In 2017, Placebo (the band, that is) are celebrating 20 years in the music industry. To add flair to the affairs, two of its key members – lead singer Brian Molko and long-term bassist/guitarist Stefan Olsdal – are touring the globe, with their next stop being Australia in Spring.
Born at the same time as this very magazine, Cream first interviewed Placebo when they were just starting out in 1997. That chat was with Molko and then-drummer Steven Hewitt.
This time ’round, Cream catches up with Stefan Olsdal, who chats about marriage equality, gender-bending, overriding rock clichés, and things he’d learned from music legend David Bowie.
Interview by Antonino Tati
Hey there Stefan. With there once having been two Stephens and one Stefan in Placebo, did things ever get confusing for fans?
Not really. The names were different enough, and our roles in the band were definitely different, so it was never an issue. I’m just glad we’re still here [ie: Stefan and lead singer Brian Molko] and that we’ve found an amazing drummer [Matt Lunn].
Is there any bad blood between you and the former band members or do you still see each other now and then?
I’m still in touch with Robert [Shultzberg], our very first drummer. Things didn’t turn out well with our second drummer [Steven Hewitt]. There was a court case. The way I see it, if you’re in a rock band long enough all the clichés will come true, from the lifestyle to the court cases; all the ups and the downs. Sometimes you just move on, and I try, personally, not to hold on to any resentment or anger, because life is too short for that.
What is the secret ingredient that keeps you and Brian working together?
It must be those pills that we take every day. [Laughs].
What sort of pills? Surely not placebo ones?
Whatever they are, they must be working!
When I last spoke with Brian [in an official journalistic capacity], he was freely talking about the use of Ecstasy. Are you guys still okay to talk about that sort of connection to your band’s image and sound?
We have no control over what people connect to our music. We also have no control over how people interpret our music or our lyrics. We’ve been quite honest about how we live our lives in terms of human politics and lifestyle. We’ve explored various parts of the human psyche. If you look back at moments in [our] history, there’s been this desire to escape, to explore different areas of consciousness.
And if that means indulging in illicit substances occasionally, so be it?
Yeah. It’s prevalent. I wouldn’t recommend it, but we certainly have had some good times. We’ve had some amazing experiences; there’s no denying that.
Placebo have been placed in extreme categories: you’ve either been much loved by fans or criticised for your sharp lyrics, and even for your gender-bending, particularly in the early days. How did you take that initial criticism?
We adopted the Andy Warhol approach, which is you basically [try not to] read it. The way that criticism happens is… basically, it’s one person’s opinion. It becomes quite academic, really.
Not taking it to heart is key, I guess?
Yeah, as much as you can. We are human at the end of the day. If you’re having a bad day and you read a bad review and it touches a nerve, it’s hard not to let it get to you. But after 20 years, you learn to develop a thicker skin just for your own personal sanity and protection.
Do you think things have loosened up somewhat now, especially with regard to certain types of artistic expression?
I think so. With the internet, material and information that was hard to get a hold of is now at your fingertips. But at the same time, we’ve been travelling to countries where I am in fear of my life [Stefan is openly gay and married]. So, in some ways, we are going in the opposite direction. I guess we are living more in a society of extremes. Some things are much more acceptable and some things have pushed political correctness to the extreme. On the other side, you get complete intolerance.
In terms of American politics, you still see those extreme conservative views.
Yeah, and that’s just a farce. I can’t believe that it’s not a comic we’re reading, or that someone is pulling the wool over our eyes. If it wasn’t a man with so much power, we’d all be laughing.
You guys have always played that ambiguous role, whether it be in terms of your music, your lyrics, or your expression of sexuality. You yourself have been openly gay for how long now?
Over twenty years.
Currently, in Australia, we’re debating the issue of marriage equality, and I’d say Australia is lagging behind in that issue. What do you say to countries that are still backward in that regard?
To me, it’s something that’s so natural; why would you put any restrictions on personal freedom in terms of who you love, who you want to share your life with, how you express yourself, how you want to appear? I think history will show us how ridiculous it was not to have that equality. In countries which I think still have their heads screwed on – the normal countries – we’re now going: So, what was the big issue? And not just in the area of marriage equality. I mean, why didn’t we allow women to vote? Why did we treat people of different races differently? Similarly, why can’t we allow same sex marriage? It seems like such an absurd thing.
In retrospect, the naivety will seem absurd.
Do you think it’s a positive thing when an artist does express his/her sexuality openly? Does it help inspire young people to embrace whatever gender or sexuality they want to be?
When we were starting out, there were only a few bands that had openly gay members. We started out in the ’90s, when there was no internet, so it was harder to connect with like-minded people. I wished it [had been] a more open forum where people could have been open about themselves. I think now it’s much more acceptable; more musicians are coming out. I mean nowadays you don’t get a TV show without a gay character. I find it a more welcoming scenario now than when we started.
You’re coming to Australia at the end of September.
Yep, we’re starting on the west coast [in Perth] on the 4th of September, then we finish in Canberra on the 14th.
What are your memories of Australia from the last time you toured here?
The last few times we’ve played as part of a festival. I remember it being excruciatingly hot. So now we’ve decided to come back at a slightly cooler time of the year and to bring our own show, our own production. It’s the 20th anniversary tour, so we want to celebrate it with people in Australia. It’s been many years since we’ve brought our own tour over there, and it should be a good one!
What sort of things can we expect from the shows? Wicked visuals? New interpretations of songs?
All of that!
What are you looking forward to bringing to the stage that you haven’t brought to Aussie audiences before?
Basically, we’re approaching this tour as a celebration. We see it as a time to bring out some fan favourites, as well as some of our more commercial material that we haven’t played in a long time – maybe for the last time ever. We’ve also reworked some old songs and worked all our old visuals back into the show to make it as much of an audio-visual experience as possible.
When it comes to stage work, you’ve certainly had assistance from some of the best. You worked with David Bowie for quite a while.
We were so fortunate to have been able to share space with him and breathe the same air.
Which would have been godly-like in itself.
I think it was the closest thing to a heavenly body or a higher power.
What do you think Bowie taught you in terms of artistry, playing live, or just being a rock star?
He was very good at flirting, I remember. [Laughs]. I’m terrible at flirting, so I learned a few tricks there. How to wink the eye, tilt the head a bit. Apart from that, on a more serious note, he basically said, ‘Don’t rest on your laurels, don’t get too comfortable, because your listener is very discerning… and make sure to stay one step ahead of yourself.”
What does the future look like for you guys? Is it going to be moving in a new direction or will you be going all out with the ambiguity and noise?
When you put it like that, I want to do that. [Laughs]. In all seriousness, I feel we have stamped our identity so firmly in the music that we didn’t allow ourselves to do whatever the hell. We’ve been experimental on our B-sides at the beginning of our career and have always liked the studio as a tool. So, we might just lock ourselves in the studio and come out with 80 minutes of noise.
Well, Stefan, I look forward to catching Placebo live on stage in September!
Great. We’ll be a little jetlagged, but nothing that we haven’t played through before.
Just pop another placebo pill and you’ll be right.
You know it! [Laughs].
20 YEARS OF PLACEBO AUSTRALIAN TOUR DATES
Monday 4th September 2017 Perth Arena, Perth CBD
Wednesday 6th September 2017 Adelaide Entertainment Centre Theatre
Friday 8th September 2017 Margaret Court Arena, Melbourne
Saturday 9th September 2017 Qudos Bank Arena, Sydney
Monday 11th September 2017 Brisbane Convention Centre
Tuesday 12th September 2017 Newcastle Entertainment Centre
Thursday 14th September 2017 AIS Arena, Canberra
For ticketing information, head to www.ticketek.com.au.