"Oh, The Glam Of It All"

Sunday Times, Oct'98


by Andrew Smith

Placebo's extrovert singer Brian Molko is one of rock's true originals - and a big girl's blouse, says ANDREW SMITH.

So much great British rock has had sexual ambiguity and androgyny at its heart. Over the past few years, this tendency has all but disappeared and where we do see it, it is usually paraded ironically, worn with a postmodern smirk. This is why, if you ask Placebo's singer Brian Molko about his least favourite interview question right now, he will adopt a German accent and say: "Zo, you are a glam band now - ja?" His girlish features will then crumple gravely as he describes how a high-profile appearance in Todd Haynes's up-coming and much-hyped glam-rock movie, Velvet Goldmine, has begun to seep into real life.

There is, Molko will point out in his chatty, flirty, mischievous, Kenny Everett American accent, a world of difference between glam, a form of deck-heeled 1970s rock, and glamour, which - to the devotee, at any rate - is a state of mind. "And, you know," he will end by saying, "we are definitely a glamorous band." Which is absolutely true and may account for the young, unusually bright audience who embraced Placebo after the surprise success of their thundering single, Nancy Boy, and eponymous debut album towards the end of 1996. They are everything that Britrock has not been; svelte, splenetic, intelligent, perverse, entertaining. And loud . They are just the type of act that often appeals to teenagers wrestling with issues of identity, and Molko lookalikes are becoming part of the pop landscape. At a time when celebration of the prosaic is becoming tiresome, Molko's men stick out like a sore thumb.

"We don't like that," he says, breaking into a grin when I laugh at the breezy way he dismisses "that", meaning ordinariness. "We like the idea of a show transporting you to some kind of alternative reality, of experiencing something which is a little bit larger than life. I think people appreciate it when you make a little bit more of an effort. I mean, we are a London-based band, but in a lot of ways, we don't feel British. I think that worked in our favour to begin with, because we weren't trying to be the next in a long line of great British songwriters, as certain bands are."

This is why Molko objects so strongly to the "glam" tag. To him, it trivialises what Placebo do. He will deny that playing the extrovert seemed like a good business proposition in the current climate. "No! The glamour is just an expression of ourselves, really. There is nothing strategic about it. It's such a wonderful thing to be given all this freedom - which is what being in a band does for you - to explore all these different ideas and aspects of your personality and relationships with other people and to be able to be anything you want to be."

If Placebo look and feel like outsiders, there can be little surprise. Drummer Steve Hewitt is English, but Molko and bass/guitar/ keyboardist Stefan Olsdal are American and Swedish, respectively. The latter two met at the American School in Luxembourg. Olsdal's father was a commercial aircraft financier and Molko's a banker. It was a small, incestuous place, where sport was everything. Olsdal, who is as tall and considered as Molko is slight and loquacious, fitted in by playing basketball, while Molko, always the big girl's blouse, joined the drama club. "Oh, I was a total girl's blouse. I didn't fit in."

Just as confusing was the influence of his fundamentalist Christian mother. The avowedly bisexual Molko - how could it be otherwise? - laughs as he tells you that "I gave myself to Jesus" at the age of 11, only to take himself back again at 15, at which point his parents were parting, he began to learn guitar and discovered the work of the Dead Kennedys (ever remembered for their timeless punk classic, Too Drunk To F***).

"At 15, that was a place you could go and have your own little world. I went from being groomed for the Ministry to throwing myself into the anti-Establishment politics of (Kennedys' frontman) Jello Biafra. I had all his spoken-word albums and they had a really big effect on me, one that went way beyond music. I think he really tapped into that alienation and aggression that you feel as a teenager. I could channel all of that through him."

Two years later, the singer moved to London to study drama at Goldsmiths' College. Olsdal's family had also moved to the UK by then and the two met up again. Placebo was formed.

After the Dead Kennedys, Brian Molko moved on to Bowie, Iggy Pop, Janis Joplin, Leonard Cohen, Sonic Youth and P J Harvey. His own music works much the way he says the Dead Kennedys did for him, although - particularly on the fine new record, Without You I'm Nothing - there is an unmistakable vulnerability to some of the writing. Where the first album was about sex, he suggests, this one is about love (and the elusiveness thereof). Visceral though it still is, several ballads are included.

After the success of Nancy Boy lifted Placebo into the Premier League, they all went "a bit mad". Between their first show of 1997, at Madison Square Gardens with David Bowie, and their first headline date at the Brixton Academy in summer, there was no party, no drug, no bottle of alcohol that could reasonably consider itself outside Molko's orbit. He could even be found shooting off his mouth and getting into scraps. All of which added to the myth that he was the meanest, most splenetic songwriter in Britain, pop's fairy John Osborne. He now claims to be misunderstood. "There is quite a lot of vitriol, but what people don't understand is that most of it's being directed toward me, that I'm putting myself in the shoes of people who I've been close to and who I've felt that I haven't necessarily treated well." Brian Molko is berating himself, the love.