"I don't want to be the drug crazed sex dwarf any more"
17th May 1997
Can this be true? Our own BRIAN MOLKO is no longer PLACEBO's drug-crazed sex dwarf? What next? Claims that he's not responsible for new grave? Maybe even - erk! - a smile? MARK BEAUMONT hears the story of the bruise.
placebo, n. - a substance containing no active drug given to a patient who thinks he is ill who believes it to be an active drug, to effect a cure (the placebo effect) by changing his psychological attitude by this deception.
"HEY KIDS! SMOKE CRACK!" - Brian Molko, ten seconds to air...
The controller stops laughing and blanches, stunned by a blinking red light on the wall. Ten seconds. Ten seconds until the voice of the Lord and Master booms out from the ether. Ten...nine seconds until the most offensive national broadcast since Chris Evans' pay packet is accidentally beamed direct into millions of unsuspecting homes. Eight seconds until his job dissolves in a puff of smoke. Seven... Six...
In the studio beyond the soundproof glass - a futuristic soundstage cleverly disguised as a 1935 school assembly hall - the Imp Demon from Planet Perv grins to himself, taps his alien fingers lightly against his knee and ignores the frantic waves from the control booth. His cigarette hangs archly from the corner of his mouth, his skin-tight trousers bulge with celestial promise and his head bobs to the sound of Martian piano jazz from 2001.
"Hit the road Jack," he croons, eyes narrow, like a robotic Sinatra clone, "and don't you SMOKE CRACK! no more, no more, no more..."
Five. The controller gives up waving and retires to the mixing desk to consider retiring to Wiltshire in ten minutes' time. Four. The red light stops blinking and the tinkling death knell from the studio blasts around the control room at ten million decibels.
Three. Oh Jesus Mary mother of God why didn't they book f---ing Space like the tea lady suggested for f---'s sake...
"MTV MAKES ME WANNA SMOKE CRACK!!!"
The voice of the Lord and Master descends from his heavenly DJ pod hovering somewhere above central London.
"And now," declares Simon Mayo, unaware how close he is to tabloid uproar of Cocker-esque proportions, "live from our Maida Vale studio, here's Placebo with 'Teenage Angst'."
The sound blaring from the monitors is breathtaking. A flurry of tender piano, softly-stroked drums and an elegantly warped voice whispering paeans to childhood turned sour. "Since I was born I started to decay," it groans, wrapped in the eternal paradox that, just as life begins, so does death. The controller shivers, partly from sheer pathos, partly from relief that his mortgage is safe once more.
The song shudders to a halt. Simon Mayo drops an Eternal CD into his hallowed sequencer and The Larks strike up again. Bass God-cum-concerto pianist Stefan Olsdal mocks the track in rinky-dinky style while telling disgusting jokes in Swedish. New recruit drummer Steve Hewitt taps along, bubbling with crude comments about "stroking my instrument".
Meanwhile, Brian Molko, Imp Demon, Androgynous Alien Prince Of New Grave and the first man (yes, MAN) since Richey Edwards to make it sexy to be screwed-up - takes a languid drag on his cigarette, teeters backwards and reflects. On the trials and tribulations of the past 12 months. On misguided drug revelations, obsessive fans, and late-night Parisian duets with Martin Gore. On last September's soul-destroying German tour with LA cock-rock hacks The Mustard Seeds which ended with Placebo graffiti-ing 'Rock Pigs' on their tourbus.
He muses over the screaming arguments in toilet cubicles with old drummer Robert Schultzberg while Stefan cowered on the venue balcony in tears. And, most painful of all, over the day last winter that it all came within an ant's length of self-imploding. The day he turned to his manager, while on tour with David Bowie inFrance, his relationship with Robert in tatters, and declared, "I want to leave the music business.If this is what being in a band is about, then I might as well work in a bank, hate my boss, take the tube home, fall asleep in front of the telly, f--- my wife for two minutes and do it all again the next day, five days a week. It's bullshit."
But mostly he soaks up the laughter and The Larks, glances around at his band-mates and knows that - at last - he really, truly loves those bloody pop stars.
"We're the band that do everything backwards," he grins, liner-free eyes a-glint. "Most bands start off being really good mates and then when they get success they all fall out. We started off not really good mates, got success, fell out and then sorted it out. Now we're at our most creative ever, and we're ready to take on the world."
HERE, STUDENTS of MicroBrianology, we find the Placebo Effect in full swing. From the moment Steve was recruited from London no-hopers Breed to replace Robert after a chance meeting at last year's Phoenix Festival, the storm clouds dissipated and Placebo became the hearty hit of Glum Rock without the crippling comedown.These days, they're the cure for all those problems of social alienation, self-awareness and downright kinky perviness that, hey, maybe aren't problems at all. The band for all those "square pegs in round holes" (as Brian refers to them) that don't need to be battered into shape, just nudged gently towards Square Hole Land.
And, most importantly, they play music of intense substance and agony while, at heart, they're jsut another bunch of happy experience junkies on the rampage. Placebo Mark II may be covered with bruises, but they feel pristine as f---...
"This French journalist the other day, right," Brian squeals, "he asked me if the lyrics to 'Nancy Boy' went, 'All pricks stand at the role reversal'!"
He laughs and returns to glaring at the slimy city blurring by outside the car, sent to whisk them towards their next opportunity to promote mass deviancy on a national scale - the cyber-graphic dreamworld of TV programme Videotech.
Hey, maybe he should start a French Journalist Translation Service for all of his lyrics? After all, since 'Nancy Boy' body-slammed its way into the Top Five - all nail-guns, glitter and dodgy sex - Brian has become a genre-defining star: the ultimate stacked-up, slapped-up Beautiful One. So much so in fact that the press, through sheer misinterpretation, could bolster his reputation as the sex'n'drugs'n'nail varnish monster from Mars far more successfully than he ever could himself.
Let's look at the clues again. He looks like a girl! He wears make-up! He's bisexual! He claims he's taken drugs the incorrect way (injecting speed and crack - not the best idea if you want to avoid looking like a walking car crash, kids)! He's from Luxembourg but sounds like a New Yawwk drag queen! He could have been concocted in a basement laboratory as the Perfect Pop Star and is therefore a bona fide danger to the Youth Of The Nation! 'Yippee!' yells a media tired of Noelrock's anti-glamour, 'Myth-Perpetuating Pills, anybody?'
Yet ever since Placebo bludgeoned In The City 1994 with their tunes of passion, anger and a creeping sense of black humour, they were a whole new species of rock beasts that, once we'd offered them gargantuan record deals, we never quite knew how to handle (quarantine? Public display? Mate them with the native wildlife?) As a result, Brian has found himself at the shitty end of the carefree pigeonholing stick once too often. "If you let yourself get wrapped up in your own persona," he muses, ensconced in a pub restaurant across the road from the Videotech studios, "then you can get lost in it and start believing your own myth, which is bollocks. I don't want to be the drug-crazed sex dwarf any more. It's not true in the first place."
As if to prove his normal-bloke credentials he turns to an approaching waiter and orders a distinctly unglamorous cheese ploughman's. Erk. So you're not the f---up waiting to happen that we all expected, then?
"The band has saved me to a certain degree. Most of the crazy things that have been written about in the press all happened before the band started. There were days when I was living in Deptford and still on the dole when I would wake up in the morning and think there was no point even getting up. Now when I have an afternoon free I don't know what to do with it. So I'm not a f---up waiting to happen any more."
Blimey! Next you'll be telling us that the goth revival that is new grave isn't your fault.
"No!" Brian shrieks, spitting cheese and pickle across the table. "It's Radiohead's fault!"
No, it's definitely your fault.
He calms down. "Is it? Oh, OK, I'm sorry I listened to Joy Division when I grew up! Blame Ian Curtis! It's beautiful! Nah, it's bollocks. Nick Cave said, 'I refuse to be the man responsible for spawning a million dodgy haircuts'. I refuse to be the man responsible for encouraging children to put white emulsion on their faces. F--- it. No way."
But in the same way that Nick Cave's haircut is irrefutably on the 'dodgy' side, you are encouraging children to write more introverted, thought-provoking pop music.
"Absolutely. I have a problem with 'disposable' anything. Music that's always moved me is stuff that's touched on the human condition and said something about it and been vulnerable and fragile to a point. I mean, are you gonna call the first two PJ Harvey albums new grave?"
Hmm, that's an idea...
"They're naked, they're emotional, they're vulnerable, they're fragile. They're not 'baby, I love you' because life isn't 'baby, I love you'. My life isn't anyway. Unfortunately. There's a lot of humour in what we do. We laugh constantly as people. We're joking about, we're having a laugh. We're not miserable c---s. "
More grist to the argument that this weird Brianmolkovius creature is nothing but a hollow sham, a mask painted on in the Ziggy Stardust-style of pop fakery. But spend a few hours with him and it becomes clear that the Molko you see is the natural pop starlet you get. He speaks like he comes from four countries at once because, well, he does (he grew up in Luxembourg, Lebanon, England and Liberia). He swears he wears women's clothes because "they fit me better". He sings about teenage angst, sexual ambivalence and getting beaten up for wearing make-up because he's been there, done that and got the note from casualty to prove it. His years of stumbling blindfolded through the drug minefield at college may be behind him but he still writes from those embittered experiences.
Yet, no matter how many journalists type the phrase 'called a faggot at school', there are those who still can't believe that a man called Brian could be this fascinating.
"The cynics might think that I'm the punk-rock Spice Girl," Brian exclaims, "a stage-school educated pop star, and that's kind of irritating because it perceives me as an invention, kinda like a Bowie/Ziggy Stardust character, whereas it is me. The fact is, being in a band allows you to let certain factors of your personality out that you wouldn't be allowed to if you were working in a bank. I'm brave enough to lay myself bare to criticism and to walk a fine line."
It's such naked honesty - the sex-as-a-weapon images of 'Nancy Boy' or the brutal pessimism of new single 'Bruise Pristine' for example - that has placed Placebo at the forefront of the serious rock vanguard in the own, most seductive niche - perv noir. An inescapable side-effect of being the face of a generation, though, is that it makes Brian a magnet for that curious breed of fan that in polite company is called the 'obsessive' but after the 15th phone call at 4am becomes 'a bloody nutter'.
In the past few months all three members of Placebo have had to change their phone numbers after streams of nuisance phone calls ("Stef had someone call him up at midnight," Brian recalls. "This guy sounded completely smacked out, just going, 'Briiiaan...Briiiaan...'") and the front row of many of their gigs have consisted of the same faces, in the same order, since last November. Indeed, for the true obsessive, not even Brian's trouser proportions are, ahem, out of bounds.
"There's one girl," he says, "who's gone so far that she's spoken to people who I used to sleep with and actually written about the size of my dick in a fanzine! Now I really don't appreciate that. I mean, she did say complimentary things about it, but still... there are certain things that are precious on this planet..."
Steve interrupts. "And your knob's one of them."
Scary. Are you worried about becoming the spokesman for the disaffected? The new Richey?
"There've been girls that I've seen in Manics documentaries that I've then seen in the front row of our shows," Brian imparts. "I do think that torch has been passed over but it's not my fault. It's not by design in any way. But it's probably because we appeal to outsiders and the world needs bands like that.
"You don't choose to be in this position. People place you there. When people write to me going, 'When I listen to your record I don't have to cut myself as much', that's good, but I can't let that invade my head and overcome everything. Placebo is more about searching into yourself and dealing with that first and foremost."
What if people start injecting crack because you've done it?
"I don't recommend it. You've gotta find it first, which can be difficult..."
Brian checks himself. "If they do, then I have no sympathy for them whatsoever. That may sound really harsh but that's that."
It's not all stalk, stalk, stalk in Placeboworld, mind you. There's been a fair amount of dream fulfilment crushed into the last six months as well. Forget stomping the charts under their sparkly-spiked stilettos and whole-heartedly capturing the Mood Of The Nation (&c; New Labour) with 'Nancy Boy'. Forget becoming best mates with Bowie, Reed, Gore and a zillion other interstellar heroes. And forget Brian chatting up Posh Spice after swiping a load of disco biscuits from A Very Famous Pop Star Indeed (he certainly has).
Because by far the most satisfying wish that has been granted to Da 'Bos in recent months is reticent, ex-basketball ace and blond bass goliath Stef becoming a sex symbol in his own right for the first time since he was a teen heart-throb at the American school in Luxembourg where he and Brian first met. See-through shirts, beanpole figure, leather keks, er, great basslines. No wonder the odd flung underpant has been heading his direction.
"Stef is officially the sexiest member of Placebo," Brian agrees.
So come on, saucy. You might seem all quiet and coy but you love it really, don't you? Eh?
"Oh yeah," Stef sniggers, barely audibly, "anyone would. If you feel sexy then you feel as though you can give it out. I never felt sexual onstage before."
Steve: "Not until I got behind him."
Ooh, matron. Steve, you see, is not only the cymbal stand up the arse that Placebo needed to thrust them out of the deep doldrums of last year. The unassuming Manc (who stumbled into Placebo via The Boo Radleys, Sharkboy, Breed and session muso hell) is also the wisecracking, bishop-baiting core of the band's new optimism. It's his up-all-night-for-it vigour that's driving the new material up to The Edge and making it gob into the void.
"We think the next album is gonna be much more colourful," Brian says, waving a fork to emphasise his reptilian drawl, "much more complex, much more dynamic musically than the first one. It's gonna be more adventurous, more extreme. If you take the musical schizophrenia of the first record as a blueprint. But the tender moments will be even more tender. The fierce punky moments will be more so. The dissonant, atonal moments will be pushed to the extreme. We're trying to explore the extremes of our sound at the moment. How far can we push it?"
As an epitaph for their headstones, 'How far can we push it?' seems ideal. For Placebo Mark II are all about taking things as far as they'll go and then dragging them a few more inches into the danger zone. From Brian's born-to-provoke androgyny and take-no-bullshit attitude ("My mouth is way too big for someone of my size," he grins) to the blistering zeal of new single 'Bruise Pristine', theirs is a global assault that doesn't even take a few snapshots along the way, let alone prisoners. They're not quite the eternal screw-ups that the single's cry of 'We were born to lose!' suggests. The Placebo Effect again, you see! Fooled you, suckers!
Meanwhile, the next target on Molko's wish list beckons. The silver screen. He's soon to appear alongside Eddie Izzard in a film entitled Velvet Goldmine which, rumour has it, is based around the Ziggy Stardust story. Brian, inevitably, plays a pop star. Go figure.
But this is no mere cred-grasping cameo for the impish one. It's the chance to fulfil an ambition nurtured through years of drama-queendom, ever since he first set foot onstage, in fact.
"It was definitely some crappy school play," he remembers, "but I do remember getting such a buzz from it that I knew it was definitely the thing for me. Acting gives you the opportunity to embody other people's characters and emotions, and when you're a teenager who's not very happy that's an incredible release. If there is such a thing as destiny then I was destined to be onstage in some form or another."
Who knows, if the worst came to the worst you could always play Widow Twanky well into your dotage, eh?
"Who's Widow Twanky?"
Er, a pantomime character.
Puzzled expression. "I've never been in panto."
Thankfully, the man from Videotech arrives to whisk them away and ask them repeatedly about meeting David Bowie, thus saving us any further explanation. But, it transpires, there's been an almighty f---up in the make-up department. No slap.
"It's OK," Brian smiles. "I've got my own."
He enters the toilet a mortal. He emerges a megastar. Thank you, Mr Chanel.
IN A tiny green room beside a blank blue studio that's simply crying out for computer enhancement, the megastar preens himself in front of a mirror. The hair: suitably aquiline. The lipstick: properly overstated. But something's not quite right. The pants.
"I just have to rearrange my penis," he apologises, fumbling awkwardly at his groin. "These are girls' trousers and they show off my manhood a bit too much."
Thus the thin line between suave and sticky is trodden once more by the ex-drug-crazed sex dwarf of legend. But no one minds. For Brian, for all his declarations of band unity, is undoubtedly the boss, mother figure and Godhead of Placebo. He races around the room, trying to rip off Stef's shirt or NME's jacket to give to Steve because "you can't go on national TV looking like a scruffhead!"
So, with the tortuous TV shoot behind them, it's time to delve a little deeper behind the greasepaint. Time to oil the tonsils with a sixth pint and discover if the control freak who sings about sex with robots, people with bags on their heads and ...well, just about anything handy as it happens, has any real, Earth emotions. Has the Demon Imp ever - erk! - been in love?
"Oh yeah, I have been. Very much so."
How did it affect you?
"A loss of the self," he cogitates, "loss of the self-obsession. Loss of self-consciousness. You pour so much of yourself into somebody else. I want nothing more than to find the person that is gonna make me step offstage after an amazing gig feeling 10ft tall and so sexy and NOT have to go, 'Right! I wanna f---!' I wanna find the person who's gonna make me wanna go back to the hotel and call them. That's a real sappy thing but it's intrinsic in all of us. You said earlier that I was a f---up waiting to happen, but aren't all musicians f---ups waiting to happen when everything is offered to you on a plate, guilt-free? An entirely different system of control comes into it.
"I struggle with questions of fidelity. In my job, if you are someone who craves physical contact, which I admit that I am, it doesn't make it easy for you to remain faithful. But I think it's probably part of my personality anyway, and if you put your mind to anything you can do it. Sometimes you can put your emotions to one side and become what you're supposed to be. But when you're on this hedonistic snowball and a bit more in touch with yourself and more content it's not so easy to set aside your guilt, to set aside the fact that no souls are actually intersecting."
Do you disassociate love with the sexual encounters you have these days?
"I feel like I'm getting older to the point where you don't just do things without considering the repercussions, or at least I try. Anyway, why does my opinion on this count?"
Because you have a sexually ambiguous image. The sexually repressed public want to know what makes you tick.
"Well, maybe it's better left that way. If I open up too much I may become a sap, just by removing a bit of the mystery." He relaxes back into his bar stool. "I feel good now because I'm getting back in control of this situation."
Hmm. Smokescreen tactics, eh? What are you trying to hide?
"I'm not trying to hide anything. But there should be things that you protect yourself from. Take for the fact that when you like somebody you may like them a bit more than as a friend. The fact that you don't know what they think about you makes the whole experience of liking them more exciting. It's kinda like that. I'm one big tease, really.
"You've probably noticed that I'm struggling with something at the moment. It's like through my own naivety I've almost said too much and at the moment I've been advised to be cautious and yet there's a certain part of me that wants to be honest, honest, honest. I always say one thing where I call up the journalist afterwards and ask them not to mention it."
WITH SUCH a dedication to the enigma, it seems if you're in love with anything it's the idea of being a pop star.
He taps a cigarette on the table, not lighting it yet. "Maybe I am in a way that I see happening around me every rock'n'roll cliche that I thought could never really happen. Day by day you're kinda hit with the surprise of how good things are, how things have really opened up for us. I do enjoy the glamorous side of it. Stepping onstage and getting the kind of response that we get - that's stronger that any drug and something I crave more. It's an hour-and-a-half where you can be anything you want, a feeling of complete freedom. That's such a separate state to be in to everyday life that it creates in the mind of the observer the idea of a pop star. It's kind of like living in a bubble and the regular rules of life don't apply."
Have you ever considered suicide?
Time to light that fag. "That's a bitch! You wanker! Yeah, but it passed really quick. Teenage heartbreak. That's what a song like 'Teenage Angst' is about. When you're a teenager you react to the world around you in a way that's 100 per cent heart. And as you grow older, in order to stay sane you learn to react with a balance of heart and head, and that's what helps you survive. I'm interested in that loss of innocence."
Would the world be a better place if there were no genitals?
"No. The world would be a better place if everybody's genitals were the same. I was talking with Chebby, our sound guy, and we were discussing if every man in the world could blow himself, would he? And would you ever leave the house if you could? And we decided, yeah, but only to get a mirror."
And finally, the question that's been sweeping the nation's indie toilet dancefloors for the past three months: just what was the greatest lay you ever had?
"The first time I had a wank," Brian laughs. "I didn't have to talk to myself afterwards."
A final burst of teenage angst and he's off to join his bandmates for another few pints. He's had his daily hit of honesty, thrown enough verbal curveballs to suggest that he might be more than a normal bloke called Brian who wears make-up and talks funny. And now he's back in control, drinking with men that he can honestly call his best friends and revelling in the all-powerful Placebo Effect.
"A long time after we're not here any more," he declares, shortly before dashing off to collapse in a drunken heap backstage at a Tindersticks gig, the experienced junkie gone haywire, "out music will continue to live and we'll continue to live in the spirits and minds of other people. There are so many people that I admire that aren't here any more but they continue to stimulate me. This is our shot at immortality."
Just another Nancy Boy? Don't you believe it, baby.