Sunday, April 12, 2009
placebo interwiev 06
Before the fall of 2006, most North Americans with a passing interest in music knew Placebo as that androgynous band with a couple hit singles from the late ’90s (”Pure Morning” and “Every You Every Me,” both from 1998’s Without You I’m Nothing). They’ve had something of a cult following here, but most of their popularity has been concentrated in other parts of the world, particularly Europe. But then, as has happened to so many bands, The O.C. brought them into the mainstream spotlight; their cover of Kate Bush’s “Running Up That Hill” appeared twice in the show’s fourth season premiere. Though the song was originally released in 2003 on a bonus disc with the album Sleeping With Ghosts, the band started including it in their set while touring the UK in early 2006 and eventually released it as a single in October.
“It became a digital hit worldwide,” says Placebo’s frontman, Brian Molko. “There was The O.C. effect, coupled with the fact that when we were last touring, when we started touring this record, Meds, so many people came up to ask and asked where they could get a hold of the song.”
Placebo is currently in their second year of touring behind Meds, the band’s most recent studio album. They’re in Toronto for a concert at the Kool Haus, and I’m sitting with Molko in a small, oddly decorated club somewhere off the complex’s main room. The walls are covered in black faux fur, lacey red wallpaper, and gold-framed mirrors, while the lights are dimmed and the head of what looks like an ibex is mounted on the wall behind us, above a DJ booth.
Molko’s looks are much more restrained than the svelte, feminine image that made him something of a poster boy for modern glam almost a decade ago. He’s wearing a navy blue button-up shirt with small white polka dots, tight blue jeans, and Converse sneakers (he’ll change into dressier black shoes for tonight’s show). His dark hair is cut short and boyish, and at 34, a coat of makeup isn’t entirely hiding the touch of age in his face. He chain-smokes Camel Lights and talks softly with a refined British accent. When his band-mates – bassist Stefan Olsdal and drummer Steve Hewitt – walk by, heading to another interview, he turns to look at them, drawing on his cigarette, and says, “There go my husbands.”
While Meds (their fifth studio effort) came out in most of the world in March 2006, it wasn’t released in North America until January 2007. Molko says that he doesn’t mind the delay, since “the show doesn’t really get smoking until about six months into the tour anyway.” But he wasn’t happy with all aspects of the album’s re-release. Listeners on this side of the Atlantic were treated to a couple bonus tracks (”Running Up That Hill,” plus original track “UNEEDMEMORETHANINEEDU”), but the song “In the Cold Light of Morning” was left off the North American version. Though the situation confused many fans, it was actually Molko who forced the band’s management and their U.S. label, Virgin Records, to remove the track.
“I refused for them to bleep out the words ‘cock’ and ‘dildo,”’ he explains, suggesting that the conservative ownership of major retailers like Wal-Mart made the label want to censor the material. “Virgin picked up the album, took it off Astralwerks, and said, ‘You’ve got to remove all the naked ladies from inside your albums.’ And it’s like, ‘Fine, you can fucking sell it in a piece of tinfoil, it doesn’t really matter, but do not start fucking with the material.’ So it was a choice between not re-releasing it or bleeping it out, and I insisted that they remove the song.”
The rest of Meds, however, survived the re-release. The album isn’t much of a departure for the band in terms of material (sex, drugs, etc.) and sound (synthy, menacing, occasionally brash). Meds also keeps with the band’s seeming penchant for collaborations (between the stage and the studio, they’ve teamed up with the likes of David Bowie and Robert Smith in the past); both Alison Mosshart of The Kills and Michael Stipe of R.E.M. have guest spots on the record.
Molko says that the title track was “crying out for another voice – a girl.” He knew Mosshart through her bandmate, Jamie Hince, with whom he’d been a friend since the two attended university together in the early ’90s. “So we asked Alison. She came in, and she’s incredibly shy, and we recorded our vocals in the dark and it was great,” he recalls.
While the decision to include Mosshart was partly whim, Stipe’s guest spot was integral. Molko says that “Broken Promise,” the song on which Stipe appears, was written as a duet and wouldn’t have gone on the record if the right guest weren’t found. The band’s known Stipe since 1998, when they appeared in Velvet Goldmine, a film he produced. But the idea to feature him on the track didn’t come until a chance run-in at a Paris hotel. “It became more than just a duet about adultery,” Molko says of Stipe’s inclusion, “because it occurred to us that there are thousands and thousands of songs about adultery that have already been recorded, but are there any sung by two men? If there are, let me know, because I still haven’t found one. Plus, these two men being myself and Michael, who is…ahh…whose image, mine and his, are both ambiguous, I think makes it a lot more worthy of a listen.”
Though provocative material like the duet with Stipe features heavily on Meds, it doesn’t necessarily reflect a life that Molko continues to lead. In 2005, he had a son, Cody, with his partner, Helena Berg. “It has changed the lifestyle, but it doesn’t necessarily change what you write about,” he says, admitting that he hasn’t written much since the birth and doesn’t know whether or not fatherhood will factor in his songwriting. “But I’m naturally attracted to those [darker] subjects simply because, as I was told in every single creative writing course I took, you write about what you know. But it’s not your kind of Alanis Morrisette, rip-a-page-out-of-your-diary songs. I create small fictions inspired by real events and real emotions.”
It seems that this kind of constant mix – fact and fiction, sober fatherhood and explorations of sex/addiction/substance abuse – is necessary to keep all sides of Molko content. It’s a good thing then that Placebo’s popularity has remained off-balance between different parts of the world. This past summer, he went to a Rolling Stones concert in the south of France and ended up with a seat in front of Duran Duran’s Nick Rhodes. “We just sat there discussing how many people are in this stadium,” he recalls. Molko had recently finished headlining shows on the European festival circuit to crowds of 50-60,000, and says the experience was somewhat overwhelming and felt a bit too large. “It made me rethink my long-term ambition to become the biggest band in the world, because I wondered to myself whether or not I would actually like that.” After much thought, Molko says he’s concluded that he does, in fact, want Placebo to become the biggest band in the world and play to massive crowds for one season, and then begin to scale back. “It’s only once you’ve gotten to the topmost level that you can start fucking around with the levels,” he explains. “However, just coming to North America is naturally fucking with the levels anyway. I find it very, very refreshing because it allows you to be a little more carefree and a little bit less precious, and also allows you to, well, forces you to be on top of your game. You have less physical distance between you and an audience, so when you make mistakes, they’re evident. But also, you’re in a situation, a context, where making mistakes is okay. And I like that.”