"Ready, Steady, Spook"

Melody Maker, Oct'98

Well, we had to invite PLACEBO to The Maker's Halloween party, didn't we?

Especially when they have tales of death threats and nights out with spooky bloke Marilyn Manson to tell...

At the end of Placebo's pensive, melancholic new album, "Without You I'm Nothing", after nine minutes' silence, you will discover a deeply unnerving secret track. Until this point there have only been traces of the grubby, lust-fuelled depravity of their well-soiled debut, but, as the song finally fades out, the disjointed voice of a clearly warped female breaks through with words that are weird, scary and sick, even for a twisted, ambisexual deviant like Brian Molko.

"I didn't write those," states Brian, in his nasal, Euro-Yank drawl, as he sits being transformed into a luscious damson-lipped demonoid by his bubbly make-up artist.

"Those are actual death threats left on my ansaphone. The exact words were, 'I will f*** you up the ass and I will sneak into your room and cut your cock off and stuff it in my mouth and chew it up with my little teeth.'" He smiles, strangely.

"And there was another one, from a bloke, saying 'Motherf***ker, I'm after you.' He called back to say, 'I know where you live.'" Did you inform the police?

"No. They stopped and I moved house anyway. It was kinda happening at a scary time as well. We got very angry about it, so we decided to tape them on that song. They seemed to fit the aggression of it very well."

And so it goes. There are people who don't like Brain Molko, and there are others who would dearly love to torture him to death. Happy Halloween.

Though many would be loath to admit it, Placebo -- front man Brian Molko in particular -- are something of a gift. In an age where British popular music culture demands much more than simple musicianship (granted, some manage to slip through sans personality passport and sell millions of albums), today's pop stars are required to be all-round celebrity entertainers. They not only have to be sexy, talented and clever, but also performers, comedians, racounteurs, actors, politicians, f***-ups, idols, drug addicts, drunks, gobshites and honest, decent, sensitive souls. Dating celebrities, befriending Hollywood stars, a stint in rehab and being arrested for salubrious misdemeneanours are a bonus.

Brian Molko, then, is indeed a gift. A hedonistic, witty, big-mouthed, rock'n'roll ladyboy, who's tasted just about everything the lifestyle has to offer and is truthful enough to admit it. However silly, annoying and prima-donna-ish you may find him, you have to agree, even if he's just someone to ridicule, he's good fun to have around.

So we're backstage at the "Jo Whiley" show, for the first of two proposed meetings with the sexually and geographically cosmopolitan rock trio, and the trio are getting ready to pre-record a song live for TV, Brian is in the middle of a hefty make-up session, drummer Steve Hewitt is late, bassist Stefan Olsdal is flitting around, and people in headsets keep walking in and out of the room.

Some time back, the band made a conscious decision to conduct all interviews as a three-piece, for the simple reason that Brian has a big mouth, is too honest and people were getting too far into his head, and Stefan and Steve were being virtually ignored.

"This may be hard to believe," says Brian, as a thick layer of black mascara is applied to his long lashes. "But I began to get irritated by the fact that everybody started to perceive Steve and Stef as my backing band.

I never, ever intended it to be like that."

Unfortunately, though charming, softly spoken Stefan and straight-talking, no-nonsense Steve are charismatic, funny, articulate and equally important band members, you can't help but be fascinated with Brian Molko.

With his silly voice, funny hair, other-worldly sexuality and sharp tongue, he's likeably unlikeable, amusingly irritating and offensively harmless. To his credit, he also has a wry sense of self-awareness. Brian is the first person to admit he's a prima donna. Steve and Stef, however, are a close second.

Swedish Stefan and New-York-born Brian have known each for years. Both pupils at a posh private school in Luxembourg, they met during a school production of "The Boyfriend", Stef was playing bass in the band and Brianwas doing the lights. A few years later, they bumped into each other at a London Tube station and decided to start a band. Sort of.

"We used to get together in my front room in Deptford," laughs Brian. With a little keyboard, learning to play silly Abba covers. Then we saw this band Breed, which was Steve's old band, and we were like, 'Wow! Rock! Let's get a drummer and be a punk band.' And I want him."

Unfortunately, Steve was unavailable, but in 1997 he stumbled into Brian ("who looked like the most miserable bastard in the world") at the Phoenix Festival, told how he wasn't getting along with his band and decided to join -- proving there may be some truth in destiny after all.

Today, the winning combination of Swede, Manc and Yank (gay, straight, and anybody's, respectively) have never been happier. Over the past 18 months, they've toured US stadia with Bowie, had several hit singles, won a few awards, played a glam rock band in the new Todd Haynes movie, "Velvet Goldmine", recorded their second album and negotiated the perils or rock'n'roll excess through trial and error. Error mainly.

They're still recovering from the last spate of interviews they did, where Brian was cast as some evil, drug-crazed sex monster, indulging in heroin and orgies and...

"There are things that are written about us that disgust me," spits Brian.

"I mean how many people does it take to make an orgy? Who made the orgy rules anyway?" He laughs and then stops. "Let's not talk about orgies any more."

A woman in a headset interrupts to inform the band that rehearsal call is imminent. Like, now.

"People are trying to represent us more and more in a very sensationalist way," says the now dolled-up Brian, legs crossed, taking elegant drags on his cigarette. "We have done stuff. We've had the opportunity to do stuff and most people would have done stuff too. The problem was we didn't keep our mouths shut about it when we were asked. We've been too honest and sometimes I regret that. You feel like there's this cartoon character version of yourself following you around and, basically, it's starting to get a bit irritating."

A few days later, sat around a table on a weekday afternoon, things are decidedly calmer. The previous interview ended rather shabbily, we didn't even say goodbye. "Hey", nudges Steve. "Friends?"

If you catch Placebo on an off-day, you're likely to find them slightly stroppy, rude and spoilt. On a good day, they're the best buddies in the world. The truth, no doubt, lies midway. Today, it's buddies, they're on good form.

"We've got the biggest brick-shit-house crew over, at the moment," says Brian, referring to their no rest 'til the millennium world tour. "They are all massive."Are they to look after you? "Yeah," nods Steve. "We're gonna need it." "Right," adds Brian. "To keep the crazies at bay."

And Placebo are certain to attract crazies everywhere and it'll be worse in America where the band are beginning to break. "Yeah, it's all kicking off in the States now," confirms Brian.

"'Pure Morning' has gone really quite severe on commercial radio over in America. I think we've got a Radiohead on our hands."He's starting to sound like a marketing man. Make him stop.

"I guess it has an American accent on it, but it doesn't sound like any other American band. It rocks, but not the rock they're used to. Maybe it's the Bonham drum beat. In America you only need one big hit to sell truck loads of albums."

How have you managed to retain your American accent after so many years of living in Europe, Brian?

"Oh, it used to be a lot worse, very nasal, 'My gaad, it's soo f***ing intense.' I made a conscious move to soften it. It used to be really, really irritating."

Although there's no question Brain could handle himself in a battle of caustic wit, when he's sitting beside you, looking small, frail and feminine, it just feels cruel to pick on him. Besides, he'd probably win.

Are you really a terrible prima donna, Brian?

"I'm not as much of a prima donna as I used to be, " he shrugs. "We're all getting much less patient. Basically, there's just too much to do sometimes and that gets interpreted wrong."

Would you say you were ever unbearable?

"Not really, just a little too mouthy. Basically, (he says basically an awful lot) there are too many emotional extremes, stepping offstage and having to be a normal person again, dealing with that comedown, it's very difficult. There's so many things that continually interfere with the essence of being a musician and that really winds us up."

Have you changed much in the last year?

"We're getting slowly more sophisticated," offers Brian. "In the way we present ourselves, but we're pretty much the same as we were a year ago. We can just afford better make-up now."

Brian Molko has only ever had one proper job, shredding paper in factory.

His career prospects were curtailed when he broke the machine trying to shred plastic to amuse himself. He would have looked a lot stupider if he was wearing eye-shadow at the time.

"There's freedom in rock'n'roll which you don't really find in any other job," he points out. "Of course it's a circus, it's where all the freaks go, it allows you to explore all those aspects of yourself that mundane real life doesn't allow you to. It's a fantasy world."

Have you experienced much real life then?

"Plenty. I think we've produced an album of great depth, on an emotional level. It would be impossible to think that we hadn't lived a great deal to be able to feel these things and have an understanding about our lives on that level. Anyway, you can't get further down to earth than a housing-benefit-paid-for flat in Deptford with two and a half years on the dole. It's pretty real to me."

"I remember the times," says Steve, in an unintentionally apt dour Northern accent. "When you'd have one pound's of petrol in the car and one pound in your pocket. Trying to work out how to put your drum kit on a push bike. Me and Brian even took a drum kit and amp on a London bus once, all the way to Camberwell from Deptford."

And we so much wanted to believe they were spoiled rich kids who'd had it easy. Just Stef, then.

"I used to go swimming in the Thames sometimes," recalls Brain, as if to prove how un-posh he is. "When I was really, really pissed, which was a f***ing stupid thing to do. I swallowed some Thames water once, too. I'm lucky I didn't die."

"I once went swimming in the Manchester Ship Canal," says Steve, not wishing to be outdone, "me and some friends. When we got home, all our hair had frizzed up and burnt off at the ends."

Brian: "Christ! Did it melt your pubes too?"

Steve: "No, I didn't have any."

Are you ever embarassed by anything you've done in the past?

"Yeah, our very first single, "Bruise Pristine", and it's about to be released on a Fierce Panda compilation," blurts Brian, without hesitation.

"We really hate that version, it's so fast and, honestly, I do sound like Mickey Mouse on it. We were going to say no, but it's so ridiculous it has to be documented in some way. I can really understand where this helium thing came from. My balls have dropped since then."

If Brian gets death threats, what sort of phone calls do you get, Stef?

"I get little kids calling up from Germany saying, 'Hello, my daddy doesn't know I'm calling you, but when are you coming to play here?'"

"You're the nice one," surmises Brian. "You get all the nice phone calls."


"Well, I've been sat at home for two days and no one's rung me."

So begins a long moan about losing touch with friends and how people think you change and everybody seems to have an opinion about you.

"If we walk into a bar together," says Steve, "You can sense people making their minds about you. It's weird."

"It mainly happens in this country," notes Brian. "We've just come back from Spain and it wasn't like that at all. The whole mentality is the flipside to the British. We felt so comfortable because people accept you and like you for it, because it's much more what they're like."

"Over here," says Steve, "we're just being ourselves and everyone thinks you're a wanker."

So what do you do?

"Well, if someone is blatantly in your face and they want you to be a wanker, I can very easily be the biggest wanker they've ever met in your life."

"Because it's not that difficult," laughs Brian. "It's just so easy to turn it on like that. English people seem to get a buzz out of trying to piss somebody off who's doing something. It would be really nice not to have to use your mental energy."

Would you ever move abroad? The States perhaps?

Brian: "I would if I could, definitely."

Stef: "I'm gonna go to Spain. I'm in love with the place. My boyfriend is Spanish as well."

If that's how you feel about English people, you must know you're looking for trouble, looking the way you do.

"I know what you mean," nods Steve. "But we can't really stop ourselves, either."

Brian: "You should be who you are. Why should you change yourself? You spend years trying to find out who you actually are and what makes you tick, why should you have to change yourself for other people. It's the same thing as being gay, you are who you are."

"Even in the microcosm of us three," continues Stef, "we're different sexualities, but we still love each other, we still respect each other so then we expect that from other people."

"We're a very open band," insists Steve. "It's not sexist or racist, it's none of those things."

"Yeah," grins Brian. "You were supposed to be black, weren't you? And I'm a girl."

Tonight, Brian Molko is going out on the town with his scrawny American sickoid rock star friend Marilyn Manson. Maybe they'll go trick or treating?

"Actually, he's cleaned his act up," assures Steve. "He's all glam now. I didn't like him when he was covered with dirty rags either, all smelly."

"He's fun," insists Brian. "You definitely cause a stir wherever you go with him, he's not as sinister as you think. He's a pussycat, too."

(Gina Morris)




Stefan: "He's definitely the emotional fire of the band. He has more of a vision than I have of where we are heading. He's more in touch emotionally and he's also quite tender."

Steve: "I admire him as an artist, he has a talent for pushing ideas forward. He doesn't like the band being manipulated, and stands by what he believes in."


Brian: "I admire his domesticity, he's very clean. I like the fact that he has less facial hair than me as well, he's just about learning how to grow a moustache. And I like his no bullshit attitude and his energy, his peppiness to get the job done."

Stefan: "I admire his determination, he knows what he wants and knows how to get it. He knows what's important, I like that a lot about him."


Brian: "I admire his patience and his all-encompassing kindness and gentleness."

Steve: "I admire his musicianship, he's one of the greatest people I have ever played with."



Stefan: "He can be a bit of a rock star, sometimes. It's not like that when we're together, but his image gets in the way of him, but in fact that's just part of him as well. You can't like everything about everyone."

Steve: "Hedonism, really, that's it. You've got to pull him back when his big mouth gets going sometimes."


Brian: "Steve's a real male. He's a proper man, he can be a bit macho at times."

STEFAN: "Sometimes he can refuse to listen, and I can actually see why he gets into fights -- 'No, I'm f***ing right, you're the one with the f***ing problem, mate.' He always has a go."


Brian: "Stef's a ditherer, he can dither about a bit too much, which makes me lose my patience."

STEVE: "The only thing with Stef is he can be too patient and too quiet sometimes, which frustrates me. I wanna kick his arse -- 'Say what you think, man, just f***ing say it!"