"Not Just Administered To The Control Group"
by Sandy Masuo
Brian Molko's eye make-up has gotten a little smudgy during the trip from San Francisco to Los Angeles, and the erratic diet and sleep schedule of Placebo's first Stateside tour has taken its toll on him, but he wears it well, conveying an air of bedraggled glamor. After settling on the nondescript hotel couch beneath a beaming lithographic image of Elvis, he gingerly extracts a cigarette from the pack on the table and lights it with the exaggerated care that's required when your nail polish--in this case a sort of Space Oddity silver with a coat of silver glitter lacquer on top--hasn't quite dried. He drops the match into a glass of water on the table and he tosses his hair back, revealing a small abrasion over his right eye.
"The night before [last] I tried to throw the record company [A&R guy]in the hotel pool, which accounts for my grazes," he explains, gesturing at the scrape. "I'd only just met him recently and we struck up a very strong drinking partnership. And it all gets a bit out of hand."
Though 23-year-old Molko is purported to be American--he sounds Americanat any rate, except for the British-isms that he's absorbed living in London for the last six years--he says he wasn't born in the States and has never lived there.
"I grew up in a place called Luxembourg where I went to school with Stefan [Olsdal], the bass player," he says, reluctant to delve too deeply into biographical details. "But we didn'treally hang out with each other. He was kind of in the jock group and I was in the sort of drama/pot-head/loser group. So, American schools being what they are, you just don't mix."
Molko left Luxembourg for London when he was 17 to study drama. Four years later, shortly after completing his degree, he crossed paths with Olsdal by chance in a London subway station. The two discovered their mutual interest in music, and before long they were conducting experiments that ranged from "a kind of Residents-y wall of sound to like, a punk thing" with a four-track recorder, an assortment of toy instruments and keyboards. Shortly thereafter, drummer Robert Schultzberg, a friend of Olsdal's from Sweden, joined in the fun and games when he came to London to study music at the same school that Olsdal had attended.
"So that's how we got together--a succession ofhappy accidents and strange coincidences," Molko says. "Sometimes you tell yourself that when there are so many coincidences, maybe you oughta ride with this one 'cause something somewhere is trying to tell you something. Fate is not necessarily something that I believe in--I think you make your own destiny--but there were too many strange coincidences going on."
Though there's a certain punk rock/D.I.Y. component to Placebo's origins, it wasn't necessarily something that they strove to attain. By the time Molko started getting into the Dead Kennedys (when he was 13) they had just broken up and John Lydon was on his way to geezerdom. By the time he and his bandmates began the serious pursuit of music, Nirvana had come and gone and punk had officially broken into the mainstream.
"The Clash, the Pistols, the Damned--the Holy Trinity of punk I couldn't give a shit about really," Molko says with the same bored irreverence that punks once aimed at hippies. "What interests me is post-punk really. When I discovered Sonic Youth it was a trampoline for me to discover all the people that kind of influenced them--from the Stooges through the no-wave scene in the late '70s in New York and bands in Britain like the Fall and Joy Division. It carried so much more significance than [assumes a Johnny Rotten vocal sneer] 'bo-dais, oim anana-mawl.' If you understand what I mean. The first time around I questioned its amazing significance and apart from the simple statementof like, 'fuck you,' which I think is important, but [punk] didn't really seem to go much further than that."
Determined to take their music further than its humble origins, the sound the trio eventually cultivated is as inviting as it is challenging. When you open Placebo's self-titled debut you find a hefty eight-panel insert that seems to promise all sorts of information. But instead of the usual personal details, thank-yous and lyrics all you find are three panels of deep red, three panels of muted turquoise blue, a black & white passport size photo of the band and bare-bones credits in tiny print; you're left to your own devices when it comes to exploring the songs.
The 10 tracks unfold, stirring up a rich concoction of carefully orchestrated textures and complex mood swings. Some tracks are squalls of anxious energy that recall the Buzzcocks and the Undertones while others encompass loose improvisational terrain. Many revolve around supple, edgy melody lines reminiscent of Joy Division and early U2. Molko sometimes imparts clear images of the characters inhabiting his songs, like "Lady Of The Flowers" or "Teenage Angst." At others he leaves a trail of diffuse phrases half-buried in the currents of sound around them.
"I refuse to print lyrics on the record because for me they're not meant to be taken out of the context of the music," Molko explains. "I guess the album's an exercise in minimalism but it's also an exercise in mystery--something which forces you to just listen to the music. All you get is a tiny little photograph and a sea of color, so you're not spending ages looking at the [liner notes], you're actually listening to the record. I think it's the kind of record you have to live with for awhile, the kind of record that is full of surprises 'cause it's layered and textured and I think it's the kind of thing that like six months down the line you're still discovering new things inside it. There's a natural feel to it. An honesty perhaps? Vulnerability. A sense of fragility."
Molko's moratorium on committing Placebo's music to paper isn't limited to the graphics wrapped around the CD, it was an inherent part of the creative process.
"Teenage Angst" "Lady Of The Flowers" "Hang On To Your IQ" "I've never written anything down," he says matter-of-factly. "It's always just stuck in to our heads. I remember Paul McCartney (who I think is a total wanker) talking about when he and John Lennon started writing music together. They didn't have any tape recorder so they would [come up with] something and if they remembered it, then it was good, if not it was crap. That's kind of how it is with a lot of riffs and like half-written songs we have. Some of them are on tape but a lot aren't, and if you remember them then they're kind of like meant to be."
"The way we write songs is a very inward thing," he continues. "The humanity that exists inside the songs exists there because of an over-developed sense of self-awareness, and self-dissections. It takes courage to kind of lay yourself bare emotionally, but that's necessary for it to have depth. You find that if you want to make something really human, you know, make something that means something, look for it in yourself. That's when people will really understand because that's when it's most honest and truthful."