Lipstick traces

They've been called the filthiest band in the world - proof that nothing sells like sex, drugs and guitars. Sean Plummer gets the prescription from Placebo's main medicine man, Brian Molko.

'I ended up on anti-depressants. I was just fucked up. I'd taken my soul through a blender' Brian Molko
'We've had the balls to say things to the press that other bands would only say to their friends down the pub' Brian Molko

Yes, it's true. The various members of Placebo, the British-based (but not British) band currently storming the charts worldwide with the single 'Pure Morning' do, in no particular order, indulge in polysexual behaviour, recreational pharmaceuticals, cosmetics, cross-dressing and, yes, they did appear in director Todd Haynes' glam rock tour de force Velvet Goldmine.

But don't call them glam. While the shallow and unobservant may try to lump American-born singer Brian Molko (bisexual), Swedish bassist Stefan Olsdal (gay) and British drummer Steve Hewitt (straight) with the rouged likes of Marilyn Manson, KISS and Spacehog, the rest of us can enjoy Placebo for what they really are: polymorphous post-punks whose unique, jagged pop-rock makes Without You I'm Nothing, their recent second album, a masterwork of breathtaking emotional depth.

Placebo started attracting kudos from critics and audiences back in 1995 when 'Bruise Pristine', their very first single, ignited a major label bidding war said to be the fiercest of the year. David Bowie was so taken by the band's initial demos that he invited them to tour Europe with him in 1996, finishing up with an opening gig at his 50th birthday concert at New York's Madison Square Garden in January of '97.

Darlings of the British press because of their unmitigated honesty, readiness with a quote and Molko's unabashed androgyny (was he a boy? was he a girl?), Placebo established themselves as young, talented and decadent rock stars whose pharmaceutical and sexual excesses ranked on a par with the likes of Led Zeppelin.

Molko begs to differ. Perched comfortably on an orange couch backstage at Toronto's Guvernment club, the elegant chainsmoker addresses the misconceptions engendered by the British press (especially the Select cover story) which pegged Molko early on as a 'drug-crazed sex dwarf', their first international hit single, 'Pure Morning', the emotional aftermath of their debauched European tour, and the origins of Without You I'm Nothing - a sonically dissonant but touching record which has not only received good reviews but excellent sales.

There's been a really positive reaction to this record thus far. Did you expect to have it do so well so quickly?

Tell me about 'Pure Morning'.

I read the Select cover story.

Were you misquoted or...?

What did your decadence teach you?

Are you surprised that the songs on the new record ended up as sad as they have? It's an emotional album.

Have you ever written something you thought was too personal and held back?

Are drugs a source of creation or simply recreation for you?

Does it affect your creativity?

Do you think it's that emotional hook that engenders these massively devotional feelings amongst your fans?

How has your androgyny gone over in the States, seeing how it's such a macho culture?

How did you feel about being involved in the Velvet Goldmine movie?

What do you make of the current glam revival?

There's been a really positive reaction to this record thus far. Did you expect to have it do so well so quickly?

We didn't realise how well globally it was going to do, that basically it would have this kind of effect on people. In a way, 'Pure Morning' has surpassed our expectations. That seems to be the in-road for people, and that song wasn't even supposed to be on the album. We recorded it separately during a B-sides session, and it just ended up being too good so we decided to put it on and then we decided for it to be the first single. It would be a very, very calculated risk. Everywhere from Australia to South Africa to Indonesia and everything in between, it's really, really been a hit. We never had any fans in Canada before but there were about 50 girls outside screaming when we pulled up.

Tell me about 'Pure Morning'.

It was written in the studio so it wasn't until it was finished that we actually stepped back and realised what it was about, and often songs are like that with me. You write in a very instinctual way, and the significance of them doesn't hit you until they're finished, until you get some distance from them. In one way it's a celebration of friendship with women. I've always felt more comfortable around girls because there's less competition. They listen, and men don't tend to listen as much as women do. So there's a couple of friends in that song whom I've immortalised. But it's also really just a song about coming down. (Smiles) There's been so many mornings when I've walked out of a dingy, after-hours drinking club in Soho, and gone, 'Oh, shit! The sun's up.' And you know for a fact that you're not going to be able to go to sleep for many hours, and that you're going to tear the wallpaper off the walls with your fingernails. And it's kind of about that feeling, about feeling the rest of the world is getting up and getting ready to go to work, and you're still coming down, and you feel completely dislocated.

I read the Select cover story.

Oh yeah? Great, great. How did you feel about that? Gutted. Absolutely buttfucked is the only word to describe how bad we felt about that.

Were you misquoted or...?

So many exaggerations, inventions and downright lies! It made us out to be worse than Led Zeppelin. We were really quite shocked. In every lie there was a grain of truth but that was just so exaggerated and so blown out of proportion that... I thought we were unshockable but it was like, 'How dare they!' The British press has a very sensationalistic attitude towards us because we've always refused to lie in interviews, we've always been very verbose and very brutally honest about what the music business and bands are like. We had the balls to say things to the press that other bands would only say to their friends down the pub. And a certain amount of it was a desire to let people know what goes on, to just be honest. Unfortunately, I think that honesty started to backfire a bit, and what happened was that in the British press there was this kind of cartoon character, kind of a caricature...
The 'sex-crazed drug dwarf'.
'Drug-crazed sex dwarf', 'the filthiest band in the world', all of these things. We did nothing else than what most young men in their early twenties with some money would do, except that we did it in public. That was the only difference. We got a lot out of our system. We'd never been in a band before, we'd never had success before. It was all very, very exciting. But it also had its great downside as well. Our personal lives suffered a great deal, which is essentially what this album is about. So we've paid the price for our hedonism.

What did your decadence teach you?

Well, by the time that we came off tour, I was in such a fragile emotional state that I ended up on anti-depressants. I was just fucked up. I'd taken my soul through the blender, and I really just didn't know who I was anymore. I'd objectified myself to a point, I was disgusted with myself...

Are you surprised that the songs on the new record ended up as sad as they have? It's an emotional album.

It is. It's very emotional. As our professional lives became the most solid they'd ever been, our personal lives just fell apart completely. We were powerless, we had no control over it. We had to do a lot of soul-searching. We had to really look inside of ourselves, and figure out and realise what we had done. I think there's a lot guilt on that record, and it talks about a few relationships that I had which I think that I basically did my best to ruin, but I didn't know any better at the time. It's a very heartbroken album, and there's a lot of guilt on it as well.

Have you ever written something you thought was too personal and held back?

If it's trying to get out then you have to let it out. A song like 'My Sweet Prince' was so close to the bone, and almost a bit too naked. But at the time it was inspired by an incredibly tragic event, and it just happened. That song actually vomited itself forward. It had to be said, otherwise that would be a ghost that was just floating around forever.
Is it about heroin?
(Reluctantly) It's a song about a romance with two things, two romances. Both that ended in tragedy: one with a substance, one with a person, and they were linked.

Are drugs a source of creation or simply recreation for you?

Hard drugs rob you of your soul. I'm with Cypress Hill basically. I think the soft drugs can be creative, yeah. They open up a few creative doors.
I had a good friend on Prozac for a while.
Well, that's what I was on for a while as well. I took myself off of it.

Does it affect your creativity?
Yeah, it really did. I found that I didn't need my guitar anymore. I wasn't going to the guitar to write, to pour my emotions out. I was slightly lobotomized by it. I find St John's Wort very, very useful. Do you know what it is?
It's like a natural alternative to Prozac, isn't it?
Yeah. It's very useful. People who have Seasonal Affective Disease [sic] take it, who get depressed in the winter. But I think if you are depressive in any way then it's a good thing. It doesn't have any nasty side effects.

Do you think it's that emotional hook that engenders these massively devotional feelings amongst your fans?

I think that the more personal you make things, the more universal they become if they're not too oblique, because essentially we all share the same emotions. These emotional hooks are the same for all of us, regardless of whether you're a man or a woman, straight or gay. When your heart is broken, you always feel the same way - unless you're a maniac.

How has your androgyny gone over in the States, seeing how it's such a macho culture?

Yeah. I've been insulted already. I've had bullets thrown at me, things like that. But that makes me angry and my best weapon is my mouth - and I've got a microphone. (Laughs) Sometimes the thing that gets me into the most trouble is my mouth. So when things get that confrontational, it often gives me that extra push, an extra desire to overcome, an extra 'fuck you'.

How did you feel about being involved in the Velvet Goldmine movie?

Oh, it was wonderful. I was a huge Todd Haynes fan anyway. So when the phone call came, I freaked. It was like, 'I have to be in your film,' and it just kind of snowballed from there. It was a wonderful experience. We didn't do it for very long; we only did it for about a week and a half, and it was about two years ago. We made some friends for life: Todd, Toni Collette [co-star], Michael Stipe. It was a real family vibe on the set, and these people have become really good friends. So that's what I take away from it. It was fun. We got to dress up in the most ridiculous clothes and just camp it up, and that's kind of what we did. It wasn't that difficult. It was a really fun time.

What do you make of the current glam revival?

Well, it doesn't really concern me. I don't think that we're a glam band. We're not influenced by glam rock. We're too young to remember the first time around. I see us more as a post-punk influenced band. I think it's good. It's probably a reaction to the anti-starness of grunge. So I think music's getting a bit more showbiz now. People want their rock stars to be flamboyant, so I think that's really positive. At least people don't look like they've just walked off the street. At least people aren't being as hairy as Liam Gallagher was for a little while. It's shifting the emphasis from the meathead so I think it's good.