Interview: Brian Molko of Placebo on new record ‘Loud Like Love,’ the band’s evolution, and the most vulnerable moment of his career

[dropcap]P[/dropcap]lacebo’s shows in New York and Los Angeles this week aren’t your typical “U.K. band hits the U.S. and plays shows on the coasts” tour: These appearances, capping off tonight at the Wiltern, mark the U.K. trio’s first shows in America since 2007. In the ensuring years, the band has experienced some rather seismic turmoil, including a significant lineup change (the departure of drummer Steve Hewitt) and a split from their long-time record label.

The band’s seventh studio album, last month’s Loud Like Love, shows no signs of these fractures. Familiar touchstones — jagged electric guitars, electronic pulses and Molko’s nasally yawps — mingle with brittle moments such as glassy piano. But the record is unquestionably a step forward for Placebo. Molko’s voice is strident and at the forefront of every song, making Loud Like Love’s lyrics its centerpiece.

Thankfully, his songs are compelling and erudite — from their use of several choice Scrabble words (i.e., bellicose, baleful and sidles) to the harrowing, sparse “Bosco,” which details someone gripped by addiction and shame. Earlier in the week, Molko chatted from New York, and although he cautioned he was a bit jetlagged — “Pardon me in advance if I sound like a space cadet” — he was supremely articulate and honest about his vulnerable songwriting, Placebo’s relationship to their back catalog, and how Loud Like Love coalesced.

Annie Zaleski: I read that some of the songs ended up on Loud Like Love might have been earmarked for a solo release for you. How did they become Placebo songs? What made them more appropriate for the band?

Brian Molko: Well, we needed the material more than anything [laughs]. Normally, we take about six months off after a two-year world tour before we reconvene and start writing again. This time around, we took more like 12 months off. And I wanted to keep my writing hand in; I didn’t want to fall out of practice.

It wasn’t as if I had planned to make a solo record and release it. I just wanted to see if I could do it without the guys, because if I was to do something — and record something — then I would have to play all the instruments myself.

And I also set up another restriction for myself, and that was I wasn’t allowed to use any distorted electric guitars, because I didn’t want my night job to sound like my day job. It’s really important to stress that it was more of an experiment for me rather than a release-driven thing. I just wanted to see what would happen if I wrote without Steve [Forrest, drummer] and Steph [Olsdal, bassist/guitarist].

And because of those restrictions, instead of using the usual tools that we would use in Placebo, I went to pianos and drum loops and vintage synthesizers and acoustic guitars. Because of the way we stumbled into making this record, we started recording it without kind of realizing that we started working on a new album. We just signed a new deal; we met this new producer who’d come recommended by some friends of ours. Universal said, “Would you like to go into the studio just to try something out?” And we had such a good experience with Adam Noble, that it began to feel like we had started work on our seventh album without actually really realizing it. But because we hadn’t set our usual time aside, our writing period of two, three months where we would just focus on that, we didn’t have enough material to make a whole album.

And I said, “Well, you know, I have been working on these things — on these songs here — in my downtime. Are there any of them you guys think that we could put a Placebo twist on?” I put five or six songs forward, and the three that ended up on the record were “Too Many Friends,” “Hold On To Me” and “Scene of the Crime.” With [the latter two] I had done quite a bit of the recording already, so it was bringing in my embryonic, skeletal recordings into the studio with the other guys and then playing around those things and building on that. And “Too Many Friends” was a song that I had played on acoustic guitar, which was transformed into a band thing. That’s kind of why and how it happened.

I did notice that the music lets lyrics and vocals take center stage — that stood out to me. It’s compelling; you really need to listen closely. I feel like there aren’t a lot of records today that require or demand that kind of listening.

The one thing that I don’t really have a great deal of insecurity around [is] my ability to sing. I’m insecure about most other things, but not about that [laughs]. So it’s good to have that one thing, you know? That I feel very confident about. Adam Noble, our producer, really encouraged me during the mixing of the album, really encouraged me to have the courage to push the vocals very, very much to the forefront. And because I see this record as a collection of 10 small fictions, based on my own experience and my own feelings around relationships over the past 20 years, I feel that I’ve been able to use the device [of] storytelling, which I think I’ve become a little bit more adept at, create songs with characters.

Paradoxically, because of that, I’ve been able to be more honest, more direct and more personal. Because it perhaps lacks the confessional nature of some of our previous work, but when you write with a confessional nature, with it comes a sense of self-consciousness. When you’re creating stories based on real events and real things you feel, these stories have narrators and characters. You’re able to embody them with more personal stuff.

The theme of the record, it explores various kinds of love but from different perspectives — platonic, lust, obsession, dysfunctional and yearning. It’s a very consistent theme. The characters, “Bosco” especially, I listened to that and was like, “Wow.” The character is so deeply flawed, which makes it interesting.

That’s kind of what I consider perhaps to be the most vulnerable moment of my career, in terms of approaching a subject that’s kind of… a relationship that’s kind of torn apart by addiction. I’m very, very proud of “Bosco,” because I think it points toward a bright future for the band. In many ways, it’s a song that doesn’t need the band’s identity — doesn’t need Placebo’s identity — to infuse it with meaning. It can almost transcend our identity and exist within its own context, without needing to nestle on the shoulders of Placebo in order to give it some kind of meaning. It can exist in its own world.

That’s something bands try and often fail to do. If they sort of realize it once in their career, then they’re really, really lucky. Fleetwood Mac have done it several times, written these classic songs that will live forever, and don’t need the band’s identity to have meaning. We’ve started to do that with “Bosco.”

If we can continue, then the future for us can be quite bright. It doesn’t necessarily even sound that much like a Placebo song, and I’m very encouraged by that. That means that we’re still free, and we’re still pushing the boundaries of what our songwriting can be. Hopefully we haven’t started to repeat ourselves just yet.

As a songwriter, what brought you to that point that allowed you to be so vulnerable?

It has to do with very much with my very dysfunctional relationship with Placebo’s back catalog. There are moments that I’m very proud of; there are some moments where I wish I had been in the room a little bit more, where I feel that I let a few things slide, like perhaps I should have paid a little bit more attention or worked a little harder, edited a little bit better.

This time, it was very, very important to me to set the benchmark high in terms of writing. I found the process actually quite difficult. Let me put it this way: Coming up with melodies when the three of us are in the room together, it comes pretty quickly and pretty easily, because we have a chemistry with each other as musicians. Writing music, it’s quite an abstract pursuit. And you pull things out of the ether.

Once that’s done, I’m always faced with this blank page — I’m always faced with this question that’s kind of like, “What the hell do I have to say? What do I have to say to the world?” Sometimes I panic. This time, I really, really wanted it to be almost literary in nature. And I wanted to write stories… I wanted to make it so personal that it was universal. I wanted to write stories that every single listener could live out their own individual story through it. When it became apparent during the writing process that there was a theme emerging, I realized that the album could be 10 songs about relationships, in one way or the other, but that are different. Or in fact the entire album could be looked at as one relationship in 10 different stages in their relationship.

When you think of the first song “Loud Like Love” being perhaps the first initial euphoric rushes of infatuation, and innocent discovery and youthful abandon, to “Scene of the Crime” being the first moment of transgression, to all the way through to the second-to-last song, which is “Begin The End,” which is the point in a relationship when you realize that you’re still in it, but you’ve passed the tipping point, that you know it’s over even though it’s not physically over yet. And then to “Bosco” which is kind of an apology and a search for redemption. I find that really interesting too, that it could be 10 songs about ten different relationships — and also the whole album could be seen as one, at different stages.

It’s like a short story collection in that way.

That’s what sets it apart from our previous work. We’ve written about love and desire and abandon and loneliness and disconnect before. But I don’t think it’s ever been so concise, and I don’t think we’ve had a unifying theme over a whole record before. But now that we’ve done that, we won’t do it again on the next one [laughs]. Every single new record is a reaction to its predecessor — that’s what informs most what the new record is going to be in terms of, we don’t want to do what we’ve just done.

Loud Like Love’s predecessor, Battle For The Sun, was very, very much a band trying to find itself again because we’d had a personnel change in the band, the first time in 11 years. And that was quite a traumatic process for us. So we had a new guy in the band, Steve Forrest, and we were trying to figure out who we were now.

With Loud Like Love, enough time had elapsed where we had become comfortable with ourselves again. That’s why we were able to be so emotional and so vulnerable and so direct with that vulnerability. I’m really, really proud of how bare this record in terms of what it’s expressing emotionally. We really let the listener into who we are, what our soul looks like, through these songs. We’re not hiding behind anything anymore.

That can be very frightening, too, I think. It’s not an easy thing to do.

No, but I think when you take that risk, when you make yourself that vulnerable, then people really, really get it. In a way, the more personal you make something, the more universal it becomes, because essentially we’re all made up of the same emotional stuff. And apart from politics, what else is there in life? [Laughs.] Apart from relationships, that’s all that’s left — that’s all that there is, and that’s all that we have. It’s taken me a long time to realize that.

I was interested that in another interview you mentioned you had rewritten a lot of your back catalog songs so you can still connect with them. Besides “Teenage Angst,” what are some of the other ones you’ve decided to rework?

There’s “Twenty Years,” which we’re playing at the moment, which is very different from its original version. There’s a song off the last album, called “Breathe Underwater,” which we’re playing at the moment as well, which has gone from being a very fast, extremely frenetic punky song, to a piano-driven ballad not too different in mood to “Bosco.”

It’s almost like what we did with Kate Bush’s “Running Up That Hill.” I grew up listening to that song, and I always thought it was an amazing song, but I thought the tempo was too fast. It didn’t give enough space for the real emotion to shine through. When we decided to cover it, I really, really wanted to slow it down so that [there was enough space to express] what was really going on — the fear and the abandon.

That’s often what we end up doing. We see ourselves as the rock band, so when we first start writing, we’ll write with a certain punky urgency about it, because we’re happy to be back in the rehearsal room making a lot of noise. But then we’ll realize that perhaps the actual emotional point of the song isn’t really necessarily getting across. And then we’ll slow it right down and make it very sparse and very, very bare. Through that, we’re able to give these songs a new lease of life.

I respect that [rewriting]. You have to do that — you’re not the same person you were 15, 20 years ago.

Yeah, exactly.

You look at someone like U2, and it’s like, “How are they still relating to the stuff they wrote 30 years ago?” It’s a challenge, I would think.

Yeah, absolutely. Unfortunately, we’ve been a cursed with a very, very much lower boredom threshold than perhaps U2 have [laughs]. In order for us not to have a completely dysfunctional relationship with our back catalog, we feel the need to rewrite them in order to breathe new life into them, so that we can play them live. If we don’t feel emotionally connected to the song, it’s very difficult for us to perform it. For us, it’s a lie — we’re not being emotionally honest. We’re sort of phoning it in or going through the motions; it’s mechanical. That’s dishonest. That’s what we have to do, often with some of our most popular material, is change it, so we can continue to play it.

Trent Reznor recently re-did the early Nine Inch Nails song “Sanctified” on their tour. It was unrecognizable, but it really brought new dimension and meaning to the song.

I’ve often found that if you can take one of your band’s songs and strip it all the way back to just a vocal and an acoustic guitar, or a vocal and a piano, then it’s the sign of a really, really good song. Similarly, if you can rewrite it four times — like we have with “Teenage Angst.” That’s a song that refuses to die. That’s a classic, because if you cover it in three different ways, then it has to be a classic [laughs].

I read in another interview that you took off part of the time in between albums to focus being a parent. How is it for you balancing music and family?

The fact that people don’t buy records anymore doesn’t make it any easier, because it forces a working musician out on the road a hell of a lot more than it did maybe 20 years ago. But as my son’s grown up with me being around for a concentrated period of time and then being away for a concentrated period of time, he’s kind of grown up used to it. I suppose it’s not so shocking; it’s kind of what he’s used to.

And then during the summer holidays, every young boy loves the idea of a bus that you can sleep on. In a way, his favorite thing about going on tour is the tour bus. He’s been doing that since he was about five, and I totally understand that. Because it’s a vehicle, and he’s a young boy.

And a tour bus has cool things that are not supposed to be there — like refrigerators.

Exactly. Absolutely.

PLACEBO + JESSICA HOOP :: Friday, October 18 @ The Wiltern, 3790 Wilshire Blvd., Los Angeles, CA :: 8pm, $25 to $35 :: 213.388.1400 :: advance tickets :: facebook invite