Sugar Thrill: an Interview with Placebo’s Stefen Olsdal

Posted May 9, 2007 in
Introductions are a strange thing. Sometimes they fade from consciousness the moment they happen; other times they become part of our personal folklore. In Placebo’s case, it wasn’t hearing them on the radio or rattling away in overhead at a music store; it was purely visual. Having landed in London a bit early with a week or two without obligation before classes, I visited a friend down south in Brighton. Time was spent in clubs, music stores, throwing stones on the beach below the pier and later hour conversations about this that and whatever else. She had a small flat, no frills with a decor stolen from a goth rock emporium. On the outside of the bathroom door was a poster of a dark-haired-eyelined-androgynous-waif. No, I hadn’t heard of Brian Molko or Placebo, although the debut album artwork did look familiar. Weeks later while riding an escalator up towards the Virgin Megastore on Oxford Street I passed Mr. Molko as he descended into the underground. I was tempted to change direction, shake a hand and perhaps get an autograph for the friend I had been visiting a few days before. Who could have guessed that in the following years Placebo would duet with David Bowie, Robert Smith, Frank Black, Michael Stipe, score a minor US hit in “Pure Morning” and rise to be one of the more successful British acts worldwide. Had I known it would be a decade before I would see Brian again, this time in a packed Times Square venue, I might have reconsidered and searched the platforms for the young glamster.

The evening in New York was foreshadowed by a chance night out with She Wants Revenge in Salt Lake City which found Justin, who had worked with Placebo on their Black Market Music album, texting back and forth with Brian trying to convince Placebo to do a joint headlining tour of America. A tour that when announced kicked off in Denver and moved East. Who could have guessed that the tour would sell out, that midway through Placebo would switch over to permanent headliner and that their cover of Kate Bush’s “Running Up That Hill” (recorded years before) would pop up as a sleeper hit?

In retrospect, Stefan Olsdal, Placebo’s bassist/guitarist and co-founder, insists they really didn’t need that much convincing. “When Justin suggested [the tour] we thought it was a kinda cool bill. We share similar audiences and could help each other.”

Unlike many British bands Placebo’s rise wasn’t instant. Born in the golden age of Britpop, an era they didn’t fit into, Placebo toured endlessly, receiving the occasional accolade from the British press, while picking up a legion of supporters.

“In ’96 we were unfashionable and stuck out like a sore thumb. We’ve never tried to emulate anyone. With some bands it’s so obvious what they’re trying to do, not just wearing their influences on their sleeves but copying a sound. But once you get there where do you go? We [found success] the old fashion way by touring extensively.”

America proved more difficult.

“We’d had a minor it in ’98-’99 with “Good Morning” but never really had taken off. We’ve come to America with each album, but haven’t toured it endlessly because it’s such a huge place. We’ve just tried to chip away at it.”

Placebo’s most recent album Meds was recently picked up by Virgin from Astralwerks and given a proper re-release featuring two bonus tracks including the lauded “Running Up That Hill” cover. There seems to be a bit of momentum swinging in the band’s favor.

“You really try to get radio behind you. You’re hoping that the record label will get behind it. The last tour was our most successful [in America].”

Considering Brian hasn’t been known to have a high opinion of Salt Lake (their previous visit was as openers to Stabbing Westward where they found themselves playing in the less than impressive surroundings of the Tower Theater) I confess I’m surprised they’ve included us on their triumphant return to the States.

“We’re trying to hit a couple cities we didn’t last time.”

Which might sound safe, perhaps a bit coy but you can sense that the band has grown a bit in the past seven or so years. Old conceptions are opinions they’re willing to replace.

When asked about the process of recording Meds having now established themselves as a arena-filling act, Olsdal dismisses the success, “You’re only as good as your last record.”

“We put a lot of pressure on ourselves. The more [albums] you make the more difficult it gets not to fall into routines. We don’t try and analyze our success. To do so is like disappearing up your own ass. We try to write honestly, music we have a connection to. We’ve never set rules or roles. We don’t question if we’re an electronic or punk act. With Meds we decided to work with a friend, Dimitri Tikovoi, who we had recorded “Running Up That Hill” with, but it made it more difficult. He took us out of our comfort zone, challenged us on every song, making us look at it from all angles. He drove us to recording an album we didn’t set out to make. Sleeping With Ghosts was recorded and mixed with computer and studio trickery. Meds was more live, more direct, just the three of us in a room relying on our abilities to play our instruments.”

The album was also recorded rather quickly, a process similar to the recording of their debut album.

“You get tired of being stuck in a windowless room. But yes, this was more spontaneous, more organic like the first record but a lot different as well. In a way it refocused us. We approached each song in a more brutal manner. We questioned the tempo, the key, everything which is painful because they’re all your babies. There were fights, but it made us explore each track.”

Some of the tracks were written as long as six years ago, while others were written in the studio. The writing process often finds Molko. Olsdal and drummer Steve Hewitt swapping instruments but Molko always writes the lyrics, generally after the instrumental structure has been established. In the case of “Infra-red” the lyrics were written backwards.

“We all have diverse tastes. We’re all from different countries, different sexualities. We turn each other on to new music. We all love The Smiths, The Cure, Depeche Mode, Billie Holliday… I’m a huge Abba and Army of Lovers fan, which is a bit too camp for the others.”

When asked about the band’s experiences of working with some of their heroes Olsdal points out, “It’s an honor and kind of an endorsement of what you are doing. They’ve all been amazing people and that’s why they’re still around. They carved their own path and made their own longevity.”

As for the sonic structure of their current set-list Olsdal reveals, “We’ll concentrate on Meds because it has a real emotional connection but we’re playing songs from each album. Because of the 10th anniversary of our debut we’ve brought back a few tracks to see how they would go. It’s been nice to know we weren’t shit back then.”

While he’s too modest to admit it they’ve become a formidable live act along the way with performances full of emotion and enough cracked smiles to suggest that they’ve found comfort in being a band and they love it.