Direct and heavy, Placebo have always stood aside from their Britpop and indie counterparts. Twisted in vulnerability and self-deprecation, they refined a glam-rock inspired sound laden with guitar-heavy melodrama. The group have never towed the line, and more than 20 years since their self-titled debut album, it’s still difficult to resist the anthemic alienation of ‘Nancy Boy’.
Placebo’s adventurous follow-ups saw them take on the world, and win with considerable success. Throughout the intervening years with feuds and personnel changes, co-founders Brian Molko and Stefan Olsdal have remained the group’s constant forces. Both have also made an impact as openly queer musicians and outspoken advocates of LGBTIQ rights.
Music Feeds caught up with Olsdal ahead of Placebo’s highly anticipated return to Australia. Surprisingly clued-in to the nation’s current push for marriage equality, he’s also all too aware that the group’s upcoming tour will be passing through Melbourne’s Margaret Court Arena.
When it comes to Placebo’s upcoming Aussie tour — a celebration of all things Placebo, 20 years in the making — Olsdal can do little to contain his excitement. While this one is very much for the fans, looking further into the group’s future he feels a sense of freedom. What comes next will most likely, in his own words, be “throwing the rulebook out the window”.
Read our full chat, below.
Music Feeds: Brad Wood, Dave Bottrill, Adam Noble, Steve Osbourne and Tony Visconti. You’ve recorded with some incredible producers, not always without an element of conflict. Do you have a favourite?
Stefan Olsdal: A personal favourite? It’s the first time an interview has started off with a question about producers and thanks for that! (Laughs) It’s a nice change. I haven’t thought about all of them in a while and they all bring back good memories. If I’m going to go back and nit-pick on albums, of course, I’m going to pick out faults in them, that’s just the way that it is you know?
It’s very hard to capture a song perfectly; some of the songs that we recorded way back in the ’90s and the way we play them now are completely different. We’ve decided to play songs in a completely different arrangement or with different instrumentation. The whole thing is like one long process, and all these producers helped us along the way, from Brad Wood wetting our appetite for some pretty cool electronica out there. He had a ‘Putney’, which is like an only modular synth, which kind of started us off on our relationship with electronica.
But if I had to answer the question about which one is my favourite? That’s very hard. I guess the producer we worked with more than once is Adam Noble. He did the B3 EP, which came out prior to [2013’s] Loud Like Love, and we also did ‘Life’s What You Make It’. He’s interesting because he’s part of a new generation of producers, a one man tour de force — I mean he does everything! He engineers, he produces, he runs all the Pro Tools and the whole recording side of it. With him, we struck it off in a way where we found someone who was very quick at getting the sounds that were in our heads down on tape.
MF: Tying into that a little, it’s been just a little over 20 years since Placebo formed and your first self-titled album. How do you look back on this whole period now that so much time has passed?
SO: Recording the first album it was a very young band, very young and naive. But at the same time, we were incredibly excited and just so grateful to be in the studio. We just couldn’t believe it that every day we could actually go to the studio and record our own music and that was actually what we did for a living. It was mind blowing! We were very inexperienced, so it was a steep learning curve. If we could do it again, you know, we would probably do it a little bit differently. But for what it was, a band who had just scraped their twenties…
MF: You don’t really know anything when you’re 20!
SO: Well there’s this whole theory that because you have a long time to make your first album — me and Brian had basically spent two years in his council flat getting all those tracks together. There’s still songs on there that we perform live. So, it kind of did portray certain fundamental characteristics of the band to the public.
Songs like ‘Teenage Angst’ and for this tour, slightly against our will, we’re performing ‘Nancy Boy’. There’s no denying the fact that the album very much possesses the band to the world. It was a big part of bringing the band to where it is today. It’s a very important album for us.
MF: Also going back to this period you had David Bowie who was very supportive of the band early on. Even speaking as someone who didn’t know him personally, his passing still feels like such an incredible loss. How has it affected you? How are you feeling right now?
SO: Well I guess the pain goes with time. It’s over a-year-and-a-half now since he passed and it was very, very raw and emotional when he did pass because he was very close to us. For me personally, it almost felt like me losing a family member.
We’ve been doing the track that we did together [‘Without You I’m Nothing’] on this tour and presenting visuals of our time together on stage. So every night we’re kind of reminded of our time together and also his passing. For a few nights it was tearful, but as with all these things you have got to work through them and at the end of the day, it was a beautiful time.
It was an amazing experience and he bought something to that song which we never imagined! So it’s just celebrating it, celebrating our time together, in a way celebrating his life and bringing attention to this incredible artist who maybe some people in the audience don’t know about.
MF: But like you’ve said one of the great things is that his music is still with us. Is there a Bowie song or album that you feel a particularly strong emotional connection to at the moment?
SO: I really liked some of the last stuff that he did. When you didn’t think Bowie could be any more innovative he pushed the boundaries. He came out with the free jazz! That for me was just… anyone who doubted the talent or vision of this man, that just shut them up. From practically inventing glam-rock to singing songs on top of free jazz. It was just formidable.
MF: I’m not sure if you’re up to speed with Australian politics, but this big push for marriage equality is a huge thing that’s happening here right now. Everyone is talking about it.
SO: I’m very aware of it actually.
MF: I know Placebo are playing at the Margaret Court Arena in Melbourne. Something you may or may not know is that Margaret Court, a legendary tennis player, but unfortunately, she’s against…
SO: Yeah, I know all about it.
MF: Well how do you feel about that? A lot of people are saying ‘change the [arena] name’. How do you feel going into that? It seems like a very tense environment.
SO: (sighs) I like to say that everyone is entitled to their own opinion and to ‘live and let live’, but when it becomes — basically it’s offensive and almost aggressive what has been said about alternative, not even alternative, sexuality you know? It’s just about basic human rights and freedom to be who you are and the freedom of love!
They’ve basically been attacked and also something I believe that you’re born with! That’s something that you cannot choose. It’s proven in the animal kingdom that homosexuality is just a part of life in whatever species it is, you know? To come out and to basically demonise children because of the way that they’re born — which is essentially what this woman has done — it’s pretty outrageous, and I think it’s offensive… I can’t really tolerate it to be honest.
I know perfectly well that we’re playing a venue with her name to it — she was an amazing tennis player, there’s no taking away from that — but we’re still thinking about exactly what we’re going to do about it. I know Sigur Rós played there recently and they raised funds for marriage equality in Australia. And what I do every night — I’ve got a rainbow-coloured bass that I had sprayed for when we played Russia. Russia’s got some pretty backwards views about LGBT rights as well. So every night I’m up their standing for what I believe in and Australia is going to be no different.
As a country, it’s amazingly accepting and very welcoming, and it’s very open-minded in that sense, so politically I think it’s going to follow suit very quickly because I think most people in Australia do want equal rights for everyone. So I’m not really that concerned because I think you guys have got it pretty sussed! Sometimes registration just takes a while. But yeah, I’m still working on the best way to send out a response.
MF: Shifting to something a little more positive, you’re heading down here next month to play these shows. I know a lot of longtime fans who have been waiting a while for you to come back this plus there’s a new generation will also be seeing you for the first time. What can they expect from the tour?
SO: We’ve been coming to Australia for a long time but it seems like recently we’ve come there as part of a festival and not been able to bring our full show. This time we’re basically bringing a 20-year celebration of Placebo. The set is longer and it’s more inclusive. It’s, dare I say it, more for the fans this time. We tend to be quite difficult in terms of the choice of our setlist but this time we felt like well if we’re going to play these songs that we swore we would never play, now is the time to do it! It’s 20 years. It’s an anniversary. It’s a birthday party!
So, you know we’re just going to celebrate all things Placebo. It has become more about the fans, I suppose in today’s age where everyone is expecting instant gratification (laughs) people have 10 tabs open on their computer and that’s the way the brain is being conditioned. Now is a great time to see Placebo because it’s essentially all the favourites.
MF: What makes a song stand out to you 15 or 20 years after you’ve made it? What makes you go, ‘That’s a song I do want to play, rework or do something with’?
SO: It’s a good question. I guess we try to choose a setlist that balances out songs that we feel we have an emotional connection to right now. Because if we don’t have that it’s very hard for us to go on stage every night and perform with any kind of conviction. So, we kind of tried to balance that with the more commercially successful songs that we’ve had.
MF: Placebo have had their hits and their big albums but consistently you’ve turned out a lot of great music. Where do you think you would like to go next?
SO: I mean it’s a long time since the last studio album. It’s been five years since we put out Loud Like Love. I feel like it could go in any direction because so much time has passed. In my head, it feels like this 20th anniversary we’ve stamped our identity so firmly on the music scene, on music’s history or whatever, that we can kind of throw the rulebook out the window.
That’s kinda how I feel right now. We can do whatever the fuck we want! It doesn’t matter! (Laughs) So it’s liberating. It does feel like we don’t have to adhere to any notion of what we perceive Placebo to be. It’s a blank page and that’s as daunting as it is exciting.
Placebo will perform in Perth, Adelaide, Melbourne, Sydney, Brisbane, Newcastle and Canberra in September. Catch all their Aussie tour details right here.