"The Boy Can't Help It"

Guitarist, Aug'97

"It's a zit", announces Molko. Indicating what is indeed a throbbing example of acne vulgaris, he proceeds to give Guitarist a first-hand demonstration of the ancient art of rock star make-up. Voila! The zit is now a supermodel-style beauty spot. "In photographs, you'll notice that my beauty spot moves around my face quite a bit, depending where the largest zit is." Obviously that's what Cindy Crawford's been doing all these years... "Apart from being unfaithful to Richard Gere ...with me."

Alleged rumpo with supermodels aside, Brian Molko is fast becoming one of the most exciting new stars to emerge in years. Looking like a prettier version of Victoria 'Posh Spice' Adams, the diminutive frontman was always going to attract attention. But, fortunately for Placebo, the band's music provides adequate back-up for the near-criminal good looks. Stefan Olsdal is an inspired and distinctive bassist, drummer Steve Hewitt is aggressive and unyielding, while Molko himself makes his guitar sound like a mountain being sawn in half. Basically, they're 'good'. When Nancy Boy skewered the charts earlier this year, it was the most sensational classic pouting frontman/riff interface since Rebel Rebel. Two sold-out UK tours swiftly followed, while last year's debut album, 'Placebo' was rapidly reappraised as a sinister gem.

Enthroned in his dressing room at the Cambridge Corn Exchange, Molko is animated and articulate. Having grown up in Luxembourg, Lebanon, Liberia and London, and possessing an unbelievably complex genetic composition, he's not, to paraphrase Shane McGowan, a man you meet every day. He's pleased to meet Guitarist, however, because, after all the media hoo-ha about his sexuality, he welcomes the opportunity to talk freely about music.

"I'm probably one of the most un-guitary guitarists you'll ever meet," smiles Brian Molko. "I don't know the names of the strings and thank god for techs, because I'm not very good at tuning."

It was in his troubled teenage years that Brian treated his guitar as a means of escape from boredom, as well as perhaps him most potent tool of expression. Brian was 16 when he started playing, inspired by alternative rock bands like Sonic Youth and The Pixies. By his early twenties he finally felt that he too could play and write songs worthy of being listened to. After moving to London to study at Goldsmiths College, Brian spent two and a half years an the dole in Deptford, playing constantly.

After signing his record deal, the first thing Brian did was to go out and buy a Fender Jaguar. "I always wanted one," he says. "Because they were Sonic Youth guitars". He finds Jags particularly suited to the Placebo penchant of playing below the bridge and wrestling out the atonal dissonance beloved of Sonic Youth fans everywhere. Molko readily admits to making plenty of mistakes at gigs and deploying distortion as a cover-up technique. While Molko the musical manifesto aims to perfect the art of "a lot of noise crammed into a classic pop structure," the darkly dinky one is on a mission to harness the roaring electrical beast that is feedback.

"I had this crappy old short-scale Telstar guitar which I bought for about 40 quid," he smiles. "We bought it to put underwater in a video. I got a mini Marshall and found that by changing the tone button and pickup selects, I'd get different notes of feedback. Moving the Marshall around the body of the guitar, and running it up and down the fretboard, I'd get crazy feedback sculptures."

"There's no proper way to play," Brian insists. "I've never had a lesson in my life. If you don't learn to play the blues, you won't play the blues. Many great songwriters are born o f complete ineptitude."

Attempting to put his finger on the Placebo sound, Brian singles out a number of factors... " I have a toy guitar," he says. "and we love mini Fenders and mini Marshalls - they've got such a transistory kind of sound." Brian's toy guitar is a Fisher Price device called a Keytar, with a memory bank of tunes like London Bridge Is Falling Down. Its built-in karaoke mic gives great vocal distortion as well as the seagull-like guitar feedback effect that Brian uses on Hug Bubble. "These instruments communicate such innocence and naivety," Brian explains. "You haven't heard those sounds since you were a child, so they trigger responses in your emotional memory. They can be quite disturbing, and I'm interested in loss of innocence." The lyric to Teenage Angst springs to mind: 'Since I was born, I started to decay...' A grotesquely bleak image. "But it's true. As soon as you pop out of the womb, you start to die. It's the paradox that you begin life but you also begin death. The use of toy instruments enables us to communicate that on a sonic level."

And therein lies a key to Placebo's appeal. While lesser bands splash out on orchestras and horn sections to bolster their sound, the Molkster and his black-clad cohorts ransack Woolies for plastic megaphones and cut-price melodicas. And why? To sonically communicate the loss of innocence, of course.

Despite the occasional scary sample, Placebo's live sound is actually as clean as a mortuary slab. The arsenal of pedal-borne effects, or the craven cop-out of saturation feedback, isn't for them. Instead, their sonic onslaught is pure, relentless and relatively gimmick-free. To subvert the classic rock sound, Molko will play the guitar as if it's a bass, while Stefan plays the bass as if it's a guitar. "That's why Stefan bought the Fender VI" agrees Brian. "It's in between a bass and a guitar. It looks like a Jag, basically, it has Jag pickups on it. We're trying to find ways to turn him into a bass player and a lead guitarist at the same time."

At the band's recent Newport Centre performance, the uberbass assault of their closing number, Evil Dildo, shook the venue's seating like an earthquake. The effect was bloody scary, actually.

"Cool," says Brian, visibly pleased. "Some frequencies can make you physically ill or make your bowels loose...The Swans [intimidating New York art rock ensemble] used to do it. By the end of gigs people would vomit because the frequencies were so nasty." Clearly Placebo are engaged in covert government research into crowd control. "We're as obsessed with melody as were are with sonic overload," Brian counters. "Your physical response to music translates itself into an emotion."

For a man who claims to be an untalented musician, Molko talks about his equipment with a real passion. "I play three pre-CBS Fender Jags, through a Fender Twin and a Marshall three-channel LN Anniversary Head. I use the three channels for different states of overdrive on the Marshall and on the Fender, I use a Sovtek Big Muff, which gives a classic sound for the distortion. That way, I manage to balance out the different qualities of the two amps, to get a fuller sound. I used to use a Boss DD-3 delay with a master supply power switch to turn it on and off between songs. I've got into using the tremolo arm on the old Jags. If you watch Bruise Pristine, I'm going crazy with the old whammy bar..."

A teenage fan of seminal post-punk pre-grungers, The Pixies, Brian was given a Sonic Youth album on his sixteenth birthday and was immediately smitten. Previously, he'd been heavily into the politicised punkery of Dead Kennedys, but he also loved the melancholy songs of Leonard Cohen and the gut-wrenching emotions of Janis Joplin. Add the shimmering, one-chord soundscapes of Galaxy 500 and the voodoo grungefunk of Jane's Addiction and you have a recipe for Placebo.

"It all kind of fits it if you think about it..." Brian reckons, "...which is why we can be quite musically schizophrenic. A song like Burger Queen is just so quiet and tender and sad, and it's followed by something as atonal and rib-shaking as Evil Dildo."

"Our band attracts outsiders; people who feel they're square pegs in round holes," he says. "There needs to be bands like that." The devotion can be intense, frightening even. Two German girls have taken to following the band from gig to gig. Brian admits he's received letters from kids who are suicidal. "You can't be responsible," he says. "All you're doing is expressing yourself because you need to, in order to live, to survive. It's more a responsibility to yourself not to become a maniac or a depressive or a drug addict. People choose to attach so much to you..."

Brian's games with gender roles have caused controversy. But then, he does seem obsessed with the idea of changing his sex. "Maybe," he muses. "I wonder what it is that's so shocking about a boy wearing make-up? It's no big deal for me." Molko reckons that his desire to challenge conventional notions of masculinity stems in part from 'negative role models'. "A lot of masculinity that I've been surrounded by has been very macho and quite violent. And unfortunately, you see these things in yourself and that causes a kind of malaise within yourself."

It's an appropriate moment to point out the attendant irony of Brian making a living with the phallic accessory of the guitar. "Most teenage boys pick up a guitar to be attractive to the opposite sex. In a certain way, it's a penis extension. The duality and dichotomy of that interest me. My appearance can be very feminine, and the subject matter of what we're doing is wrapped up in a lot of ambiguity. But then, when you see us play live on stage, we rock. It can be quite testosterone-fuelled."

As the interview draws to an end, Brian frames a parting shot. "I have a problem with music that's disposable and which doesn't provoke" he states, vehemently. Like who? "The Spice Girls. But I have to like them really, because they've made so much money for Virgin that they can spend on us..."

"Abba and Blondie are two of the most perfect pop bands that ever existed," smiles Brian. His voice drops to the level of a conspiratorial whisper. "Sometimes, at two in the morning round at Stef's flat, we put on Abba , when we're a bit pissed and stoned, and we start dancing around the kitchen to it." Brian Molko lights a cigarette, fumbles for his mascara. "Which is good for the soul." he smiles, exhaling smoke, looking like a star.