"The Man who fell to Earth"

Juice, Nov'00

Brian Molko is a man who enjoys wearing dresses, getting lost in Amsterdam and writing songs about love. Nellie Connors catches up with Placebo in London on the release of Black Market Music.

Unlike the grim-faced people enduring the rain of an English summer outside, Placebo are in good spirits. Ensconced in their London rehearsal studio, the band Stefan Olsdal (bass, guitar and keyboards), Brian Molko (guitar, vocals) and Steve Hewitt (drums) are cracking jokes and, after recent festival dates in Spain, looking tanned and healthy.

So where's the pale-faced angst that you might expect from a band whose wanderings on the dark side have bought them infamy and fortune? "We are a serious band but we're not miserable, that's the thing", Molko says, patiently. "We're actually quite good company. People tend not to realise we have a sense of humour. Laughter inhabits our lives a great deal." Placebo have just had their first holiday in two years. Their last album, Without You I'm Nothing, kept them on the road solidly for 13 months (including two tours of Australia). Then came nine months in the studio making the follow-up, Black Market Music. "It was going to be finished when it was finished", says Molko. "But it ate into our holiday time."

Brian Molko is a star. Apart from displaying all the traits of a bona fide had turner ö talent, looks, self-possesion, an ability to hold the room without even trying - he can also get away wothout sounding, as it sometimes seems in print, a wanker. In person, Molko's confident verbosity instead adds an admirable swagger to his more grand pronouncements. That's charisma for you.

Of course, it helps that he's intelligent, witty, obscenely articulate and has a hell of a dirty laugh. At one point, after delicately sighing, "Again, a superficial reaction to quite a sophisticated band", over some music media sin or another, he immediately slaps his knee with a grin and exclaims with a loud, dismissive cackle, "Hah! What can you do when no-one takes you seriously?"

Molko is recalling Placebo's worst gig. Ever. "It was before Steve joined the band, our fist tour, later renamed Amsterdamaged", he says. "Our manager actually hid under the mixing desk from our record company, it was so bad. Guitar strings, everything, broke." Molko smiles wryly, "Amsterdam's a difficult town to stay sober in, especially when you're playing at one o'clock in the morning. There's too many temptations." Molko laughs the laugh of a man who's been tempted aplently; Placebo have song titles like 'Special K', and sing about being from broken homes. They're not afraid to let loose.

Placebo owe their existence to fate. by accident, Brian Molko bumped into Stefan Olsdal, an old school friend from Luxembourg, in London over half a decade ago. Molko (an American) was studying drama, having moved to London when he was 17, while Olsdal was studying guitar.

A year would see Placebo's live show improve considerably from their 'Amsterdamaged' efforts; in 1996 Placebo scored European support slots for David Bowie, who sought them oyut after hearing their demos. Ziggy's image was perhaps petrquired by Placebo's gender-bending antics. that year Placebo were playing to packed houses of their own, a live following swelling with the success of their self-titled debut and the cheeky single, 'Nancy Boy'. Most of Placebo's songs on the first album were about sex.

The following year, Placebo played at Bowie's 50th birthday party in NYC ("That was amazing", remembers Olsdal, still awe-struck), and toured with U2. The boys made their debut on the big screen (at the invitation of executive producer, Michael Stipe), in 97's Velvet Goldmine - a confusing film tribute to the spangled days of glam.

Without You I'm Nothing, Placebo's second album, was released late in '98 and in no way suffered from any disappointing second-album traumas. There was a relentless stream of singles ö 'Pure Morning', 'You Don't Care About Us', 'Every You, Every Me'. The band's gleeful participation in old-skool image theatrics, ironically set them apart, and Placebo's uniqueness, paired with a willingness to discuss the holy trintity ö sex, drugs and the big R's ö ensured plenty of media courage.

The tension and contradiction in Placebo's music ö between vulnerable sentiment and a sound that is anything but ö began to reel listeners in. The band's impressive live show converted people everywhere, and when Daniel Johns invited Placebo on an Australian tour last year, Without You I'm Nothing went platinum. It would eventually sell over a million copies worldwide.

"We wanted to do a big rock record", states Molko, of Placebo's third album. "The first album sounds underproduced and too na•ve, the second album sounds overproduced and is extremely melancholic. So we wanted to put the emphasis more on a larger sound to make an instant record. This one we wanted to jump out of the stereo at you." Which is not to say that Placebo sacrificed their complexities to the gauche rock god of the mass market, heaven forbid. "It's tasteful", affirms Molko. "It doesn't sound like we're trying too hard", frown Hewitt. "We didn't, it was natural." "That human feel", finishes Molko.

They inject Black Market Music with the intensity of a Placebo live performance, partly because the band wrote the songs when they headed into the studio. For the first time, Placebo took on co-producing duties, along with Paul Corkett. "We're just extremely ambitious and we really, really wanted to get it right", explains Molko.

"We analysed a great deal. We did a lot of t'-crossing and I'-dotting. Over the past two, there was always a great deal of energy and we have always, to a certain degree, fell short of our ambitions. This time we didn't want that to happen. So, it took nine months because it was one hell of a beast to tame, and it was worth it".

"It takes Peter Gabriel seven years", he smirks. "When we were in the studios doing Without You I'm Nothing, he said to us, In the two months you've been here, you've recorded an album. I've recorded a verse.'"

In one of the new songs, Molko sings, "Thank you Mum/Hello Mum." "I'm the anti-Eminem," he cracks. "I say hi to my Mum." But the track 'Blue American' is not exactly feelgood stuff. "It's maybe the lowest point, emotionally, on the record," says Molko. "Three and a half minutes of pure self-disgust, American-style. The person in that song is at such an emotionally low point that he's hitting out at everything that surrounds him ö at his upbringing, his culture, his culture's history, self-help books and psychiatry. It's the sound of someone giving up." And, "I wrote this novel just for you/I'm so pretentious/Yes it's true", "That's a bit self-referential", he admits. "Getting there before your detractors, insulting people before they insult you. It's saying, I know what you think about me. I don't really care..

The Placebo perversity of 'Commercial for Levi' should keep the critics busy, as Molko croons, "Coke and ecstasy/You're gonna blow your mind/I understand the fascination/I've even been there once or twice." It soon turns to anguish; "But if you don't change your situation/Then you'll die/Don't die/Please don't die". "That's an acid lullaby", smiles Molko. "It's so sweet musically, it's almost got honey dripping off it. But it's so filthy lyrically". As far as autobiographical content goes, "For the record, I'm not into water sports or bestiality", is all Molko will say. This time his dirty laugh lasts quite a long time.