Placebo: Accept no substitute

Placebo are back, with a new singles album and a new work ethic - but without the bolshie attitude
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The Independent Culture

Early on in their career, Placebo were described as one of the UK's most excitingly debauched rock bands. Their extra-curricular activities, combined with their outspoken front man Brian Molko's androgynous looks, made them easy prey for hatchet specialists in the music press. But Placebo endured, building up an international fanbase and selling over five million albums. Now, after eight years in the business, they have released a singles collection charting their career from 1996 to the present day. It's been quite a ride since Molko first met the band's bassist Stefan Olsdal by chance in a London Tube station.

Early on in their career, Placebo were described as one of the UK's most excitingly debauched rock bands. Their extra-curricular activities, combined with their outspoken front man Brian Molko's androgynous looks, made them easy prey for hatchet specialists in the music press. But Placebo endured, building up an international fanbase and selling over five million albums. Now, after eight years in the business, they have released a singles collection charting their career from 1996 to the present day. It's been quite a ride since Molko first met the band's bassist Stefan Olsdal by chance in a London Tube station.

"We started with broken keyboards and old guitars, writing arty punk-rock songs in the front room of Brian's council flat in Deptford," states the tall, shaven-headed Olsdal at Molko's favourite restaurant in north London. "We practised between cheap pints of lager at the pub round the corner. The basic premise was just to play live."

Olsdal and Molko had gone to the same American school in Luxembourg, but were never friends. "We all came to London for the music," Olsdal says. "This collection is a bit like cleaning out a wardrobe and finding that most of the stuff you still quite like, but there are a couple of things you want to throw out.

"I was only 19 or 20 when we started, and it's hard to come to terms with who you are as a person when you are thrust into the public eye and are more introverted than extroverted," he continues. "I don't ever want to be 20 again. Looking back over all these singles, it seems that we are now a bit more comfortable in our skin. On the first couple of tracks ['36 degrees' and 'Teenage Angst'], it seems like we couldn't wait to get to the end of the song. The energy is quite frenetic, but over the 20 singles it gets more controlled. It really culminates in 'The Bitter End', which is faster than most of the tracks we've done, but it's more confident and self-assured."

A sharply dressed and remarkably healthy-looking Molko concurs with Olsdal's view. These days he sports a shorter, jet-black futuristic mullet cut, and has a calmer, more studied demeanour than previous media encounters suggested. "With the first half of the album, it's difficult not to go back and feel that a lot of our early stuff was really sophomoric. It's like bad teenage poetry that you made at college," he smiles openly between puffs of his cigarette. "As the album moves on I get more comfortable, but I still haven't gone back and listened to the whole thing."

A suggestion that he must draw satisfaction from the success of early songs such as "Nancy Boy" and "Bruise Pristine" is countered almost disdainfully. "Yeah, they were successful, but I just wonder why? I was 22 when we got signed, so they were written between the ages of 20 and 21. 'Nancy Boy' was a big hit, but I still don't really know what the hell it was about. It's often that way with our early stuff. You aren't really concerned with significance, but that the words sound good in a certain combination. I used them more as musical notes and didn't really think about their meaning until I was forced to think about it. When you get a situation like that and you can't think of anything, then you just have to invent things."

Early lyrics such as "a friend with breasts and all the rest/ a friend who's dressed in leather" ("Pure Morning") certainly raised a few sniggers, but these days Molko takes the critical rebuffs in his stride. "I'd say that they're definitely not my best work, but they're better than anything Noel Gallagher's ever written. Besides, my lyrics have always been ambiguous. The lyrics of 'Pure Morning' just came off the top of my head when we were writing in the studio. At least it's not "I'm feeling supersonic, give me gin and tonic". It's not exactly that bad, but it's in that vein I must admit.

"I'm my harshest critic," he goes on, unwilling to leave the subject without a hint of justification. "Lyrically, 'Pure Morning' is definitely not the strongest song on that album, but Without You I'm Nothing has a lot of lyrics that I'm really happy with. I think my lyric writing has gotten a lot better from album to album. That's why it's tough to relive the past in this way. We've always moved forwards in our minds, and once an album's finished I don't tend to go back and listen to it. The songs start to belong to other people and I really like that. You've got to remember that the listeners are usually two years behind the artists in terms of freshness of material. By the time you get to speak to the press, you can have changed your opinion, or gotten bored of the songs already."

Molko saysthat his earliest material was fuelled by living on a Deptford council estate with only income support and housing benefit to keep his head above water. "I had no money, not many friends, and spent most of my time practising in my front room. So it was boredom, loneliness and depression that fuelled the first record."

The three members of Placebo couldn't be more different, which is why, their drummer Steve Hewitt believes, they've remained close friends. "The classic thing to say is that 50 per cent of Placebo is gay. Brian's bisexual, I'm straight... And Stef's from Sweden, Brian's American, and I'm from Manchester." Challenging sexual stereotypes has been a recurring theme in Placebo's work. Molko says that his androgynous image "is not something that's calculated. It's how I feel comfortable. It gives me more confidence. I like the way I look with a bit of slap on.

"It's about playing with the context of masculinity. In fact, I just did a duet with Jane Birkin, and she's one of the most androgynous people I've ever met. It's a state of mind more than anything else. It's just who I am. It took me a while to figure out my sexuality, and ever since then I have been extremely comfortable with it. It's never been about repression. I realised I was bisexual when I was 13, 14. I'd been into girls since I was 11, so it came a few years later. I like to keep my options open. It's always been about people for me. I refuse to limit myself as a person, and it made total sense to me when I realised this.

"I'm not really sure what my parents think about it. I'm not close to my father at all, but I am to my mother. She's very religious so we don't talk about sex. She's a born-again Christian, which was something I was raised into. When I was a kid I used to have instruction with my minister. I suppose my leadership qualities were noticed at a very early age. I was being groomed as the new youth leader in the church, which, when you look back at it, is really quite amusing."

The band are now working on material for their fifth album, and their latest single "Twenty Years" looks set to be another hit. Their last album Sleeping With Ghosts went Top 10 in 20 countries. They've appeared with the Pixies' Frank Black, formed a friendship with their mentor David Bowie, flown as personal guests on U2's infamous Lemon Jet, and grown out of their spat with Limp Bizkit's diminutive firecracker Fred Durst. "I've got perspective now, and my work ethic has changed," says Molko philosophically. "I'm a lot less of a lush than I was; which is where I think I got into a lot of trouble with journalists in the early days. Getting wasted in front of the music press probably wasn't such a good idea. Now I'm much more into doing what I do welland giving the fans the satisfaction that they deserve. A focused performance is more important than drinking away this opportunity. I'm in a really blessed position.I've finally realised the significance of that."

'Once More With Feeling: Singles, 1996-2004' is out now on Elevator/Virgin; Placebo play Wembley Arena on 5 November

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