"Out Come the freaks"

Q, Feb'97

Tiny American, Brian Molko, likes wearing women's clothes, doesn't mind a dab of "slap" and doesn't know what Top Of The Pops is. Tall Swede, Stefan Olsdal, keeps his own counsel. Together they are Placebo and Robert Yates is in their lovely house.

Brian Molko is puzzled. Not so long ago, he recalls, he was "a loser, on the dole, living in Deptford. Now, although I've not changed, I'm cooler and infinitely more shagable. Why?

"Why not? It's an age-old phenomenon. Singing for your supper, onstage and in magazines, as everybody knows, increases your pulling power."

I'm not complaining," counters Molko. "But it can go to your head. Arrogance is a possiblity." As singer and lyricist with American-Swedish combo Placebo, Molko has just enjoyed the sort of year f?ted newcomers are meant to have. It began with Molko, bassist Stefan Olsdal and drummer Robert Schultzberg (now departed) bashfully receiving suitors from record companies.

In June, once deal was done, Placebo released their self-titled debut album. Hosannas and touring followed and, to add to the fun, they acquired a tag. Placebo became The Antidote To Britpop.

Actually, it's not a bad tag. For a start, they're certainly not British. American Molko - a handsome man of modest height who might, literally, see eye to eye with Prince - had an itinerant childhood. "Belgium, Liberia, Lebanon, Luxembourg…"he reels off the places his banker father wandered with his work. It was in Luxembourg that he met Swede Olsdal, as tall as two Molkos.

They both attended an American school in Luxembourg, populated by "upper-middle-class-spoilt-brat rich kids" according to Molko. In short, the pair missed out on the Great British childhood that shaped their pop contemporaries: no formative years spent standing on forlorn football terraces; none alternatively swooning and huffing at the images on Top Of The Pops.

"We didn't know what Top Of The Pops was," claims Molko, possibly truthfully. "We just don't have the reference points British bands have," he says. "Our childhoods did not involve The Jam being in the charts, or Dexy's Midnight Runners at Number 1. When you have a nomadic childhood, you don't get rooted in the musical youth culture of a place. Stefan comes closest in Sweden as a child, listening to Abba, still one of his favourite groups."

In style also, Placebo mark themselves out from Britpop. Their favourite music tends to be leftfield. American and guitar-heavy. Molko was touched by Sonic Youth, not the Small Faces. He is happy if the influence is heard. In Placebo's case, Sonic Youth aside, this means Televison, Pere Ubu, Patti Smith and the occasional intemperate Briton. "When I heard the first P.J. Harvey album," Molko explains, "I thought, This is what I want to make - something that carries emotional weight."

Molko, just 24, has invited Q to his West London flat. Olsdal declines to contribute; he would rather leave the talking to his oppo, who's never short of something to say.

Molko is, as his lyrics suggest, an elusive fella. Perhaps he is as interested in building a character, Ziggy Stardust-style (Placebo have supported Bowie, a fan, on tour), as he is in revealing himself. "I might be putting layers on, like pullovers and cardigans, to protect myself? I'm more interested in coming across as intelligent than as a larger-than-life personality. Anyway, it's too early in the day to be flamboyant. I'm normally just getting up…"

It's one o'clock in the afternoon. Still, even with the flamboyance knob turned down, Molko is still a distinctive fellow. He wears his hair in a Louise Brooks bob, and likes a little make-up. Playing with gender has often been a bankable pop option. But Molko reckons it's just the way he likes to look.

"Of course, being in music, where all the freaks go, does give you more freedom to do what you want," he giggles.

Molko moved to London when he was 17, ostensibly to study drama at Goldsmith's College, but primarily to get away from Luxembourg, "nowheresville, a tiny Switzerland". He decided that he would rather be a muso than a thesp when he ran into Olsdal at the South Kensington tube station. Then, Olsdal called round with Robert Schultzberg, fellow exiled Swede, and Placebo was born.

The name was a jokey addition to the list of bands named after drugs - Codeine, Morphine etc. How about a drug which cannot work, they figured, something, claims Molko, which "you only think makes you feel better". Schultzberg left in September, the remaining two are in the process of quickly securing a permanent replacement drummer so Placebo's momentum isn't lost.

Though he hasn't exercised in seven years - a statistic delivered with pride - Molko is discovering the value of discipline. Likewise, he is canny enough to recognize that fashion will always play a part in pop success. If there's a gap, Molko will fill it. So, if the people are missing a band offering lyrical angst and barbed guitars he's not going to turn them away, but he would hate listeners to think there's something fabricated about Placebo, some whiff of a marketing opportunity.

Oddly, for somebody who enjoys role-playing, Molko emphasises how natural everything is: the sound Placebo makes; the way they look; how they perform. Any dissection of the music - American rock coupled with European artiness, say - fails to appreciate, he argues, the way it comes together.

"We're far more complex than that, " he intones. Molko sends himself up whenever his conversation turns serious. "It's my art, dear boy," he offers in his best upper-crust, credible enough to secure him a place in Merchant-Ivory number. "Well, one day I hope to put my degree to use."

Humour is not always easy to maintain, given some of the responses to Placebo's songs . Like all those who have a spell wearing the cloak of sensitive songwriter, Molko gets those letters - the ones, he says, which, as a matter of routine, read "When I listen to your album, I know there's somebody out there who understands…" Sometimes it's , " When I listen I don't have to cut myself…" He doesn't judge the writers, he insists. "I used the music that way. Good music gets you through the worst of times. It would disappoint me if people weren't touched."

Molko is not too interested in running through his angsty adolescence, save to say he had regular run-ins with the "arse-hole frat-boy types". He's enjoying himself too much to worry about the past. You won't catch him complaining about his life not being his own, etc…On the contrary, he loves being in the centre of attention.

He also claims to enjoy the chance to "piss off meatheads, although i'm surprised people are still shocked by the way somebody dresses." Quite taken with his mission, he wonders, "If I can encourage men to get in touch with their feminine side, that's good." Perhaps men everywhere are getting in touch with their feminine side; it's almost as if you can't turn on the television without some truck driver confessing to the childhood trauma of being denied entry to the Wendy house."

"I hadn't realised it had become such a horrible cliche," Molko retorts, before hitting on a new mission statement. "Okay. Guys everywhere - go out and lift someweights. Now."