|Photo credits: Tell A Vision|
Rock ‘N’ Roll Anima
Background note: Several weeks after I conducted this interview for Alternative Press, singer Brian Molko phoned asking if my group Ether Net would open for Placebo in Canada. A definite first in all my years as a journalist. We had recently lost our drummer but of course I said yes, then hustled to find a replacement. Weeks later I found myself vomiting backstage in a fit of pre-show jitters at Toronto’s sold-out Kool Haus, then stepped onstage to perform for three thousand or so Placebo fans. They were very kind. I subsequently made some lifelong Canadian friends on that mini tour, which also included Montreal and Ottawa.
Hang out with Placebo for a night and you’ll begin to understand what Lou Reed meant by his challenge in Metal Machine Music’s liner notes: “My week beats your year.” Even severe jet lag doesn’t impede Brian Molko and his “two husbands,” as he calls bassist Stefan Olsdal and drummer Steve Hewitt, from juicing the Big Apple. At the Soho Grand hotel bar, orders for double Sea Breezes keep pace with Molko’s candid responses to queries regarding Black Market Music, the corrosive, more political follow-up to 1998’s break-through Without You I’m Nothing.
Detailing Placebo’s coincidence-riddled history, the openly bi-sexual Molko recalls his impression of the openly gay Olsdal when they first encountered each other at school in Luxembourg: “I thought you were an aloof snob, and you thought I was a pot-smoking fag. How ironic life can be.”
As if on cue, a vaguely familiar figure appears at the bar’s dimly lit entrance. “Oh my god, it’s Gina!” shouts Molko, bolting off to say hello. Who’s Gina? Why, it’s Boy George, who’s DJing in town. “He’s a sweetheart,” explains Molko, returning to the table. “We have the same hairdresser and make-up artist in London. They call me Brenda and him Gina.”
Turns out George has a penthouse suite adjoining Placebo’s. That fateful interconnectedness underscores the symbolic link between the two artists. As Molko attests, “I get insulted on a weekly basis in London because the British are still a homophobic culture. I don’t know why they’re unsettled by it. There’s nothing shocking about a cock in a frock.”
Informing Olsdal of George’s accommodations, he confides, “We plan to have a little party tonight.” So much for jet lag.
Do you ever feel trapped by your image? If I were expecting you to play the rock ’n’ roll animal, for instance, and I started buying shots and producing drugs…
Olsdal: [Leans forward with a conspiratorial grin] Are you trying to tell us something? [Laughs.]
But do you feel pressure to live up to that image?
Molko: In the past I think we may have been guilty of putting the lifestyle before the music. Now the focus is on doing what we do to the best of our abilities. And when you’ve managed to do that, then you can reward yourself and go a bit crazy. As long as you’ve got enough time to get over it before the next show. We don’t want to let each other down, or the fans, even though maybe we never did let them down by embracing the rock lifestyle. Maybe it’s what we needed to do. But then our capacity for consumption was far greater than it is now. As soon as you hit 25, hangovers completely change.
Have you discovered any remedies?
Olsdal: Living as if there’s a tomorrow. There’s a great Chinese proverb: Live as if every day is your last, and as if you’re going to live for another 100 years.
Is that new outlook just a by-product of age?
Molko: You’re not the same person you were when you were 22. You’re 22 years old, you’ve been on welfare, and now you’ve got a record in the charts, money, people paying attention to you for the first time. You’re going to go absolutely fucking ape shit. But then comes the post-coital depression. And that was Without You I’m Nothing. That’s waking up after the party. You look around at the debris, and the memories come back. You feel ashamed and you place your head firmly against the pillow and go, “Oh, no… why?”
On the new album’s “Passive Aggressive,” you sing, “God’s in crisis. He’s over.” If you don’t believe in God, do you have a higher power you appeal to when you’re at the end of your tether?
Molko: Yeah, my older brother. [Laughs.] I was raised a born-again Christian. I gave my life over to Jesus when I was 11; took it back when I was 14. But that stays with you for a long time. I remember my mother saying, “When Jesus knocks on your door, it’s your choice to open the door or to leave it closed. And Jesus will knock for a while, but then your heart will become hardened, and he will leave.” And the song can be about that, or it can be about not letting someone else into your heart.
Has your mom heard “Black-Eyed,” in which you sing, “I’m forever black-eyed, a product of a broken home”?
Molko: I don’t talk about our music with my mother; but she is proud of me. I think the song would have more of an effect on my dad. He tried to dissuade me from pursuing any artistic endeavors whatsoever. He ignored me for most of my life, and then wanted to be my friend when success came along. I think he studies the songs more. And I think he probably gets the message.
That’s an unusual way to communicate.
Olsdal: It’s shit.
Molko: But that’s dysfunctional families for you. And it made me the person I am today. The fact that my mother was extremely religious and my father was a businessman made me forge my own identity at a very young age.
What, did your dad expect you to go into banking and your mom expect you to become a minister?
Molko: You hit the nail on the head. I was being primed for the ministry. My leadership qualities were recognized, and I had private bible study with the pastor.
What was the inspiration for “Slave To The Wage,” then? You’ve never had a straight job to runaway from.
Molko: The song tells you to be an individual, believe in yourself and have the courage to chase your dreams. If you do, the rewards at the end are ten-fold, versus doing what your parents tell you to do: Get a good job, get married, have 2.4 children, 1.2 goldfish, 3.6 cars…. To a lot of people, that’s the epitome of personal success. Which is why so many people go through a mid-life crisis. People reach a point in their lives and go, “Is this it?”
A career in rock has its dangers, too. In “Commercial For Levi,” you sing a laundry list of excesses, followed by the plea, “please don’t die.” To what extent are you speaking to yourself?
Molko: Very much so. At the time of Without You I’m Nothing, I made a lot of bad lifestyle choices. Steve and a couple other close friends had to grab me by the scruff of the neck and go, “You’re my friend. I love you. We depend on each other. You’ve really got to”–like the song says–“change your situation, otherwise you’re not going to be on the planet for much longer.” I was very lucky to have those people around me.
So the song itself almost becomes a higher power, a voice outside of yourself saying…
Molko: Come back. You’re worth more than this.
Did you ever get to the point where it flashed in your mind to join “that stupid club,” to quote Kurt Cobain’s mother–to become a rocker who burns out at 27?
Molko: The world does not need another rock ’n’ roll casualty. Cobain, Jimi Hendrix, Janis Joplin–we don’t need more casualties like them. I refuse to let that happen. It doesn’t mean I’m stronger than they were, but I just have this picture of myself as an old man, getting together with Stef and Steve at the age of 60. Not playing music, but sitting down and going, “Do you remember…?” So far my premonitions have been correct.