"Redefining the Term 'Crossover Hit'''

Los Angeles Times, Jan'99

January 24, 1999

by Richard Cromelin

With a hot single and an all-encompassing worldview, Placebo is striving for the big time.

The members of the rock band Placebo--Brian Molko, Stefan Olsdal and Steve Hewitt--are sitting in a West Hollywood bistro, still buzzing after an invigorating show at the Whisky the night before. Halfway through lunch, singer-guitarist Molko, a small, flamboyant man with a theatrical manner, orders a sea breeze cocktail--a "hair of the dog" remedy for a little too much post-show celebrating.

Their excitement is tempered by realism. A good show, a hit song ("Pure Morning") and growing critical attention are nice, but they know there's a long way to go. Placebo's major-label debut album, "Without You I'm Nothing," came out late last year on Virgin Records, and with sales of about 45,000, it's more a first step than a commercial breakthrough.

But the album's distinctions--Molko's unusual, female-sounding vocals, a sense of edginess and daring alongside the pop instincts, an emotional candor and a predilection for the perennial themes of alienation, obsession and confusion--make it a calling card that's hard to ignore.

And there was a moment in the Whisky show when all that potential came into startling focus. The band had been playing with conviction, but Molko seemed distant, wrapped up in his guitar work instead of connecting strongly with the fans.

Then he slung his guitar around his back, lit a cigarette and stepped to the microphone, striking a Judy Garland pose as he sang the gothic-tinged ballad "My Sweet Prince," a creepy cabaret confession hinting of drugs and destruction. Molko was suddenly spellbinding and charismatic, and the audience went silent, transfixed.

At that instant, Placebo's stated goal--an old one, but one that's rarely heard in today's timid rock world--didn't seem at all outlandish.

"I think we really want to be a band that leaves its mark in one way or another, a band to be remembered," says Molko. "We want to be huge, you know."

In an age when the world's borders--national, financial, technological, sexual--seem to be falling and blurring, Placebo could be a band for the times. The trio was formed in London, and drummer Hewitt, 27, is English, but after that it's all up for grabs. Molko was born in Belgium to a French-Italian father and a Scottish mother. The couple had become American citizens in New York and eventually settled in Luxembourg. That's where Molko met schoolmate Olsdal, a Swede. Just casual acquaintances then, they would form Placebo years later after crossing paths in London.

Now that "Pure Morning" is hitting charts from South Africa to Indonesia to Australia, Placebo is gearing up to stake its claim as the voice of a new rootlessness.

"We're basically nomads," says Olsdal, 24, the band's lean, towering bassist. "There's no country on this planet that we particularly belong to. There's no heritage, and there's no sexual heritage either. It's very much spread out for the three of us. There's no obvious direction for the band to take..."

Adds Molko, 25, "There's so much more opportunity for us because we have more of a global outlook... It means more and more that there are no rules and there are different ways of looking at things."

Placebo's musical amalgamation reflects that fluidity. During his high school years, Molko assimilated a potent slate of influences, starting with hard-core punk and then embracing Jane's Addiction and the Pixies, with their high-register singers and moral ambiguity. Ultimately, he strove to combine the rule-shattering dissonance of Sonic Youth with the naked confession of PJ Harvey.

Those elements underpin much of "Without You I'm Nothing," but the sources are secondary to the music's immediacy and emotion.

"At the time we were writing this record, our personal lives were kind of falling apart," says Molko. "Which is why the album is such a romantic one, but also quite desperate and melancholic. 'Without you I'm nothing' is a very romantic phrase, but it's also a very desperate one."

"Desperate" was the operative word for Molko in the years before Placebo. Living on welfare in London's seedy Deptford district, he was getting nowhere in his quest for a record deal, spending his days smoking pot and watching TV.

"Those Deptford days, man... It was a real low point in my life... The band is what saved me, really."

All it took was a chance encounter in the subway with Olsdal, who had moved to England to study music. They formed Placebo early in 1994 with drummer Hewitt, who left because of other band commitments and rejoined after Placebo had released its debut album.

"Placebo" came out in the U.S. in 1996 on Caroline Records, and although the single "Nancy Boy" was a hit in England and Europe, leading to tours with David Bowie and U2 and a presence in the British music media, the band made no mark in the U.S.

It was a different story when Virgin put out the more modern-sounding and authoritative "Without You I'm Nothing," which opens with "Pure Morning." With its aggressive, half-time beat and sing-song hook, the track became a radio hit, providing a wedge that Placebo is determined to exploit. They'll begin a tour of major U.S. cities next month, tentatively ending in Los Angeles in late April.

"Quite often British artists think they can dip a toe into the water in America and have success," notes Ray Cooper, co-president of Virgin Records America. "But you need to have commitment, you need to have a long-term program here, and they have that.

"When we signed them, it was the combination of the sonics, the quality of the songs, their brilliant live shows and the look and style and the feel of the band. It just seemed to be an overwhelmingly powerful package... We've always looked on Placebo as having rock elements, but it's the potential to grow the audience beyond a rock base, which has been the defining thought in our minds."

Both "Pure Morning," with its aura of erotic mystery, and the earlier "Nancy Boy," a celebration of transvestite hedonism, have linked Placebo to the glam-rock tradition, a connection reinforced by their appearance in the recent film "Velvet Goldmine."

They don't think glam-rock is much of a musical influence, but there's no denying the band's gender-bending component. They like to joke that the trio is 50% straight and 50% gay--Molko is bisexual, Hewitt is heterosexual and Olsdal is gay. Themes of sexual confusion and a strain of AIDS paranoia churn through the music.

"I think it's important to speak about it," says Molko. "I think there's a lot of kids out there struggling to get a sexual identity together, and if you make it a little bit easier, that's good.

"People need a feeling of belonging. I think in many ways we're a band for the outsiders. We're the square pegs in the round holes... We've always felt a bit removed from the pack. That's part of who we are.

"I think our music communicates a really strong emotion to people, and hopefully it makes them feel better about their lives, about their lot, about themselves."

It might also be the most important aspect of Placebo's border-free identity. In any case, as they pack their bags and follow that hit from Johannesburg to Jakarta, they can keep repeating, "There's no place like no home... There's no place like no home..."