"The Life & Loves of a He/She Devil"
Saucy little Brian. He was shooting skag while other kids were playing tag. In Luxembourg. Possibly. Now he's the top-five, fun-size androgyne who we all want to shag. Allegedly. Just how did he do that?
Waiting backstage at Top Of The Pops is an extremely disheartening experience. Contrary to the romantic notion of a streamlined neon wunderpalace catering to the every need of our most debauched stars, the canteen/bar area of the aptly-named BBC Borehamwood is more akin to the hospital waiting room in some '60s kitchen sink drama - antiseptic, utilitarian and deathly dull.
In such surroundings, pop stars appear scrubbed clean of their glitz. Depeche Mode bloke Dave Gahan is transformed from the libertine lizard king of recent press shots into an aged gangling sparrow in a Ken Dodd wig. Pop diva Gabrielle is just a woman with a wonky hairdo. However, in the corner of the bar sits a small, dark figure, sipping a coke and surveying the scene. With his black bob, silver lippy and suit of shining leatherette, he looks like some mid-'70s glam-rock queen. Rudely out of place and 20 years out of time, Brian Molko can't help but appear a little odd.
Then you consider the song that he and his band, Placebo, are rehearsing - the Vim-snorting, shag-anything noise-out of 'Nancy Boy' - and the presence of this rock perv in the middling pop terminus of the TOTP bar starts to seem laughably absurd.
"It's not absurd," reasons Molko, "it's obscene. A song this rude should not be number four in the charts."
EVEN IF PLACEBO DIDN'T EXIST, 1997 WOULD HAVE SEEN FIT TO INVENT THEM. In hindsight, 1996 was something of a prosaic year for rock. Dominated by the stadium laddishness of Oasis and all their scuttling minions, it was also a year that saw a post-Richey Manic Street Preachers swapping their cultural and gender terrorism for such homely topics as darts, golf and what they were watching on the telly.
In such an environment, Romo's pathetic attempts at gender-denting looked about as convincing as lipstick on a duck. Kula Shaker may have promised revolution through their madness gurus, conspiracy theories and Vedic argot, but even they ended the year with a loud moan about how they were being treated like a woman when they felt like a man. Still, in the wake of all this grim laddery there came Brian Molko, a Suede lyric made flesh, shaking up the karma and "smoking marijuana in a manner so comically transgressive, that it was all a bit like something out of an '80s airport shag novel, namely Jackie Collins' Rock Star.
Although it would be a mistake to judge him solely on the basis of his media image, it's certainly tempting. While Placebo have wilfully set about fiddling with our gender identities on every release since late '95's 'Bruise Pristine', such rudery has also been accompanied by Mr Molko's thoroughly entertaining press pronouncements.
A scummy cavalcade of everything from expensive drugs to cheap sex, his interviews have so far presented the reader with the cumulative image of an amoral, asexual brute - crack pipe in one hand, vari-speed vibrator in the other - trawling through the netherworld of European cities in a quest for the Big High.
One music weekly even had Molko confessing to having injected crack cocaine. There is, it seems, nothing this man cannot do.
This, coupled with the performance of 'Nancy Boy' on Top Of The Pops, can only help but usher in the return of those glory days when your parents watched your pop stars on TV and proclaimed, from behind a rustling copy of The Daily Telegraph, "Is that a man or a woman? You can't tell anymore. It's disgusting!"
Talking to Brian Molko today, however, there is a distinct sense that he's starting to grow a little weary of his reputation as a fast man, a Bluebeard, or, as Molko himself puts it, "some kind of bisexual drug addict deviant slut".
"It's my own fault. I chose to present myself as that. I mean, at various points in my life I've been all of these things. I thought that if people want to focus on that then maybe it'll get more people to listen to the music. But I don't want to be seen as a kind of meathead anymore, someone who plays in a band and fucks and shoots up. That's bollocks. There's so much more to me than that."
IF IT WERE POSSIBLE TO SEND OFF FOR A DUSFUNCTIONAL ROCK UPBRINGING VIA MAIL ORDER, the life you would receive back in the post 28 days later would be something very similar to the life of Brian Molko. Born in Belgium in 1975, he lived, until the age of three, in the Lebanon, Liberia and then Luxembourg. With a devoutly religious Scottish mother and an American father who was something big in international banking, Molko's first ten years were rootless and, consequently, packed full of loneliness.
In addition, Molko received the kind of education that allowed him to interpret this loneliness as 'alienation'. Luxembourg is very small and very boring. There's a high cost of living, so everybody is very rich. It's also a cultural void, so there's never anything to do. Except go to church a lot. And in the summer you can visit Sunday School Camp.
As well as instilling a hatred of money and privilege, Luxembourg contributed significantly to Brian's ongoing desire to 'break out', to leave the straight life behind.
The result was that, at 13, he was the "faggot" boy. Sent to a private American school, he became the kid who chose drama and didn't mind dressing up as a woman; the one with a copy of The Dead Kennedys' 'Give Me Convenience Or Give Me Death' under his arm; the one with the reputation for being a pothead. There was also this other kid called Stefan Olsdal. He was on the basketball team and he had his Depeche Mode records. He was in the popular crowd. It was kind of like The Breakfast Club - the rich cool kids and the no-mate dopers. You guess, not unreasonably, that Brian was probably quite jealous of Stefan.
Today, Stefan is taking care of his role as Placebo's colossus of a bassist - reading the Photek interview in last month's Select and ordering a plate of scampi and chips. He ventures a polite request for the tartar sauce, but, that apart, will remain silent for the rest of the day. "Stefan doesn't like interviews," informs Brian.
We are sitting in Borehamwood High Street's Irish pub, one hour prior to the Top Of The Pops run-through. A weathered compact disc of Foster and Allen's 'Greatest Hits' is on repeat play in the DiscAtek, so scratched and pitted that it takes a good ten minutes to stutter through the duo's breakneck rendition of 'Paddy McGinty's Goat'.
Against this background racket, Brian Molko endeavours to fill Select in on the rest of the Placebo saga. The story recommences in 1993 with Molko arriving in London to study drama at Goldsmith's College.
"I moved to London when I was 17, because I wanted to be an actor," he stresses, over the faltering folky din. "I'd grown up with a bunch of ugly Americans. I didn't want to go to America."
He trained in 'the method', in "becoming a character". His nights may have been spent listening to his student neighbours copulating to Lionel Richie, but his days were based on escape into performance, on "becoming myself totally".
"I wanted to be taller than I am. I wanted to be sexier than I am. I wanted to have less zits. I can be all of these things. When I'm on stage I am all of these things."
Like Blur and Pulp before them, Placebo are a band who aim to put the dramatic element back into pop. However, unlike Blur's cultural bricolage and Pulp's urban poetry, Placebo's art comes over as being way more self-absorbed and - in the nicest possible way - pretentious. Molko, needless to say, has no problem quoting art and art school as inspiration; he doesn't even flinch when quoting suitable lines from the third Velvet Underground album.
"'Between thought and expression there lies a lifetime / And the possibilities are endless.' The possibilities of art at the moment should be completely endless. Patti Smith started off as a poet before she got onto rock'n'roll and Patti Smith is the coolest woman in rock..."
"Except when she does fucking covers of 'Smoke On The Water'," interjects Steve Hewitt, the new, third member of Placebo.
TWO YEARS AGO, BRIAN MOLKO HOOKED UP WITH THAT BASKETBALL GUY AGAIN. Meeting by chance at an art exhibition in South Kensington, he and Stefan decided to form this lo-fi project, calling themselves Ashtray Heart, after a Captain Beefheart song.
Stefan also had this mate, called Robert, who happened to be studying music - so they formed a band called Placebo. Lots of men in suits turned up at their fifth gig. They signed to Hut Records for a lot of money. Last June they released an album, called 'Placebo'. Simple.
"People expect that when things fall into place professionally all the voids in your life are going to be filled," says Brian. "They're not. That first album was basically made by a miserable band."
Robert didn't exactly get on too well with Brian. He didn't take too well to the make-up, the drugs and the sex. There was a lot of sex and a lot of drugs in Placebo in '96. Robert was in the wrong band.
"Before Robert left," says Brian, "we were in America. We spent a lot of the tour not even looking at each other."
Obviously, there was more to it than that, but Molko is learning that what not to say is sometimes just as effective as his former candid approach.
"To be completely honest about it would make me come across as being unnecessarily vicious. Put it this way, I think he felt very threatened by me. He robbed me of a lot of things, many months when I should have been ecstatic..."
Ask Brian Molko when was the first time he was happy and he'll tell you six months ago, when Steve joined the band.
IF YOU EVER SEE A COPY OF THE BOO RADLEYS' FIRST ALBUM, 'Ichabod and I', on sale in your local Devious Record Collecter Emporium, don't buy it. It's not very good. Instead, have a look on the back at the picture of the band. After you've stopped laughing, focus on the guy in the middle, the one not wearing a cardigan, the one without the crap fringe. That's Steve Hewitt.
He was once in a band called Breed. He was in Sharkboy for a while. He even played drums on K Klass' 'Rhythm is a Mystery' in 1989. He;s not proud of these things. It's just that, as he says so himself, "It may sound sad, but I've always wanted to be a drummer."
Brian first met Steve outside Burger King in Lewisham in 1991. He'd always liked Breed. They made him want to be in a band. People thought that he fancied Steve. He went to see them a lot and Steve would even come to Ashtray Heart's ramshackle bongos-and-keyboards PAs in Deptford pubs. He'd chip in, helped on by the pints and the cocaine. When Robert left, it was obvious who was going to replace him. They don't talk about Robert any more. They call him "the invisible man".
AT TOP OF THE POPS, THINGS HAVE HIT A SNAG. Placebo have these dancers - performance art bods with body make-up those Mad Max punk hairdos that nobody has anymore. And the dancers aren't working. Their gender-transgressive art-mumming worked OK in the 'Nancy Boy' vid, but on Top Of The Pops, it all looks a bit cheap. Crap, really. And Brian Molko is tired. It's five hours since scampi and chips and 'Paddy McGinty's Goat' and Placebo have just gone one rehearsal too far. He's fed up and so he's started to analyse himself and the way he's been represented in the press
"I know I give myself too much of a hard time," he gripes, "and I analyse myself way too much. Your job, your upbringing, your sexual preferences. What I'm interested in is blowing all of that away. I need to be a positive individual. I need my madness to make a positive effect."
When he's off his head, Brian enjoys what he calls 'the madness', his eternal quest for a new kick. When he's sober he finds it harder. He finds Placebo's recent success shocking and absurd.
"The reason I want to stop talking so much about my private life is I don't want to become a caricature," he muses. "I don't believe I have a responsibility to my audience - I know that whatever I say about my life other people are going to do it anyway, so...
"I forget that these things are going to be read by X amount of people. I'm learning to shut my big mouth."
BRIAN SAYS HE'S GONE PRETTY FAR WITH DRUGS. He doesn't go near needles anymore and now won't do what he classifies as "smeg". And he's not stupid. In fact he's very aware of the role that drugs play in a band like Placebo.
"We're supposed to be a rock band, so we're supposed to thrive on that stuff. I can get away with it. Someone like Brian Harvey can't. E17 are a pop band, they're a teeny group and I think he's been unfairly victimised for what he said."
Anyway, Brian Molko isn't going to talk about drugs in interviews for much longer. Otherwise he's not going to get the message across.
"What's missing is the music. I'd like to rant on and on about the music, the mechanics of it. It's what I think about 90 per cent of the day. I don't think about getting high all the time. I guess I do think about sex a lot, though..."
And how. Brian Molko used to talk about sex all the time in interviews - the frequency, the quality but, more importantly, the fluidity. You see, Brian Molko enjoys the fact he looks like a girl, enjoys the gender confusion. Still, there've been those who find Molko's 'maybe, maybe not' approach to sexuality very irritating, the assumption being that Molko might be feeding off homosexual culture because it's an attention grabber.
And it pulls the girls. It's the Brett Anderson syndrome - the art-school bloke with no more boundaries left to cross who thinks it'll be trendy to play around with his sexuality in public.
"Maybe we should clear it up. Put it this way. I keep my options open. Interpret that as you will."
So you're bisexual?
"I don't believe in the categorisation of desire, why we have to choose these tags for ourselves. I'd say that sexuality is very fluid and I think it changes from month to month. The way that I feel certainly does. If I were to put any kind of tag on it I'd just say that I was Sexual."
Wheel Brian Molko onto Face To Face with Jeremy Isaacs, or even the 'Pop Stars and their Parents' episode of The Ricki Lake Show, and one question would be glaringly obvious. Given his privileged-yet-miserable, middle-class upbringing, isn't it possible that Placebo, and all the sex and drugs that go with them is just some extravagant way of Getting Back At His Parents?
"No, I think it's a really extravagant way of staying like a kid, of keeping a certain innocence. My interests really, really bother my father, but I'm glad about that. He just wouldn't understand what we were on about. Whereas my mother would just want to know what she did wrong."
If you'd been brought up by progressive hippy parents would you still be in Placebo?
"No. I wouldn't. By trying so hard to make me into this conservative person, they forced my identity into this direction. They created the monster that I am. I'm not the person they wanted. But that doesn't mean that I blame them.
"I'm totally responsible for my actions."
BRIAN MOLKO ENJOYS PLAYING WITH PEOPLE'S HEADS. He thinks music should provoke and challenge. When asked whether Placebo are art he'll say, "Of course. All of it. One hundred per cent." In the wake of the wood-hewn authenticity of much of 1996, such statements seem anachronistic, and Molko is well aware of it. He feels no shame in allying his band with the raincoat existentialism of Joy Division ("Our biggest influence"). He says that he is championing a return to intellectual arrogance.
"I've always been arrogant," he says, "but I'm determined not to be a wanker."
What's the difference?
"How you use it. Intelligence is the main thing. Liam is unnecessarily arrogant cos he's stupid. I wouldn't want Oasis fans to like us. They wouldn't understand, they'd feel threatened."
What are Placebo fans like then?
"Well, I get really innocent love letters and I get ones that say 'When I listen to your record I don't have to cut myself as much'. I think it's important that I'm there for these people. I feel very comfortable about being in a band for all the outsiders. If I was 14, I think I'd want to be in my shoes. I'd think I was a total star."
IT'S BEEN A LONG DAY AND, AT THE END OF IT, PLACEBO HAVE DECIDED TO DITCH THEIR MIME ARTISTS. Brian Molko is much relieved and takes this as a cue to talk about Placebo's next direction. He's just written a song called 'Burger Queen' - about being a gay goth heroin addict in Luxembourg.
"It's really the worst you could ever be. A goth, gay and on smack in the worst place, Luxembourg. It's so sad."
He's also been offered a part in a film with Ewan McGregor and has been asked to work on a single with an old bunglist, one David Bowie. Comicallittle geezer, Brian Molko. He'll look funny when he's 50.
"Fifty? Sometimes I wonder if I'm going to make 30. I've done a lot that puts me in jeopardy."
No details are forthcoming. He's being coy again, isn't he?
"Come on! I've got to retain some mystery."