Placebo don‘t live up to their name. Indeed, they eschew the inert, the faux, that which is designed to compare with the real. Over the course of three albums — 1996’s eponymous debut, 1998‘s Without You I’m Nothing and this month‘s Black Market Music — they’ve reinvigorated Britpop with genuine bisexual mascara-crusted appeal, hard-partying antics, stab-through-you emotion and a postmod sonic aggression that easily locks horns with Suede‘s.
Today’s Placebo — slinky front man Brian Molko, giraffelike bassist Stefan Olsdal and all-around-bloke drummer Steve Hewitt — suggests a tasty-sugar happy pill, not Thorazine. Black Market Music, already approaching the 1 million sales point overseas, where it‘s been out for some months, lacks the melancholic soak of Without You I’m Nothing in its ratio of swan song to head-bobber; instead, buzzing guitars, tribal-tinged drumming, and dollops of programming and piano keep even BMM‘s earnest ditties’ chins up. Tinges of funk and a rap by One Inch Punch‘s Justin Warfield also signify Placebo’s continuing evolution, while, as per usual, there‘s whump-whump percussion, Molko’s mildly Geddy Lee–esque vocals, and Olsdal‘s straightforward bass plucks, all flying about like sweat-seeking gnats in July. (Evidence: ”Slave to the Wage,“ the druggy ditty ”Special K“ and the appropriately mellow ”Narcoleptic.“)
Yep, Placebo’s keeping it real, Britpoppers. They recently returned from playing Australian festival dates, and shared quality time with us to discuss the new, the old, and tonsil drainage.
L.A. WEEKLY: So you loved Sydney?
BRIAN MOLKO: We didn‘t want to leave Australia, period.
STEFAN OLSDAL: Australia just seems to have this impact on us. Last time, we left there with a broken wrist and tonsils the size of golf balls. Every night unraveled into debauchery.
Excitement follows you guys.
MOLKO: I think the misconception is, because we deal with difficult emotions in our music, we’re quite depressive people and don‘t smile very much. In fact, when we’re together the room is more often than not filled with laughter. We have a lust for life and just want to enjoy life. Keep our heads straight and have a good time — you only go around once.It‘s been a while since the last album came out, but I get the feeling there hasn’t really been a break in the work.
MOLKO: Not really. Six months in the past five years.
Do you miss being in London?
MOLKO: You miss your friends. I‘m trying to buy a house right now.
You’ve also got a girlfriend?
MOLKO: No, I‘m single. We broke up.
The queens can rejoice.
MOLKO: They can, yeah. I have a tendency to go out with bisexual people anyway, regardless of their gender. By the end of our relationship, that proved quite complicated, accelerated the degeneration. What was good for the goose was not good for the gander.
And you, Stefan? Last time we spoke you were dating, but it was a touchy thing. You wouldn’t divulge many details.
OLSDAL: No. I still don‘t.
That suggests he’s seeing someone. This is like asking Bill Clinton something. Okay, what was it like recording your new album?
MOLKO: It was the most pleasurable recording experience we‘ve ever had, because there was a real spirit of communication, exchange of ideas. For the last two albums we’ve had female engineers, and it‘s always been good to have a woman in the room to balance out the testosterone. For the first time, we were able to put the sounds from our heads on tape, and I think we made a really cohesive album. Even though it’s quite varied, it has a strong identity. It‘s aggressive and angry.
OLSDAL: It was really painful making Without You I’m Nothing. I think we didn‘t want a situation like that again. Our emotional states and our mixture with the producer was not very good.
MOLKO: We weren’t having an easy time in our personal lives at the time, and we weren‘t communicating well. All of us were having problems with our relationships, which had an effect on things. People close to us almost died, there were bad drugs floating around, things like that. It was a very dark period, but we’re much better now, thank you very much. We feel great.
OLSDAL: This is the most inspiring, productive and creative period in our careers, I think.
What is ”Taste in Men“ about?
MOLKO: It‘s a simple song that’s applicable to any sexuality. And it‘s a simple ”You dumped me come back to me“ song. The person who lives in that song is staring into a mirror and going, ”Why? What’s wrong with me? Why has this person left me? I‘ll do anything to get them back,“ which is a really bad head space to be in. And that needed to be reflected in the sonics of the song, so we tried to make it as hard as the Broken EP by Nine Inch Nails, blisteringly nasty. The lyrics are quite simple and repetitive. And it’s interesting to write the songs from all sexualities‘ standpoints, being the kind of person that dips his toe in both pools.
Were you always an all-team player, Brian?
MOLKO: I actually remember when it occurred to me. I got chicken pox when I was about 16, and in order to relieve the stress of it, a friend of mine came over, and we were just running through the woods pretending to be Indians or something . . . we might have had something to smoke that day. And he had his top off, and I remember going, ”Well, that’s quite nice, isn‘t it?“ That set the whole thought process going. I had quite a religious upbringing. I gave my life over to Christ at 11. I took it back when I was about 14. But the interesting thing is that realizing I was attracted to men increased my attraction to women, because I felt like when you’re having sex with somebody of your own gender, you‘re exploring the similarities. When you’re having sex with someone with the opposite gender, you‘re exploring the differences.
How do you feel about that, Stefan?
OLSDAL: About girls? I tried it once, didn’t like it. I knew when I was about 6 that I was gay. I just had too much fun dressing up in my grandmother‘s clothes. Come teenage years, I liked big packages, looking at that. I finally went out when I was 16 with a guy, and that just solidified the whole thing.
Hey, Steve, have you ever wanted to chow down on a dick to be more a part of the crowd?
STEVE HEWITT: No. I did actually suck a cock once, when I was about 13. I took it out and went, ”I don’t know about that.“
It didn‘t work for you?
HEWITT: Nah. I’m a bloke, basically. But I appreciate the trannies. I see a good-looking tranny, it‘s like, ”Come on! Fucking brilliant.“
How often do you all go clubbing?
MOLKO: I’m going less and less to clubs, to be honest. I like dinners and concerts and hanging out at friends‘ houses. Going to a place where they play your records all the time can get a little bit annoying after about the 17th person comes up to you, when you feel all eyes on you and stuff like that. But you still get drunk and dance around, and I’m glad I still do that.
You used to be naughty boys.
MOLKO: We‘re still very naughty. Just maybe not as often, because the workload has gotten a lot bigger, the responsibilities bigger, the show’s a lot longer, and we‘re just more interested in being more professional now. We want to be the tightest, most professional rock outfit around.
How do you guys manage to continue to pull this Placebo thing off?
MOLKO: By being ourselves. By sticking to our guns. By not taking any shit from no one. By encouraging people to just be themselves. By infusing our music with a great deal of passion and honesty. We’re concerned with saying something about the human condition and making an emotional connection with the audience. Those are our priorities.
OLSDAL: And not making lifestyles the priority — making the music the priority.
Placebo appears at the Palace, Tuesday, May 15.