The PV Q&A: Placebo's Brian Molko on Transgressive Love, Technology and Disconnect, and That "My Computer Thinks I'm Gay" Line
September 12, 2013
by Rebecca Schiller
For Placebo, the release of Loud Like Love not only marks their seventh studio album, but it also represents a fresh, clean rebirth of the band. “We basically wanted to start a new story,” says frontman Brian Molko, while discussing the unusually bright album artwork that contains a rather heartbreaking set of songs about the dark side of love. Ahead of Loud Like Love’s recent release, Molko talks to us about the pain that inspired the record, how he feels about one of his new songs making a mark on the Turkish youth who have been living through riots, how he still doesn’t fear writing polarizing lyrics, and if he has any plans to hit the studio with his old friend David Bowie.
PureVolume: You’ve described the album as being a collection of 10 short stories. What would you say is the overarching theme that ties them all together?
It is love, but this being Placebo World, it’s not gonna be a collection of love songs in Michael Bublé-style. My experience with love, over the past 20 years, is what I’ve pulled on to write these novellas or small fictions. It hasn’t always been about the initial rush of infatuation and that feeling of elation and euphoria that comes with falling in love. Of course, I’ve experienced that and it’s been quite mind-blowing, but sometimes you could fall in love with somebody who doesn’t know you exist or doesn’t see you that way, or doesn’t even find you attractive, and that can be quite heartbreaking. You can force somebody to leave—inadvertently—out of selfishness or behavior. Often, the absence of love is quite loud... as in the echo or the reverb of an empty cave, the sound of silence, or the sound of your own breathing. So the album kind of deals with the transgressive love in the second track [“Scene of the Crime”], and “Too Many Friends” is about feeling disconnected and not finding the satisfaction, the fulfillment that you need from genuine human contact, through a plethora of virtual friendships. “Rob the Bank” is not about financial crisis: It’s about obsession and jealousy, very carnal, primal obsession and jealousy.
Speaking of “Rob the Bank,” both the song and its music video clip seem to be resonating strongly in Turkey. How does the video tie in with the song, and how do you feel about it holding such an important meaning to your Turkish fans?
It’s gone completely viral, and it’s only been [up a few days]. The way that these videos were made was that we gave 10 directors a tiny budget with no brief, no direction, and said, “Off you go, now do something.”
The director who made the “Rob the Bank” video is based in New York. When I saw the video for the first time, I did notice this bust/statue with a gas mask on a plinth that was covered in a Turkish flag. Now, being aware of what’s going on in Turkey and what I’ve seen going on through the news, I noted it and I thought it was quite clever, and it works. But I didn’t think that much of it. I just thought it works, and that it’s a very appropriate image. We couldn’t have predicted the reaction.
It seems to have been appropriated by the voices of unrest and by the Turkish youth, and by anybody who has a problem with how the government’s been dealing with peaceful protests in Turkey. The identification with Turkish youth, in trying to end this, is better than any kind of constructed identification that we could have thought of intellectually. I’m very, very pleased that so many people have identified with it. The thing is, I think some people write songs like Steven Spielberg makes a movie. Spielberg pushes buttons and tells you how to feel. I don’t do that. I like there to be enough ambiguity so that people can relate their own personal stories through it. You take the spirit of the song, and then the imagery from the video, and you seal the identification. From a nation that’s actually quite far away from us, and it’s quite different culturally from ours in the UK, it’s something that’s fantastic to watch. I’m very pleased—surprised, and pleased.
Considering that “Loud Like Love” is quite a dark album lyrically, it has your boldest, brightest album artwork to date. Why did you decide to go with such a colorful cover? Was it an intentional contrast to the darkness of the songs’ content?
Absolutely. I went specifically to the design company and told them that I wanted to make a clean break with the Placebo aesthetic which has built up over several albums – quite minimalist, figurative, and very much about the human body, and I thought that we’d kind of taken it as far as it could, and if it had continued, I think it could have fallen into the realm of self-parody or just running out of ideas.
So I went to the design company, asking for something very different, and we talked a lot about psychedelic film/’60s and ‘70s film, sci-fi imagery, photographers that inspired us, French comic books, graphic novels, movies like The Man Who Fell to Earth. We talked a lot about counter-culture and psychedelia. My first love, musically, was psychedelic, so I wanted to make reference to that kind of aesthetic. The designer just ran with it.
We were talking about putting it through the filter of modern technology and that sort of video aesthetic, as well, and the whole idea was to have something with psychedelic, sci-fi tones that had a humanity about it that was otherworldly, but that had something familiar to it, as well. We basically wanted to start a new story. I think we felt that there was a certain amount of rebirth going on within the band itself, and that that should be reflected in the artwork. We tended to carry that aesthetic through tour visuals and merchandising, and throughout the whole campaign.
In the song “Too Many Friends,” you open with the line “My computer thinks I’m gay.” Understandably, that line’s become quite a talking point. When you wrote it, did you think that it would catch people’s attention as much as it has?
I was aware of the fact that it would probably polarize opinions quite a bit. I’ve never shyed away from doing that in the past. At the time, I thought, “Do I have the courage to do this?,” because it is so brazen that people are either gonna love it, get it or hate it. Do I still have the courage to do that, almost 20 years down the line? At the end of the day, I feel that to a great degree, fortune favors the brave, and I mustered up the courage to just go for it.
Do you have any regret going ahead with that line?
I wouldn’t have done it if it hadn’t happened to me. Up until that day itself, my computer had advertised to me specifically as a heterosexual male. I don’t know what I did (I have my suspicions, but I won’t go into that), but it started advertising towards me specifically as a homosexual male.
I’m quite fascinated by technology. I found that extremely significant, and I did think to myself, “Wow, my computer thinks I’m gay today!” I thought, “Whoa, OK, that’s quite a brave way to start a song,” and it coincided with some friends of mine talking about how they were stopping taking friend requests on their social networks because they had too many friends.
I had never thought of that before, because I don’t social network, so I thought [about] what an interesting concept that is. Can you have too many friends? How many friends do I have, and what does friendship mean today? How is a burgeoning obsession with [technology] affecting friendship today, and our social skills and our sense of community? I sat down and tried to put that all into “Too Many Friends.” I tried to make it about a person, and their sense of disconnection and loneliness.
Thousands of songs, since the invention of the fixed landline telephone, have mentioned sitting by the phone, waiting for you to call. The song’s about loneliness, it’s not about the technology itself. It’s a modern version of, “I’m sitting by the phone, waiting for you to call.”
Some of the tracks on ‘Loud Like Love’ were initially written as a solo project. Do you still have any plans to pursue a solo career?
I don’t know. I just kind of wanted to see if I could do it without the rest of the guys. I had a year off, and it’s good to keep your hand in, creatively, even though you’re taking some time off from the limelight and the media. I wanted to see if I could do it by myself, which meant that I’d have to play all the instruments, and I said to myself, “What’s the point of making your night job sound like your day job?” So I set up restrictions for myself, the main one being that I wasn’t allowed to use any distorted guitars, so I found myself having to use my imagination and go to other places and other instruments to start writing.
In terms of the nature of how we began to record this album, we started by accident. We were in the studio to record singles, but we were having such a good time and we liked the producer, so we thought, “let’s keep going.”
We didn’t have a whole bunch of songs, so some of [the solo songs] ended up on the album (“Too Many Friends,” ”Hold On to Me,” “Scene of the Crime,” and I had “Rob the Bank” in my back pocket). “Scene of the Crime” had actually been part of one I’d been recording myself already, which we used, and same with “Hold On to Me.” I didn’t have a fixed goal to release a record. It was more a personal challenge.
You once said that the lyrics of “Pure Morning” make you cringe, and there are quite a few songs from your back catalogue that don’t make it into your live sets any more. If you had to pick a song that you haven’t played in a while to bring back to the stage, which would it be?
Wow, good question. “Pure Morning,” I like the music, but at the time we wrote it, I was quite high, and we wrote it for a b-side, so I might have spent a little more time on the lyrics if I knew that it was going to be such a big single and an important song. We have to bury a few [songs], and them we exhume them.
We kind of keep re-writing a lot of songs in order for them to become playable for us so that we can connect with them. Most recently, we’re on our fourth version of “Teenage Angst” from the first album. We have a brand new version of that, which is actually my favorite of the four. It took 20 years since I wrote that song for us to settle on what I think is the definitive version, but that’s OK.
Now that David Bowie’s returned to music, do you think there’s any chance you might collaborate with him again, as a follow-up to “Without You I’m Nothing”?
Oh, I’d love to! I’d absolutely love to. We’ll see. I shall endeavor to hunt him down while I’m in New York. It would be nice, too, to catch up, because I haven’t seen him in 10 years.