Zillo "Jenseits der Wohlfühlzone", Sep'13

Translation by Madame

Placebo - Beyond the comfort zone

The British alternative rock band Placebo reinvents itself: with lyrics that sometimes exchange introversion for a previously unknown directness, and energetic, and also unusually hopeful-sounding songs that are more varied than ever before, lead singer / guitarist Brian Molko, bassist Stefan Olsdal and drummer Steve Forrest explore new avenues with their seventh studio album "Loud Like Love".

"I've lost track," Brian Molko laughingly answers the question about how many interviews he has given on this Tuesday afternoon, and takes a pull on his cigarette. "You catch me at a point where my brain is about to melt." Luckily for the frontman of Placebo the appointment with Zillo is the last one of the day. The little Briton is already a bit tired as he sits in front of us in a hotel room near Alexanderplatz in Berlin. However, he also lights up the interview with the confidence that virtually runs through Placebo's entire recent work. Dedicated to the great theme of love, "Loud Like Love" highlights in every respect that the brooding/contemplative frontman of previous years seeming to be eternally unhappy, has become a vivacious/merry/a man full of the joys of life, noticeably matured man, now 40-years-old who isn't easily disconcerted anymore.

Masochistic tendencies
One might almost think that the new serenity with Placebo is due to the fact that the band, after six successful albums, numerous anthems of a generation, singles hits, breaking full arena concerts and more than ten million albums sold, has nothing to prove, but Brian vehemently contradicts this assumption: "Oh no, I think that with every new record we have to prove more. I am convinced that all the artists who look back on a considerable body of work eventually get into trouble when it comes to not repeating themselves." Placebo overcomes the problem with "Loud Like Love". "The challenge is not to retire in your comfort zone, ever" says Brian. "But that makes it harder each time, especially for me as a writer. As a result of this I'm judging myself more harshly than ever before. However, I am glad that I have this almost masochistic tendency because this is my driving force and hopefully this leads to relevant results."/or: "...hopefully this contributes to the results having some relevance."

Difficult dichotomy
In order not to get in the comfort zone accidentally, Placebo have changed some crucial factors in the recording process. So they didn't record the new album in one go as usual but in two parts. The two sessions with Adam Noble at the mixer were separated by almost a year. "The first half of the songs that actually chronologically constitutes the first half of the album we wrote, recorded and mixed in 2012," Brian reveals, "When we were done, a theme slowly crystallized/became evident and that was very helpful because it gave us a golden thread at hand for the rest of the songs. The problem was that with the first songs we had set the bar quite high. Then, when we came back from our tour last year, writing the second half of the album was initially very, very difficult." With hindsight, Brian can laugh about it, but initially it felt a bit strange. "We have put ourselves under even stronger pressure, so the second half would be even better," he says, in retrospect. "In the end however, it's the results that count, and I'm very happy with it."

Unstructured Recording [Process]
But not only in terms of time frame the new Placebo album was approached differently than any predecessor. In writing, arranging and recording the songs, the band took liberties. "We enjoyed it very much, we approached this album to a certain extent, in an unstructured, incoherent way," Brian says. For example, this time the strings were not simply added later to the actual recordings by the band's arranger for many years, Fiona Brice, alone but are based on ideas that the trio had found in the band sessions. "When we were working on 'Bosco', the last track of the album, we sat down with a keyboard and tried to design counter melodies for the strings," Brian recalls. “Then we passed on our inspirations to Fiona. But there are also other examples. In 'Too many friends', for example, there was no more than an acoustic guitar and a voice at first. Everything else was added only during the recording process. On 'Hold on to me' and 'Scene of the crime' I had worked alone, apart from the band and already brought some of the sounds into the studio. So it was to some extent a mishmash of different approaches. We were confident that we would be able to pull all the strings together and we succeeded."

Magic Moments
Brian doesn't yet know whether he would recommend the new approach. "I'm not sure if I would like to join in this process once again," he confirmed, laughing. "The whole thing was pretty nerve-wracking at times." Nonetheless, he is convinced that "Loud Like Love" benefited from making this process exciting for the band and exposing themselves to the uncertainty that came with it. "Sometimes it is uncomfortable of course but it's precisely these moments when things happen that you could have never imagined in your life, that you could never have planned intellectually. Exactly these are the magic moments, the wow-moments of a recording process which it is all about. For example, when Stefan sat at the piano and played the piano melody at the beginning of 'Too many friends' for the first time. That was a real Eureka! moment for me. I could not believe it! Finally, we had managed to get out the energy of 'Total eclipse of the Heart' by Bonnie Tyler - one of my favorite songs - and, even more, it came completely out of nowhere! That made me incredibly happy."

Ideas from the App Store
In addition, this time Placebo not only used modern digital studio technology, but went one step further. "This is the first record on which we bought apps for our iPads and phones and integrated them into the recording process," Brian admits. "I found it very liberating. This way we had access to a synthesizer sound for about ten euros that in the past we had through the original instrument for perhaps 3000 euros, apart from the fact that the device also would have taken quite a lot of space in the studio!" While Placebo apparently took great delight in discovering possibilities, more and more musicians today appreciate the advantages of old equipment, because their limited options don't make them spoilt for choice. "To a certain degree this is all right," Brian agrees. "However, there is also an incredible amount of idling in the studio, for example when the others record their parts." Instead of wasting time sitting around, Brian tested the app offer - with devastating results. "Believe me, I have not yet purchased any music apps from the iTunes store that cut it" he says, shaking his head. "There are thousands of really horrible apps out there." How did they find a way to use it in the making of the new album then? "I use it more like a springboard. This is similar to sampling. Taking the sound of an app and immortalizing it on your CD is kind of unimaginative, just like taking an unchanged sample and simply rapping over it like will.i.am does. One should use the sound rather as a starting point, manipulate it and thus make it his own. Ultimately, this is nothing more than connecting a guitar into an effects pedal and turning the knobs. Merely the hardware is different." According to Brian, the threat that the almost unlimited capabilities of today's technology could become an obstacle, will never apply to Placebo: "An app does not write songs for you and gives your songs no soul. You have to contribute the inspiration, the human touch."

Too many friends
The human touch – it’s what Brian adds to “Loud like love”, if nothing else, with his lyrics. On “Too many friends”, probably the most striking song on the new record contentwise, he rants at the effects which use of social media sites can have on human beings. The song was inspired by a succession of minor, each on their own petty/insignificant incidents happening within a few days. “First of all my computer started to show only advertisements directed at gay men” he remembers laughing. “I have no idea what I typed in on Google or which porn I had watched! That’s how the first line “My computer thinks I’m gay” sprung to my mind. At the same time a friend of mine, who - in contrast to myself – is active in social networks said to me that he’s not accepting any more friends requests because he had “too many friends”. I couldn’t get this out of my head anymore! How could you have too many friends? This made me think about the difference between friendships in virtual and real life. After all, today people that are physically present at the same place are mentally absent because they’re constantly staring at their phone. This was the starting point for the song and I think it captures the present situation quite well.”

Social alienation
Shamed be he who thinks Brian was a person living in the past who wants to go back in a good-old-times kind of way. “Of course you can’t turn back the hands of time and undo social networks” he says assertively. “It’s like filesharing – once the technology is invented there is no going back anymore. Social media connote freedom but I am not so sure if we really get what we were promised. Nor do I know whether the interconnectivity is actually real or if it’s not rather leading to a form of social alienation which has influence on the social skills of our [human] species. Do we still know how to deal with each other in the real world, how to talk to each other when it is so much easier to hide behind a screen?”

Bad photo journalists
Even though Brian stays away from social networks as much as possible, he still finds that modern technology catches up with him every now and then in unanticipated places/situations. While in previous times bad concerts quickly disappeared into the ether, today they are preserved in the form of bad mobile phone recordings. “This comes from the fact that today almost all bad photo journalists capture all their life [on camera]” Brian huffs disdainfully. “When everyone is occupied with being an amateur photographer, who does still live? Or to put it another way: If no one lives anymore, what is there to capture photographically?”

Vulnerable moments
But “Too many friends” is not the only song on which Brian presents himself as matured songwriter and lyricist in particular. Also the previously mentioned final track “Bosco” stands out in this context. Admittedly the subject of the song is long-known in the Placebo-universe but Brian comes to different, new conclusions. “I don’t believe that I had the emotional profundity at the age of 20 to write a song like this at the beginning of our career because back then I was quite immature and a greenhorn. This lyric could probably only originate from the perspective of human being who was a bit older” he muses. “This is not easy for me to say though because the song is very personal. In the end above all it’s about how addiction/dependence can ruin a relationship – an important one at that. At the same time the track is one of the most vulnerable in our career. I am very proud of that because it took a lot of time until I could and wanted to present myself as vulnerable in public. Because of this “Bosco” is a very special song to me, one that transcends our identity as a band. This is something that every songwriter wants [to achieve] and I think that with this piece we came closer to it than ever before.”

No diary notes
Even though this track features a Brian that is more open and more intimate than ever at the same time, he doesn’t describe the experience straight-out but as part of a story. “For me it’s about filtering my feelings through the prism of storytelling” he explains his approach. “A song must not be a confession, just as if someone tore a page out of a diary. That would be masochistic. It is absolutely unnecessary to wash dirty linen in public this way. I need a certain distance and the fact that the experiences I or people I’m close to made are wrapped up in stories is somewhat like a safety net.” Therefore he calls the new album “collection of short stories”, which cover a wide range of topics. New territory, Brian believes: ”That’s why the album feels so outright, so complete.” The greater thoughtfulness of the songs is one of the reasons that the album contains only 10 songs and has a rather short running time. “The record is only 46 minutes long and I think it is exactly the right running time” he is convinced. “After all it was scientifically proven that three-quarters of an hour are the timespan you can concentrate on one thing without a pause. I hope it gives listeners the chance to take it in in one go and if they want more, they can listen to it once more from the beginning.”

Challenging results
As pleased as Brian is with “Loud Like Love” – he seems to be uneasy thinking about the reactions that the most ambitious Placebo-album to date could evoke. “I think in places the new record is quite demanding towards the listener because it’s not always what is usually expected from us” he says pensively. “I experienced though that in the end all the music I had to work for [to understand it] had a longer lasting effect on me than the stuff that was immediately satisfying” he says and at the end of our conversation he directs appeal to his audience: “All I can do is to invite/ask our listeners to keep a stiff upper lip” he says and grins mischievously. “It could be worth while!”