Clic Music "Interview: Placebo", Apr'09

by Dom Smith

Placebo unleash their long-awaited sixth studio album 'Battle For The Sun' on 8th June, so we thought that it would be a great time to catch up with guitarist Stefan Olsdal and new drummer Steve Forrest for a chat about the unusually positive mood within the Placebo camp at the minute, alongside the inspiration behind the new tracks.

You have said that the album is more about stepping out of the darkness into the light. Has there been a particular event within the band's life since the drugs and drink-fuelled themes on 'Meds' and previous work that inspired you to "step out into the light"?
Stefan: There is definitely a bigger sense of hope and optimism on this record, butPlacebo's music and lyrics are never going to be like a dance in a field of flowers you know? There is always the fascination in there with the darker side of human emotions. I think with 'Meds' we explored personal human pain, it was quite under the microscope and so, it is really hard to get any darker and bleaker than 'Meds'. In a way we wanted to do something different that was a reaction to the ideas on that album, something that was about accepting the darkness but embracing the light in a way and that is shown in the title 'Battle For The Sun'. Throughout the making of the previous album and throughout the tour, Placebo was in quite an unhealthy state and since then we have made a few important decisions and I think that 'Battle For The Sun' is a bit of a new beginning and it's the celebration of a new found freedom.

Can you expand on what you mean by freedom and how that comes across through the new album?
Stefan: Well, the situation with our previous drummer towards the end was one where we weren't communicating, and where we didn't want to write together and we didn't want to jam together - that's not a band. So it became like punching the clock and that's not what we set out to do. So, as it was myself and Brian [Molko, vocals] who started the band 15 years ago, this time, we said to each other "We need to steer this shit back on the right track". We made some hard but necessary decisions and the two of us came together to start writing again like we did back in the day. We felt that there really is still the passion for it, and although we went through some hard times, it was never a case of killing Placebo it was just a case of finding the remedy. So, we found this little blonde boy. [Stefan laughs and glances toward Steve, who in turn looks back thoroughly amused]

You have said that this album embraces thematic unity, so from the opener 'Kitty Litter' to 'Kings Of Medicine', in what ways do you think that the listener will be able to identify with the story you are telling?
Stefan: It's going to sound very vague, but I think it's more of a description of wherePlacebo is as a band right now, where there is a much brighter future. The idea is that, though it might not always be easy, you can build a better life for yourself and you can be happier if you try. That's kind of what is running through the tracks; it was never set out to be a concept album at all, it's just that during the process of recording and writing the record, our situation in life basically infused with the songs to create this thematic unity.

You use a lot of different instruments on this new record, including saxophones and trumpets; do you think that utilising these instruments helped to convey the positive ideas on this album on any particular track?
Steve: I think 'Battle For The Sun' was used quite well, or 'Kings Of Medicine' with the horns. On that one, it becomes quite an 'All You Need Is Love'-style Beatles-esque happy tune. It's executed very well. They are not so much underneath everything but they are not over the top either. So, there's good usage of a lot of horns, and there's also a piccolo trumpet and some flute on there.
Stefan: Brian's very proud of that one [both laugh] because he thinks it's going to freak all the Goths out. That's actually Brian's motto: "let's freak the Goths out". We have always been seen as the purveyors of melancholy and luckily we have always had music to exorcise our demons. I think on this record we had a bit more fun and there is a bit more colour to this than on the previous ones.
Steve: There was a lot of creative freedom; I think a lot of that came from working withDave Bottrill as well, you never felt odd or stupid. It was like, we could try everything and we would come into the studio every day and have a hug, a laugh and a fag and then we would sit down and do some writing together.
Stefan: Don't forget the lattes!
Steve: I think all that created this easy-going atmosphere, which actually in turn was a lot more productive - you didn't have any arguments with someone saying "no, I don't want to do that". So with those little noises we have like the toy keyboard ['For What It's Worth'] it was just like "why not, let's try it".
Stefan: It was Brian's twisted sense of humour. [laughs]
Steve: There was freedom to try things like that, it's like you never know it might be shit but sometimes those happy mistakes end up being the best things in a song.

David Bottrill produced and Alan Moulder mixed on this new record - what pearls of wisdom did each person bring to the band that really benefited the sound?
Stefan: Well basically, you know Placebo made five albums prior to this one, and we all came out of those five recording sessions pretty fucking traumatised. We have always had a dysfunctional relationship with our producers in the past, God knows why? All the recording processes have been quite painful, and with this one, it's the opposite. I don't know if it’s because David Bottrill has won a couple of Grammys, so that might make him a better producer, I don't know? It's like Steve said, everything that we tried he always made it feel like what we were doing was worthwhile. He was very good at communicating and bringing out the best in us. So that was the recording process. In two months we did eighteen songs which is the fastest we have ever recorded that amount ever. Then, withAlan Moulder who is famous for doing almost all the stuff with Nine Inch Nails, as well as working with Smashing Pumpkins, Depeche Mode and White Lies. It was an absolute pleasure. Basically Alan made the music sound the way we had it in our heads, which may sound obvious to most people but it's actually difficult to do, but he did it and he made it look so easy. He was so nice, for us it was like "why haven’t we worked with you before?" It was the most painless recording session we have ever had - finally after our sixth album it feels like we have actually hit on the big league, and the A-team of producers and mixers.

What is the favourite of your albums?
Stefan: Well, I am going to be biased obviously. It's weird because I have been listening to this new record a lot recently. The more you listen to something you don't hear it objectively, so right now it is this new record. It feels the less tortured and the most optimistic, and definitely the biggest.
Steve: [speaking to Stefan] As an outsider and someone who has not been a part of the last five records, I can only comment on this one. When I joined the band, I had to obviously study the records inside and out. Whilst the others were great bodies of work, this one has brought out all the potential that you've always had, even fifteen years later. Seeing it from an outsider's point of view and working with you on this new record, even though you have been going for so long, there was still so much potential to make this huge, brilliant, fucking record. When we got the final product, it was just like 'boom'. That's why it is my favourite, it's like all the potential that you had to put that great live energy into a record, you finally did it and I'm very happy to be a part of it.

Things seem to be going from strength to strength since Steve joined – can you tell us about one of the defining moments you have had together as a band whilst working on this album?
Steve: Well literally they said "welcome to the family"...
Stefan: You're still on trial...
Steve: Yeah we still have to tour together, but actually for me, from the very first time we played together, it just popped into my head that "this is the last band I am ever going to be in". It was on my first day and in the first five minutes playing with each other, but as soon as we started jamming 'Kitty Litter', I just felt it: "I'm not going anywhere and I am going to make damn sure I get this job and keep it, you have gone 15 years and I am going to take you 15 more". So, I think the very first time we played together was the defining moment. For me it was like this is the band I have been searching for all these years, I have played with all these different bands and dealt with different people but it was like finally I have found it, I've found the love of my life. [laughs]

Okay guys, you are hosting the perfect Placebo dinner party, you can each invite one person - dead or alive – who would you invite and why?
Stefan: I would invite the singers from Abba, Anni-Frid and Agnetha because they would both have very interesting stories to tell. I want to coax them into coming to do some guest vocals on my side-project.
Steve: I think this is going to sound a bit typical and cliché but I would have to invite Keith Moon...
Stefan: We wouldn't see him for around two weeks. He would be on a two week bender!
Steve: I would invite him because a) he would be the only person around the table that I could talk drums with, that would care. And b) he would be brilliant, it seems like he would be a right laugh! So, yeah it would be Keith.

Can you explain to us the meaning and inspiration behind the lyrics of 'Battle For The Sun' – what are you fighting against on that track?
Stefan: Well, Brian is the main writer for this band, so the only way I can answer is by offering you my own interpretation. There's always a bit of a conflict going on in the characters that are there in the songs that he writes. I think 'Battle For The Sun' works in the same way that 'Without You I'm Nothing' did as the title track on the second album.'Battle For The Sun' kind of puts a little umbrella over what the characters are going through in the other tracks, in the sense where the moon is in front of the sun, and when the moon is there like the umbrella, it's dark but when it moves away there is light and you can choose whether to be in the dark or in the light. You can choose to lead a happier life, it might not be easy, but you should hold on to the hope and the optimism.
Steve: It's the idea that if you love something, it's worth fighting for.

Tell us about the concept for the new video 'For What It's Worth' and what the labels in that are about?
Stefan: We worked with one of our favourite video directors, Howard Greenhalgh, who has been working with us for a long time. He has done loads of stuff for us including 'Nancy Boy', 'Bruise Pristine' and 'The Bitter End', so we had a long relationship with him that enabled us to feel more relaxed, especially now we are introducing a new member to the public. We wanted it to be quite performance based and the tags were basically about the fact that sometimes what you see, is not what is real. We wanted to play with that. People like to portray themselves as something that is completely the opposite of what is inside of them. With the lyrics, Brian describes them as being quite optimistic but if you listen to them on face value, "got no friends, got no lover", it's like "shit, you're in the gutter" but to him the song is like a celebration of life. It's that dichotomy of what you see and what you hear not always being what is actually there.
Steve: You can take a photo and it can be two people, they can be hanging out and happy but if you put a label on, it completely changes the whole meaning of it. It could be like "cunt". My favourite bit is the guy with the suitcase walking to work and it's like "detonation". It's brilliant.

Obviously when you first came out you were a bit of a slap in the face of British rock music, and now with 'Battle For The Sun' it's a new beginning for you – is there anything else you are looking forward to doing?
Stefan: Well, I think that any band would be lying to you if they said they didn't want to be the biggest in the world, so we are still aiming for the moon you know? But, we are half way there.
Steve: I have got a few years of travelling the world to experience.
Stefan: When we played Brixton Academy for the first time, it was like "Wow", then we thought that we had made it, but there's always more things to aspire to, you know? I believe that myself and Brian chose to pursue the ambition of Placebo whereas our old drummer didn'. We just want to write that song that becomes a classic, and we haven't done that yet.

Stef, your Hotel Persona side-project is vastly different to Placebo in that it is heavily electronic. Do you get a different kind of feeling when you perform out live and when you write? We know Brian has done some vocals so will you bring Steve in next?
Stefan: Well, Steve will probably be cheaper than any other session drummer.
Steve: I'll do it for free baby!
Stefan: No, Hotel Persona is a side-project, when I'm not doing Placebo. I explore more of the entertainment side of making music, you know, it's more electro and it's more dance and a bit more pop-oriented. There would be no point in doing another Placebo. I mean on the first album, I got Samantha Fox in there! I guess as a musician not everything I write is going to be right for Placebo. Saying that, whenever I write a song, it always goes to Brianfirst and it's like "hey, do you feel this?" If he does feel it, then it becomes a Placebo song and if not, it becomes something for Hotel Persona.

Steve, how long have you been living in London now and how are you enjoying it?
Steve: I've been here for about a year and a half now and I have loved it, I have always wanted to live in London. I'm a California boy but for some reason I have always had an obsession with England. I think in my past life I was a Brit or something. I've always wanted to move here. It was a bit hard, it was hundreds of miles and my first time ever coming here and then moving here. The only people I knew were my bandmates who are all in their mid-30s and have their own lives, so it was like "see you at rehearsal". It was a little like starting all over again but it was a brilliant adventure and I think it definitely forced me to grow up a lot faster, it grounded me and got me prepared to be in the position that I am.
Stefan: This is the kind of guy that walks into a pub and half an hour later he will be like, "hey Stef, meet my funny new friends". He goes out and then says, "oh yeah I went out last night, I met Clive Owen, I had a chat with him".

In what ways do you feel that Placebo have come full circle? Does it at all like it did back at the beginning?
Stefan: Well, it's like we have a future again, which during the 'Meds' period was not the case you know. The future seems a lot less daunting.
Steve: I am psyched, I mean honestly, it sounds like every musician's story but since I was a kid, I always knew that this is what I wanted to do, I never went to college and I barely even went to high-school. I would just basically lock myself away in my room for as long as possible and just play and go to gigs, I was constantly studying music in any way that I could. I had all these part-time really shitty jobs just to get money for new equipment, to crawl my way up to this point it's the best feeling in the world. For the future it' like things can only get better from here. Of course there will be highs and lows, but it's going to be a privilege to have those times and I don't ever want it to end.

Source: clickmusic