The Times. London (UK) : Mar 4, 2006
Britain's most outrageous band have changed their bad-boy habits but are still big business, as David Rose discovers
At dusk between the crowded market stalls of Patpong, Bangkok's touristy red light district, Placebo are brandishing copies of their new album for the first time. The band are more incredulous than proud, however, as they have just handed over 100 Baht (Pounds 1.45) each to buy some illegal bootleg CDs from a street vendor. Meds, the fifth Placebo album, is not due on shelves anywhere until next month.
"Hey, this is us! This is our new album," Brian Molko, the band's diminutive singer and guitarist, berates the Thai teenager sitting behind dozens of racks of counterfeit discs. The stallholder looks nonplussed, scrutinising the unofficial sleeve artwork, cobbled together from magazine images. Looking back in turn at Molko's mascara-lined, milky-blue eyes, the improbably tall bassist Stefan Olsdal and the lank-haired drummer Steve Hewitt, confusion turns to astonishment as he realises who his latest customers are.
Placebo are due to headline the Bangkok 100 Rock Festival before 15,000 fans that night, sharing a bill with an invasion of British acts that includes Oasis, Franz Ferdinand and Ian Brown, in the first event of its kind in South-East Asia.
Molko might have been expected to throw a tantrum at the stall, given his reputation as the bisexual ringleader of a drug-fuelled glam-rock'n'roll circus, who famously claimed to have left - impressionable eyes should be averted now "a trail of blood and spunk" across Britain on a nationwide tour featuring orgies and drug abuse. The band have attracted a Gothic cult of tortured teenagers since Nancy Boy, from Placebo's self-titled debut, crashed into the top five of the UK singles chart in 1996.
But, ten years on, Placebo prefer to laugh off their black- market encounter. Over drinks in a bar where bored-looking Thais in bikinis dance for sex tourists, Molko checks the spelling of his lyrics on the bogus sleevenotes. "You have to have a sense of humour about it," he chuckles, "I mean, did you see the look on the guy's face?"
Hewitt, a straight-talking Mancunian, is more forthright. "It's like someone shagging your missus, it feels that personal," he fumes. "I've not even held the finished thing in my hand and already you can get it here. That makes me really irate."
Molko shrugs. "It's something that would have really bugged me a few years ago but now I try not to let it," he says, further confounding his reputation as a drama queen. "What's the point of trying to stop something you can't control? When the album was leaked on the internet (there have been 26,000 illegal downloads since), I got really upset that day - you are minded to get very vengeful - but you have to move on."
Though based in London and often considered to be British, the band prefer to be called "European", taking into account their diverse backgrounds. Molko is equal parts Scottish and American while Olsdal originally hails from Sweden. Both attended the same American school in Luxembourg, but didn't mix until a chance meeting as students in South Kensington in 1994. Their initial success was based in no small part on Molko's androgynous appeal. "I just simply wanted to wear make-up because I thought I looked good in it," he says, and the 33-year-old is still wearing lipgloss and trademark black today.
"I'd seen the cover of Transformer by Lou Reed and it looked f****** amazing. I had long hair at university and people mistook me for a girl, I found that funny. We were full of youthful bravado."
Though the gaze of the music press later turned away from them, Placebo's fourth album, Sleeping With Ghosts, still sold 1.5 million copies, followed by a collection of singles, Once More With Feeling, in 2004.
Molko is not disheartened about their fading profile in Britain: "What we were doing in 1996 was ludicrously unfashionable then but has now become part of the everyday language of a lot of music that's consumed in the UK," he says. "Just look at the Killers, for God's sake. It's not that far away from what we were doing ten years ago. For us, being contrary bastards, we see that and it's become important for us to walk against the waves. We consider this album to be our best work yet and we are back to make that point.
"Placebo is music for outsiders, by outsiders, and our gigs are like conventions of outcasts, which is cool. Our fans have grown up with us but, somehow, every time we make a record, we've managed to keep a connection to teenage culture. We're not crafting the songs with that in mind, but it happens. Every time we start a tour there are new 13 to 16-year-olds down the front."
The new album, featuring cameo performances from Michael Stipe and Alison Mosshart ("VV" from the Kills), is described as "elemental, stripped down". In reaction to the studio trickery of previous efforts, it's "about the sound of distorted guitars, and three guys playing in a room". But, as a mantra on the title track of Meds affirms, Placebo remain fixated at least musically -on "the sex, the drugs and the complications".
"That's modern life, isn't it?" Molko says. "I just don't see how you can write emotional music about being alive today without those being the main concerns." This is a record about what people use to get by, he says: "The people who inhabit these songs are under some kind of anaesthesia, whether chemical, emotional or spiritual."
But during a conversation in a quiet hotel lobby, his distinctive nasal delivery augmented by a slight head cold and his own oral fixation on low-tar cigarettes, Molko confesses that he is now "more- or-less married" to his girlfriend of four years, the photographer Helena Berg, and that the couple are doting parents to a six-month- old son, Cody.
News of a junior Molko is certainly surprising. Did he keep it quiet in an attempt to preserve his tawdry image? "I didn't expect to have children so soon and I'm not trying to hide it, but I'm not shouting it from the rooftops. I just feel very protective."
Hewitt, 35, who has an 11-year-old daughter, bashfully admits to having fallen in love again, and Olsdal, who is gay, is rediscovering single life at 31 after the end of an 11-year relationship. After a year of such stark changes, Molko is keen to put the band's previous hell-raising in context.
"Yes, the early days were very chaotic -we were getting wasted, we were f****** everything that moved -but they would be for any young band who were given a record deal and lots of attention. Most of the time I was just hugely hungover. I slipped up now and then," he admits. "They say there's no use crying over spilt milk, but the two statements I most regret are the opening lyrics of Pure Morning (a Top Five single in Britain, famously rhyming "need" with "weed") and that one about bodily fluids.
"I've never been in rehab and I'm not on any prescription drugs, they inhibit your creativity -personally, I'd rather be in therapy - but addiction is something that's ever-present. When you've lived a life as chaotic as I have, you can easily lapse into bad lifestyle choices and you have to constantly remind yourself that there are better things to live for. Like my son, for example."
At the Bangkok festival, Placebo's first live performance since April and the first stop of a scheduled two-year world tour, the band uses a five-piece line-up that allows Molko and Olsdal to stalk the stage. Two new songs, Because I Want You and Song To Say Goodbye, are among the highlights of a set dominated by resonant singles as they reel off their resume to the obvious delight of the mixed crowd of Thais, expats and backpackers.
Afterwards, a panda-eyed Molko wipes his smudged mascara to pass comment. "It was OK," he deadpans. "Because it's been so long, it was like putting on a suit to see if it still fits. Like having sex after a long break. You don't forget how to, and remember the great sensation but you're also concentrating on doing it well."
Although Placebo are content to celebrate long into the night, confirmation of how much they have calmed down comes as their afterparty, fuelled by alcoholic drinks company sponsors, is suddenly hijacked by a teetotal Ian Brown.
Silencing the DJ with a show of Mancunian bravado, the former Stone Roses singer loudly protests that he has lost his favourite pair of camouflage-print sunglasses, which -after much effing and blinding and threats to strip-search everyone - turn up in a fridge. Brown switches back into amiable mode as if nothing has happened and the party goes on.
"And you were expecting me to be a diva," Molko jokes, while remaining conspicuously out of harm's way.
Placebo's UK tour begins Apr 5. Go to www.placebo.co.uk/tour for details. The single 'Because I Want You' is out on Monday, the album 'Meds' is out Mar 13, both on Virgin.
by David Rose
Full Text: © Times Newspapers Limited 2006
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