Molko on life, death, smack and make-up

X-Ray, Apr'03


A self-confessed ‘ex girlboy conundrum and difficult interviewee’, Placebo’s Brian Molko returns to the rock fray after an eight month sabbatical. We get inside his head.

SHORN OF LOCKS, has Mr. Molko’s rejuvination left him a sharper, cleaner character on the inside? And what of the motormouthing arrogance that rubbed so many up the wrong way? On the even of his fourth Placebo album Sleeping with Ghosts, the follow up to the million-selling Black Market Music, X-Ray decided it was the right time to lay him down on the couch and tap his mind.

How is Sleeping with Ghosts different to Black Market Music?

This album is a return to what we do best really, it’s dealing with relationships again. It’s got so much to do with the fact that we had an eight month period off beforehand to think for the first time and be human beings, to reacquaint ourselves with humanity outside of the rock’n’roll bubble. It was very natural that those were the kind of songs that were coming out.

With Black Market Music, we’d just done the Without You I’m Nothing tour with just each other and CNN for company, and we ended up in the studio very pissed off, railing against the injustices in the world. That’s why Black Market Music is more angular and angry and political. Sleeping with Ghosts shares similar themes to Without you I’m Nothing but I think it’s broader. Without you I’m Nothing was a very bleak album because of thee lifestyle choices we were making at the time, and the bad drugs, and I think this one is tempered with a little bit of hope.

Why did you decide to have a complete break from the music industry before recording it?

After the BMM tour we were spent – physically, obviously, cos we’d been on the road for so long, and emotionally, we were very very messed up. And we’d run out of realistic life experiences to write about. Nobody really cares about the colour of your tour bus and the fact you can’t shit on your tour bus, or how many notches on bedpost you have at the end of the tour. We realised we needed a break for the first time in seven years. We needed to reacquaint ourselves with genuine everyday human contact and exchange. I moved house as soon as I came off the tour, my first proper home, so I came back down with a big bang of domesticity. I wasn’t Brian Molko the rock star anymore, I was just Brian Molko who needed to furnish his apartment. It’s in Old Street, round there. So we decided to take six months off, then six months became eight months. It was a good chance to think about what had happened to us, well, me anyway, over the past ten years. They say your life changes every seven years, Saturn returns and all that and it’s interesting to note it’s seven years since Steve came into the band, and I turned 30 as soon as the album was finished. And I had this eight month period to look back through everything I’d been through emotionally and I started to deal with it for the first time. I started to think very much about the relationships I’ve had over the past ten years and whether they’d changed me and the effect that they’d had on me. So Sleeping with Ghosts became an album about exorcising the demons of your past relationships. And in that way, it became a very therapeutic and cathartic thing for me.

If you’re looking to the future, why is the album called Sleeping with Ghosts, which seems to hint at an inescapable link with the past?

By the time I reached 30 I realised there is no tragedy without joy in the first place. I became quite obsessed by the idea that you carry the ghosts of your relationships past with you for the rest of your life and people come back to haunt you, and that this is often triggered by external stimuli – smells, a song on the radio, an article of clothing, a book, whatever. I wondered what effect your memory still had on you to this day, regardless of the amount of time from the end of the relationship and where you are now and how you’ve moved on. Along the way, I managed to exorcise a few personal demons. Songwriting does allow me to lead a more balanced existence than I would without it. I feel blessed to have that outlet. To be able to express yourself to the world. To use your art as a form of catharsis or therapy. I think without it I’d be much, much more messed up than I am anyway.

Is it important that you sell a million of this new album, like Black Market Music did?

In a way, yeah, cos as an artist you always want to feel like you’re improving. If it did a lot worse I’d be disappointed and I’d have to ask myself a lot of questions. But at the same time, I don’t want it to sell as many records as Coldplay, or The Strokes, cos then I’d feel even more pressure than I do already. I think we’d say to ourselves, well, where do we go from here? I am a little bit worried about reaching the top simply for that reason. We don’t have to become U2 just yet. There’s plenty of years ahead for us to do that.

What do you feel your position is in the music scene now, after being on the scene for eight years?

We still feel like outsiders and we’ve always felt like outsiders. We’ve always felt like Radiohead in the way that we’ve created our own context, our own little planet where we have our own rules, we’re not affected by musical trends and just keep making music our way. However, I am not naïve and I’ve become very much aware of the fact that it’s the 21st Century: you have to prove your relevance again. You have to prove to the fans that you’re not ready for your pipe and slippers just yet, that you’re not passe.

You’ve always had a reputation as a really bad interviewee. Why is that?

It was who I was at the time. I had a great deal of arrogance and a great deal of bravado, but I think the bravado was brought on by a huge insecurity. I did get a reputation for being a beast as well. I was called a ‘drug crazed sex dwarf’ at one point. In every exaggeration there’s always a grain of truth, I guess.

What about another quote where you were called ‘delusional to the point of paranoia’?

(laughs) Yeah, I think that’s great. Then again, talking about bravado, socially, the bravado that I exuded had a lot to do with my intake at the time, and that was a way of me dealing with mammoth insecurity.

What kind of ‘intake’ are you talking about?

Everything, Around Without you I’m Nothing there was a really bad period where the drugs changed and it wasn’t very clever.

We’re talking heroin, yes?


As an intelligent man, how on earth did you every get involved with that?

Because I’m an old romantic, really, with an excessive personality. It was always going to happen. I managed to pull myself out of it before anything got very serious.

How difficult was that?

When you have a band threatening to kill you … Well, when you’re placed in a position where you go: career, friendship, music, art or heroin, you make the choice pretty damn quickly. I didn’t get into it deep enough to develop a nasty habit, but physically, giving up is days of discomfort and being really down, but you start to rise out of it.

How long is it since you’ve taken heroin?

God, ’98. I don’t really do drugs anymore. After heroin, I had a real problem with cocaine as well. I remember talking to my manager and saying, “this is all getting to be too much effort, I don’t know if I can deal with it, I just want to get back to where I was before”, which was just a drinker and a smoker. It agrees with me; the rest of it doesn’t really at all. And that’s all I am now, a drinker and smoker. It’s good. A stoned band is a happy band!

Did it ever get so bad you had to check into somewhere like the Priory?

It never got that bad. I’ve always had a really strong survival instinct, which has prevented me from jumping in at the deep end and staying there for too long when it comes to things like that. I’m very proud of the fact that this album has no drug references.

I noticed on your website you are now described as ‘an ex girlboy conundrum’ and you’ve also had your hair cut short. Why the change?

I still wear make up a lot! I’m actually wearing more, it’s just more expensive and better applied! The hair, well it took me 25 minutes in the morning to get to a point where it was suitable for Brian Molko to walk the streets with. After BMM, it was cut all your hair off, it’s low maintenance, you’re taking a break and anyway, you don’t want to be recognised walking around London, I want to be able to pass a bit incognito. This is your sabbatical from the rock bubble. And I felt like being a boy again for a little while. I’ve been this boygirl for so long that I just thought it would be interesting and different to just be a bloke again and wear jeans and a sweater and just wander around and be a regular Joe. I wanted to be able to take the Tube and for people to go ‘nah, can’t be’.

Are you going bald?

I don’t know. I haven’t really lost any hair. I’ve been like this for the past seven, eight years. If it was to happen I’d just do the honorable thing like Michael Stipe and just get over it. I just hope I have a nice shaped head. There will be no transplants and no combovers, that’s for sure. If it happens, there’s nothing you can really do. I’m quite philosophical about it. They say it’s a sign of virility anyway!

How close are you to your family?

My father and I don’t communicate anymore. We’re just not good for each other so we’re not in each other’s lives. I love my mum. But she’s deeply religious, she’s a Born Again Christian which is what I was raised in. I left the church at around the age of 13, 14 as I started to discover my sexuality, which was definitely at odds with the church. My mum lives in Dundee. With my mum, our conversation is limited because I essentially do something that is not the way of the Lord. She’s just had to get used to it. I think the make-up is the thing that annoys my mum the most. Thankfully she’s hard of hearing, so she hasn’t really got the records fully. I have an older brother who I’m really close with, and that’s it.

Does it make you sad that you don’t have any contact with your father? Do you think there could ever be a reconciliation on the cards?

With this kind of relationship, there usually is one somewhere along the line, but there’s no direct reconciliation planned at present by any means. Sure, it saddens me; cos of that, I’ve always had problems around the time of birthdays and Christmases and things like that. But I’ve learned to deal with it. I’ve always been the kind of person to look towards the future. Perhaps cos I’ve made so many mistakes in the past, I want to run away from them really quickly.

You’re not a believer in therapy then?

I’ve considered it many times. I’ve been very close to going to see people; I’ve cancelled appointments on the day for many different reasons. But to be honest, I’m lucky to have the music, that’s totally where I get it out. I’m quite happy with the amount of neuroses I’ve got now. They keep me ticking over. If I got rid of them all, who knows, I might become Sting for God’s sake, and I can’t imagine anything worse on this planet!

What is your first childhood memory?

I was in Africa where we were living at the time. I was about two years old and I remember being in my cot, and it seemed to me to be like a prison cell already. I remember staring through the bars watching our maid sweep the floor.

Do you believe in life after death?

Organised religion has always seemed a bit of a cop-out to me, cos you’re accepting a list of rules without finding your own morality and your own principles – which takes more effort, but is infinitely more rewarding. The idea of life after death, which I grew up with all around me, is that it almost seems like an excuse for not living your life today. Life is so precious that it can’t be a rehearsal for some idyllic existence in the clouds. If you realise there could be nothing at the end of it all, it doesn’t mean you have to have a massive existential quandary about it, it just makes every second that you live all the more precious, and everything you do and every effect you have on other people much more important. When we go, we go. I’d like to believe in reincarnation. It would be nice, but I’m not too sure.

Have you ever seen a dead body?

Yes, when I was a kid, in a car wreck on the way to school one morning. I was shocked at how ghost white this body way. And it was very soon after the accident. It’s an image that’s never left me.

Have you ever used violence against anybody?

As a kid, everybody slaps their peers around, but I was always very small so I was usually on the receiving end of bullying. I think that had a lot to do with the fact that at home, I didn’t really have the family unit that made it good for me to interact socially with my peers.

Have you been the victim of violence in your adult years?

Oh shit yeah, I’ve been threatened with violence for wearing make-up. I’ve had a lot of aggression from a lot of people but I take it with a pinch of salt. It’s okay. Thankfully, my band are bigger than me! Don’t mess with my drummer from Manchester, that’s for sure! Haha.

Do you think there’s ever a case where violence can solve anything?

Big abstract question! Probably.

What about in context with the impending war?

I was on the march (the anti-war protest on February 15). This is a war that America decided to have even before September 11, and whatever justification that anyone can find for this, you can’t get away from the fact that they’ve been waiting for an excuse. When September 11 happened, the Americans were ready to attack straight away, but it was like, let’s hold on, as the media aren’t gonna take this very well – let’s get Afghanistan first, we were going to invade them anyway. It’s a case of America trying to force its way of life on the rest of the world and I think, simply on a philosophical level, if this is what the genocide of children is about then you have to make a stand about it. And if we weren’t going to war over the exportation of the American way of life, we should be marching against it anyway, against globalisation and America’s policing of the world when it sees fit – when it has financial or political interests, or when it has both in this case. You have to march, cos so many people are buying this bullshit. I do believe in peaceful protest and civil disobedience when it comes to this.

When and where were you happiest?

There was a period in 1999 where I was gloriously happy, but I was delusional! (laughs) I was head over heels in love and I thought that this was it and that I was sorted and that a whole bag of worries had just left me, like Pilgrim’s Progress, losing the burden of the sins on his back. I felt deliriously happy. But in the immortal words of Ian McCulloch, nothing lasts forever.

Are you in a relationship at the moment?

Next question.

Who was the first woman you ever loved?

The woman I lost my virginity to. I was 14, she was 16. We lost our virginity together. She was a beautiful French girl called Carole. She was my first proper girlfriend.

Who was the first man you fell in love with?

I was 17. It’s when I moved to London, and fell in love with a third year drama student. I think he relished the idea of breaking me in probably more than was actually in love with me! I’ve had sporadic relationships with men since. I think we’ll probably all evolve to a point where we’re all bisexual. It may become the cultural norm. But in order for that to happen the church has to stop having such a massive influence on everyday culture. When that starts to happen, it’s very possible that culturally and sexually we’ll take on the natural state, which I think is closer to bisexuality than anything else. I remember a fantastic quote of Derek Jarman’s which was “the world has to realise that heterosexuality is not the norm, it’s just common”. That says it all for me.

Have you had your heart broken?

Many times. I’ve been a heartbreaker too. Which I find funny cos I’m the guy who couldn’t get laid at college. Which is why, when people treat you like some kind of sex symbol, I find it quite embarrassing. I’ve been a bad boy, and I’ve hurt people along the way. It’s impossible to exist and to take risks in life without hurting people along the way. There’s nothing worse than not attempting something cos you’re worried about a negative outcome. That’s self-censorship on a life level.

Do you think you’ve deserved your reputation of being sexually lascivious in the past?

I’m happy with the idea of the myth but you have to understand that a myth is a myth. A lot of music culture is about the propagation of those myths: I mean, I’d hate to be Sting or Gareth Gates or Fran Healy. It’s just all a bit too nice. Certainly for many years I was a tart, but similarly with drugs there’s a point where you can’t do that forever, that becomes very boring as well. If you have any depth to you as a human being you’re going to start looking for something else.

You’ve cheated before then?

Yes, shock horror, Brian Molko is a love cheat!

Have you ever been totally faithful and monogamous?

Yes. But not recently! (laughs) I often wonder if monogamy or marriage is one of these social constructs that has been put in place in order to control the general public. It’s a kickback to the Old Testament. It’s very uncommon for animals to mate for life. And there was a study done on pigeons and they found that 13% of pigeons are inherently homosexual. Gay pigeons, let’s go! (laughs) I’m convinced my dog was gay when I was growing up, too.

If you met your younger self now, would you be proud of what you'd turned into?

Yes, I'm improving as a human being. I have more respect for people, I'm learning to become less egocentric and arrogant and I'm learning to listen to people a lot more, which I think is really important. If I went back and saw myself at the age of 22, 23, I think I'd be shocked, and I'd realise why I got such a bad reputation and why I had a reputation for being a drunk and other things.

If I was able to go back to myself at that age, I think I'd say to myself "drink more water and don't worry about it, it's going to get better". And I think it does. For me, my twenties were definitely a second adolescence which I feel I'm coming out of right now, cos I've just turned 30. It was a chaotic, schizophrenic and excessive time and I experienced a lot and learned a great deal from it. I would have a real problem as a human being if I hadn't. I do think it gets better. I wouldn't necessarily do my twenties again, cos it was a very difficult time. But the demons don't shout as loud anymore. It's okay being me right now.