I always knew we'd be a weirdo magnet," quips Placebo's frontman, Brian Molko. "We have quite a few obsessive fans who believe that regardless of whether or not you want them in your life, they are going to be in your life. People say you know you're famous when you've got a stalker. Birds of a feather flock together."
With his jet-black hair, diaphanous, grey-blue eyes and painted nails (even the toes are lacquered), the singer cuts an androgynous figure. Much like his band's music, his striking looks split people down the middle. "We inspire strong emotions and reactions, which is much better than indifference," he says. "The general public either love us or hate us, which is cool. It must mean we are doing something right. We must be hitting a nerve."
Molko takes a lot of flak but seems to thrive on it. "People even slag us off for our name," he says. "`Placebo' was never meant to have a trickery aspect to it. Taken directly from the Latin, it means, `I will please,' and that's more what we're trying to say. With us it really is the genuine article. People think because we wear make-up that we are quite fake. Or imagine that I'm a straight boy who pretends to be gay in order to get girls, and stuff like that. It's all so very boring when it's just a natural expression of your inner self. We are the genuine article; we are for real. This is not a big elaborate joke. It's too much work and too much emotion and there's too much of our souls invested for it to be one big trick."
In the space of three years, half a dozen visceral singles and two albums (Without You I'm Nothing, the second one, is out on 5 October), Placebo have managed to combine the elements of Sonic Youth's noise tactics, Joy Division's minor-chord melancholy and David Bowie's sexual ambiguity.
Molko admits to all those influences: "The Bowie period I love the most is from Hunky Dory to Aladdin Sane. That's a really special time - the androgynous spaceman stuff, Iggy and the Stooges, the MC5 and the beginnings of punk. Bowie and Iggy's collaborations were always fascinating to me. So much power embracing an alternative lifestyle and sexuality. As a teenager growing up in Luxembourg it was important to have that kind of outlet."
Rock idols mattered to Molko because he had a peripatetic childhood: "I was born in the States but grew up in Belgium, Liberia and Lebanon. I met Stefan (Olsdal, a lanky Swedish bass-player) at school in Luxembourg when we were 11 or 12. But we were never friends. He was a jock, playing basketball and in the popular crowd, and I was in the drama club, the loser crowd. We bumped into each other by accident in London about four- and-a-half years ago."
"That was a very lucky day," reflect the pair. For a while Stefan and Brian used another Swede (Robert Schultzberg) on drums but two years ago the American Steve Hewitt, who had originally played on some of their demos, rejoined the fold.
Placebo's cosmopolitan origins mean the musicians have a broader view of things: "We've been exposed to music from a lot of different countries. It's not about putting Union Jacks on our guitars - one-third of us is British, one-third is American and one-third is Swedish. We don't feel like a British band, we feel like Europeans really."
Their broad outlook has enabled the group to succeed in France. "It's our second biggest market after the UK," Molko says. "They recognise the literary value of music. I'm a bit of a Francophile anyway. I was always into French comics. We have this song called `Mars Landing Party', one of the B-sides for Pure Morning in which I'm singing filthy lyrics in French: `Embrasse-moi, met ton doigt dans mon cul, c'est une presence ambigue, c'est une presence inconnue!' It's not meant to offend; it's a bit of a joke really," he teases without blushing.
The lyrics also manage to be non-gender-specific in a language where that is not easy. Molko is quick to point out that he tries to "make the songs universal. We don't have this particularly heterosexual aesthetic anyway. People can place themselves far easier within the songs when it's not about a chick, which is just what rock and roll is riddled with: love songs with girls' names."
The band may be avoiding cliches but they subscribe to the hard-touring rock ethic. "We needed to get good at playing live and, by the end of our last tour, we had. It was very much an apprenticeship," Molko stresses. "We took all the opportunities we had, really. It was quite a privilege for us to be offered dates with U2 and David Bowie. It's hard to say no." Especially when you get a chance to open Bowie's 50th birthday bash at Madison Square Garden last year.
"Bowie actually wanted us and that was just an absolute honour," Molko remembers. "We got to meet Sonic Youth, Lou Reed, Robert Smith of The Cure. We hung out with all these people and it was one hell of a night, one of the most memorable nights of my life really."
In a similarly Bowiesque fashion, Placebo appeared in Velvet Goldmine, Todd Haynes' glam film. "It's a subject we don't bring up with David because he's doing his own Ziggy Stardust movie, but he's not holding it against us," Molko explains. "We became the Flaming Queens, a trashy group obviously inspired by The New York Dolls. We did a cover of T-Rex's `20th-Century Boy'; we wanted to drag it up to the Nineties. It's a real high point of the film, full of colour, it really grabs you. This could be the end of my movie career, but I would like to do more."
Premiered at Cannes and the Edinburgh Festival, Velvet Goldmine is now set for general release around the same time as Without You I'm Nothing. According to Molko, "the second album has many more layers. It's a bit more ambitious sonically and with our song-writing, and I made a real effort to sing properly and leave that squeaky punk thing behind. It's also a lot deeper on an emotional level."
Indeed, the title track sums up the recurrent theme:
"Most of the tracks are broken-hearted love songs written from the point of view of ex-lovers saying stuff like, `You Don't Care About Us' (the next single). `My Sweet Prince' is about a couple of romances, one with a human being and one with a substance, and both ended disastrously. The spark comes from the subconscious but overall the album has a sadness, a loneliness, a Baudelairean spleen.
"Without You I'm Nothing works on several levels: it's a message to our fans, a message from us to each other, and it's also written about one particular person, an ex-lover of mine," the singer adds before quoting his own lyrics: "I'm unclean, a libertine and every time you vent your spleen, I seem to lose the power of speech. You're slipping slowly from my reach and you've never seen the lonely me at all."
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