"Fitter, Happier, More Productive"

Select, Sep'00

They used to badmouth everyone and flash their nipples in photographs. Now they've got politics, listen to Primal Scream and always sleep with the same person. Meet the all-new Placebo...

A laugh rattles through the close air of London photo studio. A high-pitched cackle with nasal, transatlantic edge, a laugh that would render even a cosy night in watching Frasier faintly sinister. Brian Molko is amused.

The cause of his mirth is in the studio next door. An actor whose career has clearly reached some kind of hellish nadir is posing alongside perma-grinning pop combo Steps and a gaggle of well-scrubbed kids, dressed as a giant Kinder Egg. Brian makes a fairly innocuous comment to the effect that Steps aren't precious about their corporate alliances, then hastily withdraws it.

"We're not into slagging off other bands any more," he explains firmly.

But it's Steps. With a giant Kinder Egg. They're asking for it.

"No," he insists. "It's counter-productive."

Could this really be notorious controversy magnet Brian Molko, the man whose press clippings read, roughly. "fuck...cock...smack...spunk"? It certainly looks like him: petite and needle-thin as ever, even if his chin is shaded with a goatee and his once-trademark Louise Brooks bob has been shorn and teased into tufts. Bassist Stefan Olsdal lounges in the corridor, mobile phone clamped to his ear. As skinny as he is tall (ie very) he is, to quote Suede, the shape of a cigarette. Drummer Steve Hewitt sits in the stylist's chair dressed, like his bandmates, in un-seasonal black and grey.

The shoot is well behind schedule. This is the first time they've spoken to the press or stepped in front of a camera for over a year, and wearying perfectionism is the order of the day. Brian examines the Polaroids between each shot, dithering over his hair. He still takes this rock star business very seriously indeed.

The trio file outside to pose in front of a grotty brick wall. Brian grabs a can of red spraypaint and begins to daub a message to a music weekly: 'FUCK THE ...'. Reconsidering his message under advice from his concerned press officer, Brian takes suggestions from the floor.

"Pretty one," offers the band's flamboyant stylist. "System," shouts somebody else. Brian decides on 'bunny' but has another change of heart two letters in. Looking at the livid 'BU', the stylist predictably suggests "Bum".

"Bum?" sneers Brian with a grimace. "No, that's too obvious, It's so '97."

Placebo might not be as partial as they once were to dirty jokes, but they remain as much of an oddity as ever. In 1996 they were a smear of lipstick across the stolidly heterosexual visage of Britpop: a band who came from a cosmopolitan European background, evidently didn't give a hoot about the Small Faces or the The Jam and considered an excess of sex and drugs a mandatory clause in rock'n'roll's job description.

Amidst 1999's dressed-down luminaries-Doves, Belle & Sebastian band in Britain that aspire to be otherworldy and sexy as sin. Supporting friends and admirer Marilyn Manson at Milton Keynes Bowl last year, they had the riffs and melodrama to appease the metal massive, but enough sly subversion to prompt less evolved crowd members to hurl bottles of piss. With kindred spirits Ultrasound and Sneaker Pimps gone, there's no band in the world like Placebo.

But where once they were a rather smutty open book, they're now older, possibly wiser, certainly more cautious. Their third album is finished, but even the title is hidden behind a veil of secrecy in advance of its October release.

"I think some of the mystique has gone," Brian explains coyly. "At the beginning of our career there was mystery surrounding the band, the we opened our big mouths for a few years. We're getting all mysterious on your ass again."

Placebo have been underground for a year. No interviews, no post-Velvet Goldmine acting (they turned down an offer to play Judas Priest in the George Clooney-produced Metal God) and definitely no parties. They seem like men re-emerging from hibernation, blinking and bemused, into the light.

Comeback single 'Taste In Men', they say, was designed to "confuse people", its electronic funk apparently inspired by Paul Oakenfold mix CDs. None of the other five tracks Select is permitted to hear sound quite like it. There's an epic, haunting ballad about voyeurism ('Pepping Tom'), a strident, uplifting call to "run away from all your boredom" ('Slave To The Wage'), a jagged love song about ketamine ('Special K'), a swirling, intense confession ('Blackeyed') and even a slab of crunching insurrectionary hip hop ('Spite & Malice'). If 'Placebo' was the party and 'Without You I'm Nothing' the hangover, then this album is the protein-shake induced return to fitness.

"It's still strange, twisted love songs but less sex sex sex sex," says Brian. "It's a fierce record."

In a brightly lit back room, safely out of earshot of the screaming Step-children, Brian hunches forward, his purple finger nailed hands constantly animated, but where once those hands would have been clutching a Bloody Mary, today they are content with a comically large cup of Starbucks coffee and an uninterrupted stream of Marlboro Lights.

Casting a protective eyes towards Brian, Steve appears as sturdy and stable as ever. Manchester-born and a veteran drummer (Boo Radleys, K Klass). he played on Placebo's first demos, returning after the first album when Brian's relations with replacement sticksman Robert Schultzberg had irreparably broken down. In Placebo's famously close dynamic ("we're definitely best friends"), he's the father figure.

Stefan dislikes interviews. On the rare occasions that he speaks, he's barely audible. He leans back in his chair as far back as possible without actually being in the next room. He's had a heavy weekend. "It nearly killed me," he sighs. A 48-hour sex-and-drugs binge, perhaps?

"I sanded my floorboards."

Oh. The erstwhile "filthiest band in Britain" have never looked cleaner.

Placebo's in-joke is to describe anything to do with sex and drugs as "so '97" in a camp American accent. That was the year of their notorious tour, neatly summarised by Brian's claim they "left a trail of blood and spunk all over the country".

"It was a major celebration," reflects Steve. "We were like, 'Fucking yes!' We were so busy going 'Yes', we lost it, but we got it back again. Which was lucky."

"In comparison to lots of people, we were the Teletubbies," Brian adds. "To set things straight."

Placebo were not the only band to peer into the abyss, but they shouted loudest about the view. For two years they did everything, including Britpop's secret narcotic of choice, heroin, as documented on 'My Sweet Prince' from 'Without You I'm Nothing'. No music industry jolly was complete without an appearance by Molko and, invariably, the desire of a fellow revelller to "fucking kill him". The appeal soon wore thin.

"We just got sick of running into fights," sighs Brian. "People were trying to beat us up on a regular basis. I really, really don't know why.People were mistaking clones for me. These poor kids came close to getting a riotous beating.

"I think we reached the point where we realised that self-destruction wasn't cool any more. It started falling apart at the seams. I remember (Depeche Mode's) Dave Gahan saying that this rock'n'roll lifestyle that everyone dreams about is , quote, fucking hard work, unquote."

The five-continent tour finally came to an end last September, at which point Placebo took a month off and retreated to Matrix studios to start recording the third album. Disappointingly for any fan who cherishes Placebo's previous air of distress and depravity, this has to be one of the easiest third albums of recent years.

"To be honest, it's been an incredibly joyful experience," Brian beams. "We laughed all the way through the last nine months. It feels a bit like the end of a trilogy. Everything we've attempted before we've finally realised and purified to make this glorious album."

Unexpectedly, perhaps, Brian cites 'XTRMNTR', Asian Dub Foundation's 'Community Music' and Six By Seven's bilious 'The Closer You Get' as recent influences. You might think that the only rights Placebo would fight for are the ones to screw who you want and wear a dress, but 'Spite & Malice', featuring American rapper Justin Warfield, was explicitly inspired by the May Day riots. the day Warfield arrived, Placebo were chuckling over a newspaper picture of the turf mohican that rioters had given Churchill's statue.

"It was inspiring to see today's youth so politicised. I started shouting the old slogan: 'Dope, guns, fucking in the streets'," he enthuses in a way that would make Bobby G proud. "Somebody said, 'There's your chorus.'"

Another track, 'Haemoglobin'. was written from the point of view of a black man being lynched in the 50's America, while the stridently uplifting 'Slave To The Wage' is inspired by both Bob Dylan's 'Maggie's farm' and the death of the band's plugger on the morning it was recorded.

"The song became about not working for The Man, not working yourself into an early grave. There are songs that touch on the american colonisation of the world as well. As you get older you watch the news more and get involved more. I'm an armchair conspiracy theorist."

So one of the '90's most determinedly narcisstic bands has had a fit of social conscience? Who'd have though it?

"Sure," Brian snickers. "But you can't write about being a screaming tranny all your life."

In 1997, Brian Molko read an interview with himself and didn't recognise the arrogant, sex=obsessed motormouth, Initially, exaggerating his personality had sold the band, but cracks were beginning to show. He talked about sex and drugs one minute, insercurity and self-loathing the next.

'Without You I'm Nothing' was thus recorded in an atmosphere of intense soul-searching, not to mention insomnia ("negative leylines" at the studio), heartbreak (all three had crumbling relationships) and "post-coital depression". In the same way you have to tidy up after a party before you can get anything done, the album flushed out Placebo's psychic detritus in preparation for its fighting fit successor. For Brian, one crucial bit oh housekeeping involved exorcising the myth of Molko. He once said he "used to be a nice person, but rock'n'roll eroded it", but now says he was never as obnoxious as his reputation. Certainly, he's scrupulously polite and honest, if wary.

Were fame and success how you expected, Brian?

"No. I expected it to be a sanitised version of what it is. (Laughs) But i wouldn't change a thing. The road of excess leads to the palace of wisdom, to quote William Blake."

How did it feel to become a caricature?

"(Frowning) When you want to be taken seriously as an artist and find yourself through your own fault and your own naivety being turned into a cartoon character, you get a shock. I had a huge identity crisis and then tried to pull it together."

Did you find yourself playing a role?

"Our sense of humour has always been quite black and I think people fail to realise that. It walks a fine line, like most great comedians. What I say is often said with a wry grin on my face. Lots of people met us when we were having a good time and interpreted our sense of humour as extreme arrogance. It was simply a superficial response in a superficial situation."

Did you have to set about dismantling that reputation?

"People have got to realise that there's the myth and there's the reality. I think we've developed a very thick skin. Y'know, we don't start fights anymore. (Pause) We just finish them."

Did you set out to antagonise people?

"A little bit. Because you get angry at a lot of chancers in the business. I think when we used to bump into them we'd try and give them a hard time. And they'd obviously give it back."

Why do you think people take exception to you?

"(Sighs) Because we're in Britain. (Laughs) I don't receive anywhere near as much hostility in the rest of the world."

You don't have a reputation for being likeable, do you?

"If you spend time with me you'll find that I'm not this strange creature the press has created. I think I've always been quit likeable. Difficult, certainly, but likeable. Genius is often misunderstood (laughs). that is definitely a throwaway joke."

Do you enjoy polarising reactions, though?

"I think all good bands do. If people are indifferent to you that's rather unfortunate. If they fucking hate you that's much better."

Brian Molko has carried a fan's Polaroid everywhere he's gone for the last year three years. It depicts a teenage girl with a black eye in a room with "extremely distasteful purple wallpaper. It kind of matches her black eye quite well." Scrawled across it id the legend, 'Kill Fuck Die'.

"It scared me." says Brian. "But it's kind of a good luck charm. I carry with me everything that people give me on tour or throw onstage. It felt like bad karma to throw them away. And they were presents after all, in quite a twisted way. Some of the things that get thrown onstage have scared me."

Such as?

"Bullets. And please stop sending me your prozac," he pleads. "I don't need it. Use it on yourselves."

Maybe they think you need cheering up.

"I'm very cheerful," he cackles.

Brian Molko laughs a lot, but his is a sense of humour that gets you into trouble for laughing at the wrong thing at the wrong time. He can sound callous or bitchy when he says he doesn't mean to be. He can't resist the pithy soundbite or the flippant punchline.

"It doesn't mean I don't care," he says. "It's probably a safety net, really."

Amateur psychologists could have a field-day with Brian's formative years. Born in Belgium in 1973, he had a nomadic childhood due to his American father's banking work, ending up in the cultural black hole of Luxembourg 13 years later via Lebanon and Liberia. Much to Brian's amusement, he's been asked to speak at his high school's graduation ceremony. The mind boggles.

"Have you ever seen The Breakfast Club?"

Brian asks. "That's was what it was like. Incredibly spoilt, rich, ugly Americans abroad, complaining they can't get the right kind of cookies. If you were good at sports you were popular. If you were a bookworm you were unpopular. And if you weren't either of those things you were a loser."

Brian was in the third category, finding solace in the drama club and weed, destined not to befriends popular, basketball-playing schoolmate Stefan until a chance meeting in 1995. His father was rarely around, while his Scottish mother vainly tried to instill in him her devout Christianity.

They divorced when Brian was in his teens. It's a subject dealt with on the self-lacerating 'Blackeyed', the most lyrically intriguing track off the new Placebo album: "I was never loyal except to my own pleasure zone/I'm forever blackeyed, a product of a broken home".

"It's quite a funny song," says Brian oddly. "It makes me smiles. Everybody's going to think it's about me and it is quite autobiographical. But there's this american tendency to blame the fact you are fucked up emotionally on your parents and you reach a point in your life when you have to take responsibility for your actions."

Brian's subsequent flight to London to study drama may have waved two fingers at his suffocating, privileged upbringing, but his is not a whine of the misunderstood rich kid.

"Each parent was trying to pull me in a different direction," he reflects, "neither of which I wanted to go in, so I was forced to think about who I was, what I wanted to be at a young age. In that way it was positive. I've kind of become everything my parents didn't want me to be."

Have they seen you play?

"Several times. In drag."

"They always seem impressed," Steve jests. "Maybe they always wanted a girl."

Around the release of the last album, Brian revealed, "I have as little contact with my mother as possible." But there seems to have been some reconciliation since then.

"Mom turns up quite a bit in my lyrics, " says Brian thoughtfully. "There's a line on this album that goes, "Thank you mom, hi mom". I got pissed off when I listened to Eminem the other day: "My mom smokes more dope than I do'. I don't like people dissing their mothers. Mothers are good."

This is very sweet but not, surely, what Placebo are for. Like it or not, when bands become big they land themselves with a job description that's hard to escape. Like Blur when they stopped writing pop songs, or the Manics when they gave up make-up, Placebo's development from art-sluts into upstanding members of the pop community is a trifle disappointing. Their days of shocking people into submission appear to be over.

"It's a need to surprise more then a need to shock," says Brian. "A need to keep one step ahead of people's expectations of you and one haircut ahead of your clones, haha! I think we've got a less 'fuck you' attitude then we used to. We don't need to go around picking fights any more."

You used to describe placebo as a 'dangerous' band. Do you still feel that?

"Interesting question," he muses. "It depends on what you mean by dangerous."

It depends on what you meant.

"I can't remember. I must have been so drunk, haha! We've played in drag in Buttfuck, North Carolina, and sometimes those were the best gigs because there's such a repressed sense of sexuality that people just seem to explode."

Have you calmed down for good?

"We've been in rooms that have no windows, making music. We haven't gone on tour yet, haha! I think the shit's going to hit the fan when we go on tour. When you're travelling the world for over a year, you have to invent ways to keep yourself amused. That's where the trouble starts."

Received rock'n'roll wisdom states bands have the most edge when they're on the edge: cleaning up usually presages creative decline. But unlike , say, the Manics (Brian is no longer a fan), Placebo have got better as they've become happier. Neither the desperate longing of 'Taste In Men' nor the addictive relationship of 'Special K' are inspired by Brian's personal life. He says he's learnt to keep some things private.

"I have a tendency to write songs about subjects and then include characters within them as opposed to writing songs about people," he says, "I don't want to put my diary on CD."

He won't discuss his girlfriend, but unlike previous celebrity partners, she's safely out of the public eye.

"I think it's good to come back after 13 months on the road and see somebody who'll talk to you about their lives and, 'Can you believe what's happening on eastenders?'" He laughs again, but this time it's because he's happy.

This, then, is the new Placebo. Fitter, Happier, more productive. They've fucked anything that moved, snorted anything that didn't, and managed to come out of it intact with what sounds like their best album yet.

"We haven't lost half our brains," boasts Steve.

"We haven't lost our septums", hoots Brian. "And we've managed to stay out of rehab."

"Rehab," agrees Steve, "is for fucking wusses."

"I think rehab was making the album," offers Stefan more sensibly. "That was enough, really."

So what's your idea of a good night out these days?

"Dinner with good friends, fine wine and good conversation," decides Brian.

"In bed by half eleven," chuckles Steve.

"No, still in bed at four," Brian corrects with a broad grin. "But with the right person."