"The Girlie Show Off"
Smack! Cocaine! Cross-dressing! Crikey! Are David Bowie’s newest mates PLACEBO for real? Brian Molko confesses all to JAMES OLDHAM.
Soho, at the beginning of the year, and in the window of the Thai restaurant the Art Deco Christmas tree’s lights are still flickering. Inside, a slick of dark suits chatter merrily about their jobs and the year that’s just been, but over in the far corner a dissenting voice can be heard. A diminutive American, his face smeared with gaudy make-up and his fingers squeezed tightly around yet another cigarette, is not feeling quite so upbeat…
“ I didn’t envisage all this would be such hard work,” he laments. “ you lose touch with your fiends, and it has a really bad effect on relationships with people who have meant a hell of a lot to you. In fact, my job has contributed to the falling apart of the last meaningful relationship that I had, which happened quite recently. It gets very lonely, you spend a lot of time in the limelight and then - Bang! - five minutes later you aren’t.”
This is Brian Molko, lead singer with Placebo. Ninety-six was a gruelling year for both him and his band. Even if you leave aside the writing and releasing of ‘Placebo’, their astonishingly wired debut alum, there were all the other little things he had to contend with - not least the small matter of finally becoming a pop star.
Because with that role came all the usual tawdry problems, the sort we’ve heard about many times before, but still secretly find rather intriguing: the sudden expansion of ego, the ceaseless touring, the frequent offers of sec, the bad drugs and the gradual destruction of friendships.
Placebo have been through all of that during the past 12 months - and Brian Molko is unusually keen to tell us all about it. He just hopes that this forthcoming year is slightly less tangled…
The Placebo story begins in appropriately confused circumstances with an American father, a Scottish mother and a comfortable home in Luxembourg. Brian Molko goes to a private American school, where he fails dismal at sport and frequently gets called a “faggot”. He doesn’t care though, he just carried on getting stoned and hanging around the drama society.
At the age of 14 he loses his virginity to an older French girl while his parents are out of the house, and immediately starts playing women onstage. He doesn’t make any great statements with clothes or make-up because Luxembourg just doesn’t seem the place for it. All in all, it’s a pretty normal adolescence for someone who doesn’t fit neatly into the accepted scheme of things.
Finally, aged 18, Brian bids farewell to placed Luxembourg and journeys into the barren confines of south London to attend Goldsmith’s College. And it’s here where things start to get weird, because it’s here Brian and Placebo are truly formed.
“For my whole first year at college I couldn’t get laid, and I was very sexually frustrated.” Admits Brian, toying with his miniature spring roll. “ I used to go to sleep every night with the sound of my neighbour to my right fucking his girlfriend, and then every morning the guy to the left would listen to Lionel Richie really early and go to breakfast. I just could not get laid.”
This, of course, is the same Brian Molko who waxes so lyrical on the possibilities of sex on Placebo’s current ‘Nancy Boy’ single: sex with prostitutes, sex on drugs and sex with a funny paper bag on your head. - they all get an honourable mention. This doesn’t sound like the work of a particularly chaste individual.
“Well I did then stumble into a couple of fraught relationships,” revels Brian, “ but when those relationships fell apart, my reaction was to become a bit of a slag. I was so upset that when people tried to get close to me after that, I found myself constantly pushing them away.”
“In fact, as I was finishing college, I’d enforced celibacy on myself for 11 months, because I’d reached the point when I was suffering from something which I’d call post-coital depression, where’s I’d sleep with people and then on the point of coming I’d be filled with complete revulsion for them. So I stopped having sex with people for almost a year, because I was sick of throwing people out of my flat at 4am, and just going, ‘fuck off, I don’t want to see you any more.’”
In this state of ascetic denial, Brian formed Placebo with childhood friend Stefan Olsdal (bass) and another Swede, Robert Schultzberg, on drums. The ferociously bleak and corrosive songs that Brian found himself writing were to prove unexpectedly popular, surprisingly quickly, Signed after five gigs, 1996 saw placebo release four wretchedly neurotic singles, sojourn at every provincial hellhole in the British Isles.
Their fucked up pop songs combined with Brian’s new-found penchant for lipstick and eyeliner ensured that they were soon receiving the sort of intense, almost psychotic, devotion last seen lavished upon an unfortunate Richey Manic. Skinny girls and boys quickly began queuing up to offer him a shoulder to cry on or some fleeting after-hours companionship. And for a young, feisty heterosexual like Brian, many of those temptations often proved hard to resist.
“Well it depends on how drunk I am,” he begins. “It depends on whether I’m feeling like a rock star or whether I’m feeling like crawling away into a little corner. In many ways, I’m an experience junkie and I do things for the sole reason that I haven’t done them before. That’s shaped a lot of the experience that I’ve had in my life, and if things don’t get me into trouble then I don’t really regret them.”
“Anyway those people aren’t attracted to you as a person, they’re attracted to their perception of you, which I have no control over. You do have a tendency to feel like you’re taking advantage of them. And it’s not something I feel comfortable with in general. It’s quite an empty experience.”
Post-coital depression? Sex with groupies? It’s beginning to sound like your opinion of women is pretty low. Misogynistic even?
“I’m just trying to answer your questions as honestly as possible,” pleads Brian, slowly sipping another glass of red wine. “ I mean I’ve done stupid things in my life which I regret. I’ve done enough things to give me an unhealthy sense of AIDS paranoia, and we all walk around with that.”
But what about the song ‘Slackerbitch’ on the B-side of ‘Nancy Boy’? As well as having all the customary drug references, it also contains a stream of abusepointedly directed at some unnamed female.
“Well, you’re right, it is an abusive song, and we’ve had problems with it. We debated for a long time whether to put it on the album, because I was worried about it being construed as misogynistic. I play it to girls to find out their reactions and most of them are surprised I thought it was misogynistic.”
“I mean it’s a very politically incorrect song to put out, but I’ll stand behind it because it contains feeling that some men do feel towards women. Men feel very threatened by women. Sometimes you have to say something negative to make a positive point. I mean if I want to insult a guy I’ll call him a prick, and if it’s a girl you might call her a bitch, what’s the actual difference? This song opens up that and forces that question to be addressed.”
And in many ways, that’s exactly what Placebo are there for: to provoke a reaction, to needle you with their dissolute tales of nocturnal excess and to exasperate you with their morally dubious opinions; doubtless may of which are conceived mere nanoseconds before they leave Brian’s mouth. By striving to appear controversial, however, he’s a t least attempting to shake music from the conservative stranglehold of the past 12 months.
Because Placebo do write songs about what goes on in the cast majority of teenage lives. They’re concerned with a nihilistic world of foiled sexual liaisons, habitual alcohol abuse and casual drug-taking. But then as a pop star of the old school, Brian Molko claims to have done more than his fair share of research into the more degenerate areas of the human experience.
“Well I probably don’t do as many drugs as Oasis,” beams Brian, “ but I’m with Kim Deal on this one. I love drugs.” As we’ve already mentioned, he started out as a teenage dope-head: waking up at lunch time, rolling a joint, then heading through to the next room to watch Neighbours. That was enjoyable enough because it make “time stop” for Brian, but obviously once he had entered the heart of the music industry he had a chance to expend his tastes into areas that most people never thought possible.
“Cocaine make you talk a lot of shit,” he concludes. “When you’re in music biz situations, you have to speak to a lot of people who you don’t want to talk to and I find that very tiring.”
“Cocaine allow you to talk bollocks to people you don’t really care about, and get it all over with nice and quickly. I like that. Anyway, I’ve seen more music biz types backstage at gigs snorting coke than I have musicians.”
Where would you draw the line with drugs? Would you ever shoot up?
“I’ve already done that. I’ve already got that one out of my system. When we were intravenously using drugs we were of the opinion that when you go to the hospital they don’t shove drugs up your nose, they give you and injection so that must be the purest and best way to get your hit.”
What were you injecting?
“Speed and crack (Er surely that isn’t at all advisable? - Drugs Ed). It was dangerously nice. Crack is like a ten-minute buzz followed by an eight hour comedown. When I took it I did understand why it was so addictive because as it hit my bloodstream I wanted more right there and then. I just get bored when I’m sober really. Maybe I’ll give it all up one day and become a Christian.”
Inevitably though, a price had to be paid. While Brian was hauling himself through 1996 in this narcotic-induced haze, he failed to notice just how far relationships within the group were deteriorating - especially between himself and drummer Robert.
Communication between the two of them broke down to such an extent that they eventually stopped talking to each other altogether. The atmosphere within the band became unbearable, and one day on the way to a rehearsal for The White Room all the bitterness and anger suddenly began flooding out and Robert was asked to leave the band. It’s apparent that this is one part of 1996 that Brian is not especially keen to dwell on.
“I think Robert had a very big problem with me being the personality that I am. I guess being more flamboyant than him, receiving more of the attention than him, being more of a focus in the band than he was. I just became increasingly tired of being the focus of Robert’s rages against the world. I did a lot to gain his trust, but it was never enough.”
With that he sighs and just momentarily he seems very despondent about pop stardom. It is, however, only a temporary state of affairs.
Because after all, what better ‘job’ is there to be in at the moment? 1997 might very well prove to be Placebo’s year. ‘Nancy Boy’ is already destined to become their first proper chart hit, they’re about to embark on their biggest tour of Britain to date and they’ve already written a handful of feedback-fuelled new songs for the next album. What’s more, the band are about to fly off to New York to play at David Bowie’s birthday bash at his personal request.
“We’ve been on tour with Bowie twice,” explains Brian proudly. “He’s a fan and he’s fast becoming a friend. We spent a lot of time hanging out with him and talking about music. As an individual he’s an absolute sweetheart, and I personally gave him his copy of our album. That was great.”
And at that memory, Brian suddenly breaks into a hug smile. He glances around the restaurant; it’s virtually empty now, and the buzz of empty conversations has all but subsided. Perhaps things aren’t so bad after all? Perhaps things won’t be quite so intense his year? It’s probably best not to worry about it anyway. He raises his glass of red wine, and proposes a toast.
“To the future,” he declares.
Whatever sordid adventures it may bring…