The Man Comes Around

The whole point of rock and roll, as Placebo front man Brian Molko sees it, is never growing up. That's what everyone who straps on a guitar or picks up a microphone is after. It's certainly not a new theory. Pete Townshend even wrote a song about it. Actually, Pete Townshend wrote a lot of songs about that. You likely have heard some of them.

"Rock and roll is about trying to achieve some kind of Peter Pan syndrome," Molko explains. "It's about trying to remain a perpetual teenager. Just look at Mick Jagger, for God's sake. Musicians have a tendency to either die young or grow old slowly. It's a strange one. I hope to be in the second category."

That last sentence wasn't always part of Molko's plan. For years, remaining a perpetual teenager to him meant smoking, swigging, shooting, snorting and screwing whatever, whenever. Staying up late and waking up later. Living a cliché and dying a hero. After all, it's easy to never grow up if you don't give yourself the option.

It wasn't a game plan he kept to himself. Molko's songs reveled in his proclivities for hard drugs and choose-your-own-adventure sex--never looking back, never apologizing for anything. His flamboyantly androgynous persona made him an object of lust to men and women alike, not to mention more than a few drug dealers. He wasn't necessarily a perpetual teenager. Just perpetually fucked up.

All of this made him a star--overseas, at least. Placebo's first three albums--1996's Placebo, 1998's Without You I'm Nothing and 2000's Black Market Music--sold about 3 million worldwide and all landed in the Top 10, making Molko rich, famous and all the rest of it. Of course, funds and fame help you cheat death only if your name is O.J. Simpson. They're not much use if you're diagnosed as clinically depressed and don't care much how it all turns out.

But something happened while Molko was trying to die before he got old: He got old. Well, not really, but 30 is older than Molko ever thought he'd be. Or wanted to be.

Not anymore.

"I'm glad I made it to 30," Molko says. He turns 31 on December 10. "There were times in my life that I wasn't sure if that was going to happen. It gets better. Things get less confusing just because you have more life experience. You still make mistakes. You still fuck up big-style. Because you're always learning, and the day you stop learning, I think, is the day you kind of mentally die."

Showing off his ability to "fuck up big-style," Molko allegedly partied so hard before and after Placebo's performance at Seattle's Crocodile Club, the band (which also includes bassist Stefan Olsdal and drummer Steve Hewitt) was banned from playing the venue again. So, yeah, he's still learning. He admits that "physically, obviously, you know, you can't really party like you used to," but that doesn't mean he's stopped trying.

But there are still signs of a different--if not new and improved--Brian Molko. Mentally, though he insists that 30 is "just a number" to him, that's clearly not the case. At least not on Sleeping With Ghosts, Placebo's fourth and latest album. Throughout, Molko is reflective and a bit regretful, and it's difficult not to blame a certain birthday. "I can't stop growing old," he sings on "This Picture"; "Remember when we'd celebrate/We'd drink and get high until late/And now we're all alone," he sings on "Protect Me From What I Want."

It's a step forward from, say, Black Market Music's "Special K": "Just like I swallowed half my stash/I never ever want to crash." It's not just the lyrics that take bold strides into Placebo's future on Sleeping With Ghosts. Recording with producer Jim Abbiss (who has worked with DJ Shadow, U.N.K.L.E. and Björk), the band adds an electronic pulse to its glam-punk sound, an undercurrent of keening keyboards and sputtering samplers running through the group's dark pop. You could credit (or blame) Molko and the band's new maturity for this. Molko attributes the change in sound to a change in season. At first.

"I think the main difference was that it was the first album that we ever recorded in the summer," he begins. "We usually record in the winter, so that's perhaps why it's a bit more of a colorful album in that way. It was pretty much a fluke of scheduling.

"For seven years we hadn't taken a break," Molko continues, hitting on his real answer. "We were going tour, studio, tour, studio, tour, studio, and kind of existing in a rock-and-roll bubble. And we'd run out of valuable life experience. It was really time for us to reacquaint ourselves with everyday human contact and everyday human exchange. It was time to come out of the bubble and come back down to earth and start living again. So we decided to take a six-month break, which turned into eight months. It was just important for us to do things like go to the supermarket. I moved, so I had to decorate and buy furniture and stuff. I came down to earth in a very domestic way."

Now, however, Molko is back in the bubble. That's the place where he can end up onstage with one of his teenage idols--the Pixies' Frank Black--in front of 18,000 people in Paris, singing "Where Is My Mind?" while the entire spectacle is being filmed for a forthcoming DVD. Or in a studio in New York, with David Bowie in the vocal booth singing one of Molko's songs ("Without You I'm Nothing") and Bowie's legendary producer Tony Visconti at the controls. It's a different kind of human exchange. Takes some time to get used to.

"You're always a little nervous because these people are a) legends and b) have had a real influence on you," Molko says. "But you've got to say to yourself, you know, 'Everybody takes a shit.' That kind of thing. You just have to calm yourself down a little bit about it. And then with time, you relax. You see the human side."

It helps that Molko and his fellow boys in the bubble, Olsdal and Hewitt, are well acquainted with their respective human sides. They've made it through to the other side together, permanently bonding them to one another, transforming them into something more than merely a band.

"We're a family, albeit a very, very dysfunctional one," Molko says with a laugh. "We've achieved so much together, and we respect each other for that. We love each other for that. And we need each other. We need each other to survive. It's very important. Our friendship and our respect for each other is a great, great part of what Placebo is about. I'd hate for it to ever become like Guns 'N Roses or the Police, traveling in separate tour buses. Certain people not turning up for soundcheck and stuff like that. Because even God has to soundcheck."

Sounds like someone is growing up.

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Zac Crain
Contact: Zac Crain