Purify: An Interview with Placebo

Jeffrey Thiessen

Placebo have been a cult band of reknown for years, but even after all this time, they are trying new things like taking guitars out of some songs completely, turning down offers to make more money, and loving their process more than ever.


Loud Like Love

Label: Universal
US Release Date: 2013-09-17
UK Release Date: 2013-09-16

As a rabid Bob Dylan fan, I've came to the conclusion there are only two songs in his catalogue that are truly under-appreciated. Many of his followers tend to believe his discography is more complicated than it actually is, and spend hours discussing rarities and unheralded gems that they seem to feel -- or enjoy trying to convince others of -- need to be loved on a much grander scale. I've been involved in these talks, and they are always colossal wastes of time. However, there are two tracks that I adamantly stand behind that really don't get a ton of attention. The first one is "Dark Eyes", which is achingly beautiful and more raw than a lot of his bigger ones. Obtain it immediately.

The second one is more interesting. It's called "Sign on the Window". Released on his New Morning album, it doesn't try anything wild sonically. It's a relatively straight-forward folk song that doesn't overstay its welcome. But at the end of the song and without a shred of irony, Dylan sings, "Build me a cabin in Utah/Marry me a wife, catch rainbow trout/Have a bunch of kids who call me, 'Pa'/That must be what it's all about/That must be what it's all about".

This is only a few short years after a concert he staged literally freed John Sinclair from prison and helped spark a nationwide protest against one of the most grotesque invasions in U.S. history, and now he's brave enough to admit all he really wants is a cabin and some kids in the most lame state ever created. Not surprisingly the track didn't catch on given what was expected of him -- but it's always been one of my favorite cuts of his. One would be hard-pressed to find such a wonderful example of uncool sincerity railing internally against a tendency (and ability) to burn the world down around him. That's noble, and more importantly, that's tremendous rock n' roll.

Placebo's new album Loud Like Love, reminded me of that track in that way. I had a chance to talk to Stefan Olsdal, the guitarist and co-writer (along with singer Brian Molko) for every track Placebo has ever written since their inception. He has this strange speaking pattern of sounding like he's completely done a response, trailing off, and then starting up again just when you're about to say something. I was curious how something like Loud Like Love could be spawned in today's day and age and asked Stefan about that:

"I think it's a combination of styles, and leanings. In the past many times it was just the sound of a band fucking around in a room, and here the album ends with a track like 'Bosco', which is the most heartbreakingly beautiful closer with no guitars on it. We were finally ready to explore all these emotions and soundscapes and we felt we could do them with confidence and ease, something we couldn't necessarily do in the past. I think everything we've been through has made us stronger, you know, me and Brian have been together for twenty years now."

Incidentally, "Bosco" reminded me a lot of "For Martha", the Smashing Pumpkins song Corgan wrong about his dead mother. Both are over the top, everything is thrown at us ... it all seems a little excessive, until everything comes crashing down and all the confusing pain in the previous five minutes all of a sudden makes sense. It's the kind of closer every band wants but few achieve. This alludes to what I was saying earlier; this album may not coexist in today's climate very well, and that will ultimately be its immediate demise/main reason it will go down as a crowning moment in that band's career. I believe everyone struggles against nihilism in one way or another, either openly or not.

Loud Like Love captures the struggle and relentless will to triumph. This will be a hard concept for many to grasp, in today's era of detached irony and cryptic messages meaning nothing masquerading as a way to allow the listener to take the nonsense and turn it into something meaningful for them. I concede the best albums require work on the listener's behalf -- but we are far too accustomed to it being a one-sided albatross dangling from our neck that we have to gratefully decipher. I mentioned this to Stefan, and his answer made it clear why it's such a different Placebo product than we're used to:

"It might sound selfish, but the way we approach songwriting is to think of ourselves first. We're all made up of the same emotional makeup. The more personal you make it, in some ways, the more universal it becomes. I don't see any way around it. We often talk about the urge that stands the test of time, and the only way to do that is coming from a very honest place, and you're writing something that people shouldn't have to work to connect with. Just started the world tour, and it's cool to see a teenagers in the front row, it's been a real delight to see different generations gravitating towards our music."

There is a big difference between Loud Like Love and the albums that made them household names in the '90s, but Placebo isn't content to make that ironic distance abundantly clear to the listener. After all, they achieved their fame by being mysteriously weird when everyone around them was being uber-confessional, and now surrounded by acts who refuse to utter a sentence of simple sincerity, they lay it all on the table.

It's maybe the most pure expression we have of current American pop culture, even though the lads are British. It exists at face value, devious, exhilarating -- previous albums of theirs were irresistible to analyze or scold, the fun was there in equal measures. On Loud Like Love I still haven't the slightest idea what Malko is talking about ... but he's trying. So I try. And we meet in the middle. I have confidence the fans will too, in time. Placebo fans are notoriously loyal (see the Malko 40th birthday event they put forth), but I was curious if Stefan was worried about testing their loyalty:

"It might sound selfish, but the way we approach songwriting is to think of ourselves first. We're all made up of the same emotional makeup. The more personal you make it, in some ways, the more universal it becomes. I don't see any way around it. We often talk about the urge that wants to stand the test of time, and the only way to do that is coming from a very honest place, and you're writing something that people shouldn't have to work to connect with. It's easier for us now"

Steve Albini agrees with that statement. He once said all great art is incredibly selfish, which I do agree with. The more time I spend with rock music, and it's been a lot ... the less it means to me. There is a lot missing from it now -- all of it reminds me of "architect music", the phrase Ghostface Killah used in his awesome The Champ track to describe structurally sound rhymes. It all fits well together, and can't be torn apart, but ... so what? I remember the sense of joy I felt in my life when certain events of my life revolved around rock n' roll songs, I remember actively laying on a hill by my elementary school smoking fake weed with my headphones listening to The Replacements Let it Be album. Now I can barely remember what was playing on my iPod yesterday when I walked to work. It never really seemed like I was part of a musical community that was evolving and eventually decaying around me. I never believed words in on a rock album could give me any insight whatsoever. And I still believe that part. But I also believe music that scrapes off a healthy portion of the creator's soul, or human condition, or whatever the fuck you want to refer to it as ... will be the music that lives on through the decades, even if the current generation can't appreciate it. Perhaps especially if they can't appreciate it.

Loud Like Love annihilates everything mystifying and bewildering they built up in past years in one determined flash. To their fans, confusion seemed to be the only thing that made any sense as the more weird Malko got, the more devout they seemed to get. Now they're faced with the first real test. There's a lot of big wide world out there. Would you like to know about it? Would you like to feel it? The journalistic press generally considers us, the slime-sucking rock journalists, the rubber spined, trend-happy sissies of the writing world and we've done very little to actually improve on this.

We are implored to applaud architecturally sound music now, and mock albums that don't rely on cheap wordplay or vague proclamations of bullshit that ultimately means nothing. Stefan remarked on this, telling me: "We've had an easy time never trying to be something we're not. That's created a longevity for us. Stuck through the ups and downs, and didn't necessarily care about the trends. If you're lucky you are the trendy band at any point, and we were. We've also been aware trends come and go, and we were OK with being a trend, but didn't want to go anywhere with it."

The voices of protest in regards to current musical trends, which border on pathologically devoid of any discernible human emotion -- think of an army of Gary Numan's marching to the beat of angular guitar and off-beat vocals -- is non-existent at worst, muted at best. Placebo has released a beautiful, heartfelt album that is currently being discarded and mocked for its clumsy approach. But isn't clumsy just an adjective that describes someone's actions/words that seem to bump into things/each other? If we can all agree on that, and I think we should, then what's wrong with that? Gliding in and out of grace is fine for those walks to work ... but what about when you're lying on a hill with headphones, and nothing in the world makes sense, and you've give up almost anything imaginable just to hear a morsel of truth? Loud Like Love is your companion.

I told Stefan he's lucky. His band is still very popular but existing on the fringes with a very loyal following. He agreed, responding, "We've had opportunities to make more money. It just has always felt like the success will come to us without. We always felt uncool, we didn't fit in. A goal of ours was to create a parallel universe in a way, we make unlikely friends a lot of bands in our position wouldn't make. If that means we exist on the fringes, we've made peace with that a long time ago."

He's right. they've always existed in some strange, alternate universe that has trouble coexisting with their surroundings. Now they've given us a lifeline, and perhaps one of the best example in recent memory, how liberation can easily be distinguished from the causes of enslavement. I may be wrong here. I may be right. But the fact that I don't know and don't care, has to count for something, right?

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