Salon Defectives - Ian Fortnam VOX February 1997
Gender-straddling, dissonant rockers with a perchant for silver nail varnish, reckless hedonism and ABBA, Placebo are here to blur your boundaries good and proper. Vox goes to New York to meet the band who've got it and aren't afraid to flaunt it....
Take yourself on a wide-eyed walk on the wild side of Manhatten's Greenwich Village to East 14th Street, and you'll stumble apon a dimly lit drinking den which utterly epitomises the tawdry sleaze aand subterranean glamour of New York City.
The Beauty bar is an alluring modern day encapulation of the pan-sexual American (wet) dream that was once eulogised by both Lou Reed and the New York Dolls. With it tirelessly tasteless decor, sparkling array of optics and on-site manicur service, it's a beauty parlour dressed as a drag bar.
As a gaudy cast of jaded night creatures sip lazily on their ostentatious coktails to a suble soundtrack of ultra-easy, space-age pop, a solitary, dalicate and androgynous figure pulls reflectivly on the lipstick stained filter of his Malboro, places his vodka and cranberry juice in the hairdressers sink to his right and absent-mindedly runs silver-laquered fingernails through his ebony Louise Brooks bob.
"I don't really believe in the categorisation of desire" admits the svelte wunderkind with a disarming smile. "Sexuality is a lot more fluid than a lot of people would allow themselves to admit."
This particular diamond dog goes by the name of Brian Molko. He sings and plays guitar for spiky, sonic gender-benders Placebo, and he's all set to be an enormous star.
Placebo are multi-national, three pronged collison-pop combo based in London - comprising Brian (American via Luxembourg), towering bass monolith Stefan Olsdal (Swedish via Luxembourg) and their rookie English drummer of
just seven weeks, Stephen hewitt (ex-Boo Radley via Breed) - who stand poised to infilrate the nation's hearts with their gloriously titled fifth single, "Nancy Boy".
Their story is nothing if not complex, but goes something like this.
At the age of 11, brian was exiled "in splended isolation" to The American Schol of Luxembourg, where he made the acquaintance of Stefan.
"Luxembourg's like a kind of little Switzerland, basically. A mercantlie heaven, with banking secracy and about 200 banks. My fathers a banker, so that's how I ended up there for ages."
When Brian finally escaped from school, rather thaan return to his homeland, he headed straight for London. But why exactly?
"First of all , I needed to get the fuck out of Luxembourg because it was so boring, sterlie and antiseptic. I had been training in drama since I was about 11, and London seemed like the obvious plac to go to continue my studies.
"I also got a very tainted view of what americans are actually like through these horrible upper-middle-class, rich spoilt brats at The american School. Companies like Dupont, Goodyear and Mobil oil send Americans to Luxembourg as a kind of reward. So the kids I went to dchool with were all ugly americans,which really made me not want to go back to the States. So thats how come I ended up in London. I moved there when I was 17. I wasn't really scared I just needed to go to a proper city."
One fateful day, in the year following his departure from Goldsmiths College, Brian bumped into Stefan again on South Kensington tibe station, and the two hooked up to form an embryonic lo-fi progenitor of Placebo, Ashtray Heart. After a few months of four-track tomfoolery, the pair recruited Robert - an old Swedish band mate of Stefan who had just arrived in London to study music - and the initial placebo line up was finally complete.
"Stefan and Robert had played in a band at school in Sweden, but Placebo was my first actual band. I started playing guitar when I was 16. It was a way of escape for me, and I never wanted to have any lessons or to be taught how to do it. I think that's very important, because if you don't learn how to play the blues then you don't play the blues. You develop your own individual musical style, and I think that is what happened."
So, in the anglocentric post-Britpop Zeitgeist, is it advantagous to boast a truly multinational and cosmopolitan line-up?
"It's good, because when we came over here people go: `So, how are you different from the rest of the british bands?' And we have to say: `But we're not British!'
"I think it's really positive because you don't end up wasting your time with concepts such as nationality, patriotism and promoting your musical history and shite like that. We've been exposed to a lot of different cultures, which makesyou into a more tolorant person, more accepting and more open in a way. It also meant that we didn't grow up with any of the kind of
musical vocabulary that people our age in british bands have grown up with. I didn't grow up listening to Dexy's Midnight Runners or The Jam... Which I'm qutie thankful for."
Are you then the logical antidote to Britpop?
"I don't know... I guess because of the musical vocablary thing we just played the music that came naturally. I wouldn't go so far to say we were creating in a vacuum, but for us it was never meant to be a reaction against anything or anyone - it was just the music that we wanted to make.
"Of course, it took us six months of fucking about and being a bad band before we got to the point where we thought: "This is good nough, let's start playing some gig." We didn't think of it as a destiny type thing, we just naturally got on with it."
Without solid influences to call upon, what or who inspires Placebo creatively?
"I've got this incredibly strong attraction to strange females of rock. I love Janis Joplin, Polly Harvey and Billie Holiday, because when they open their mouths you hear so much soul. You hear so much of their lives in there.They communicate sadness and pain in a completley joyful way, strangly enough, which sounds contradictory, but is actually extremley powerful for me.
"When I first heard Sonic Youth it opened up so many possibilities sonically, I was just amazed. I was 16 and had just started to play the guitar, so that were very significant and served as a trampoline for me to discover everybody that had influenced them.
"At the same time, Stefan, who grew up in Sweden, was listening to Abba, and they're still one of his favourite bands. So I don't know if that has any effect on the popo side of Placebo. I'm sure it probably does.
"But the point I'm trying to make is that we haven't chosen to copy any era, or to sound like The Stone Roses crossed with middle-aged Pink Floyd and bad George harrison Beatles... I think you know who I'm talking about."
You're far more attracted to the passion rather than the technique, then?
"Absolutly, it's always been an emotional thing. I remember having a really intense conversation with Paul from AC Acoustics about this. We were at T In The Park, banging our fists on the table, going: `For Christ sake, it's got to fucking mean something!' That's kind of how I feel. I want to make music which moves people emotionally, which has an emotional significance and an emotional weight.
"As a performer. I have to place myself in an incredibly vulnerable position - I stand on stageand bleed my heart out to 2,000 strangers and I have to reap theconsequences of that afterwards, whether they're good or bad. And it's fine, because if that's what I have to do for the music to be honest as possible, then that's what I have to do.
" the qualities which I attach to Placebo's music - honesty, vulnerablity, fragility and umanity - are the qualities which attract people to us, because we're not hiding behind any macho posturings of rock or hiding behind irony and things like that.
"I'd like to think of Placebo's music as being very real."
Almost immediatly, Placebo's blatent emotional reality captured the imagination of the A&R community and following an intense industry feeding frenzy (and two independantly released singles, `Bruise Pristine' on Fierce Panda and `Come Home' on Deceptive) they finally set up their own label -Elevator Music - through a special deal on Hut Records.
In June following the release of the intense and irresitable `36 Degrees', the band unleashed their refreshingly diverse, eponymous debut, produced by Brad Wood of Tortoise, and honed their live skills via a prestigious support slot on the European leg of David Bowie's `Outside' tour.
`Placebo' was a quit startling debut which carried the heritage of grunge into hitherto uncharted territory. Nagging, tumultuous guitar lines in the Sonic Youth/ Pixies tradition tumble wantonly through sonic introspection, Husker Du ferocity and virulent pop angst, as Molko delivers his heartfelt paeans to perversity in a skyscraping, cigarette-ravished vocal stle, pitched somewhere inbetween Perry Farrell and Heaven.
But, as is so often the casse, in every dream home ther's a heartache, and Placebo have been plagued by more than their fair share. Just two months ago, and after a year of internal acrimony, Robert finally decided to to vacate the Placebo drumstool for good, and was hurridly replaced by Stephen Hewitt.
It's an incident which Brian is at great pains to play down.
"I'm obviously disappointed, but, hey! The show must go on."
Also, some critics faced a challenging dislocation of accepted stylings deleivered by an elfin andgrogne in make-up resorted to galling ragbag of unfortunate reference points, which still jag in the singers memory.
"I'm very tired of comparisons to (Rush's) Geddy Lee and Feargal Sharkey. I never listened to either of these to people, and I'm surprised that people didn't hear Black Francis and Perry Farrell in there because those are men with quite feminine voices that have influenced me.
"Certain journalists can be very lazy, and as soon as one motherfucker said goth then everybody else said goth. As you can see I'me wearing silver nail polish, not black nail polish, I stopped wearing black nail varnish because of that. Bastards! They have such control over me the fuckers!
"I don't hear anything goth in our music, I don't see any similarities between us andThe Mission or fucking Sisters of Mercy, or God forbid, Fields Of The fucking Nephilim."
With the curent pop climate dominated bylumpen scallies in football terrace anoraks and trainers, brian's coquettish, pan-sexual image has almost overshadowed the bands artistic merits in some quarters. So what was it that initially compelled him to OD on the Avon?
"I was constantly getting mistaken for a girl and that disturbed me because it would sometimes provoke very strange reaction in people. So I decided that if peoples preconceptions were rooted so deep, then something really had to be done about it.
"If I can challenge people's preconceptions of what a man is supposed to look and behave like at the end of the millenium, then thats extremley positve. And if I can encourage more me to get in touch with their feminine side, then I think that's very positve as well.
"In a way, people's heads are there to be fucked with, but it's kind of playful. When it comes to matters of emotion and desire, things are very shades of grey, they're definatly not black or white.
"It's kind of like that line in Trainspotting when Begbie gets his win on the horses and they all go dancing and he gets off with a drag queen and Renton says: `in the next century, people will stop being men and women and there will be just one sex. People will stop bering bi, gay, straight they'll just be sexual.' I think that would be a nice world to live in, where people are just sexual. Instead of having to categorise their desire."
You seem to enjoy protecting a somewhat libertine public image. Are you an insatiable priapic slut in real life?
"Priapic slut? Oh wow! I don't know. Well, if you listen to `Hang on to your IQ', ther's a very anti-priapic line in there: `I'm a fool who's tool is small, it's so minuscule it's no tool at all'.
"But, I'm not actually describing my own anatony, that's just the state of the character in that song. He's at a point of such low self-esteem that that's the most self-deprecating thing that he can say about himself at that point. `Not only am I an idiot, but I've got a small dick, and I just feel so disgusted with myself.' which I guess, I have certainly felt at certain points in my life... I know that I have a reputation."
Are you proud of you reputation?
"I'm just resigned to it really. I struggle with the concept of fidelity. I struggle with my own loneliness and my own, I guess, pathological craving for affection."
You're a tart with a broken heart, then.
"Okay then, yeah... I'm a tart with a broken heart."
A tart's cosmetic slap can hide a multitude of sins, and Placebo are a band who, by their own admission, thrive on chaos and disorder. So how is Brian holding up in the face of career over-indulgence?
"I feel relatively okay today, but since I've been in New York, I'd have to say that Bacchus would be proud of me. This is such a strange and crazy lifestyle, and you do tend to live in your own bubble, so it can have a tendency to make you go a little mad. You get the chance to have no responsibilities, and you naturally have a tendency to go a bit haywire.
"If we have two days off, I must burn those candles at both ends, because the day after I've got a whole day of interviews, and I have to be sober, intelligent and compos mentis. It can also be quite lonely, so I try to fill that loneliness with extreme or crazy situations. Going from one place to the next can be quite responsibility free, so you leave your behaviour behind, because you an get away with things. It's quite interesting to feel that you're totally just living for the moment."
Do you thrive on it though?
"Physically? Probably not. It tires you out. But I believe in being a bit of an experience junkie. I'd hate to ever be in a position where I'd regret not doing something because I was too careful or too worried about it. When I do that, I have a tendency to kick myself, because I really wanted to have that experience, particularly if it's an experience I haven't had before.
It provides good inspiration."
So we can assume that the majority of your lyrics are from experience, and that the warped characters who pepper `Placebo' are merely aspects of your own free-wheeling personality?
"There's a lot of me in there. They're people I've been at one point in my life or emotion that I've felt. A combination of me and other people or me and a little spice. But I don't talk about anything which I haven't personally felt or experienced myself.
"I have great affection for the characters in the songs, because to varying degrees they do have bits of me in them, and I think that the author's attitude towards his characters is not a judgmental one in any way. It's very affectionate, and it's filled with pathos. I think the album is like ten short stories, about the same thing, but from ten different points of
Brian's seemingly unquenchable desire for unadulterated hedonism and la vie boheme gives the overall impression of a man without fear. But does his dramatic, lyrical retreat into character, garish make-up and confrontational sexuality merely act as armour to project a sensitive shrinking violet within?
"Mmmmmm... no. It is very much who I am. But being in a band enables you to blossom into everything you've always wanted to be. The rock'n'roll circus is where all the freaks go, and you have a freedom there to be whoever you want to be, or whoever you've always wanted to be, really."
Do you think that if you project yourself as a star, people will react to you as a star?
"If you walk into a room and think to yourself: `Everybody wants to fuck me,' then everybody will want to fuck you. It's a frame of mind thing. So I think, yeah, if you project yourself as a star, then you probably are one already, and you don't have to be in a rock band to be a star. You just have to go dancing one night or to a drag club to see how many real stars
Brian is already perceived a true star by enough people to have sent Placebo's fourth single "Teenage Angst" staight into the Top 30. But one dissenting voice remains unconvinced: his born again christian mother is utterly appalled by the errant behaviour of her wayward offspring. So what will he have to do to finally make her proud of his gloouriuos career?
"Buy her a big house, stop wearing make-up and stop being such a pansy, probably."
So far, goth references and absentee drummers aside, Placebo have enjoyed a relatively unhindered ride to the top. But will it all end in tears, and if so whose?
"Mine, most probably. I'm always the opne who ends up crying. I don't want to think about what it's going to be like when people stop listening - it's a scary thought - that's possibly the only scary thought I've got at the moment.
"Another thing from trainspotting I remember very well is when renton and Sickboy are in the park talking about Lou Reed: `you have it, you lose it, then that's it'
"But hopefully we'll have enough success before we lose it, nobody will really care, and we'll continue making our crap records that only we want to listen to. That actually does scare me a bit, but if it reaches a point where we find we're repeating ourselves, then we'll have to stop, because I think it's respectful thing to do for other people, and particually for
yourself. You certainly don't want to continue for the sake of it and embaress yourself.
"But that's the future. Let me bask in this for a while first."