The Ghosts of Tours to Come

Scotland On Sunday, Apr'03

EVER since Placebo first burst into the Top 40 with 'Nancy Boy', they have divided people into two camps - those who love them and can't get enough of their fast, dark, pop thrills and those who dismiss them as another derivative indie group that are all style and no substance.

The trio have always insisted they would much rather leave an impression than face indifference, and admit they wear their influences proudly on their sleeve. That's why you can hear snatches of glam rock, Iggy Pop, PJ Harvey, Throwing Muses and Sonic Youth in their songs.

I have been a fan of the group ever since I first saw them perform in Manchester back in 1996. Unsigned and unknown at the time, they played a blistering 20-minute set that blew me away. A few weeks later they won Tony Wilson's legendary In The City competition and found themselves courted by record labels and management companies.

Placebo released their eponymous debut album later that year to critical acclaim. Tracks such as 'Teenage Angst', 'Come Home', 'Bruise Pristine' and '36 Degrees' were declared post-punk classics, while singer Brian Molko was portrayed as one of the most intriguing frontmen since his idol David Bowie.

Not only was he androgynous and photogenic, he was outspoken about everything from his (bi)sexuality to his views on popular culture, music, religion and drugs. In retrospect, some of the statements he came out with were deliberately shocking and provocative, but in a post-Britpop and post-Loaded climate they seemed like a breath of fresh air. 

Placebo's love affair with the British music press screeched to a halt in mid-2000 when the NME penned a scathing feature accusing the singer of being arrogant, difficult, unapproachable, obnoxious and deluded. To the group's dismay, the publication also tore their third album, Black Market Music, to pieces, implying it was pompous and disappointing.

Sat on the patio of Hut's luxurious London office with drummer Steve Hewitt and guitarist/pianist Stefan Olsdal, Molko argues he has forgotten the criticism levelled at him and wants to concentrate on the future. He also claims to have stopped reading the music press a long time ago. Asked if he would entertain the NME again, he replies: "When you argue with a fool you become one."

A few minutes later, however, he hints that he went through a second adolescence in his 20s and used drugs, alcohol and arrogance to mask his insecurities. "I've hurt people and done things I'm not proud of, but I don't see the point of having regrets," he says. "The past is like a rock you can't move, you just have to step over it and keep going."

Dressed in black, Molko still looks as distinctive as he did in 1996, but his androgynous bob has been swapped for a more masculine crop and his mascara-lashed eyes are hidden behind sunglasses.

He says he was sick of being recognised and has always been inspired by people with the ability to reinvent themselves. As he talks about some of his favourite musicians and artists, it becomes clear he is the same intelligent young man who penned 'Pure Morning'. He is just a little older, wiser and more eager to embrace life rather than hurtle through it.

"I'm sure we've been pushed towards the edge a few times, as a band and individuals, but we're lucky we're good friends with strong survival instinct," he says.

Olsdal adds that the band has become less arrogant and aggressive. "I think we've all matured and grown up quite a lot," he says. "The difficulty is, we've had to do some of it in public. Luckily, the more crazy things get around us the closer we stick together."

Hewitt blames the pressures of constant touring as the reason why things can become "very, very messy". "Taking nine months out between finishing the last tour and writing Sleeping With Ghosts definitely gave us the opportunity to free our souls and minds for a while," he says. "Record companies don't really notice when you're exhausted and need a break, but it's important to get out of the rock capsule and enjoy some downtime."

Between conversations about The Flaming Lips ("Their shows are like children's birthday parties on acid - totally glorious!") and Queens of The Stone Age ("The best rock band there is right now"), the trio emphasise how happy they feel about their new album. Recorded late last year, it's a seductive and ambitious record, fusing the energy and rawness of the band's debut with the intimacy and intensity of 1998's Without You I'm Nothing. There are 100mph rock epics, as well as the recent single 'The Bitter End', but these are sprinkled between spine-chilling ballads such as 'Centrefolds' and invigorating pop songs like 'Special Needs'.

"Trying to push your sound forwards without turning your back on all the things that make the band unique and recognisable is definitely a difficult balance, but I think we pulled it off," says Molko.

Olsdal believes there is an urgency running through the album. "Individual songs do remind me of our first record, but I think Sleeping With Ghosts sounds and feels like a debut album," he says. 'Something Rotten' and 'I'll Be Yours' venture into Massive Attack territory and the group rave about producer Jim Abbiss.

"Listening to a producer tear your songs apart then put them back together is always quite frustrating, but we asked Jim to crack the whip and not let us get complacent about anything," says Molko. Hewitt adds that Abbiss took the band to places they would not have necessarily gone. "We're all fans of DJ Shadow and knowing Jim had worked with him made us more willing to experiment. He was like the fourth member of the band. He brought a lot of enthusiasm, ambition and patience into the studio."

According to Molko, Sleeping With Ghosts is "the most personal and universal" Placebo record to date. "Writing lyrics is always quite a cathartic experience but I think I probably exorcised more demons on this album than any of the others," he says. "I was approaching 30, I'd just moved into a new apartment and had all this time on my hands to reflect on all the relationships I've had.

"Obviously, certain songs are about particular people or things that reminded me of them, but I think there's a shared history there because we've all been through the types of relationships described on this record. The title Sleeping With Ghosts is about a smell or object or film reminding you of a certain person or misdemeanour."

Placebo might be more mature and reflective these days, but they still like the idea of partying hard. "We've had some crazy nights in Glasgow, Manchester, Mexico and Oz, but Moscow was the most insane city we've played," continues Hewitt.

Molko laughs: "We were pickled in vodka and the security kept asking for our autographs then selling them to the fans," he says. "It was completely surreal. Everywhere we went, we had flocks of crazy Russians following us. It was like being in A Hard Day's Night."

Placebo play Glasgow Barrowland tomorrow. Sleeping With Ghosts is out now on Elevator Music/ Hut