"Russia's cup of tea"

The Daily Telegraph, Aug'01

Aug 18, 2001

by Andrew Perry

Russia's cup of tea: Placebo have an uneasy relationship with the British music scene. But, as Andrew Perry discovers, Moscow loves them

Seldom is Britain's insular attitude more clearly defined than in the music business. Over here, for instance, the Strokes are something of a sensation, with their second single hitting the top 20 and their recent tour a breathless rampage of sweat, groupies and meetings with Kate Moss. Back home in the US, the band have had no records out, next to no press and can barely pull a crowd outside their native New York.

Then there are the British bands who don't fit in with the UK market - or indeed within the global industry's tripolar forcefield of New York, Los Angeles and London. Take Placebo, the British-based trio who have released three albums now, but whose angsty, goth-rock stylings are anything but the sound du jour with the local media and who have yet to make any sizable impression on the American market.

They peaked in 1998 with the gloriously catchy Pure Morning single and its accompanying album, Without You I'm Nothing. They were generally judged to have under-achieved with last year's follow-up, Black Market Music, leaving them on that plateau reserved for fervently supported cult bands who may never reach a mainstream audience.

If their profile at home has been slight since that release, this isn't, as some might imagine, because they've been moping in their bedsits, desperately trying out more recherche brands of eye-liner, wondering how to progress commercially next time out. In fact, Placebo have been touring the big, wide world, often in countries that many bands would have trouble finding on a map.

I joined them on their first visit to Moscow, which remains a loss- making destination for Western rock bands. Problems ranged from actually setting up the concert (solvent-but-non-dodgy promoters are not legion), through the still-convoluted process of acquiring visas, to clearing customs with the equipment. Having paid around pounds 300 upfront for this last privilege, Placebo arrived at the airport only to be met with the same bill again. They refused to pay it, and only after several frustrating hours of haggling were they eventually let through.

Little wonder that few acts can be bothered to make the trip just yet but, having already played in Poland, the Czech Republic and Croatia, Placebo have spirits entirely undimmed by the experience. "I love my job," beams their pint-sized front-man Brian Molko, once he has been hustled through a screaming mob of teenage girls waiting outside Moscow's MTV studios.

Even when they're ushered through to a pitifully modest dressing room, and furnished with a cold McDonalds burger barely fit for human consumption (the economic changes in Russia are very cosmetic, thus far), they behave like model ambassadors.

Molko has often been portrayed in the music press as something of a little toad. He has a rare talent for sleazy soundbites - he famously confessed that, after a tour in 1997, the band had "left a trail of blood and spunk around the country". This, and his subsequent decision to clean up and keep the media at arm's length has led to a fractious, love-hate relationship with journalists.

Many miles away at MTV Moscow, it's hard to see how anyone could take offence at Brian and his two henchmen, bassist Stefan Olsdal and drummer Steve Hewitt, as they smilingly plough through three separate - and often incomprehensible - interviews. In the evening, over a hearty Ukrainian dinner, I speak to Brian about their expanding global audience.

He's no less charming, although it's easy to see how his camp, catty sense of humour winds up some people - and bands. "We've always had a very global outlook," he begins calmly, before gathering venom. "Whereas you take a band like Embrace [their neo-indie label-mates at Hut] who release an album during the World Cup and get a number one at home, and then travel round Europe acting like rock stars - without having put any of the hours in.

"They're shocked that you actually have to work your ass off. Every territory you go to, there's a new audience to win over."

Placebo have succeeded in winning audiences in places as far flung as Greece and Australia. Molko is especially proud that they had a number one album in the notoriously Anglophobic French market.

Although they all live in London, the band's cosmopolitan background may well have something to do with their worldwide appeal. Only Hewitt is English born and bred. Molko, the son of an American banker, has lived all over the place: the Lebanon, Liberia and Luxembourg, where he and Swedish-born Olsdal met at school as teenagers.

"Whether it's 50 people, 500 or 5,000," Molko says, "we'll go anywhere where people want to hear us. It's a very old-school approach to being in a rock band. It's what REM did, and U2. You went really slowly, and believed in every album and every tour being a building block.

"This global outlook is what, hopefully, will allow us to sustain longevity. It's what we call the anti-Kula Shaker syndrome: not appearing, and then just disappearing." He smirks, playfully. "I don't mean to slag off bands, I'm just using them as examples."

By this stage in our conversation, Brian has developed a deep cultural interest in the local vodka. He loudly announces that, if glasses are clinked, everyone at the table must do so, otherwise we'll all be doomed to seven years of bad sex. Glasses are dutifully clinked, well into the wee hours.

The trio look remarkably chipper at the next evening's appointment with 5,000 fans at the outdoor Zelyony Theatre in Gorky Park. With a stage made of ancient wood and benches out front that can't have seen a lick of paint since Stalin's day, it's an elegantly decayed setting that dovetails perfectly with Placebo's seedy brand of Bowie-meets- Sonic-Youth anthems.

During the encores, Brian earns a deafening roar of approval as he bounces over to the armed policemen guarding the side of the stage and coquettishly tries to get them to dance with him. The band leave the stage knowing that, if and when things finally loosen up here, they'll be at the front of the queue of Western rock bands ready to capitalise.

Needless to say, this triumphant debut is celebrated well into the night.