"Agenda Bender"

Sunday Times, Jul'00

Jul 16, 2000

Brian Molko has ditched the dresses and developed a tan, but the androgynous singer is still full of surprises.

MARK EDWARDS on the latest incarnation of Placebo

Every decade has one. When Placebo arrived on the scene with their 1996 single Nancy Boy, their lead singer, Brian Molko, was slipping into the sexually ambiguous role first carved out by Bowie in the 1970s, but vacant since the 1980s version, Boy George, had reinvented himself as a DJ. Brett from Suede had thought about applying for the post; but after one half-hearted quote about being a bisexual who had never had a homosexual experience, he thought better of it. Enter Molko, heavy on the eye shadow and lip gloss, and quick to inform the music press that his band were intent on taking up the androgynous mantle.

Today, however, as the band sit around a west-London recording studio fixing a few "woolly" tracks on one of the songs from their forthcoming album, Molko isn't wearing a dress and doesn't appear to be wearing even a trace of make-up. All right, those pedal-pusher trousers are a bit camp, but you still suspect that this is what passes for dressing down in Molko's wardrobe. Perhaps we'll forgo the gender-bender agenda for today.

He's also looking suspiciously healthy, thanks to a deep tan gained during a recent holiday in the south of France. It certainly fooled the hordes of pale-skinned, black-wearing goths Molko encountered on the Tube as they made their way to the Lost Weekend Festival in Docklands earlier this month. "I was able to pass through incognito because I simply wasn't pale enough. They'd look at me, think 'Is he?' then decide 'No, he can't be, not with that tan.'"

Molko may not be pale, but he is interesting. As the band's new single, Taste in Men, arrives in the stores, he discusses the album (as yet untitled) that will follow in the autumn with infectious enthusiasm.

"It's quite a dark record on a lyrical level. It's still about falling in love, it's still about the impossibility of love in some places, there's quite a lot of religious imagery and a smattering of politics," he explains. The religious element reflects Molko's upbringing. American-born, but raised in Liberia, Lebanon and Luxembourg (among other places), Molko became a born-again Christian at the age of 11. "When your parents tell you that there's this fat guy with a beard in a red suit that comes down the chimney and gives you presents, you kind of believe it," he says. "And when your parents tell you that there's this thin guy with a beard who died on a cross for you, you kind of believe in it too. I find it interesting that people lie to you from day one.

"We used to get taken off into the French mountains for religious retreats," he recalls. "We'd ski in the daytime and, you know, gaze on God's wonder, and in the evenings we'd have Bible study. Now, with a little bit of distance, you look back on it and it's a subtle form of brainwashing."

Not really that subtle.

"No, probably not. I believe I was being groomed for the ministry. I think the pastor recognised my leadership qualities."

As a result, Jesus just "pops up occasionally" in the lyrics on the new album. "What are the things people get completely immersed in in their lives?" asks Molko. "Love, drugs and religion. These are the things that people have a tendency to lose themselves inside, a tendency to become addicted to. Being a lapsed born-again Christian gives me an interesting perspective on that."

Molko lapsed at the age of 14, when his religious beliefs clashed with his developing sexuality (although, as with Bowie, some have questioned whether Molko's androgyny isn't just a clever marketing ploy). But he has retained a love of the Bible. "I remember the Pixies' singer Black Francis talking about the Bible in his first interviews, and how much he loved it because it was filled with blood and guts and sex ... and it actually is. There's that wonderful fantasy bit in the movie The Last Temptation, where Jesus meets Paul, who tells him to go away because he's not the Jesus he wants, he doesn't fit in with the image of Jesus."

There may be, I suggest, an analogy with certain rock stars who no longer live up to the image we have built up of them. Molko laughs. "I don't have a messianic complex ... I know a few people who do, though ... some of my best friends are messiahs."

Taste in Men is bigger, bolder and just plain louder than anything Placebo have previously recorded - a pulsing groove, thundering drums and a huge bass sound suggesting that the band's claim to have finally achieved the sound they've been searching for may well be true. This may have something to do with the fact that they took a co-production role for the first time; it may also reflect some of the other bands that Placebo have been seeing and listening to recently. Molko is still buzzing with excitement following gigs by the post-rock godfathers Sonic Youth and the avant-garde noiseniks Einsturzende Neubaten.

"Bands like that really, really make you want to continue," he says. "When you realise the power and significance they have after so many years, the ripple effect of bands like that ... when you see the original and it's better than everything it has influenced, that's fantastic."

Placebo have also been listening to recent albums by Asian Dub Foundation and Primal Scream. "Take those in conjunction with the May Day riots and the WTO riots, and it seems that youth is becoming politicised again, which is very positive, I think," says Molko. "I remember opening up The Mirror and there was the photograph of Winston Churchill's mohican, and it was just the funniest thing we'd ever seen. It inspired some lyrics on a track called Spite and Malice. I just started screaming "dope, guns, f***ing in the streets" - the old White Panther saying - and someone in the studio said: 'There's your chorus.' So thank you very much to Churchill and his mohican."

When they've finished mixing the new album, Placebo will begin rehearsals for a world tour. Following some festival appearances in Japan and Europe (including Reading and Leeds), they will unveil their own show, complete with new visuals. Molko says the band have been inspired by video artists such as Bill Viola. "We wanted to come up with images that you might be able to see in an art gallery as well. I like the idea of going to see a band and also watching a little bit of a film - something quietly unsettling and abstract enough for the individual to make the connection between the song and the visual and then themselves."

Faced with 18 months of touring, the band are wondering if they couldn't emulate the Winter Lady, a character in Nalda Said, the novel by the former Belle & Sebastian bassist Stuart David. By endlessly travelling, following the summer around the world, the Winter Lady has lived for 300 years.

"That would be the ultimate way to plan a world tour," says Molko, "just follow the sun." Although you would, in fact, be quite likely to shorten your life rather than lengthen it, I suggest. "Mmmm," agrees Molko. "We'd look good, though ... and the goths wouldn't trouble us."