"The Bitterest Pill"

Ray Gun, Dec'98

Hedonist Glam Trio Placebo Learn to Balance the Sex and Drugs with a Little Rock 'n' Roll

Tom Lanham Takes Their Temperature

Brian Molko sat sifting through his noodles at a tiny Korean restaurant in San Francisco, mulling over one of his favorite topics: sexuality. Or, more importantly, his sexuality, which he'd just loosely documented on a glam-slamming debut from his English trio, Placebo. And the diminutive, delicate-boned singer held back nothing. He was attracted to both men and women and often immediately acted on those impulses; he loved pleasure, all types of varied pleasure, in both physical and chemical forms; and, given his new stage-profile power, there weren't too many pleasures left on his taboo checklist. Molko was becoming-as UK wags were quick to snipe-a "drug-crazed sex dwarf."

This was two years ago, when Molko was just a budding rock star. But it's a different, dramatically changed Brian Molko relaxing in the bar of his New York hotel now, nursing a beer and a bowlful of the house specialty- macaroni and cheese. "Penitent" would be an apt description. "Ashamed" might be another. In the 24 months leading up to the thoughtful, almost spiritual new Placebo epic, Without You I'm Nothing, this hedonist pell-melled through so many rock 'n' roll pleasures it'd give Hugh Hefner himself a bad case of impotence. Some Molko can discuss; many are too unbelievable or embarrassing to soberly relate. The touring lifestyle, he now understands, afforded him such a carnal cornucopia, opened the lid on a Pandora's box that's taken an almost Herculean effort to reclose. "And what that lifestyle did to us is just make everything that most young men do in their twenties-party a lot, sow their wild oats, get it all out of their system- much, much more exaggerated, made it practically effortless." Molko exchanges knowing glances across the table with his two partners in crime, bassist Stefan Olsdal and drummer Steve Hewitt, before adding that, "We're only now learning how to say 'No.'" Ironically, the reformed Placebo play an excess-addicted glam rock band in the new Velvet Goldmine flick, crooning a nightclub-scene "20th Century Boy."

Tongue-in-cheek, Molko pleads for clear-headed clarity on "Pure Morning," Without You's first lumbering anthem. Sounding a bit like Geddy Lee on helium, Brian describes sharing a drug-and-alcohol-free dawn with a similarly clean lover, with only the beauty of surrounding nature beaming optimistically trough. A type of morning, Molko admits, he's rarely witnessed firsthand.

When did he get the message it was time to grow up? He smiles, batting long eyelashes over baby blue eyes that have wooed countless suitors (invited and uninvited). "When every day became a hangover. And when you look at yourself in the mirror and go 'I don't like how you're coming across to people.' And when every day just started to feel the same. After the 50th shag, it doesn't mean so much anymore."

Hewitt nods vigorously in agreement. "You lose your head, don't you? If you're shagging every day? Too much of any good thing, and you end up in a bad way."

Molko sighs. "Yeah. It just gets boring. And that's when your senses get out of hand. Initially, you just needed a kick. But then your kick has to be more extreme the next time. So then you find yourself in a situation where you have to do things because they're on offer to you, because you don't have mush self-respect left. You just can't say no, even to something that you've never done before. You just can't help yourself."

Several times during the conversation, Molko refers to Placebo's three-year-old career as a "treadmill," a sensory-overload conveyor belt that never stops. You're not allowed to jump of, he sighs, not allowed the luxury of pausing for what-the-hell-am-I-doing reflection. Still, the band forced itself to a soul-searching halt last year, which prodded Molko into self-analytical new material like "Ask For Answers," "My Sweet Prince," and a song sung from the viewpoint of one of his discarded paramours, "You Don't Care About Us." Musically, the tracks either bounce along on Olsdal's Joy Division-ish basslines, or (on several pensive ballads) swim deep within Molko's inky-murky guitar passages. Lyrically, though? Sheer Catholic guilt.

Lessons learned, per Molko: "I don't have the constitution that I imagined I had, on either a physical or a spiritual level. I just can't go any further, any more. And a lot of my pleasure-seeking was fueled more by self-disgust than anything else. A lot of it was an attempt to block out the pain, block out the loneliness and the fact I didn't like myself very much. And because you're on that treadmill, you become too self-destructive. A lot of bands go in to that, but they don't come out the other side. But we have. We've been staring down the edge of the cliff or awhile and now we're thinking, "Nah. It's too far down."

Besides, Molko continues, "When you have a hangover for two weeks, nonstop, it starts to affect your job." He thinks about this for a second, then scratches the statement. "No, it starts to affect the pleasure that you get from doing your job well. So now that has become, more and more, our drug- doing what we set out to do in the first place, which is to write beautiful music and communicate real emotion, and to play strong and exciting gigs. That is now our drug."

Across the bar, a gorgeous female alternasomething has just sashayed in. Her eyes light up as she spots the raven-haired Molko, who thought his baggy hippie attire might actually camouflage him this afternoon. No dice-the girl is pointing, awestruck, and whispering to her equally starry-eyed friend. The old Placeban might've fancied a shag right 'bout now. But the new Molko just snickers to himself and rolls his wiser eyes. He's lived through groupies, stalkers, "people who want to be linked with you historically, who want to be a part of your life in either a good way or a bad way. And if you refuse to let them into your life, they go from love to hate immediately. but I've always known that our band would be a weirdo magnet. There's something just...just...twisted about Placebo."

A few minutes later, the girl gives up trying to get the band's attention and stalks out in a huff. Yup. Weirdo magnets, alright. But if folks sit down and listen, truly listen to Without You I'm Nothing, and sensitive new sonnets such as the global-warming warnings "Allergic (To Thoughts of Mother Earth)," Molko hopes, perhaps Placebo won't appear so weird-or selfishly carnal-any more. "We're just trying to find meaning within all the madness," he concluded. "And if you find yourself saying 'You know, if I met myself last night, I would've thought I was an asshole,' that's one hell of a severe warning sign that you've gone too far with the madness."