Placebo talk 20 years of ‘Without You I’m Nothing’, Bowie and their ‘experimental’ new album

Bassist Stefan Olsdal talks to NME about the album's endurance and the dialogue around addiction, depression and gender fluidity

Placebo are in the midst of celebrating the 20th anniversary of their seminal second album ‘Without You I’m Nothing’ – while also working their upcoming ‘experimental’ new record.

This month marks 20 years since the band released the album, which featured the singles ‘Pure Morning’, ‘You Don’t Care About Us’, ‘Every You Every Me’ and ‘Without You I’m Nothing’. The latter was a duet with David Bowie.

“David actually came to us before the first album came out,” bassist Stefan Olsdal told NME. “When it came to ‘Without You I’m Nothing’, he called and said he wanted to collaborate after we’d recorded and released it. I don’t know what he saw in us; maybe something of himself as a younger Bowie. Maybe there was an outsider element to a lot of what we were doing. Maybe it was the romanticism. Maybe it was the stubbornness of not wanting to fit in.”

Olsdal continued: “He gave us some great advice. We were very young when we met him. Tony Visconti was telling us to read more books on the tour bus, and Bowie told us to never rest on our laurels in your creative space.”

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

To mark the anniversary of the album, the band have urged fans to “Keep an eye out for #WYIN20” and to check out a special page on the band’s website for ‘surprises’. To launch the project, Olsdal also shared a new photo of himself with Sarah and Sally Edwards from the album’s cover art, 20 years later. However, he added that it would be unlikely that any further shows would take place to play the album in full, but he’d ‘never say never’.

“I got a chance to hook up with Sarah and Sally; they’re the twins from the cover,” he told NME. “For me that was a little personal celebration. I hadn’t seen them since we worked together 20 years ago. We used that to launch this platform for fans to share their thoughts and memories together. On the last tour we brought out a few tracks from the album that we hadn’t played in donkeys years, so we celebrated it then.

“We did three years touring the 20th anniversary and we weren’t gonna do any more, but Robert Smith’s Meltdown came up. We’re just taking a breather for now. Sometimes something comes up and you just can’t say no. I don’t believe in closing doors.”

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I had the pleasure of sitting down and chatting with these two lovely people – Sarah and Sally Edwards – about “Without You I’m Nothing”, Placebo’s second album that was released today 20 years ago. They both graced the album cover, a photograph by #corrineday, that has a special place in our hearts. Much has happened since, Sarah and Sally continuing with their excellent #blagmagazine and Placebo with their subsequent albums and tours. Keep an eye out for #WYIN20, and wyin.placeboworld.co.uk for surprises! Thanks to ALL who made this album such an important one for us and let us celebrate it together!!! 😘😘 @placeboworld @sarah_j__edwards @sallyaedwards #placebofans @rivermanbangkok @mrablue #rivermanlondon

A post shared by Stefan Olsdal (@stefanolsdal) on

Asked about the lasting endurance of the album, Olsdal replied: “The band had a chance to really delve into its identity and get focussed on the music, the songwriting and what we wanted to convey to the world. We’d done one album so we knew how to work the studio. The coming together of all of these aspects made it more quintessentially ‘Placebo’ than the first one.

“We pushed the boat out a little in the way that we chose to talk about our experiences and who we were as people. There was a lot of brutal honesty in what we chose to talk about in songs and in the press. There was gender fluidity, a pansexual thing going on and a cross-dressing thing that we were pushing.”

He added: “It was a comedown to the first album. That was the party record. You know: young band gets a record deal, gets some cash and gets to go out and live the life. With the second album, some of the chemicals had worn off and we were faced with ourselves. All in all it shows more of the whole spectrum of Placebo.”

Olsdal added that many of the album’s themes of depression and gender fluidity have given it a newfound relevance in 2018.

“Lyrically, it was dealing with some of the darker sides of human emotions: loneliness, despair, frustration, questioning everything,” he went on. “It was holding on to this romantic idea of how someone can complete you, but without them you are nothing. It was the proper romantic ideal of seeing life.

“The ideals of gender fluidity weren’t really happening back then. It’s much more at the forefront now, along with pansexuality and this non-binary scenario. Placebo were always championing these issues.”

Speaking of the the current dialogue around non-binary gender norms, Olsdal said: “It has blown up. No one wants to be labelled, everyone wants to be countered for and everyone’s voice has to be heard. That’s brilliant.

‘Without You I’m Nothing’ saw the road split, and we headed down a path that led to some mental health issues and questionable life choices – which to this day I’m still reeling from. We’ve also spent so much time working to lift the stigma around discussing mental health. It’s a big part of our identity. We’ve battled many demons, and publicly so. We’re all staring down the barrel of that now.”

Placebo, live, by Jenn Five/NME

Asked about progress on the band’s eighth studio album and the long-awaited follow-up to 2013’s ‘Loud Like Love’, Olsdal repeated Brian Molko’s recent sentiments to NME that the record would take a more ‘experimental turn’  – after the frontman it to ‘career suicide‘ after their recent more pop-leaning output.

“We’ve wanted to do that for a long time,” Olsdal told NME. “Now that Sonic Youth are no longer a band, there might just be an opening slot. There’s always something bubbling. It was getting a bit saccharine towards the end of the 20 year celebration. We’ve always been experimentalists at heart.

“I was talking to our support band Husky Loops about B-side sessions. They were like ‘What are they?’ I said ‘It was a thing you had to do in the ‘90s! If you wanted to get in the charts, then you could release a song on multiple formats and it would count as one song, but to get people to buy it you’d need B-sides’.”

He continued: “We’d go into the studio after the album to record them, and that’s where we’d have the most fun. The pressure was off. We’d get out all matter of broken toy instruments, saxophones and two-string guitars to let it all flow. That’s where Brian and I want to take it from here.”

So could we see the record next year?

“I don’t know,” Olsdal replied. “The way we consume music these days is different. The time between writing, recording and releasing a song can be a matter of weeks. We’re just going to leave the front door open at the moment to let some fresh air in.”