"Sonic Youths"

Guitar Magazine, Oct'98

by Michael Leonard

Harder, yet syrangely softer; louder, yet somehow quieter; definitely less squeaky - that's the word on the new-feel Placebo from Brian Molko (vocals, red guitars, dramatics) and fellow conspiritor Stefan Olsdal (anything with strings, lookout duties). 'We've got the head, the heart and The Beast,' they point out cleverly. 'That's what great music is all about... isn't it?'

Goto the cinema this autumn to take in Todd Haynes' hyper-hyped glam rock flick Velvet Goldmine and you will see indie-band-turned-bit-actors Placebo doing exactly what you'd expect. They sashay around in impractical footwear and generous layers of 'slap'. They crank through Marc Bolan's 20th Century Boy with a skip, a wink and, quite likely a drink. Brian Molko dances, he informs us gleefully, in a comedy '70s style, 'shaking my ass and kicking my legs in the air as often as possible.' The ficticious band featuring Molko and Placebo drummer Steve Hewitt are called The Flaming Creatures; 'named after,' Molko says, 'a 1920's gay porn film.'

'Mmm,' ponders Placebo bassist Stefan Olsdal, raising a knowing eyebrow along with the rest of the globe. 'It figures.'

Even in an East London pub garden on a balmy Sunday afternoon, Placebo seem happy to play to the gallery. The Bloody Marys are flowing (just the three doubles each), Molko's smoking for Luxembourg and the nudge-wink innuendo is making even the tape recorder blush. Yet, they argue, Placebo are a very different band to one of popular perception.

Clock an ear to their forthcoming second album Without You I'm Nothing, they advise, and you'll hear an indie band blossoming into a major rock act, and the confounding of a few atereotypes along the way.

'D'ya know, we used to drink a half bottle of whisky each before going onstage?' relates Molko. 'Those days are far gone. Early on, we couldn't have cared less if we played wrong notes or sounded a mess, becasue we'd just be like, 'Yeah, punk rock!' But after a while you want to come across a little better. The music has now become the most important thing, whereas before everything else but the music seemed important. The buzz now is not the aftershow shenanigans, it's playing out music to the best of our ability. It's a seldom felt, heart-warming, wholesome buzz. It's called growing up.

Heart-warming? Wholesome? Grown-up? There's clearly a Placebo other than the sex and drugs hedonists whose sleazy quotability has made the as good a read as they are a listen. Their record company certainly think so, as they're quietly calling Placebo's second album the band's own The Bends - ie the fuel for a potentially massive shin up the rock 'n' roll ladder. Without You I'm Nothing released on October 8, is not exactly a complete about-turn; the punkish guitar drama of early Placebo hits - Nancy Boy, Teenage Angst and Bruise Pristine - is recalled on Brick

Shithouse and Scared of Girls. But on You Don't Care About Us the trio have sharpened up their pop hooks, while the slow burning title track exhibits a finer control of guitar trio dynamics. It makes the band's self-titled '96 debut sound, frankly, a bit naive: and it's likely to be very popular.

'We took a lot more time on this record,' explains the bonsai framed Molko from behind thick-framed shades and a fug of cigarette smoke.

'And because of that, I think it's broader, with more extremes. So, right now, when we're pop we're superpop. And when we rock it's real fierce, a slap in the face.'

'It's harder and softer,' nods ten-foot-tall Olsdal sagely. 'Louder and quieter!'

'I think we've found our voice in the different forms of music we explore,' Molko continues. 'The first LP was just bashed out, because we didn't have much time and we didn't know our way around a studio.

It's okay though, 'cos no one likes the first album, do they? We were,' he sighs dramatically, 'just very young!'

Recorded over three months at Peter Gabriel's Real World Studios in pastoral Wiltshire ('It was very peaceful, but at first I was a bit worried we'd lose our edge and make a folk album,' chuckles Olsdal),

WYIN was co-produced by Steve Osbourne, previously mixer for Happy Mondays and U2.

'We wanted someone who had one foot in the dance camp, to texture our music in a slightly more modern way,' says Molko. 'Becasue most of these songs were written at soundchecks the basic recording is quite straightforward, but there's also a lot of trickery involved. We're good friends with ProTools these days, that's for sure. We did get in a bit of a tizzle 'cos we wanted things to be perfect, but it was probably just a reaction to the mistakes we made on our first album.'

The exception to the Osbourne-produced Wiltshire sessions is recent Top 5-er Pure Morning, which grew from a spate of cutting new b-sides with Phil Vinall at London's Livingstone Studios when Placebo unwisely believed the album was dusted.

'Pure morning didn't even exist before we went into the studio one morning,' trills Molko proudly. 'We worked up a loop - it came out of nowhere, really - and before the end of the day we had a song. I immediately thought it should be the first single.'

The crisper drum cack of WYIN come from Steve Hewitt who, at the fossilesque age of 27, is the trio's dad figure. Previously a journeyman member of The Boo Radleys, Breed and dance collective K-Klass ('he's a versatile old slag,' Molko cackles), Hewitt was briefly a temporary third of PLacebo back in '95 when they cut their first demos. When Molko and Placebo LP drummer Robert Schultzberg's egos started clashing with debilatating regularity last year, the singer had no doubts as to who would be the ideal replacement.

‘Looking back, we were basically a band that didn’t like itself,’ remarks Molko of ‘drummer problem’-era Placebo. ‘It was three people playing for themselves, and a three-piece really needs to be a unit. With Steve joining, that’s definitely improved. There’s harmony in the group now which makes such a difference to the music. We enjoy being around eachother now, morale is much higher, and as a result making music is so much more joyful. Plus, we’re a lot less nervous than we used to be. I think our first records were so frantic and urgent purely because of that nervous energy. Now we’re more confident, more solid, even groovier!’

Thus new Placebo’s Every Me Every You might even make you dance. More surprisingly, Summer’s Gone is a bitter sweet walktzing ballad which may earn the unlikely adjective of beautiful...

‘We’re trying not to restrict ourselves anymore,’ confirms Molko. ‘Every band has a sonic palette - and we still do, of course - but you should try to be as free as possible within that. We increasingly have a tendency not to worry about keeping our identity through the songs, so it’s not a case of whether we still sound like Placebo but an issue of quality, whether the songs are simply good enough.’

‘They’re 12 lovely babies, every one different,’ beams Olsdal, his tongue darting around his cheek.

Yet surely even in such happy families, proud parents inevitably have a favourite?

‘I don’t,’ deadpans Molko. ‘Yours is Summer’s Gone? Oh well that’s because’ - dramatic exhalation of smoke - ‘you’re old. But that’s okay, cos I think we’ve got a really broad audience now. Middle-aged people we bump into at gigs like us because it reminds them of pre-punk bands, people like the Stooges, plus plenty of people see us echoing a lot of post-punk stuff. Then at the other extreme there’s loads of teenyboppers who like us cos we’re cute. And then, of course, there’s the disaffected angst-ridden teenagers who are looking for a new Richey...

‘Does that bother me? No. We are who we are; this band and its music is a very natural expression of ourselves. We’re being honest, and whether people perceive it in that was ot whether it translates, it honestly doesn’t bother me.’

But does Molko sometimes rue the fact that 90 per cent of Placebo’s press concentrates on their chemical-enhanced-weirdo-sex-perv image and not their music?

‘Yeah, it gets really boring. But this album will change that. Well, I certainly hope so.’

Despite the extra lustre and sonic swerves of Without You I’m Nothing, the heart of Placebo’s noise continues to revolve around Molko’s maverick approach to guitar tunings and Olsdal’s canny multi-instrumentalism. While the statuesque Swede previously kepy his counsel in interviews the trio now insist Molko is not the soul mouthpiece simply because of Olsdal’s input. WYIN’s Ask For Answers has Stefan on guitar and Molko on bass: on Every You Every Me Molko provides vocals only: My Sweet Prince has Olsdal tickling guitar, bass, piano and drumskins too. Elsewhere he provides lashings of Fender VI baritone guitar and Fender XII electric 12 string. And when it comes to playing live he does all this whilst simultaneously toesing a MIDI-savvy bass pedalboard.

‘Because we switch bass and guitar on this record so much,’ explains Molko, ‘on the next tour there’s going to have to be a bass and guitar stack on each side to save us criss-crossing the stage. Doule amplifiers! Which I think is really cool.

‘Normally, whoever comes up with the guitar part plays it. It’s not that we’re territorial - anything but - it’s just an idea that the best person to follow an idea through is the person who had it. Often, I’ll force Stef to play certain Fender XII or Bass VI things purely becuase he can play those instruments better than I can. You will play my parts, Stef,’ he prods at his team-mate. ‘You’re so special, Stef! In fact I’ve just realised, this is your album. Maybe we’re just getting better because my role is getting smaller.’

‘We didn’t have the Fender VI on the first album at all,’ continues the ‘bass player’. ‘I just find it opens up more possibilities for us; and it’s not fretwank 6-string bass. It’s like guitar and bass.’

‘The term, Stef,’ huffs Molko haughtily, ‘is baritone guitar.’

‘Whatever. We have to EQ the bass end carefully when I play Fender VI, but we worked it out. It’s never really been done before, I don’t think - a guitar, Fender VI and drums band - so we had to work out what it would sound like. It’s not rally meant to be.’

‘I guess we’re just contrary bastards,’ judges Molko proudly. ‘That guitar really scares producers and I just love that. At one point Steve Osbourne called it the bane of his whole existence. I thought producers liked a challenge?

‘We got into using baritone guitarss through people like Tortoise and the first wave of post-rock bands that came over from the States (Tortoise’s Brad Wood produced Placebo’s debut LP). We came across our first Fener VI in a shop in LA and we werejust staring at it going, "What’s not right about this guitar?" Finally, it clicked, and we just had to have it. Same with the Fender XII; we just saw it in a shop and had to buy one.’

So, with Molko stapled to his Fender Jaguars and microphone, Hewitt playing drums along loops to Olsdal variously hammering at Fender Vis, XIIs, or Jazz basses and Roland MIDI bass pedals, have not Placebo ever pondered expanding beyond a trio?

‘Not on a creative level, mo,’ insists Molko. ‘We’re about our equilateral triangle. Unfortunately for us but luckily for him, Stefan is not an octopus. He’s already playing bass with his hands and feet, so he’s got a tough job. And there’ll be more and more moments in the show where I ditch my guitar and become a bit ore of a diva. It’ll be all red wine, cigarette holders and ball frocks. But, don’t worry, we’ll cope. Or Stefan will.’

Olsdal is no just a sharp physical contrast to Molko, he also approaches the band’s music from a different route. Molko came to music late-ish ( a graduate from Film and Theatre Arts from London’s Goldsith’s College, he confesses film his ‘first love’) and regularly downplays his guitaring ability: Olsdal takes a more intellectual approach, having gone so for as to study guitar at GIT in Wapping. Where Molko is jokey, loudly flirtatious and, by ow, a little ‘merry’, Olsdal is analytical, softly spoken and seems sober in both mind and body. They very much appear to be the band’s respective heart and head.

‘That’s a good way of putting it,’ says Molko. ‘We balance each other out, complement each other, because my approach is more abstract and, not necessarily amateur, but intuitive!’

‘I am a bit more theoretical,’ adds Olsdal, ‘but that doesn’t mean I’m better. If you know too much about what you’re playing then you can get stuck in your ways so easily. I mean, when I was studying at GIT I did learn a lot, but after a while it completely took they joy out of making music...’

‘Basically,’ interjects Molko, ‘those places are schools to become session musicians...’

‘And you feel a little force-fed,’ sighs Olsdal. ‘In the end it was too much. It really is an institution.’

‘Me and Stefan works out really well,’ reasons Molko, ‘because we’ve got out own grooving, sexing version of The Muppet Show’s Animal on drums. So we’fve got the heart, the head and The Beast. That’s what great music is all about isn’t it?’


‘Yeah, the emotional, the intellectual and the prime sex, Steve, right from behind.’

Well of course. But you really want to be shocked, consider not Placebo’s whoops-vicar verbiage, nor Molko’s cross-dressing, not even scary reports of pre-teen Olsdal’s pyromanic tendencies (Stefan once set fire to his mother’s living room and another time, impressively, his own underpants): now Placebo have gone really strange and have started transcribing their own songs. For fun.

‘I transcribed the early demos,’ Olsdal admits. ‘I was going to do it for the first album but I didn’t really have the time. I’ll probably do it when I’m older. It’s effort, a lot of picky work. But, yeah, I sometimes take great pleasure in transcribing music.’

‘But it’s good you can do that, though,’ Molko encourages, almost unbelievably. ‘If you go and look at the tablature for Placebo songs on the internet all of them are so completely wrong. Maybe Stefan should put the correct ones out: but maybe not, cos I think it’s good to have some secrets. But it made me laugh looking at these tabs - they must have been trying their asses off to see what we were doing but they’re all very wrong. Shame, huh?

‘But although I say I never wanted to learn guitar formally, that doesn’t mean I don’t take it seriously,’ adds Molko. ‘When me and Stef didn’t have a guitar in the house for a couple of days recently, I really missed it. It’s a natural think to do - reach for your guitar when you’re not doing anything else. You really should play every day, you should have a relationship with it.’

That relationship, however, precludes one certain thing: Guitarus Onanismus.

‘We have a pathological hatred of guitar solos!’ shouts Molko with a smile. ‘Listen to something lke Black Hole Sun by Soundgarden, which is just an amazing song - but then it gets spoiled by all this musical Punch & Judy at the end. Stefan was saying something so true yesterday, that people just play wanky guitar solos cos they’re not capable of writing anything else. No middle eight? Masturbate! It’s sad. That’s how see it.

‘Maybe for a long time bands had this formal rhythm guitar/lead set-up, but one of the beauties of the three-piece like Placebo is that you can’t really have that, so it forces you to get inside your instrument a little more. It makes you explore more tonal and sonic possibilities rather than fucking getting that correct fucking piercing solo sound!’

He checks himself, surprised perhaps at the venom of his own tongue or maybe regretful he’s just alienated the majority of his guitar-playing peers.

‘No I’m just tired,’ he smiles weakly. ‘My brain is absolutely mashed.’

There’s no time for repose, though - Placebo are straight into rehearsals for their forthcoming UK tour and working out the logistics of incorporating their newly-flavoured samples and loops. Then there’ll be a big push at the thus-far unyielding American market. While Without You I’m Nothing is perhaps less immediate than its predecessor, Molko argues it has more depth. ‘The first album was filled with lust and vigour and youthful energy,’ he points out; ‘this album is much more melancholic.’ His singing is richer too, and he’s even confident the words ‘donald’ and ‘duck’ will ne’er haunt him.

‘I think Brian’s singing on this album is a real step up,’ praises Olsdal. ‘There’s singing, especially on My Sweet Prince, which is just beautiful. You’ve come a long way there son.’

‘I just got tired of being squeaky bloke,’ Molko adds, unsqueakily. ‘I got very tired of the phrase "helium soaked" whenever my voice was mentioned. I knew I had a range that I wasn’t using, basically, so I went into make this album with a lot of determination to improve. My natural register had gone down a bit, too, and I found my new register is far more emotional and has far more depth than ever before. I can do a lot more now than just belt the songs out. I was trying to make a point on this record that the girl can sing. So stop messin’!’

And why would we? After all, Molko’s now got some heavyweight pals such as Michael Stipe (producer of Velvet Goldmine) and David Bowie, who’s offered to produce future records (‘we’re going to lock Bowie’s wife in the boot of a car and confiscate all his cigarettes until he does a vocal for us,’ promises Olsdal). And yet despite the promise of further filmic adventures, the showbz glitz will remain at arms’ length: the next 12 months of Placebo’s life are all going to be music, music, music.

‘We want to be around for years,’ says Molko, ‘and when you’ve hit of a winning combination, which we have, then why not? I see each album as a foundation block of a big skyscraper. Everything we do is another brick.

‘We were in danger or breaking up a few years ago, but we sorted that out, and now we’re stronger than ever. I don’t want to lose my boys!’

And then they’re off. With no high kicks, just a slightly drunken sway.

But, it seems, a lot of purpose.