"Jagged Little Pill"

The Guardian, Oct'98

9th Oct 1998

They wear dresses and make-up, and think it's dangerous. But Placebo's new album is a mature, mournful affair, even while the drug references court more controversy. Caroline Sullivan meets Brian Molko and his gender-busting friends.

Although the three members of Placebo had barely been born when David Bowie released the Ziggy Stardust album, they have a natural affinity for the era. Their glam rock is so angsty-brittle it could be dubbed Son of Ziggy, and singer Brian Molko is an androgynous Bowie-sprite in nail polish. Last but definitely not least, gender-bending hedonism is so much a part of who they are that you could say they party like it's 1972.

Who better, then, to support Bowie on his last tour? And who more logical to play a glam band in Velvet Goldmine, the pop film set in the days where bisexuality and drugs were going to liberate the world?

The world remained unliberated first time around, but Placebo are on a mission to try again, taking their message of sex, stimulants and men in mascara (or "cocks in frocks", as Molko puts it) to the public. As they release their second album, Without You I'm Nothing, their reputation already precedes them.

Even before 1996's self-titled debut, which wielded the Top 5 hit Nancy Boy, they were attracting headlines like 'A Trail of Blood And Spunk" and claiming to spend £700 a week (much exaggerated, Molko now admits) on chemical enlightenment. Despite this, they managed to find time for the Bowie tour -the Davester called them in when support act Morrissey dropped out- and to play the old boy's 50th birthday party at Madison Square Garden. Along the way they accrued a fanbase of stalkers and Molko clones; meanwhile, Molko manages to rouse the ire of every macho type in the country by plastering himself in make-up and discussing the group's sexuality.

He's prone to statements like: "Everything is represented in the three of us: straight [Mancunian drummer Steve Hewitt], gay [Swedish bassist Stefan Olsdal] and bisexual [Molko himself, an American raised in Luxembourg, where his banker father was based]. That's why we are so dangerous."

But dangerous to whom exactly? "We wind people up," says Molko, who today is make-up-free save for chipped nail varnish. "A cock in a frock still seems to upset people. The vitriolic reaction we get in the British press is probably misplaced homophobia. We're touching people's insecurity by being the fags people's girlfriends want to shag." The exquisitely courteous, English-accented Olsdal nods. "We've done Top of the Pops in dresses and we say things like, 'What a gas, what an ass'. That makes us dangerous". One doesn't wish to burst your bubble, boys, but this is 1998. The pop charts happily accommodate everyone from Uzi-waving gangstas to chicken-sacrificing Satanists. Are you sure you're not overestimating your dangerousness?

"If I can be called 'You fucking fag' it proves we worry people", Osldal flatly states. "And if people call *me* a fag, imagine what an effeminate homosexual gets."

That's something that Molko could tell him. While not gay, he cultivates his effeminacy and delights in being mistaken for a woman, which apparently happens often. He's forgone the usual lipstick and eye-shadow for this interview, and no one in the Leicester Square bar looks at him twice. But if he'd been in full warpaint, even the bartenders would have ogled. Small of stature and fine-boned, Molko is, no two ways about it, girlish.

But does that make him dangerous or radical? Hardly. Radical is bruisers like the Cure's Robert Smith and Wayne Hussey of the Mission wearing smeared red lipstick, as both did for years. Moreover, bisexuality claims to the contrary, Molko's orientation seems more conventional than he'd like to think. Asked if he's ever had a passionate relationship with a man, he shrugs and stares into his vodka. Brett Anderson's famous "bisexual who's never had a homosexual experience" epigram comes to mind.

Despite the nonsense, however, Placebo are most likeable. Well educated and fluent in several EC languages thanks to the American school in Luxembourg where Molko and Olsdal met, they're untainted by pop-star snobbishness.

They still give interviews to fanzines, still love meeting artitsts they admire. They played in front of REM's Michael Stipe on the set of Velvet Goldmine, and Molko is excited even now, boasting shyly, "He's got a Placebo sticker on his fridge." In the film, playing a band called The Flaming Creatures, they turn in a version of T Rex's 20th Century Boy that's so perky as to be almost wholesome.

Pushing the wholesomeness notion further. they insist that the many stories of excessive behaviour that follow them around are inaccurate, or downright lies. The trio particularly dissociate themselves from a recent magazine article that claimed the inspiration for the new album came from a drug-fuelled three-day orgy.

"If you did all that, why would you brag about it in a magazine? It feels like we're some sort of vending machine for filth. Put in your 50p and get filth," says an unamused Molko. "Disgusting," grimaces Olsdal. "Everything I was quoted as saying was made up. These stories cling to us, and we want to be able to cross borders without hassle." Hewitt adds: "We'd score a bit of weed and it gets translated [in the press] into cocain or heroin."

So, for the record, they explain how they came to start writing Without You I'm Nothing. Hewitt: "We did an ill-fated German tour, playing heavy metal clubs, poodle-rock places with punters in Spandex. We were in Leipzig and the lighting guy had some incredible skunk, which is rare for East [sic] Germany, so during the soundcheck we got very creative and started writing the album. The gig was shit, though, because we'd spent all our creativity on the soundcheck." No three-day orgy, then? "No orgy."

They don't entirely deny, though, that the song My Sweet Prince on the new album alludes to heroin. The lyrical references to "chasing the dragon" and "closing up the hole in my veins" rather give it away, and Molko hints, "It's about two romances, both of which ended disastrously." One of which was with the drug? "I'm not prepared to say any more. It's one of the most personal we've done."

He describes Without You I'm Nothing as "our post-coital depression album", and it certainly sounds like it. It's the antithesis of the first album, right down to Molko's voice -- the helium that inflated it has evaporated, leaving him deflated and exhausted (a great improvement). Hence, there's little Nancy Boy-style shrilliness, just the sound of a sadder, wiser person waking up with the hangover of a lifetime. "It's the Placebo Get Over The Hangover album," japes Olsdal. Goodness. What do your mothers think of all this sluttish behaviour? "I have as little contact with my mother as possible," Molko says, laconic and weary as Lou Reed. "My parents expected me to be a Republican-voting, God-fearing conformist." So they must be appalled at the way you've turned out.

He looks up from his vodka, miffed dignity emanating from every pore. "I feel this is my destiny," he pronounces, much as Napoleon must have when he crowned himself emperor (Molko's French is perfect, by the way, should he ever get any ideas about doing the same thing). However, he's great friends with his brother, who followed his father into banking. Does this mean he gets free investment advice? "Yeah, I've invested all my money in a chain of Placebo love motels, " he jokes (or possibly it's not a joke at all). He notes that the album is "confessional", by which he means that it's full of a haunted self-loathing that, were he Catholic, would net him scores of Hail Marys in penance. "I'm unclean, a libertine," runs the title track, half boasting, half repelled at the depths to which he sank.

Whatever those depths were -- because, as Molko says, half the stories circulating about Placebo are false. And the other half? "I don't deny anything," he begins, then refuses to explain what it is he's not denying. "It's just honesty," Olsdal breaks in. "Just a reflection of the last two years. We only did what young men do."

So that's Placebo. Mad, bad, maybe even a bit dangerous.