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
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.