Placebo on Religion, China and Oasis

The 90s were simple times. The criterion for rock bands was to be angry and stay that way until you either burnt out or self-imploded. And while many have been lost along the way, Placebo have not only survived rock ‘n’ roll decadence but have also turned their angst into a form of energy for positive change. Due to rock our shores this month, JUICE speaks to outspoken frontman Brian Molko about freedom, religion, sexuality and fighting the good fight. Hey, not all rockstars are shallow, you know.

Cover Image Gilbert Blecken

So you’re in Bangkok now. Had anything interesting for lunch?

How’s the tour going so far?
Come on, man, you know you can do better than that!

Sorry, must be the meds. South East Asia is kind of like the final frontier for Western rock and indie bands. Do you feel that way about Malaysia?
Is it? Well, I don’t know. I guess because there is so much political bullshit. I think people really want music here in South East Asia. And I think that a lot of bands don’t want to invest in South East Asia, or Asia in general. When I say invest, I mean touching people’s hearts and not worrying about the money you’re going to make. It’s about worrying about the future that you have with these people and building a relationship. We played in Cambodia, Thailand, Japan and Singapore and it’s very much about communicating freedom with these people. When we played in China, we started a riot and it was very, very strange. The security was the army and the people in the audience were fighting with the army. They were trying to get over the barrier to get onstage with us and we were like, “Oh my god.” You know, we’re a bunch of faggots and we’re wearing make up in China and these people really connect with what we we’re doing. But for us it was very powerful, and it’s very difficult in today’s world where you have people like Simon Cowell who have manufactured pop music. Pop music for me in the old days use to be a cool thing, but now pop music is a really bad thing. People are disrespecting pop music because they make an industry out of it. It’s amazing that you can go to somewhere like China and actually feel part of some anti-authoritarian vibe and that was very much what pushed Placebo forward in the early days. Placebo, of course, is different now. I’m 37 but when I was 23 I was pissed off at the world and I wanted to fuck society, and it was very important for us to be rebellious. Now we’ve spent 15 years in the music business and it’s a different thing. We understand society and how we can use society for a better future, and this is very much what we’re about. It’s not about rebellion anymore; it’s about working with people who have the power.

Wow, you guys caused a riot in the People’s Republic! How do you feel about Malaysia being a morally uptight country where performers are subjected to strict rules?
Right now, I’m in Bangkok. But for the past 3 weeks I’ve been at Koh Lanto, which is a Muslim island. I spent a long time every day communicating, being with Muslim people, and I don’t see a major problem between us. We all can get along. We really can as long as America is taken out of the situation. The focus behind America is about what we don’t understand, and basically fear and politics is based on what we don’t understand. I would like to encourage people to try and study other cultures because it’s very important. It’s amazing what you can learn from other cultures. I’ve spent the past 20 years travelling the world and I feel so blessed.

We hear you. Travelling expands the mind in many ways.
Absolutely! People who work in the bank or for the government can’t travel like I have. I’m so grateful for that. I’m also grateful for meeting people who tell me what they believe. I can learn something from that. We’re all propelled from the same idea, which is happiness and understanding. It’s when institutions get involved, like the Catholic Church or the Vatican, for example. They make rules about what we’re supposed to believe. Well, let’s let all of that go and just communicate as people.

Would you say that it would’ve been harder for Placebo to play here in KL in the past?
I’ve heard this, but I don’t know. I think that in Malaysia there are people who want to hear our music, people who identify with us and what we are. If there is any message that we want to communicate to people, it’s freedom-freedom of choice, religion and sexuality. It’s very important for us, and so if these people want to get on the Placebo bus then they can. If there’s anything that we can do to contribute to the politics, then hopefully we are an important band. So many bands like Oasis don’t care about politics. But for me, being in a band is a political statement. And I’m obsessed with 60s music-The Grateful Dead, Janice Joplin and The Doors. All these bands, when I was a kid, were really important to me. They were all fighting against the establishment, and I think that music should continuously fight against the establishment. Of course Placebo has achieved so much and, to a certain degree, we have become the establishment. However, we can still fight against it and the restrictive ideas. What we believe in is absolute, complete freedom.

Were there any reasons for not coming to Malaysia in the past and why did it take you so long?
Absolutely not. We are a band but we’re the type of band that, during the problems in Eastern Europe, went to Croatia [and] Kosovo. We played gigs and the people who showed up were nuns. It was really weird, but there were about 500 to 1000 people and there were about 100 nuns. And we lost a lot of money. This is really important: those people went through a revolution and no other band is prepared to come because no other band is prepared to lose money. And we went, “Yeah, well fuck it! Let’s lose money and go there and play for the people.” It was amazing and when that happens, it’s really incredible because you will not believe the kind of people that show up. Nuns were rocking out! You know you’re in Eastern Europe when nuns are rocking out. And then you look at them and they go, “You know what? I really want to communicate with you.” And it’s a beautiful thing because these women are married to Jesus so… I don’t know. It’s something they understood; they understood what we were doing. And it all taps into this whole idea of freedom. If nuns in Croatia can come and see us play, and they can get excited, then hopefully religious talks are possible between all of us. Just because we believe in something doesn’t mean we have to kill each other. I really believe that. I come from a really religious background and I grew up from that. I have so much respect for any religion that isn’t my own. I think that we are all very similar and so much sh!t can be resolved just by talking to each other. What do you think?

We’re open people. At one point we used to worship Samuel L Jackson. But we got kind of jaded after Snakes On A Plane...
I don’t like Western religion. I like Eastern religion very much.

Interesting. Are there any reasons for that?
I’m very attracted to Buddhism because it’s not about some bearded guy in the sky telling you what to do; it’s about you. And I think if we stopped to actually understand the effects that we have on the world, then we would make the world a better place. Unfortunately, as people we’re all very emotional and our culture is very important in terms of what we choose to believe. I think so many people have ghetto-ised religion and made it into something that is bad, but in fact it’s something that helps us all be better people and that’s what we want.

So what will cause the downfall of humanity?
Oh, that’s very easy: the environment. Have you ever been to the Maldives?

No, we haven’t.
Well, I have and I’m very aware that in 50 years the island [where] I caressed little baby sharks will not be there anymore-because of rising sea levels. We as a species have completely used this planet as a garbage zone. People are so into the latest app that they can get on their tablet that they don’t give a sh!t about the world they live in.

We know; it’s sad. Going back to your influences, do you also consider David Bowie as an important figure to Placebo?
Oh yes, very much. David Bowie was a very important person for us because before we had a record deal, Bowie heard our demos and decided that we were going to tour with him. At that point I was living in a house that was paid for by the government with a couple of other guys. And we were really poor, so poor that we had to scrape our money together and decide on what we were going to eat every day. And then one day the phone rang and it was like, “Hello, would you like to go on tour with David Bowie?” Before David Bowie we were playing to 300 people at small clubs in Camden, London. And all of a sudden it was like, would you like to play in front of 8000 people? He is somebody I have so much respect for.

What do you think of indie bands today, especially British indie bands? Are they a dime a dozen?
You know what? I’ve been asked this for like 10 years, and this is what I’ve always said. There is good music and there is shit music. In the 60s, there was good music and there was shit music. The only difference is that we only remember the good music. So there is the same amount of bands today who are shit and the same amount of bands who are really good. And that’s it. How old are you?

Old enough to vote…
I’m 37. I’m very old, but I look very young. Have you heard Grinderman?

Yeah, Nick Cave is awesome!
For me the guy is like 50 and he’s more rock ‘n’ roll than any fucking 20 year old I know. “Honey bee, honey bee suck my dick, honey bee, honey bee suck my dick.” This is what we’re on about. We’re on about the primal stuff. This is why you’re interested in music. The primal stuff really agrees with you. Check this out…(*slapping sound) That’s just me slapping my stomach.

That sounds very primal. Can we ask you something about drugs? As a band that has gone through that whole rock ‘n’ roll lifestyle in the past and survived, what have you learnt from it?
Let me make this very clear. We don’t do drugs anymore. It’s very important for us as a band to be drug-free and we believe that we can be better musicians, better personalities, better people if we’re drug-free. I’ve been to rehab twice. It was very difficult for me and I’ve learnt how to deal with life without drugs. When we made Battle For The Sun, we decided that we would make a record that was hopeful and we wanted to inspire people because we felt finally free from the addiction.

Was it a long period of time?
About 10 years. When me and Stefan made this new record, we gave up everything-alcohol as well. We decided we were going to make a record that was inspiring for people. All we wanted to do was something that made people feel less alone. And that is really important because when I was a kid, I listened to music and felt less alone. I think the only thing that’s important to us as people is to make people like us as well. We want people in Malaysia to know they have a friend, that we can be a friend for them, that we understand what they are feeling. Do the people in Malaysia relate to the people who are in charge?

We can’t generalise, but there are many factions here.
There you go. I want to tell you something very important. My purpose is absolutely not to relate to these people. Because culturally, I have so much of a different thing with England and Ireland. However, if I can make an idea of freedom within these people, then I think it’s really good.

Well, we could use a revolution. Thanks for your time. It’s been an enlightening conversation.
Likewise. See you soon.

Placebo rocked KL Live on 16 March 2010. For more on the band, check out More interviews here.