Melody Maker, Aug'97
August 16th 1997
What happens when you send the Maker's wildest pair on tour with Placebo in Austria? Well, how about come-outs, pornography, sexual perversions and tea parties. Wahey!...
If the walls of room 307 in the Hotel Burgenland in Eisenstadt, Austria could see and speak, they'd probably start howling.
Then again, they probably wouldn't know where to look. The room itself looks like a bombed off-licence. And that's putting it mildly. Scattered around the floor are the remains of mini bars, the remnants of NOFX's concert rider, which was stolen, charitably, by Placebo's drummer Steve Hewitt. (Hell, we left them half a bottle of port in return.) Most of Therapy?'s rider is in there as well. And then there are the remnants of countless bottles of whisky, vodka and Godknowswhat accumulated during the day. To the right, a table has been turned over by a resigning drum technician, emptying the contents all over the floor. Scattered among the debris is half of Brian Molko's make-up bag.
If the walls cared to glance across at the television, they'd see MM snapper Lili Wilde straddling the screen, which shows pornography. Below her, Placebo's blond God bassist Stefan Olsdal takes snapshots of Lili pouting Wilde-ly. And to the right, there's the Nude Man.
We shouldn't be too hard on the Nude Man. He is, after all, only doing his job. Well, OK, perhaps being a member (arf arf) of Placebo's road crew doesn't normally extend to displaying one's personal, er, history. But it is, after all, a special occasion. Well, it's Saturday, which Brian at least thought was something worth celebrating. Brian drew up the contract, now lying discarded on the bed, reading, "I, Brian Molko, do solemnly swear to pay [Nude Man] the sum of One Thousand Pounds, in return for him parading naked in front of Placebo and their guests for 30 minutes."
"Got that, you've got to parade," he yells, hysterically and not a little drunkenly as everyone laughs so hard we should really have a cardiac arrest team on stand-by.
So it is that the Nude Man puts on a delightful and actually rather tasteful show including forward rolls and bunny hops. Funnily enough, when it comes to it, I don't think we're that shocked by the nudity. But Jesus, it might take therapy to get over the bunny hops.
And then there's the small matter of what's happening on the bed. Look, I'm from Yorkshire. we breed 'ard men. So right now I'm wondering just why I'm enjoying wearing frost-effect lipstick and black eyeliner, why Steve Hewitt has christened me "El Campo"... and how the hell I'm gonna explain this lot in the Bollock & Beer Belly back in Barnsley.
"You look amazing, you've got a really evil 'Clockwork Orange' look," says Brian, responsible for my Molk-over.
"Dave, you look so depraved it's unbelievable," confides Steve, worryingly more accurately.
There there are the other details, such as the Austrian fans outside that the band are pelting with peaches and Mars bars, Nude Man's pink eye shadow, and the disturbing and bizarre fact that I've been walking around in soaking wet jeans all day because we spent last night disco dancing in six feet of foam. Hammer Of The Gods ? Tea party, dahling.
This is what happens when a band spend two years on the road, especially when that band is an exotic thing called Placebo.
Since going supernova in January with "Nancy Boy", Brian Molko's Placebo have played 140 gig in 200 days, have been relentlessly pursued by the tabloids, fans and the occasional stalker. They've been threatened and called "poofs" (probably inaccurately, because none of them have ever divulged their sexualities) at T in The Park and elsewhere. And Brian even had a gun pulled on him Zurich. After they round off a triumphant year at this week's V97, Placebo can wind down for a much-needed break and to record their salivatingly-awaited "mournful, beautiful" second album. (Incidentally, contrary to rumour, Bowie is not producing.)
And until then, well, it's just a case of getting through this. And if that means a Nude Man, hey, so be it!
It all starts this afternoon, when Brian bounds up to me singing Bowie's dissection of disorder, "The Bewlay Brothers", and says, "I think I'm going mad." "I've been dreaming about the schedule," he explains, prior to appearing in another European festival. "Dreaming about soundchecks, fans coming up asking for autographs, people pestering me for interviews, people with guns..."
The Zurich thing. What happened was Brian, typically gregarious, made friends with the hotel porter who kindly provided them with drinks all day, and at the end of the night the singer went up and hugged him. The next thing he felt was a .45 Magnum in his thigh.
"I just felt this lump," he chokes. "And I look down and I'm like 'Whoah. I'm outta here.'"
Hardly surprising Brian's faith in human nature is starting to waver. Hardly surprising Brian thinks he's going bonkers.
"We just played with Bowie in Spain," he relates, hair just so and lips like sugar despite the stress. "And I'm there listening to him doing 'O Superman' and the song goes, 'Hello/This is your mother/When are you coming home'. And I'm standing there with 14,000 people and one of my good friends is David f***ing Bowie and I just feel so unbelievably alone."
Although they're virtually estranged, Brian called his mom last week. "So Bowie does 'Fame'," he adds."'What you get is no tomorrow/What you need is in your limo/What you need you have to borrow.' And it just rings so true."
At this point I suspect Brian Molko may be very close to cracking up.
"I feel uncomfortable about being public property," he worries.
"There's this dehumanisations process. The thing that's really getting to me is that everyone seems to want their pound of flesh. Because they see you onstage and they see you as perhaps this slightly otherworldly person, they don't think you're going to react like a normal human being. I think they expect me to be incredibly flamboyant. Continually off my head. And very saucy. Ziggy Stardust? A bit, yeah. Sometimes you can feel superhuman. Other times you just feel horribly vulernable and....broken."
"I've had a couple of freakouts, because I've felt like the boy who has everything and has nothing. A few months ago I was convinced I'd created a Frankenstein's monster with my public image and it was now running round the village killing people and I couldn't control it any more. I felt that way because I felt everyone who met me had a pre-determined opinion of who I was. That's a strange position to be in and it creates a form of identity crisis. And especially if you speak about yourself all the time. You go home and think, 'Who the f*** am I?' and it builds up and builds up and you become crippingly self-conscious."
As we talk, Austrian youths wander by, pointing at this unfamiliar, drawling creation. Brian seems wonderfully oblivious, or else lost in some other private hell from which there's no escape.
"Even at home I've been followed in London," he continues. "I've been hit in pubs. What happens is girls come up to you and their boyfriends are there and they get jealous and go 'He's a f***ing puff and my girlfriend fancies him. Let's 'ave 'im.' Weird logic! I just want to be left alone...
"I mean, you do (music) because you have things within you that you need to satisfy. You're a bit more volatile than the average guy and it's increased by what you do, the nomadic, schizophrenic nature of touring. You understand why people smash up their hotel rooms. You don't even realise, you just get pissed and angry and lonely and freaked and you don't feel human any more; and your telephone's in tatters cos you smashed it to pieces cos you couldn't get an outside line."
I'm reminded of that lyric in Bowie's "Panic In Detroit", "I wish someone would phone", about the 1973 US tour. Brian admits he's intrigued by the parallels between himself and the former David Jones. Their friendship is burgeoning. They talk about the Dalai Lama, and death.
"I watched 'Cracked Actor' (seminal 1975 documentary) recently," says Molko,"and Bowie's doing Brel, and that line 'My death hides between your legs' really hit me.
"Really, really hit me."
Bowie sometimes advises his younger pal. "Don't ever lose your spontaneity," he's told him. The 50-year-old understands that the 23-year-old's in it for the duration. What else can Molko do, become the banker his parents planned? Despite everything, Brian still enjoys it. But he is in "desperate, desperate need of a holiday".
And with that, the fragile singer gets dragged off for an Austrian radio feature, another instalment in the schedule of nightmares. We'll talk later.
STEVE'S WILD YEARS
If Brian's interview is surreal, Steve and Stef's interview venue is plain weird: in the middle of a field of corn which Stefan manages to set on fire. It turns out that the Blonde One has a history of arson (forests, his mother's living room), dating back to the age of six when he managed to, well, set his underpants on fire.
Like Brian, the drummer and bassist are also feeling the pressures of Placebo. First, Steve regales me with tales of on-the-road high jinks, mammoth drinking sessions and watching Stefan play piano with Depeche Mode's Martin Gore in Paris, before Gore stripped all his clothes off and started screaming. But then Steve - a warm character - says, all reflective, "I'm looking forward to getting back to me at some point."
Before long, Steve is reminiscing about the life he left behind. The only working-class member of Placebo, Hewitt grew up in Manchester. At 16, he was in a band called the Mystic Deckchairs ("spliffs and Beefheart"). At school, he was given the nickname "Tranny"!
Cos you looked like a girl, obviously?
"Nah. Cos I never washed my hair and it looked like a tarantula on me head!"
Steve was a dissenting voice in a school bred on violence. Most of his mates were "twats, c***s and tossers. They've all got nine kids now or they're dead. Three had drug overdoses. Two shot themselves. Another was burnt by her husband."
No wonder he left Manchester, but not before a final fling with Madchester ravers K-Klass, in the days when being in a techno act meant a ridiculous supply of Es and speed.
"For a while I wouldn't touch anything at all," he remembers. "And then...I took loads of drugs!"
He certainly came down. Moving to Liverpool, he spent some time in the embryonic Boo Radleys. He lived in a warehouse on a diet of cheese and mustard for a year and a half. He weighed eight-and-a-half stone.
All good grounding for the current madness.
"But I'm looking forward to going home," he says. "Build me remote control cars. I'd love a holiday. But I'm scared of facing another hotel."
STEFAN COMES OUT
All this must seem a million miles away from Stefan's formative years in Luxembourg as varsity basketball champion (discovering what cigarettes did for that career), feeling awkward about being tall and having cars and girlfriends like all the other sports team boys but realising that he'd never really be quite like them. All that "testosterone-driven madness" and their crap clothes, opinions and hair.
Stefan felt frustrated, and began to "relax" using death metal.
"I went into a Slayer period," he explains. "Iron Maiden also. There are certain things in their songs I really liked, and that I do find in Placebo but they're in no way connected..."
Somehow, we get to talking about relationships. Steve confesses he's had "loadds but it all got f***ed up" over his desire to play music. He has a daughter, two and a half, but her parents aren't an item.
"Er, we're giving you a lot of insider detail," he treads warily. "I'm in a realtionship now which has been going on for exactly as long as the band," he says, eventually." A week longer, actually. I met this guy and it's one of the things I've been thinking about a lot. Being gay and being in a rock band. Sort of...coming out. For it to taint people's preconceptions of us..."
But Brian gets that and he's been carefully ambiguous.
"Yeah," nods Steve, "loads of people think Brian's gay and they don't f***in' know. And we're not gonna tell 'em."
Being around him, he's definitely not gay. "It shouldn't matter any more anyway," adds Stef.
Stef always knew. He just didn't act on it until he was 20.
"It did my head in," he says now."I suffered a lot. I was in love with this guy for three years and I didn't tell him. This was 16-19, when you're supposed to be out shagging, drinking. And I was in this unrequited love situation.
"I didn't want to be gay," he reflects. "But now I wouldn't want to be anything else."
Hours later, Stefan tells me this:
"You know, that's the first time I've come out in public. And when I said it, it felt so casual. Easy. I'm surprised I did it, actually, but it's good to get it over with."
And on that bombshell...
BRIAN COMES (UN)CLEAN
Because this is Placebo, none of the stresses of today are allowed to affect the gig. Although maybe the likes of "Teenage Angst" and the new "Luxemburger Quenn" do sound more emotional, more fragile, more beautiful than they have ever done before.
Typically of the "schizophrenia" Brian talked about earlier, after his exhausting performance, he seems deliriously happy, not least when Lili Wilde begins the night's debauchery by snogging a 16-year-old girl. Not to be outdone, Brian and Stefan respond by snogging each other, causing the two young Austrian girls chatting to them to suddenly start screaming. Then they run away, before coming back to check that yes, this is really happening. Then they start screaming again.
Outside it's cold, and it rains, and I ask Brian Molko if he feels like an actor.
"Recently seeing Bowie more often has rubbed off on me," he admits, aware that I've sussed his craving for the spotlight carries on offstage. "Little theatrical moments. I mean, I loved doing that thing in (glam movie) 'Velvet Goldmine'. And I want to act more. But acting in life can be dangerous, it can lead to this identity crisis thing. Who am I? How do I feel today? It's like, I know without ever having met him that Chris Evans is a wanker. And I will never go on his TV show. But there are so many people who haven't met me who think I'm a wanker! So...it's the public image, identity thing Which is really f***ed up."
Even in a happy moment, Brian's sense of confusion and fatigue is palpable. And as he joins in smearing food over the dressing room, I wonder if tour madness is just an escape valve for the crushing loneliness he spoke of earlier. Have you ever been in love, Brian?
"A couple of times. Well, long-term realtionships...but I have a tendency to f*** it up. "The last one I had was with somebody who does something very similar to what I do," he says, tantalisingly. "And it, er, has its problems. I found it very difficult to be faithful because I was continually on tour. Even though I was very much in love. It's the nightmare of being in a rock'n'roll band..."
He pauses, eyes glinting. "But it can be a very serious position."
How degenerate are you, Brian?
"Well, a while ago I found myself reducing myself losing control of my personality and everything that made me into a sensitive and intelligent individual. And I was becoming a cliche. Luckily I managed to take a step back.
"There's been a few serious wake-up calls. I put my hand through a window in Newcastle and my arm looks as though I tried to commit suicide. When I'm at home I can be very quiet, and shy, scared of the telephone. But when I go out the make-up goes on and this side of me comes out. I mean, Bowie has said he was interested in taking on different characters. I'm interested in exploring facets of myself and making them extreme.
"But anyone who knows me knows I'm not the type to throw rocks at people," he says.
All right. One last lighter question...Brian Molko, androgynous alien make-up wearing sex god. Have you ever put up a shelf?
"Never!" he splurts, collapsing with laughter. "Ha ha. Never in my life! I wouldn't know how. I'm really shit at anything DIY or technical. But I have mowed the lawn. My father used to force me! Pick up the dogshit as well!"
Brian Molko howls. The party carries on until 6am when Molko and co finish proceedings by collectively spanking the journalist! All good fun and Brian laughs the loudest.
But my lasting memory has to be the sight of him back at Heathrow Airport, gazing into nothingness, waiting for his luggage and wondering who he is.