"Placebo's Nothing"

db, Feb'99

24 Feb 1999

by Andrew P. Street

Unless you’ve been locked in a safe at the bottom of the ocean – and who among us hasn’t at one time or another? – you’d have heard Placebo’s single Pure Morning being thrashed on a variety of radio stations (the one that goes "A friend in need’s a friend indeed/A friend with weed is better"). Well, that single is a taster for the imminent release of their second album ‘Without You I’m Nothing’, and for this reason their flu-ridden bassist Stefan Olsdal was snuffling down the line to me from his London bed.

The quote that seems to be bandied about most about ‘Without You I’m Nothing’ is that if ‘Placebo’ was the album about the night before, the new one is very much the morning after. Stefan tends to agree: "If you take the record as a whole, on a lyrical and emotional level, that’s quite accurate because it’s the way it happened for us," Stefan croaks. "We were a very young band when we did the first album, very inexperienced, and the first band for me and Brian [Molko, singer and guitarist]. And we were all in our early twenties, full of youth and vigour, up for any party basically, and we lived through a lot. Nancy Boy brought us a hit and we were catapulted into some sort of rock ‘n’ roll stratosphere, going on tour with a lot of big stars from U2 to David Bowie and Iggy Pop – we even played with the Sex Pistols! So we did go through a lot, and I think when we came to be doing the second album all of that came out: it’s a bit more reflective, a bit more melancholic. We did a lot of living between the two, basically."

I felt uncomfortable mentioning this, but the single Pure Morning isn’t exactly representative of the depth of the rest of the album – in fact, in comparison it sounded almost like a throwaway to me. Stefan seems a little put out by this: "Mmmm, yeah…I mean Pure Morning is definitely an episode by itself. We’d finished recording and delivered the second album and went into the studio to do some b-sides. When we do b-sides we have a much more relaxed approach to it. Pure Morning started as a loop in the studio which we never ever thought would be part of a song and by the end of the day we piled on the rest of the instruments and Brian’s lyrics came pretty much off the top off his head. So it was a complete fluke, really! And when we sent it off to the record company and said ‘this is one of our b-sides’ they said ‘ah, no, I don’t think this should be a b-side’. So it is quite different sonically, and I guess lyrically as well. It’s sort of a celebration of a friendship with women and also a song about coming down – about trying to go to bed when the rest of the world is waking up. So it stands apart for those reasons. There’s definitely a streak of melancholy on the rest of the album."

Whenever Placebo have been mentioned in the UK music press it’s seemed to be about who Brian is shagging or how many drugs the band has been taking, to the point where it’s hard to find a mention of Placebo’s music in most interviews. Stefan laughs, "How boring is that, eh? You do get a different perspective of us because you’re not in this country. I think it’s just the way of the British music press, it’s very tabloid. They’ve got two weeklies coming out and they do tend to zoom in on the sex and drugs and the lifestyle more than the actual music. I mean, there’s always a grain of truth in every lie that they will print, but it did get very annoying – especially all the attention that was put on Brian. And all this talk about drugs is not going to help us when we cross borders, especially to the ‘States and Japan," he says with a rueful laugh. "That’s a thing that we’re trying to turn around more these days. It’s a bit the nature of the beast, this whole music press charade, but we feel we’ve talked enough about our lifestyle surrounding the music, and the music is definitely the most important thing."

A few years ago Placebo covered Bigmouth Strikes Again on the Smiths’ tribute album, ‘The Smiths Is Dead’ put together by French magazine Les Inrockuptibles. Stefan seems a little surprised to have it mentioned: "Oh, are you a Smiths fan? Same here. We were quite surprised, when we were asked, that no-one had chosen Bigmouth Strikes Again because I think it’s the strongest track on the album. Maybe people are a bit afraid to tackle such a number but we just dove straight in there. We tried to make it fiercer and bring it up to date." It was a rather brave move to record one of the definitive Smiths tracks. "Well, in some ways we don’t think too much about things like that."

The final track on the album is unlisted and turns up sometime after Burger Queen, and consists of a Sonic Youth-esque wall of sound with some very weird sounding samples at the end. Innocently I asked Stefan what they were. I was not expecting to hear that: "They were some death threats that Brian received on his answering machine, which were pretty scary at the time. You really feel quite threatened by it. We had this one stalker who kept ‘phoning us, a right pain in the arse, and I think she was playing it through a karaoke keyboard saying, ‘I will come into your room, I will cut your cock off, I will stuff in my mouth and I’ll chew it with my little teeth’, which is pretty horrible. Not the sort of thing you want to hear after a night out, at three o’clock in the morning. So we thought ‘fuck you, we’re gonna take this, we’re going to make some money out of it and put it on the album’." Stefan laughs, before musing, "The working title of the track was Evil Dildo, which fitted in pretty well."

With that I left Stefan to blow his nose and get some much-needed sleep. ‘Without You I’m Nothing’ should be out in stores any tick of the clock now and there are whispers of a possible tour in the next little while. Maybe some Codral would be in order.