By Laura Ferreiro
For nearly two decades, Placebo have been pushing boundaries with their gender-bending personas and dark, satirical poetry. The polarizing British rockers have alienated many while captivating countless others (including famous fan David Bowie), and have amassed a passionate and loyal fanbase that has stuck by them as the band weathered many personal and professional challenges.
Now Placebo – frontman Brian Molko, bassist/guitarist Stefan Olsdal, and drummer Steven Forrest – are about to release their latest album, Loud Like Love, on September 17, and embark on their first U.S. tour in six years. Molko says they're eager to return to the States and are ready for a fresh start across the pond. "We were hoping to start again and start a new story in the U.S.," says the enigmatic singer.
Why did they stay away so long? "It was very difficult for many years to get the support of our previous major label [Virgin/EMI] in terms of promotion and commitment from them," Molko explains. "For a long time they didn't really know what to do with us. So we had to fund the tours ourselves and we lost hundreds of thousands of dollars because we weren't getting a lot of support. Often the gigs weren't very well-publicized. We tried really hard and put a lot of money into touring the United States, but it's hard to do without the support of a label."
Now that the band is on the Universal Music Enterprises label, things have changed for the better. "It's good to be back and have the support of our label helping us out to come out there and believe in us," he said. "We know that our fans haven't gone away. We're quite eager. We'd like to make up for a bit of lost time."
The new album offers the perfect jumping-off point for Placebo's Stateside return. "We think we've made our most honest, direct, and vulnerable album to date," Molko says. "It's a byproduct of becoming very comfortable with who we are. I think we spent a lot of the past 20 years experimenting and trying to stretch our sound in lots of different directions. Each album has a different tone to it. This album brings all of that together. It showcases what we do best, which is emotional music that's very human and fragile. It's not necessarily about bombast, although there are powerful moments. But it's very much about tenderness."
Loud Like Love tackles several ambitious themes, not the least of which is the conundrum technology presents, and whether virtual social networks bring people closer together or cause alienation and push us further apart. On the song, "Too Many Friends," Molko sings: "I’ve got too many friends, too many people/That I'll never meet/And I'll never be there for."
In the song, Molko explores his mixed feelings around technology and social media, and why he's wary of the addictive nature of social networking. "I'm quite fascinated with technology," he confesses. "I don't social network – I have a hard enough time keeping up with friends in the physical world. I'm also very aware of the addictive nature of the relationship and the infinite possibilities that present themselves. I'm asking [in the song], is that real or is that an illusion? As someone who's had addictions in the past, it may not be the healthiest thing for me to do. I see all the possibilities."
Despite Molko's mixed feelings about technology, Placebo are gearing up for a very high-tech livestream of an hour-and-a-half program that the band put together in collaboration with YouTube and Google, featuring interviews with the band members and their collaborators, behind-the-scenes recording footage. and some special guests. It airs Monday, September 16 at 12pm PST via the band's YouTube Channel. It also gives fans the chance to participate in Google hangouts and enter into prize competitions.
"We're making Internet history— we'll be the first band to stream live their very own TV show where we'll be performing songs from the new album," Molko says. "We'll do a live linkup to L.A. and talking to a few really cool people."
While some musicians avoid discussing their vices and addictions at all costs, Molko is very candid about them. Although he was known to use drugs and alcohol to excess in the past, he's given most of that up in order to make life more "manageable" and be there for his 8-year-old son.
"I still have a couple of vices — namely caffeine and tobacco, which don't make my life unmanageable," he says. "We operate a dry tour, and after the show we have a little chamomile tea party to relax."
While this may sound quite tame, the singer says he's certainly no stranger to the excesses of rock 'n' roll. "I could probably write a thesis on debauchery as well," he admits with a laugh. "I've explored it in my life. If you have an addictive nature as I do, things spiral out of control. There's no magic pill, there's no cure. It's something you have to work on on a daily basis. I'm not anti-drugs, it worked for me for a long time. But it can rob you of your creativity, too. There's a honeymoon period, and mine lasted a long time — 10 years. I don't remember a lot of the '90s. But I'm a parent now, so my priority has changed a great deal over the past few years. I feel very focused, and my life is less chaotic than it used to be."
More than anything, Placebo continue to provide a haven for those who might not fit into the mainstream. "We became a band for the square peg in the round holes, to make people feel less alone," he says. "The surface of what we challenged has somewhat been appropriated by the mainstream who see it useful for marketing. But what we were doing at the early stages — we wanted to challenge gender stereotypes and homophobia. I tried to make every homophobic man in the audience want to f--- me because they thought I was a girl. Then they had to question that when they found out my name was Brian. That was a very big part of our identity. If we've contributed to the forces of tolerance or made people think they're less alone, then that's something to be proud of."