"It's Only Rock'n'Role Reversal"
He reckons he's sexier that Jesus Christ, and who can blame him? Because in less that 12 month, the small but perfectly formed BRIAN MOLKO has become a bona-fide rock star. But how upfront will PLACEBO's gender-straddling frontman be when asked to reveal the secrets of his murky past?
"Bollocks! Avoid alcoholic drink!" mutters Brian Molko, cradling two white pills in the palm of a purple nail-varnished hand. At lunchtime in a London pub, the 24-year-old underworld elf is attempting to deal with the pain in his life by more conventional means than those usually associated with chart-slaying teen-angst figurines.
The ache from the bruised ribs which he acquired when someone threw him across the room at a party is being mollified by emergency-couriered painkillers instead of the bruised riffed exorcism of a Placebo song.
There's no need to scribble out a revenge tune about being beaten up for being a heterosexual-taunting little guy with a big mouth, because Brian's already done that - 'Brick Shithouse' - and, anyway, he has more pressing matters to consider. Like following through on the Top Five placing of Placebo's 'Nancy Boy' single, and running down the street in platform boots and feather boas for his first proper movie role in hipster director Tod Haines' Velvet Goldmine (reputedly based around Bowie's Ziggy period).
The presence in the charts of disaffected bisexual libertines may not exactly be a novel pop phenomenon, but Placebo have done better than spring randomly off a latex trampoline. Their timing has been impeccable. When 'Bruise Pristine' follows through on their run of benchmark achievements - the labels scrum to sign them, a critically adored debut album, Bowie support slots - they will have confirmed their place at the head of this year's revisionist movement. The NME tagging Placebo, Mansun and Marion as New Gravers might be a little flippant, but there's no question that the beaming face of Britpop has been thoroughly defaced by Brian's eyeliner pencil.
So how did the American-born son of a Luxembourg banker, raised in a culturally tepid Eurotown, and relapsed on a London Goldsmiths drama course turn a Swedish/Swiss/Amerilux glower trio into the national alienation party? And is all that perfumed gloom and androgyny down to not getting picked for school sport teams, or was it a calculated career investment?
Over a brunch bowl of aubergine genies, Brian Molko confronts the deep, dark mirror of as much murky truth as we can get out of him.
Do you ever wish you were in a completely different sort of band?
"Sometimes, yeah. It hits me particularly on tour. It's got a lot to do with roadies and crew and being in a band with guys, and you get kind of tired sometimes of just talking about farting and genitals and the 'Oo er, I'd give her one' kind of vibe. It really makes you crave for being on tour with girls. I'm sure that girls are just as dirty, if not more dirty, but you just get a bit tired of the whole male point of view, being surrounded by men constantly. So sometimes I really wish that I was in a band with a few girls."
The Spice Girls, perhaps?
"Maybe. I'd probably be Dikey Spice though."
Are you at all worried about what you look like in photos these days?
"What I look like in photos is basically what I look like when I go out, what I look like when I'm not completely chilling out at home. I wear girls clothes because they fit me and they're usually more interesting as well. But what does bother me is that, these days, it tends to be 90 per cent about the image and 10 per cent about the music, which gets on my tits because it should be the other way round."
What's your domestic environment like?
"My flat is really tiny. I'm not staying there for very long. It's a one-room studio with a very tall ceiling, and they've built a bed which basically goes from one end of the room to another, and you have to go up a step ladder to get there. It's actually very nice because you're sleeping in the sky, but it's bad when you're a bit pissed and you try to go to the toilet at two in the morning. There's been a few accidents down the old step ladder."
Do you become a different person when you leave your private space?
"It's not so much becoming a different person, it's just that when I'm at home I'm usually very quiet and this shy person inside of me presents itself. Going out, is almost like getting ready to go on stage, the application of the make-up, the jeans come off and good clothes come on, and then you feel up to it."
Do you make much use of your acting background?
"No, I only use my training in The Method on stage, because that allows me to open up emotional doors when I'm playing, so that I can get lost in the emotion of the song and get lost in the music. I've started to use my acting background more now that I've got my first feature film, and that's something that I want to pursue more, definitely. But for me it's not a sort of Ziggy Stardust, Aladdin Sane, different character-per-concept album kind of vibe, it's very much who I am. I'm not about to cut all my hair off. I'm not sure I'm allowed to."
You don't want to confuse the fans, after all.
"The fans want their Brian to be girly. If I went masculine they'd be disappointed."
What were you like when you turned up at Goldsmiths?
"It was October 1990. I was very shy, I was very closed in, I was very American as well, I had a much stronger American accent, so I spent the time at Goldsmiths sort of softening it up.
"Having grown up in a continental atmosphere in Luxembourg, being surrounded by people of all European nationalities in a Francophile country, I found myself faced with the English reserve. I was putting my foot in the mouth a lot and I had to teach myself to be a bit more diplomatic and less brash and maybe not say exactly what I thought all the time to people. It's kind of gone full circle. Now I have the power to say exactly what I think all the time to people and they can like it or lump it."
What were your actorly strengths?
"I was ridiculously bad at writing essays, taking exams. I basically flunked all my academic stuff, and scored top marks on all my practical work, which evened it out for a straight 2.2, which is what I got. But we were quite adventurous. There was a small group of people who came together, we did a lot of absurd theatre, did re-working of Shakespeare, and a lot of directing as well. I went in my third year to making small films on Super 8, and working them into performances... [the aubergines arrive]... It's alright. I can talk with my mouth full. It's the Italian blood in me."
You have Italian blood?
"Yeah, my grandmother's Italian. And my mother's Scottish and my grandfather was French. Hence my love of good living."
British people tend to be suspicious of bon viveurs.
"I hope so. If it sticks a fist up the ass of the British musical heritage and the splendid isolation of this island of yours, that's great."
Was there a mad phase for you when you first came to London?
"Completely. A lot of my mindless drug-hoover reputation is based on a lot of things that I got out of my system at college - what I liked, what's good for me, what I can handle and what I can't. I'm turning into a bit of a workaholic there days. I don't have time to abuse my body as much as I used to, and I have too many responsibilities and I wouldn't be able to live with myself if I let things get in the way, the trappings of rock'n'roll. But hell, I can still party as good as the next guy."
So why did you chose the band instead of acting?
"Well, drama students are possibly the most competitive and bitchy people you'll ever come across in the world, and I was quite apart from them when I was there..."
You mean you weren't competitive and bitchy?
"I wasn't interested in being competitive and bitchy with them. I was just interested in collaboration and the exchange of ideas. My focus changed a lot when I was at college. After getting involved in making films I was searching for something more instant, something that seemed like a hell of a lot less hard work, which of course was wrong, and something that suited my hedonistic tendencies more. And the band seemed ideal for that."
Was a lot of it ego-driven - wanting all the attention yourself?
"Well, that's part of being an actor anyway, it's part of what I've been trained in. I always kind of figured that my place would be on stage in one way or another."
Were you attention-seeking when you were living in Luxembourg?
"No. I was a very lonely kid and I was very quiet and I didn't have many friends and I kept myself to myself, wrote a lot, and just basically dreamt of getting the fuck out. I used to get on a train and go to Holland as often as possible. It was very unstimulating, very rich, like a little Switzerland. Lots of good places to eat, but very boring."
Was it an 'unhappy childhood'?
"Erm... yeah. My brother's ten years older than me, so I spent my formative years as a teenager feeling much like an only child. There was a lot of loneliness involved and a lot of alienation, and I was surrounded by a lot of people who were trying to make me into themselves, and what it ended up doing was making me go: 'Fuck you, I'm going to forge my own's identity' at a very early age."
Was that family pressure to make you fit in?
"Family pressures, religious pressures, things like that."
Your parents splitting up must have affected you a lot.
"Yeah it does: it was very confusing, but in the long run what it's ended up doing is to make me quite distanced in general from my family, apart from my brother who's my best friend. That ten-year gap, once I got to a certain age, meant that there wasn't going to be any competition between us, which was great, and once I got to a certain age we could start partying together. He works in a bank. He takes care of all my money. And I know he's not going to rip me off, so it's cool."
Were you affected by your mother being a born-again Christian?
"Yeah, that's something I spent a lot of time running away from, and had to write a lot of songs about it, a lot of really bad songs, before I could get it out of my system and write some decent music. I did write a lot of songs about 'shedding the spectre of Jesus'. But I'm over that now."
Jesus is a kind of a rock'n'roll figure though.
"The ultimate rebel perhaps."
Who's sexier, you or Jesus Christ?
"Oh, me definitely. Jesus was hairy!"
People who've had a religious influence on their life often replace that influence with something else spiritual. Have you done that?
"Well, it's very important to me that I live according to my own rules and that I let my life be dictated by my own madness. One of the things that is negative about religion is that it replaces choice with a book of rules. It takes away doubt and questioning, and it gives you something to follow willy-nilly without thinking about it. It takes away thought, it takes away confusion, and all of those are things that I'm particularly interested in. So, you know, music is a very spiritual thing, but it's also a very sexual
Sex can be spiritual, too.
"Sure, if you can get enough of it, and if you're in love, otherwise it can be a very empty thing."
Do you think sex, music, God and drugs are all interconnected?
"Well, yeah. That's what Prince would tell you."
A bright man.
"Also a very short man!"
But is there anything that you're interested in at all as a code?
"Well, within the band we just talk about karma, not in a religious way, more in a philosophical way. We just say: 'Don't fuck with your karma', and if you want to tie that to some sort of Judaeo-Christian ethos then it would be: 'Do unto others as you would have done unto you'. And if you have one principle to live by, then live by that because it will keep you in good karma, and I think that the fact that we're here at this point so early in our careers must mean that there's a lot of good karma surrounding us. But I don't actually believe in it as an out-of-body force."
So what were the cultural eye openers for you - literature, movies, paintings?
"Mmm, well every kid when they hit about 15, they think it's cool to read Kerouac and then they find out that Kerouac's boring and they move on to Burroughs, and he's one of my favourite writers. I discovered the writing of Dennis Cooper while I was at college, who's like the modern Marquis de Sade, and I'm hoping to interview him quite soon actually. But it was a real musical discovery over here, more than anything else."
What posters did you have on your wall?
"Sonic Youth, from the 'Daydream Nation' record and it's them standing on the street looking really tall and completely blurred. I think Sonic Youth are aesthetically satisfying as kind of like geek-rock gone dissonant. They're very sexy! They are. Kim Gordon is absolutely sexy."
Lee Ranaldo's a bit too cerebral.
"Well, the real sex organ is between the ears, not between the legs. It doesn't matter how small your dick is as long as your brain is big."
Was your androgyny present when you were a kid?
"When I was really young, I used to have really long hair, much longer that it is now, and yeah, I remember walking around Dundee with my mum and we were going to visit my grandmother and her bumping into people that she knew from years ago and they'd say: 'So who's your little girl then?' So it started at that point, when I was about three. When I arrived in London, I let my hair grow again and I started being mistaken for a girl a lot of the time. And I'd worn make-up in theatre since I was 11, so I was kind of used to it. And I decided to play it up a bit. I just started making up to see if people'd be confused even more, and when the band came along I started putting more on. Nail polish is great if you play guitar because it looks really good on the fretboard as your fingers slide up and down."
Do you think your sexuality was altered by the way you chose to look?
"Possibly. I mean it was always something that was very much there. When I was a teenager I never ruled out the possibility of falling in love with another man, even though I had quite a healthy attraction towards the opposite sex. It's one of the things I had a very big problem with the church about, and one of the things I continue to have arguments with my mother about. As a teenager, I just made sure that I didn't close off opportunities. When desire manifests itself you have no control over it because it's there. It's your choice over whether you repress it or explore it, and I chose the more adventurous path and decided to explore. And I still do."
Was your initial learning process about your sexuality problematic?
"Not really problematic. I lost my virginity when I was really young and then didn't have sex for a while. As a lot of men do. They get over it with and then become friends with their right hand. i guess I've always been quite a lonely person and loneliness breeds a certain frustration and relationships have always been quite complicated for me and never seemed to have lasted very long, because I guess I can get too analytical about things and we all struggle with some kind of ideal within ourselves and we all want a relationship that's going to blow your head off, and it's hard to find."
Can you imagine a long-term relationship with a man?
"Yeah, I don't see why not."
Does the gay scene culture interest you at all?
"I don't really appreciate it because of the music. And I've never been into classic camp."
But you'd look good in hot pants and a vest.
"You reckon I'd look good with really short hair, a moustache, a white vest and a pair of jeans? Maybe. No, the gay scene's very crusey and the music is very cheesy and there's more mystery and ambiguity in the in-between spaces, those interest me, more than things which are steadfast."
Do the other members of the band resent the amount of attention that your persona gets?
"Absolutely not. No. Within the band we represent all facets of sexuality. I think it was a problem with Robert [ex-drummer], but not now."
One point of view is that androgynous pop stars are no big deal anyway, so what's all the fuss about?
"Well, I'm not fucking Julian Clary! Er, let me rephrase that, I'm not Julian Clary, for fuck's sake! Even though we did go to the same college."
But it is something that's been around for a good while.
"It's been around since Little Richard, basically. It's been on Manics' T-shirts since their first album - 'All rock'n'roll is homosexual' - and good rock'n'roll has always had a gay undercurrent to it. So it really is no big deal. I'm not the one who places so much emphasis on it, it's people like you."
Do you feel less alienated these days?
"There is a lot more satisfaction in my life. I'm an artist and I'm being paid to be creative. I still can't hold a relationship together, though. And maybe all the things that made it impossible to hold one together in the past have been replaced by my job.
People think that when you get a record deal and you're successful and people know who you are that all the voids in your existence are filled up. Some of them are, but most of them stay. Often they're replaced with a whole set of new voids. It can be a struggle... but without the struggle, it wouldn't be worthwhile."
And if the devil came to you in the middle of the night and said: 'Brian, I'll give you a Number One album in America, but in order to do it I have to take away Liam Gallagher's voice', would you agree?
"Would I have to sell my soul though?"
No. Just agree to the silencing of Liam.
"I'd say 'Satan... let's go for a drink!'"