As the band celebrates 20 years of releasing records, Molko looks back at his output.
In Rank Your Records, we talk to members of bands who have amassed substantial discographies over the years and ask them to rate their releases in order of personal preference.
Some musicians don't want to rank their records because they're not music critics: it's not always so easy to admit one is better than the other. It's an issue that comes up an awful lot before conducting these interviews. Brian Molko is one of these skeptical musicians, but he's willing to play along without much of a protest. His band Placebo is in the midst of celebrating 20 years of releasing records, and although going into it he doesn't think he's capable, he is.
"I don't really look at it that way," Molko admits. "To me, they feel like standalone bodies of work that are all different from each other. I've tried to play the game. I have made a list for you. The experience of making the record has to a degree influenced my choices. I'm willing to roll with it. I've never done this before so it's a bit of a step into uncertainty. I would never have done it if you hadn't asked me to."
To go along with Placebo's eight albums (including a pivotal MTV Unplugged session), the alt-rockers are celebrating their 20 Years Tour with a new EP titled Life's What You Make It and a complementary double album, A Place For Us To Dream, featuring their best work from the last two decades. For Molko and fellow co-founder/bassist Stefan Olsdal, it's a time to celebrate, but also a time to be grateful.
"I've been doing this for my entire adult life, and I don't really know how to do anything else," says Molko. "It's very precious to me. I did everything for that to be the case. Somewhere within all of it, we've managed to keep the band relevant. I don't know how, but I know that because every time we go out on tour, the first five rows is filled with a new set of teenagers. The people that have grown up with the band are still there, they're just closer to the bar at the back. How two guys in their forties can keep doing that, I don't know. Perhaps we're just immature. I'm happy to continue following my instincts, and see where they take me."
8. Black Market Music (2000)
Noisey: Why is this your least favorite?
Brian Molko: I guess I put it there because I think it's the record that suffers most from having a blanket sound. We do our best to not make records that do that. It's part of our modus operandi. But it also happens to be the first time we also had a number one album, and in typical Brian Molko style, I put it at the bottom. [Laughs] I think it's a real somber record, so it doesn't really conjure up euphoria, which I suppose is what I look for in music. It was recorded during the height of our party phase, and once we had recorded all of our instruments, we had turned the studio into a place to have guests. So we spent a lot of time entertaining people while our producer spent a lot of time working on the album alone. I think if we'd been a little more involved, then perhaps there would be a little more light and color. It's quite a monochrome album for me. It's a very deep wood color, with stripes of gunmetal grey when I picture it.
You can see that in the album cover.
Yeah, and perhaps that's it. Perhaps the whole package is a little too gothic for me. I like to try and make an album with light and shade, and this one has the least. Maybe that's why it's last.
I read that this album was a reaction to all of those macho nu-metal bands that were harassing music at the time.
Yeah, it was sort of Limp Bizkit's height of popularity, so we tried to mix hip-hop into our sound and try to make it a Sonic Youth crossed with KRS-One kind of vibe, as opposed to this really aggressive, macho bullshit that was popular at the time. So I'm sure that influenced our decision to make a foray into alternative hip-hop. [Laughs] I'm not sure how successful it was, but at least, I suppose, we had the balls to do it. It was interesting and fun to do. There were riots in London at the time, and I remember somebody had either painted or attached a green Mohican to a famous Winston Churchill statue. That was kind of an inspiration for the "dope, guns, fucking in the streets" White Panther anthem, MC5 and John Sinclair thing that we sort of adopted for that song. We were trying to do something we'd never done, and make it cooler than Limp Bizkit. Mind you, that wasn't very hard, but we wanted to try something that worked. Did it? Hmm, that's up for debate. [Laughs]
What made you sample Pavement's "Texas Never Whispers" on "Slave To The Wage"?
I was just a huge fan. It comes from the B-sides album and I just really liked this abstract guitar that was going on. It's much slower in its original state. We just looped it and sped it up really fast, at least ten times faster than the original. Again, it was sampling, which was something we had never done before. At the time, it was a great motivator for us. We didn't want to do what we'd done on the last record.
Is it true that around this time you were asked to play Judas Priest in the movie that became Rock Star?
We were asked, yes. Was it around then? Yes, I think so. You're completely correct. I had completely forgotten about that. I've actually seen that film, because it was on TV and I was curious to see the film that we were offered to be in. It's got Mark Wahlberg and Jennifer Aniston in it, and we would've been totally ill suited for the role of Judas Priest. It was just after we'd done Velvet Goldmine, and when we already got the script, we felt like we were this rent-a-band that people would call up. But no, we didn't want to set that precedent. We didn't get past the fourth or fifth page, because on that page it said, "Such and such character straps on a leather codpiece," and at that point we put it down and never looked at it again.
7. Placebo (1996)
Again, it's at number seven because of the sound. It's an extremely under-produced record, but it's also the one that put us on the map. For me, it sounds quite naïve and definitely the work of a band whose first time it is in the studio. And when I say naïve I don't mean the songwriting. The sound of an album and the songwriting are two very different things to me. The songs are pretty cool. There is a certain cheek, wit, and mischievousness to them, which I like. But I remember arriving in Dublin and learning of a technological advancement called ProTools, but I didn't realize we weren't using it on this record. So it was made in a very old school way, recording to tape. So if you wanted to make an edit you had to take a razorblade to the tape. But still I remember at the time we were filled with enthusiasm. We couldn't believe someone had given us money to make a record. But we were very, very green and we hadn't learned how to use a studio as an instrument itself yet. It just sounds very young to me.
I always felt this was Placebo's indie rock record. And after this things really changed.
Sure, it was an album recorded quite live as a power trio. That's what we wanted to be at that time. We were playing small clubs and we wanted to be a fast, punky alternative band. But by 1998, we were tired of that format, and became aware that we could do so much more with our sound. So with our next record, we began to try and flush things out with keyboards, loops, and different approaches to writing.
Do you think hiring a producer like Brad Wood (Liz Phair, Sunny Day Real Estate), who was mostly working with American underground acts, limited the band?
Well, he produced us very raw, and he captured us just how we sounded. First albums often sound like that. And it was a good thing to have an album in our discography. But we just really wanted to grow, and that's when we realized that this pattern emerged where if we got the chance to make another record it would be a reaction against its predecessor. And that would be the major influence on the next record.
Around this time you were perplexingly lumped in with Britpop. Did you feel like you were a part of that movement?
Fuck no! No, no, no, no. There was a very specific sound and a specific audience in the Britpop movement. It was quite macho and quite anthemic in a sort of football chant kind of way. It was just very masculine, and we were the antithesis of that. It was also very British in its influences. It seemed concerned with paying homage to its heritage, and we weren't concerned with that in any way whatsoever. We were trying to take Sonic Youth and Depeche Mode and throw it against a wall to see what happens. We stuck out like a sore thumb next to what was popular at the time. My viewpoint of Britpop is very limited. I think some people throw Suede or Elastica into the Britpop movement and I don't think they were.
Do you think "Nancy Boy" is any more relevant today with the progression that the transgender community has made?
Y'know, I really wish I could say yes, but I'm still not even sure what that song is about. It seems to be about pansexual hedonism, and letting it all hang out. I'm not really aware of what it means to other people, but I do remember being on tour while it was coming out. We were in an indie club in Scotland after a show, and the place was packed when they put "Nancy Boy" on and it cleared the dancefloor. I turned around to Stefan and said, "I think we're fucked!" And he said, "No, they just don't understand." I was convinced it would be ignored and become this flop. So I was very, very surprised when I was proven wrong and it went to Top 5.
6. Without You I'm Nothing (1998)
I guess we were still learning how to use the studio, and we were looking to flesh out our sound beyond the power trio format. But it was a difficult record to make because we had a very dysfunctional relationship with our producer [Steve Osborne]. By the end of it, we weren't even talking. And it wasn't as if we'd had any major arguments. We started off not talking much anyway, and then as the months went by, it became less until there was no talking. It was such a strange atmosphere. The breakthrough track was "Pure Morning," and we didn't record that until our work with Steve was done. We recorded that during a B-side session with a different producer, Phil Vinall. That was like we were kids in a candy shop. It was borne out of chaos, because the pressure was off. So we just started playing around with all of these different sounds and that song was the result. I hadn't heard it in about ten years until recently, and I was actually surprised at how timeless and modern that song actually sounds. I have no issues whatsoever with the music—I actually really quite like the music—I just don't think the lyrics are my best. That's kind of why we haven't played it in concert for the last decade. Probably nine years to be precise. "Nancy Boy" neither, which is why we decided to resurrect them from the grave for this tour we're embarking on.
Just so you know, in 2009 you said this was Placebo's best album.
Did I? Well there you go. [Laughs] In 2009? How can I respond to that? Only stupid don't change their minds? And Christians? It just goes to show how strange this exercise is for me.
David Bowie sang on the single version of the title track. That must have been a thrill.
It's totally insane, when you think about it. Because whilst I was in there, it was happening, and it felt far less daunting than you'd imagine it would. But to have David Bowie call you up and tell you he liked the song so much that he wrote his own vocal part for it was just total madness. But at that point we'd known him for a few years, and had toured the world with him so it just seemed like an exciting prospect. I took it more at face value than I do now. Because now when I think about it, I feel it's a ridiculous honor, considering the songs that Bowie had written. That he'd like ours so much that he'd want to sing on it. At the time, I was exuberant and confident, so it just kind of felt right and put a smile on my face. I didn't realize the full significance of what was happening at the time. Which is pretty much a constant in my career. [Laughs] Until recently! I just didn't allow myself to be swept away by this scintillating, shiny land of opportunity, which was the music world at the time. From the mid-90s to the turn of the millennium was a bit of a golden age because the record companies had so much money, so anything seemed possible.
What is the story behind the hidden track "Evil Dildo"? The voices on the track were death threats that were left for you?
Are they on there? They were! I had totally forgotten about that. I believe yes. I haven't heard that song for fuck knows how long. They are death threats that I received on my answering machine. They were the "I know where you live" kind of threat, not so much a threat of physical violence. To be honest, at the time, I just thought, "Wow, I've arrived. I must be pissing somebody off!" So that was a good thing because it proved I was having an effect. I decided to claim them from the anonymous person hiding behind the cell phone. I took the power back, I guess.
5. Battle for the Sun (2009)
This album has one of my favorite songs to play live, which is "Speak in Tongues." This is the only record that we recorded outside of the UK. There had been a recent personnel change in the band, and we'd gone from making an album that had been very claustrophobic, and we now wanted to make a record that was quite cinemascope and anthemic. It ended up being very much an album about drums and guitars. I guess it's very much the sound of a band trying to find a new identity. That's perhaps why I put it at number five.
The lyrics were a lot more optimistic.
Compared to the predecessor, definitely. That had been precipitated by a line-up change, a lifestyle change, and going from feeling at one point that my band was doomed to feeling like we had a future and I could start from scratch again. It's definitely our most American sounding record, I think.
And yet it was recorded in Canada.
I said American? I mean it's our most North American sounding record.
Why did you record at Metalworks?
We just wanted to work with David Bottril (Tool, Muse). He suggested we try it there. And we wanted to try and record a record outside of the UK. David knew his way around an excellent studio, and he certainly did in terms of sonics. We were looking for something that was tougher and heavier than its predecessor, so Tool's producer seemed like a good choice.
You've said working with David Botrill was the best experience you had in a studio. Why?
It was. David's an awesome guy. I loved spending time with him. He was very accessible as a person and very honest and very communicative. I enjoyed having a relationship with a producer who was like that. I took a shine to him very easily. Considering you're spending four months with this person, it makes the whole process infinitely easier.
4. Sleeping With Ghosts (2003)
This album is a bit of a wild card. I actually like this record because it's one of most sonically daring and electronic sounding records. It's the perfect mixture of what we were trying to do, which was fuse our sound with vintage synthesizers and old school analog recording techniques. It was around that time that Stefan and I began our obsession with old synthesizers, and we just couldn't stop collecting. A vintage synth is a very guilty pleasure for us. We find them very sexy and irresistible to buy if we see one, even if we don't need it.
The ghosts in the title seem to detail a number of your past relationships, or the ghosts of them.
Yeah, if I remember correctly, I was trying to lyrically explore memory and how reliable, how truthful memories are. Both the visual memories you re-experience but also your emotional memories, and I guess I was asking myself the question, "How accurate is it?" I think in one way or another, as time passes, we become film directors with our memories. We do our own director's cut of what's happened to us, and within that was this aspect of meditating the past romantic experiences and trying to sing about them in as abstract way as possible.
Were you happy with the results?
Yeah. I remember being very happy. I felt that record had a lot of color to it, so it pleased me at the time. Sorry, I never look back so this is hard.
This also came with an album of Covers. Is there one cover Placebo has done that is a favorite?
I guess my favorite was "Jackie," the Sinead O'Connor track, which is why I chose to include it in our MTV Unplugged performance. The one that brought me the most pleasure was "Daddy Cool," the Boney M song, because it was such a curveball for both our fans and us. It's important to stress that the covers album is a collection of B-sides and tracks we've done for films and tribute compilations. We do covers in the studio to take a break from the psychological pressure of opposites: we still want to work, but we need to give our brains a break. So we do covers for fun. We grew up in the 80s so a lot of them are from that decade. It's a way of keeping the momentum going in the studio whilst taking a break from being very precious over what we've written and obsessed with getting it right.
3. Meds (2006)
We couldn't have had a better album cover to represent what was going on at the time. I think it's a very accomplished record, but I am surprised that we managed to make such an accomplished record considering how shot up in the clouds we were when we made it. There was a point in time as well when the lifestyle we had embraced so wholeheartedly started to turn dark and our personal relationship with Steve Hewitt was eroding. So it was a record borne out of a lot of psychological trauma. I think it's more honest than its predecessors. It really gives a window into how we were living at that time.
What I found interesting was that you originally wanted to make more of an electronic album but your producer talked you out of it.
That's possible. [Laughs] I think we both got our way though, especially "Infra-Red," which is a very electronic track. My memory is very, very foggy from that period. I think I might have been having a nervous breakdown at the time but I wasn't aware of it. [Laughs] In order to deal with that, I was self-medicating in a severe fashion.
Wasn't Meds the last record where you involved drugs?
Pretty much. Things definitely changed after that. After Steve's exit, we thought we couldn't take it any further. If we did, not only our professional lives, but our personal lives would suffer. I was about to become a parent as well, so I also had anxiety around that. If there's ever motivation to check yourself before you wreck yourself, becoming a parent is up there.
2. Loud Like Love (2013)
I think this was a real turning point for us. Battle For The Sun was the sound of a band trying to find a new identity, and Loud Like Love was the sound of a band becoming very comfortable with who they are now. Around the time we had discovered the producer Adam Noble who was nearby in London, and we just gelled really well. So it was an extremely upbeat experience making that record. I think, in terms of songwriting, it marks a new change for me. Over the years, I had become more adept at telling stories, moving away more from confessionals to storytelling. Paradoxically, it allows you to be freer, more honest, and more vulnerable because you're expressing yourself through characters. I think every band is trying to write a song that transcends their identity, and exists completely in its own context without any knowledge whatsoever of what they represent, and we finally achieved that with the last song, "Bosco." It couldn't be more different from a song on our first album. There was a sonic evolution and I had grown as a person. To me, it sounds fresh and it sounds now.
You chose to write about love on this album, which you've said was a "very un-Placebo thing to do."
Yeah, that's what I said at the time when we decided to have a unifying theme throughout the songs. There's love from different perspectives: obsession, desire, destruction. I reflected a little bit on that after the album came out, and then I realized that a lot of our songs from the past are love songs of a kind. They're just not the pop, generic, "I love you, baby" love song. They explore other aspects of love.
So you originally began writing this as a solo album?
What happened was that we were working on it with someone our friends recommended, and the result was the B3 EP, which came out just before Loud Like Love. But we'd also started writing other songs while we were doing it, and it was just so easy in the studio. We turned to each other and said, "Do you think we've already started to make a new record without realizing it?" And that's how it felt. Normally we want a six-month writing period, so during our break after Battle For The Sun, I had written a bunch of songs I was perhaps going to think about putting out as a solo record. But I didn't have enough songs for an album, so I took them to Stefan to see what he thought of them. And those songs were "Scene Of The Crime," "Too Many Friends," "Rob The Bank," "Pity Party (Of One)" and "Hold On To Me." I've never put out a solo record, and I don't know if I ever will. Where does writing for myself and writing for Placebo differ? I don't really know. I just know we needed those songs and Stefan liked them. There was a couple where he didn't, so we never recorded them.
1. MTV Unplugged (2015)
So why is this your favorite?
For me, this is one of the most important moments in our career. It's one of the things we've done that I am most proud of. It was an amazing experience for me because it was something we'd never done before. We were rehearsing but we were also rewriting material, which finally gave us a chance to add a string section for a whole project. I've wanted to do that for a long time. It was terrifying at the time of the performance, because it was so fucking intimate. We put a tremendous amount of work into reworking the songs to fit the MTV Unplugged guidelines. I put it at number one because I am actually over the moon about this record. These songs from our past could be reinterpreted and stripped down to fit another medium, and to me that's an indicator of a good song.
Do you think this changed the way you felt about older songs?
Well, we're constantly doing that. We're constantly covering our own material and breathing new life into it so we can play it live. Because we need an emotional connection to the song in order to play it live, otherwise it feels like a mechanical act and untruth. We don't want any of that in our performances. Sometimes you have to completely tear a song apart and give it a whole new life. Doing Unplugged and doing it well is quite a feat, I think. I am particularly proud of "Meds," which is completely rebuilt with the strings. Same goes for "Without You I'm Nothing."
Cam Lindsay is on Twitter - @yasdnilmac