Placebo's Wicked Ways

Rolling Stone (Aus), Nov'99

by Everett True

"How many ends of the world have there been during this tour?"

Placebo singer Brian Molko - hair bedraggled, impish grin playing around his accentuated lips - asks drummer Steve Hewitt, who's sitting next to him in an Italian restaurant in Melbourne.

"Three," Hewitt replies in between mouthfuls of spaghetti.

"I'm feeling a little tired," the singer explains, looking deep into his tall glass of vodka (neat) as if it can offer a solution.

A year-long world tour, which has seen his band play with Hole in Greece, Fun Lovin' Criminals in Greece, Garbage in South Africa, Silverchair in Australia and Stabbing Westward in America, will cause that. Especially when mixed in with an enervating cocktail of jet-lag, drink and mind-numbing drugs. Perhaps it's not Molko's fault he's feeling out of sorts, though. As we speak, a solar eclipse is happening - and the newest worlds end is predicted for two hours time. "Thats reminds me," Molko boasts. "We did a festival in Belgium with R.E.M. recently, and it was the first end of the world this year - the Nostradamus one, I think. I tell Michael Stipe this, and he's like, "That's great man, it gives me a new way of introducing the song tonight". So just before "End of the World" Michael says, "I was talking to Brian from Placebo and he informed me it was the end of the world today. Are you listening, Brian? Did we fucking make it or what?"

"My heart was glowing. If it is the end of the world, I'm not too worried," Molko chuckles. "It'll mean we don't have to play the gig." Quiet, Brian. You might soon rue that remark.

Four days later, I'm on the phone to Placebo's tour manager trying to figure out what the hell happened. It had started innocently enough. A few drinks in a Melbourne restaurant developed into a full-blown session after the nights show at the Hi Fi Bar. It was a fair concert, incidentally - lanky bass-player Stefan Olsdal coped manfully with a broken wrist, while a second guitarist, visible by the drum riser, added lines where needed. The Partisan crowd particularly love Cruel Intention theme song "Every You Every Me" and the libidinous debut single "Nancy Boy".

Anyway, the aftershow degenerated into an impromptu karaoke session. The Rolling Stone journalist lead the assembled in a rousing chorus of Aretha Franklin's "(You Make Me Feel) Like A Natural Women" - a great song to sing to Placebo, incidentally, with their claims of sexual confusion. Molko retaliated with an inspired reading of Queen's "We Will Rock You", the opening lines changed to "You've got cum on your face/You're a big disgrace" In the van, the band serenaded the recumbent hack with Sound Of Music lullabies, and got chased down the street outside their T.Kilda hotel for their pains.

Over the rest of the night we'll draw a discreet veil, but suffice to say that when Rolling Stone turns up at Melbourne Park Arena at 4 P.M the next afternoon, where Placebo are due to support silverchair, the tour manager is looking grim. All press has been cancelled, and Molko is lying flat on his back in the band's dressing room, groaning. Its 50/50 whether the band will make it on stage.

The show that night is subdued, oddly sexless. Despite the pent-up sexual frustration steaming of the teenage audience - a sizeable proportion of whom are obviously here to see Placebo - the band fail to spark. Molko barely says a word all night, and Olsdal contents himself with a few waves. "It helps being a sex symbol," the genial bass-player explains later. "If you don't feel like prancing round the stage, you can just stand there and let what you look like do the work." Placebo certainly had to rely on their charisma that night. Still, as Olsdal says, "This isn't going to last forever, we might as well take advantage of it while were young." The situation remains dicey for the next couple of days - at the Rowland S Howard show the following night, Molko has to depart early for fear of contracting tonsillitis.

Hewitt is still partying hard, though: "I was up till 11 A.M. this morning," he tells me. "And I got a call from a friend at 11.30 A.M., wanting to go see Bush Tucker Man. I said, "sorry mate, but Bush Tucker Man is off." The weekend shows are hit and miss.

When I finally catch up with the tour manager to try and arrange more quotes, he's sympathetic but unable to help. "Sorry mate," he says, crackling down the line from Sydney. "We don't even now if Brian's gonna make the gig tonight. He has severe throat problems. After that, we fly back to England to play V99 (which the band subsequently cancelled), and then on to Ireland. If we make those dates even, it'll be an achievement."

Placebo's love of a good time has got them in trouble before now. At one stage, the London trio were in danger of becoming a caricature of themselves. After the success of their eponymous debut album - which sold 300,000 copies in the UK alone - and its gender-trashing 1997 single "Nancy Boy", which debuted at No 4, Placebo embarked on a whirlwind of excess: rock & roll, drinking jags and recreational drugs, leaving (in Molko's own words) "trails of blood and spunk across the UK."

Maybe one shouldn't entirely blame the band, though; just a week after "Nancy Boy's" chart entry, Placebo played support at hero David Bowie's 50th anniversary party, along side Lou Reed, Billy Corgan and The Cure. No wonder their heads started to swell a little. Endearingly, the band remain fans of music - to the point of almost sounding like groupies. Placebo played in front of Michael Stipe on the set of Velvet Goldmine, and Molko is still excited by the memory, boasting in fannish awe, how Bowie's got a Placebo sticker on his fridge.

Indeed Molko name-drops bands with a candour not heard since Courtney Love at the start of the '90s. "We were backstage at a festival in France watching Debbie Harry and Marilyn Manson," he glows. "They were so wary of one another - Marilyn, scared of blowing his cool talking to Debbie Harry, and Debbie obviously thinking, "fuck, who is this lunatic, fucking Satan spawn species thing?" Our eyes were playing ping-pong. "I had a barney with (Blur's) Damon Albarn in Italy," the singer said later, drunk. "He was slagging of Marilyn, and I was saying that I thought he was OK. So he put his arm around me and patronizingly said "you'll learn", which started a 15 minute fuck-you session."

Molko's early naivety helped to fuel various tales of depravity in the press, resulting in what could easily have become a breakdown shortly before the release of Without You I'm Nothing last year. If the debut album had been the sound of hedonism - ambitious, unstoppable, dexterous - and pure, undiluted lust, then the second was the post-coital comedown, wide empty songs echoing with the sound of Molko wailing his heart out. The album was a surprise to many. The title track resonated with a near unbearable sense of loss, while the first single "Pure Morning" indicated the direction Placebo was planning to go. A stately song built round a monster of a riff, it was far more studio and dance-orientated than their previous, American rock-influenced material.

Placebo are hardly you average Brit-pop band, though. Both Molko (born in Belgium) and the impeccably mannered Olsdal (Swedish) are European Citizens, originally meet in a private school in Luxembourg. "I was the misfit, the total loser," Molko relates. While Olsdal hung out with the jocks and played basketball. Hewitt, meanwhile, attended English school where he learnt about life the hard way. "At my school, kids would smash each other's teeth out on porcelain sinks," he says. "It wasn't exactly inspiring."

A year into their world tour for Without You I'm Nothing, and Placebo are feeling the strain. "What have we been up to recently?" wonders Molko aloud.

He looks genuinely stumped. "Injuries and serious jet-lag. Stefan fell of stage in South Africa during Garbage's set and broke his wrist. That evening I slept in the exact same position for 10 hours, and woke up with a compressed vertebrae in his neck. Since then I haven't been able to feel half of my head. It's especially weird when I shower." The singer inclines his head slowly, as if to prove his pain.

"What is it with this country?" Osdal asks, perplexed. "Last time I came out here I had a really bad chest infection, the sort of infection, the sort of infection where you question your life." He gave up smoking shortly after. Someone should have told his fans in Melbourne, proffering fags through a closed van window. "This time I have a broken wrist. We were lucky. We didn't have to cancel any shows. I feel a little inadequate, though, like a mother's boy. It's not good for my soul." He lowers his voice confiding: "Its the hand I fondle my tool with."

"Australia's cool," the bass-player adds. "It's very intense. It's like America, only with a less big city stress and paranoia. The men I've met have been butch, without being too macho."

"Here in Australia," laughs Molko, "we like to engage in mullet-spotting." This isn't Placebo's first time here. Earlier this year they played a club tour to fervent receptions.

Without You has gone gold, and is on the verge of going platinum. Hence, when the band were offered a choice between struggling across America - a country they could well be too alien for, and too sexually explicit - and returning to Australia, they chose the latter. At least with Silverchair, they could play the big-venues, reaching all their under-18's who'd missed them first time round. The first few gigs in Canberra and Wollongong were a little slow. "We were feeling a little fucked-up with fatigue and jet-lag," explains Molko. "Melbourne and Adelaide have been incredible. There's been a lot of pent-up teenage sexual energy coming out. We're doing our best, considering I get twitches in my head and Stefan has a cast. We're a band who desperately needs to get off the road," the singer adds, with real foresight. "We're falling apart at the seams."

Watching the sound check before the Melbourne Arena show, it's clear the main motivating factor behind Placebo remains the music. Rather than getting their guitar techs to run through songs like most touring bands, Placebo painstakingly pick over riffs and drum loops, working out new songs as they check levels. From where I'm standing, Molkos voice sounds fragile, lonely, painfully lost. The songs, meanwhile, sound almost resolutely up-beat. It should cause for an interesting juxtaposition if it stays that way.

Back in the dressing room, as the band apply their mascara, I ask Molko if he's going to fall into the classic third album trap.

"Songs about touring?" the singer asks, grasping my point. "Oh yeah," he laughs. "Totally. Does this eyeliner look good on me?" "Sure," I reply. The singer laughs again. "There isn't a great lyrical bent to the band right now," Molko explains. "It's about the music. The last album was very pensive and introspective, because all our relationships were falling apart. It was very fragile, very naked.

The next album may be more optimistic." When I saw you last you said you were going to relocate to New York. "Yeah, I always think about it," he replies seriously. "But I started having a serious relationship with someone in Paris. To change continents now would be too self-destructive. I should allow myself to be happy. We're booked into a London studio for three months at the end of the year. We need a city vibe for the next record: the pollution, the noise, the gigs, bad habits, all that stuff, to keep it going. We're not going to repeat ourselves. "Pure Morning" was a vindication, and a pointer."

Hewitt passes by, wearing a tight, see-through shiny black top. I ask him what his vibe is for the new songs. "I don't have a fucking clue," replies the drummer candidly. "Sleazy. It feels underage, in a teenage-wife kinda way, in a "I'll get you when your young, you slag' way. The first album was party, the second album was coming down from the party, and the third one is "I'm going out again, but don't tell anybody".

"It's more emotional, more playful. It feels very Swedish. A lot of nice, brittle melodies. Teacher/pupil relationships, they're sweet. I had a few crushes at school - mostly on English teachers. Female English teachers, they're fucking sexy." To say Placebo are obsessed with sex is an under-exaggeration. They fucking love it.

"We found an internet porn site that has a live link up to Amsterdam, where you actually type in what you want them to do," Molko laughs. "No one believes it, of course, but then you ask them to wave at you - and they do! It's hilarious! "My favourite Internet porn site is this enema porn site: loads of photographs of women with tubes up their butts and shooting their enemas out into pans." Is it in real time? "No, just photos." He sighs, then brightens up again. "Still, they're very explicit."

What do Placebo communicate? Sexual freedom, hedonism. More than anyone else, Placebo capture the essence of youth, the feeling of invincibility - nothing can stop you an no rules can bind you. Tonight is all that matters and tomorrow, well, fuck it. Tomorrow is a long way off.

"That this is what we do and this is our life," claims Olsdal.

"The right to be outspoken." "Freedom," states Hewitt. "The right to believe in yourself, especially sexually. We give gay people confidence to come out. If you want to be a nutter be a nutter, as long as you don't hurt anyone else. It's all good clean - " The drummer amends himself: "Dirty fun, It's filthy, really. You fucking love it!" Hewitt stops speaking - and throws a question directly Rolling Stone's way. "Where did you sleep last night, Everett?" he grins salaciously. "You weren't tired after trying to get into my pants back at the hotel, now were you?" Enough. I ask the questions.