"Essentially 50 percent of Placebo is gay, and there's only three of us, so work that out," laughs the band's drummer Steve Hewitt. The London-based group is made up of Brian Molko (American expatriate, guitar/vocals, bisexual), Hewitt (British, heterosexual), and Stefan Olsdal (Swedish, bass/keyboards, homosexual), and yet for all they don't have in common, the band has a singular sound.
Taking its cues from the Prog-Rock and Post-Punk movements, England's Placebo is precise and melodramatic, egotistical and theatrical. The trio is given to making narcissistic and outrageous statements that their music doesn't always live up to, but pushes the right buttons. The band is expected by the British press to proclaim themselves the greatest band in the world, but ignoring their arrogance makes for a more enjoyable listen. Without You I'm Nothing (Virgin), Placebo's second record, is an album full of sorrow and regret, inspiring empathy and pity as well.
Formed in London in 1994, Placebo gathered loads of critical praise for their 1996 self-titled debut that yielded the European hit "Nancy Boy," but inspired few in America. Taking the excesses of Rock & Roll to heart, the three indulged in chemical and sexual antics to rival Keith Richards and Marilyn Manson. Hewitt says the debauchery took place "during and after the first record and then we all calmed down and wrote the second album. The first album is the party, the second album is the hangover."
But Hewitt admits the band's sexual appetite is "part of the message, it's part of the thing we're trying to put across - you shouldn't be afraid no matter what your sexuality is. I don't think we broadcast that so much personally these days, as we've found out it can come back in a nasty way."
They were exposed to larger audiences opening European dates for David Bowie, as well as U2's grandiose Popmart tour, resulting in the debut going gold in Britain. Bowie saw something in the trio he liked, perhaps because of his own Glam past, and at his invitation they performed at his 50th birthday party at New York City's Madison Square Gardens back in January. He paid them back by joining the band onstage at the Brit Awards (the U.K. equivalent of the Grammys) for a rendition of T. Rex's "20th Century Man." Hewitt is expectedly diplomatic about Bowie.
"He's a dude anyway, a really cool bloke," he says. "It's not really a lifelong dream to play with him, but I've always had a lot of respect for him. It's (amazing) that we've become kind of chummy mates with him."
Placebo was also in the thinly veiled Bowie/Iggy Pop Glam biopic Velvet Goldmine, performing "20th Century Man" without Bowie. Goldmine was a project Bowie has been vocally critical of and refused to let any of his music be included in the movie. That Bowie is working on his own film about Glam may have something to do with it, but Placebo won't be in Bowie's movie.
"I don't think we'd (want to) upset (Goldmine director and Placebo friend) Todd Haynes," laughs Hewitt.
Upsetting people would be the last of Placebo's concerns, based on the caustic attacks of Without You I'm Nothing. The majority of the tracks on Nothing tackle themes of broken hearts, broken relationships and people too messed up to see that their relationships are the least of their problems. "Brick Shithouse" is a spooky murder/sex ghost story, chronicling the narrator watching his killer having sex with the dead person's lover. That the song is done with Punkish glee and a sloppy, reckless abandon only adds to the creepiness. The symbolism is pretty obvious, but melodrama is much more interesting than the direct "I hate your new boyfriend, he makes me wish I was dead" sentiment that less risk-taking bands would employ.
It's a twisted world Placebo constructs, made bearable by the trio's delicate touch on the lighter songs and their convincing ability to wring angst and outright anger from every note when the songs need more assault. "You Don't Care About Us" contrasts both elements in its quiet verse/loud chorus song structure. Olsdal channels mid-'80s Post-Punk, playing bass chords on top of Hewitt's straightforward, bouncy drums, and soon the heart of the beast is revealed: The band accelerates into the overdriven guitars of the chorus, as Molko vacantly declares the song's title. Unfortunately, Molko's voice is an acquired taste and the morose atmosphere doesn't make for everyday listening, but Without You I'm Nothing is striking because it flaunts its heartache without irony.
The lead track and first single, "Pure Morning," combines aggressively droning guitars, insistent and simplistic, with Industrial-lite percussion to bolster Molko's whiningly chanted proclamations, such as "A friend in need's a friend indeed/A friend who'll tease is better." The Dr. Seussian wordplay doesn't delve too deeply and though the three-note vocal melody isn't without charm, the song belongs to Hewitt. His thudding, Rock/Heavy-dance hybrid beat rarely changes, rarely takes a fill. Instead, it's a rock steady wall of consistency that supports and occupies the songs without intruding. The song's verse is catchy because of the way Molko's syrupy vocal cadence draws out the words: He seems to be singing a lot faster than he really is. The chorus, in turn, has a short, simple melody and knows enough to stay out of the way. The effect is a marriage of New Wave and Industrial Pop, heady and heavy.
Like many artists who tread in misanthropy and give voice to confusion, Placebo has their share of obsessive fans, something that scares and perplexes Hewitt.
"We seem to be getting these major, major fans," he says. "They seem to be insane. Me and Brain have had a few stalkers in Britain over the past couple of years, but we've managed to shake that off. I don't know what it is. If I knew, I'd sort it out. It's just people's heads. The kind of stuff fans do for bands is unbelievable - just standing around in the cold for eight hours. I'd never do that for a band. We get a good cross-section of sane and weirdoes. It always seems to be an extreme with us. I think the normal people are more unpredictable. They look sane, but they might not be. (Laughs) When you see somebody that's completely mad, you know where you stand."
PLACEBO joins Stabbing Westward and Flick for a show at Bogart's on Wednesday.