Bangkok Post "A sonic bang for your bucks", Aug'13

Published: 18.08.2013
Newspaper section: Brunch

The festival headliners Placebo speak to 'Brunch' about their international credentials, exploring Southeast Asia and inspirations for their upcoming album.

Among the stars arriving for Bangkok's inaugural Sonic Bang festival on Saturday is one band that is no stranger to Southeast Asia. Frequent visitors to the region, Placebo have brought their reflective, gender-twisting or drug-exploring lyrics, their androgynous look, their dark, melodic instrumentals around the world, and now to Bangkok for the third time.

Frontman Brian Molko's voice and guitar, Stefan Olsdal's instrumentals and the band's rhythmic core, most recently filled by drummer Steve Forrest, together are instantly recognisable. As a band they're heavy, they're pop, they're punk, they're alternative, but with a sound so distinctive it doesn't take long to recognise a new track as theirs.

Through hits such as Nancy Boy, Taste in Men, Pure Morning and the haunting Without You I'm Nothing, Placebo's six albums have sold more than 12 million copies. The band's self-titled debut album in 1996 went gold in the UK and platinum in France, and the most recent studio album, Battle for the Sun, reached the top spot in 10 countries and top five in 20, as well as two weeks on top of the Billboard European Album Charts. In 2009, Placebo received an MTV Europe Music Award for Best Alternative act.

Their high international profile, however, is due in no small part by their dynamic live performances, such when headlining Tiger Translate in Bangkok in 2010.

Brunch caught up with frontman Brian Molko in Berlin, speaking by phone to discuss the upcoming album and Bangkok gig for Sonic Bang. Germany may not seem the most obvious location for a London-based band to conduct its album promotions, but Placebo have long been popular in continental Europe, often more so than in the UK. As Molko explains, in a North American accent that underlies his point, Placebo have never been confined by geography.

"I don't think that we've ever considered ourselves to be a British band. Unlike a lot of 'British' bands, we don't travel the world carrying the burden of national [associations]." Molko's North American drawl was picked up in European international schools in his youth. Both he and Olsdal went to the Luxembourg American school, though they met properly in London and founded the band in 1994.

"We don't paint flags on our guitars," Molko says, "we have a very open worldview. We've travelled and toured extensively in Europe. We were also one of the first [Western] European bands to play in the former Eastern Bloc countries, like Croatia and Bulgaria and Macedonia. A lot of bands didn't go there because it wasn't particularly cost effective. That was not a concern of ours."

Other bands that began in the UK at the same time were focused on becoming successful locally, Molko says, but that was never their priority. "We focused on the whole world rather than a small island as the place to bring our music, mostly through the vehicle of live performance."

That vehicle has in recent years carried them increasingly to Southeast Asia. This will be their third high-profile performance in Bangkok since 2006, and they've also played Singapore and in 2008 were the first rock band to play at Angkor Wat.

"Asia has been important for us, and the growing fan base," Molko explains. "The audience in Southeast Asia is very generous with their energy and very demonstrative, and that makes our performance a lot easier. I think a great concert is when the audience tries to reach out to the band as well as the band to the audience. A magical meeting in the middle occurs, a sort of synergy. A sense of collective euphoria is created."

Beyond performing with the band in Southeast Asia, Molko has travelled extensively for his own pleasure, he says, in his spare time. Those holidays have inspired some of the stories in their songs, and have motivated some of Placebo's later performances in the region, such as at Angkor Wat.

"It's great that I can perform and create stories for the band in a place that holds special value for me on a personal level. The opportunity to play Angkor Wat was an unbelievable dream come true because I had visited this very spiritual place before. It had marked me and touched me greatly as a person and as someone who is interested in spirituality and Eastern philosophies like Buddhism and Taoism."

Travel isn't always a lubricant for inspiration, he admits, as touring and even departing for the holidays can be exhausting. Arrival in a new place, though, makes the drain of travel worthwhile.

"Travel is stressful and tiring and takes time. Arriving at a new place, and soaking in the culture, is extremely stimulating. I find it eye-opening and often very humbling. I feel very privileged to have had this exposure to cultures very different from the European culture where I grew up."

The band has paced itself well, it seems, in terms of album releases and tours, as it is hard to be able to point to them slowing down or losing creativity and drive. Molko says there has been no loss of passion.

"If anything, the story of the band keeps getting larger, and I'm very grateful for that."

He also has no plans to switch careers, he says. ''I haven't done anything else in almost 20 years. I don't know what else I'd do. It seems to be our calling. It still feels vital and personally important for us.''

While past success has made it a little easier now to enjoy the music-making process, the pressure to come up with new material hasn't faded, though it is not so much commercially driven as on a personal level.

''The creative aspect of what we do is something I find incredibly stimulating. It's my favourite aspect of what we do as a band. As far as pressure is concerned, the more you create, the harder it gets because of the extensive body of work that goes before you. The pressure that exists is what you put on yourself, to improve as a musician and a writer, and you're also trying your best not to repeat yourself.''

The latest album covers territory they haven't broached before, he says.

"Loud Like Love is very eclectic and textured and layered. I think it's more varied and more adventurous. We took a lot more risks with this record. In terms of the emotions in the lyrics I think it's our most honest and vulnerable album to date.''

Loud Like Love is set for release on Sept 16 in a variety of formats, although the first single off the album, Too Many Friends, has already been released. The catchy song begins with the lyrics ''My computer thinks I'm gay.''

Molko explains: ''One day I was typing into the search engine on the internet. I don't remember what I was looking at. But after that my computer just started advertising to me in a completely different way. So I must have done something. I thought: That's strange, my computer thinks I'm gay today. And I thought what a ridiculous way to start a song that would be. And so it stuck in my head."

''And some friends had said they'd stopped accepting friends on social networks because they had too many. And I thought, how is it possible to have too many friends, and how many do I have in the real world and what is the nature of friendship today now that people spend so much time communicating with people that they've never met in cyberspace? So I put the two ideas together and that was how I came up with the song.''

As for their show at Sonic Bang on Saturday, he says the band still haven't finalised a set list, but they'll play some songs from the new album, including Too Many Friends. Judging from past shows, also likely will be some of the classics that defined them as international heavyweights, as well as their concert staple, a cover of 20th Century Boy.

Although the festival line-up is quite dense, with many big acts playing simultaneously, Molko says that he'll definitely be watching some of the other performers from the sidelines.

''Ash are old friends of mine. We toured together in the mid-'90s, so it will be a lot of fun to hang out with them again. The Pet Shop Boys are a band that I discovered when I was very young and really loved as a teenager but I've never seen them live, so I'm really looking forward to watching their gig.''

For festival-goers, he added: ''We're coming to town, and we are 'loud like love', so don't miss it.''