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Placebo leaping over the boundaries

In the annual rush to snap up The Next Big Thing, one of the most prominent names on everyone's lips last year was London-based trio Placebo, who sparked a bidding war on the back of one single, Bruise Pristine on Fierce Panda, and just a handful of gigs.

The race was eventually won by Virgin subsidiary Hut which signed the band to a multi-album deal in February. Managing director Dave Boyd was attracted to the band by the strength of their songs. He says, "I liked the darker side of their take on pop and the undercurrent of sexuality that was going on."

Faced with a barrage of offers from their fifth gig onwards, Placebo attempted to keep their heads and, with the help of solid management from Riverman Promotions duo Dave McLean and Alex Weston, concentrated on gaining valuable experience. "We didn't want to get carried away with all the attention," says American-born singer Brian Molko, looking back on the goldrush. "We felt virginal and we wanted to build some confidence gigging because this was the first band any of us had been in that's ever received any attention."

What convinced them to sign to Hut eventually was creative control and the label's indie sensibility. "It was most important to us that we have final say on the creative side," says Molko. "We're a band that likes to experiment and we need to be able to step outside boundaries and take risks rather than work to a formula."

The result of the creative leeway given them can be heard on their current single 36 Degrees and the eponymous album which is due just five months after they inked their deal. Recorded in Dublin during March, it captures the band's forceful guitar-driven intensity, songwriting nous and left-of-centre approach.

This is due in part to the fruitful relationship they struck up with Chicago producer Brad Wood, founder member of the much-lauded Tortoise and mentor to acts such as Veruca Salt and Liz Phair. "It was obvious from the outset that we both wanted to do the same things - to produce a modern, forward-looking record that was not retro in any way," says Molko. "Basically, we wanted a partner in crime, not someone who was going to put a sheen on it. Brad was perfect."

The album - featuring analogue synths, toy pianos, a karaoke guitar and didgeridoo - is passionate, intelligent and committed but, most importantly, it rocks. "I think it's one of the best debuts I've ever heard," says Boyd. "We've been playing it here constantly since it was finished. It's not Britpop or American indie, it's a different take. I hear bits of Smashing Pumpkin's Gish and early U2, but all with their own stamp. All the songs were ready before they were signed. I knew their strengths but I wasn't sure what kind of vibe they'd have when they were finished and Brad and the band exceeded all our expectations on that front."

The strongest element in the final mix remains Molko's impassioned, almost-feminine vocals which contrast with the feverish guitar attack. "Our intention was to create a triangle of sound where the instruments could breathe. We didn't need to stick my voice up in the mix because it's so distinctive anyway," says the singer, who cites Tim Buckley, Janis Joplin and Kristin Hersh as his influences.

For Hut product manager Paul Collins, the aim is to build on the positive vibe which has greeted the band. "We see it as a project aimed right at the indie market to begin with, but it's a long-term one which we want to watch grow. The Evening Session has been great and their response demonstrates that Placebo don't need over-hyping or over-marketing. We aim to go with the flow," he says.

The band are undoubtedly off to a flying start - not least in Europe where they recently supported David Bowie at his request. Their own headline tour begins on June 2 followed by more dates with Bowie. Boyd says, "I was pleased to see they were as happy in a stadium surrounding as they were in the Dublin Castle, they have the sort of confidence that could see them grow rapidly."