"The Placebo Effect"
They've ambushed the charts and punctured our preconceptions. Now this year's rock'n'role models dress for success, glamming it up with Gucci.
Brian Molko, Stefan Olsdal and Steve Hewitt are on a roll. Suddenly their music is everywhere: the raw, spiked punk of subtly tuneful singles like "Nancy Boy" and "Bruise Pristine" blaring out from building sites, factories and motorway traffic jams across the land. Wickedly weird songs about bad drugs, strange sex and cross-dressing are being propelled to giddy heights in the chart. And, today, they've been given the chance to dress up in what they confess are the coolest clothes they've ever worn; they've posed and pouted like the professionals they are fast becoming and, to cap it all, they've taken a phone out of the blue. From Michael Stipe. To ask them out for a drink tomorrow night. To talk about the film he wants them to appear in. They said yes.
Not that Placebo shouldn't be getting used to this sort of stratospheric attention. It's not long since the band flew back from their appearance at David Bowie's 50th birthday party concert at Madison Square Garden. They were personally invited to that one, too. Celebrity fans, don't you just love them? "And we were asked to go on tour with Kiss," adds Brian with a laconic air. "We just laughed. It wasn't the same thing."
All this has happened recently enough for the three still to be surprised at the pace and turn of events. Not that the obvious things seem to have had much effect ("Doing the Top Of The Pops was cool, no trouble," says Brian) - it's the other stuff. Like their tour bus being almost overturned by frantic fans in Belfast. Like Stefan being called a "god" by someone in the same city. And like Brian, the instantly recognisable, effortlessly androgynous singer and frontperson, being confronted by ever-increasing numbers of down-to-the-last-detail lookalikes at gig after gig as their tours have progressed. "It's really confusing for me," he says. "I would never dress one way because of someone in a band. I mean, Kim Gordon (of Sonic Youth) had a really good pair of trousers on the cover of Goo - but that's about as far as it ever went for me."
But fame opens a Pandora's Box of experiences for those talented enough to lever open its hinges. And Placebo have a refreshingly ambivalent attitude to making the most of what being a pop star can bring. They do, they admit, take advantage of certain situations. "When I'm completely smashed or off my head or feeling horny," pleads Brian. "Or leery, or angry, or feeling like a fight," says Steve, confusingly. They've got the whole thing pretty well sussed, though. "The important thing," says Brian, "is not to find yourself at 40, looking back and thinking, why didn't I pursue all those rock star things? That would be worse. You feel kind of compelled to do it, but it doesn't always feel the way you thought it would afterwards."
Finding themselves thrown into disconcerting situations not always of their own making has affected this young three-piece in different ways. Stefan, Swedish, brought up in Luxembourg, prone to return to his family in Stockholm when he needs to clear his head, is the quietest and, you sense, emotionally the strongest of the three. Brian, American, brought up in Luxembourg, London and Belgium, is the most vivid and volatile. Steve, British, already a father and the band's newest member since the departure of their original, Swedish drummer, is probably the most experienced. Together they make a tantalising balancing act. Steve wryly acknowledges the dynamic: "I've got a kid, an ex-girlfriend and a band leader I've got to keep in check. I'm going to go into social work when all this is finished."
Just what Brain might do when he puts the cap on his lipstick for the last time is anyone's guess. But right now he has social work of his own to get on with. When the band discovered that their appearances on TOTP had prompted a flood of complaints from disgruntled viewers uneasy at their own inability to tell whether the singer of this noisy new band was a boy or a girl, it chimed in perfectly with what he says he is trying to provoke.
"It's funny, and it means it's working," he says. "When straight boys turn around and say, 'She's lovely', it's working. What they're doing is responding in an innocent way to what they see, devoid of repression. People who are intelligent or sorted enough to take it how it is won't be subverted by it. But there's a whole load of guys out there who'd like to kick the shit out of me because they think I'm just a poof, and their girlfriends fancy me." And that, in its own way, is commendably subversive.