Placebo – Flying too close to the sun

July 2, 2009 § Leave a comment

Published: Music Australia Guide #66, June 2009.

After a storm of personal and creative turmoil, Placebo return with their most ambitious record yet. Frontman Brian Molko tells MAG’s Dan Rule that making Battle for the Sun has given them a new lease on life.

For all intents and purposes, Meds should have been Placebo’s masterwork, their signpost. Their bare-boned fifth album, released in 2006, had all the markings of a classic. It had the condensed sound, the sales, the mammoth touring schedule; it was the hinge to a new door.

But behind closed doors, explains the ever-articulate Brian Molko, the trio – then Molko, bassist and song-writing partner Stefan Olsdal and drummer Steve Hewitt – were close to melting point.

“We were existing in quite a difficult place for while there,” he says. “A place that had ceased to even resemble being fun.”

“I feel like Meds was an excellently executed record,” he continues. “It was a really strong album and told a very powerful story. However, there were moments on that record that were perhaps the darkest moments in our career and it felt quite claustrophobic and had a suffocating atmosphere.”

When it comes to the fate of his band of the last 15 years, which releases epic sixth studio album Battle for the Sun this month, Molko doesn’t mince his words. He and Olsdal’s relationship with Hewitt was at its end. “It kind of gets to this point where you look at the person you’ve been in a band with all these years and you go, ‘Who the fuck is this stranger?’” he says.

“When Steve joined the band, we were very much united through substance abuse. But when myself and Stefan began to calm down it became apparent that we no longer had a great deal in common and that our priorities in terms of what we wanted from the band were really different.”

It’s difficult to believe, especially considering the trio’s string of accomplished, highly focused recordings and sustained success. Since first coming together in London during 1994, the trans-national ensemble (Molko is of Scottish and American heritage, while Olsdal originally hails from Sweden) have made a name for their singular take on glam-tinged, gender-twisting, hard-edged rock. Crafting a sound from a palette of classic no-wave, grunge and alt-rock reference points – think The Pixies, Nirvana and Sonic Youth – but with their own angular, sexualised inclination, from the very start the band garnered fans in the most lavish of circles.

Only a year after releasing their self-titled 1996 debut hit the charts, the trio accepted a personal invite from admirer David Bowie to perform at his 50th birthday party at Madison Square Garden. Salacious 1998 follow-up Without You I’m Nothing and third record Black Market Music (2000) only solidified their distinctive sound, while 2003’s Sleeping With Ghosts unleashed the group on a whole new demographic, going Top 10 in the UK and shifting over 1.4 million units internationally.

“I feel like we’ve always been completely unconcerned with what’s trendy, fashionable or hip in music,” reflects Molko. “It’s been about following our own singular vision and having the courage to do that – follow your own path and your own rules and be prepared to in and out of fashion all the time.”

It was only in the wake of releasing Meds – their most commercially successful record of the lot – that Molko began to realise the sheer scale of the band’s issues. “Being in a band is quite dangerous sometimes,” he reflects. “It’s very easy to fall into traps and that amplifies a great deal of issues that might already exist.”

Featuring 22-year-old Californian drummer Steve Forrest, new album Battle for the Sun represents the band’s reinvention. Recorded with Canadian producer Dave Bottrill (known for his work with Tool) and released through their own label, the record tilts and buckles amid a multiplicity of divergent styles.

The layered riffs of cuts like Kitty Litter and the title-track book-end hte minor key pop-punk of Ashtray Heart, while the anthemic chorus horn section of For What it’s Worth and minimalist electronics of Julien are a revelation. As Molko is happy to concur, it’s a world away from the untreated rock of Meds.

“If you imagine Meds as a kind of grainy, black and white film, we wanted to do something in 70mm glorious hypercolour this time around,” he laughs.

“Whenever we make a new record we always react quite vociferously to the previous one and the characteristics of the previous album have a big influence on the sound of the next one,” he continues.

Having the “fresh blood” of young Forrest on board only exaggerated the change. “I kind of feel like there was this incredible sense of enthusiasm and optimism that had been lacking, I guess for years. The potential for jadedness still exists at every turn, so we wanted that sort of childlike wonder and that youthful exuberance to sort of rub off on us.”

Indeed, if there’s one thing that Placebo are determined to avoid, it’s stagnation. “It’s all about us continually trying to evolve,” poses Molko. “And if we can shock a few vampires along the way, that’s not a bad thing.”

Battle for the Sun is released June 5 via Shock



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