and the original reasons I had started to play it. The more I grew sick of the constant tours, the greater the resentments against picking up a guitar became. So I took the Tele with me to India - and just played. Every day, with increasing joy. That was a wonderful feeling, because it became a friend again, not a burden. And: several song ideas were born that can be found on the album now. It really was a fantastic experience. We have a very close relationship now. The new album just does the rest.”

Space, new beginning, history
After an extended holiday that scattered the three of them in all directions, they met again in the autumn of 2005 in London. The RAK Studios were rented, an old, dignified institution that breathes the presence and patina of three decades of top star records. The countless gold and platinum discs in the long corridors full of corners of the chic building tell its story.
How important choosing the right studios is has been evidenced before: for example, they recorded “Without You I’m Nothing” in the Real World Studios of Peter Gabriel. “A completely insane place”, Hewitt says. “Super High-Tech in the middle of the wilderness, with a stream running through the studio under glass floors. We learned a lot there, but especially one thing: during the recording, we need a connection to the city. You have to leave the studio and see people who can drink a beer and throw a proper party. All of this was impossible there. That really did us in after a while.” So that’s why they chose the RAK, even though - let’s be honest - the studios’ best days are one or two decades past. The equipment is sound and professional, though not up to date. So, a strange place, to record a - as it was still planned - primarily electronic album.
The choice of the producer, however, was apparently even more important; for a band like Placebo, whose view of themselves has always included the ability to be innovative and make personal discoveries an elemental part and at the same time a motor for the courage to always try new things. Also in this case: a short look back in time. On “Without You I’m Nothing” it was top producer Steve Osbourne who helped them to tame the impetuous and furious element of their debut and channel it into pressure and stability. And yet their resumee was: “Our most difficult record. Steve and we couldn’t communicate very well. The languages we used to express our ideas was too different.” That was the reason why they produced the next album, “Black Market Music”, on their own, only with the help of an engineer - and got somewhat lost. Until today, many fans consider the album the most disposable (and having the least pressure, sound-wise) of Placebo’s work. Which, in the end, only proved: It doesn’t seem to work completely without a producer after all. That’s why the band recruited Jim Abiss for “Sleeping With Ghosts”, wanting to try something completely different. Until then, Abiss had mainly made himself known for his work with people like DJ Shadow and heavy, pumping Big Beat Acts. This mixture of rock band and electronic producer worked, as we know, flawlessly. The combination was meant to be.

Persuasion, surprise, songs to spare
For the new one - that had been decided within the band for several years now - a man who Brian Molko had already described as the “fourth silent band member” should have a go. From their beginnings on the lanky and surprisingly young French Dimitri Tikovoi, who so far had not been able to gain prominent recognition, had taken the place at the mixing table for b-sides and cover versions from time to time - but never for a whole album.
“He was always the silent shadow of Placebo, who was often in the studio, never put himself into the spotlight, but always gave us the right shove in a new direction”, Molko describes their relationship. “It was clear that his time had come. Especially since we really felt like finally working with a producer who not only knows us well already, but is also as old or young as we are. Before, there had always been a clash of generations - our producers were all a old as our parents. That just affects the mood in the studio.”
The final sign that he was ready to lead those purposeful musicians was the cover version of Kate Bush’s “Running Up That Hill”. “In all seriousness: I think up until the new record there was no song of ours that sounded better.” So, and album now. And suddenly the young man, who had been regarded mainly as a friend of the band and a discreet companion displayed a surprising amount of self-confidence. Brian Molko describes their first minutes together in the RAK studios as follows:

Molko: “So, we’ve prepared this and that… While you programme the drum patterns with Steve, we’ll plug in all those keyboards over there, okay?”
Tikovoi: “Nope.”
Molko: “Er - what do you mean, nope?”
Tikovoi: “I want the three of you to go over there and play a bit live.”
All three of them: “WHAT?!?”
Tikovoi: “Live… Guitar, bass, drum. You know the drill.”
Molko: “But that’s not the plan! We’ve been working for months towards that crazy electronic record! We haven’t played together live in a studio for ages - five years, probably!”
Tikovoi: “Exactly, that’s why you’re going to do it now.”
Molko: “No!”
Tikovoi: “Yes!”
Molko: “Why?”
Tikovoi: “Because I want you to. You wanted me to produce you. So do what I say!”
All three of them: (meekly) “Okay…”

So they played. Just went ahead and played, tried to transport the song bits that they had created over months in Southern France from electronic to a band feeling that could be lived and played live. The huge surprise: It worked. It worked for almost every song; what remained of the originally thought out versions was in most cases not more than a loop - and even those Tikovoi had them, completely in keeping with their sudden new guideline, play again live, because he wanted to free the band from electronic ballast.
While they slowly approached what is now “Meds”, they noticed: this can go everywhere. “Dimitri’s Motto for this album was: we have to try it. This phrase”, Molko says, “was said several times a day all the time. In that spirit, with that confidence the whole record was created. It is a narration of the breaking down of limits you set yourself, of saying farewell to the rules of the band that had existed so far, of the discovery that no matter how concret your plan is, it doesn’t count for anything in the end if the moment in the studio tells you to do something else for any reason whatsoever.” So, it is about the basic instinct of the musician: play. No hiding behind technology, behind the possibilities of digital reworking. An immediate reaction to “Sleeping With Ghosts”, which had plenty of all of that. Molko tells stories like this one: out of boredom, Steve drummed on a bike standing around somewhere. Dimitri heard it, said, “Sounds good, mate, keep on playing”. And suddenly they had the basic rhythms for a new song. Of which they had, for the first time ever, more than they needed.
Molko: “So far, it was like this for each album: we were missing exactly one song that we were feverishly looking for in the studio. This time, it was hard to decide what to leave out. A completely new feeling. And suddenly you have an album and know in advance: there are easily six, seven potential good singles on there. Crazy…”

But then everything turned out to be different than expected…
Molko: After we had originally intended the complete opposite, suddenly the main goal for this album was: don’t lay it on to thickly, no unnecessary effects, everything as elemental and simple as possible. But, at the same time, create a little world of its own for every single song for it to live in.
Visions: Additionally, with many of the new songs, one feels that it is about renewing the concept of a perfect Placebo song and use a new approach, whereas others have the most typical Placebo characteristics again.
Hewitt: I feel it’s a logical procession, if you make music for a long time - the classic song structure just becomes to obvious after some time. And if you use it after all, it is still interesting to at least play with the melody, use variations. A melody for a chorus can be as good as you want - if you hear it three times in a row, it becomes boring. It’s much more exciting to see where a melody can take you, if you give it the space to change. It’s about making exciting music, after all - that excludes all the stuff you know and are used to, of course.
Visions: So, are you also trying to re-evaluate the entire concept of Placebo? To become something different?
Molko: Let’s put it like this: the band is known for wearing a lot of make-up and outlandish clothes, and for writing rock songs like “Nancy Boy”. This common impression has been circling above our heads like vultures, because it’s not easy to live up to that kind of reputation, to fill it with new life. With every record since then, we’ve been trying to articulate the big topics of life in a language we know: love, lust, confusion, search, isolation, longing, your place in the world. This language becomes steadily simpler, clearer less forced for us. Because the more simple something is, the more universal it becomes. And at the moment I feel that we’ve managed that with this record really well. Or, in other words, little by little, what we do becomes more human and less artificial.
Visions: This humanity also expresses itself in the sounds: you’ve never used to many variations in the arrangement on an album, that sound completely organic and natural at the same time…
Molko: … which is because we’ve managed for the first time to let the songs dictate us what they have to sound like, not the other way around. The important question is always, what technical decisions you make to transport the central element - the emotion of the song - in its purest form. Surprisingly, this didn’t lead us to the endless possibilities of modern studio technology, but to the opposite: the most direct transmitter of a sad emotion is not found in a computer, but in an unmodified piano passage. It is a beautiful and also surprising experience to realize that we don’t need the heaps of keyboards we’ve bought over the years to transport true emotion. After you’ve freed yourself from all the technology, you experience how a song is suddenly able to breathe freely. And every one for himself, as an individual unit.

Credo, summary, future
That’s exactly what Placebo are today: an individual unit. A unit of three of the closest friends - now extended for a fourth, silent pool of creativity in the background - who appreciate the talents and abilities of the others and know their own strenghts. Who let themselves have the freedom to do what satisfies them and, at the same time, are blessed with the good fortune to also exactly meet the taste of 1,5 million record buyers for each album.
In contrast to other bands, who get lost time and again on their musical path, Placebo continue to have the quality to keep growing and still retain their credibility. For despite all doubts, shortcomings and introversion they are not a promo sticker used by the media that earns temporal attention for other bands.
This is exactly what “Meds” is about: a band that keeps on looking for itself and, at least in this case, finds itself in a completely different place than they expected. Of course it would have been interesting to find out what they would have sounded like it the young French hadn’t interfered with his “Live! Live! Live!” thing. Maybe it even would have been more excited - because the voices saying that “Meds” is, once again, a good but unfortunately also very converntional Placebo record are already making themselves hear and are understandable for everyone who doesn’t think that that is enough.
And yet: the things that haven’t come to be so far may still come. At the time, they are touring again in Asia; in April they return to Europe, play the festival threadmill in summer, and then they’ll probably soon be off for their next album. Because sloth isn’t for them. All this considered, one thing is especially remarkable: they have managed to record an excellent album serving all the typical aspects, which marks the start into the second decade of the band with audible spontaneity and pleasure at playing and continues with the quality we got to hear, comprised on the Best of, before; a point at which bands have often been known to fall apart because they lacked the visions.
Not Placebo - things are continuing, and who knows what the next record will bring, with such intense people, who don’t want to slack off and enjoy what they’ve already accomplished? Or, as Brian Molko puts it in this summer house in southern France: “We’ve never been much good at planning things or calculating music. It is very liberating to just throw shit at the wall in the beginning and see how it runs and what sticks. We’ve always been good at finding the good thing in a lot of shit.”

Meds Review:
For some, it’s the biggest chocolate in the world, for others just a plain candy bar. Brian Molko and his colleagues have neither reinvented nor outdone themselves. Written under the mediterranean sun of France? Recorded with a new (no-name) producer at top speed? Thrown all restrictions out of the window during the sessions? Lured exciting guests into the studio? Maybe. But the result is again Placebo as you know and appreciate them. Not more, not less. At least no further exploration of the exciting flirts with electronic structures that had first been used on “Sleeping With Ghosts” and culminated into the “Once More With Feeling” Best Of Track “Twenty Years”. Neither is there a renewed approach to other foreign styles on “Meds”. Quite the contrary, Placebo go back to the basics, sound harsher, more reduced, thrown back at themselves. As such, the support of the computer rather starts off a grooving, excellent rock song like “Blind” rather than dominating it. Small flaw: those looking for the qualities of the Brit’s fifth album, which do exist without a doubt, first have to work their way through a rather mediocre pre-released single as well as three less than spectacular openers (among them also the title track, a cooperation with The Kills singer VV), before the darkly pushing, atmospheric loop-breaker “Space Monkey” lures them in as the first highlight. The melanchlic “Follow The Cops Back Home”, which openly deals with a morning after a drug-induced high, the equally sad, wonderful “Pierrot The Clown” or “Broken Promise” - a dynamic downhill slide with Michael Stipe as a guest singer - are also among the best Placebo have ever done. The most longlived change is probably in the tone Brian Molko’s lyrics, that show a more mature, even vulnerable side of the singer. Either way, the three of them remain a unique rock band, despite some bald patches. Maybe one world says it best: respectable. But in the best possible sense of the word.