Let's see--they get all dolled up like whores on a weekend prowl for fashion shoots, they prance around on stage like eager young hopefuls auditioning for chorus roles in Cats, and they had a bit role in the glam-rock period film Velvet Goldmine. So the three members that make up London's Placebo could be easily misconstrued as glam, no?
"We get terribly irritated when lazy and unintelligent journalists make a very, very facile connection between the film, which is fiction, and our music, which is reality," rages singer Brian Molko. "I think you would have to be an idiot to listen to both our albums and think that we're part of any glam revival whatsoever."
Well, all righty, then. But the signs are certainly there. At least on the surface. Molko and his bandmates--bassist Stefan Olsdal and new recruit/drummer Steve Hewitt--have done photo shoots for Calvin Klein and Gucci, name-drop incessantly, and definitely look the part. Sure, looks can be deceiving, but . . .
"We don't give a fuck what people think," Molko says. "We work very hard at what we do. We're so confident that we work with David Bowie quite a bit and glam never ever comes into it. I never was interested in glam, and I don't think he is at all anymore."
Fair enough. But when Placebo's first single, the gender-bending "Nancy Boy," raced to No. 4 on the U.K. charts, it generated the sort of heated debate about sexual ambiguity that's been at the center of every good rock and roll controversy from Little Richard on up to Marilyn Manson. "We were expecting a more hostile reaction and were kind of disappointed that we didn't get one," Molko says today.
"The confrontation and provocation isn't a driving force," he continues. "It just happens. It's who we are as people. When you see us on stage, we're slightly exaggerated for dramatic effect. But it's not a character we're playing. We lead our lives that we do in order to keep ourselves sane and happy. So, everything you see is who we are. We're not going to hide behind anything. We're three very disparate and intense personalities fusing ourselves into the music. We're artists, and it's the only thing we can be bothered to get out of bed in the morning to do."
The trio's self-titled debut album from 1996 went gold overseas but was never released here. After two and a half years' worth of touring ("getting our chops up," Molko calls it), Placebo returned to the studio--"with far more experience. We were better musicians and far more imaginative"--and came out with its debut American album, Without You I'm Nothing.
Molko credits PJ Harvey's sonic knife-twister Dry as the inspiration behind the album, which has generated a modern rock hit in "Pure Morning." "I realized it was possible to do something so beautiful and so deep and so naked and so powerful," Molko says. And while Nothing comes nowhere near Dry in terms of depth, nakedness, and power, there are splashes of youthful, antagonistic raw energy occasionally surging through it. Molko credits the inclusion of drummer Hewitt for much of it.
"We sound like a new band," he says. "It feels like we really started over with this album. We lost a drummer but gained a really good friend, which changed the entire atmosphere and dynamic of the band. We went from being fueled on tension to being fueled on respect and harmony. With that kind of vibe, we were able to achieve what we had set out to do with the second album, which was to find a proper voice and to be far more ambitious on a songwriting level and a production level and a scope level. We wanted to make something that was sophisticated, and that wouldn't have been possible had Steve not joined the band."
Months on the road supporting U2 on its European leg of the Popmart tour taught Placebo a thing or two about showmanship. Their photogenic, lipstick-traced visages have made them darlings among the fashion elite. They played alongside ex-glamster Bowie at his fiftieth birthday party bash at Madison Square Garden a couple years ago, they had a supporting role in Velvet Goldmine last year, and they still found time to record Without You I'm Nothing, an adolescent-scarred collection of songs about the life of Brian Molko (such as "You Don't Care About Us," "Brick Shithouse," and "Scared of Girls").
"They're completely confessional," Molko admits. "I'm compounded pathologically to wash my emotional dirty underwear in public. The more personal the songs are, the more universal I've become. It's a fine line to walk. I've had some identity problems after the first album came out because of that. I pretty much got myself back together and avoided a breakdown and was a stronger person at that point. So, I was able to go further with this record."
Between the fashion shoots and touring, Molko says that movies may be in his future as well (he's somewhat of a natural drama queen). The Velvet Goldmine experience certainly didn't turn him off--even if it is likely to tag Placebo as a glam band the rest of its life. Still, they get to hang around big rock stars like Bono and Michael Stipe.
A final word on fame from Molko: "I was in New York doing this shoot. Within one hour I was drinking in a bar with Def Leppard, got in a taxi and went to a fitting and bumped into Foxy Brown, hung out with Calvin Klein the next morning, and during the photo shoot Kim Gordon came in. As I got into the car to go back to the airport, I turned to my tour manager and said, I'm so glad that we still feel like we're on the peripheral of that. We're still shocked and impressed and surprised that we haven't become pretentious. We still feel like real people.
"Just think of the person you idolize the most, the person you think is the biggest star in the world," he muses, "and imagine them taking a shit."
Ah, the sweet smell of success.
Placebo with Stabbing Westward. 8 p.m., Thursday, April 1, the Odeon, 1295 Old River Road, the Flats. The show is sold out.