The Cover Story

Placebo: “Making music felt like a lifeline, and that feeling still exists to this day”

For almost three decades, Brian Molko and Stefan Olsdal have been masters of their own destiny, steering Placebo into whichever creative waters they so choose. Now, after nine years lost at sea, the duo have returned with Never Let Me Go, and prescient tales of loss, surveillance and climate change. A record for our times, that could only have been made by these two…

Placebo: “Making music felt like a lifeline, and that feeling still exists to this day”
James Hickie
Mads Perch

“What’s my state of mind right now?” Brian Molko ponders, repeating Kerrang!’s question slowly, deliberately and with that unmistakable purr. “Anticipation. Mild frustration. Impatience. This has been a long time coming.” The ‘this’ the 49-year-old is referring to is Never Let Me Go, Placebo’s forthcoming eighth album and their first since 2013. “We’ve been sitting on this record for two years longer than we probably should have been. We have to get back into this rock’n’roll machine.”

It’s a machine Brian and co-conspirator Stefan Olsdal have been at the controls of since 1994, a year after the singer graduated from Goldsmiths College. The university’s New Cross location was only a 20-minute bus ride from Brixton Academy, thereby providing drama student Brian with easy access to gigs from artists breaking out from the underground – from PJ Harvey and Pavement, to Fugazi and Sonic Youth. In 1998, Placebo headlined the same legendary venue in support of their second album, Without You I’m Nothing. “And so you have to find new dreams,” says Brian of having to recalibrate his goals. “To find new dizzying heights to scale.”

And scale those heights Placebo did, transforming from a cult concern erroneously thrown in with the Britpop movement but too edgy and interesting for membership, to arena conquerors, all without compromising their weirdness or gender fluidity. And they’re still here, still producing interesting records, albeit with Brian and Stefan as the only official members. “Relationships are hard,” the latter offers by way of explanation. “I’ll put it like this: we’ve been through four drummers.”

The band’s Swedish-born bassist-guitarist, 47, is suffering with a frozen shoulder that necessitated a cortisone injection earlier today, which has left him feeling “wobbly”. That might be why he sighs deeply before each of his answers, though it’s more likely because doing press isn’t his preferred way of spending a morning. Regardless, he’s a kind and considered interviewee, and exuding a calmness, he suggests, is one of the reasons he and Brian have avoided the rifts that can mar long-term creative unions. “He’s a fireball and I’m St. Patience. He describes things in poetic terms and I do in technical terms. He’ll hum a melody into his phone and I’ll be firing up ProTools.”

Brian and Stefan met as 19-year-olds in London. Despite both attending the same school in Luxembourg as children, they hadn’t interacted while they were there. As teenagers, however, and with outsider status in common, the two hit it off and started jamming together in a council flat in Deptford, south-east London, initially as Ashtray Heart but later as Placebo. “We were just two lost souls, trying to find a place we could belong because we didn’t know where we fit in,” suggests Stefan. “With Placebo, we found a way to create a space and a platform that we felt we could inhabit. And the music we made was the music I wanted to hear. It felt like a lifeline. And that feeling still exists to this day.”

Thirty years together is an impressive feat, even if Brian, whose androgynous visage is nowadays more akin to that of a gallant musketeer, doesn’t see still being a band as a guarantee of quality. “I’m not about to pretend that just because we’ve achieved some kind of longevity, that we are superior artistically. Michael Bublé’s achieved longevity. So has Barry Manilow. So I never know if what I do is of artistic value because I question it continuously.”

Questioning their own methods is how Placebo ended up making Never Let Me Go. As with all of their albums, starting things off brings on “a major existential crisis” in Brian, who’ll use an exercise in creativity to aid him out of his bind. This time it involved reversing the process of making a record entirely, starting with the cover art, for which he selected a striking image of a beach. At first glance, it appears to be covered by beautiful multicoloured pebbles. On closer inspection, however, it becomes clear the beach is strewn with man-made items altered by time and tide, but unable to break down entirely.

This image is the perfect accompaniment for Try Better Next Time, a song that manages the feat of being both breezy and devastatingly depressing. “It’s basically saying, ‘Good riddance humanity, try better next time you come back and get a chance to live on this beautiful planet,” explains Brian. “It’s a very disillusioned song about the climate disaster presented in a sort of three-minute Weezer-ish kind of pop-punk thing. If you dig deeper, it’s one of the more disturbing songs because it’s talking about an extinction event, you know, the extinction of human beings.”

The fifth track on Never Let Me Go, The Prodigal, pairs a downbeat vocal with spritely orchestral swells. On a record characterised by a love of synthesisers, this organic sound makes it something of a one-off. The track started out differently, though, strikingly similar to the Pixies classic Where Is My Mind? in fact, before producer Adam Noble suggested a change of approach. The finished version is more reminiscent of Eleanor Rigby, bringing Brian and Stefan’s shared love of The Beatles to the fore.

Both men greedily devoured the eight hours of Get Back, the Peter Jackson-directed documentary series of never-before-seen footage of The Fab Four that dates back to 1969. “I felt privileged to be there, that close to one of my favourite bands,” enthuses Stefan. “It’s a gift. And it’s very brave that they let people that close to them.”

Those expecting Placebo to open the archives as freely will be in for a similarly long wait, though, if any such footage exists at all. “That invasion of privacy kind of scares me,” squirms Stefan in response to the idea of doing something similarly fly-on-the-wall. He certainly practices what he preaches when it comes to avoiding oversharing; earlier when K! asked the location of the studio he’s calling from, he’ll only divulge that it’s “on Planet Earth”.

Stefan has his reasons. “When we started the band, it was something of a dawning for the age of modern technology,” he explains. “We led our lives in private and there wasn’t much intrusion, and we certainly didn’t want to parade ourselves on the red carpet. And that continues today. We’re still private people who don’t feel we need or want to share our personal moments, or intimate moments, or creative moments. It just doesn’t feature on our radar. We’ve chosen to control the narrative as much as possible, so rather than divulging too much, we’ve held back a little.”

Brian agrees, though understands this ethos isn’t for everyone, which is why he wrote Surrounded By Spies; a sleek, throbbing treatise on navigating a world in which some decry being surveilled too much, while others desperately yearn for more limelight. “If you want to talk about your most private moments on social media, if you get validation from that or if you find therapeutic relief from that, or you just want to post your dinner, it’s your prerogative,” reasons Brian. “But just because you do, don’t expect me to. Why should I make the same deal with the devil you made?”

If you’re reading this and are about to suggest that, as someone whose art has put them in the public eye, Brian can’t have it both ways, then we suggest you don’t. Not to him, anyway. “There’s a kind of tacit pressure for people who are quiet and private like me, that we should be exposing ourselves because you’re a performer,” continues Brian. “But I don’t. I don’t have a Faustian pact with the media. I don’t actively go out there and search for column inches.”

Lockdown brought forth a variety of fears in people, whether it was about their health, being enclosed, or the idea that life might never be the same again. For Brian Molko, however, a man used to periods of creative seclusion because they’re usually followed by tours in front of tens of thousands of people, it was the thought he might no longer be able to share that joyous communion. “For the first time in my life, the possibility of there not being an audience there, the possibility of us not playing concerts again, seemed real. And then all of a sudden I started asking myself questions that I’ve never asked myself before in my career, like: ‘Do I have a future?’”

Weariness and uncertainty had already crept in for other reasons. Work had begun on Placebo’s eighth album back in 2016, though was soon interrupted by a tour in support of A Place For Us To Dream, the band’s greatest hits compilation album, a one-year jaunt that soon extended to three. “By the end of it we had this really disjointed relationship with our old material,” admits Stefan. “I personally started to become quite disillusioned with what it meant to be in Placebo and what we were doing. If we’d have made this record six years ago, right after the retrospective tour, we’d have probably made an atonal, experimental noise record.”

Stefan still looks back, of course, but his focus is on the less obvious career accomplishments, with a curious focus on his band’s promos. His son remains mighty impressed that dad got to swim with sharks in the video for 1998’s You Don’t Care About Us, even if that bravery was an illusion created through technology and clever editing (“I don’t know if I want to tell him the truth just yet”). And Stefan laughs at the memory of the video for Nancy Boy with its generous sprays of white fluid that somehow went over the heads of the censors, so to speak. “There’s some overtly sexual imagery. The massive cumshot, for example.”

Talk of achievements, eventually leads us to the topic of David Bowie, who played a pivotal mentorly role in Placebo’s career – taking them on tour, guesting on the single version of the track Without You I’m Nothing, and appearing with them during live shows. Stefan recently found a photograph from the legend’s 50th birthday concert back in 1997. Taken backstage at New York’s Madison Square Garden, it features Placebo alongside members of The Cure, Foo Fighters, Smashing Pumpkins and Sonic Youth, arranged around the birthday boy who’s sat on the edge of a sofa, bleached blonde hair like a cockatoo’s crest, a cigarette between his fingers and a grin across his face. “We were trying not to wee ourselves with excitement,” Stefan admits now.

David Bowie’s death on January 10, 2016, two days after his 69th birthday and the release of final studio album Blackstar, certainly left its mark on the members of Placebo. The aching Happy Birthday In The Sky, while not exclusively about that particular loss, pays tribute to those whose birthdays we continue to mark even after they have passed, as Brian does with his late hero. “It communicates that kind of heartbreak,” he explains. “That sense of loss. That sense of desperation. It’s as if a part of your body and soul has been ripped from you unfairly. And you pine – and you pine.”

Stefan, meanwhile, is given comfort by Bowie’s words of wisdom, which have finally borne fruit after 26 years. Placebo famously landed a support slot on some dates for his Outside Tour back in February 1996, hastily replacing Morrissey, who had unexpectedly and unhelpfully gone back to England, leaving proceedings decidedly in the lurch. Placebo, still four months away from releasing their self-titled debut album, naturally leapt at the chance. Piling into a yellow transit van, they made the 14-hour, 780-mile drive to Milan and performed for 8,500 people at the city’s now-defunct Palatrussardi venue. Not bad for their first-ever appearance in Italy.

“After soundcheck [Bowie] came into our dressing room,” recalls Stefan of their esteemed host. “He was very respectful and knew our names, which obviously blew us away. Then he looked at me and said, ‘I think you should sing more.’ That’s always stuck with me but, for whatever reason, I hadn’t done it. But finally, on this record, I’ve listened to his advice.” Indeed, Stefan’s voice, a markedly different instrument to Brian’s, is another element that makes Never Let Me Go a distinct entry in Placebo’s catalogue.

“These are absurdly magnificent things to happen to a musician, to get that kind of support from such legendary figures that you grew up listening to and to find an affinity with them,” reflects Brian on how the endorsement of icons has buoyed him over the years. “That little voice in the back of your head that just keeps telling you you’re never good enough, you know, it’s slightly quietened by the support of your heroes.”

David Bowie was a notoriously prescient thinker, whether it was predicting success for Placebo, Stefan’s untapped vocal abilities, or his remarkable foresight about the societal fragmentation brought about by the internet, as explained during an interview with Jeremy Paxman in 1999. But with that inquisitive, envelope-pushing brain no longer with us, it’s up to the likes of Placebo to continue making records that ask important questions while not standing still. With Never Let Me Go exploring themes of climate change, surveillance and privacy, being released into a world growing hotter, in which more than three million people have fled the war in Ukraine and the UK has provided visas to less than 7,000 of them, it’s natural to wonder: are the two members of Placebo at all hopeful for the future?

Unsurprisingly for a self-confessed “catastrophiser”, Brian doesn’t have a good feeling. “Forgive me for saying so, because I don't want to depress a bunch of people, but I'm not particularly optimistic. I suffer from depression, so it's very difficult to have a tendency towards depression and to not have climate depression, for example, or not be completely aghast at the treatment of refugees in this country. Or not be completely aghast at the lies and manipulation we're being subjected to by the powers that be in this country. And it's very difficult, I think, to take a cold, hard look at what's going on and empathise with it and find optimism.”

Perhaps, adds Brian, none of us are in a position to see clearly at this point, given that we’re firmly in the eye of multiple storms. “There's no historical distance – we're living it – maybe it feels more intense because we're living it right now.”

Stefan agrees, suggesting that our current set of circumstances, climate change notwithstanding, are nothing new, as tough as it can feel to be in the throes of them. “People have lived through pestilence and bigger wars. And somehow, in despair, humans have clung onto something to move forward, even when there is very little light. It seems the only reason we’re here is to survive and procreate, and that’s essentially all that we do. But then again we’re burdened with this consciousness that means we’re always asking, ‘Why?’”

Grappling for the answers to life’s big questions is one of the most important reasons we need music. It gives us the power to understand what it means to be human, and by encouraging us to listen to a variety of different kinds of expressions, we become more open to understanding the thoughts and feelings of others. It’s a gift Placebo have provided us with for almost three decades. Without that expression, we’re nothing. And as it turns out, without people to share their expression with, Placebo would be nothing too. It’s a mutually beneficial relationship, then, so it’s vital we continue holding on to each other.

Placebo's new album Never Let Me Go is released March 25 via SO Recordings.

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