"We're not championing a cause or anything: We just want you to look at yourself and be scared at what you find."
Placebo's Brian Molko fronts a band who thrive on chaos and disorder, on urgent emotions and unsettling imagery. Only six months into their career, Placebo had managed to forge themselves a reputation that had as much to do with delighting people as it did with dismaying them. Every reaction has been extreme.
They also, in that time, set up their own label, Elevator Music, via a special deal with Hut Records, and recorded an astonishing, challenging and beautiful album, titled simply 'Placebo'. It could be underwritten: 'The antidote to Britpop'.
"You run the risk on the first album of making a record that has one particular sound, that runs the whole way through it," considered Brian Molko. "And we wanted ours to be like a collection of short stories, approach every single song individually with the orchestration and vocal styles. We wanted to take you on a journey, an emotional rollercoaster, with little surprises here and there, instead of just having a blanket sound."
'Placebo' took just two months to record, in Dublin and London, and was produced by Brad Wood, a founder member of Tortoise, who has also worked with artists as diverse as Liz Phair, Veruca Salt and The Jesus Lizard. "He's as much into electronic music as we are," says Brian, "and we didn't want to make pure punk record, we wanted to make something that was colourful." The moodswings and frissons of Placebo's songs were carefully textured, using analogue synths, and more unorthodox sounds from toy instruments and a didgeridoo.
Placebo's songs invite vivid experiences. "There's a lot of characters in there, and a lot of the lyrics are telling stories too. But if it makes you feel that it's an emotional record then I'm happy about that," offers Brain, "I'm happy to walk the line. To make things dangerous, hopefully. People could really hate the record, it could really annoy them - which would be cool. Indifference about it would piss me off more."
Placebo's unique vision of music and life began in Luxembourg, where Brian initially met Stefan, who is Swedish, at school, at the ages of 12 and 11 respectively. As Brian recalls, "in the space of seven years we might have exchanged one sentence."
Brian left for London when he was 17, but a chance encounter in South Kensington tube station brought the two of them back together. "There he was, with a guitar strapped to his back, and he didn't actually want my phone number he asked for it out of courtesy," Brian laughs. The singer happened to be playing a gig that night. Stefan attended, and immediately decided a band had to be formed.
After initial dabbling in what they describe as "art rock", the old school network came back into its own. The now departed drummer Robert Schultzberg, with whom Stefan had been at school and in a band with in Sweden, was coming to London to study music. Stefan called him up and asked him to join his new band. "It was perfect," said Brian, "it just gelled."
For all three, London was the perfect environment in which to create and unleash their musical medicine show, and they've attracted attention from the outset. Pursued by A&R men repeating the mantra, "You blew me away," Placebo secured their deal with Hut a mere 51 weeks after their first ever gig.
During 1995 they toured with Ash, Whale and Bush, determined to hook all-comers into their congregation, and released their debut single, 'Bruise Pristine' on the hip Fierce Panda label in November 1995. They began 1996 with the critically acclaimed 'Come Home' single in January, and toured the UK with Belgian art rockers Evil Superstars and Europe with David Bowie. "We went from 300 capacity venues to 8,000 to 12,000 capacity stadiums almost overnight, which was freaky," Brian notes. Bowie became a fan of the band instantly, and at his request, they have supported him again on various occasions.
They played at T' In The Park and Reading festivals during 1996. "Now we've played to 16,000 people in Paris, those festivals were not going to scare us," Molko said.
But their most challenging task was to create an album as powerfully different as 'Placebo'. From the licentious 'Nancy Boy' to the sparkling abandon of 'Bionic' and the full blown experimentalism of 'Swallow' this is an album that showcases the band's musical versatility. Its making was, at times, extraordinary.
"'Swallow' is what happened the last time Stefan and I took acid," reveals Molko. "It could mean many things, I guess at first you might think it's about losing all your drugs, or maybe it's someone who's so wasted during sex they forget not to swallow. I don't know, it was never really written in a state of reality." Both 'Hang On To Your IQ' and 'I Know' employed toy instruments to "Bring a real loss of innocence feel, a real, naive vulnerability to the music," says Brian. 'Lady of The Flowers' takes its name from the Jean Genet prison novel, while the single '36 Degrees' suggests plenty of double meanings. "It's called that because 36 degrees is close to body temperature," explains Brian. "I guess it's all body metaphors. The sleeve has an arm and a leg wrapped in clingfilm, like they're being preserved. And you can put something in clingfilm and stick it in the refrigerator, or stick it in a microwave and warm it up or cool it down."
Brian is not afraid of making people uncomfortable. His unorthodox, androgynous appearance has already gained him a share of notoriety. "What I would find amusing, a reaction I would like to create, for example, is for somebody, who in his life has been homophobic, to come to a gig and mistake me for a woman for the first half of the gig, and actually think I was quite cute, and then discover that I was a bloke and have to ask themselves some questions about themselves, you know." And he draws from his formative experience as an actor to work through his most uncomfortable and unnerving emotions. "In acting, you could do things you wouldn't normally do in real life and get away with them," he furthers. "In writing, my characters can do that as well, they can do things you might be afraid of, or feel thing you'd feel guilty or uncomfortable about, And you can get rid of personal feelings through them."
'Placebo' was released on June 17th 1996, preceded by the single '36 Degrees' on June 3rd 1996, while the band begin a UK tour on June 2nd. The most wayward new spirits of rock 'n' roll are not prepared to be taking things easy. "The album carries through the urgency and immediacy of what we are." concludes Brian. "I guess it's moving at very fast pace now, but if there is ever a time to be moving at this pace then it's now, We can relax in a few years - maybe. I hope not." Take a deep breath now.
Robert Schultzberg subsequently left the band and was replaced by Steven Hewitt who has played in other bands including an early Boo Radleys.