Formed in the early ’90s when Britpop was still prevalent, Placebo stood out amongst their music peers with not only their decidedly un-Britpop sound, but also the way they looked. Frontman Brian Molko’s distinguishing voice, laced with melancholic lyrics and up tempo beats, was a formula that brought both angst-driven teens to music appreciators together to enjoy the kind of counterculture music (they’re LGBT-friendly!) that the band has been making throughout these years. Recently, Placebo just released their 7th LP Loud Like Love, an album unlike their previous releases, JUICE managed to catch bassist and guitarist, Stefan Olsdal, in Singapore in the intimate setting of their hotel room, Olsdal spoke freely about the new album, Brian’s dark side, and even his awkward teen years that manifested his talent and art.
Tell me how do you feel about Loud Like Love?
My gut feeling about the album is that it’s the album that I always felt Placebo should make. Throughout our whole career, it finally feels to me that this is the album I always thought and wanted us to do. So I’m very pleased with it. I think it’s the most varied and emotionally the most touching and moving. I think it goes very hard and heavy in places and also very soft and vulnerable in others. It’s a whole range of emotions and I think it still retains that Placebo sound. If you put it up next to the other [Placebo] records, you can hear the similarities in there with Brian’s [Molko] voice and with the guitar-driven side. Basically, it is a Placebo record but with an extra spice.
Placebo has always been a huge part of teens growing up in the ‘90s, especially the more emotionally driven ones because your lyrics spoke to them, whether by intention or coincidence, these were predominantly the group of people that you guys touched the most, who do you think you relate to today with Loud Like Love?
It’s very hard to write music or please someone else or try to emulate their sounds. First and foremost for us, the music that we create must excite us and they’re what we feel is a step forward from our previous records. So in that sense, we create the music to please us. If you look at it from the outside perspective, I don’t think we ever felt we belonged to any particular group or trend. As teenagers we never felt like we were part of any social circles or that we were in the cool gang or the hip group. We spent a lot of time in our bedrooms learning our instruments and our craft that way.
When the band started in the ‘90s, that was when the whole Britpop thing was happening, and we certainly didn’t fit into that. In a way, not having been part of any movement, kind of helped us in a long run because there were certain points in our career we’ve been very unfashionable and certain points we’ve been fashionable. Throughout all that, we just continued without own vision and sound and our own kind of dreams I suppose, which I think, is why partly we are still here.
Would you say, you tend to relate to the outsiders or basically those who just don’t belong to any group or genres?
I suppose. I mean, I can only tell you about the artistes that inspire me like Depeche Mode for example, who is a huge influence, who carved out their own sound and identity. Sonic Youth in a way that they play their guitars and are also very unique, 2 other artistes are Aphex Twin or Queens of the Stone Age… the bands I look up to are the bands that have created their own universe.
How were you like growing up?
I was a very awkward teenager…
And a very tall for one for sure.
Yes, very tall, sexually confused and I just didn’t know who I was. I spent a lot time cooped up miserable and melancholic in my bedroom and didn’t talk to anyone for weeks. I would just get into those moods and I had a very stunted social life because I was very shy and withdrawn. Music really helped me through that because I found a way that I could release a lot of frustration, anger and confusion and also in a way, I found it was something that empowered me. That I had a talent for, in a better word. It was something that I did that other people appreciated and liked and that encouraged me. But certainly, it is only now in my late 30s that I’m starting to feel somewhat more comfortable with myself, of my own skin, in social circles and around other people. It has taken me a very long time to get over the insecurities and low self-esteem issues.
We’ve met a lot of people who have tattooed your lyrics onto their bodies, some of them are people from other bands as well, do you have any ink?
No, but you should talk to our drummer. He has tattoos for all of us.
On the new album, what is that one song that you deeply relate to?
I think, lyrically Brian writes in a way that is very strong, very vulnerable, and quite raw. He allows the listeners to make up their own stories and live themselves in them. This album is no different. I think he’s getting better at sort of writing about bigger themes, more so said simply. It’s brave to tackle ‘Love’ as a topic for this record because love has been written about to death in popular music and it runs the risk of being very cliché, but he’s come at it from all different angles; from the positive aspect of love that carries to the obsessional to how destructive it can be, even how evil it can turn and that it can cause addictions. For me, the song that has a special place in my heart is ‘Bosco’.
I remember the time that we wrote that song and it was in very early stages of the album. I wrote the music and Brian was like, “That is very beautiful. I have to write something that matches that.” So when he came in that day he said “Stef, I’ve written the lyrics and let me know what you think?” And he sang that song and I felt like my heart has been crushed, in a good way. ‘Bosco’ is melancholic and beautiful at the same time. I think it’s that fine line about being in a dark place or sort of tackling that dark side of our emotions but doing it in a poetic way. And it’s about accepting those are the kind of feelings we all experience and rather than trying to shut them out by some form of substance or blocking them out with denial, it just tells you to let yourself to live through the process and the moment. I think lyrics do that for [Brian] as well. It’s a way for him to open up.
Do you write stuff yourself? You seem very expressive with words…
There were a few tracks in Battle for the Sun [that I wrote]. There were more songs in this album that we did than what ended up in the album. And for the first time, we had the title of the record very early on. Usually with Placebo, it’ll be like, “The album is going to be pressed tomorrow! We need a title for the record now!” And then it’s like, “Sh!t, what are we going to do?” And then we panic! (Laughs) But for this album we already had the title quite early on which allowed the theme to evolve and to be looked at in more perspective throughout the recording process and that was different for us. It also helped with the artwork and the whole idea on what this whole album was about.
Interesting for you to say that the naming of the album comes last for Placebo, seeing as how you guys are usually so articulate in expressing yourself with words…
It’s a horrible feeling. It’s like, “sh!t, what do we do?!” The interesting thing about this album as well is the fact that the track listing is very much how we recorded and mixed it. The first half was produced in 2012, and the second half was written, mixed, and recorded this year, and it wasn’t planned like that at all. It just so happened and it shows that journey for us and the way we would listen to the record – which I think also takes the listeners on that same journey.
What sort of story would you create out of this album then?
Well it depends on the song really, like I spoke to you about ‘Bosco’. That would probably be the one that spoke to me most and hit me the hardest. Equally, the title track ‘Loud Like Love’, was written at the same time as ‘Bosco’, and they became sort of the bookends for the album. ‘Loud Like Love’ talks about the origins of love. I think that’s a very interesting concept because it’s an emotion we can’t touch but it’s so real and different for everyone. I relate to certain songs because of my own relationships and problems that I’ve had but I also see certain songs and I go “Jesus! Brian, have you been to that place? That’s a f*cking dark place.” And he’s like, “Yeah haven’t you?”? No, not that dark…
What song gives you the most thrills to play?
Well the album isn’t really out yet. In terms of performing live, we’re only going to be doing 2 tracks. ‘Too Many Friends’ and ‘Loud Like Love’. ‘Loud Like Love’ is going to be a good live track and it’s proven to be that. It’s just a very uplifting and dynamic.
Tell us more about the album cover? It’s very different from the other more sombre covers Placebo has had.
Yes, it’s very psychedelic and colourful and it looks like it’s been put through an old VHS tape player. If you place Battle for the Sun next to it, it looks like the Battle for the Sun cover exploded. Like a Technicolour explosion in a way. And I love that fact. I mean, Battle for the Sun was the start of the new lineup for the band and it was like the sun sneaking out from behind the lunar eclipse and now it has come out in full force.
Was that intentional or did you just make this all up here?
Well, no, you see Brian is always thinking out of the box and he had this vision inside his head. We worked in conjunction with Intro – a design company in London, and they took the idea and ran with it. When we saw the stuff that they’ve done, that image just did it for us.
Placebo’s style has always been deemed androgynous in terms of fashion. What do you feel about that?
Yeah it’s funny, the first time we’ve come to Singapore, they told us we should dress appropriately – although it wasn’t so strict. The funny thing is, everyone expected Brian to wear the dress and I came in this androgynous priest outfit by Alexander McQueen.
We are in a line of work where we can wear whatever we want and there’s a clothing freedom. In the beginning, we were very excited about the fact that the women’s section in the clothes store just had so much more than the men’s but for me personally, it’s about comfort and each outfit has to be functional. It’s mostly high street stuff really, some designer jackets perhaps and the odd shirts and scarves or something. It’s about mixing and matching. It’s also about finding your own style and with me it tends to be more high street than high fashion.
Placebo played live in Singpore on 26 August ’13 at the Coliseum, Hard Rock Cafe. More about the band at www.placeboworld.co.uk.