"Pretty, not Vacant"

Eye Weekly, Apr'01

Pretty, not vacant: Hardcore hedonists Placebo refuse to be another rock 'n' roll suicide

April 26, 2001

by Liisa Ladouceur

Truth be told, there is no such thing as a bad Placebo interview. Singer/guitarist Brian Molko, bassist/keyboardist Stefen Olsdal and drummer Steve Hewitt are articulate, clever brats. Good conversation is assured.

So even when it's the morning after a night off and Molko has failed to surface -- his bandmates on time but weary from the promotional schedule -- you just sit and wait for the sprightly singer to flounce in and make with the yackety-yack. Which he does.

If this were 1998, the androgynous Molko would probably have been more than 15 minutes late, looking quite a bit rougher and spouting the details of some late-night debauchery. A rising success with their album Without You I'm Nothing and the single "Pure Morning," the London-based trio had established an international reputation as enthusiastic indulgers in all of rock's pleasures.

"Everybody can be a dick sometimes," says Molko. "The difference is that I'm a bit of a dick in public. Japan didn't have us back for years. They were scared shitless."

It's now early 2001, and the boys of Placebo have grown up. Exhibit A: the band's newest disc, Black Market Music (Hut/Virgin), which came out last fall in the U.K. and this month in North America. The album eschews the odes to excess that graced their previous work in favour of more sophisticated subject matter.

"We've always just written songs that were of the age, and of our ages," explains Molko. "The first album is hedonistic, the second is more melancholic and, albums being snapshots of where your head is at the time, Black Market Music is more of a political record, an anger record. It's simply because we've ceased to navel-gaze as much and started to react to the injustice and the pain of the outside world."

Placebo political? Maybe. While the band hasn't exactly penned any bona fide protest songs, when your mainstay is songs about wasted days and wasted nights, it's not that difficult to make a deeper statement. So Black Market Music features tunes such as "Spite and Malice" (inspired by last spring's May Day Riot/Parade in London) and "Haeomoglobin," Placebo's version of "Strange Fruit." But does the world really want to get its social commentary from men wearing that much eyeliner?

"People do feel that Placebo can't talk about politics, because of our reputation," admits Molko. "But we're not stupid people and hedonism isn't the only thing we're about. You don't really know the meaning of something until it's finished. But having been cartoon characters, it's possible there was something in the back of our minds saying, 'It's time to be serious' or 'Let's make a record that's timeless.'"

Black Market Music does contain plenty of references to decadent living, but they don't play like wet diary entries. Instead, there is new subtlety, perspective and -- next to lust and obsession -- even a touch of love. Molko has created characters embodying all the bad attitudes and nasty habits he used to call his own, and he handles them with both sympathy and scorn. Particularly striking is "Commercial for Levi," a short lullaby with the plaintive refrain "If you don't change your situation/ You'll die/ Don't die."

"Yes, that song is a cautionary tale," explains Molko. "It's pro-moderation. It's about friendship and bad lifestyle choices. I've had people who love me enough to grab me by the scruff of the neck and tell me that if I keep going the way I'm going, I won't be around for much longer, and that they don't want that to happen. But I'm still here and I'm thankful for that. It's important to have fun in your life, but it's equally important to know what your limits are while you're doing it."

With depravity somewhat behind them, Placebo can get on with the business of making its mark on the world. Black Market Music has met with success in Europe, but that's no guarantee it will find a home on commercial radio or video stations, enamoured as they are with much more testosterone-fuelled rock (which Molko calls "sports metal"). The band is completely aware of the situation, but has always used its outsider status to its own benefit, often likening its concerts to a "convention of outcasts."

"Like Radiohead and PJ Harvey, we create our own universe with our own rules, and we can break those rules if we want to," Molko declares. "The idea of Black Market Music is that we now have a climate where misogyny, homophobia and disposability is being marketed so much in the music scene that music with passion and positivity is under the counter. Even though we deal with negative, difficult subjects and the dark side of emotion, there is always a strain of hope and optimism in what we do."

So does all this mean the end of Placebo the glamorous, Placebo the perpetual party band? Yes and no.

"The world doesn't need another rock 'n' roll casualty," Molko states. "We're focused on going to bed at night knowing we've delivered our best. Then when we want to cut loose, we know we deserve it."