PLACEBO

THEY WERE THE GOTH GATECRASHERS AT THE FEAST OF BRIT­POP. TWENTY YEARS LATER, THEY’RE STILL PLOUGH­ING THEIR OWN FUR­ROW AND RE­CRUIT­ING NEW DIS­CI­PLES ALL THE TIME. AN­DREW PERRY MEETS SINGER BRIAN MOLKO AT HOME TO HEAR ABOUT “GEN­DER FLU­ID­ITY” AND HAV­ING DAVID

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Hav­ing David Bowie as a men­tor and “just re­fus­ing to go away” is how eter­nal goths Placebo sur­vived for 20 years, reck­ons front­man Brian Molko.

No lesser per­son­age than David Bowie once de­scribed them as “like oil and wa­ter”. It was 29 March, 1999, and the erst­while Thin White Duke, at the height of his drum’n’bass phase, was si­mul­ta­ne­ously in­dulging two of his other in­fat­u­a­tions of the mo­ment: a live we­bchat, along­side his new favourite band, Placebo. “He was so happy the whole time,” re­calls the trio’s ever-colour­ful front­man, Brian Molko, of that re­mark­able pe­riod, “that we were al­ways won­der­ing what an­tide­pres­sants he was on.” Bowie men­tored Placebo through much of the late ’ 90s, tour­ing and record­ing with them, and even invit­ing them to per­form at his il­lus­tri­ous 50th birth­day gig at New York’s Madi­son Square Gar­den. Ac­cord­ing to Molko, he was drawn to their “gen­der flu­id­ity, and vul­ner­a­bil­ity”, but, af­ter 30- plus years in the game, the wily old stager saw that this emo­tion­ally volatile, glam-goth trio had some­thing durable at their core: an op­po­sites-at­tract song­writ­ing part­ner­ship be­tween Molko and bas­sist Ste­fan Ols­dal, which was suf­fi­ciently fo­cused to an­chor them through any stormy ex­cesses in life­style. Call them oil and wa­ter, or in­spi­ra­tion and ap­pli­ca­tion, or sim­ply just loud and quiet – Molko and Ols­dal are still go­ing strong. Now on their fourth drum­mer, they’re about to cel­e­brate their band’s 20th an­niver­sary by re­leas­ing a 2CD ret­ro­spec­tive called A Place For Us To Dream, and by play­ing arenas on every stop of a mam­moth world­wide “great­est hits” tour, sched­uled to wind up at Christ­mas 2017. At their in­cep­tion, few would’ve marked out Placebo as pan-global mass en­ter­tain­ers of the fu­ture. The band first got go­ing af­ter a chance meet­ing be­tween Molko and Ols­dal. They’d both stud­ied at the il­lus­tri­ous Amer­i­can In­ter­na­tional School of Lux­em­bourg, but had barely spo­ken there. Then, circa ’ 95, they ran into each other at South Kens­ing­ton Tube sta­tion; An­glo-Amer­i­can drama stu­dent Molko recog­nised the lanky, clas­si­cally trained Swede and in­vited him to a gig he was play­ing. Their part­ner­ship soon over­rode all other com­mit­ments, as they ex­plored writ­ing to­gether across nu­mer­ous in­tense nights at the singer’s squalid flat in Dept­ford. “Was it man­i­fest des­tiny?” won­ders Molko of that fate­ful meet­ing at South Ken, now curled up on a red leather ban­quette in his exquisite fac­tory-con­verted Shored­itch apart­ment. “I just so wanted to be in a band, and all I asked was just to be able to feed and house my­self.” He smiles mis­chie­vously. “But the uni­verse had other plans for us.” Ini­tially, they were in­spired by Sonic Youth and glam-rock, which was hardly a win­ning com­bi­na­tion at the height of Brit­pop – es­pe­cially given their ideas on pre­sen­ta­tion. “We stuck out like a sore thumb,” Molko ad­mits. “There weren’t many men wear­ing as much make-up as we were, or wear­ing dresses. Peo­ple’s re­ac­tion was far more ex­treme than we’d imag­ined, so the an­drog­yny and cross-dress­ing be­came a po­lit­i­cal state­ment for us.” In ’ 96, Ols­dal came out as gay, and in in­ter­views Molko backed up Top 5 sin­gle Nancy Boy with a con­fronta­tional per­sona, which to­day he de­scribes as “ex­ces­sively li­bidi­nous and in­flam­ma­tory”.

I WOKE UP TO MY BROTHER SHOV­ING A PHONE IN MY FACE, WHIS­PER­ING, ‘IT’S DAVID BOWIE!’ HE GOES, ‘BRIAN, THAT SONG OF YOURS, WITH­OUT YOU I’M NOTH­ING? I’VE WRIT­TEN MY OWN HAR­MONY PART FOR IT…’

If they had any fu­ture at all, Placebo were shap­ing up as a quin­tes­sen­tial gothy cult band, but pa­tron­age from Bowie – him­self crit­i­cally re­viled, at that stage – was “piv­otal”, as their su­per­star ped­a­gogue taught them about every facet of the busi­ness. “I was on hol­i­day in Bar­ba­dos with my brother,” Molko re­mem­bers, “and David called at 10 in the morn­ing from Ber­muda. I woke up to my brother shov­ing a phone in my face, whis­per­ing [ un­be­liev­ingly], ‘It’s David Bowie!’ He goes, ‘Brian, you know that song of yours, With­out You I’m Noth­ing? Well, I’ve writ­ten my own har­mony part for it, I think we should re-record it’. I’m like, [ yawn­ing] ‘Er, OK!’ Af­ter­wards, it was, ‘How the hell did he find me here?’ But I was just in­cred­i­bly hon­oured that he liked one of my songs so much, he wrote him­self into it.” Placebo’s mo­men­tum gath­ered with an­other big hit, Pure Morn­ing, but through the early noughties they worked to es­tab­lish and ex­pand their cult by tour­ing hard, of­ten in coun­tries that some deem in­suf­fi­ciently lu­cra­tive – not for noth­ing did 2003’ s Sleep­ing With Ghosts go dou­ble-plat­inum in France alone – and by mod­ernising their sound on suc­ces­sive al­bums, with shades of hip-hop and elec­tron­ica. Per­pet­u­ally on the road, they were in­fa­mously party-hearty, but, says Molko, “that life­style was un­sus­tain­able. There may ac­tu­ally be a fi­nite amount of al­co­hol that we as hu­man be­ings are bi­o­log­i­cally able to process, and we chose to con­sume that in 10 years. The record­ing and pro­mo­tion of Meds [ 2006] was us at our most ‘flam­boy­ant’, and that’s when the party got dark. We had to make a choice.” They chose life: both Molko and Ols­dal sobered up, and Molko fa­thered a son called Cody, but their long-stand­ing drum­mer, Steve He­witt, quit amid bit­ter ac­ri­mony (“not a pleas­ant ex­pe­ri­ence – our real low point”). Though it took them a while to set­tle on last­ing re­place­ment Matt Lunn, the en­su­ing years have seen Placebo step into the light. Molko de­scribes ’09’ s up­beat Bat­tle For The Sun as “one big love song to the dis­torted elec­tric gui­tar and the catchy hook”, and ’13’ s Loud Like Love as “like a meadow full of dif­fer­ent coloured flow­ers.”

Bestrid­ing the in­ter­na­tional stage, they’ve qui­etly nur­tured an ac­tivist streak. In rais­ing aware­ness for anti-hu­man traf­fick­ing char­i­ties, in 2008 they be­came the first band ever to play at Cambodia’s Angkor Wat tem­ple; then, af­ter pledg­ing to donate pro­ceeds from an arena gig in San­ti­ago to the 2010 earth­quake ap­peal, they landed an au­di­ence with the Chilean premier. “I’ve met pres­i­dents and roy­als,” chuck­les Molko with a self­ef­fac­ing smoker’s rasp, yet per­haps the key to Placebo’s un­stop­pable rise is that they con­tinue to re­cruit at the younger end of the mar­ket. “Every tour,” their guid­ing light re­veals, “the front rows are full of teenagers and young adults, and the peo­ple who’ve been with us since the be­gin­ning are still there, but more to­wards the back.” Any idea what you’re do­ing right there, Brian? “I’m scared that if I find out, it’ll break the spell,” he replies, “but there’s a the­ory that your emo­tional growth be­comes stunted at the age you be­came fa­mous, which makes me a 25- year-old emo­tion­ally. It’s a con­di­tion a lot of us mu­si­cians suf­fer from, or are blessed with, de­pend­ing on how you look at it.” About five years ago, Ols­dal moved into a place just around the cor­ner from Molko’s flat, and built his own stu­dio in there. “So we’ve come round to how we started the band in Dept­ford – this very slim­line band of just the two of us, laughs] like the goth Pet Shop Boys. So I can’t en­vis­age ei­ther of us want­ing Placebo to stop.” He takes a heave on his umpteenth cig­gie. “Be­cause, of course, the main se­cret of longevity is sim­ply re­fus­ing to go away,” he de­clares, with a re­morse­less cackle.

(Far left) Placebo’s Ste­fan Ols­dal, left, and Brian Molko, 1998 – “we stuck out like a sore thumb”; Molko to­day.

Boys keep swing­ing: Molko and David Bowie at the Brits in ’ 99.

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