"Even Better Than The Real Thing"
Stefan Olsdal tells Jane Bird about the big ideas behind the make-up and cross-dressing.The word "weird" seems too tame a description for a band as risque as Placebo.
Based in London, the three-piece have captivated a broad audience with their own dark concoction of emotive dissonants and gloomy speed rock.
Their eponymous debut album gives an insight into the perverted concepts behind this band. Listen to "Nancy boy", their angst-filled anthemic number 4 hit and you've a fair yardstick as to what to expect in the garishly-displayed flesh. These boys like a reaction, and generally get one.... Touring with the likes of Bush, doing festivals and popping in on David Bowie's 50th birthday party are just part of what makes multi-talented Swedish bassist Stefan Olsdal, tick. Apparently, toy instruments feature, too....
"I started playing drums about ten years ago in the school orchestra. I decided that I wanted to be up front in a band, so I got on to bass and played that for a while at the same time as learning piano. The first bass I bought was a Fender Precision, because Iron Maiden's Steve Harris," he gulps, visibly startled at his own confession,"played one; maybe I shouldn't admit to that...."
Ooh, don't those fashion rockers have to be careful what they say?
"Since then, I've tried to emulate a particular sound or hero. I've always thought more about the creative side. I had two or three bass lessons, but I don't really believe in being taught how to play; I think it's better to teach yourself. I played guitar for about four years when I was in a band in Sweden. Then I came to London and guitar. With the guitar I tried to get as technically good as I could, so I could play as second nature and express myself better."
While in London, Stefan ran into an old school associate. "I bumped into Brian (Molko, guitar?vocals) after a five year gap. He did a gig in a pub in south London, and when I saw him play I just said "let's play together", and that was that. I fell in love with his voice and his guitar playing because it was really different. We started playing together but we kept on switching instruments. I could never be satisfied with one instrument."
Live, Stefan frequently swaps instruments with brian to take his share of the limelight, and on parts of the album he also features on the piano parts.
"The band started off as just the two of us recording on a four-track, switching instruments, using toy pianos, toy guitars, but most of those songs ended up as B-sides."
Robert Shultzberg, another old school friend and band member of Stefan's joined the fold. The antithesis of Britpop followed. "Brian created most of our songs to start with, sitting at home, writing and singing. Now sound checks and rehearsals are where our creating is mostly done. Sometimes you can sit at home, get an idea and bring it to the band, but mostly it's a complete band effort. "One Big Evil Dildo", the band's live encore track, came out of a sound check in East Germany. That was the first time we had ever played that together, and we performed it, recorded it and kept it that way."
Dancing with David
It's no wonder that Stefan compares the feeling he gets on stage - somewhat debatably - to the rush of being on E.
"We did a couple of dates with David bowie last year, and his 50th annervesary bash in Madison Square Garden in January; they were amazing gigs." Meantime, 2 + years of continuous touring with Ash, Bush, and fellow Swedes Whale, will soon draw to a close to allow some studio time for the band.
"We're going to be touring until the end of August and then we're trying to get a break from it. I'm just going to concentrate on the studio.
Without the music, it's nothing."
Not happy with soley providing a solid base line, Stefan's imaginative approach to music makes for some self-proclaimed quality moments in the album.
"My favourite song is `I.Q'," he comments. "I just think it's the most dynamic and beautiful - musically and melodically. It has a toy piano in there - and it's my best playing as well. The thing with a three-piece is it forces you to get into your instrument a lot more. It's a very triangular thing, and Brian's guitar playing and my bass playing tend to work hand in hand. I'm not a big fan of the big, fat E-string. I find that it can be a bit boring. There's much more you can do with the bass; there are some really nice tonal qualities to it. I'm approaching bass now to take it somewhere new; I'm playing it more like a guitar in someways."
"My main bass is an American Fender Jazz, but I also play an old fender VI - it looks like a fender Jaguar with six strings, but the gauge is just between a guitar and a bass, so you can play both chords and single notes. My secret weapon is a Roland PK-5 midi pedal which I bought for one of the songs where I had to play melody line, Brian was playing rhythm guitar. We needed something to replace the bass, so I got this MIDI pedal. It's a full octave and I trigger a sampler and, like an ss3200, I trigger different drums and sounds."
No- one is safe as Placebo invade homes thanks to massive music press attention.
"Brian's been on every front cover in this country. I think it's great. I'm surprised at the way things have been going. I thought we were going to be a band for bands. The success of "Nancy Boy" was really unexpected."
The media media spotlight is mainly directed at the more provocative and controversial aspects surrounding the band. Isn't that rather an embarrassment to a serious musician?
"Ideally, I always want Placebo to be more about the music, but you can't help what people want to hear and want to know. Brian looks a certain way and if we're portraying stuff in more than one way then thats fine." just under one year after their first gig, Placebo secured a deal with Hut records, followed shortly by the birth of their own record label Elevator Music.
"Our own record label allows us, basically, to get the ultimate deal. For us it is best to have our own label, as we plan to release different side products in the future. What you see is only part of Placebo. Long term, I'd like to see longevity, because this is what we live and breathe: what we get up in the morning for. We want to write that perfect song."