"Get Out Your Claws"

Pulse, Apr'00

There are certain truths in life that are Darwinian, indisputable. Bumble into a bobcat's den and you'll probably get scratched. Poke your hand in to a moray eel's lair; get ready for a thorough severed-digit chomping. And get on the bad side of the diminutive but shrew-fierce Brian Molko? When he's finished with you, you'll be gutted like a floundered fish.

Take for instance, a recent backstage incident at San Francisco's Warfield Theatre, where Molko and his U.K. alterna-punk trio Placebo had just finished headlining. Still toweling the stage mascara from his sweat-drenched face, the thin, sparrow-framed front man was entertaining a coterie of cooing music industry nabobs with his thoughts on the transformation of Jeffrey Eugenide's brilliant The Virgin Suicides novel into an even bleaker film by first-time director Sofia Coppola. As the discussion moved on to movies, Todd Hayne's Velvet Goldmine was mentioned, which instantly brought one young hotshot out of his aloof shell. "That picture sucked!" he boldly declared. "Every last frame of it ... I hated it so much, I walked out on it near the end!" Molko's eyes brightened, like a cat when it's just scented a mouse in the house. "Oh yeah?" he asked, moving to face his opponent. "Is that how you truly feel about it?"

The loudmouth didn't even see it coming. "Hell yes!" he shot back. "Velvet Goldmine was a complete waste of time for everyone involved." "Really?" grinned the Placeban with barely contained delight. "Well, guess what! I was in that film, you fucking idiot! The director is a friend of mine, I worked really hard on all my scenes, and we all love how the movie turned out. Soooo ·" and Molko raised his right hand, middle finger extended, until it was directly in front of the poor pretender's nose. "FUCK YOU!" A guillotine beheading couldn't have been more effective. The kid could only stammer, turn red and bleatingly admit that he hadnât really seen the flick - he was only parroting some reviews he'd read. Too late - Molko had already turned his back.

"Score: Artist, one. Sycophant: zero!" cackles the mischievous Molko, recalling the incident several weeks ago over lunch at his chic New York hotel. He could've done the P.C.-polite thing and let the chap squeak by with his affrontery. But it just isn't his non-fool-suffering style. "He taught me a lot in the school of taking no shit," claims the 28-year-old, pointing across the table at pinstripe-suited drummer Steve Hewitt, an even more mischievous chum he's known since they were teenagers attending London Drama school. (Only last night, Hewitt - on a late-night stroll through Soho - had smilingly misdirected several couples who mistook him for a local.) Why is the duo so scrappy? "I think it's because we had to fight a lot," Molko sighs. "Not so much physically fight, but as kids growing up, we had to kick against the pricks, basically, to quote Nick Cave, who was quoting the Bible. We had to kick against the pricks on a daily basis in order to get where we are now. We've worked our fucking asses off - Steve's done an untold amount of dead-end jobs and I was on the dole for 2, years and going through periods of severe depression because of it. But I was always determined to reach the goal." He sighs, shakes his head somberly. "And then once you get there, you come in contact with so much nepotism, so many oily sycophants, you've just got to remember to keep fighting. So we help each other out a lot, to remember to take absolutely no shit."

Molko has another good reason to be on the defensive: Stalkers. He's got them in spades. Sometimes, he says, "it's the old mentality of if you're not gonna love me, then I'll make you hate me - they wanna be a part of your life in either a good or bad way." One night he arrived home late to find a starry-eyed female encamped on his apartment doorstep; she'd bluffed her way past security, adoringly informed Molko sheâd come to stay and death-gripped the stairwell railings as guards struggled to drag her away. What's the spooky allure? To understand Molko, you have to understand the Placebo phenomenon. On the band's third release, Black Market Music, lead/rhythm guitarist Molko leap-frogs through so many musical styles it's head-spinning - from the scratchy punk ('Days Before You Came') to shimmering glam ('Black-Eyed', 'Special-K', 'Taste in Men') to folk-quiet balladry ('Blue-American', 'Peeping Tom') to flat-out fun in hip-hop ('Spite & Malice', featuring U.S. rapper Justin Warfield) and even cheeky, Modern English-retro New Wave ('Slave to the Wage'). Part prick-kicking confessional, part socially conscious outrage, Molko's material is - above all else - impassioned, compelling, some of the most true-blue believable rock you're likely to hear this year. Add to that Molko's unique singing voice and innate instinct for combining melodic experimentation with huge, arena-pleasing hooks, and you've got a guaranteed formula for superstardom. Already, Black Market Music (issued elsewhere last October) has moved nearly a million copies in Europe alone, hit the Top Ten in 15 countries and launched three smash singles ('Taste in Men', 'Slave to the Wage', 'Special K'). Will America follow suit? Molko is such a commanding presence - both onstage and off - there are few capable of resisting his hypnotic spell.

Today, the black-T-shirt/black-jeans-clad Molko - "staying one haircut ahead of fans" - has let his sideburns grow into pincer-beetle points, and trimmed his trademark Louise Brooks bob into a businesslike, side-parted style that would've made June cleaver beam with parental pride. One mouse-click through the labyrinth of unofficial Placebo websites will explain why: Most feature photos of male and female look-alikes, some eerily accurate, some laughingly awkward. And for those who need practice, one helpful home page offers 'Brian Molko makeup tips', all the way down to specific brands of lipstick, eyeliner and hair dye to bring out the Molko in every man/woman. Scary, but true, frowns the androgynous singer - the personality was beginning to overshadow the music. "It got to a point where I'd look out in the audience and there'd be like, a thousand Molkos, boys and girls, all with the Molko bob. And I just thought 'OK - it's time for the Molko bob to go'. And imitation is the highest form of flattery, so I can't knock it. But I think a lot of what our band's philosophy represents is about being and individual, never being ashamed of who you are and finding your own identity."

It all started innocently enough, "I had a very religious upbringing," explains Molko, examining the cracked ebony polish barely clinging at his fingernails. "My mother's a born-again Christian, so I gave my life over to Christ when I was 11 and," he snickers "took it back when I was 14, I said 'Mom, I don't want to go to church anymore - I'Im discovering who I am.' It took her a long time to get used to the fact that I'm bisexual." Before that? "Private tutorials, Bible studies, because out pastor recognized that I had strong leadership qualities. I mean, I was being primed for the ministry, man!"

Instead, the "alter" boy eventually wound up in London, where he and Hewitt began occasionally gigging. By chance, he bumped into another old schoolmate the Swedish musician Stefan Olsdal - in a tube station, and invited him down to see his combo perform. Placebo was formed that very night, with guitarist Olsdal switching to bass (which accounts for his unusual, Joy-Division-melodic approach to the instrument) and Hewitt momentarily switching to his side group, Breed (he re-joined in 96, just in time to tour behind the carnal-themed Placebo debut). That same year, Molko huddled in a tiny San Francisco flat, less concerned with discussing the disc than he was with trying to picture what attractive Bay Area native he might pick up at that evening's meet in greet. This coati-mundi-masked miscreant hadn't come to edify - he'd come to party.

And party Placebo did, on into the recording of it's glam-happy, million-selling Without You I'm Nothing, and hit singles like 'Pure Morning' (which Molko refers to as "the weed song"). But the pleasure train was about to derail. The British press had already dubbed Molko the "drug-crazed sex dwarf" - true he never refused any backstage treats to offer. But stimulation gave way to self-loathing, with the nadir being that fateful night the Placebo tour hit Paris - minus one blind-drunk Molko, who'd disappeared (ie. passed out) the night before in Manchester. Hewitt was furious - his friend was destroying himself and taking Placebo down with him. It was time for an ultimatum.

In Black Market's lilting, 60s-sunny 'Commercial for Levi,' Molko chirps "Drunk on immorality, valium and cherry wine/ Coke and ecstasy - you're gonna blow your mind ·if you don't change your situation, you'll die, you'll die/ Please don't die." Make no mistake, says the singer: "That song's directed towards nobody but me, because of that time in my life where I made some extremely bad lifestyle choices. And there were a couple of people - Steve is one of them - who had to grab me by the scruff of the neck and go 'Look, mate - you're fucking with some really dodgy shit here. I cannot let you fuck up anymore.' So the song is about friendship. It's neither pro-drugs not anti-drugs - it's pre-moderation." And casual sex with your own Doppelganger groupies? "Honestly, it loses its novelty really fast," shrugs Molko, while both Hewitt and Olsdal (who's been sitting silently at the table for most of the interview) furiously nod their heads in agreement. "Been there, done that, don't ever wanna do it again. I have too much respect for myself now."

Isn't there any excess in which the cleaned-up Placebans still indulge? Vodka/Red Bull cocktails, they shamefully confess. "And music!" barks Hewitt.

"Yeah," Molko pipes in. "Just doing what we do to the best of our abilities, delivering 100 percent for our fans. We may have been guilty beforehand of letting the lifestyle get in the way of the music. But we've grown up a bit now, and we're not prepared to do that anymore. I mean, we still party, but we party when we feel like we deserve to." Like, say, at the close of the Paul Corkett-so-produced Market sessions, which Placebo and "approached with a creative openness and a spirit of camaraderie - we wanted to make a timeless rock album, so we explored every idea that we wanted to. We threw as much shit against the wall as possible and saw what stuck, and that made the beautiful painting that is Black Market Music."

With such clarity and renewed focus ahs come a bevy of creative rewards. At personal invite, Placebo played Davis Bowie's 50th birthday gala in 97 (a favor which Bowie returned two years later by crooning "20th Century Boy" with is pals at the Brit Awards). Fresh from a slot on Australia's gargantuan Big Day Out festival, Molko immediately got to work producing a documentary on folk-rock ruffians the Dirty Three. And Placebo's outrageous feather-boa turn in Velvet Goldmine turned a few Hollywood heads, as well.

But the biggest bonus of all is the aesthetic quantum leap forward that Black Market Music represents. Judging by Placebo history, you might think a track like 'Special K' is about drugs, or ketamine in particular. But Molko tried it only once, a decade ago, and is merely using the allusion - against a backdrop of strummed acoustics, "ba-da ba-da" - fluffed verses and a clanging, sugar-coated climax of a chorus - to illustrate the giddy floating/falling experience of true love.

Did someone say "true love?" Molko starts to squirm in his seat. "Right before Christmas, I went through a very nasty breakup, and Iâm still getting over it," he sighs, "But I'm fine, I'm on the rise again."

"In fact," the artist suddenly decides, "I'm stronger than I've ever been. And now it's all about karma for me - it really is. You can't upset the karmic balance; otherwise things start to go haywire. And it's a philosophy that we apply to our everyday lives and our attitudes as musicians and artists. So you" and he waggles an admonishing finger at "tour guide" Hewitt "did upset the karmic balance a little bit last night."

And what about Placebo's wicked snubbing of the wannabe cool cat? Like Hewitt's faux pas, it wasn't exactly middle-path-seeking material. "But let's face it," Molko concludes, eyes all a-glitter again. "They do make for quite amusing stories!"