"Placebo - Cumming Of Age"

RockSound, Oct'00

by Rosanna Slater

Out of late '90's insipid mediocrity emerged a band who for better or for worse shook mundane modern music on its ass. They put the spunk into punk and the cock into rock and made no apologies for doing so. After a one-year hiatus, they're back with third album 'Black Market Music'. And this time, they assure us, it's for good·

With an overactive imagination and under a haze of rock'n'roll profligacy it could have been an impromptu pastiche of Madonna's licentious 'Justify My Love' video - except in start techni-colour and without the frolicking/. Fresh from a magazine proto shoot, Placebo frontman Brian Molko lopes up and down the hotel corridor of a upmarket Holland Park hotel suite with an armful of attire, wafer-thin Stefan Olsdal galumphs around awkwardly, whilst drummer Steve Hewitt is so gracious as to stick his buttocks clad only in white briefs, through the doorway, mischievously scuttling off giggling, but not before delivering a pirouette, curtsy and backwards kick. It's been a long year without them, but thank God they're back.

Lounged composedly, colour co-ordinated and vodka-doused on a lengthy sofa, if you believed everything you read, you'd expect to be confronted with a sickening display of cocksure braggadocio so often depicted in the press by the band and their notoriously decadent image. Instead they're articulate, thoughtful, charming even, talking fluently with precision and depth. Whether this is the dawn of an all-new subservient Placebo, a precautional defence-mechanism against the 'build 'em up then knock 'em down' ethos of the British music media or simply them being themselves and at ease with rock sound is anybody's guess. One thing's for sure, there's no mistaking a full throttle return to the fore with an album that will touch you in places you didn't even know existed.

" 'Black Market Music' is a reference to something that's sordid and seedy and kept under the counter, basically something illegal that you shouldn't really have." Begins Brian, his trademark transatlantic brogue having taken on a more hoity-toity upper-crust English twang. "That's where the idea came from, but we were in Japan the other day hanging out with Taylor Hawkins from the Foo Fighters and we told him the name of the album and he was like 'Oh yeah after that music store in LA' - and then it actually occurred to me that it was also the name of the place where we'd bought some of our most expensive guitars in America. We'd never put two and tow together until Taylor had pointed it out to us - so there we were trying to think of a really philosophical answer, but now we can just say it's named after a music store," he reveals.

"Which is also quite apt in the year 2000 with MP3s and all that" continues Steve, masterminding its topical prevalence.

"Actually," adds Stefan in a rare moment of vocalisation, "you'll probably be able to download this album before you can buy it in the shops·"

Brian considers the ramifications then rolls his eyes theatrically. "Yeah, it'll be auctioned on the internet before we've even heard the final cut."

Gender Benders

As a self-proclaimed third part of a trilogy, the band are eager to underpin the fundamental progression from their eponymously titled debut and breakthrough million-plus selling follow-up 'Without You I'm Nothing'.

"What I think it does do is incorporate the best elements from both the first two records." reasons Brian "But I think it's what it does with those elements and all the things we attempted in one way or another, due to naivety or circumstance or whatever, we fell a little too short of achieving our goals. But I think this time we haven't, because we took a very strong hand in the production side of it and we've achieved in getting the sound in our heads down on tape."

A step forward maybe, but does it mark a departure from the charged sexual aggression and hedonistic zeal that made Placebo a modern marvel, the musical forefathers for a new generation X of fuck-ups, gender-benders and Joe Bloggs alikes?

"I think it has elements which are gonna pleas the fans of the punky, youthful, exuberant side of

Placebo found on the first record and it has elements of the melancholy and heartbreak of the second record," Brian assures. "It also has a new experimental side - which helps us keep interested - so we can try and stretch ourselves as much as possible as songwriters and stop getting bored. Other wise it can't be interesting to anyone else."

But the 'final' part of a trilogy? Doesn't' that usually denote some sort of closure? Although far too premature to speculate, just how do the band envisage their fourth album?


I have absolutely no idea," Brian admits. "We used to facetiously always answer that question with the words 'free jazz' but we'll save you from the facetiousness - but just for today·" Lordy! Hold the front page - could this be Placebo coming of age? "It's certainly the most mature Placebo album yet," offers Steve. "I think we still feel like teenagers really - that's what being in a rock band is like," retorts Brian to the initial question. "I think this whole question of maturing makes me feel like a cheese. I think albums are like snapshots of where you head is at, at the time you make them."

Even the perilously shy Stefan feels compelled to speak: "Every album feels like the first album to me. The second album, being the first album with Steve (who replaced former drummer Robert Schultzberg), we toured with those songs for so long, we just wanted to put them behind us and get on with some new stuff·"

Brian resumes; "I think it's more complex, sophisticated and varied." And more accessible? Steve nods affirmatively. Was this a conscious decision? "No." Brian pledges, half miffed. "There's very little that's calculated about Placebo. There isn't very much that's thought about in the sense that we very much have an instinctual approach to what we do and we act very emotionally to the music we make. We write a hell of a lot of material before we can even begin to decide what is actually fitting for a record. It feels like we have many feather to our bows, but we choose to put certain ones together for the sake of making a cohesive record. When we're playing in a room together, there's a lot of joking around and style-hopping for a laugh - just to keep our chops up because sometimes you write songs that sound like bands you hate and you just do it for a laugh and forget them after."

Indeed. It transpires, inter-band relations have never been so good. "It been the most laughable album session we've ever had as well," Steve says, Brian choking on his miniature vodka mid-sentence. "I thought you were about to say it's the most laughable album we've ever made!" hoots Brian wiping his chin. "Hardly·"

Shagging & Ligging

With a mixed and mottled reaction to first single 'Taste In Men', some of the band's diehard followers were perturbed by a somewhat experimental edge. Any worries there may be a minor backlash or the same sundry reaction to album?

"I'm not concerned in the very least," Brian shrugs matter-of-factly. " I would have though, and I'm quoting you here, our 'diehard' followers would be quite into the more industrial aspects of 'Taste In Men' because it also had a dancey feel to it. It confused some people and that was the purpose of putting that single out first. In the same way 'Pure Morning' was the first single form 'Without You I'm Nothing'.

"I think for our own self-satisfaction, we've released a single that's quite unrepresentative of the rest of the album and it creates an interest because people wonder what the hell the records gonna be like·" And to put you out of your misery, rock sound can verify that 'Black Market Music' is unequivocally Placebo's finest album to date. And this time they've got political.

"Political? Yeah I think it is," concurs Brian, "·and again that wasn't a conscious effort"

It's hard to imagine how the band who circa '97 were lipstick-smeared, sex-crazed, transvestite-championing, showbiz wild boys of sleaze rock are now a picture of health and imperturbable in manner. What the hell happened to the all-shagging/ligging party pioneers of yesteryear?

"Shagging and ligging gets boring - it's like eating cake," analogises Brian, now an alleged self-declared monogamist. "You can only have so many slices in the same way there are only so many parties you can go to or so many people on the party scene that you can shag, without completely running out. Everything has its shelf-life and I've also got incredibly bored with things incredibly quickly, which is why the music on the album is so varied." He explains

"It's a similar thing with lifestyle because at the moment I'm getting much more private and being

much more reclusive than before and I think to a certain degree I've started feeling a little less sorry for myself and I think the world around me makes me more angry than I make myself these days. Maybe that's a sign of growing up·" he ponders. " We started the band when we were in our early 20's, now we're almost turning 30 and that's a landmark. For us, anyway. Scared of the big 30!"

Budget Rock'N'Roll

Surely not a cue to thaw and tone down the infamous image? Not least considering an intense out-of-control duration of over-zealous adoration, stalkers and death-threats.

" I don't think so," says Brian pensively. " I think we've always just been ourselves, I don't think we're gonna play anything down in the same sense that it's really important to stay one haircut ahead of your fans. As I said before, you get bored with things, including the way you look - you want to have a bit of variation, change your wardrobe - you wan to feel fresh." An attitude light-years away form the man whose citation about leaving a 'trail of blood and spunk over the continent' was immortalised in the rock'n'roll quotes wall of fame. "It was an incredibly throw-away comment," confesses Brian, " which goes to show how a throw-away comment can haunt you for the rest of your life. To be honest it puts just as much of a smile on my face today as the day I said i9t!" he laughs self-satisfyingly. "Just for the record there was more spunk than blood involved·"

Anecdotes of blood and population paste aside, does Brian look back and wish he'd played anything differently? "I don't regret anything," he declares with out even drawing breath, "·Although I wish some of the dresses had been a little more expensive·" Now that's the Mr Molko we know and love·

"You've got to start somewhere," Steve sympathises.

"Rock'n'roll on a budget! Maybe our budgetary priorities were a little different at that time," cackles Brian mischievously.

"Yeah it was a different market," Steve quips, predictably failing to address rumours of the band's brief dalliance with heroin back during a pinnacle point in their public debauchery. "One day the market - the next day the world!" sniggers Brian. "But seriously though, I don't regret anything. If I look at it from an outsider's point of view, it's all fodder for the rock'n'roll myth and it kind of has a life of its own. I think it's find to be legendary in any way, whether you're legendary for being a wanker of legendary for being an incredibly nice person, incredibly talented or talentless - in the same way that I believe that there's no such thing as bad press. It's when people stop writing about you that you have to get worried"

Film Star Hooks

There's little chance of that and chivalrous words from a band so often misconceived "I guess its stems form the name Placebo - some people think we're faking it, that everything we say that comes out of our mouths is driven by ambition and nothing else, a lust for money and that we're incredibly calculated and that we have no soul whatsoever which is a tad unfortunate, seeing it's completely untrue."

And what is the truth? What lies at the core of Placebo? Strip away the foundation powder designer garb, big mouth bravado and delve behind closed doors - and what will we find?

"We all really like Formula One and we're all really into ping pong, big time·" disclosed Brian with alarming sincerity

"Oh! And you forgot·" beings Steve, as rock sounds sighs a sigh of relief awaiting the expected itinerary confessing to risquÎ revelry and illegal activity. "Karaoke! We just Love Karaoke."

Notably there's no mention of acting an we've seen nothing remotely thespian from the band since 'Velvet Goldmine', the band even turning down the chance to play Judas Priest in a George Clooney produced production 'Metal God'.

"Running around a desert in 80 degrees heat wearing spandex and high heel shoes? I don't think so!" scoffs Steve indignantly.

"I guess we kinda felt like we were rent-a-band, because we did Velvet Goldmine," gripes Brian. "We did it simply because it was a Todd Haines filmed and we didn't think people were gonna take it as read that just because we were in a Glam Rock movie that it was gonna follow us around that we're a Glam Rock band. I would have thought people would be a little more intelligent than that - it's just a movie for god's sake," he sneers.

"We were very excited when we got the ('Metal God') script from Hollywood, but then we opened it up and turned the page and it said 'leather gargoyle boots with straps' then without even turning another page it was like, see ya later! It kind of reeked of Hollywood cheesiness really and I've turned down many films where people just want me to play a musician. I can play something else you know·" But really you needn't play anyone else when you're already a star yourself. "I think if we believed ourselves that we were the only significant band in the world we'd end up like a cuppa soup with a cross-between Oasis' and Embrace's attitude. So I don't' think we'd be very positive," frowns Brian, modestly.

"I like to think that there's always room for improvement, in the same way that Stefan said that every record is like the first record, everytime we make a record it feels like a new beginning and in a way I still feels we're quite embryonic when looking at what the possibilities are. It would be sinful to proclaim that you're the only significant band in the country - especially when there's so much talent - Six By Seven, Idlewild, Primal Scream. I think if any band really believes it they should keep it to themselves and giggle about it over dinner with their closest friends because I think if you make statements like that yourself, they can be extremely detrimental and can certainly piss off a lot of other bands. I have no problem with pissing off journalists," he winks, as rock sound slouches.

"But I think it's more important to get respect from your peers. If you say yourself that you're the best guitar band in the country or even the world then you're asking for it·"

But understandably, Placebo have more pressing issues to tend to. One listen to 'Black Market Music' will leave any self-respecting music fan in no doubt that this band are here for good.

"It's very pivotal for us in our career - the third album scenario," Steve concludes. "But more so than anything, it feels like we've proven a lot to ourselves·"

Brian takes heed. "I think longevity has always been on of our prime goals, the idea of us being a flash-in-the-pan from day one was apparent, so I guess that makes you feel really philosophical about your previous work because it make you feel like you wanna say 'ok - that was in the past'. I think we look to people like Bowie who have gone through great processes of reinvention and have had an extremely long career and they have inspired us. But if you're getting this impression from the album then that must mean that what we're feeling is true. So hopefully, if no Concordes dropout out of the sky, with us in them, then we could well be here for the long-haul·" Let's hope so.