Love, Death, Drugs, Rock, Sex, Suicide, God and ABBA. Yes, we asked about and covered all the essentials! Not only did Placebo bassist Stefan Olsdal genuinely answer everything we dared throw his way, but he surprised us with some of the most personal information we’ve ever received, especially from a band of Placebo’s caliber!
In our 25-minute interview, the enchanting Olsdal openly spoke (with that gorgeous UK accent!) about what it means to truly hit rock bottom and suffer for your art, the MOST addictive drug he’s ever experienced and how Queens of the Stone Age gave him an inferiority complex. From a subway stop in London to present day, Olsdal allowed us, and now you, a unique look into the med-hazed journey of Placebo.
“Can you hear when listening to Placebo that there’s GAY people in the band?” Olsdal, wearing a white shirt, tight black pants and black sunglasses, rhetorically and sarcastically asked us when the topic of being a homosexual and a rock-star came into play.
As part of arguably the most sexually ambiguous band ever to record an alt-rock album, the UK trio have never hid behind the issue of their lifestyle choices. In fact, they’ve embraced and even exploited them throughout their career.
“There were times where our lifestyles, yes, were, or could have done with a bit of toning down,” Olsdal explained. “Our lifestyles and our sexualities and our images have been written about a lot.”
Less likely to be paraded in print has been the flip side to Placebo’s seemingly supported physical and musical exhibitionism.
“Both me and Brian [Molko, lead vocals/guitar] have experienced homophobic attacks, both physical and verbal,” Olsdal said. “And I guess being in a band is kind of a license to do and look and sound like whatever you want to be because you have absolute freedom in EVERYTHING. We used that and embraced that quite a lot, especially in the early days - the way that we dressed. A lot of people mistaked Brian for a girl for example…”
We are interrupted by the sound of a bicycle bell and Olsdal turned his head and laughed while saying, “Speak of the devil!” in the direction of Molko waving to Olsdal. Olsdal turned back to us and joked, “HAH! His little gay wave on his little gay bike!”
We all laughed and then Olsdal continued, quickly taking the topic of homosexuality far from a joking matter.
“The three of us felt like outsiders when we were kids, for different reasons,” he said. “I guess for me it was because I was gay. But it gave me more time to sit and think more and become more tolerant and understanding and it gave me more time to listen to music. But does [being gay] mean I’m going to go out and make gay disco records? Not really, you know? It’s like when Billy Cogan shaved his head - did that affect his way of performing or writing music?”
Olsdal then cocked his head to the right as if trying to remember something and then said, “Uhh… does being gay affect my music?” unearthing our original question over 5 minutes later. “I guess my record collection is bit more “gay” than others, you know? I’m a huge ABBA fan, but that’s mostly because I’m Swedish. But I mean, everyone loves ABBA!”
His favorite ABBA song is “The Winner Takes It All.” As the story goes, after keyboardist Benny Andersson and vocalist Anni-Frid Lyngstad divorced in 1981, Andersson wrote that song for Lyngstad to sing.
“She’s basically singing, “I was left, I was dumped, and YOU, the winner takes it all!” Olsdal exclaimed, still dumbfounded by the story decades later. “That’s pretty hardcore. THAT is suffering for art!”
Swedish Olsdal and Belgian Molko have been repeatedly quoted as calling the Western European country of Luxembourg their “home.”
“We (Molko and I) call Luxembourg home for different reasons. We lived there between the ages of 8 and 15,” Olsdal said. “That was at a time when there was hardly any places to go – like clubs, bars, cafes. No bands passed through Luxembourg. So it was kind of like the “Cultural Armpit of Europe.” It kind of sucked when you’re that age so we tried to get out of there as soon as we could.”
After leaving Luxembourg at the age of 16, Olsdal went back and lived in Sweden for a couple of years before making his home in London (where he presently resides) in 1993.
Although both students at the same school (the American International School of Luxembourg) together, Olsdal explained that they had never had a friendship and the story of Placebo’s beginning was both unexpected and somewhat cosmically intervened.
“It was one of those days where you just think that the hand of fate had something to do with the whole thing because it was just too much,” he recounted. “That week that I met Brian, I also met my partner. In one week my whole life kind of changed!”
“I met Brian in a subway stop in London,” Olsdal continued. “I had a guitar strapped to my back… I was taking guitar lessons at the time. He just sort of called my name and I walked over and said “hi”… He said to come down and see him play that weekend. He had a gig that weekend with Steve [Hewitt, drummer] actually.”
“I thought it sounded really cool yah know?” he said of the first time he heard Molko live. “It’s kind of Nirvana with the acoustics, a lot of energy and he had a really strong voice that poked through all the noise. And I said “let’s play together.” I play bass and so we started a band kind of thing.”
That “band kind of thing” began under the moniker of “Ashtray Heart.”
“It came from a Captain Beefheart lyric (“She used me like an ashtray heart”) and that whole James Dean kind of imagery,” Olsdal said. “I think [James Dean] used to have his lovers put out cigarettes on his chest – that’s where that came from. But when “Placebo” came along we thought that was a more concise name. 3 syllables. It had a good rhythm to it. You can imagine 40 thousand people screaming…”
Contrary to what many of their now well-above 40-thousand fans believe, Placebo’s name did not come from any reference to a literal “placebo” or “sugar pill.” In fact, in Latin Placebo means, “I will please.”
“Like “pleasure” comes from “placebo.” They have the same root,” informed Olsdal. “You see the thing about band names is you find a name that sounds cool. Then you get asked so many times in interviews why you chose that name so you come up with these bulls— stories. One of them was like: “There are lots of band names out like “codeine” and “morphine,” but no, we want to call ourselves a drug that doesn’t actually work!”’
Olsdal laughed at the memory and then continued by saying, “After a while [a band name] becomes just a series of sounds. You don’t think about the meaning after a while. It is just a word.”
Today, “Placebo” is “just a word” that in their 13-year career has come to define not only the band’s unique sound, but their norm and gender-defying images and most controversially, their unabashed and almost nonchalant attitude towards drug use.
“Drugs surround us,” Olsdal simplistically stated. “Drugs have been surrounding people since the Egyptians. Currently my drugs are just touring, caffeine and paracetamol. They just happen to be legal. But there was a time when they weren’t all legal, yah know?”
Olsdal’s heaviest experimentation with drugs came in the early part of Placebo’s career, as did his collision with “rock bottom.”
“Yah, it wasn’t a pretty place to be,” he admitted. “When the thought of suicide comes into your head. A lot of good stuff was happening at the time actually, but it was really confusing at the same time. It was at the beginning of our career - too much happening at the same time. I was feeling really lost and uh… lonely. I wanted everything that was happening to us to make sense and to be able to feel the real value of it and I just… couldn’t.”
So after everything is said and done, what is Olsdal’s drug of choice?
“There have been a lot of songs written about it: LOVE,” he answered. “You know that feeling you have for someone else. Whatever happens inside you chemically when you feel that sort of affection or affinity to someone. I think that’s an amazing feeling. And if you’re sober while feeling it, that makes it even more intense and satisfying.”
“It’s like Nature Boy,” Olsdal said about the greatest lesson he’s learned from love. “What’s the lyric?…“The greatest thing you’ll ever learn, is just to love and be loved in return.” I guess I found out the value of [love] when I didn’t have it. And the person I was with actually took me back after I dumped him. And THEN I realized that I loved him.”
The love Olsdal repeatedly mentions throughout the interview comes from a 13-year relationship with his current partner. And although in an obvious monogamist partnership, Olsdal has his own definition of what that entails.
“We are not made to be monogamists really,” he said matter-of-factly. “It doesn’t matter how good a sex life you have with your partner. After about 7 years, you know that person inside and out – every inch of their body. And of course other flesh is going to be attractive. I believe that SEX IS A DRUG. You get your fix and you’re done. It doesn’t have anything to do with love whatsoever. To be unfaithful does not mean that you don’t love your partner.”
Olsdal’s infatuation with the concept of love, is nothing, if possible, compared to his feelings about a certain California band and its founder.
“I am completely in awe of Josh Homme (Queens of the Stone Age) and his creations. He is my god!” Olsdal said with a smile. “We played with them in Europe a couple weeks ago and it just made me want to throw in the towel. It’s like “Ok fine that’s it! If we can’t rock as hard as Queens of the Stone Age there is no point!”’
Well, thank god Placebo never played with them earlier then!
Throughout their career, Placebo has taught many that experimentation in life, as in art and music is an essential part of discovering yourself, your place, your sound.
“I think that if someone tells you they don’t like a certain type of music then that’s when you become somehow racist or misogynistic in your outlook on life and art. I think you have to be open at all times to all shapes and forms of people, of cultures, of art forms, of styles… lifestyles. It’s just not about shutting doors.”
Thanks for opening your door for us.
Shaia and Lisa