"We Left A Trail Of Blood And Spunk All Over The Country"

NME, Jun'98

by James Oldham

27 Jun 1998

...Blimey, that's not nice, is it children? Still, being 'nice' is not what BRIAN MOLKO of PLACEBO is known for. No, vacuuming sacks of drugs up his comic sex dwarf nostrils and rowing with folks is more his 'game'. Whaddya think, one last chance?

The first time Placebo walked onstage in 1997, it was at Madison Square Garden in New York City. Back home in England, their single 'Nancy Boy' had just entered the charts at Number Four, and unknown to them they were about to be asked to co-star in Velvet Goldmine with Ewan Mcgregor.

Meanwhile, here in NY they were playing to over 20,000 people at David Bowie's 50th birthday party in the company of Sonic Youth, Lou Reed, The Cure and Bowie himself, their heroes and the inspiration for starting a band in the first place.

It was the start of a party for Placebo that wouldn't stop for six months and would include alcohol abuse, death threats, cocaine, deep paranoia, sexual misadventure and insomnia. By the time it finished, the band were physically and mentally exhausted: bassist Stefan Olsdal was convinced he was about to suffer a heart attack, while singer Brian Molko was overwhelmed by feelings of personal revulsion. Still, they can laugh about it now.

Or possibly, not. Eighteen months later in a pub in London's King's Cross, Stefan and Brian are not smiling at all. Instead, they're staring pensively at their drinks, confirming that, yes, the memories are mostly all bad.

Brian, in particular, is the first to admit that he became something of a "loose cannon" and a "media whore", that he was "milking" his success for all it was worth and that, finally, by the time Placebo ended up headlining Brixton Academy in the summer "everything had started to do his brain in. "This year's Glastonbury will mark only the second time the band have been onstage in Britain since. You could say what happened last time is a cautionary tale.

Alternatively, you might say it's cliche' on toast. The fable of three lambs who skip into rock'n'roll Valhalla, only to discover that they don't like it, and what it does to them, isn't a particularly original one.

Placebo weren't the first band to do it, and doubtless won't be the last.

Besides, who cares that it all got too much? Isn't that the point?

Still, before simply condemning Brian and co as whining fools, perhaps we should offer a little context. After all, here were three (young) men who barely 12 months earlier had signed a deal with Hut rumoured to be worth something in the region of Ј1 million. Meanwhile, at about the same time that 'Nancy Boy' was entering the Top Five, original drummer (and long-term friend) Robert Schultzberg quit the band after a series of bitter rows with Brian.

Having replaced him with Steven Hewitt, the group found themselves at Madison Square Garden and on the verge of blanket coverage in every music magazine in Britain. It doesn't take a genius to work out that they were hopelessly unprepared and extremely naive about what was to follow. For one, both Stefan and Brian left their names in the phone book. And as there aren't that many other Molkos in north London, it didn't t take long for the phone to start ringing.

"Yeah, we weren't ex-directory," sighs Brian. "That was the one thing we forgot to do, so as soon as 'Nancy Boy' went ballistic, I started getting death threats. Basically, I had these 'I know where you live, motherf---er' ones and, 'I'm going to come and get you.' Although I did have one girl who spoke a phrase into a karaoke keyboard and played it to me over the phone, that was to do with coming into my room, cutting off my cock and shoving it up my arse. That was the general tone of what was happening at that point."

Of course, the fact that every single one of Brian's interviews at the time was an intriguing mix of gross misogyny, weird sexual practices and, er, shooting up crack didn't really help to keep the loonies at bay. If anything, it encouraged them.

"Yeah, I said far too much," admits Brian in a cloud of smoke. "I didn't mean to come across as misogynistic, I just meant to come across as honest.

I think that was part of the problem. I was growing up in public and saying things that most bands wouldn't dare say about themselves, things which could be detrimental. I also think that when there's something so blatantly hedonistic and sexual, people hone in on it and make more of it than there is."

Inevitably, Brian started to have an identity crisis:

"I started to feel weird and confused about who I was. I found it difficult to relate to myself and on top of that there are suddenly all those people whose lives are so empty that, I don't know..."

They started to model themselves on you?

"Yeah, I suppose. I just find it amusing that people want to look like an exaggerated version of me. It's very strange and, I'm sure this'll piss a few people off, you have to say, 'Why don't they just get a life?' I guess it's just a part of the music, but to be confronted by a thousand yous is weird.

"It's very difficult to carry that cross for people. You know whatever you do you're going to disappoint people, because you can't be everything they want you to be. Essentially, they don't know who they are. I knew we'd be a weirdo magnet, but..."

Brian trails off, but it's not difficult to see where things went from here. Sudden (and largely unexpected) success coupled with the truly obsessive nature of certain Placebo fans left Brian "deeply unhappy and very lonely". As we said earlier, he was unprepared for all this, so naturally, in the classic rock'n'roll tradition, he sought solace in drinks and drugs.

"It reached a point where I just couldn't sleep any more," he recalls. "I was tearing wallpaper off the walls and waking Steven and Stefan at six in the morning, having panic attacks. I think I really, really desperately wanted to be rock'n'roll, and I think we took our souls and bodies to an extreme and then realised we couldn't do it any more."

You stopped taking cocaine?

"Well, that's definitely calmed down now. Again, there's only so far you can go with that. Once it begins to change your personality, it starts to get scary. There was a point where whenever I went out, and I went out a lot, it was difficult not to get into an argument with people and shout at them.

"I know all that stuff comes acroos as incredibly superficial, but it was just our attempt to deal with it all. It was an attempt to block things out rather than deal with them head on. Drugs and alcohol are just an extended way of running away. Suddenly we realised that it was definitely time for detox."

It has been suggested that you since started taking heroin.

Brian looks aghast.

"No way. That's bullshit, absolute bullshit. Look at my arms."

He shows his arms. No holes.

"We're not a heroin band," he continues rapidly. "It's just what rock stars get rid of their talent with and wallow in what they used to be. If I had started taking heroin, I think it would have been really quite pathetic and let a lot of people down.

"Besides, I'd reached a point where I wanted to get back. Before 'Nancy Boy' the charlie wasn't flowing, there were different parties and then... and then I just got carried away with it all. Having said that, though, we did have a good time doing this stuff... really."

When did you finally realise you had to stop?

Brian pauses for thought.

"It was on the last tour in Britain, the one that ended at Brixton," he decides after some consideration. "By that point, we'd left a trail of blood and spunk all over the country, and we realised that we really had to calm down a bit."

Well, quite. Who wouldn't?

What that actually meant was that Placebo proceeded to play five shows with U2, tour extensively throughout Europe and then, at the end of 1997, return to London to start demoing the songs which were to comprise the follow-up to their eponymous debut of the previous year. Not an easy task. Even if they weren't exactly short of things to write about.

Having spent eight weeks working on material in a north London rehearsal room, they relocated to the Real World studios in Bath, where they began work on their (as-yet-untitled) second album with the help of producer Steve Osbourne, who'd previously worked on the Happy Mondays' 'Pills'N'Thrills And Bellyaches', as well as records by U2, Curve and Headswim. Although it won't be released until late this summer (probably proceeded by a couple of singles), the band are already predicting it will baffle many of their fans.

"It's definitely a strange record," states Brian, proudly. "It's either very fierce or very down. I think it might confuse people just because it's so incredibly schizophrenic. There's maybe only two songs that have the same vibe to them. It's also a record of extremes, because when it's down it's really down."

Are the lyrics as personal this time?

"Even more so than the last. I think the madness of what happened to us comes through, and that's why it's so schizophrenic. There's a lot of me baring my soul, a lot of me trying to deal with what I went through. If the first album was all about sex, then this one's about broken hearts. It's a deeply emotional record, and very sad in places. I think I really cut myself up while I was making it."

Metaphorically, of course. Which means we can almost guarantee that this record will contain absolutely no jokes, but will spend a great deal of time on mordant self-analysis.

"I guess a lot of it is about me trying to deal with my own inadequacies," confirms Brian. "My weakness, my emotional cruelty, my selfishness, how egocentric I can be, these are all things I don't like about myself. I think it was Socrates who said, 'Know thyself and do no evil.' And that's what I'm trying to do. It's a continual search within me, because I'm not someone who often feels comfortable in my own skin or someone who likes himself very much."

But who does have a pathological craving for attention (which might well be at the heart of his problems). Still, at least it means that Placebo aren't destined to be yet another band who turn their back on fame. If anything, the tribulations they experienced have made them even more determined to succeed.

"I want us to be as big as Abba," decides Brian halfway through a third Bloody Mary. "Success doesn't necessarily change the art of it all. I can understand people being suspicious, but I really want this band to be more than just a footnote in the history of rock. I want us to be significant, and hopefully to have brought something to music that helps the development of it. At least something that doesn't hold it back like Ocean Colour Scene, Oasis and even The Verve. I think when people hear the new record they're realise how far we're trying to push it."

Before any records are released, however, you can judge for yourself at this year's Glastonbury. Placebo's only festival appearance this summer sees them headlining the Second Stage on Saturday night where they they plan to keep spirits high with 90 minutes of angst-blasted noise. Provided, that is, they haven't already killed each other first. Recent history suggests they're not ideally suited to the carefree festival environment.

In 1995 at Reading they nearly split up after rows with original drummer Robert. The following year at Phoenix they all camped at opposite ends of the field after relentless pre-gig rows. And, of course, at last year's Glastonbury, they found themselves playing on a stage which was gradually sinking inexorably back into the swamp.

"Last year was the first time I'd ever been," explains Brian bitterly. "I was looking forward to going to the sculpture field, but there was nothing there. It was rubbish. And as for herbal highs, I can tell you they're a complete waste of time. I just hope they've cleaned the cowpats up this year."

Us, too. Still, one last thing before we leave. When you get down there you will almost certainly see Brian wandering about in a dress. These days, it seems, he can't get enough of a good frock.

"I guess I'm developing into a transvestite really," he concludes happily. "It's a bit of a discovery. I hadn't worn a dress in public, before I wore one the last time we were on Top Of The Pops, but as soon as it went on it felt incredibly comfortable. I just felt right. And, you know, obviously the airconditioning factor is a huge plus..."

It's an enduring image. Still, don't let it put you off. Dress or not, the return of Placebo should be one of the highlights of this year's festival.

For their sake, though, let's just hope it isn't the start of another party.