Placebo: “David Bowie taught me how to be a better person”

With ‘Never Let Me Go’, their first new album in nearly a decade, the British alt-rock veterans are back from the brink and focused purely on survival – as they tell Andrew Trendell

“It makes me laugh, because in the ‘90s I used to go out a lot – I mean, a lot,” Placebo frontman Brian Molko laughs to NME when asked about this humble title’s recent 70th anniversary. “So the NME voted me as The Guy Most Likely to Show Up to the Opening Of An Envelope, and recommended that I stay home and have a cup of tea every once in a while and potter around the house!

“They were probably right, you know? [Placebo and the NME], we’re both survivors – we soldier on.”

Onwards! As a band in their 28th year, Placebo have lived through much more than their fair share of hangovers. A hot mess of glam rock, make-up, sex, angst and decadence, they stood out like a sore thumb with black nail varnish when they arrived in 1996 amidst a laddy Britpop era approaching its arse-end, the macho commercialisation of US grunge and a soon-to-explode bro-friendly nu-metal scene. Placebo’s breakthrough hit was the gender-bending anthem ‘Nancy Boy’, which marked a statement of intent: they didn’t fit in, and that’s why you loved/hated them.

Advertisement

Eight albums later, they’ve outlived countless music scenes, gone through all the Behind The Music rigmarole of drummer bust-ups and druggy years to re-emerge in 2022 with their new record ‘Never Let Me Go’ – a vibrant, eclectic and compulsive reinvention. It’s been nearly nine years since their last album, 2013’s shruggingly-received ‘Loud Like Love’. A chunk of the following decade would be spent touring to mark their 20th anniversary as a band and a second ‘best of’ collection, 2016’s ‘A Place For Us To Dream’. At times, it felt more like a funeral than a celebration.

“We weren’t particularly comfortable with the prospect of doing a retrospective and retrospective tour,” Molko admits, speaking to NME from his home in London. “At the time we were on Universal Records, and we had the feeling that we’d lose all support from them if we didn’t embark on this hideously materialistic and mercantile endeavour.”

On a separate Zoom call, the band’s co-founder Stefan Olsdal agrees. “That tour lasted for quite a long time, and we started to get this slightly unhealthy relationship with our old material,” he says. “I started to feel quite disillusioned by the band and what we were doing. I had a crisis of confidence coming into this record. I felt during the last tour that the band was over and that I couldn’t continue with this.”

Placebo, 2021. Credit: Mads Perch
Placebo, 2021. Credit: Mads Perch

Irked by what Molko calls “the self-congratulatory masturbatory aspects and the rampant commercialism” of the experience, the band took a much-needed break to recalibrate and find a reason to be Placebo again. When we last caught up with Molko in 2017, the frontman teased that he had “thrown all the methods that I’ve used in the past out of the window”, was “deconstructing my songwriting process and reconstructing it in a totally different way” and that it was “highly likely that the next thing we do will be something akin to career suicide”.

Heavily indebted to hooks and melody, ‘Never Let Me Go’ is arguably Placebo’s most subtle yet experimental work to date. It’s certainly their most consistent work since 2006’s dark and intoxicated ‘Meds’.

“Some mornings I wake up with my brain on fire” – Brian Molko

Advertisement

Molko muses: “After playing your most radio-friendly material for two and a half years, it’s not too unimaginable to think that someone would want to go off and make something that sounded more like ‘Metal Machine Music’ by Lou Reed or ‘Yeezus’ by Kanye: something more extreme, more brutal, experimental that explores the darker recesses of our emotional landscape.”

Speaking to NME in 2018, Olsdal echoed that the anniversary treadmill had grown “saccharine” and said that he and Molko were looking to take the same curious approach that they used to bring to B-side sessions to really push them into the weirder corners of their heroes, noting: “Now that Sonic Youth are no longer a band, there might just be an opening slot”.

Responding to his bandmate’s comments today, Molko says: “Consider this fact – [1998 mega hit] ‘Pure Morning’ was originally meant to be a B-side. As soon as the record company heard it they wanted to put it out, and we were quite shocked. I think we just wanted to keep as much of an open mind as possible and try not to allow ourselves to be burdened by whatever our perceived identity appears to be to others.”

For the writing sessions, Placebo found that they had gone “full circle” and ended up in a similar situation to when they first formed. Now without a drummer (longtime member Steve Hewitt was sacked in 2007 due to “personal and musical differences” before his replacement Steve Forrest left in 2015 to focus on other projects), Molko and Olsdal found themselves feeling around in the dark as a duo. Except now, the tiny room they were jamming in was a a rehearsal space packed with recording equipment, synths and pedals, rather than the dank front room in Molko’s home in Deptford that they called Placebo HQ back in ‘94.

“We realised at that point that we can do anything and that we had complete freedom,” says Molko. “We said, ‘There are no rules, so let’s just embrace this limitless possibility, consider everything, reject nothing on principal’. We’d take a piece of equipment, figure out how it was supposed to work and do the opposite. That became a mantra for the record – ‘What would we normally do? That’s the last fucking thing we’re gonna do!’ In the immortal words of Lou Reed, ‘The possibilities are endless’.”

That impish spirit was baked into the album from the onset. “The starting point was doing the record in reverse,” says Olsdal. “We had the album cover, the album title and some song titles before we had the songs. We needed to start the whole chapter while sitting on a hard wooden bench rather than the comfortable couch. We set ourselves a challenge to do it differently from the word go.”

“I had a crisis of confidence coming into this record. I felt during the last tour that the band was over and that I couldn’t continue with this” – Stefan Olsdal

Untethered, ‘Never Let Me Go’ takes Placebo’s sound for a walk like never before. Opener ‘Forever Chemicals’ sets the tone through its scuzzy alien soundscape with a hook driven by a drum beat delivered through a warped electronic harp. ‘Beautiful James’ is a bittersweet synth-pop banger, while ‘The Prodigal’ flexes the band’s orchestral chops. Then there’s the searing dance rocker ‘Sad White Reggae’, which picks up where 2000’s ‘Taste In Men’ left off, and ‘Fix Yourself’ borrows from The Cure’s ‘Disintegration’ playbook of gothic majesty.

Ultimately, it’s a smorgasbord of weird noises to soundtrack a weird time. Asked what he’s searching for through his work, Molko replies: “Probably the same thing that everyone else – some kind of security. It hasn’t stopped for like four years now; all the violence that spurred Black Lives Matter, then there’s Brexit, coronavirus, the climate disaster that’s been coming for years, and now there’s the threat of nuclear disaster in Europe. Fuck me! You know? Anyone with a predisposition towards overthinking, anxiety or depression – and I have predilections towards all three – they’re bound to find themselves incredibly troubled.”

‘Never Let Me Go’ is a record gripped by that apocalyptic tension. Most notably, ‘Happy Birthday In The Sky’ is a mournful number that sees Molko putting himself “in the shoes of someone who has lost a loved one to having been gunned down by a cop”, while ‘Surrounded By Spies’ lampoons the surveillance culture that has robbed us of privacy on the streets and in our own homes.

Fans listening to ‘Hugz’ and its aversion to human contact (“a hug is just another way of hiding your face/I just wanna conceal myself”) might try and draw the obvious COVID parallels. However, Molko is keen to stress that 85 per cent of the lyrics were completed two years before the pandemic took hold. The songs may have been inspired by “violence, injustice, the deification of money”, but these ideas are simply symptomatic of modern times and a growing “sense of losing your place in the world”.

That said, Molko would hate for the album to be seen as “a polemic or some kind of diatribe”, but more of a human and personal response to the fuckery of modern times. “I don’t pretend to offer any answers or solutions,” he admits.

To illustrate the mental state of the Placebo frontman in 2022, he recounts a still he saw recently in Wes Anderson’s latest flick, The French Dispatch. “It was of Benicio del Toro in an electric chair and it said, ‘I am literally a tortured artist’,” laughs Molko. “It was quite funny, but I can relate to it! I wake up like that some mornings with this constant sense of insecurity and threat. Some mornings I wake up with my brain on fire!”

Another way that the modern condition has shaped this incarnation of Placebo is via their aesthetic. For a band whom the media and their fans would once put so much onus on their kohl-eyed and sensational image, it may strike as odd for them to appear almost anonymous upon their long-awaited return. The latest pictures of the band – like the one that accompanies this interview – are stark or warped, their music videos have either been ‘visualiser’ lyric clips or stripped-back performances, and interviews have been few and far between.

“To put it really simply, in a world and a culture where there is just a continuous and non-stop overload of imagery, sound, noise and pollution of all kinds, we’ve kind of adopted more of a ‘less is more’ approach,” Molko says. “We’re turning the mystery fader up even further. It’s also for our own comfort and well-being: it’s a way of us dealing with stepping back into the limelight.

“It suits our age. You’ve got to understand that we come from a completely different generation – a different century. In our childhood, we grew up with phones plugged into the wall. We grew up before personal computers. We have a different perspective.”

These days far more family man than 24/7 rockstar, Molko admits that “people would probably call me reclusive” – but that may well seem exaggerated because he refuses to “engage in the social media game”.

“I don’t really know how to do anything else. It’s what I’ve been doing since I was 20” – Brian Molko

“I just can’t imagine the pressure that some bands must feel to post a funny video every day,” he says. “I want to be free of that pressure. I recently read an article [on The Guardian] where Charli XCX and Tegan & Sara were talking about how they feel more like content creators than musicians. The way that the promotional machine is set up means that a lot of bands need to choose between more obscurity or posting a funny video daily on TikTok.”

He continues: “That supported the choices that Stefan and I made at the beginning of the campaign – to only speak when it’s important. It’s working. We don’t say too much, so there isn’t an over-saturation of nonsense. People aren’t distracted by what we had for dinner. When we do speak, people listen closer.”

A master of that mystique was David Bowie. It’s easy to forget that while he may have dominated much of the music media for those final years of his life, he never uttered a single word to the public or media. A champion of Placebo before they’d even released their 1996 self-titled debut, Bowie would later invite the band on tour, record the 1998 collaborative track ‘Without You I’m Nothing’ and tear through a cover of T-Rex’s ‘20th Century Boy’ at the BRIT Awards the following year.

Asked about how his passing in 2016 may have shaped this album, Olsdal notes how he finally took Bowie’s advice to sing much more on the record – but claimed that the impact of his death was far more personal. Looking back on their time together in the ‘90s, he admits: “We were young and probably felt like we deserved to be with him. But for me, his personality outshines the music.”

Molko agrees: “This may sound like a grandiose statement, but it’s true. David taught me how to be a better person, but it took his passing for me to really reflect on it. When it was happening, I was far too arrogant and far too drunk to notice the real impact of what was going on.

“The thing with David was that he treated everyone who he came into contact with with the same dignity, kindness and humanity – it didn’t matter what your status was. You could be the waiter or Johnny Cash. You’d get the same amount of respect. That’s really David’s legacy for me.”

Placebo’s Brian Molko and David Bowie at the 1999 BRIT Awards

Mastering humility and reinvention in the spirit of their late mentor, Placebo are enthused by and fully immersed in their current project. There’s a hunger to get back out there and prove themselves once more. “You kind of have to reapply every time you go out; even if it’s just for yourself,” says Molko, while Olsdal has taken a complete 180 when it comes to touring: “I can honestly say that I haven’t been itching to play live this much since the band started.”

The duo also seem comfortable with rocking into their elderly years. “As long as we don’t become a heritage act, I don’t really know how to do anything else,” says Molko. “It’s what I’ve been doing since I was 20.” Trying to pin them down on the specifics of what tomorrow holds is a little trickier, mind – but then ‘future’ is a big, scary word right now.

“Change is the only constant,” says Olsdal. “I’m not willing to try and predict the future anymore because it starts to influence my behaviour today.”

Molko is, unsurprisingly, a little doomier on the subject of the future and “if there is still a world” to plan for. Asked if he could see us having this interview in another decade, he ends: “That’s difficult to say, because who can say if either of us will be here in 10 years’ time? It’s difficult talking about the future on a day like this, just from a human perspective. I’m a human before I’m a musician or an interviewee or anything.

“I’m afraid – as I’m sure a lot of people are. So let’s just hope that we’re still able to have this conversation in 10 years. That’s good enough for me! That’s all I’ve got today.”

Placebo will release ‘Never Let Me Go’ on March 25 via So Recordings/Elevator Lady/Rise, before their world tour kicks off in June.

Advertisement
Advertisement