By Christine Lan
Brian Molko. Few artists arouse as much intrigue as the Placebo frontman, and ever fewer possess such distinctive qualities and emblematic idiosyncrasies. While his strict upbringing – characterised by hostility towards artistic expression – ignited his inner flame of rebellion, Molko’s persona is far more complex, vivid, and captivating than most artists of a similarly rebellious history. Speaking to me from his home in East London, Molko is unfailingly polite and engaging but also firm, candid and incredibly articulate. Molko may be a bastion of individual self-expression and an icon to his multitude of fans, but the very notion of being a role model makes him extremely uneasy.
“The word ‘role-model’ and the phrase ‘responsibility’ make me shi-verrr,” Molko asserts, placing much emphasis on the latter word. “Because I mean…I don’t know, I wonder sometimes if people like Irvine Welsh get sort of asked if he’s a role-model. He’s just kind of responding to the world, expressing his singular vision of the world, similarly with somebody like Bret Easton Ellis. Now this may be confusing – me comparing myself to these great writers – and certainly I don’t believe that I am in any way as literally dexterous as these people, but…what I am doing with my songwriting is I’m creating small fictions based on real events and true emotion. It’s kind of my reality slightly fictionalised. But it’s my reality…and it’s the way that I react to the world.
He continues, earnestly. “It’s a choice to absorb my ranting and ravings, you know, my musings on existence. And that’s kind of what it is – it’s a work of art…it’s not a fucking philosophy of life,” he says, before quickly adding: “Of course, there are elements within it which touch on certain things that we, as people, philosophically believe in, you know, tolerance being one of them. But it’s art, you know – it’s not an educational video,” he quips, suddenly bursting into laughter. “It’s a piece of imperfect art that is not meant to be, by any means, politically correct all the time. And I think what’s important to stress is – I think a lot of people have a tendency to think that the narrator’s voice every time in a song is the writer’s voice, which isn’t always the case.”
Whilst Placebo’s early records relied heavily on the hedonistic formula of sex, drugs and alcohol, their later records were a wider portrayal of modern society in all of its misery and relationship turmoil. Needless to say, the band has struck a powerful chord with rock fans world-wide – having performed in countries as far-ranging as Chile, Cambodia and Brazil, they’ve sold over ten million albums. On their new album Battle For The Sun, Placebo has emerged a new incarnation with the departure of drummer Steve Hewitt, and the introduction of Steve Forrest.
Following the Meds tour, Molko asserted that Placebo was a band only in name; hence, the departure of Steve Hewitt was a result of personal and musical differences. How necessary and important was that change for the progression of Placebo?
“I suppose it was the difference between survival and just giving in to some kind of disastrous inevitability,” Molko concedes. “I think myself and Stefan [Olsdal – bassist] realised that if we were to continue as we were and kind of coast our way through quite unhappily, that it could have spelt the death knell really for the band, and that we would have probably plateaud for a little while and then the inevitability of decline would’ve begun. And we kind of weren’t prepared to accept that. I think myself and Stefan, having started writing songs together in 1994, it felt like we had invested far too much blood, sweat and tears into this band to walk away from it, which I suppose precipitated in a difficult but courageous decision…in order to ensure the survival of myself and Stefan as a creative partnership.”
As Placebo’s contract with Virgin expired after the release of Meds, the band opted on self-funding their sixth album, Battle For The Sun, which was produced by David Bottrill (Tool, dEUS) at Toronto’s Metalworks Studios and mixed by Alan Moulder (Smashing Pumpkins, Nine Inch Nails, My Bloody Valentine) in London. Molko established early in the writing process that the new record would be more optimistic, a complete contrast to Meds, which had been emotionally-speaking, the band’s bleakest period.
“It was good writing a record without having Darth Vader in the room,” Molko laughs. “And so, we kind of really felt much more creatively unselfconscious. We felt like we could really explore everything. I suppose two separate camps had developed within the band towards the end of Steve Hewitt’s ten years in Placebo, and that’s never healthy. And so, it was a much more kind of joyous and relaxed atmosphere,” he muses.
“I think it’s going to confound a lot of people, but I’d be lying if I didn’t admit that, you know, that does bring a certain mischievous joy to my heart,” Molko says, ever so teasingly; a devilish grin undoubtedly strewn across his face. “But that’s part of what we are as a band – we’re always trying to sort of push the boundaries of our sound in as many directions as possible. This time round, we chose to use things like strings and horns because we sort of felt that they were more timeless. I suppose we don’t take ecstasy and go clubbing anymore, so in part electronic music isn’t as important. But one thing about electronics is that they have a tendency to date really quickly, so we decided to sort of air towards cinematic strings and kind of old-school R&B like horns.”
The band hopes to return to Australia in the summer – Molko’s favourite time of the year to tour. As Molko speaks about the Battle For The Sun tour, which sees Placebo touring as a six-piece band with a violinist – there’s a palpable sense of pride in his tone of voice when describing the new incarnation of Placebo. “In terms of rebirth, I think it’s a very powerful statement and hopefully, it’s just kind of the beginning of Placebo as us three. Luckily, we’re a band where everybody kind of enjoys each other’s company,” he enthuses. “Long may it last….”
What: Battle For The Sun is out now through Shock