Placebo's Brian Molko on why the nine to five life was not for him
Brian Molko's father wanted him to follow in his footsteps and become a banker, but the Placebo frontman was determined to carve out a career in music instead. Ahead of the band's gig next week, he tells Simon Fallaha why a desk job wasn't for him.
Placebo translates from Latin as "I Will Please". But the distinctly passionate drive and soul of lead singer Brian Molko's high-pitched vocals, regularly accompanied by memorable opening guitar riffs, painfully prominent drum beats and bitterly provocative lyrics, transcends the mere idea of "pleasing everyone". It is a musical style that has survived and even thrived through the passage of time, resulting in seven top 20 albums, millions of worldwide record sales and a strong fan base throughout more than two decades on the road and in the studio.
"It's ironic how we came up with the name Placebo," says Brian of the band once known as Ashtray Heart. "When we formed in the mid-1990s, there were so many bands calling themselves after drugs, like Codeine. And Placebo sounded good. Then we saw about 40,000 people screaming our name out loud, and I actually thought it was kind of funny, because we'd sort of gone against the grain by naming the band after a drug that doesn't work!
"What was really important to us, though, was that Placebo was a band name people could shout in unison. It was satirical, and it would stick. Contrast our name with The Butthole Surfers, one of my favourite bands - that one's not so easy to chant."
Easy is not necessarily a word one would apply to Brian's upbringing. Born in Brussels in 1972 to an American father and a Scottish mother, his father's career saw Brian frequently move around through his childhood, from Dundee to Liberia to Lebanon to Belgium. And artistic expression was not encouraged in the Molko household, as Brian's father was hopeful that his son would follow in his footsteps and become a banker.
"I'm the black sheep of the family," Brian admits. "I come from a long line of bankers, yet when I was 11, I really got into acting and drama. The very idea of working in an office seemed so horrifically depressing that I decided I would do everything in my power not to make that happen.
"It gave me a rebellious streak, which continued right through to the formation of Placebo."
Brian was accepted into university at 17, the first in his family to do so. Having previously studied at the European School of Luxembourg, and later the American International School of Luxembourg (AISL), he went off to pursue his dramatic dream at Goldsmiths College in London. And with London calling, so, too, came a new direction in life.
"By the time I left university, my passion had turned again," Brian says. "I decided that I wanted to form a band. So I spent two and a half years on the dole after I finished studying - which I call my artistic grant, and I've paid that back in taxes! - meeting Stefan Olsdal at South Kensington tube station along the way. It all happened from there."
Along with Brian, Stefan became the heart, front and centre of the band later to be known as Placebo. Stefan and Brian were both AISL alumni, though they had never actually crossed paths in their school days, with one into music and the other drama. Yet it's not stretching things to say that their tastes and ideals were very much in line with one another right from the start.
"We were cross-dressers at the beginning of our careers," Brian says. "It wasn't a fancy either; we saw it as a political statement. I actually wanted the homophobic to look at me and ask questions about their sexuality, because I believe sexuality is fluid. For me, it's not about gender - it's about people."
People are very much at the forefront of Placebo's message and music, no matter where they tour in the world. Recently, the band journeyed to Russia, where there were restrictive laws in place. Yet this didn't prevent them from putting on a show in their own inimitable style.
"I don't believe that one should boycott countries because of rules and regulations," Brian says. "What I do believe in is spreading a message of tolerance, togetherness and unity everywhere we go, including Russia, Israel and Lebanon. If you boycott, the government wins, so it's great to go to political hotbeds and deliver positivity. And with experience, we have seen the potential and desire for what Placebo is all about in people - a truly positive message."
The rather androgynous nature and admirable messages of Brian and his alternative punk rockers befits the unique vibe that emits on stage and from speakers during their performances. It's something the band have striven to maintain since their formation and 1990s heyday, when Nancy Boy topped the charts at the peak of the Britpop era, and the likes of Every You Every Me and Pure Morning featured in films and television commercials.
Their seventh and most recent album, Loud Like Love, doesn't break with tradition. The theme of love is given a mildly lower tempo but no less passionate Placebic treatment, with enough thoughtful lyrics and chantable refrains to keep fans happy. Brian cites artists like The Cure, REM, his friend David Bowie, The Pixies and Echo & The Bunnymen as major influences, but not the most major one: that honour would go to New York lo-fi legends Sonic Youth.
"Without Sonic Youth, there would be no Placebo," says Brian. "I also think that we're very fortunate and privileged. Apart from Radiohead, there's not many bands from our time that are just as active today. We've been lucky enough to glean a little from the distinct performance style of each and every one of our inspirations."
Among them is a certain Michael Stipe, the REM frontman, who co-produced Brian's one acting appearance on film in Todd Haynes' cult classic Velvet Goldmine. Stipe also collaborated with the band on their 2006 album Meds, contributing vocals to the track Broken Promise. To Brian, it was a "dream come true" to work with a man he considers to be one of his largest vocal influences of all. "One of the great perks of being a rock star is being able to sing and talk with those you once idolised."
Brian has been open in the past about his use of recreational drugs - indeed references to illicit substances are common in Placebo's lyrics. But having come through the "drug phase", Brian has learnt to not regret times gone by. Rather, he sees them as a crucial part of who he is today.
"In hindsight, I think it's necessary that most bands come through difficult phases like that," he says.
"If any band survives its tough or troubled times, they will become stronger and wiser from them. Everyone's relationship with drugs is unique, and I definitely don't take them any more, probably because I've grown up - to a point! I'm what you'd call a 42-year-old man with a 25-year-old's brain." Brian's new found wisdom also extends to being a parent.
In 2005, his then partner, Helena Berg, gave birth to a boy named Cody, opening a brand new door in the life of Brian. With fatherhood usually comes mellowing, a protective slant to one's personality that may induce degrees of restraint in many an artist's compositions, but Brian maintains that his musical ideals have not been tampered with.
"Being a dad has changed my personal life completely, no question," he says. "But it's had no effect whatsoever on my art." So as Brian, Stefan, and newly-recruited drummer Matt Lunn (who follows in the footsteps of Robert Schultzberg, Steve Hewitt and Steve Forrest) prepare to touch down here, what can the fans and punters expect? The answer is: something more in touch with the band's roots. "We're playing in smaller venues than those we normally play in," says Brian, "to create a kind of intimate ambience. We recently played in small clubs around the United States, and while the tour wasn't financially successful, it boosted our confidence. It showed we could still pull off gigs like that!"
- Placebo play the Waterfront Hall in Belfast on February 26. See www,waterfront.co.uk for details
Sometimes the drugs do work...
Other bands who've taken drug-inspired names include ...
- Dexy's Midnight Runners - the Birmingham-based Come On Eileen rockers led by Kevin Rowland derived their name from dexedrine, a popular recreational drug among Northern Soul fans
- Green Day - Billie Joe Armstrong penned a song called Green Day about his first experience with marijuana. It soon replaced Sweet Children as the Californian band's name
- The Magic Mushrooms - poet Allen Ginsberg gave this name to five students at the University of Pennsylvania in the 1960s. A&M Records pulled their single It's A-Happening from shelves, however, when the name's real meaning became clear
- Motorhead - the legendary Lemmy-led rock band's name is a slang term for "speed freak", a person addicted to amphetamines