"The Religion of Glam"

The US Vault Online, 2001

An interview with Brian Molko, lead singer of Placebo, about art, reality, and the humanity of rock

Standing onstage at New York’s Irving Plaza, Brian Molko is glam incarnate. His visage emerges from the darkness in a mask of pale makeup, and he is clad entirely in white. Suddenly, he is backlit by an array of lights, mostly red, which also illuminate the cloud of smoke enveloping the club. At the end of the verse, Molko steps back to take a drag on his cigarette, leaving bassist Stefan Olsdal and drummer Steve Hewitt to take control of the music.

The night is Placebo’s first of two, and the set list comprises various selections from their three records: their eponymous debut, Without You I’m Nothing, and the recent Black Market Music. To satisfy the true fans – which, in this case, constitute nearly the entire audience – several b-sides are included on the set list, including “Leni,” featuring Molko seated listlessly at the keyboard with a glass of liquor, and “Little Mo,” a song about Elvis’ demise on the toilet.

Those that have followed the band will know that lately, their aggressive sound has been renewed after an unwonted dip into the delicate pain of Without You I’m Nothing. According to Molko, however, the change was never intended to be permanent:

“We have to make music that is truthful to us and expresses where our heads are at during a certain time,” he said, during a recent telephone interview. “The first album was born out of tension and got rid of a lot of teenage frustration; the second album dealt with the impossibility of relationships and the breakdown of relationships. They’re like snapshots of where our souls were at the time. It’s never as calculated as one would seem to imagine.”

And on Black Market Music, guitar-charged songs like “Haemoglobin” and “Black-Eyed” were a result of the band’s greater involvement in production and mixing. Said Molko, “It’s essentially the sound we’ve always wanted to put onto tape.”

The reactions have been unanimously positive and strong: Music, which was released in Europe several months prior to the American release date, has already sold over one million records.

But for a band like Placebo, accustomed to receiving news of achieving platinum status while on a world tour, it comes as no surprise. As Molko says, the creative process is a very natural one:

“As when recording the previous records, we locked ourselves in our subterranean studio in Central London, where we threw a lot of shit at the wall and saw what stuck. The majority of it’s born out of playing with each other.” He adds, with a laugh, “Playing music with each other, that is.

“There’s something very magical that happens when we’re in a room together and we pick up instruments, something that was reinforced when other people would come to the studio and only make things more difficult. When it’s just the three of us, the music seems very instinctive. There’s a great deal of unspoken energy that goes between us that comes from spending so much time together.”

This is not to say that the band shies away from all outside intervention in the creation of its music. For example, they have worked on several occasions with David Bowie, with whom they crafted a special, single-only version of “Without You I’m Nothing” months before releasing Black Market Music. In addition, Music features a track titled “Spite And Malice,” in which rapper Justin Warfield supplies the chorus. Regarding his decision to invite collaboration on the latter, Molko noted:

“Originally, the track was just made up of the parts that I sung, so it was lacking a really big hook or unexpected twist. We wanted it to be on the record, but it had this big hole. So, I suggested that we call Justin up, as he is one of my very good friends, and I knew that he was essentially the anti-gangster rapper. Not surprisingly, he fit in perfectly with the Placebo ethos. He’s just incredibly literate and imaginative: quite unique, I’d say.”

Molko is less complimentary of American pseudo-gangster rappers or, for that matter, love-bitten teenage pop stars: “It’s functional music; it’s designed to make you forget about your life and stop thinking about yourself. Big blockbuster movies, soap operas, and the Backstreet Boys all have the same purpose. It doesn’t interest me, because what I want to do is create art.

“Art has to reflect the human condition, hold a mirror up to humanity. The rest is disposable, facile, and empty. It’s designed to make a very, very, very quick buck. Most of it’s the same, anyway. It’s kind of like a return to the eighties, when all these hotshot session musicians were playing on all the same records. Everybody from Fleetwood Mac to Tina Turner had the same snare sound or bass player. That’s extremely boring. Uniqueness, not homogenization, is what pushes culture and music forward.”

For Placebo, the key to musical growth lies in introspection, spontaneity and a constant willingness to venture into the unknown. Molko said: “We don’t just sit down and decide we’re going to write about something. It’s just feeling around in the dark, and it’s usually not until we finish a song that we know what it’s about emotionally. Contrary to popular belief, we’re very uncalculated in the way we write.”

According to Molko, the band has enjoyed perpetual absence of writer’s block, a feat attributed to the variety of influences and genres, whether it be other music (Sonic Youth and PJ Harvey) or literature, which constantly breathe new life into the mix:

“One book that had a huge effect on my life and musical approach,” said Molko, “was the Bible… I had a very Christian upbringing. There’s a great deal of religious imagery in the songs.”

Despite his roots, however, Molko does not define himself as a traditional Christian: “I don’t believe in God, I’m not a religious person. The spiritual side that exists in everything we do is the humanity, the honesty, the passion, and our own personal truth. There’s a humanist kind of approach to things. When writing the lyrics, my approach to the characters of each song is sympathetic, and that’s what makes it human. That’s the only attitude I believe in.”