Placebo, the band from everywhere and nowhere, are lying by the side of a swimming pool gurgling and flapping like curious deep sea fish dragged suddenly into the light. This is the video shoot for '36 Degrees', the jagged follow-up to the clunk-click indie classic 'Come Home' and the second single to be pulled from Placebo's brashly caustic eponymous debut album.
The cloying reek of chlorine and the bloodshot eyes directly relate, perhaps a little too directly, to '36 Degrees', a song all about breathing, body temperature, and particularly the cold-bloodedness of relationships. So obviously it makes perfect sense for Placebo to expose themselves to hypothermia four metres under the water, miming along to a track they can't hear for one whole bloody hour.
And why? Because it's art, that's why. If half-drowning is what is required then that's what Placebo will do. They are, you see, not a band for half measures. Just look at bassist Stefan Olsdal, a giant giraffe of a man, like a rudely stretched Mark Ash. Or squint down at drummer Robert Shultzberg with his windswept Woody Woodpecker hair. Then gape open-mouthed at singer/guitarist Brian Molko, a preening whirl of androgyny and sexy poses, like Scarlet O'Hara left out in the rain.
Add to the confusion the jumbled recollection that Stefan and Robert met at school in Sweden, Brian and Stefan met at school in Luxembourg and they all met again years later in London, and suddenly Placebo are about as far from the drab Britpop terraces as it's possible to get without building an igloo.
“There was never a chance of us being Britpop,” spits Brian, picking at his painted nails and screwing up his stinging eyes at the very thought of being Brit, let alone pop.
“For a start we're not British. We didn't grow up here, so we don't share the same vocabulary. We've all moved around so much that our vocabulary is pooled from everywhere, and that includes our musical vocabulary. We never listened to any of the groups that bands like Ocean Colour Scene listened to. With us it was all post-punk and new wave guitar music along with Patti Smith's poetry, stuff like Depeche Mode and darker shit like Joy Division.”
Unsurprisingly, perhaps, for a man who sounds like Feargal Sharkey and Billy Corgan fighting in a helium balloon, Brian cites female solo performers as his greatest influence.
“I fell in love with Janis Joplin's voice at an early age,” he sighs, rubbing his damp eyes and smudging his eyeliner again. “It was so raspy, so soulful, so f—ed up, yet so beautiful, like a modern Billie Holiday. And Billie Holiday herself had the most incredibly strange voice, so booming, so filled with pathos, it just nails you every time.”
So if Placebo are a musical United Nations sans blue berets, a band of gypsies in Max Factor war paint fighting the marauding cagoule, surely this makes them anti-Noelrock?
“Well, Ocean Colour Scene are the mainstream now,” reasons Molko. “The tradition type of rock has moved into TOTP territory because the Britishness inherent in bands like Oasis spreads over generations. I would hope that we are outsiders simply because we're more youth based than a retro-dinosaur thing.”
Suddenly Robert jerks to life: “Far too many bands try too hard to sound like other bands,” he spouts. “Like with Oasis you'll have Northern Uproar using a similar chord structure and dressing the same as Oasis. It's really quite tragic, they should spend more time working on their own sound. We've never tried to sound like anything else. We never had strategy meetings. We have a few bands in common, like Sonic Youth and Joy Division, but generally we're all into different bands and when we gel it all together, we come up with...”
“A six-headed infant!” shrieks Brian delightedly.
Asked to name names of those guilty of crimes against original music, a comic Mexican wave of ill-disguised disgust ripples around the band.
“I really don't like any of those bands,” says Molko, barely able to restrain his distaste, “although I do like Pulp; they're really witty and glamorous and...well, just wonderful.”
No real surprise that such a brightly visual band as Placebo should be excited by the bargain bin glam histrionics of the Sheffield showpeople, but next to the Earl Of Jarvis and his rayon wrinkles, Placebo shine like a newly-polished glitterball. After all, brickies in Jarvo's native Steel City just want to shake his hand and get an autograph for the wife these days, while Molko's robust androgyny still provokes extreme reactions. In fact, his scuffed dragisms were so effective at early Placebo shows, audiences were often convinced that Placebo were Yet Another Female-Fronted Band.
Of course, in those days half the audience were record company sharks – by their fifth gig, Placebo were already at the centre of the fiercest bidding war since, ooh, The Roaring Boys, as their broken bauble melodies and their ambivalent looks added up to pound, dollar and shekel signs i blank A&R eyes.
Brian laughs like a slightly camp drain at the suggestion he adopted an 'Is he? Isn't he?' stance as a deliberate shock tactic or selling point.
“No, it just came out that way!” he spurts. “I was always getting mistaken for a woman on the street, so I just figured, 'What the hell! Let's confuse these people a little more if they're that easily confused in the first place!' It's fun creating a little mystery around yourself. But you can't emphasise something that's not already there. The female side is definitely a part of me, definitely a part of my character. But having studied drama I realise performing can be a vehicle for letting things out that you wouldn't normally let out in real life. And that's true for all three of us.”
So instead of all dressing up in your mum's clothes and dancing about in pixie boots while claiming to have started some sort of cultural revolution, Placebo are just being themselves: big burly blokes in big girls' blouses.
“It's a blurring of boundaries rather than straightforward glamour,” agrees Brian. “It's about making things more ambiguous and more mysterious, using shades of grey rather than black and white. Especially when it comes to emotions.”
But surely with the dark eyes, darker nails and none-more-dark lyrics, Placebo are sailing rather close to the fetid dry-ice wind of – gulp! - goth.
“So many people have picked up on the darkness in our music,” sighs Brian with a dark look. “As if nail polish and eyeliner can be translated into goth! They're mistaking the broodiness and intensity of desolate emotional music for something trite in a cowboy hat with long straggly hair and black nail polish...”
Umm, cowboy hat? You've lost me, is this a Luxembourg thing?
“What interests me is the vulnerability,” he continues. “The passion and emotion, exploring them in as naked a way as possible because you can feel more if you're not hiding behind things.”
Well how about the convoluted imagery on their LP track 'Hang On To Your IQ'? To wit: “Chinese masseuse comes between us/ Talks in haikus, plastic Venus/ Got a head rush in her pocket/ Two rubbers, two lubes and a silver rocket”. You what? Brian seems genuinely shocked that NME's puny brain has failed to grasp the full meaning of his words.
“Well, it all makes perfect sense to me!” he says haughtily. “That's the most story-like song on the album. The person in 'Hang On To Your IQ' is so self-conscious they can't operate properly sexually, which we all go through at certain times in our lives.”
Speak for yourself, sunshine. But talking of, erm, country matter, the one song on 'Placebo' which has kicked up the most wet leaves is the shuddering strop of 'Nancy Boy', a song about drugs, fetishes, a role reversal and erm, shagging with a bag on your head.
“That's a play on all those horrible macho jokes like 'You don't look at the mantlepiece while you're poking the fire!'” trills Molko.
“We're trying to subvert that with the line “Eyeholes in a paper bag/ Greatest lay I ever had”. It's all about gender confusion and transvestism, the lure of a second-hand beauty where imperfections and things that are really f—ed up are more attractive, the danger of it is a turn on.
“It's the twisted part that's most exciting. And hopefully that's what keeps us exciting, because it just feels like now's our time, this is our chance, because we're going to go for it, hell for leather.”
That'll be black leather, of course.