Wednesday, 11 November 2009

Placebo NME interview 1996

The lank, dyed bob sticks to Brian Molko's wrinkled face. Salty tears pour from his bright red eyes melting his mascara until he resembles a bedraggled Alice Cooper. The echoing room behind him is filled with rattling teeth, sudden bursts of compressed air and a vaguely nagging yet seductive feeling that the sirens are calling you onto the rocks.

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.

Saturday, 31 October 2009

Placebo NME interview 1998

Is this the most evil popstar in Britain? “I want to be a better person. I want to be a stronger person. I want to be someone who hurts people less”.
Amen, brother. Brian Molko, all frosted lipstick and icy sincerity, takes another sip from his unholy Bloody Mary and widens his eyes. Welcome to the group meeting for Pop Stars Who Say Too Much. Spiders Are From Mars, Women Are From Venus, and Placebo's singer is, in case anyone was confused for a minute back there, only human after all.
It was an easy mistake to make, one the band certainly made. At the peak of their Top Ten success with 'Nancy Boy', they were feeling, as Brian puts it, “like a bit of a God for an hour a day”. Given that they were developing a bit of a prodigious appetite for destruction, lead by a man who could write a lyric as cruel as, “Slacker bitch, fag hag, whore/ Always knocking on my door”, who cheerily described himself as a slut who wasn't afraid to start a fight with anyone who took exception to his make-up, you might be forgiven for thinking that the next stage in the Placebo story would match Marilyn Manson's autobiography, The Long Road Out Of Hell, wasted groupie for wasted groupie.
“I don't think we were ever that disgusting” says Brian, slightly indignant. He should know. He's hung out with Manson himself. Yet with a new single and album ready to go, this is the time to capitalise on their previous success, for Caligula-like antics, horse-marrying, rival-slaying. Instead, they've surprisingly opted for the alternative pop star path – following wild rock'n'roll rebellion with rock redemption, swapping shamelessness, scoring and swagger for shame, soul-searching and spirituality.
Brian has had enough of being portrayed as “junkie misogynist.” He wants you to know he's fragile, kind, vulnerable, and he's made an album of heartbroken love songs to prove it. “I don't want to be an evil person and I don't want to project an evil image and hide behind that. It wouldn't be honest, and it would probably make me more disturbed than I am already”. Suddenly, the most evil pop star in Britain isn't sounding very evil any more.
However, if this wholesome new approach is to convince the nation's high minded youth, they might have to work harder at not looking like a bunch of rock degenerates. In they grey, decidedly unglamorous confines of a north London pub, they seem like they were created in the imaginations of the most disturbed clientele. There's Brian, a tiny capsule of rock attitude with his satin trousers and velvet shirt, eyes you could drive a Rolls-Royce into and voice somewhere between Courtney Love and Mick Jagger. Bassist Stefan Olsdal is still an almost comedic counterpart to the singer – tall, blond, apparently guileless and, according to the apparently Star Trek-obsessed Molko, known as “the Viking from Vulcan – he keeps us logical.” Yet it's drummer Steve Hewitt who seems to have caused the major shift in the Placebo dynamic. Joining in 1997 after the departure of Robert Shultzburg, he's bluffly ebullient, father to a small daughter, with a hard-living past on the Mancunian dance scene. It's Steve who takes exception to the headline on the last Placebo story in NME.
“We left a trail of blood and spunk all over the country? I've never heard anything so disgusting in my life” he shudders. “Trust you two boys to come up with something like that”. He is, according to Brian, the controller of egos and instigator of the new gang mentality. As the singer talks, he constantly watches Stefan and Steve, and unless inescapable, he'll be doing no interviews alone in future. It might just be another cliché of the rock redemption – immature pin-up replaced by mature band – but there's no doubting the strength of this new order. “It's daddy, mummy and baby,” says Brian as Stefan pulls his shirt into comedy breasts. “Or you're my two husbands.”
If that's a typically dysfunctional take on the concept of family values, it's not the only thing that Steve has brought to the band. There's the groove, too. Placebo are very fond of the groove. You'll first notice it on the gloriously glossy power-loop of 'Pure Morning', lunging there underneath Brian's bizarre rhyming frenzy, a single that nearly never was. With album sessions leaving them “freaked out – we were unbelievably precious – actually quite anal about the recording,” it was only when they got in a studio with 'Nancy Boy' producer Phil Vinall to work on B-sides, screaming into a toy parrot and writing songs about a cartoon character called Needledick The Bugfucker that they relaxed and the 'Pure Morning' loop resurfaced as a valid proposition. What about the lyrics though?
“They were off the top of my head, a first take thing, so I wasn't even thinking about the significance of them. After that, I realised it's a song about friendship – celebrating friendship with women. It's about the point in the evening when you've been up all night and the sun's coming up and the rest of the world is waking up and you can't go to sleep, basically, and you feel like a complete asshole because you're coming down. And it's at that point that you feel like your life is the least sorted ever and all you really crave is for a friend to put their arms around you and make you feel better. That's the pure morning, when that happens.”
And that's a female role? He looks slightly suspicious. “Yeah, I think so. It's about two friends of mine from two different continents who've meant a lot to me.”
“One of them you're still in contact with,” points out Stefan.
“Yeah well, she lives in London and not Tokyo.” It's not going to help you shake off that 'junkie misogynist' charge, though, is it? “A friend with breasts and all the rest” - honestly...
“It's meant to be a bit cheerful” stresses Brian, exasperated. “It's a bit up for a change. It's definitely the most digestible song on the new record, it fucks with your head the least. It's light compared with what we've done before.” Brian describes the as-yet-untitled new album as “a 12-headed monster. It's got 12 different personalities. And no, they're not all mine.” This split personality makes perfect sense – on one hand, the guarded moderation of their new persona, on the other, the boyish revellings in the good times of the past. They happily admit it wasn't all a cocaine nightmare of self-loathing and insecurity, that they lived their pop star fantasies out to the full. In between hanging out with David Bowie and Marilyn Manson, they also supported U2 on their last tour.
“Bono's rolling around on the floor screaming 'Placebo' down the microphone. It was cool,” smiles Brian. “Then we went onto the Lemon jet – I'm afraid of flying, and they offered us to turn a 17-hour journey to Lisbon into a one-and-a-half-hour one. So we got very drunk on the plane – I tend to drink a lot on planes just to calm my nerves – and we got this really bad turbulence and I was like “Oh, shit, we're going to die.” Then I realised “Oh, no, we're on a plane with U2 and they're never going to die. They're going to be here forever, I'm going to be alright.”
They're also making an appearance in Todd Haynes' hyped-to-hell film Velvet Goldmine, putting themselves at a Method-acting stretch by playing glam-rockers. Clearly, it was a big case of wish fulfilment all round. “It won an award at Cannes, which we're very happy about because Todd is a very talented director and he is also an absolute hugbubble and a lovebunch of a person.” Brian, in case you need reminding, darling, was once a drama student. “When I was at college watching Poison by Todd Haynes I never thought that I'd be in his movie and that he's be coming round to my house for beers. We played him the album before most people heard it. But there were lots of lovely little moments during filming – when you're in the make-up trailer next to Ewan McGregor who's for his Iggy wig on and you go “so what are you doing today, Ewan?” and he he goes, “I'm doing 'Gimme Danger' and I'm scared shitless.” And you can turn around and go, “don't worry, Ewan, you'll be fine.”
And did you get to wear good clothes? “Oh, TOTALLY.” They all chorus. Even Steve.
“HE had hair extensions!” Crows Brian.
“I had big hair and red suede shoes and Jimmy Page pants and, er, a weird red nightie,” gushes the drummer, his fashion vocabulary deserting him at the last moment. “The first time we did '20th Century Boy' the audience was Ewan McGregor and Michael Stipe. You know you're in a movie. We hadn't even played Brixton yet ourselves and we were onstage there in front of them.”
How did you get on with Michael Stipe? “He's the closest thing to Buddha I've met,” sighs Stefan. “He's a very peaceful individual, he has a lovely body.”
Everyone turns to look at Stefan, who raises an eyebrow, glances away, throws a peanut in his mouth and chew with studied innocence. “I'm sure he'll be very flattered when he reads that,” laughs Brian, utterly upstaged. But only for a moment. “We had a good time. We went to the Groucho and smelt each others armpits for a while. Me, Michael and Steve. To see who smelt best after a day in the trailer. It's what pop stars get up to.”

What else pop stars get up to has been well-documented. Brian has spoken about not taking heroin because he felt as if it would 'disappoint' people. All the same, as the rumours began to circulate, there was a sense that a force for good Рan intelligent, pansexual alternative to alt-rock Рwas being railroaded into the siding named Rock Oblivion. Their adoption by the rock legends just seemed to confirm their decent into clich̩.
Did they feel like they were following some script for excess in their heads? “No, quite the opposite,” explains Brian. “It was reacting to situations in a very short-term fashion, doing things for the hell of it, because you can, because you've never done them before. You've not gleaned anything of substance from it – it's like relationships – you should learn something, but after you've had the hangover, there's nothing left to learn. And we're getting older and the hangovers are getting worse.”
Steve: “Ah, lightweights.”
“Well, not for you, of course, Mr Bowels-Of Steel. But it's like Pilgrim's Progress – your burden gets heavier and heavier and sooner or later it's going to break your back. You don't have to get lost in rock'n'roll – you've got to find that trail of breadcrumbs,” says Brian, spinning away in metaphors before hitting the one he needs. “You don't have to go through the Zeppelin curtain. When you touch it, it's nice and velvety, but you don't want to get on the other side of it.”
They've had more than a glimpse, though. They admit to abusing their position, feeling ashamed of the way they behaved. Friends took Brian to one side, told him he was behaving “like a prima donna,” making him feel like an idiot. Celebrity acquaintances who might have offered warnings, didn't. David Bowie's advice was “never lose your spontaneity” - great in theory, yet maybe not the best thing to tell a bunch of 25-year-old men who already have a deity complex. It's a time they describe as “The Days Of Jack.” They don't drink bourbon any more.
Brian looks up from his scarlet drink, speaks very deliberately. “When you realise how you've behaved like an asshole, you take your pillow, hold it over your face and try to smother yourself.” He sighs, “I used to be quite a nice person but rock'n'roll eroded it.”
Why not just give it up, then? “You get sick of touring after a while, but then you don't go to a gig for two weeks and when you do, you just want to be up there again. You get jealous. It happened to me last time we stopped touring and I went to see the Bunnymen, I was like, 'I wanna be where Mac is right now'.”
Last time out, Placebo were, let's say, passably famous. A black bob and a slash of lipstick – it didn't take much to make them instantly recognisable. But compared to Bono or Bowie, this was a pretty low-grade fame. They were not stalked by Julia Roberts. They did not duet with the Dalai Lama, or guest star in Friends. If the adoration of the massed forces of Britain's indie kids sent them spinning into crazed oblivion, the new record hitting a stratospheric level of success might be catastrophic.
What are you going to do if it all gets more than too much? “Leave the country probably. Go into exile. Take my Napoleonic complex with me all the way to Elba and hide,” grins Brian. “I think we're a lot wiser – we've learnt to beware the trappings of rock'n'roll – and we're not stupid, so it was always at the back of our minds. But you learn through experience, really, and no matter what your mother tells you, you're always going to do it. The things about fame that didn't agree with us were self-inflicted, so you have to learn a bit of willpower, learn what's good for you and what's bad for you.”
“Stay away from situations where you get beaten up”, says Stefan, with the world-weary gravity of one who knows.
“Stop provoking people,”adds Brian, sensibly. Look at you, are you sure you want to stop provoking people? “Well, face-to-face at 3am, yes,” says Brian, archly. “If people are hassling you and you tell them to fuck off and you're nobody, they usually do. But if they think they can take a pot shot at a pop star, that'll make their month. You just have to be careful about where you go and what state you get into when you're there.”
“And make sure Steve's around,” says Stefan.
“But I never am!” Says Steve, cheerily. Is that because you're flying out the door at the first sign of trouble? “I've just missed out, unfortunately. Unfortunate for Brian and Stef, I suppose. What gives people the right to do that? If people start having a go at them, I'll kill 'em all,” he laughs.
“I don't understand a lot of the aggression I get from people”, says Brian disingenuously.
“It's because you're gorgeous,” explains Steve.
“Shaaatup.”
Stefan tries to help. “You get drunk,” he points out.
“I get drunk and mouthy, that's true,” nods Brian.
“You say 'What's your problem?' and have a go at them in a pub,” continues Stefan.
“Yeaaah...”
“And they go 'It's not my problem, it's your problem',” the bassist goes on, warming to his subject.
Brian suppresses a glower. “Yeah, well, I don't feel like I've been handed a dodgy hand of cards. I'm responsible for quite a part of it, but when you're the focus for both adoration and hostility, it's not an easy thing to live with.” Do you find you hate people easily? “No, not easily. I really need to be pushed. You really need to fuck with my life for me to hate you. I am a forgiving person,” he says, every inch a 1974 Miss World contestant. Not vengeful at all? “Definitely not vengeful. There's no point in vengeance. It just bounces back at you. It's too easy.
“I am,” says the increasingly endearing Stefan, merrily unconcerned with the state of his soul. “It was an unrequited love affair and I couldn't believe my love wasn't being returned.” He punches the air. “It never got physical, though.”
“I got beaten up by a cab driver recently,” says Brian, “And the instant reaction was, shall we get the cops involved? No. Shall we get the boys round? Yes. And then, a week later, you think, that shit's just going to come straight back at you. Spiritually, more than anything else, Karma.” He pauses. “You're looking at me like you don't believe me.”
There are a lot of things difficult to believe, a lot of things about this newly reflective Placebo. Given that their rampant, wide-eyed debut saw Molko coming on like he had a vibrator rather than a valentine for a heart, the idea of a heartbroken collection of love songs isn't an easy concept to grasp.
Do you think now that you rather overplayed the sex thing? “Maybe. It definitely got out of hand and I nearly became a caricature of myself. It was who I was at certain points, but not all the time. And I try not to be like that at all these days, but it just comes creeping up on me sometimes.”
Heard any good rumours about yourself? He bursts out laughing. “NO! NO! None! No!” he giggles. “Just horror stories.” Like? “Oh,” he says airily, “nothing...”
So what would your idea of decadence involve these days then? “Oh, it would have to involve a chaise lounge and, er whipped cream,” he says, unconvincingly. “But sex was very much what the first record was about – it was full of vigour and youth. It wasn't very cynical. Not that this one is, but the people on this record are a bit more crushed by the ways of the world, they've been hurt more times.”
When it comes to discussing heartbreak, “there's been a lot of it about,” is all he says. “Since becoming successful I've spent a lot of time with people in self-destructive relationships – often seeing you as something you really are not, as Brian Placebo rather than Brian Molko.”
Do you secretly crave domestic bliss? “I think it would be really nice not to have to go through all the bullshit ad infinitum, y'know. Cut out a lot of the insecurity in one go. It seems to me that whenever you think you've got your teeth into something that's working, it's taken away from you. It's like, our lives are extreme highs and extreme lows, which is the nature of being in a band and I prefer that to a stable plateau. At least you know you're alive.
“It's the same thing when someone breaks your heart. You can reassure yourself that at least you're human and you really meant it.”
A lot of people would find it hard to believe that you could ever have a heart, let alone one that could be broken. He looks up from under those mascara'd eyes. “People see me as self-assured and very confident but I'm often falling apart. I'm very fragile. It's through songs that I manage to keep together. Arrogance is not something I'm interested in, but vulnerability is.” He blinks. “Scared Of Girls' from the new album is a self-disgust song with an 'I'm-ashamed-of-who-I-am' kinda vibe. One of the lyrics is “I'm a man and I'm a liar” - spoken from the point of view of someone who doesn't feel very happy about themselves. 'You Don't Care About Us' is directed towards me, written from the point of view of someone I used to be in a relationship with. There is a line in it which says “You're in the wrong place/You're in the back page”, which is often what I used to do – I used to imagine the end of these things just as they were starting. When you do that you're fucked from day one basically, but that's often the way I used to conduct my relationships. I think I'm quite a misunderstood songwriter – all the bile and vitriol and wickedness people believe is directed by me towards other people, is but they're often directed from other people towards me and I'm being extremely self-critical.”
Yet there has to be some reason why people persist in seeing you as a Bad Man. He sighs. “It's part of my own creation. I live by my own rules, I guess. People find it very difficult to put me into a box, therefore I must be a wanker.”
“You're a great bloke,” says Steve, loyally.
“Thank you, Steve.”
“You're a generous, top bloke.”
“I am generous and I am kind and I am sensitive and I am very, very loving. But people really think I'm made of steel.”
Earlier, Brian had sighed, “What I'm discovering more and more is you have to lie, you have to hide yourself. If you try to be honest, everything gets misconstrued and held against you. We should lie like the Beastie Boys, only we're not that quick.”
It's a strange road Placebo travel, but one thing's certain – it's paved with good intentions. And of course, as road music they have all the best tunes.