Waiting For the Sun
Placebo, the enfants terrible of the UK music scene, are marking new beginnings
Speaking to Placebo’s Brian Molko, frontman of the band that once carried the title of “Britain most outrageous music group” like a pennant, you’re expecting anything ”“ tantrums, arrogance, reticence, impatience ”“ anything but the practiced spiel he’s now dishing as he talks about their sixth album Battle For the Sun. In hindsight, that shouldn’t have been surprising at all. If there’s one thing Placebo have mastered in all their fifteen years, it’s the art of always staying a step ahead of the public’s expectations. It’s also the reason why they’re one of Britain’s most consistently successful bands. The band that first gained notoriety for their alternative sexualities, debauched lifestyle and frontman Molko’s androgynous image are eager to shed the ghosts of their past and move beyond their image.
Placebo was formed when Belgium-born, half-American half-Scottish globetrotting Brian Molko ran into his old schoolmate, Swede Stefan Oldsdal in London in 1994. Never really having been friends in school, Molko invited Oldsdal to come see his band perform at a nearby pub without expecting him to turn up. Stefan did turn up, to Molko’s surprise, and was impressed by what he saw, enough for him to invite Molko to play in a band with him. They formed the short-lived Ashtray Heart, named after a Captain Beefhart song, with Robert Schultzberg on the drums. Soon after they changed their name to Placebo, Schultzberg was asked to leave the leave the band and his place was taken by drummer Steve Hewitt to complete a lineup that would endure for the next eleven years.
Placebo rode the trappings of fame in epic style after the release of their first, self-titled album in 1996. Placebo went on to peak at Number Five on the UK charts, earning them a cult fan following and a ticket to the gravy train. Molko’s penchant for lip-gloss and eyeliner and his gender-bending ways drove comparisons with his hero David Bowie, comparisons that he did little to dispel. Every bit of their drugs-and-sex-fuelled lifestyle and its consequences found its way into their songs. Over art-rock-derived guitars Molko sang about broken love affairs, with men and women, his substance abuse, the travails of androgyny, psychological issues ”“ nothing was too taboo or too personal. His demons were up for public exhibition and his self-flagellation was his greatest gift to fans. His depressive music made darkness accessible and the agony of love desirable, in the process garnering Placebo a black-clad fan following as ready to slit their wrists for the band as he was to bleed for them. Eventually, Placebo’s all-consuming lifestyle reached a point where the band was “perpetually wasted and fucking everything that moved,” as Molko famously described it in one interview.
Despite the band gaining near-cult status in the UK and France, the band’s albums continued to be flashes in the pan in the American market. Every time a new Placebo album came along, someone in the US would “rediscover” the band only to forget all about them in a month. The only real breakthrough for the band came when their 2006 album, Meds, received a significant amount of airplay in the US. Meds was a ultra-dark saga about drugs and relationships, that saw the band return to the guitar-driven sound they started off with rather than the electronics-based music they explored on Sleeping With Ghosts (2003).
Their latest effort, Battle For the Sun, though, is the band’s sunshine album. When asked to describe the album, Molko heaves the tiniest of sighs and launches into a well-practised description: “It’s more upbeat, more optimistic. It’s about hope, life and love. Meds was such a dark, suffocating and claustrophobic record ”“ there wasn’t a great deal of hope in it. So we wanted to do something more optimistic, we wanted to add colour.” That the band’s sunniest album should come at the most tempestuous time in their career, is the kind of irony Molko relishes. He doesn’t cloak the bitterness and pain that the exit of Steve Hewitt brought about, but he’s spoken about it so often now, it comes out without emotion or rancour. “It was a painful and unpleasant time. It reached a point where we couldn’t create [music] together anymore. But after Steve left and we began working on this album, we relished the opportunity to be unselfconsciously creative again, and it shows on this record. It’s the sound of a band rediscovering themselves,” he says.
With Hewitt’s departure, fans had begun to worry that the end of Placebo was near. But Molko dismisses the fears. “Stefan and I have been writing songs since we were in our twenties and we have a lot of musical history and we weren’t about to let that go. We were intent on moving forward, we didn’t want to end this. Then we found Steve [Forrest] and we were keen to get on with the music again.” The 22-year-old much-tattooed Forrest was the drummer of punk rock band Evaline, who opened for Placebo during their Meds tour in the United States. “I remembered Steve because of this one tattoo ”“ he had open mind written on his knuckles and I thought that was very interesting. He was really young then, about 19, and I remember thinking he was really good at what he playing, for his age. When Steve [Hewitt] left and we were looking for drummers, Steve [Forrest] approached us, asking to try for the band. We tried him out and he fit right it. Just goes to show that initiative can sometimes be a very good thing,” says Molko, a trifle patronisingly. “More importantly, Steve brought with him this incredible enthusiasm which spurred us on and gave us a fresh perspective on things.”
In many ways, Battle For the Sun marks the journey of Placebo from sinners to saints. It’s not only the music that’s changed; the band members’ lives have taken entirely different directions. Gender-bending, bisexuality-flaunting Molko today is the proud father of a four-year-old with his steady girlfriend Helena Berg. “Becoming a father hasn’t affected my songwriting or music but it has certainly changed my lifestyle. Everybody wants to be able to stick around long enough to see their kids grow up. It definitely changes your priorities.” So is he still the poster boy for the alternative lifestyle? “Oh, hell no! We’ve definitely mellowed with age and we can’t really function if we live that way anymore. But I’ve had my good years, I’ve had 15 years to kill enough brain cells, I think that’s plenty.”
But the band’s shift from their hedonistic beginnings to “responsible citizens” was officially sealed by their appearance on the MTV EXIT campaign to increase awareness about human trafficking. The third EXIT concert was held in Cambodia, outside the magnificent 12th century Angkor Wat temple complex, the recorded performance of which will be released as a bonus DVD with the Battle For the Sun box set. It’s when talking about the campaign that Molko’s voice really comes alive, “Trafficking is a big problem in South-East Asia, in Eastern Europe, in India. I read a statistic the other day which sort of really blew my mind. It said there are 10-12 million slave children in India at any one time!” He stops to guffaw to himself in disbelief. “It’s just that we’re meant to live in a modern and civilised society these days and to find that slavery still exists in such a global scale, in such magnitude, is just really shocking, on a very basic human level.” He pauses again, to let the statement sink in. “This is just us trying to do our little part. And if we can, through the raising of awareness, show people what the warning signs are so they can avoid the pitfalls, then we would have done some good in this world.”
Molko’s also excited about the possibility of coming to India. “I’ve been to the country before and I absolutely love the place. It’s where my son was conceived, so I feel like I have a really deep connection with the country. To come back there and play would be really really exciting,” he signs off.