Story & Interview by Bridget Virden
Brian Molko, icon of lipstick and eyeliner and Placebo frontman has a mission. Clue: It's not make-up, it's ammunition.
Like all good road movies, my afternoon limo ride with Brian Molko across London offers sex, drugs, violence and a police tail... In Camden we talk of make-up and sex, in the Aldwych of theatre and performance (debating the nature of Goth whilst passing The Woman in Black at the Fortune Theatre), driving down Whitehall it's politics, and finally in Brixton we re-create a scene from The Man Who Fell to Earth. And then meet David Bowie - who turns out to be a scouser.
Transience is central to the nature of Placebo, Brian is half-American and half-Scottish. Stefan Olsdal (guitar) is Swedish and Steve Hewitt (drums) is from Manchester. The regional identity that has defined many bands over the past couple of years escapes Placebo. "That's what stands us apart. We have a certain rootlessness which is mysterious. It's more exciting than something you are sure of, we are never going to be part of that whole lad thing." With no distance between us in the back of the car, Brian Molko is both sparkling and doll-like, a quality he readily acknowledges and feels comfortable with, "I enjoy getting my photo taken, being made up and dressed, that's no problem. But having to analyse yourself to the minute degree in interviews does have a kind of negative effect on your head."
Going straight for the Ann Summers party tone I decided to stay true to two of my personal fascinations, make-up and sex. I soon discover that Brian is close to many girl's dream - an intelligent non queeny guy who knows the right nail varnish to use. New lads beware - the time of the facially-waxed articulate and eye-linered man has come. So what if he travels on his mum's bus pass and has hips the width of your arm? "Glamour is something that I feel very comfortable with," Brian elaborates. "It's encouraging a lot of boys to wear make-up and I think it's about time for that again. It's a reaction against the anti-style and anti-glamour of grunge, it's something that's a lot larger than life. There's a lot of style involved and a much stronger sexual overtone to the whole thing."
With a ready supply of Max Factor foundation and Urban Decay nail varnish, Placebo have already graced the pages of GQ wearing next season's Gucci Collection. I wonder at the absence of the obligatory ugly bloke from the band. Brian is quick to affirm the attractiveness of all three band members. "There used to be an ugly bloke, he was our old drummer but we had to get rid of him, now there are no bone heads."
This attractiveness led to a minor tremor in the heterosexual male heartland of the nation earlier this year. With Nancy Boy's success and Placebo's appearance on Top Of The Pops, Brian looked set to take the place of the sixth Spice Girl in many a geezer's imagination. The realisation that Brian was a bloke and not an over made-up Camden temptress must have led to some introspective moments. "If straight boys still fancy me even when they've realised I am a guy that means I've achieved what I set out to do. I always liked the idea of being attractive to men as women. I know a lot of boys who, when they see me, fancy me and think that I'm a girl, then when they realise that I am a guy are forced to ask a few questions about themselves or are at least forced to realise that attraction and desire are not as black and white as we think. They may also realise that their first reaction is the most truthful. When I meet guys that say they used to fancy me but they stopped when they realised I was a guy, I spend about twenty minutes telling them that they do still fancy me but they are telling me that they can't because they are repressed. It is so strange. I hope that by coming into contact with me in some way they may not ever rule out the possibility of ever kissing a man or sleeping with a man. It may just put the seed of thought into their minds to be less prejudiced."
Ex-girlfriends and stalker fans who are obsessed by the size of his cock ("I'm a fool who's tool is small") are discussed but an active love life is not high on Brian's agenda at present. "That's the thing that has really suffered. I spend too much time involved in music that that kind of spills over and it's hard to know how to behave sometimes. You're never there, it's hard to put your behaviour in a box. The nature of your existence is so schizophrenic because you are being driven from one place to the next all the time. When you bring that into your personal life, it's hard to know how to behave."
Placebo certainly know how to behave on stage, I wonder how much of this is down to Brian's degree in Drama from Goldsmiths.
"It made me not afraid to be on the stage, it gave me an understanding of the semiotics of performance, also my training in the method allows me to open doors in myself emotionally. When I'm playing live, I lose myself in the emotion of the song. When the three of us are really lost within it, that's how our performance gels. When you're playing and singing without thinking, that's when it works. It's made me more sensitive to parts of myself and it's enabled me to open up as well. I don't get to see films any more but film has had an influence on the kind of obliqueness of the way that I write. I love the way that a film can convey an emotion without saying anything. When lyrics pour out of me it starts in a very unconscious way, I start off with a bunch of sounds in order to find the words that kind of fit there, then build around that in a kind of intellectual fashion."
These word clusters have a catchiness which get you wandering down the street on a sunny day singing "Since I was born I started to decay" or "Every sky is blue, but not for me and you". This quality is as deliberate as Brian's gender confusion. "That is the dichotomy that fits with the name of Placebo, we pull you in with a catchy tune then make you think about other things. I don't think are music is gloomy, there's a lot of optimism as well some harsh observation and brutality in the emotion. The 'New Wave of New Grave' is just journalistic masturbating. I never owned any white pan stick. We think Marilyn Manson are shit, we went to see them in the states. I refuse to be held responsible for bringing back a wave of pasty faced people onto the world."
We crawl down Whitehall, which is lined with police and politics, naturally The Spice Girls creep into the conversation. Politically, Brian is way to the left of Gerri, standing with Mel C (physically he finds the whole group repulsive).
"I have a vote here, I am going to vote and I would encourage all of your readers to do the same. Even though it's the situation where it is the lesser of two evils. I will never forgive Tony Blair for encouraging all of his party to abstain on the Criminal Justice Bill, which everyone seems to have forgotten about, along with the hole in the ozone layer. I don't know if I am going to attend the Reclaim the Streets protest next week-end. I'm too lazy to ride a bike, I like limos, we may cruise past in the limo."
In Stockwell the Limo parks up for a while and gives the ozone a break. I prise myself off Brian's lap and move to the front seat where I continue to quiz him on Bowie, who is apparently a big fan. Later that day, the irony of this situation hits me. We have recreated the scene from The Man Who Fell to Earth where Bowie is being interviewed whilst sitting in the back of a limo, drinking milk, completely off his face. Brian is not as good-looking as David Bowie but less out of it, and is experiencing some of the problems of fame that Bowie explored.
"At the moment it feels like never having time to think about your own life but constantly have to project it to other people. It's a strange paradox. You are expected to have so much life but all that you do is work... You find that you continue to make the same mistakes. It gives you more chapters in the book of life to pull songs from."
As we arrive at the Brixton Academy we are greeted by a David Bowie lookalike who turns out to be a Scouse and mates with Brian. Late Thursday afternoon and the whole of Brixton Academy is full of Japanese groupies, teenage girls with perfectly flicked-back hair, fat blokes with the most obscenely flared jeans standing around eating curry, and a small collection of some of the most beautiful young men in London in full glitter make-up and platforms... It's the set of a film called Velvet Goldmine which is being directed by Todd Haynes and Michael Stipe is the executive producer. Like every other movie being shot this side of the Atlantic, Velvet Goldmine stars Ewan McGregor. It documents the early 70s glam scene and some of London's top rockerati have been roped in to impersonate fictitious bands. "Steve and I are in a band called the Flaming Creatures," Brian explains, "who I think are vaguely based on the New York Dolls. We have recorded a version of Twentieth Century Boy for the film."
The boys in make-up stare at Brian, the Japanese girls smile..."We have to change our phone numbers all the time. Steve is still getting at five in the morning, we all get really dodgy phone calls at the moment. People call up Stefan and just repeat my name like a mantra down the telephone. Lookalikes I find amusing. Basically I was never like that, I never copied the look of anyone so I find it really weird, it's kind of flattering. The last two nights that I have been out I have been followed home by people. Last night it was two teenage girls."
At twenty-five Brian is set to become a bisexual icon for the late 90's, a 20th century Oscar Wilde responsible for redressing the boringly hetero balance of British pop music and corrupting a nation's youth. He hopes very much that Placebo are the type of band to piss off parents. I have evidence of this in the form of a scrawled fan letter from Darren of Reddich, who from the looks of things can't be over fifteen. Referring to Brian as 'She' throughout the letter, Darren concludes: "The lead singer has so much power and energy, she made me love Placebo straight away. If she is a girl trying to look like a boy then she's not fooling anyone."
As a parting shot I ask Brian how he is going to respond to this letter Agony Aunt-style. His reply is direct and assured and could be Brian Molko's manifesto to the nation.
"Well Darren, I'm not a girl pretending to be a boy and if I've managed to pull the wool over your eyes, well then that's what I set out to do. Don't freak out the first time you fancy your best friend."